PORTUGUESE MAN OF WAR STINGS



The Portuguese Man of War is an extremely complex form of life, and despite its outward appearance, the Man of War is not a jellyfish, but a siphonophore. This makes it different from jellyfish as it is not actually a single creature. The Portuguese Man of wear is in fact a colonial organism made up of minute individuals called zooids, and these combine to create the four types of polyps that are characteristic of the Portuguese man of War.

One of the polyps, a gas-filled bladder, enables the organism to float. The other three polyp types are known as dactylozooid (defence), gonozooid (reproduction), and gastrozooid (feeding).

The dactylzooids make up the tentacles that are typically 30 ft in length, but they can be as long as 165 ft.

The long tentacles "fish" continuously through the water, and are armed with a large number of stinging cells called nematocysts. these stinging cells are tiny, but each one contains a coiled hollow tube, tipped with barbs.

Any pressure on these stinging cells - such as a fish brushing by as it swims past - causing the barbs to be released. They shoot into the prey - like miniature harpoons -  while remaining attached to the tentacles. the sting contains a powerful poison, similar to cobra venom.

Contractile cells in each tentacle drag the prey into range of the digestive polyps - the gastrozooids - which lie beneath the float. These then surround and digest the food by secreting enzymes that break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats.

Have you been stung by a Portuguese man of war?

The indications that you have been stung by a Man O’ War are: Stinging, burning, redness, swelling of lymph nodes. You may see long welt lines. In some people sensitive to the Man O’ War venom, there may be severe reactions, including difficulty with breathing and cardiac arrest.

The sting toxin secreted from the tentacles is a neurotoxin about seventy-five percent as powerful as cobra venom. The welts can last for minutes to hours.

Studies on the effectiveness of meat tenderizer, baking soda, papain, or commercial sprays (containing aluminum sulfate and detergents) on nematocyst stings have been contradictory. It’s possible these substances cause further damage.

IMMEDIATE FIRST AID ADVICE:

If you have been stung with what you think is a Man O’ War, try these steps to minimize the pain and damage.

1. Rinse the area with seawater or fresh water to remove any tentacles stuck to the skin. This can be from a spray bottle or in a beach shower.

2. For severe pain, try applying heat or cold, whichever feels better.

3. While most stings are NOT generally fatal, some people can have severe allergic reactions to the sting that can cause a health danger. Consider even the slightest breathing difficulty, or altered level of consciousness, a medical emergency. Call for help immediately and seek immediate professional medical advice.

4. Irrigate exposed eyes with copious amounts of room temperature tap water for at least 15 minutes. If vision blurs, or the eyes continue to tear, hurt, swell, or are light sensitive after irrigating, seek professional medical advice.

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THE ASIATIC LION



Step back in time to before the last ice age and you will find that the lion once roamed widely across the planet. In fact the lion enjoyed the widest distribution of any mammal except for humans. From the South American Pampas, to the frigid north of Siberia, lions stalked the vast herds of large herbivores, including the iconic woolly mammoth. Sadly today, this species has disappeared from most of its range, largely down to the rise of man. As predators ourselves, the lion became a natural competitor, and so as our populations increased, so the lions decreased.

Unfortunately, many of the large herbivores that the lions relied upon also vanished at the end of the last ice age, presumably down to climate change and human hunting.

The lion is a proud symbol of Africa,  but what many people don't realise is that there are still a few wild lions  living outside of Africa. These are the Asiatic or Indian lions, which just a century ago roamed across vast swathes of the Asian continent. Today they are restricted to a tiny enclave in India, known as the Gir National Park.

Two thousand years ago, the Asiatic lion range extended right across into Southern Europe, and as far west as Greece. They were also numerous right across the Arabian Peninsula, and of course ranged widely across the Indian sub-continent. Over the proceeding centuries, successive waves of human empires rose and fell across the region, and inevitably these lions population faded away.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Asiatic subspecies of lion was balancing on a knife edge as just two dozen lived within the confines of an area of teak forest in Northern India known as Gir.

The local prince -  Nawab Rasulkhanji of Junagadh, possessed an insatiable passion for hunting and was considered to be an excellent marksman. He specialised in hunting leopards and perhaps out of reverence for the lion’s status in Indian culture and folklore placed strict restrictions on hunting them.

After India’s independence in 1947, the fledgling government formalised the Nawab’s restrictions by creating special lion reserves on the Southern tip of the Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat, with the most famous being the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, officially created in 1965.

Over the years, the boundaries of the sanctuary have expanded by over 900 miles squared, incorporating vast tracts of dry, hilly forest; today it’s known as the Gir Conservation Area. The last census of Gir’s lions was conducted in 2010 and the good news was that there are currently 411 individuals roaming around Gir. The bad news is that, that number is deceptively high, as up to 150 lions are sub adults or cubs, and many of these will fail to make it to adulthood.

The Lions of Gir came very close to extinction. The evidence for this is a rather prominent ridge of loose skin along the bellies of mostly the male lions. This unusual trait only crops up occasionally in their African relatives, but is widespread in the Asiatic variety.

Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the lions experiencing a ‘population bottleneck’. This was brought about by the relentless hunting carried out by humans down the ages which reduced the lions to such low numbers that they were effectively forced to inbreed.


By the start of the 1970s, the Indian government, conscious of losing one of India’s most powerful symbolic animals, implemented a rather radical policy. At that time, more than 4500 people and 25,000 livestock lived and moved within Gir’s boundaries.

Over the next decade or so, two thirds of the local Maldhari were moved out of the area. The plan though was highly controversial and still sparks fury among the Maldhari today, but it was pivotal in saving the lions from almost certain extinction. The lions’ chief natural prey no longer faced competition from domestic livestock, and the land was now free of people cutting down trees for cattle fodder and firewood.

As an indication of just how much has changed, before the 1970s, Gir was home to just 6000 wild grazers, mostly chital, wild boar and a larger species of deer known as the sambar. In 2010, the number had grown to 65,000 ten times more than it had been just forty years previously. However, there are worrying signs that the human pressures that nearly condemned India’s last lions to extinction are returning. Today, 6000 people live within the National Park, exactly the same number that was present in 1970. The herders and their animals have access to virtually all of the area, apart from a core area where most of the lions live. An extra 100,000 people plus another 100,000 cattle and buffalo inhabit villages that dot the forests boundaries.

Astonishingly, despite these worrying changes, the lions have managed to expand outside of Gir and create small populations in small wooded areas, some of which are home to as many as one in four of the entire population. However, most areas of suitable habitat have now been occupied, which hinders further expansion and thus limits the lion’s chances of setting up prides in new areas.

In 1994 a delegation of experts and conservationists travelled from India to South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve. The leader of the expedition was prominent Indian lion expert, Ravi Chellam. Chellam wished to observe how Phinda were successfully able to transport large and dangerous game animals. Phinda’s objective was simple, to recreate thriving populations by relocating lions under pressure from people into wilder, more desirable country. They aimed to re-establish lions in areas where they had disappeared decades before due to conflicts with humanity.

By the time of Chellam’s visit, the ingenious technique now dubbed ‘wild to wild translocation’ was so effective that lions now roamed once again over vast swathes of their former range. Ravi and his team left South Africa, inspired and with an abundance of insights into how exactly India’s lions could be saved. The task was to try and set up a new population of Asiatic lions outside of their current base at Gir.

In the 20 years or so that have passed since the expedition, various conservation initiatives have helped to increase the lions population, but only within Gir itself. But the lion's refuge is an island, and it’s an increasingly overcrowded island. Unfortunately, the strategies successfully employed in South Africa have yet to be replicated in India. The Asiatic lion’s future still hangs by the narrowest of narrow threads.

The lion’s best and probably last hope probably lies with Gujarat’s Eastern neighbour, the state of Madhya Pradesh, which have been frantically preparing the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary to receive the lions that will save the species. The reserve lies around 500 miles away from Gir, and although it covers a smaller area, the surrounding landscape is dense forest, ten times bigger than anything at Gir.

The state government, along with its national partner have poured millions of pounds into Kuno-Palpur. Like Gir, they have taken the radical step of relocating a total of 24 villages, which in turn has led to widespread forest regeneration and a huge increase in the wild herbivore population; the only missing component is the lions themselves.

However, India’s last lions may never get a chance to roam Kuno-Palpur, there’s nothing biologically or socio-economically that’s stopping this miracle for happening. It’s all about politics; Gujarat is fiercely proud of its lions and refuses to be parted with its ultimate status symbol. After all, the lions are a huge tourism draw, and Gujarat would not want to lose such a valuable monopoly.

Today, all of the remaining 411 lions are closely related, their survival is by no means guaranteed, because the lack of genetic diversity leaves them vulnerable to disease and consequently threatens to undermine all of the hard work that has gone into bring the species back from the very brink of oblivion.

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THE JESUS CHRIST LIZARD




The interpretation of Jesus Christ's ability to walk on water is generally left to biblical scholars, but modern day scientists have now been able to find out how the aptly named ‘Jesus lizard’ is able achieve a similar ‘miracle’ without falling in.

This incredible ability is common to a group of animals known as basilisk lizards. Typically, they inhabit the edge of rivers that run through rainforests, where they feed on small insects amongst the foliage.

However, being cold blooded creatures, they need to bask in the sun to warm up their bodies to an effective working temperature but this can leave them vulnerable to being caught by predators – in particular birds of prey and small jungle cats.

In order to evade such predators the lizards have evolved an extraordinary escape mechanism. When frightened, the lizard will drop into the water and run across the surface which is how they have earned themselves the common name of ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ lizard.

Basilisk lizards range in size from a weight of less than 2 grams right up to 200 grams, yet throughout their size range they are able to run across water on their hind legs at about 5 feet per second for a distance of approximately 15 feet. However, after this point they tend to ‘run’ out of energy, sinking to all fours before having to swim.

The Jesus lizards are able to accomplish this seemingly miraculous act by generating forces with their feet that keep their bodies both above the surface and upright.
Exactly how they do this has been revealed by using specialist slow-motion footage taken at 2,000 frames per second. The resulting film has been used as part of the BBC Life series.

