Monthly Archives: November 2012

Featured Plant: Welwitschia mirabilis


The Horridge Conservatory is fortunate to have a specimen of a weird and wonderful plant: Welwitschia. (Thank you, Arielle!) Mirabilis is the only species in the genus and Welwitschia is the only genus in the family Welwitschiaceae. It is native to the Namib Desert on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Namibia and Angola.

What makes it so unusual? An adult Welwitschia consists of only two leaves, a stem base and roots. Its two permanent leaves are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling– they continue to grow and are never shed. Those two leaves grow from a basal meristem in the plant’s terminal groove. They eventually grow to a length of 2 – 4 meters and become split, frayed and shredded into several well-separated strap-shaped sections which lie on the ground. This gives the appearance in older plants of having many leaves, but there really are only two.

welwitschia mirabilis

The stem is low, woody, and obconical in shape. It grows to about 500 mm in height. There are separate male and female plants. Welwitschia produces cones but is not wind pollinated as most cone-bearing plants are. It is pollinated by flies, true bugs, and most commonly, the Welwitschia bug, Odontopus sexpunctatus.

welwitschia bug

Welwitschia is ecologically highly specialized, and is adapted to grow under arid conditions receiving regular fog. This regular, dense fog is formed when the cold north-flowing Benguela Current meets the hot air coming off the Namib Desert. The fog develops during the night and usually subsides by about 10 a.m The broad, downward drooping leaves collect condensation, which drips down onto the plant’s own root zone. It also has numerous stomata on both leaf surfaces and fog-water is taken up directly through these stomata. The fog has been estimated to contribute 50 mm in annual rainfall! A long taproot reaches deep for underground water in this part of the world which often receives less than100 mm of rain a year.

According to the Wikipedia article “Welwitschia”,

“Although Welwitschia mirabilis is not at present immediately threatened, there being abundant populations over a large area, its status is far from secure; its recruitment and growth rates are low, and its range, though wide, covers only a single compact, ecologically limited and vulnerable area.”

Welwitschia mirabilis in the Namib Desert.

It is interesting that it is possible, and not even terribly difficult, to grow Welwitschia as a house plant. A few Botanical Gardens (but not URI) offer seed for sale on line. The greatest danger to the germinating seeds is fungal infection. A very sandy soil mix helps reduce this risk. There is a great article on germinating and growing Welwitschia at home on the Planzafrica website, as well as information about the discovery of the plant by Friedrich Welwitsch.

Welwitschia mirabilis is thought to live 1,000 years or more!


Young Welwitschia mirabilis plant in the desert area of the Horridge Conservatory.

My Favorite Holiday

Here’s something to think about for Friday:

What: 16th Annual Buy Nothing Day/Winter Coat Exchange.
10 a.m.-2 p.m. unless otherwise noted.
Several locations around Rhode Island.
On the busiest day on the American retail calendar, thousands of activists and concerned citizens in 65 countries will take a 24-hour consumer detox as part of the annual Buy Nothing Day, a global phenomenon that originated in Vancouver. Events are held at five locations in Rhode Island. If you have a coat to give, please drop it off. If you need a coat, please pick one up. Volunteers are needed.
• Statehouse lawn (directly across from Providence Place Mall). Rain/snow site: Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 15 Hayes St., Providence.
• Blackstone Valley Visitors Center, 175 Main St., Pawtucket.
• St. Paul’s Church, 12 West Marlborough St., Newport, 10 a.m.-noon.
• St. Francis of Assisi Church, 114 High St., Wakefield, 10 a.m.-noon.
• Kent County YMCA 900 Centerville Road, Warwick 9 a.m.-noon.

In the age of Wall St crashing the economy and climate change, we have raised overconsumption to an art form that is tearing apart the ecosystems of the planet and our communities.  To remind us of the madness many years ago people started celebrating Buy Nothing Day to protest basing our society on consumerism.  This year for the 16th year people in Rhode island will gather to collect winter coats from those who no longer need them, and distribute them to Rhode Islanders who can use them.  Over the years we have grown to 9 sites and hundreds of volunteers (thanks to the YMCA for adding a number of sites to the network this year) that collect and give away winter coats instead of heading to the malls, We are sending a message of rethinking consumerism while actively providing a resource for our communities. Anyone who can donate a coat is asked to donate a coat.  Anyone who needs a coat is invited to come get a coat.  Visit for the sites near you.

(By Greg Gerritt on November 19, 2012)

Happy Thanksgiving from the URI Botanical Gardens and your grateful gardener.

Getting Back to My Chores

perennials in flats

After Hurricane Sandy, Election Day, Northeast Greenhouse Conference, a nor’easter, and Veterans Day, it’s time to get back to gardening. Right before the storm, Dr. Maynard’s PLS 350 class came out and helped me dig up most of the plants in the sunny border. The plants have been sitting outside in my “cold frame/nursery” area behind the greenhouses. They are semi-bare root, since they are in flats covered with fallen leaves, but not potted up. When the weather is cool they can sit that way for a long time. Fortunately they won’t need to, because tomorrow we plan to replant the border, again with help from the class. Divisions of the plants which were dug up will go back in with room to spread their roots. A few thing which did not do well there are not invited back! And maybe a few new plants just to change it up.

garden bed

Our other chore for the day will be lifting the dahlia tubers. The dahlias were cut back after the first hard frost (“Changing Seasons“) but left in the ground. Waiting until the last minute to dig them up reduces the amount of time they will be in storage, where there is the possibility of decay in the tubers. Where to store them? Not too warm, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry! Maybe under my basement bulkhead stairs, or maybe Dr. Maynard’s root cellar.

dahlias waiting to be dug

The weather for tomorrow looks to be sunny and cool, perfect for working in the garden. I love being outside at this time of year. With the right layers (as our friend Russ says, “It’s all in the gear”), and maybe a hat, I’m outside all day, enjoying deep breaths of cool refreshing air that’s like a long drink of water. Bright sunshine lifts my spirits, and a daydream about how good it will look in the spring keeps me going.

