Chicago Botanic Garden

What's in Bloom

What's in Bloom — Highlight 02.22.13

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Giant wild iris (Dietes grandiflora) is blooming in the Semitropical Greenhouse near the carnivorous plant display.

Giant wild iris (Dietes grandiflora), a member of the Iridaceae family, has large white blossoms marked with yellow nectar guides and outer tepals (outer part of the flowers) and violet central segments. Dark markings are found at the base of the outer tepals. The flowers are held on erect, slender, 3-foot-long stems amid dark green, sword-shaped leaves held in a fan shape.

This perennial plant grows up to 5 feet in large clumps and blooms abundantly during the summer (in the southern hemisphere — winter in Chicago). Native to South Africa, it grows naturally along the eastern coastal areas of the southern and eastern capes, and southern Kwazulu-Natal, where it may be found at forest margins or in the shelter of taller shrubs on exposed slopes facing the sea. The plants prefer dappled shade to full sun, where they will flower in profusion. The individual flowers do not last more than a couple of days, but the plant bears many flowers during its peak bloom, attracting bees and other pollinators.

The name Dietes means "having two relatives"" and grandiflora means "large flower." This plant is occasionally called the fairy iris because the fragile white petals not only look like fairy wings, but also have a tendency to disappear mysteriously overnight!

PHOTO: Clivia miniata

Begonia 'Lana', a member of the Begoniaceae family, is referred to as an angelwing cane begonia and is considered a variegated wonder. This grand superba-type cane was developed by Paul Lee in 1973. A tender perennial grown for its colorful flowers and foliage, its angel-winglike leaves appear even more delicate due to the grayish green variegation that runs the whole width and breadth of the leaves. The stem is canelike with evenly spaced nodes, and it branches readily. Long-lasting, dainty, brilliantly colored pink blossoms are brushed with white and yellow contrast. The very large inflorescences on plants up to 3 feet in height make it a real attention-getter.

Most begonias can be grown outdoors in pots, in the ground, or in hanging baskets in filtered light and moist, but well-drained, soil. They also grow very well in peat-based compost. They like humidity but not cold weather, so they make wonderful, low-maintenance house plants. Begonias can be propagated from leaf, stem, or rhizome cuttings in addition to being sown from seed.

Angelwing cane begonia (Begonia 'Lana') is blooming at the south end of the Palm Allée in the Tropical Greenhouse.

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Heliconia psittacorum 'Lady Di', commonly called the parakeet flower, is an ever-blooming tropical plant that produces an abundance of bright flowers borne above clumps of lush, dark green, bananalike leaves. Bright red showy bracts (modified petal-like leaves) hold small, tubular flowers. Each true flower is white and has a dark spot at the end, which makes it look like a parrot's tongue. Native to the moist areas of the Lesser Antilles to northern South America, this vigorous broadleaf ornamental spreads by rhizomes.

Hummingbirds enjoy its nectar and pollinate the blooms; the small drupe fruits that follow are blue-black. The plants reach a height of 2 to 5 feet with a spread of 3 to 5 feet and grow best in full sun to partial shade in organic-rich, evenly moist soil with good drainage. For best performance, they should be fertilized regularly. Established plants will tolerate short periods of drought, but this cold-sensitive species will quickly die if subjected to frost. In USDA Zones 9a and colder, it is used as a container plant and provides extensive color for a long period of time, as do the cut flowers.

Parakeet flower (Heliconia psittacorum 'Lady Di') is in bloom at the west end of the Tropical Greenhouse.

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Bush lily (Clivia miniata 'Sir John Thouron') is a member of the Amaryllidaceae family. Unlike most amaryllids, however, Clivias do not form bulbs; instead they have large, fleshy, white and yellow roots. Their deep green leaves are two-ranked — arising from the soil directly opposite one another in an alternating sequence. Because they arch directly above one another, a mature plant develops a symmetrical, fan-shaped silhouette that provides a perfect foil for its masses of trumpet-shaped flowers.

Native to damp woodlands in southern Africa, their habitat ranges from subtropical coastal forests to ravines in high-altitude forests, where they thrive in dappled shade in well drained, humus-rich soil. In their native habitat, they are often found in large colonies, but unfortunately, in many of those areas, colonies of wild bush lilies have been destroyed by harvesting for traditional medicine; the plants are extremely toxic to people and pets, but are used medicinally for various purposes.

The world's love affair with Clivia began in 1854, when specimens were sent back to England from Kwazulu-Natal. The plant was named after the Duchess of Northumberland, Lady Charlotte Clive, who first cultivated and flowered the specimen in England. The 'Sir John Thouron' cultivar is valued for its showy, pale yellow flowers that form a ball-shaped umbrel well above its dark green leaves. The flowers are small versions of amaryllis blossoms, clustered atop a thick, fleshy stalk. To many collectors, this cultivar has become the plant world's Holy Grail. Originally discovered in the forests of Zululand in 1888, it was only eight years ago that White Flower Farms offered 36 plants for $950 each; all were sold out to a movie star, a fashion designer, and several collectors. (The cost has dropped since then.)

Bush lilies make spectacular indoor plants, due to their tolerance of low light levels and the need for little to no water during the winter. They grow to a height of about 18 to 24 inches and emit a faint, but very sweet, perfume. Relatively easy to grow, they need a 6- to 8-week rest period in the winter. During this rest period, plants should be kept at 50 to 55 degrees F. and allowed to dry out. When a flower stalk begins to emerge in late winter, increase watering and move the plant to a warmer area. After danger of frost is past, plants can be placed outdoors in a shaded location. The soil should be kept uniformly moist and the plant fertilized every two weeks in spring and summer. Move the plant back indoors in fall. Although it is one of those rare plants that actually blooms best if slightly potbound, its roots are perennial, and the plant resents root disturbance (which usually displays as a skipped flowering cycle). Repot carefully in all-purpose potting soil only when roots can be seen at the surface of the soil, usually about every three years.

Clivia miniata 'Sir John Thouron' is in the Arid Greenhouse, only a few feet away from the Clivia miniata featured last week.

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Turquoise puya (Puya alpestris) produces brilliant turquoise flowers accentuated by intensely orange anthers. Best grown in full sun with a very well-drained potting soil in low humidity, it takes years for a plant from seed to reach flowering size. To grow your own, foliar feed no more than one time per month at the lowest solution recommended. This particular accession was received as a small plant from the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, California, in 1993, and has come into flower for the first time.

You may be wondering how a bromeliad (air plant) can survive in a desert. In this case, the species is native to the high desert mountains of southern Chile, and obtains almost all of its water from the morning dews that briefly precipitate water before sunrise. The long, thin, arching leaves are protected by spines along the margin that discourage herbivores from taking a bite.

Turquoise puya (Puya alpestris) is flowering in the Arid Greenhouse near the armadillo topiary.