Most animals that attempt to walk or run across water immediately sink toward their supporting limb because water - unlike solid ground - offers little support or resistance. However, basilisk lizards produce massive sideways forces in their running stride, which also helps them to stay upright.

The stride is divided into three phases: the slap, the stroke, and the recovery. During the slap, the foot moves vertically downward. During the stroke it moves backward, and during the recovery the foot moves up and out of the water, returning to the start position of the next step.

The support force generated by the slap is sufficient to keep the lizards' bodies above the water's surface during the stroke phase in which they propel themselves forward by kicking their legs back through the water.

Simon Blakeney, a producer on the series who helped direct and film the footage of these basilisk lizards had this to say on the matter:

‘...because they run so fast they create a bubble as their feet hit the water and then they push off from this bubble before it bursts. They can only run at that speed. If they were going any slower, for example, they wouldn't stay upright; they would slip into the water and would have to swim...’

WHAT IS A PERSIMMON?





In the weeks up to Christmas you will start to see a rather strange looking fruit appearing on the soft fruit displays in your local supermarket. Looking like a cross between a tomato and a dwarf mango, persimmons are the edible fruit of a number of species of trees in the genus Diospyros.

Yes it looks like a Sharon fruit, but that is because Sharon fruit is a form of persimmon which received its pseudonym from the Sharon plain in Israel where it was extensively grown.

Of course, confusion surrounding the persimmon doesn't stop there as there are two varieties commonly available and you need to know which one is which in order to avoid making a rather unsavoury mistake!

The two varieties of persimmon commonly available are the round 'Fuyu' and the heart-shaped Hachiya.

How to eat persimmons

Persimmons are eaten fresh, dried, raw, or cooked. When eaten fresh they are usually eaten whole like an apple or cut into quarters, though with some varieties it is best to peel the skin first.

One way to consume very ripe persimmons, which can have the texture of pudding, is to remove the top leaf with a paring knife and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Riper persimmons can also be eaten by removing the top leaf, breaking the fruit in half and eating from the inside out.

The Hachiya persimmon

The Hachiya persimmon
Hachiya persimmons are heart-shaped and have a shiny deep orange skin that may be streaked with black.

Hachiyas can be eaten only when fully ripe. How can you tell when a Hachiya persimmon is ripe? Hold it in your hand. It should feel like it's filled with water and will be extremely soft and squishy.

Removing the thin skin reveals coral coloured flesh so thick and glossy it looks like jelly and will taste a bit like it too. It will taste like a very sweet blend of mango and apricot. Eat them plain or use them in baked goods, sauces, and smoothies.

Just remember this: DO NOT eat an unripe Hachiya as the flesh will be full of bitter tasting tannins. It can take up to a week to ripen, but you can speed things up but placing the fruit with a banana inside of a paper bag. The banana releases ethylene - a natural plant growth regulator, which speeds up the ripening process.

You can tell when Hachiya persimmons are ripe as they will turn red and display long cracks in their skin.

The Fuyu persimmon

The Fuyu persimmon
In contrast, Fuyu persimmons are squat and rather heavy for their size. Their skin ranges from pale yellow-orange to brilliant reddish-orange. Generally, the darker the colour  the sweeter the taste.

Unlike the Hachiya persimmon, Fuyu persimmons can be eaten firm or soft. Firm Fuyus can be eaten like an apple, skin and all. And when you slice off the top, a beautiful star will appear in the flesh.

Crunchy cinnamon flavoured Fuyus are also great in salads and salsas.

HOW TO GROW TREE FERNS




Tree ferns are amongst the most ornamental all plant species and posses exceptional architectural quality . Unfortunately, when you purchase a tree ferns it is usually just a trunk in a pot and new stock will generally be without a root system. However, get the cultivation right and you will end up with an impressive and vigorous specimen plant.

Native tree fern woodland 
Native to the acid woodlands of south-east Australia, the closer you can mimic their natural habitat the more impressive your specimen will be.

They thrive in a sheltered, humid and shaded position., so for the best start they should be planted in humus-rich, neutral to slightly acid soil. Extremely slow growing, these desirable plants only increase their trunk height by about 2.5cm (1in) a year. Therefore, if you want a plant for immediate effect, you should choose a fern with a length of trunk that suits your planting scheme. If you buy containerised ferns in leaf, plant at the same level as they were in the container. Frondless lengths of trunk are also available. Plant just enough of the trunk to ensure the plant remains stable. After planting frondless tree ferns water every day until the foliage starts to emerge.

How to water tree ferns

Sawn tree fern trunks
Luckily, watering tree ferns is very simple; it is just a case of mimicking how they would receive water in their native habitat.

Tree ferns live below the tree canopy along the floor of temperate rain forests but as well as absorbing ground water through their roots they can also collect water from their leaves which drains into the crown and further down into the trunk.

Their specialised fibrous trunks can also collect water either as rain falling onto it or from water droplets from mist and fog.

In the garden situation you would use either a hose or watering can fitted with a rose, watering the entire plant from top to bottom. While your tree fern may be bought without roots, once potted on these will be produced during the growing season.

