Well not many!

We had a choice when we started down the route of a fossil garden. We could head down the route that was pre flowering plants and have a very interesting garden but no flowers or we could head for a time around 60 million years ago, just before the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs, when flowering plants started to get a grip on the world.

We probably would have been happy for a short while with a very green, flowerless garden but lets face it alot of the pleasure of gardening would be missing. Flowers have formed an integral part of gardens. they provide a dazzling array of colour, interesting (often edible or colourful) fruit and attract an amazing diversity of insect life.

So, we plumped for that time before the dino’s died out and the flowers where just starting to gain a footing.

Now, the obvious choice of flowering plants in our garden where Magnolias. Magnolias are famous for being one of the earliest forms of flowering plant and the first one we planted was the amazing evergreen Magnolia grandiflora. This was soon followed by Magnolia stellata, Magnolia seiboldii and the magnoliid (the class of plants to which the magnolias belong) tree Liriodendron tulipifera. We are pretty sure that they won’t be the last magnolias either. More on magnolias coming in a later post!

The decision to have flowers in the fossil garden led us down a very interesting path indeed. Darwin famously called the origin of flowers the ‘abomnibal mystery’! It seems that the mystery is slowly being solved.

We decided to look at a group of plants called the basal angiosperms for inspiration on what we should grow. These plants are all known from either thier fossil record or they have elements that place them amongst the most basic of flowering plants. They are known as the ANITA plants, this stands for Amborella, Nymphaea, Illicium, Trimenia and Austrobaileya.

Amborella trichopoda is a single species in its own genus hailing from New Caledonia and is unfortunately very rare and too tropical for us to grow in the garden (even if we could get hold of a plant of it)! It is unusual in that it does not have the vessels in its wood that are usual for flowering plants, it is the sole remaining ancestor of a group of plants that diverged from other plants about 130 MYA.

Nymphaea is easy for us to lay our hands on as these are essentially the water lilies! Having built a small pond within days of moving into the house we are well placed to grow some of the dwarf species of water lilies (the modern relatives of Archaefructus which has a fossil record dating back to the mid Cretacous). We are also intending to venture down the route of growing the yellow lotus, Nelumbo lutea, but alas this is going to need to be brought inside during the winter months.

There are quite a few forms of Illicium that will grow well in the UK given the right environment. We plumped for Illicium simonsii with its wonderful yellow flowers and sweet scent. Trimeniaceae consists of only a hand full of tropical and subtropical plants which again we would be lucky to lay our hands on let alone grow in our damp little patch of North Wales.

The Austrobaileyaceae are just 2 species of tropical climbers that again we would find difficult to grow without a large heated green house (ahhhh one day!). Yet along side it in the order Austrobaileyales is a group of plants called Schisandra which we are, happily, able to grow. Our first of which will be a Schisandra rubriflora on the fence we errected to stop the dog getting into next doors garden.

So working within some very basic guidelines we are able to grow flowers. The number of different species of which may be few but I am sure will have a big impact in our small space.We aren’t going to stop at ANITA either. With flowers having first evolved in the late Jurassic they had set themselves up for a explosion in the number of species by the mid to late Cretaceous and in the southern hemisphere on a continent called Gondwanaland a very different group of flowers were starting to grow………….

Primitive urges!

When it comes to love most of the plants in our garden are a little like cavemen! It’s all a bit club to the back of the head and drags you off into a cave rather than the blousy, fancy, flirtatiousness of flowers!

The female bits of ferns and club mosses don’t get much of a choice as to whether they are going to be fertilised or not as their marriages are arranged by their parent from birth. The parent plant produces many spores that grow into a heart shaped gametophyte containing both male and female reproductive cells. The sperm from the men swim over to the women and a baby is born!

When it comes to pines and cycads the males are sent off on the wind to conquer. Billions of pollen grains are left to chance as to whether they find a female cone or not. Luckily pines and cycads like their ladies large and the cones are big enough to be found.

But it’s not all down to the men doing the work! Female Gingko actually capture their men so as to reproduce. Their rotting smelly fruit tardily dropped on the floor produce a small opening called a micropyle where it produces a small viscous droplet to capture a pollen grain that the male trees produced the previous spring. The micropyle then closes trapping the pollen in a liquid sack where it germinates into free swimming spermatozoids and wham bam thank you mam a baby Gingko is produced!

