Contents of the Winter 2011 Northants News

        Gordon Rowley's 90th Bash                Roland Tebbenham

Words by Roland Tebbenham, pictures by Trevor Wray

Sunday July 31st was sunny and a great sense of expectation was evident as the ticket holders converged on Swallowfield Village Hall to celebrate a special birthday. Gordon Douglas Rowley was born in 1921 and has enjoyed a notable career, in his own words “lots of good fortune”, in the world of horticulture and most particularly in the arena of cacti, succulents and their associated publications.  

The supporting acts included sales of plants, books and pots, a book-signing of the new book ‘Aloes – a Definitive Guide’, a massive raffle, and lots of good grub. However a particular draw was a first-class speaker line-up: Graham Charles visiting southern Ecuador and northern Peru, Prof. Len Newton from Nairobi University sampling the African succulent flora, the ‘Birthday Boy’ expounding his unique view ‘Cactotherapy’, and finally Dr. Nigel Taylor, Curator of Horticulture & Public Education, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, investigating new cactus habitats of eastern Brazil. This was indeed a programme to relish. I offer you a report of the presentations’ highlights to give a flavour of the breadth of the C&S world.

Brian Fearn and Rene Geissler

Scenes in the sales room

Left: Veteran nurseryman René Geissler explains the finer points of some choicity to veteran nurseryman Brian Fearn .

Right: Now what would Brian want? Oh, a load of Orbeas  


Graham Charles handed out two maps showing sites in the Marañon Valley of northern Peru and the other valleys of northern Peru and southern Ecuador. These helped the audience to understand the local geography and its effect on cactus species distribution, notably of Matucana, Espostoa and some other ceroid genera. The River Maranon is a tributary of the River Amazon, it flows for 4000km falling only 400m. It has massive wet season flows and consequently there are few access and crossing points, all with interesting cactus floras. Knowledge of the altitudes and hence temperatures gives clues to the management of particular species in cultivation. Lower altitudes below 1000m mean heat and warmer growing environments are needed for success, whereas higher altitudes from 1000m to 3000m mean cooler environments are preferred to obtain good growth and flowering.

Members of the genus Matucana featured with their mainly zygomorphic [crooked] flowers adapted for humming-bird pollination, though Graham commented he had waited with camera ready, but not witnessed hummers visiting the flowers. Matucana paucicostata and its subspecies hoxeyi, named for Paul Hoxey and resembling Copiapoa haseltoniana, with M. oreodoxa roseiflorus all looked fine; M. huagalensis [white flowers] and M. weberbaueri [yellow flowers] extended the range of stunning colours found in the genus. One of Graham’s favourites is Matucana krahnii found at less than 900m and needing at least 10°C to prosper. We saw lovely Espostoa and Browningia plants and also many Melocactus bellavistensis. Two rare epiphytes, Lymanbensonia and Calymmanthium and also nice Tillandsias [Bromeliaceae] completed a wide range of forms found by Graham in the Marañon valley.

Then Graham journeyed to dryer valley habitats in the Utcubamba Valley in north Peru and thence to south Ecuador to see the transition to the less arid locations there. Some terrestrial cacti grow on steep slopes and rocky outcrops where they succeed with less competition from other plants, though sometimes co-exist with bushes and trees. One highlight was Borzicactus hutchinsonii with neat small pink flowers. Some habitats are being lost to rice growing in the hotter, wetter areas. Many cerei, notably Armatocereus fall into the category defined by Graham as “plants best left in habitat”; by contrast the Espostoa species are definitely worth growing and we saw many fine E. lanata in their natural environment. Graham finished his presentation with more Borzicactus, succulent Peperomia species and he signed off with Euphorbia weberbaueri and Jatropha myricaulis for the other succulent fanciers. John Arnold thanked Graham, commenting that his enthusiastic approach set a high standard for the day. And so said all of us!

Matucana weberbaurii var flammea in flower

Left: Matucana weberbaurii var. flammea, with orange flowers cultivated by Graham Charles.

Right: The four authors of ’Aloes - the Definitive Guide’ gather for a mass book signing. Left to right, Len Newton, John Lavranos, Susan Carter-Holmes and Colin Walker. 


The main authors sign Aloes - the Definituve Guide

After a fine buffet lunch many people took the opportunity to get their new Aloe books signed by the four most experienced authors – Susan Carter-Holmes, John Lavranos, Len Newton and Colin Walker. Then Prof Newton from Kenyatta University, Kenya and President of the IOS regaled us with his presentation ‘A Succulentist at large in Africa’. This was an expert insight into different plant survival strategies documented by Len during his decades of dedicated plant study in Africa.