If your tree fern is positioned in full sun it is likely to need watering most days, especially during the summer. If it is growing in the shade or semi-shade then you should be able to get away with watering every two to three days.

Once the cooler temperatures of autumn arrive watering can be dropped off to perhaps once a week but you still do not want the truck or the crown to dry out. It is only over the winter period that the crown should just be kept on the damp side, but it may also require protection to stop the crown from fully freezing and damaging next seasons new growth.

If you have purchased your tree fern as just a cut trunk it is worth letting it soak in a bath of water for an hour or so before planting.

HOW TO FEED TREE FERNS

Tree fern crown
Feeding a tree fern is relatively easily because - like most other plants - they are able to retrieve nutrients from the soil using its root system. However, they also have a secondary formation of roots within the trunk which reaches close to the top of the crown. This enables tree ferns to also feed on accumulated debris, bird and animal droppings that are washed into the crown by way of their specialist fronds during rainfall.

Feeding from the crown will be important when you first purchase a tree fern as they will generally come cut at the base and therefore without a root system. At this time feeding is important as the tree fern will be stressed and will have little energy reserves with which to produce new leaves and an essential, replacement root system.

It is good practice to soak a new, cut tree fern in a bath of water for an hour or so before planting, but is also well worth adding a half to quarter dose of soluble plant feed in with the water – especially if bought during the spring and summer months. To prevent fertilizer wastage only apply soluble fertilizers via the crown but as the plant becomes established it will do well with a regular mulch at the base.

Continue to regularly water the trunk and crown until the first frond unfurls, at which point a half dose of soluble plant fertilizer can be applied once a week. As soon as the tree fern starts producing new fronds on a regular basis it can then be fed the recommended dose of plant fertiliser once or twice a week.

When trees ferns are established they can utilise a surprisingly large amount of nutrition, and in a good year are able to produce a second ring of fronds on top of the first. If you intend heavily feeding your tree ferns then it will be important to also water them regularly – at least twice a day morning and evening – so that they do not suffer with root burn.

Once the growing season moves into the autumn period it’s best to end feeding to allow the existing fronds to harden up for the winter. As soon as the first frond opens in the spring feeding can once again commence at the half dose concentration.

HOW TO GROW THE VENUS FLY TRAP FROM SEED



WANT TO BUY VENUS FLYTRAP SEEDS? THEN CLICK HERE FOR THE 'SEEDS OF EADEN' SEED SHOP

If you are looking to buy Venus Fly Trap seed, you are in luck. The 'Seeds of Eaden' seed shop now have Venus Fly Trap in stock as part of its standard range. Just click on the links to be directed to the new and improved seed shop.

The Venus Fly Trap


There can be no question as to which is the most spectacular of all the carnivorous plants - the Venus flytrap. Related to the ‘Sundews’, it is the only species within this family that has evolved such an elaborate trapping mechanism.

It has narrow, green leaves that are formed into the shape of a rosette that extend from the base of the plant. Each leaf is prolonged into two reddish, kidney shaped lobes that are hinged on either side of a mid-rib.

The outer margin of each lobe is fringed by a line of spikes and just beneath them is a band of nectar glands. If you look closely you can also see a few isolated hairs on each lobe – these are the triggers that are waiting to set the trap!

An insect that is attracted to the nectar can move around the upper surface of the lobe with absolute impunity – in fact ‘knocking' into one of these trigger hairs will cause the plant to do precisely nothing! However, if the creature touches the same or another hair in the lobe within a 20 second timescale, the trap will shut with such a speed that few - if any - insects will have a chance of escape.

It takes no more than a third of a second for the trap to close on its prey.

Exactly what produces this speed of movement is unknown, but it is though to be instigated by some rudimentary electric impulse.

.Although the line of spikes found on each lobe interlocks neatly, they do not close tightly on the initial movement, it is only when the trapped insect thrashes around inside its makeshift prison that more trigger hairs are activated - stimulating the lobes to close so tightly that the bulge of the insects body can often be seen on the outer surfaces of the closed lobes.

Once the prey is secured, the edges of the lobes will begin to form a hermetic seal and inside the trap digestive juices rich in hydrochloric acid seep from glands on the face of the lobes – dissolving the body of its captive and releasing its valuable nutrients.

It takes about ten days for the trap to fully digest the vital nutrients from its captives body, after which it is reduced to little more than a dry husk.

The trap then reopens, ready for its next victim.

Growing the Venus Fly Trap from Seed

In their native habitat Venus fly traps grow in a nutrient poor, acidic soil, so you will need to sow Venus fly trap seeds in an Ericaceous seed compost.

Using 4 inch pots, sow the Venus Fly trap seeds so that they are resting on the surface of the compost, but do not cover - this can be done at any time of year.

  Lightly press seeds onto the compost, spacing well apart to ensure a good contact.  and do not exclude light.

The compost should be damp but not soggy. Seal the pots inside a polythene bag or cover with glass and place out of direct sun, but in good light.

If you have a  propagator, maintain an optimum temperature of 75-80F (25-27C).

