Monday, November 5, 2007

Hooker With a Heart of Gold (Anthurium andraeanum)

I am not the world's best salesman. I don't fake enthusiasm easily,1 I lie pretty well but only if I have time to think about it first, I am naturally suspicious of anybody I don't know, and really suspicious of people I don't know who want me to give them money2. And, more to the point, I expect that everybody else feels the same way. So I will knock myself out to try to find a plant that matches your conditions, but I'm going to have a hard time recommending something for you if you're asking for the impossible, even if doing so would make a sale, and I will throw myself bodily between you and the Cyclamen table if you tell me you're new to plants and you're looking for a long-term low-light bloomer for your hot, dry bedroom.


For obvious reasons, I haven't discussed this tendency with my employer, though I doubt it would matter that much, since they have made a point of telling me not to bullshit the customers when I don't know stuff about plants, even to make a sale. It's not a huge step to trying to block sales that will end badly, since I can usually suggest alternatives, or at least explain why something would be a bad idea and what the customer would have to do to make it not such a bad idea.

This is all a roundabout way of explaining why I like Anthurium andraeanum hybrids so much. They, for the most part, sell themselves – the foliage is shiny and pretty, there are flowers, the flowers are long lived and brightly colored, and unlike everything else in the greenhouse I can recommend them to most people with a clean conscience. (And, if people are going to insist on flowers, well, what am I supposed to suggest instead? A peace lily?) There was one day when every customer I talked to left with an Anthurium, or just about (I think the actual count was like five out of six or five out of seven). It was crazy.


There are a few people who don't like the flowers. Sometimes, especially with pink and red flowers, the spadix winds up looking a little . . . let's say pornographic. I'm not sure how to feel about this: on the one hand, the resemblance isn't even very good, so it's kind of a silly reason to reject an otherwise fine plant . But then, you don't necessarily get to choose what kinds of shapes and colors squick you out,3 and I myself have declined to purchase perfectly nice plants because I didn't like some random minor feature or another4, so who am I to judge.

I wound up with my two (which were tagged as Anthurium x 'Cotton Candy') in January, because I had been working in a small natural foods store that was trying to get going. It started in April 2006 and was out of business by January 2007, but it sparked my interest in houseplants (which had been sort of dormant until I started, in August), because they included some houseplants in the floral department.5 The owner's wife was the one who did the plant ordering, and she had a weakness for, among other things, Anthuriums, mostly big cultivars like 'Lady Jane.' When I started working there, I took note of the ones that were there, thinking, oh, too bad those are never going to survive in here, but then they did. They didn't thrive, but they lived, and seemed to be just fine.

This made me reconsider the genus. So in January, just a few days before the announcement that the store had officially gone under and it was all over but the going out of business sale, I went and got a couple of my own.


I figured the foliage would be nice, even if it never flowered. And it was nice, for quite a while, and then in late June, there was a flower. There's been at least one flower (between the two plants) at any given time since then; that first one lasted for two months. I still like the foliage, of course, but it's nice for once to have been seduced by a plant that meant a little bit of the sweet talk.

The difficulty rating is mostly for four things: 1) don't underwater. It's not hugely touchy about this, but you do need to pay attention if you want it to do well. 2) It needs bright light. Filtered sun is preferable; I have mine very close to some fluorescent shop lights in a room that also gets some afternoon sun, and that combination seems to be acceptable. 3) Don't get it too cold, or too hot. Short temperature fluctuations probably won't kill the plant, but it won't do it any favors either. Long temperature fluctuations, in either direction, might in fact kill the plants. 4) It's not easily propagated. Plants will offset over time, and the resulting clump can be divided, but offsetting doesn't seem to be a fast process. Seeds aren't easy to come by, and aren't viable for very long when you can find them. Cuttings can be taken and rooted, but it's a slow process, and it takes a long time to get back to a presentable-looking plant again. Most commercial production is from tissue culture.