Enkianthus fall colorJust for Fun: This Enkianthus is one of the last plants in the Botanical Garden still displaying beautiful fall foliage. My favorite plant blog, “Botany Photo of the Day”, featured an Enkianthus recently — “Enkianthus campanulatus“.

Farmland and Open Space at URI

Every morning I drive or bike to work on campus by way of Plains Road. It is a beautiful route, with open fields on either side as I approach the Agronomy Research Farm and weather station at the turn in the road. But wait…

Without  public information sessions, hearings, or any review from the town, URI is destroying a priceless treasure — good agricultural land. (Land being used for agricultural research as well as supplying some fresh local food to the URI dining halls.) Once it is gone, it NEVER comes back. The fact that this decision was made without public input, and the fact that the contractor is carrying away the beautiful soil, makes it even worse. So much for “sustainability” and “thinking green” at URI.  Many thanks to Frank Carini of ecoRI News for getting this story out. It is reblogged from


The University of Rhode Island is removing about 15 acres of farmland in the Flagg Road/Plains Road area to build a parking lot and new road.

By FRANK CARINI,  ecoRI News Staff

KINGSTON — Rhode Island’s diminishing quantity of farmland recently took another hit — some would even call the loss a decisive blow.

Construction on the University of Rhode Island campus, at Flagg Road and Plains Road, has forever removed a significant portion of agricultural land from the state’s supply. The building of a 330-vehicle parking lot and a new road began about a month before Rhode Island voters are asked to approve $20 million in bond money (Question 6 on the Nov. 6 state ballot) for Narragansett Bay restoration, open space protection, state park improvements and, yes, farmland preservation.

This ironic twist wasn’t lost on Michael Sullivan, a professor of agronomy at the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences. “This is an exceptionally poor example of environmental advocacy,” the former director of the state Department of Environmental Management said. “The state will soon be asking voters to fund $4.5 million for farmland preservation while a land-grant university is paving over 15 acres.”

URI, once known as the State Agricultural School, was established as a land-grant institution (pdf) in the late 1880s. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 funded educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to states for them to develop or sell to raise money to establish and endow land-grant universities.

Digging up agricultural land to make way for more development, especially in a state that has lost 80 percent of its farmland since 1945 — only about 40,000 acres remain in production today — and is actively seeking to increase the amount of food it grows, has rubbed many, including Sullivan, the wrong way.

Piles of high-quality agricultural soil are being removed from the construction site.“We’re not just taking about some of the best topsoil in the region; we’re talking about some of the finest soil in the eastern United States,” Sullivan said. “The idea that we needed to ruin this land is fundamentally appalling. Where is the sound thinking? The change in hydrology isn’t reversible. The change we’re making to the land isn’t reversible.”

Sullivan blamed the university for relying heavily on short-term fiscal analysis rather than on sound environmental management.

This parking lot project was originally part of the 2000 University of Rhode Island Kingston Campus Master Plan, which called for “a seamless connection between Flagg Road and Plains Road.” Flagg Road already had been extended to add commuter parking, and the master plan recommended extending Flagg Road further south to meet Plains Road.

Some of the high-quality topsoil being removed from the Flagg Road and Plains Road construction area is being stored at URI’s Peckham Farm, according to Robert Weygand, the university’s vice president for administration and finance. The rest, he said, was being taken by the project’s contractor, the Narragansett Improvement Co., as part of the contract it signed with the university. Weygand said the work was needed because of the lack of on-campus faculty, staff and student parking. He also took issue with the construction project being compared to ballot Question 6.

“The bond issue is different than what is happening here,” Weygand said. “The bond question is about private property.”

Weygand said the ongoing work includes a range of environmental improvements. He noted that the parking lot surface will be porous and feature a subsurface of crushed stone to better filter runoff. He said the project was incorporating drainage improvements, and making use of rain gardens and stormwater management bioswales. He also noted that the work would improve drainage from the turf fields to the north, which will reduce runoff into White Horn Brook.

Project detractors, however, aren’t impressed. They point to the 40 or so trees that were cut down, including a stand of white pine, and made into a small mountain of woodchips. They note the work of a few-years-old climate change study is gone, because the trees involved in the research project were dug up and removed. Other more established research plots were plowed over and will be moved further north on Flagg Road to land that was once leased to turf farmers.

These concerned people, many of whom are URI affiliated (few would speak with ecoRI News on the record), are angry that little notification or information was provided about the project before work began. They are upset that no real public hearing process was held, and note that some considerations, such as a parking garage, would have reduced the project’s footprint.

They are particularly worried that this work adds to the state’s growing amount of impervious surface. About 12 percent of Rhode Island is currently covered by asphalt, cement and roofing.

The new home to a URI parking lot and road is in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, and houses a sole-source aquifer, which Sullivan called the finest drinking water aquifer in the state. The land also is part of the well-protection area for recharge of the drinking water wells for the university and the village of Kingston.

“This entire project is inconsistent with the environmental advocacy that the university purports to be important,” Sullivan said. “We’re bulldozing as fast as we can, and giving away quality topsoil — all to build a high-speed curved road.”

(Note from uribg: The existing parking lot, which was also built where good agricultural land once was, is A: mostly empty and B: already has a road through it.)