Mosses are slightly more depraved in that their babies actually parasitize their mother for a while before they head off to become new plants. Some of the club mosses are not that into sex anyway and prefer to make little clones of them-selves than have to deal with all that palaver.

So plants had love and sex pretty well sussed before insect pollinators came on the scene it was just a little more hmmmmm primeval and definitely no valentines cards involved.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2012!


Fitting in ferns

When we bought the house the garden was just a blank canvas of grass. We set to work and dug that all up. Grass didn’t evolve until somewhere in the very late cretaceous about 45 million years ago.

We laid a path and brought from my mother’s house my collection of ferns, quite a lot of ferns!

Where do ferns fit in?

Sometime during the late Carboniferous period (when all the world coal was formed) a group of plants appear in the fossil record unlike any others at the time. They had a means of moving water around their body by a network of tubes (xylem and phloem), properly developed leaves (megaphylls) yet they still reproduced using spores like the lycophytes and mosses before them.

The Ferns (monilophytes) that I talk about included the horse tails and whisk ferns. They together make up the group of plants called Pteridophyta.

Most of the modern fern families didn’t appear until the early Cretaceous about 145 million years ago.

We are lucky to have a small selection of the 12000 different species of Pteridophyta found today including the majestic tree fern Dicksonia antarctica, the diminutive aquatic fern Marsilia quadrifolia and two types of horse tail Equisetum ramosissimum japonicum and Equisetum fluviatile.

Mention horsetails to any gardener worth their salt and they would shudder. The horsetail that they would be thinking of is called Equisetum arvense a deep rooted, very invasive, perennial weed. It spreads by spores or small sections of root being moved around by accident and once you have it it is very difficult to get rid of. As a child we had it growing under my parent’s patio. It’s wonderful fronds poking out from between the slabs and whereby I was fascinated, my mother hated it. It was a constant battle between us as to whether it should be left to grow, so I could study it, or it should be pulled up (which meant just pulling the green tops off which I later pointed out would only make it come back more).

We haven’t been so silly as to add E. arvense to our garden but we couldn’t really have a prehistoric garden without some horsetails so the two species we have planted are ones that really shouldn’t take over.

Heading back in time to the late Devonian the first known Equisetales are seen in the fossil record (Pseudobornia) they had developed into enormous tree sized plants by the carboniferous and later in the Mesozoic they made up a large portion of the understory plant life but it wasn’t until the Cretaceous that we find the first of the modern horsetails. It was probably the ability of these plants to reproduce by mass windblown spores and vegetative that has led to them surviving into the modern day. Such a shame I can’t have a giant tree horsetail in the garden.

The true ferns survived by similar tactics you just have to look at bracken to see how quickly they can take over. I won’t be introducing bracken into the garden either. They had also grown to enormous proportions by the end of the Devonian.

I can only imagine the number of ferns growing in our prehistoric garden is going to ever increase just like the explosion in fern species in the late Cretaceous and we certainly intend to add more tree ferns. Cyathea tree ferns are high on the ‘wish list’.

A star to start off with!

On the 16th March 2011 we got the keys to our new house and almost the first thing we did was head in the direction of our local garden centre. The intention was to buy some colourful bedding plants to put in the wall basket next to the front door. Yet as we walked around the garden centre we spotted a strange plant hiding in a corner. On closer inspection (and with much excitement) it turned out to be a Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis). We bought it straight away and the idea for a fossil garden was born.

So what is a Wollemi pine? and what is its link to fossils?

Back on 10th September 1994 a field officer and bushwalker/climber named David Noble was out walking in a gorge in Wollemi national park, New South Wales.

He stumbled upon a group of trees that he didn’t recognise and so he brought back some samples to be identified. He soon found out they were new to science.

Subsequently named after him it was identified as a new Genus within the family Araucariaceae and was found to be very similar to fossils of this 200 million year old family of trees.

The Wollemi pine is classed as critically endangered in the wild with only about 40 mature trees and 200 seedlings remaining. Luckily it has proved quite easy to propagate and now the cultivation and sale of Wollemia nobilis is helping to fund the conservation of the wild trees and their habitat.

Having grown up with a giant Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), another of the Araucariacea, in my garden I was already well informed about the history of this group of plants and with a large collection of ferns already (the first fern fossils date back to about 360 million years) we were set to start collecting these amazing living fossil plants.

Our Wollemi pine, nicknamed ‘Willamina’, is about 5 foot tall and regularly bears male (pollen bearing) cones on the end of the long elegant branches.

Definitely the star of the show in the fossil garden!