If you can, try to provide a humidity of 90% until most have germinated which takes 20-40 days then reduce to 70-80% - otherwise just do your best with a house-plant mister.

Transplant the seedlings after 3-4 true leaves develop.

Be aware that Venus fly trap seedlings are slow growing. Once the first set of true leaves has developed, give a VERY WEAK solution of liquid fertiliser once a month.

Never over fertilise as this can easily kill them!

ALLIUM GIGANTEUM




Alliums are a genus of bulbous plants containing over 280 species, many of which are found wild all over the Northern Hemisphere. Allium giganteum is native to the Himalayas and given the right conditions can grow to a height of over 4 ft! The leaves are glaucous and broadly strapped shaped, and they produce these beautiful, deep lilac, star-shaped flowers on impressive 4-5 inch umbels in June.

Allium cultivation

The giant allium will do best in well drained soil, and prefers a site blessed with full sun. If you are purchasing Allium giganteum as bulbs in the autumn then these can be planted September to October. Just make sure that they are planted a good 3-4 times the depth of the bulb - otherwise the plant may not be able to support the height of the stem and will fall over in strong winds. In exposed sites you may need to consider staking!

Deadhead after flowering, leaving the stem to die back naturally so that the nutrients and carbohydrates within can bulk-up and strengthen the bulb for the following year. Allowing the seeds to ripen will use precious energy, unless you are collecting the seed for propagation.

Propagation 

The flowers of the Allium giganteum are impressive by anyone's standards, and a personal favourite of my own. You can readily purchase them in the spring as bulbs - huge bulbs obviously - but as you can imagine, just one bulb can be pricey. However, growing Allium giganteum from seeds is surprisingly easy and as a hardy plant you can choose to grow them inside under protection or outside in a prepared seed bed.

TIP. Your giant alliums should germinate straight out of the pack, but if you purchased them early and are not ready to sow them yet then I would keep them in the bottom of the fridge to help break any dormancy issues and improve germination rates.

BUY VENUS FLY TRAP SEED



In their native habitat Venus fly traps grow in a nutrient poor, acidic soil, so you will need to sow Venus fly trap seeds in an Ericaceous seed compost.

Using 4 inch pots, sow the Venus Fly trap seeds so that they are resting on the surface of the compost, but do not cover - this can be done at any time of year.

  Lightly press seeds onto the compost, spacing well apart to ensure a good contact.  and do not exclude light.

The compost should be damp but not soggy. Seal the pots inside a polythene bag or cover with glass and place out of direct sun, but in good light.

If you have a  propagator, maintain an optimum temperature of 75-80F (25-27C).

If you can, try to provide a humidity of 90% until most have germinated which takes 20-40 days then reduce to 70-80% - otherwise just do your best with a house-plant mister.

Transplant the seedlings after 3-4 true leaves develop.

Be aware that Venus fly trap seedlings are slow growing. Once the first set of true leaves has developed, give a VERY WEAK solution of liquid fertiliser once a month.

Never over fertilise as this can easily kill them!

The Venus Fly Trap

There can be no question as to which is the most spectacular of all the carnivorous plants - the Venus flytrap. Related to the ‘Sundews’, it is the only species within this family that has evolved such an elaborate trapping mechanism.

It has narrow, green leaves that are formed into the shape of a rosette that extend from the base of the plant. Each leaf is prolonged into two reddish, kidney shaped lobes that are hinged on either side of a mid-rib.

The outer margin of each lobe is fringed by a line of spikes and just beneath them is a band of nectar glands. If you look closely you can also see a few isolated hairs on each lobe – these are the triggers that are waiting to set the trap!

An insect that is attracted to the nectar can move around the upper surface of the lobe with absolute impunity – in fact ‘knocking' into one of these trigger hairs will cause the plant to do precisely nothing! However, if the creature touches the same or another hair in the lobe within a 20 second timescale, the trap will shut with such a speed that few - if any - insects will have a chance of escape.

It takes no more than a third of a second for the trap to close on its prey. Exactly what produces this speed of movement is unknown, but it is though to be instigated by some rudimentary electric impulse.

.Although the line of spikes found on each lobe interlocks neatly, they do not close tightly on the initial movement, it is only when the trapped insect thrashes around inside its makeshift prison that more trigger hairs are activated - stimulating the lobes to close so tightly that the bulge of the insects body can often be seen on the outer surfaces of the closed lobes.

Once the prey is secured, the edges of the lobes will begin to form a hermetic seal and inside the trap digestive juices rich in hydrochloric acid seep from glands on the face of the lobes – dissolving the body of its captive and releasing its valuable nutrients.

It takes about ten days for the trap to fully digest the vital nutrients from its captives body, after which it is reduced to little more than a dry husk.

The trap then reopens, ready for its next victim.

How do you water the venus fly trap?

Out of all the carnivorous plants that you can buy, the Venus Flytrap is perhaps one of the easiest to grow. The one thing to remember is that it does come from a specialist environment which is why it obtains its ‘nutrients’ in such a unique way. This does mean however, that Venus flytraps require water that has a very low mineral content otherwise these plants will almost certainly die.

