The bay is covered with ice, and trees have grown numb. Yet, winter cannot
reach the gentle flowers hidden under the glass
roof of the Botanical Garden greenhouse with its unique collection
of tropical and subtropical plants, 750 species and varieties from 293
genera of 102 families.
In modern horticulture, cultivated rhododendrons are known as azaleas, the most famous of which is the Indian azalea obtained by innumerable crossbreeding of exotic rhododendrons. This evergreen hothouse and indoor plant blossoms from December to May. Azalea in bloom is a remarkable sight, and the winter landscape merely intensifies the impression. Every bush is covered either with ordinary or shaggy flowers of all hues, ranging from snow-white and gently rosy to bright red and violet.
Forty azalea varieties grow in the hothouse, e.g. M-me Van der Kruissen, Helmut Vogel, John Herens, Verveniana, Ilva, Schnee, etc. Local researchers have learned to multiply them, revealed most favorable growth conditions, and made them blossom abundantly every year.
In December, the large and majestic camellias are covered with remarkable shaggy and ordinary white, rosy and red flowers, which make a wax-color impression, given the long time during which they decorate trees in their original form like bright lanterns.
No greenhouse plant enchants the visitor as the orchid. You stand before them astounded, not knowing what to wonder at, either at their inimitable color, or subtle flower shape, or their fine and spicy aroma. Nature has bequeathed orchids with yet another gift,
long life. They can give off fragrance for forty-fifty days, remaining bright and beautiful as ever.
Sixteen orchid species from six genera are represented in our greenhouse, including the snow-white Celosia, the short purple dendrobium, and the hybrid cymbidium with its majestic wax racemes.
Now, lo and behold the various cactus species, now weirdly rooted in the form of multiple trunks, now looking like earth-fallen small and round porcupines. They have no leaves, but fantastic needles, tufts of hair, bristle. Cactus flowers are highly diverse: purple in mamillaria, red in opuncia, and orange in cereuses. People like cactuses chiefly for their weird form and hardiness in culture.
Bananas strike the imagination with their enormous size; the collection boasts five species, and all of them blossom, albeit only two species fruit, the manna banana and the sage banana. Surprisingly, such huge plants are herbaceous, and every year similar huge young plants with meter-size leaves start growing from banana trees sawed to their very stump.
The collection includes representatives of various families with aromatic flowers, e.g. the gardenia, the Sambak jasmine and the pittosporum; as a result, in winter the greenhouse air is full of fragrance. Again, the common myrtle, also present in the collection, produces a baneful effect on pathogenic bacteria by releasing bactericide-fungicide-protozoacide.
The Garden collection boasts thirty fern species. These ancient plants appeared on Earth about 400 million years ago in the Paleozoic era together with vegetables and Lycopodiums. The fern forms are highly diversified to include the platycerium, which resembles deer horns, the elegant nephrolepises, the gentle adiantum frond “Venus’ hair”, and the viviparous asplenium with miniature filial plants growing along frond margins.
The arrowroot family is represented by ten species from four genera. All the beauty of these plants is in their magnificent leaves, their flowers being small and unattractive. Despite their gentleness and apparent brittleness, the leaves survive for several years without losing their decorative properties. The upper side is covered with a variegated pattern of dark bands and spots, often combined with white or rosy veins, and the velvety or silky texture of leaf individual sites creates a supplementary decorative effect, like, say, in the white-veined arrowroot.
Lots of beautifully blossoming Bromeliad and only one fruit species (the pineapple, whose aromatic, soft flesh is used in food in various forms) are known to exist in the numerous Bromediaceae family. However, few people are aware that the green pappus crowning the syncarp (pineapple “cone”) gives the beginning to a new plant. And yet, there is also another Bromediaceae that yields edible fruit, Weilbach’s echmium. Unlike pineapple fruits, those of the echmium do not grow together in a syncarp and have a peculiar taste reminiscent of the pineapple with addition of pepper.
When we were children, we all dreamt of distant voyages and wondrous jungles, where huge trees entangled with all sorts of lianas form an impassable wall. A large number of the Garden’s lianas belong to the Aroid family, the most well-known of them being the attractive monster. Clinging with its roots extending upwards in the air, it spreads its huge leaves to bloom annually and form spadix-shaped fruits tasting like the pineapple.
Lianas of the genus philodendron amaze people with the variety of their integral, lobular or pennidissected leaves, including the shade-tolerating creeping philodendron and the more light-loving dissected and ruddy philodendrons. Other representatives of the aroid family (syngoniums, spatyphillums, and diffenbachia) are also regarded as highly decorative and shade tolerating.
Of the Crassulaceae, the genus Crassulaceae is most representative in our collection. Its ligneous representative is the Portulaca species, which has quite a few funny common names, e.g. “money tree”, “tree of bliss” and even “monkey bread-fruit”. It is so tolerant and grows so well that virtually in all conditions turns into a strongly branched tree with tough gray trunk. Another representative of that group is the ligneous Crassulaceae species with larger and rounded gray leaves. The Lycopodium-like Crassulaceae species, actually reminiscent of the Lycopodium in growth type, belongs to the group with creeping shoots.
Now all these numerous plants, so different in biological properties and demand to light, heat and air moisture, coexist under the same glass roof thanks to the caring hands and kind hearts of the Garden staff.
The author extends her profound thanks to Yu. Vaskovsky, M. Abanjkina, L. Makogina and L. Pshennikova for the slides and photographs.
L. MIRONOVA, Cand. Sci. (Biology), Head of Laboratory for Introduction and Selection of Decorative Flower Plants, Botanical Garden-Institute, Far East Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences.