Heliamphora, or Sun Pitchers, are magical prehistoric carnivorous plants from the “Lost world” of the Guiana Highlands. In Venezuela and Guyana many massive plateaus known as Tepuis tower out of the sweltering lowland jungle below. These unscalable mountains have long held the imaginations of men; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even based his “Lost World” there, a land so hidden from man even dinosaurs were imagined on their tops. The ancient formations were left standing as the world eroded down around them over millions of years. The tops of these plateaus are not only isolated by sheer 3000 foot cliffs but the climate is also completely different from the jungles below. While the lowland jungle below is always hot, the flat tops of these Tepuis are cool due to the high elevation. Day temperatures top off in the 60’s and 70’s with a 20-30 degree drop off at night. The tops of these plateaus are also rain deserts. The average rainfall is 50 feet per year and so nearly all the soil and nutrients have been washed away for millennia. The low nutrient black rocks worn smooth from the rain are perfect habitat for carnivorous plants like the Heliamphora which are able to catch their fertilizer from their prey.
Challenge # 1: Discovery
In the end, there were no dinosaurs, but what we did find were ancient botanical treasures whose elegant form and beautiful colors are virtually unsurpassed in the plant kingdom. The thin pitchers look as if they were sculpted from porcelain with the deftest hand and they are at least as fragile. We know that Heliamphora are ancient because the only way they could have gotten on top of the Tepuis is if they were stranded there as the earth subsided around them. After millions of years of being isolated by climate and geography, each Tepui has evolved its own species, many of them endemic only to one Tepui. Only two species occur in the warm jungle below and because all but one Tepui is unscalable, the discovery of Heliamphora species was slow and treacherous. When I was a boy, there were only 6 species of Sun Pitchers known and now the number is 23! Most of these species were discovered within the last decade as one by one each Tepui was explored with the help of helicopters.
Challenge # 2: Cultivation
The first daunting challenge had been finding and collecting them, but to the dismay of horticulturalists through time and around the world, the next frustrating challenge would be growing them and propagating them. Although they were first collected and grown by the Victorian English, keeping the plants long term proved nearly impossible until the 1970’s. Because of the high elevation, Heliamphora require very high light yet cool conditions. These ultra-highland conditions have proven to be some of the most difficult to reproduce consistently in cultivation and the finicky species (most of them) only thrive if these conditions are perfectly matched. One hot day can end in their immediate demise and warm nights will cause them to languish. If you give them the light they need they usually cook because of the associated heat of most grow lights. If the plants don’t get enough light, they stretch out and turn pale green making them shadows of themselves. They have befuddled even the greenest of thumbs for years.
Challenge #3: Hybridization and Production
As a result, the entire genus has been largely unavailable for sale in the US. Only one nursery in Germany carries the plants, they are expensive, and orders take months to fulfill. When Mike Wilder, our resident tissue culturalist, came to CC he had already been slowly collecting and growing plants from Germany. It took him 15 years to slowly grow out tiny plants from Germany to maturity so they would bloom. When he joined our team he came with all of his plants, which are now in the collection at CC. He also came with his own very successful technique for pollinating the flowers. Nothing is easy about these plants, not even pollinating the flowers. Plants generally abhor self-pollination and so many plants go well out of their way to avoid it. In the case of Heliamphora; female parts of the flower are receptive first and they become unreceptive before the flower produces pollen. On top of that, they have a very specific pollinator in the wild which knows how to rev its wings and vibrate the pollen free from the anthers. This wasn’t known until fairly recently, so nobody could figure out why the flowers would never release their pollen. As a result, very few hybrids were made until recently. Simple hybrids are made by crossing the flowers of two species to make seed. It is a well-known fact that hybrids are almost always easier to grow than either parent. This phenomenon is known as hybrid vigor. Mike came to CC with his pollinating technique and a vision to make lots and lots of never before bred hybrids that would be easier for people to grow. He wanted to take this infamously fussy and practically unavailable group of plants mainstream by producing easier to grow hybrids and providing a constant supply from California Carnivores. It had been done with other plants before, like orchids. Why not Heliamphora?! His passion quickly spread through the California Carnivores team. We started a focused hybridization program and made dozens of crosses! We gave the seeds to Mike, who sowed them in sterile culture where they quickly grew and multiplied. The pipeline was running!
The Final Challenge: Technology
But there was now a last challenge: How would we grow them in the greenhouse? And once sold, how would our customers grow them? I had purchased a used florist cooler years earlier with the hopes of mounting its shelves with grow lights and filling it with Heliamphora. The refrigeration in the cooler is capable of precisely recreating the temperatures of the Tepuis, but all of the grow lights on the market had some major problem. We have always used and recommended T-5 fluorescent light fixtures with four bulbs for growing easier tropical carnivores. The light is practically ideal, but for this application and for a hobbyist terrarium the fixture produces much too much heat. A fluorescent fixture can quickly warm even a well-ventilated terrarium to the 90’s even in a cool house. For my cooler, the electrical bill would be less than ideal. Traditional LED lights were either ineffective or prohibitively expensive. They make a little less heat and are cheaper to run, but it would have cost far too much to outfit the cooler with LED lights. So, the cooler sat empty for a few years while I pondered how to make it work. As things sometimes go, just as plants were coming to the greenhouse from the tissue culture lab, a brand new technology was brought to my attention. A new light that would revolutionize growing carnivorous plants indoors…
LED Light-Fixture with a twist
We recently tested the new GrowBlade™ flat-panel grow lights from Light Polymers, which use a waveguide that’s edge-lit by blue LEDs, similar to a flat-screen TV or computer monitor. The waveguide is covered by one of Light Polymers’ proprietary Crystallin® Grow high-density phosphor films, which can be formulated to produce any desired spectrum. Peter and I were able to work with the Light Polymers team to help create a spectrum that would recreate the high-altitude cloud forest light atop a Tepui; ideal for Heliamphora!
Four prototype GrowBlades were mounted into the cooler only 6” above the top of the pots, alongside a traditional T-5 Fluorescent light fixture as a control. I filled the space under the lights with our new Heliamphora hybrids and…
…within a week, all of the plants under GrowBlades were blood red!
While plants under our fluorescent control continued to grow, they failed to achieve the dark red colors associated with truly thriving Heliamphora.Plants grown under fluorescent control on the left and plants grown under the GrowBlade on the right:
An even sky of light
Fluorescent and traditional LED lights use reflectors to try and distribute light evenly, but the GrowBlade produces an even bright sky so all plants receive light more consistently than with traditional grow-lights!
Less heat produced, farther away
Competing light fixtures make a lot of heat throughout the fixture. GrowBlades only produce heat on two edges of the fixture; the power driver is separate from the light and can be located outside the cooler. Even the Heliamphora in the middle of the fixture experiences minimal heat!
It fits anywhere
Other Grow-light fixtures are large and bulky, but GrowBlades only have a ½” profile so they can fit practically anywhere ... even on the sides of a glass terrarium!
Easy on the eyes
LED and Fluorescent light can be good for plants but hard on our eyes. Our specially designed carnivorous plant spectrum only provides the light your plant needs, without the excess spectra that are harmful to human eyes, delivering the warm orange light that keeps plants true to color and pleasing to the eye without harming your eyes in the process!
Learn more about GrowBlade and Light Polymers at: www.crystallinlighting.com/ or http://www.lightpolymers.com/growblade-flat-panel-growlights-at-nyc-agtech-week/
Debuting at the Agritecture show September 16-21, 2017.