Len started his survey with two rainforest epiphytes, Rhipsalis baccifera and Kalanchoe nolotoensis. Then by contrast: Welwitschia mirabilis in the Namib Desert, including a massive plant with Gordon and colleagues sitting on it when they camped in the habitat! Moving to rocky and higher altitude habitats Len showed us many Aloes, Sansevierias and the giant Senecios on Mount Kilimanjaro. We saw the famous collector Peter Bally, whose wife Joy later married George Adamson of Lion fame. Aloe ballyi named in his honour exhibits the survival strategy of synthesising toxins to prevent predation, as do Aloe ruspoliana, Adenium obesum and the more familiar Euphorbias. Fire ravaged habitats at first sight seem unpromising for succulent plants, however Aloe buettneri couples succulence and geophytism, Euphorbia decidua and geophytic Monadeniums couple succulence and deciduous branches: by means of which all survive periodic fires. Amongst trees the massive Baobabs (Adansonia) have developed fire-proof bark to withstand fires.

Open areas feature many succulent plants; examples included Desmidorchis retrospicius and Sansevieria fischeri. Camouflage is important for survival, since being cryptic reduces predation by animals. We saw Lithops, Conophytum, grass Aloes and Brachystelma that all exhibit this strategy. Alternatively cliffs and hillsides reduce predation and competition and some Aloes and Euphorbias use this including Euphorbia baioensis from the 1300m cliffs of Baio mountain, also Aloe amicorum. The latter was named by Len to honour his friends in the mountaineering club, without whom the plant would have remained undiscovered. Climbing is another important strategy, often from a caudex: Momordica, Adenia, Pyrenacantha and Cephalopentandra ecirrhosa were fine examples. The last species was originally described from a herbarium specimen and both its names are wrong! It has three stamens, not five [pentandra] and has tendrils [ecirrhosa suggests not] – Len emphasised the importance of studying the plants in habitat.

Len showed us plants from the Great Rift Valley, volcanic crater sides, limestone rock outliers, old ruins and Aloe haemanthifolia growing on rock shelves by waterfalls. He finished his continental overview with the means of exploration: foot, donkeys, road vehicles, boats and light aircraft; the latter with Gilfred Powys a dedicated conservationist farmer. Exploration was neatly summarised with a map showing that vast areas of the African continent are still poorly botanised. Colin Walker thanked Len for his great insights and informative tour of a fascinating continent for succulent lovers.

We expected something special from Gordon, and he delivered it in his inimitable style using modern technology with which he claims no capability. He had worked closely with Peter Arthurs and Jonathan Clark to produce a memorable autobiographical compilation ‘Cactotherapy – A life with succulents’. This included images, interviews, tape-recordings and films spanning Gordon’s long career. Gordon introduced it by showing us his silver spoon supposed to confer a charmed life, then saying he spanned the transition from the certainty of plant naming according to John Borg and Vera Higgins to the era of “erasable labels” occasioned by DNA analysis. DNA according to Gordon is an acronym for “Damned Nasty Answers”; cue many heads nodding amongst the audience!

The ‘newsreel’ started by showing a typical pre-war wooden greenhouse, “only available in black & white”, then an early photograph of IOS members, and a venerable Parodia leninghausii that Gordon bought in 1939; it looked in fine condition after seventy-two years in his care. Moving on, Gordon explained his long association with Kenneth W. Harle’s nursery near Reading from whom he obtained many plants from the discards on the bonfire pile, “plants rescued from the jaws of death find a place in your heart”. A notable example was a Turbinicarpus viereckii Gordon rescued in 1944 and looking supremely healthy after 67 years. Greenhouse number two was in full-colour and heated by two paraffin heaters, but still there was snow on the roof. Many older members heard familiar names: John T Bates, Kurt Backeberg, Hermann Jacobsen, Cyril Parr, and Arthur Boarder. Gordon’s tape recorded conversations with some of them were integrated into the newsreel; truly revivifying technology.

Gordon had met with both Ernest W Shurly and Harold M Roan, who were the founders of the C&SSGB in 1931 and the Yorkshire C&SS, later the NCSS, in 1947 – the two precursors of the present BCSS. He showed photos taken during his visits to The Exotic Collection [Brian Lamb] and Worfield Gardens [Gen. Sir Oliver Leese] where plants thrived in open beds rather than pots. Inspired by this and ever the experimentalist, Gordon transformed his parents’ Harrow front garden into a desert scene, at least in summer, and installed lighting to enhance the experience! He started attending shows and a short film of Bert Hampshire and Winnie Dunn preparing a mature Cephalocereus senilis with water, soap and brushes explained the care needed to win a first prize card. These images were captured by Gordon following his interests in photography and cinematography – capabilities we take for granted today.

Literature is one of Gordon’s many obsessions and he made a spoof David Attenborough documentary on the plight of the books in his library. He “shrewdly worked, or rudely shirked” at the John Innes Institute; and fitted in some travel mainly through his IOS contacts, though claims he always gets lost, even on the flat. We saw images taken during the 1960s and 1970s when he visited Louis Vatrican at the Jardin Exotique in Monaco, Julien Marnier-Lapostolle at the Jardin Botanique, Les Cedres, Cote d’Azur, SW USA with Reid Moran, Mexico with Hernando Sanchez-Mejorado, and South Africa with Harry Hall. Hall worked at the Botanic Gardens, Kirstenbosch between 1947 & 1968; he explained his concerns of habitat destruction in a tape-recorded conversation. This was ably illustrated by photos of Desmond Cole examining the habitat of Lithops lesliei var. rubrobrunnea damaged by maize crops, fire and road building. Two short film sequences drew the presentation to a close; the first taken on Gordon’s fiftieth birthday with Welwitschia mirabilis in habitat, the second of dancing cacti in the memorable ‘Cactus Polonaise’.