WARNING, do not give you Venus flytraps water straight from the tap without being sure of its mineral content!

In their native habitat – which is only a small area of marshy coastal country straddling the border between North and South Carolina – Venus flytraps have evolved to survive in low nutrient environments, such as bogs or the wet savannas.

Their specialised physiology allows them to thrive in wet environments, and this needs to be mimicked when keeping Venus fly traps at home. The easiest way is to – presuming they are growing in a pot – is to keep the pot in a high sided saucer filled with water. They will need to be kept standing in water for most of the year, and this is where the science comes in because you can’t just use any old water
.
The Venus flytrap requires mineral-free water which is fine if your tap water is relatively pure (less than 50 parts per million in dissolved minerals), because then you can safely water your flytrap with it - the easiest way. If - like most of us - your tap water is unsuitable, use filtered rainwater, bottled distilled water or water that has passed through a reverse-osmosis unit. Do not use bottled mineral water.

As mentioned before, Venus fly traps come from a nutrient poor environment and this can leave the roots at risk from damage through ex-osmosis.

The definition of osmosis is:

'...osmosis is the diffusion of water through a semi-permeable membrane. More specifically, it is the movement of water across a semi-permeable membrane from an area of high water potential (low solute concentration) to an area of low water potential (high solute concentration)...'

Ex-osmosis occurs when the concentration of water soluble minerals in the root environment is greater than the concentration of soluble minerals within the actual root. When this happens water moves from the root cells to the soil causing a state of dehydration within the root. If ex-osmosis continues then the root cells eventually die causing a condition known commonly as 'root burn'.

While it is important to have your Venus flytraps standing in water during their active growing season, it is acceptable for the soil to be just moist or damp for short periods - although the soil should never be allowed to dry out completely. During their winter dormancy period it is better to keep the soil just damp and not let the plant sit in water as it would have done during the growing season.

It is also worth transplanting your Venus flytraps into fresh compost every few years as this will help to avoid an inevitable build up of nutrients and toxins within the root environment.

HOW TO GROW ALLIUM GIGANTEUM FROM SEED



The flowers of the Allium giganteum are impressive by anyone's standards, and a personal favourite of my own. You can readily purchase them in the spring as bulbs - huge bulbs obviously - but as you can imagine, just one bulb can be pricey. However, growing Allium giganteUm from seeds is surprisingly easy and as a hardy plant you can choose to grow them inside under protection or outside in a prepared seed bed.

TIP. Your giant alliums should germinate straight out of the pack, but if you purchased them early and are not ready to sow them yet then I would keep them in the bottom of the fridge to help break any dormancy issues and improve germination rates.

Growing Allium giganteum indoors

Using a seed tray, sow Allium seeds from January to mid March at 15-20C (60-68F), on the surface of a good quality seed compost such as John Innes 'Seed and Cutting', then gently firm down.

Keep the soil damp but not wet, and place the seed tray either in a propagator or seal the seed tray inside a polythene bag until after germination - which usually takes about 3 months.

Make sure that the tray is placed in a bright position but out of direct sunlight.

Giant ornamental onion seed needs a cold period in order to help break any seed dormancy before they can germinate and so if germination does not occur by the end of 3 months, transfer the container to a fridge (not freezer) at 5C (40F) for a further 3 months.

Check regularly while in the fridge and remove once seeds start to germinate.

You may need to repeat this cycle if germination does not occur as germination can often be erratic taking from 30-365 days to emerge!

However, in my experience  - and you can only truly know that you are using fresh seed when you collect it yourself - alliums have always germinated without incidence.

When seedlings are large enough to handle, transplant and grow them on into cooler conditions until they are large enough to move outdoors.

Move to a cold frame and plant out the during following spring, at a distance of 30cm (12") apart, in light sandy, well drained soil in full sun. When growing alliums, plant them where the leaves of other plants will cover the base of their stems. This will hide the old foliage which rather irritably dies back before flowering begins.

Growing Allium Giganteum from seed outside

When growing enormous Allium gigantem from seed, the secret is in the preparation. To begin with you need a sunny site with good drainage.

If you are planning on growing them outside then you can start by preparing a seed bed in the autumn by digging in plenty of well-rotted farm manure. This will give the ground a chance to settle over the winter period and allow frosts to break down the soil clods. If you soil is too acidic – below pH 5.5 – you will need to add lime to it according to manufactures recommendations. In general, giant ornamental onions prefer a pH of between 6 and 7.5.

It's possible to grow giant ornamental onions on heavy soil, but you must improve the drainage first before planting. Add plenty of horticultural grit and bulky organic matter to the soil and then create a ridges of soil 4 inches high to further reduce soil moisture.

You can sow Allium gigantem seeds as soon as your soil will allow which can be any time from late February until the end of July.

Giant ornamental onions like a firm bed so tread over the area you have just raked. Try adding a general fertiliser like growmore for extra fertility.

Choose a dry day to sow Allium gigantem seed when the soil is moist but not too wet, then plant the seed very thinly into drills ½ inch deep. If you are planting more than one row then each row should be at least 4 inches apart. Carefully cover the Allium gigantem  seed with soil and gently water in.

