Monday, April 25, 2011

In The Keys, No Showers Needed To Bring Spring Flowers

It is said in the Keys that fall is spring and spring is fall.  Trees such as the mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) and gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba) are dropping their leaves now, not due to cold temperatures, but a seasonal lack of rainfall during the winter/spring months, which has been especially lacking this year (I believe it has only rained thrice in the past three months I have been down here).  Dropping leaves limits a plant's water loss because transpiration occurs primarily through stomata in the leaves.  However, no small number of plants are always to be found in bloom in the Gardens here at Kona Kai, even while the mahogany and gumbo-limbo are shedding their leaves to limit water loss.  It's much different from up north in temperate regions, where seasons are more delimited, most plants do not flower in fall and the dead of winter, and the majority of plants in the landscape lose their leaves for almost half the year; I'm still trying to figure things out down here with regards to flowering/fruiting/leaf-drop patterns.

If you have ever been to the Keys, you might understand that the phrase "dead of winter" doesn't exactly apply here and that flowering in the winter months can occur in a number of plants, despite the fact that there is a shortage of water during this time.  It seems as though there has been an increase in the number of plants in bloom around the property in the past few weeks, likely in anticipation of the rains which usually fall with greater frequency in the summer and fall months.  If plants complete their flowering in the next couple months, then they will begin developing fruit, a process requiring elevated amounts of water, in months when rain is more plentiful.  Many plants on the property also come from other regions of the world and when plants are moved from their home ranges to different latitudes, their original flowering/fruiting patterns do not change dramatically, so some of the plants in bloom now might be used to flowering in the spring months in their native range, even though this time might not be an ideal time for flowering in the Keys.

Photo on left - Plumeria alba (frangipani), photo on right - Strelitzia reginae (bird-of-paradise).

I recently traversed the Gardens armed with a point-and-shoot digital camera to document some of the springtime beauty at Kona Kai.  From the pictures taken (some of which are included in this post for those who do not have Facebook), Gardens Director/Owner Joe Harris put together a photo album for Facebook in celebration of spring, which you can check out by following this link: Spring Flowers at Kona Kai.  I was new to the camera and as many of you may know, the auto-focus feature on many point-and-shoot cameras is by no means perfect.  It seems like every time I want to take a picture of something, the camera finds a way to focus on anything but the subject of the photo, seeming to think that I can't possibly want to take a picture of the beautiful flowers dominating most of the screen, and that I must certainly mean to focus on obscure objects far in the distance.  So, instead of an excellent, sharply-focused close-up picture of an orchid flower, I find that I have a picture that looks like an orchid flower jumped in front of the lens at the last minute like an obnoxious child ruining a photo just as I was snapping a picture of a piece of potting soil in the distance.  For his own reasons, Joe chose to include some of my out-of-focus masterpieces in the album, which doesn't bode too well for upholding my Ansel-Adams-level reputation as a photographer, but perhaps it will start a new movement in photography, starting with my own first exhibit, which I'll call something like "Flowers Through The Eyes of Great-grandparents Sans Spectacles."

Photo on left - inflorescence of an unidentified bromeliad, photo on right - Bougainvillea spectabilis (paper-flower).

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Time For A Haircut

'Tis the season for the first of our biannual (twice a year) pruning and maintenance of the trees here at Kona Kai.  The Gardens were considerately abuzz with activity over the past couple days as our trusty Florida Keys Tree Services crew consisting of Bernie, P.J. and Stevie was been brought in to clear out dying/dangerous limbs, coconuts, old palm fronds and tree stumps, with much help from Veronika as well.

It is important for us to keep on top of pruning for a number of reasons, and some of these reasons apply more to sub-tropical / tropical environments than temperate ones.  For example, as palm fronds die on certain palms, such as fan palms (Washingtonia spp.), fronds hold on to the tree and form a sort of skirt around the top of tree below the living fronds.  As fronds are cut from palms, the bases of many need to be left because they are still mostly attached to the trunk.  Over time, these frond bases loosen and can be pulled off.  If regular maintenance is not done to remove dead fronds and their bases, these areas can become nesting areas for insects as well as small animals such as squirrels and rats, which is not very desirable, especially at a resort.  In the picture on the left, you can see the nifty apparatus (actually made by Niftylift in England) Bernie and his crew use to get up into the tree canopies.  It is quite an amazing machine that can even navigate tight sidewalks, a big advantage over bucket trucks.  The photo on the right shows P.J. attaching a rope around a heavy coconut bunch so that when cut, it doesn't crash to the ground, destroy plants and cause general flying-coconut mayhem.

