Commiphora nova (2010)

PhotoBy Peggy Galantowicz (August 2010)

The show-worthy plant for June was Commiphora nova tolear Madagascara, meaning that this specimen is from the Toliara province near the southwestern coast of Madagascar. Formerly known as Tulear, the current spelling of the province’s name was adopted in the 1970s to reflect the orthography of the Malagasy language.

As many as 200 species of Commiphora may live in Madagascar, Arabia, western India and the African mainland. Many commiphoras are smallish trees, and they can be quite abundant. The spongy, moisture-retaining commiphora tree trunks make up a considerable portion of the diets of elephants during droughts.

In cultivation, the goal is to produce a situation equivalent to a habitat defined by constant wind, intense sun and very little rain in order to end up with a compact, horizontally oriented piece of living sculpture.

Most commiphoras can flourish in fast-draining soil and bright light. Watering depends on when the plants grow – they signal by dropping their leaves at the start of dormancy and putting out new ones as their growing seasons begin. For most of them, that will be in spring.

When dormant, the plants shouldn’t be kept bone dry. Watering every three or four weeks will be plenty, and once a week should be adequate during their growing seasons. They can remain in leaf all year if kept warm, and they do not tolerate any frost.

Commiphoras tend to be vigorous growers that need a good-size pot to allow their roots the freedom to grow. Repotting annually is a good idea, as roots can fill the pot during the first growing season. You can prune the roots a little when you repot if necessary with no harm to the plants. If you prune the roots, don’t water for a week or so after repotting to give time for the cut roots to heal.

Commiphoras also need to have their branches pruned to promote fuller branching, which is aesthetically pleasing. Some growers say pruning two or three times during the growing season seems to encourage fattening of the trunk and branches. And don’t throw out your summer prunings. Both old growth and younger branches are said to root fairly easily to begin new plants. This should be done in late spring and summer for best results.

These rooted branches will develop a bit of thickness over the years, but if you have enough time, seed-grown plants are the best. The tiny seedlings have a tendency to grow into odd shapes that with time and perseverance result in nice-looking specimens. They generally grow fairly quickly as seedlings, but it takes a lot of patience and some careful pruning to convert them from twiggy baby trees to fantastic succulent pachycauls.