Germination should then take approximately 21 days to occur. Once the new seedlings have began to push through the soil they can be thinned out to between 1 and 2 inches apart. Remember to clear away all of your discarded thinning so as not to attract onion fly.

You will need to keep a particular eye on the newly sprouting shoots as these can attract the attention of inquisitive birds – particularly pigeons and black birds - who will lift them straight out of the seed beds for nothing more than a little mischievous fun. If you don't have some kind of protection in place you can end up loosing almost an entire batch!

Giant ornamental onions are not very good at suppressing weed growth, and if regular weeding is neglected they will easily be out competed for nutrients resulting in your juvenile Allium gigantem plants becoming stunted. Try to leave enough space between the rows to get your hoe in for weeding, but always hand-weed any weeds close to your Allium gigantem as they can be easily damaged by garden tools.

HOW TO GROW AGAPANTHUS FROM SEED




As beautiful as agapanthus are - and some of the darker blue hybrids are truly divine in my opinion - they can be expensive. In fact if you are planning on planting a drift of Agapanthus then you may find that this is prohibitively expensive. However, all is not lost as you can easily grow Agapanthus form seed for next to nothing.

Growing Agapanthus from seed

Dividing Agapanthus root ball
The easiest way to propagate Agapanthus is to divide and transplant the root clumps in April or May, but this would suggest that you would have Agapanthus already. If you are on a budget and do not have access to parent stock then growing Agapanthus from seed has to be your best bet.

Agapanthus seeds will germinate readily enough, but be aware that agapanthus seedlings may take two or three years before they reach flowering size.

You can either purchase your seed - that way you will know exactly what you are planting - or harvest your own Agapanthus seed in late autumn after the seed pods have turned brown.

Keep them in a dry location indoors until the pods split open, then remove the seeds and store in a cool, dry place until early spring.

Sow Agapanthus seeds during April in pots containing a good quality seed compost such as John Innes 'Seed and Cutting'.  You may wish to mix some horticultural grit or perlite to improve the drainage further at this point.


Sprinkle Agapanthus seeds on top of the soil and add 1/4 inch of the potting mixture on top. Add water slowly, taking care not to push the seeds too deeply into the soil.

Relocated you pots to a position that will receive at least 6 hours of sunlight per day and a temperature of between 13-15 degrees Celsius. Water regularly, but only when the surface turns dry and not so much that the compost becomes waterlogged.

When they are large enough to handle, prick out the seedlings into boxes. Transfer the young plants into 9 cm pots using a good quality potting compost such as John Innes 'No 1', and when they out grow these they can be further potted on into 12 cm pots.

Overwinter these under protection so that they are in a frost free environment and then they will be big enough to be planted outside in the following spring.

For related articles click onto;
How to Grow Foxgloves from Seeds
How to Overwinter Agapanthus

AGAPANTHUS




Agapanthus species are a family of hardy and half hardy perennial plants which grow in compact clumps, and have fleshy roots. About ten species are botanically recognised, but due to their readiness to hybridize between species classification of all agapanthus can be confused.

Agapanthus 'Headbourne Hybrid'
Most of the species in common cultivation, and particularly the well-know hybrids are hardier than generally supposed and can be grown outdoors in the south and west of Great Britain.

In colder regions they will require a sheltered, sunny border with protection over the winter period.

The widely to narrowly funnel shaped flowers are 1-3 inches long, and are produced in round umbels. Flowering begins in July and continues until August, sometimes September depending on the weather and variety.

Agapanthus 'Headbourne Hybrids' are considered to be one of the hardiest forms of agapanthus that can be readily purchased. They can grow to a height of 2-3 ft and if you want to grow a drift of them they will require a planting distance of 15-18 inches apart. Their erect flowering stems carry spherical umbels of deep violet-blue to pale blue flowers.

Agapanthus 'Headbourne Hybrid'
Agapanthus will thrive in any fertile, well drained soil so long as they have a sheltered position - especially in colder areas.

If you have purchased bare-root agapanthus then these can be planted outdoors in April, setting the crowns about 2 inches below the soil level. Do not disturb the roots after planting!

Water well during the growing season and cut back the flowering stems after flowering - unless the seeds are required for propagation.

In cold areas, protect the root system from October to April with  a 6-9 inch deep layer of bracken, weathered ashes or coarse sand.

AGAPANTHUS 'BLACK PANTHA'
How to Overwinter Agapanthus

GASTERIA maculata

Gasteria maculata - probably!


Gasteria maculata is just one of approximately 70 species of ornamental perennials from the family  Asphodeloideae. This group of small succulents are clump-forming, almost stemless and display their tough glossy leaves usually in two ranks.

They produce 'flame' coloured tubular flowers 1 inch long, and usually wider at the base, and rare carried on 12 inch long arching stem.

As gasterias are usually grown as houseplants, their flowers can be produced at anytime during the growing period.

Gasteria maculata

Gasteria maculata is a native to South Africa. It can grow to a height of  inches while each leaves can reach a length of at least 8 inches and are tipped with a horny spine. The leaves them selves are dark green and heavily flecked with white blotches and striations.

