Contents Volume 24. No 1

Spring 2013


Editorial and more Trevor Wray
Requiem for the Kempston Show  Doug Rowland
The Winter management of Lithops seedlings Roland Tebbenham
White leaved Crassulaceae Trevor Wray
Doug Rowland
The Holiday Snaps
A visit to El Tatio Geysers Trevor Wray

Cover picture: 

The cover picture shows an extreme close-up view of the flowers of Sedum greggii. Rather pretty but these flowers are just a few mm across. Reality shows a plant which has a neat rosette of stems until it flowers. Then the plant falls apart and fragments redistribute the species through your collection.

You can click the image or here for more.






EDITORIAL and more.....

Welcome to this edition of Northants News—the NMK’s Branch magazine.

If it’s Thursday it must be Glasgow  

In the late Autumn of 2012 the FL and I spent a very enjoyable week on what is called the ‘Scottish Tour’. Five Scottish, BCSS branches in a row. It is hard work: a long drive to Scotland, and more demanding drives locally, (there was frost, fog, a bit of snow, an awful lot of rain and some sunshine along the way), meeting new people, giving the presentations. Hard work; but very rewarding.

Our hosts were most welcoming and generous, we were very well fed and ‘watered’. From their greenhouses there were many plants and cuttings as souvenirs of our trip; thank you.

You may be wondering, as I was, whether it was possible to grow our plants where there was eternal night in mid-winter. (OK, nearly eternal.)  It seems that eternal day in mid-summer seems to compensate. OK, there is a lot of rain, or from the point of view of succulents, less sunshine.  Our plants seem resistant to these minor challenges, I could see.

All the collections I viewed had attractive and interesting plants. Hamish McKelvie’s collection near Glasgow was one, if not the best, collection of cacti I have ever seen. In fact while I was at the Glasgow branch I ran a slide-show of my images from the National Show in the break; all I heard was “that’s mine, that’s mine” from different people. I thought at first they were claiming raffle prizes but they were recognising their show plants.

One thing I did wonder about with our Scottish brethren was the problem of isolation from other cactus and succulent collectors. There are over 100 miles between Inverness (Highlands and Islands Branch), Aberdeen (Grampian Branch) and the Central Valley branches. Where can these growers access new plants? In NMK we have many visiting speakers who bring plants, shows and open days at local branches, zone shows with sales, and even nurseries within easy driving range. Our friendships and local links especially by zone open days also provide access to cheap propagations or gifts. How do they manage in the more remote areas of Scotland?

Well, there is improvisation there. Many plants are bought online from the internet. We are talking Ebay, online nurseries and more. Then there is the Scottish Continental Trip. An annual event with Scottish mainliners and some English filling the seats; DJK and IP went recently. As I looked round the Scottish collections I could see all the modern cultivars and novelties. Also a great many old and really well grown cacti.

As I said, hard work; but very rewarding. And I am glad I went.

Micro-prop hiccup

On the Scottish Tour we stayed with Steven Paterson near Peterhead. Steven has an immaculate collection and especially likes Haworthias and Aloes. So do I, but I struggle to keep roots on my Haworthias. Steven grows his in a Tesco cat litter mix. You will know of this magic compost ingredient I expect… no? Well you can web search it.

Steven had many of the newest hybrid Aloes and Haworthias and was actively working on hybrids. A tickle on the Haworthia flowers and a straw sleeve to stop the seeds falling were innovations I have not seen before. Talking of Haworthia seed, there were many brought along for free at the Ayr meeting.

And the micro-prop hiccup? Steven accesses plants from many sources which included some of those micro-propagated Aloes. Some of these arrived healthy but reverted to what look like the random cell division of micro-propagated cells. A sort of cancer I suppose. Curious; has anyone else noticed this?

Obesa weedlings

With succulent Euphorbia it probably needs two to tango: you often need both a male and female plant to produce fruits. These generally contain three seeds which are released explosively. You can hear them pinging around the GH on a hot day. When you grow Euphorbia obesa plants you get used to the odd seedlings popping up here and there. The image (right) shows a ‘weed’ Euphorbia growing in an Adromischus grown from a leaf collected at the Packhuis Pass in South Africa. This is rather special to me. You might guess that I am using the term ‘weed’ correctly in the sense of ‘any plant where it is not wanted’.  

In this part of the greenhouse both a male and female Euphorbia obesa grew, and I assumed that all the seedlings that popped up, and were generally potted up, were obesa. However, some study of what exactly was Euphorbia obesa showed that one was and the other was E. cylindrica, (or maybe a hybrid), there are differences in the flower arrangement though the bodies are very similar. Now we know that E. cylindrica is considered a variety of obesa. I.e.  Euphorbia  obesa var.  cylindrica. So all these seedling plants were still technically obesa.  