Gordon Rowley at his 90th

Left: Gordon cuts the celebratory cake.

Right: Gordon holds one of his presents, a specially prepared (and very limited) edition of ‘Rowley Reporting’ recording his life in the succulent world.

Gordon Rowley at his 90th

When the ovation had diminished the present BCSS President John Pilbeam presented cards and gifts to Gordon and we sang ‘Happy Birthday to You’ followed by a second ditty encouraging suspended animation until Gordon’s hundredth – ‘Freezer Jolly Good Fellow’. Gordon cut his birthday cakes and we all enjoyed more refreshments.

After tea we gathered for the last presentation. By way of preamble Nigel Taylor said he had applied (only) to Reading University because Gordon was on the staff; later he was to be Nigel’s third-year project supervisor. Nigel and his wife Daniella Zappi have studied the cacti of Brazil for more than twenty years and were joint authors of ‘Cacti of Eastern Brazil’ published in 2004. Since then Nigel has made more visits to many habitats, extended the habitat range of some taxa and developed new views of the Brazilian vegetation types and their cactus floras. His talk showed elements of four floras in different states covering some 30o of latitude (roughly 3000km). Some of the new material is planned for publication in Bradleya 29 later this year.

First to the NE state of Ceara from its coast to 1100m mountains, we saw epiphytes in humid forest, dry forest ceroids, high caatinga (semi-open, thorny thicket country) with many genera, and Discocactus bahiensis in gravelly outcrops. Notable plants included the ubiquitous Cereus jamacaru, plus Pilosocereus, Tacinga, Melocactus and amongst non-cacti Bromelia, 30m Ceiba trees and large, rare Brazilian Ironwood Trees (Caesalpinia ferrea). You will have to read Bradleya 29 to see details of the new discoveries. Nigel moved on to the state of Goias in central western Brazil. Here are montane fire-swept savannah-type habitats in the north-east termed ‘cerrado’. We saw Pilosocereus villaboensis (recognised by basal branching), Arrojadoa rhodantha, Discocactus crassispinus and highly armed Bromeliad Dyckia species in the Rio Paraña valley.

Moving to central Minas Gerais Nigel described a small village Capela de Santa José. This locality was explored by the Prussian botanist Ludwig Riedel who collected hundreds of new species for the Botanical Garden of Saint Petersburg between 1820 and 1836. The area includes karstic Silurian limestone outcrops and rocky fields known as ‘campo rupestre’, the latter having the highest proportion of endemic plants. Nigel showed us Pilosocereus frewenii sp nov with red-tubed, white-tipped flowers, Arthrocereus melaneurus with tubers surviving fire, and Discocactus placentiformis. Many of Nigel’s collections were the second discovery of taxa first collected by Riedel nearly two centuries earlier. Bulb lovers saw Hippeastrum flowering in the dry forest floor, Bromeliad fanciers enjoyed seeing Encholirion species; some specially adapted to grow on manganese-rich substrates as also are some Discocactus. Finally in this state we saw Cipocereus pleurocarpus plants with red and yellow, diurnal, humming-bird pollinated flowers; unfortunately this species is difficult to grow.

Nigel’s final visit was to extreme south-east Brazil in Rio Grande do Sul, where basalt outcrops provide unique habitats, including coastal cliffs. Parodia haselbergii and P. leninghausii inhabit sheer cliffs whilst other Parodia species are found on rocky outcrops in natural grassland. Interesting non-cacti included the large-leaved Gunnera manicata from 1500m altitude and the ‘Piranha Pine’ Araucaria angustifolia. Parodia ottonis was found on inland sand dunes, also Dyckia maritima and Opuntia monacantha inhabited coastal basalt areas. Further south sandstone conglomerates produced a different plant spectrum, including more Opuntia and Parodia species, also some fine Echinopsis oxygona plants with elegant whitish-pink flowers and varied spination from short and sparse to long and dense. Nigel signed off near an old copper mine with views of Parodia crassigibba, P. scopa v. neobueneckeri, and more Echinopsis oxygona.

BCSS Chairman Alasdair Glen thanked Nigel for a very detailed presentation with much new information. Indeed it was difficult for your reporter to keep up with all the salient points! Alasdair thanked the Reading & Basingstoke Branch for organising the event so efficiently, the caterers, traders, speakers, audience, and Gordon himself. It was a great success, an ideal mixture of fun and science: we all look forward to Gordon’s hundredth and can I be first to reserve a ticket!


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