Thursday, October 25, 2007

Quest for passion

Since I haven't obsessed over passion flowers lately, I'll rectify that situation now.

Dr. Larry Gilbert is a butterfly researcher up in Austin at that "other" university. He's got a huge passiflora collection in his greenhouses there--passiflora being the food of choice for many species of butterfly. Back in the 70s he had more than 200 species, plus hybrids, and many of those species weren't in cultivation anywhere else in the world. He discovered some species, and other have since gone extinct in the wild. He has fewer than 100 species now, but seeing as how I only have a dozen or so, and many of those are small cuttings, I've been keen to get up there and tour his greenhouses.

After many false starts and schedule conflicts dating back to the spring, I finally got to head up to Austin yesterday after work and meet the man.

Ye gods, but that was a hellish drive.

We're supposed to meet at the Brackenridge Field Lab, which is right off MoPac on Town Lake. In ideal driving conditions, this would take just over 30 minutes to get to. So I allow for a full hour. Do I take MoPac or maybe risk cutting across Lamar? I figure that even if MoPac is crammed with commuters, it'll still be better than the start-and-stop of traffic lights on the alternate routes. Besides, this is the southern side of Austin, and the heaviest MoPac traffic would be on the north end, right? Things are going swimmingly until I actually get onto MoPac, at which point traffic stops. I don't mean "it slows down some." It ground to a halt. My exit was a mere two miles away, and it took an hour to reach it. An hour. My engine started to overheat because the stupid cooling fan is bumfuzzled, so I had to turn on the heater and shut the engine down as I waited. I didn't actually get to my destination until 6:15 or so, 45 minutes late. After all that hassle, I was terrified Dr. Gilbert had already left.

Fortunately, no.

He greeted me kindly and took me out to see his "small" greenhouse. Most of the passiflora species he has today are in facilities at the main downtown campus, but there's still an interesting array of plants in the greenhouse adjacent to Town Lake. He kept apologizing for the plants not being in bloom, but as their primary role is to serve as butterfly food, they get munched on pretty heavily.



One of the vigorously growing vines that wasn't in flower is p. holoscerecia, pictured above. The leaves were larger than I expected, maybe the size of my hand. It's native to some of the more arid regions of Mexico. I've wanted that one for a while, but it's not cultivated widely. I've found one online nursery that sells it, but they do so only rarely because it is very reluctant to root from cuttings (they say). All the lit I've read says holoscerecia demands dry, almost arid conditions. The greenhouse was extremely humid (the swarming mosquitoes attested to that) but Dr. Gilbert told me that it's always grown great for him in humid conditions in well-drained soil with limestone mixed in with it. Good to know if I ever get one.



Then I saw this one. It had winged stems, and the leaves, too, looked very much like p. alata as you can see in the photo above. Except that the leaves were double to triple the size of those on my alata. I asked Dr. Gilbert what it was, and he said it was p. trilata. I pointed out the size and he agreed, saying the plant "gets huge."



In the back of the greenhouse I spotted some vines growing up the back wall, and there were flowers high up. I wanted to get some pics, so Dr. Gilbert reached up and cut off a length of vine so I could get this close-up image. The plant is p. gibertii, which he originally collected in the wild from Brazil years ago. Because of new biodiversity rules, he can't get any more species from Brazil--the export is restricted. Over the years he's had some rare and obscure plants in his collection, but as they've been lost it's become increasingly difficult to replace them. Since many are tropical species that demand a very narrow set of climatic conditions, they've never made it into commercial trade. The difficulty in replenishing his stock is ironic considering the fact that 20 years ago he had probably the largest collection of passiflora in the world, and supplied many of the commercial hybridizers with plants. Such is the way of the world, I suppose.

Then Dr. Gilbert told me I could have the gibertii cutting if I wanted to try and root it. Did I want it?

Well, duh.

Gibertii isn't terribly common, and probably not one I'd have gone out and bought on my own given my limited space and budget, but it's a fascinating flower. The blossom is comparable in size to caerulea, but comes across as more delicate. The banding is visually interesting as well. So now I've got several cuttings (hopefully) taking root at home. Fingers are crossed. That was really very nice of him. Taking time to show me his collection was more than generous of him. To actually give me a cutting was more than I expected.

I've also got some other interesting pics I'll share, but I want to get the identifying info for them first. And I hope to go back in the spring, when Dr. Gilbert's on-campus greenhouses are in bloom and I can come back with amazing pictures and any other cuttings he'd be so kind as to bestow on me.

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