Joinvillea – the grass before grasses.

A recent addition to the ‘Fossil Garden’ came in the form of Joinvillea ascendens Gauduch ex. Brongn & Gris (Syn. Joinvillea gaudichaudiana Brongn & Gris) from Hawaii ; a kind gift from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. It’s member of the Joinvilleaceae which in turn is a member of the ‘Graminid clade’ of the Poales – In short it is a sister to the world’s grasses.

Whilst the Poales certainly have their earliest roots in the late Cretaceous there is little fossil evidence to help us understand when and where they first evolved. The earliest recognisable fossils of this ethnobotanically important group come from 66 million years ago in what was South America. The Cyperaceae (The Sedges) have no fossil evidence from this period and their close relatives the Juncaceae (Rushes) have an even more limited fossil history. The earliest fossil evidence of this group belong to members of the Poaceae (the true grasses) and there is some fossil evidence that suggests that the Restionaceae was around at this time too. Another genus in the Poales known from Maastrichtian (Late Cretaceous) fossils is Typha (the true Bull Rushes) who’s fossil record is that of leaves, found in the Negev desert of Israel, called Typhacites negevensis. So what has all of this got to do with the Joinvilleaceae? Joinvillea is very closely related to grasses indeed and on first inspection you would believe it to be a grass. It is currently placed as sister group, with the Ecdeiocoleaceae, to the grasses. It’s flowers are pollinated by wind just like its kin yet it bears berries making it a real oddity in evolutionary terms. This feature is relictual for the Graminids and believed to be a earlier occurring feature than the dry seeds of the grasses. It also bares multi-cellular micro hairs like the grasses which alongside some other features proves that the three groups have a common ancestor.

Joinvillea’s obscure occurrence and unusual, relictual, features certainly demand it a small place among the ‘fossil’ plants in our little garden. I am certainly pleased to see this new piece in the puzzle of plant evolution take up its position as the only grass in our garden.

By Scott Zona from USA (Joinville ascendens  Uploaded by pixeltoo) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Zona from USA (Joinville ascendens Uploaded by pixeltoo) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Joinvillea ascandens

Joinvillea ascandens


Saurauia – a kiwi from the Cretaceous

Its not often we find a really great new plant, with potential to be hardy, that fits right into our ‘Fossil Plant’ remit. Lets face it there aren’t that many extant genera of plants out there that are so close to their fossil relative that they are pretty much indistinguishable. When, through tireless research, we do come across something that fits the bill it is often the case that we exclaim ‘Where on earth would we get one of those from?’ and the genera or particular species gets added to the list of ‘one-day we will grow one of them’ plants.

Just such a case is that of the genus Saurauia.

A member of the Actinidiaceae (related to Kiwi fruit) in the Ericales (the order that includes Heathers, the American pitcher plants, Primulas and Tea) the genus Saurauia can be found in Asia and, interestingly for its family, also in Central and South America. With around 250 species the genus is distinguishable by having only 3 to 5 carpels and being either monoecious or dioecious unlike the rest of the family.

What is more interesting for us though is that it is quite clearly represented in the fossil record of the late Cretaceous. Small well preserved flowers of Parasaurauia allonensis and two species of Saurauia (in the form of fossilised seed) are found in North America and Europe respectively. The only major difference between the Parasaurauia of then and the Saurauia of now being the presence of ten stamens arranged in two whorls in the androecium (the male reproductive section of a flower) instead of the fifteen to numerous number of stamens of modern Saurauia - Phylogenetic studies have subsequently placed Parasaurauia as sister to the rest of the Actinidiaceae.

Recently we were lucky enough to be able to strike Saurauia off that ’one-day we will grow one of them’ list. So without further ado I would like to introduce you to Saurauia napaulensis. A Kiwi fruit from the late Cretaceous.

Saurauia napaulensis from Wallich's 'Plantae Asiaticae Rariores' of 1831

Saurauia napaulensis from Wallich’s ‘Plantae Asiaticae Rariores’ of 1831


Our very own plant of Saurauia napaulensis

Our very own plant of Saurauia napaulensis

Proud to hold a national collection

letterhead picOn 3rd September 2015 we were awarded National Plant Collection status for our collection of South East Australian Banksia species.