Hurricanes are another reason for regular pruning.  If we don’t remove as many of the coconuts, weak trees, weak limbs and dead palm fronds as possible, they can become dangerous debris during a hurricane.  You can imagine the damage a five-pound coconuts would cause at over 100 mph.  Even without wind, coconuts will fall, and the last thing we want is for one of our guests to be the first to test out how well an iPad holds up after it is introduced to a coconut falling from a 30-foot tree.  It is also good to prune back tall trees or trees with limbs overhanging our buildings, as these branches also become potentially very dangerous to structures during hurricanes.

As you can see in the pictures below, we have taken out the rest of the Schefflera completely because it was weak, rotting and would likely have fallen soon (see pics from previous entry).  Bernie brought in a stump grinder so that we could remove the stump, fill in the area and decide what we want to plant there in the future.  Stump grinders are pretty powerful and helpful machines; they make quick work of a stump that would take much longer to rot away or remove by hand and allows for immediate re-planting of an area.  A potentially amazing alternative use for this machine would be as a giant margarita blender; I'll look into it.

While they were here, we also had the crew cut down what remained of the Altocarpus altilis (breadfruit tree) in our fruit garden, which died back nearly to the ground in a cold snap last year.  Although shoots were coming out of the stump, we agreed it would be best to take it out and leave a few shoots that had come up from the roots a few feet away from the trunk.  As you can see from the picture on the right, the stump had a low "V" crotch and was rotting away at the top.  Later on, we will select one of the nearby shoots to hopefully grow into a strong tree.

We make the best efforts to keep the grounds as pristine as possible throughout the pruning/trimming process, and at the end of two days of trimming, there is almost no trace of the work, which was incredible for me to witness because of the amount of plants that we worked on.  Much credit goes to Veronika, the tree service crew and the rest of our dedicated staff who helped make this Spring's trimming a great success.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Belated April Fools'

...was likely what Owner/Gardens Director Joe Harris was thinking as he received a call at home early this morning from Denise at the Kona Kai front desk, who reported that half of a sizable Schefflera tree had come crashing down sometime last night, which was ironically not remarkably stormy or windy.  As it turns out, there was no fooling involved - the tree had in fact split in half but had fortunately fallen safely away from all people and structures, while also doing minimal damage to surrounding plants.  Coincidentally, I had been discussing this tree's removal with Veronika only a couple of days before.  It is a rather weak tree overall and had a narrow "V" crotch very near to the ground with what looked to be some included bark and rot.  Included bark is bark that grows in between two trunks/branches that are attached at narrow angles.  This bark is usually out of view until a split happens, and then one can see the bark that had grown in between the branches, causing the juncture to weaken until it eventually splits.  Here is a picture of the Schefflera where it split with a bit of included bark and a good deal of rot:

So as I walked into work this morning, suspecting nothing, I noticed there were bunches of leaves apparently growing out of the sidewalk farther down the walkway.  Being a decent botanist/horticulturist, I noted that large plants usually don't grow straight out of cement walkways, especially overnight, so I ventured down the walk to investigate and found the split Schefflera lying across the walkway.  Instinct and adrenaline immediately took over and I made for the tool shed, whereupon I selected a couple choice cutting blades to quietly make quick work of the fallen branches.  As can be seen in the pictures below, my wood-cutting technique is incredibly deft, and it wouldn't surprise me to find that my ancestors of yore were Siberian lumberjacks.

With help from the rest of the staff, everything was cleaned and tidied up so quickly and quietly that many of the guests who had seen the fallen tree and branches whilst on their way to the pier for morning coffee no doubt questioned the nature of their drinks from the night before as they walked back to their rooms finding not a twig in sight.

It is likely that the rest of this tree will be removed sooner rather than later, and I will be looking for a worthy plant to take its place.  In the meantime, the remaining parts of the tree make a very good example for our guests and visitors of why proper pruning and the selection of strong trunk and branch junctures, especially when the trees are young, are vital to their long-term health and stability.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director