Thursday, June 16, 2011

The 4th Quarter

Over the past five months I have been down here in the Keys, it has rained for a total of about ten hours, bringing only a couple of inches of rain.  I'd like to call up LlorĂ³, Colombia, which receives about 43 FEET of rain per year and ask if they might kindly pass on one percent of that rain to the Keys during our dry season.  Spread that 5 inches of rain out over six months and we're golden.  43 feet is just an average amount of rainfall for that Colombian region, too.  A town close to LlorĂ³ called Tutunendo has received over 86 FEET of rain during its wettest year.  Tutunendo, that is eight stories worth of water falling on your gardens.  Share the wealth!  : P

It amazes me how many of the plants we have here at Kona Kai can do so well despite the severe lack of water during what is aptly called the "dry" season, the last part of which I like to call the "4th Quarter" for the plants, when they really have to give it their all to not only survive but look good as well.  We do irrigate the grounds to help them make it through, but not heavily.  As I discussed in my previous post, it is to our advantage to choose plants that have evolved to deal with annual drought periods.  For example, some plants, such as our pineapple plants (Ananas sp. - photo on left), along with many succulents, have an alternative way to photosynthesize (a plant's way of making food), which allows them to divide photosynthesis into two parts, one taking place at night and the other during the day; this is called CAM photosynthesis.  CAM plants can open their stomata (pores for gas exchange) at night to fix carbon dioxide and close them during the day, thereby significantly reducing water loss over the more common method of photosynthesis (C3 photosynthesis), which requires stomata to be open during the day.  Plants that use the C3 method can lose over 95% of the water they bring in through their roots to transpiration out of stomata, thereby giving CAM plants a big advantage in dry environments.  Elephant bush (Portulacaria afra - photo on right), of which we have two plants, can even switch between these types of photosynthesis depending on the conditions; now that's pretty smart!

Many bromeliads are also able to do without water for some time because of their water storage techniques.  Water is stored at the bases of their overlapping leaves and, in some species, in specialized "tanks" designed to hold water for use during dry periods (photo below on left).  Bromeliads also have microscopic structures covering their leaves called trichomes, which are cells designed to reflect sunlight, absorb moisture and limit moisture loss.  Trichome density varies from species to species and the presence of many trichomes results in the grayish color frequently seen on air plants (Tillandsia - photo below on right).

One of the ways in which succulents combat drought is by storing water within their leaves.  Below is a photo of a succulent, desert cabbage (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora), in our Gardens.  Many plants, including succulents, have root systems that are shallow rather than deep to rapidly absorb water after short periods of rainfall typical in drier climates/seasons.

Despite all these modifications, plants adapted to dry conditions can be pushed to their limits, but the plants here at Kona Kai are still doing very well considering the lack of rain.  Even though the grounds at Kona Kai are as great a place as any plant could wish to be, they still have to play hard, especially in this dry 4th quarter, if they want to stay on the team.  If you find yourself at the Resort near the end of the dry season, don't be surprised to be startled out of your hammock by what seems to be Bobby Knight on a motivational tirade (without the profanity of course): "Sweat it out!  Come on, this is the last stretch!  Finish line's in sight!  It's the fourth quarter, baby!  You're Eric Dickerson, not LeBron James...Mr. 4th Quarter, not 75 Cents!  You gotta keep goin' - rain's coming soon!  This is what you've been training for your whole life!  Now show these guests what kind of photosynthetically efficient, water-conserving, drought-tolerant monster you are!"  Pay no mind, it's just me - an impassioned botanical coach inspiring his team of plants to sweet summertime victory.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Picking Our Team

Remember trying out for a club or sports team and then waiting to find out to see if you made the team?  Well right now I feel like I'm on the other side as the coach, as I am figuring out which plants we want to select for inclusion in our Gardens when the opportunity presents itself.  Meanwhile, the plants no doubt wait in anxious anticipation of a decision.  Coaches have to be sure they select the best talent available but also a diversity of talent so that their team is strong in as many areas as possible.  Understandably, there's a pretty big group of plants vying for a spot on Kona Kai's team; it's tough to beat the beautiful waterfront views, quiet atmosphere, tropical temperatures and, of course,  the very best TLC from our grounds manager, Veronika.  Sadly, there will be many plants that will not make the cut - I can be extremely selective, choosing only the finest from the fields, nursery fields, that is.

My first criterion for selection is: the plant needs to be able to not only tolerate, but do well in our climate and environment with minimal care.  Secondly, the plant needs to be ethnobotanically interesting.  If a plant meets both of those criteria, it goes on a list.  From this list, Florida natives, especially those that are endangered, get priority in my book.  This is because planting natives makes sense in terms of having plants that are best-adapted to our environment and giving visitors as much of a Florida Keys experience as possible, while also enhancing native wildlife value in our collections by providing flowers for native pollinators and fruits for native birds and other wildlife.  Selecting endangered species helps in ex-situ conservation (conservation outside of natural habitat) of these plants.  There are, however, very interesting plants native to other regions of the world that do well in our climate, and I won't exclude them simply because they are not Keys natives.  To get to the next stage of selection, it also doesn't hurt to have attractive features, such as flowers or fruits.

After the plants are all given priority based on the above criteria, I then ask:  What are the most ethnobotanically interesting plants?  What niches, both ethnobotanical and horticultural, do we already have filled and which do we want to fill?  Which plant will work best in a site we have open, given the soil type, amount of exposure to sunlight, etc.?  A few plants will likely remain as good candidates for a specific opening after all criteria have been considered and questions asked.  A decision is then made by Joe, Veronika and I as to which plant we select, after which we hold an official "Kona Kai Draft" event, welcome the chosen plants to the stage with much cheering and applause from the audience, then outfit them with Kona Kai hats and jerseys while a veritable fireworks display issues forth from the flash bulbs of the multitudinous press.  Now you're probably thinking, "Wow!  Ethnobotany sure is underrated...I had no idea it was so exciting and glamourous!" and you're absolutely right.

I'll leave you with a couple photos of our latest superstar, a fine specimen of Jacquinia keyensis (joewood), which is a small native tree that has been planted by our waterfront.  It has beautiful flowers and its poisonous fruits have been added to bodies of water by indigenous peoples to catch fish.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director