Banksia ericifolia

Banksia ericifolia ssp. ericifolia

The genus Banksia was first discovered in Botany bay, Australia, by Sir Joseph Banks, on Captain Cooks first voyage of discovery and introduced to British cultivation by him. These trees and shrubs are considered by many to be tender but this is often due to their intolerance of the phosphates that are found in modern fertiliser.
We first became interested in them whilst studying the fossil history of the family, proteaceae, to which they belong. We soon found out that the many of the Banksia species that come from the South East of Australia are very tolerant of the British climate when given the right soil conditions.
The collection currently holds plants of Banksia aemula, canei, collina, ericifolia ssp. ericifolia, integrifolia ssp. integrifolia, marginata, oblongifolia, paludosa ssp. paludosa, robur, serrata and spinulosa var. prostrata ‘Birthday candles’.


Proteas and Phosphate; a plant rant.

That’s it! I have had enough!! This has gone on for far too long!!!

I can’t cope any longer with seeing dead and dying members of the Proteaceae in garden centres. There is no need for these plants to be in this state.

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I hear you ask.

Well, the answer is simple. There is a huge problem in British garden centres with the way plants such as Grevillea, Lomatia, Banksias and Proteas are looked after and it could be changed very easily.

Really strong, otherwise heathy plants are bought in from wholesalers, to be sold on by the garden centres and DIY stores, with every good intention of being able to sell something a little unusual. The plants last long enough in the garden centre to be sold to an unsuspecting customer who then plants them, proud of their purchase, only to find that weeks or months later their plant DIES.

What’s going on?

When the plants arrive at the garden centre in their liner pots the, unknowing, horticultural staff treat them the same as all the other plants. They pot them up or top dress them with a mix of whatever the preferred compost is and add a good helping of their proprietary granulated, slow release fertiliser.

Here lies the problem. Proteaceae, you see, are ‘allergic’ to Phosphates.

The wonder ‘slow release’ fertiliser is, more often than not, a thing called ‘Osmocote Exact – Standard 12-14 Months’ it contains a long lasting supply of all the ‘essential trace elements’ required (although I tend to disagree) for good plant growth. With an N-P-K (Nitrogen-Phosphate-Potassium) value of 15-9-11 (15% Nitrate – 9% Phosphate – 11% Potassium) essentially what the well-meaning horticulturists are doing is giving the poor plant a good helping of poison.

Proteaceae have evolved over their 100 million years on this planet to cope very well with the nutrient leached, old and often acidic soils of the Southern Hemisphere. These soils are low in N-P-K (some South American soils are high in Phosphate but its locked away from them by a chemical process caused by the soil being acid) and high in other minerals and the plants have adapted as such.

Their hard leaves have a high percentage of Lignin so that they don’t wilt and can grow even with the lack of sufficient Phosphorous for good cell growth. They have annual root systems, called Proteoid roots, that sit just under the surface of the leaf litter layer accessing the scant nutrients during the short periods of wet (and subsequent leaf litter breakdown) and they don’t have Mycorrhizal (fungi) relationships providing their mineral nutrients in a format that is easy for them to use. Many Fynbos/Mallee/Sclerophyll plants can fix atmospheric Nitrogen and out of them all the Proteaceae are the most uniquely and inextricably adapted to their environments.

In short they don’t need or want N-P-K.

Phosphate necrosis in Lomatia ferruginea

Phosphate necrosis in Lomatia ferruginea

A happy and very healthy Lomatia ferruginea

A happy and very healthy Lomatia ferruginea

So what happens to them?

The first sign that they are getting too much Phosphate is that they start to get a greyish/redish hue to their leaves. The leaves and flower buds eventually turn black and start to fall off. Sometimes the plant puts up last ditch fight for life, sprouting from the base, desperately clinging on. This is however to no avail. Other symptoms include a lack of growth, leaf tip necrosis, inter veinal chlorosis and eventually succumbing to Phytopthera. What a horrific end for a plant.

It’s not as simple as just the Phosphate either. High levels of Nitrate (15% is too high) fed to the plant to quickly in the presence of the Phosphate exasperates the problem. High levels of Calcium in the compost (most potting composts contain quite a lot of it which makes them alkaline; which, in turn, makes the Phosphate even more accessible to them) can also lead to Phosphate toxicity.

Why doesn’t it happen as soon as the plant receives the fertiliser?

Proteaceae have got a bit clever in their millions of years of evolution. They go through dormant and active growth phases. They grow when the going is good and remain dormant when life is tough. When in active growth they put on massive amounts of special annual roots called Proteoid or cluster roots. These roots are specially adapted to extract as much nutrition from the poor soils and leaf litter they are growing in as possible. It’s generally not until they start to put out these annual roots, sometimes months after they have been bought and planted, that they start to suck up all those noxious Phosphates, show symptoms and die.