Probably a Euphorbia meloformis hybrid fighting for space with an Adromischus in the Ed's greenhouse.

Eventually I separated the Euphorbia from my interesting Adromischus and potted it up. Now I am not so sure… In another corner grows Euphorbia meloformis. Turns out this is a male form so perhaps we are seeing a cross here. You can guess.

Of recent years my male E. obesa has languished and lost its roots. It was probably exhausted pollinating all the female Euphorbias around. Wishing to grow some more from seed, I was tempted by cheap seedlings from our Doug in Kempston; I bought three, not yet flowered. You guessed it; they all turned out to be females as well. So now I have four female E. obesa (and lots of other species of various persuasions). My single male obesa has woken up, extended its roots and may yet be up to producing some babies. We’ll see.

DNA and (the history of) everything

Having reread this piece I have to suggest that if you are new to the hobby, are traditional, or maybe just old, or have never changed the name on a plant in your life, just skip this article.

I was reading the latest Cactus Explorer, (a very good read by the way), and a link led me to a report called ‘Molecular phylogenetics of Echinopsis (Cactaceae): Polyphyly at all levels and convergent evolution of pollination modes and growth forms’. Well, yes… an interesting paper, especially for those who have more knowledge, (and brain cells), than me. So, yes…

You will know that DNA is the answer to everything. Guilt, (or otherwise), in criminal cases, fatherhood, even motherhood and, recently, the relationship between animals and plants. If the DNA suggests that elephants and ants are closely related, then they are. I am just joking of course, well maybe not, but we are going to talk about plants. Especially cacti.

There was a giant reorganisation, and lumping, of Trichocereus, Echinopsis, Lobivia and some minor genera. It went like this: Echinopsis were globular, night-flowering plants that sometimes grew tall when very, very old. When they grew tall when quite young, they were called Trichocereus. They still flowered at night. Both were good for grafting. If they were day flowering they were called Lobivia. Oh well, lump them all together. While there, throw in Acanthocalycium, Helianthocereus, Setiechinopsis and some others I will have forgotten which are vaguely, or very similar, depending on your view.

Now it seems that DNA studies show they drop into distinct groupings. Tallness and when they flower are not too relevant it now seems. So if more genera are brought back there might be night or day flowering plants in the same genus. And tall and short plants. All closely related by the things we cannot see without a microscope (and  our DNA sequencer).

Personally I was most interested that, what these days we call Echinopsis famatinensis, (and was previously called a Lobivia and Reicheocactus), now stands separated from the rest. Looks like the generic name Reicheocactus might be resurrected. It is certainly different from many of the others, (in looks and DNA), has attractive spination and subtle flowers. For column inches of learned writing this species is probably third after Carnegiea gigantea and Lophophora williamsii. A long time ago this was a very controversial species. And all the prize winning exhibits at shows are still called Reicheocactus famatimensis so perhaps the exhibitors knew their plants were a bit special in the Echinopsis show class.

What might this ground breaking DNA study mean in our greenhouses you will ask. Well I would dare to suggest that we will all keep the same labels on our plants that we had when we bought them. And I bet that all these old, newly lumped, maybe to be un-lumped, genera will still be in the Echinopsis group in future ‘Guide to Shows’, thank goodness.

I suppose with this lot I better add a glossary. I am indebted to Wikipedia for all the long words. (It’s the first place I always look for long words)


A polyphyletic (Greek for "of many races") group is one characterized by one or more homoplasies: character states which have converged or reverted so as to appear to be the same but which have not been inherited from common ancestors.

In biology, phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relationships among groups of organisms (e.g. species, populations), which is discovered through molecular sequencing data and morphological data matrices. The term phylogenetics derives from the Greek terms phyle and phylon, denoting "tribe" and "race" and the term genetikos, denoting "relative to birth", from genesis "origin" and "birth". The result of phylogenetic studies is a hypothesis about the evolutionary history of taxonomic groups: their phylogeny.

So now you know. As I suggested, perhaps you should not have read this one. And Genesis is a band I still enjoy while editing NN.

More on DNA

On a bulletin board I read was an invitation to check out a certain high resolution scan of an old photo of a pad of Opuntia blakeana and look for a fingerprint. ‘Possibly the person who made the scan’, suggested the report.

It got me wondering. In these days of forensic science and DNA testing, perhaps the old type preservations of cacti could reveal some secrets. Did Backeberg in fact preserve that type specimen? A quick check for fingerprints and DNA would seem in order. Might we find Britton and Rose’s DNA on some fragments of cacti in some long lost herbarium? Oh well. I don’t suppose it matters a jot, at least in Middle England. Do you know good labels are several pence each? Why change them?