When I said, earlier, that I can recommend them to most people with a clean conscience -- I wouldn't say it should be your very first houseplant, if you're just getting started. But the instincts of a lot of new houseplant growers are to overdo everything (full sun, really wet, maybe the occasional misting, frequent feeding), and these are conditions that an Anthurium could roll with. Or at least an andraeanum: some of the other Anthurium species are less flexible.

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Photo credits: all me.

1 My teachers in high school were occasionally moved to comment on my lack of school spirit: I never saw the point at the time and, frankly, still don't understand why, of all the things we could be teaching high school students, blind allegiance to institutions is a priority.
2 I would think this might be genetic, except for the fact that my parents and grandparents make huuuuuuuge exceptions for anything religious. I mean, nobody in the family was ever living off cat food so they could send all their money to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, but I've seen, and been the indirect victim of, a certain number of religious con men in my time, and that's even before you get into the crap I've caught over being gay.
3 I have had people give similar reasons for not liking other plants: one woman declined a rabbit's-foot fern, Davallia spp., because the rhizomes crawling across the soil surface looked too much like snakes for her.
4 I'm not grossed out by them, but old-man cactus, Cephalocereus whatever, and other "long-haired" plants, just don't appeal to me at all. I couldn't tell you why; I've never had any traumatic childhood experiences with them or anything. I just think they're kind of unpleasant to look at.
5 (Even still, 36 of my plants trace back to this store, including some of my favorites. Of course, some of the reason that they're my favorites is because they've survived, so they may or may not have had an especially good selection.)


14 comments:

Lauren said...

As a feisty botanist/plant ecologist (still in training I guess) and absolute plant lover (almost to the point of crossing that oh-so naughty line), I must say- I would have your babies.

Stumbled upon here while looking up info about Cissus quadrandularis for friends. Love it. Glad I'm not the only one like this, the world is better with passionate plant people.

Cudos!

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, thanks, and come back again, and all that. Where is this botany training taking place? Just for my own curiosity.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you so much for covering this plant. I picked one up this summer, but foolishly underwatered it. I lost one of it's two flowers and it now has huge brown spots on the original leaves, the biggest ones. New leaves has sprouted up since, but the brown ones remain. Should I cut them off? I know...I'm ashamed...

mr_subjunctive said...

It's more or less up to you: once they're brown, they're not going to come back, but if there's still some green on them, the plant can still use them, technically. Anthuriums can grow new leaves fast enough that I usually take off leaves that look bad, whether or not they're completely brown.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you so much! I will trim them off. As big as the dry leaves are the brown spots on them are so big they detract from the overall beauty of the plant. I will trim them and try again.

What made me realize I was not watering it enough was walking into my church and seeing some on the alter soaking in water. The pots were full of water up to the aerial roots and the plants looked healthy. Since then I have attempted this but the water just goes right through. Is allowing the roots to soak in water a good practise? Will they rot?

mr_subjunctive said...

The only time I would consider letting a plant sit in water is if it had gotten very very dry, and was in peaty soil that wasn't re-wetting easily. Even then, I would only submerge the pot for 30 minutes, max (preferably more like 15): any time after the soil is re-wet is just keeping oxygen away from the roots and suffocating the plant. Letting plants stand in drainage water for days can, yes, cause roots to rot.

You actually normally want soil that lets water run through relatively quickly, especially for Anthurium. It's not good if the soil is staying moist for long periods.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you Mr Subjunctive! Gawd you're fast!

Lina said...

Hello

I have an anthurium that has suffered from bad care. For some time it was allowed to sit in water and the roots started to rot. Before that it was pretty rootbound and in need of repotting. It's been months since it last put out a new decent-sized leaf (there came a few that are a bit over an inch from tip to stem). The foliage is still reasonably full but some of the older leaves have started to yellow. I want to go ahead, take it out of the pot, remove all damaged roots and renew all the soil but I've been "err...?" and "ehh..." and "hmm..." about it. The soil in the rootball has become much more compacted and denser from since I got this plant but everywhere I read it says that I should not disturb it. Yet it feels like the rootball is holding onto water more than it should. Also, some of the damaged roots (brown and semi-soft) are growing out healthy roots. Should I let them be or cut them off? I am afraid they are still rotting and allowing them to stay would eventually affect more roots.