Now it’s kind of alright for someone like me that would buy a plant and remove any fertiliser top dress from the pot before planting the plant. However, someone buying a Grevillea for the first time and suffering this problem would be put off growing a Grevillea ever again.

I just don’t think it’s fair that hardy, easy plants like Lomatia ferruginea, Grevillea rosmarinifolia and Embothrium coccineum should be dubbed difficult or even ungrowable just because of a mistake on the part of a garden centre staff member that is not paid enough to THINK. It’s not just Proteaceae that have this problem either. Some Acacias, Callistemon and Boronias suffer too. In fact it’s one of the reasons that Australasian plants are deemed difficult in British cultivation.

I have seen so many garden centres selling plants doomed to Phosphate necrosis, even one plant centre in a well renowned botanic garden had Grevillea plants suffering this problem. All it would take is a little information, a warning label on the plant saying something like ‘DON’T FEED ME!’ or a factsheet produced by someone like the HTA wouldn’t go amiss. For now though I think it wouldn’t hurt if everyone that knows about this problem could just tell their local garden centre staff about it and that way, just maybe, a few fewer plants will die needlessly.

Rant over!

Ps. Phosphate is also no good for many trees, native grassland plants and bulbs.

Pps. The mining of Phosphate causes massive environmental damage. Check out what happened to the island of Nauru.



Blechnum brasiliense ‘Volcano’

Recently here in the FossilGarden we have been having a bit of a drive to narrow down the fern collection or rather to tighten it up a bit.

When we first started stocking the garden we planted a lot of ferns. In fact we planted any ferns we could conceivably lay our hands on. Over the past 3 years we came to realise that not all of them are that suitable for a small garden like ours. Plants like the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), whilst elegant and really quite beautiful can also be very invasive when you don’t have that much room to play with.

We have also decided that there are a couple of genera of fern that we would love to explore a little more and even specialise in. One of these is Blechnum (said Blek-num).

Blechnum spicant

Our native Blechnum spicant or Deer fern

Blechnum is a huge family of ferns in the eupolypods II clade of the Polypodiales. It contains between 150 and 200 species, depending on which line of thinking you follow, and its greatest area of species diversity is based in the Southern Hemisphere. The feature that stands them apart from other ferns is that they all produce seperate fertile (spore producing) and sterile (photosynthetic) fronds and the fronds are singly pinnate.  We grow quite a number of species already: such as the tiny Blechnum penna-marina and the huge Blechnum chilense. We have species such as Blechnum cycadifolium, B. gibbum and B. nudum too but there was one that has been noticeably lacking from the collection for quite a while.

Blechnum cycadifolium

Blechnum cycadifolium from the Juan Fernandez Islands

Blechnum penna-marina

Blechnum penna-marina is a little creeping fern from South America

Blechnum gibbum

Blechnum gibbum is found growing throughout the Pacific island.

The one that has been on our ‘hit list’ for a so long is Blechnum brasiliense, the dwarf Brazilian tree fern. So you can imagine we jumped at the chance when, our friend, and manager of Seiont nurseries, Neil Alcock asked us if we would like to trial his new selection of Blechnum brasiliense ‘Volcano’.

Blechnum brasiliense is a really smart fern from Brazil (as its name suggests) and Peru. With singly pinnate fronds of up to 30”/75cm long and, in time, a short trunk of about 10”/25cm, you will be able to see why it gets the name ‘Dwarf tree fern’. However it’s the scarlet newly emergent fronds of some plants that attracted us. The plants that are being produced under the name Blechnum brasiliense ‘Volcano’ are sporelings  from a very red flushed parent plant and even as small plants in 9cm pots they are showing the amazing red new foliage.

Baby Volcanoes at Seont Nursery

Hundreds of baby Blechnum brasiliense ‘Volcano’ at Seont nursery.

a mature Blechnum brasiliense

a mature Blechnum brasiliense
“Blechnum brasiliense” by Remember – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Unfortunately, Blechnum brasiliense isn’t quite as hardy, it will cope with about -3, as other species of Blechnum and as such our little plant of ‘Volcano’ will be spending the winter in our bathroom, alongside a plant of Blechnum gibbum, It will however be living outside until there is a significant risk of frost. We can’t wait for it to be a big plant just like its parent and hopefully it will be joined, in time, by other members of its kin such as Blechnum Palmiforme, the next Blechnum on our eupolypod II ‘hit list’.