Cultivation

Gasteria are not what you would classify as hardy plants, and while they would need a minimum temperature of no less than 5 degrees Celsius they can be perfectly happy left outside over the summer period from June onwards.

Just make sure they are hardened off for a couple of weeks before leaving them out in the full sun otherwise they can easily scorch. Also, avoid getting the leaves wet when watering as this can cause rather unsightly scorch marks under direct sun.

Gasteria really only put on growth during the summer period, and during this time they can be watered freely - so long as they have potted on into well-drained compost such as John Innes 'No 2'. Position them in as sunny position as possible although they can tolerate a certain amount of shade if necessary.

During the winter months, gasteria species will need to be kept on the dry side. However, if they are being kept in a warm room then a more regular regime may be required to prevent the leaves from shrivelling.

How to propagate Gasteria

Gasteria verrucusa
Gasteria can be raised from seed in the spring , but this family hybridises easily. Which gave me a slight problem when it came to identifying my own gasteria  - see main photo. It didn't help that when I purchased it, it was incorrectly labelled as Gasteria verrucosa!

Secondly, researching which Gasteria species I do possess pointed to Gasteria maculata, but the leaves for this species only grow to 8 inches and my specimen is already pushing past 9 inches and it has another season of growth next year. So this means that it could in fact be a hybrid, but for now G. maculata will do.

You can increase existing plants by splitting up the clumps or by taking leaf cuttings during the summer. Allow the cut leaf to dry off for a few days before potting them on into a good quality compost such as John Innes 'No 2'

THE DRAGON BLOOD TREE




Living in England as I do, you don't come across many Dragon Blood Trees - none in fact. So my one and only introduction to them was by way of the above clip shown on David Attenborough's 2009 series 'Life'.

Suspicious looking Yucca
However, whilst visiting Valencia recently, I found myself wandering around the Jardins del Real Zoo, looking for - amongst other things - a toilet, an ice-cream and the exit.

It was on my way towards what looked to be a way out that I came across this suspicious looking Yucca.

I say 'suspicious looking' because while it was distinctly Yucca-like in the canopy, the uppermost stems uncannily resembled fat ladies arms - something that I hadn't noticed before in more familiar Yucca species. However, these fleshy stems are a clue, as they are indicative of a plant that has evolved in an arid environment - and no, there was no identification label.

The present day

This brings me back to the present day when by chance I was watching a repeat of  David Attenborough's  'Life' programme. Lo and behold, Sir David was describing the merits of the fantastic Dragons Blood tree, and unless I am mistaken this is the very same tree that I photographed in the Jardins del Real Zoo. Granted, the specimen I happened across displayed a more open habit, but this is likely to be due to the more clement Spanish weather.

What is a Dragon Blood tree?

Genuine Dragon Blood tree
Dragon's blood trees are a distinctive and slow-growing species from the genus Dracaena which is native to the Socotra archipelago off the horn of Africa, and is arguably its most famous and distinctive plant.
It has a unique and strange appearance, described as 'upturned, densely-packed crown having the shape of an upside-down umbrella'.

Not heard of Socotra Island? Well neither had I. The name Socotra is derived from a Sanscrit name meaning 'The Island of Bliss'. 

Socotra is like an island from the Lost World, millions of years old. Known for decades as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean,not only is the world’s tenth richest island for endemic plant species, it is the biggest and the most beautiful island in the Middle East. Because of the unique flora and fauna found in the Socotra Archipelago, it is now considered a World Heritage Site

Dragon Blood Resin
The Dragon Blood tree received its colourful name from the famous red resin that is exuded from the bark after wounding. The medicinal and colouring properties of this resin, and that from other dragon trees, was recorded by the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. In fact, it continues to be used in medicine, dyes, varnish and incense to this day.

The unusual shape of the dragon's blood tree is an adaptation for survival in arid conditions with low amounts of soil, such as in mountaintops. The large, packed crown provides shade and reduces evaporation. This shade also aids in the survival of seedlings growing beneath the adult tree, explaining why the trees tend to grow closer together.

The future of the Dragon Blood tree

Dracaena cinnabari
Although most of its ecological habitats are still intact on the Socotra Archipelago, there is an increasing population with industrial and tourism development. While the dragon’s blood trees range is widespread, it has become fragmented due to this on-going development within its habitat.

Unfortunately, many Dragon Blood tree populations are suffering due to poor regeneration. Furthermore, human activities have greatly reduced the dragon blood tree numbers through overgrazing, and feeding the flowers and fruits to the livestock of the island.

Additional threats to the dragon's blood tree include harvesting of its resin and use of the leaves to make rope. However, perhaps the species' greatest threats is the gradual drying out of the Socotra Archipelago, a process which has been an ongoing for the last few hundred years.

This increasing arid environment is predicted to cause a 45 percent reduction in the available habitat for 'Dracaena cinnabari' by the year 2080. With that in mind, perhaps the Spanish could make a point of growing a few more specimens in their public gardens - just as a precaution.