How do you spell ‘Blackhead’?

I was rereading the previous issue of Northants News and noticed an apparent spelling mistake we missed. The FL and Roland spot most of the spellings and as you will have heard the computer here has been quite well trained. So this was a bit unexpected.

This story starts on one of the ‘Open Garden’ days here when I gave away some plants of what I shall call Aeonium ‘Blackhead’ to interested visitors. I had to make out some labels and I checked the spelling in the Crassulaceae volume of the IHS.

‘Zwartkop’ it said. Recently I had a multilingual visitor and I struggled again with spelling. When I explained it meant ‘Black-head’ in German, she rapidly dictated ‘Schwarzkopf’ and this was how Roland spelt it in his article about some new Aeonium cultivars. ‘Schwarzkopf’  has 19,200 hits on Google. Quite a lot, but ‘Zwartkop’ has 29,800, so for once the internet has the answer.

Now all I have to do is find ‘Schwarzkopf’ in the computer’s custom dictionary, delete it and substitute ‘Zwartkop’. The computer seems to think that ‘Zwartkop’ is Danish for ‘Blackcap’ so now we know nearly everything.

For a long time this choicest cultivar has been considered a sport of the Aeonium arboreum which originated in Holland. The latest theory is that it is a cultivar from A. manriqueorum. I think that many of the plants in the Northants area are misidentified. The smaller headed plant with less intense purple heads is ‘Atropurpureum’. It is only now I have grown both I can see the difference. Especially in the garden where they grow very well through the summer; ‘Zwartkop’ is twice as big as ‘Atropurpureum’ and this year, with less sun and more rain the last has been almost green.

Musing on the seed list

When my copy of CactusWorld dropped through the letter box I paused for only a few seconds to savour the aroma of fresh printer’s ink (surely CactusWorld has one of the best?) before opening the seed list. This is a great read and some great seeds to order, if you are quick enough. So I scanned quickly through the list. I am familiar with the genera and a great many of the species but occasionally I have to resort to the reference books. Turned out that all the unknown Aloes were large ones; too bad, as they had a collector’s number.

When I had finished and my first class stamp attached to the envelope I took a slower look through the list. A disclaimer at the front says that the seed is sold under the name it is received under, fair enough, but the taxonomy is pretty chaotic. An Echinocereus or Gymnocalycium is pretty much that. However in the plants listed as Eriosyce there are species which were previously Eriosyce, Rhodentiophylla and Pyrrhocactus, (and very tricky to grow), and Neoporteria, Neochilenia, Chilenia (and a few others I have probably forgotten), which are much easier to grow. I noted there were a couple of Pyrrhocactus listed separately.

We used to view Echinopsis as globular plants with large, night flowers. They were so easy to grow you could use them for grafting stock. Now the genus includes all sorts of things, many of which are vast barrel cacti or tree-like. Some, but not all, the tree-like ones are suitable for grafting but not likely to flower from seed in a lifetime. (Or perhaps I should say the average BCSS member!) The kinds we used to call Lobivia are perhaps the best for beginners.

Finally I pondered the relevance of the collectors’ numbers added to the names. There is nothing there to distinguish the seed collected straight from the plants in habitat and that gained by hand pollinating (and maybe hybridising) plants in collections. Oh well, perhaps it’s only me…

Seed raising is a potentially complicated area for the beginner to step into. But fun and it’s cheap.   

An early masterpiece

The FL and I were clearing out some old documents and came across this painting by our son Philip when he was two. It deserves to be more widely published. You can easily see it is titled ‘Daddy’s Cactus’. (Can’t you?) He shows an early skill at botanical illustration. However it is not clear exactly what species he had in mind. That it is a cactus we can be sure, maybe one of those curious red Gymnos you are thinking, but I have never grown these. I think it is a Copiapoa, you can clearly see the cluster and spination, also I had many 30 years ago. However I have seen the herbarium specimens of many cacti which are equally unrecognisable. This unique art work is available as a limited edition print. Please apply to the Ed. It will cost you thousands, (pounds, Euros or US dollars) – or one NN article.

Enjoy the mag.


Daddy's cactus




Northampton and Milton Keynes Branch of the B.C.S.S.

Back issues of the NMK Branch magazine

Northants News Volume 20.2

Northants News Volume 20.1

Northants News Volume 19.3

Northants News Volume 19.2

Northants News Volume 19.1

Northants News Volume 18.3

Northants News Volume 18.2