Our very own 'Volcano'

Our very own little Blechnum brasiliense ‘Volcano’ showing off its lovely pink fronds.

Equisetums and I … A word to the wise

When you happen to be the curator of a small garden full of plants that have a fossil record you inevitably find yourself lusting after Equisetums. I have done so now since the age of 10, when my mother and I had one of our biggest ever battles; should the horsetails be allowed to stay in the cracks in our patio? My mum won, the weed killer was brought out and a larger battle commenced between mother and her arch enemy, Equisetum arvense. I was pleased to say the horsetails won in the long run.

I found myself, having learned that lesson all those years ago, with a quandary. I would very much love to grow equisetums but dare I put them in the ground? I am afraid the big kid in me won this battle (mainly because I lost that battle when I was 10) and I bought 2 pots of Equisetum ramosissimum japonicum. Assured by the man that sold it me that it was the least invasive horsetail and that if I planted it in the ground it would be fine. I am afraid the childish me completely took over my senses and stopped my sensible conscience from making a sound of protest.

A plant regularly sold as a marginal for your garden pond or an architectural rush (one common name is Japanese scouring rush) for a moist site it has featured heavily in show gardens and planting schemes around the country for a number of years now. It is a beautiful stately plant with upright spears of fresh green banded by deep brown at regular intervals. It stands in regiments like a short leafless bamboo and in these regiments it plans worldwide domination.

Which brings us to today….

The equisetum planted so lovingly just 2 years ago had to go. It had run through an Osmunda claytoniana, threatening its life. It was heading directly for the Cyathea australis, ready to infiltrate its rough dark trunk and was making a concerted bid for the path (from where it would have clear run into the rest of the garden).

Battle commenced.

Digging Out Equitetums

Digging Out Equitetums

Tools at the ready Ben and I laid out a plastic sheet so that not a single root would be allowed to resurrect the garden takeover. Gently we lifted the plants piecemeal from the ground checking and double checking we hadn’t left a single wiry root.

Equisetums Insurected

Equisetums Insurected

The coo was dealt with quickly and efficiently and the perpetrator banished to 3 large 30ltr pots at the back of the garden where its sentence is ‘life’. They join the ranks of other horsetail dictators such as Equisetum hymale robustum, E. hymale aquaticum and the most brutish of them all E. giganteum. The last in this list has potential to grow to 12’ tall and push its way through a butyl pondliner. Needless to say it has never been allowed to roam the garden freely.

Equisetum incarceration

Equisetum incarceration

I fear that the small Equisetum scirpoides currently living in the bog garden may have to be dealt with soon too; it’s the small ones that you need to keep the closest eye on.

So a word to the wise…

Don’t ever, EVER trust an Equisetum to stay in one place. They are not true to their word and in time will always show their true colours. It is how they have survived everything 400 million years could throw at them. I fear my battles with them may not be over just yet. Maybe sometimes i should listen to my mother!

Summer 2013 in the Fossil Garden

Firstly I have a huge apology to make for not having blogged in what seems like an age! Amazingly, a great deal of our time in Israel was spent botanising in this floristically diverse country … really must get around to collecting seed of some of the hardier species there. We came back to all systems go for the RHS Chelsea flower show. Crug Farm Plants won a GOLD and I really havn’t stopped since. What seems like a million softwood cuttings later I now have a chance to breath before being flung into another very busy period of my work. So I have taken this chance to wander around our garden with a camera and spend some time just enjoying it instead of getting on with the usual constant flow of garden jobs, research and identification work that seems to get in the way of pleasure. I sincerely hope you enjoy these photos from the garden, summer 2013, and promise the rest of the fossil plant alphabet and the blog on Ephedra are on their way!

Acer Heptaphlebium - Summer 2013
Though not a ‘fossil plant’, Acer Heptaphlebium, in the order Sapindales and family Aceraceae, is a new tree to cultivation in the UK. Found on the Vietnamese-Chinese border, it is classified as data deficient in the IUCN red data list and is one of the trees I am researching as part of my work. We use it in the fossil garden as a shade tree for our many species of ferns. Summer 2013 has been hot and sunny here in North Wales and apart from providing much needed respite for the ferns, amazingally it has also flowered and fruited. This is the first time we are aware of this happening in cultivation in the UK. Seeds have been sown, so fingers crossed.
The heat of summer 2013 has also prompted our Ginkgo to put on at least 2 foot (60cm) of new growth. See more about this wondrous plant here.