Any advice on how to best nurse my anthurium back to health would be appreciated. Thank you!

mr_subjunctive said...

Lina:

That's a tough problem. I've faced similar circumstances before myself, and had very mixed results. My recommendation would be to go ahead and change the soil, cutting off the dead roots, but use a soil mix that contains a lot of long-fiber, unchopped sphagnum moss (sometimes sold for potting orchids in). Like maybe 40-50% sphagnum, with the rest of it regular potting soil.

I don't know if that will necessarily help -- it sounds like your plant might actually be too far gone to rehabilitate -- but I know using regular potting soil on its own is too much for stressed roots, having tried and failed with it. (Even healthy Anthuriums seem to prefer a more open mix containing lots of unchopped sphagnum.)

To the extent that you can remove the old soil without handling the roots directly, you should try to do so, but of course being too rough with the roots while you do all this makes it more likely that you'll injure them, so . . . do the best you can, don't worry about trying to get every single speck of the old soil out, and remember that there are other Anthuriums out there if this one should fall apart.

Heart said...

Hello. Must say I love this blog.

I'm quite curious though.. how did you get your anthurium to produce such big and beautiful leaves?

I have one which I think is a "pink Lady". I got it from my local supermarket a year ago and its still doing well.

Its about to put forth its second bloom this year but I noticed the blooms are smaller this time around. Also, the leaves will grow til a certain size before it stops and it will lose its shine.When I bought it it had many lil leaves that never got any bigger.

I mist it and feed it fertiliser once a month. I water only when I think the sphagnum moss I placed in the pot looks dry.(Had some problem with overwatering and the leaf tips turned yellow previously)

mr_subjunctive said...

Heart:

It's pretty typical for the flowers to rebloom smaller than they were when you bought the plant. I don't know for certain, but my guess is that this has a lot to do with 1) the variety (some cultivars just have bigger flowers than others; the heart-shaped spathes tend to be larger than the oval ones, but even within those categories, there's some variation, and each variety has its own maximum size) and 2) how much light they're getting. Some direct sun seems to be best, though you can also get decent results from artificial light sometimes.

As for the leaf size, that's also at least partly genetic: my seedlings all get pretty much the same watering, fertilizer, light, temperature, etc., but the leaf size varies a bit. When I started potting up the seedlings, I wasn't sure how well some of them were going to survive, so in some of the pots, I put two or three seedlings, and I've observed that the more crowded pots tend to produce smaller plants. Seedlings that are stuck in 3-inch pots also tend to stay small and produce small leaves until I move them up to 4-inch pots. So it's possible that your plant's roots are crowded, and it would benefit from being moved up a pot size.

I've lost plants by moving them from 6-inch pots to 8-inch pots, though, so if you do that, be sure to use a decent houseplant soil, and mix in plenty of unchopped sphagnum moss throughout the rootball. Houseplant soil by itself is usually made of smaller particles, which compact around the roots and suffocate them; the unchopped sphagnum makes it a bit easier for air to get to the roots. (In a pinch, you can sometimes get by with perlite instead of sphagnum. But only sometimes.) And obviously you'll need to adjust your watering frequency to match the plant's new needs: there's really no substitute for sticking a finger down into the soil to tell whether it's wet or not.

It's totally normal for leaves to go from shiny to dull with age; that's just how Anthurium leaves work. (If it was otherwise when you bought it, the store was probably using a leaf shiner.)

Heart said...

Thanks Mr Subjunctive. That was pretty informative.

I went out to look at my plant this morning.(it's morning this side of the world).
This pink anthurium is doing okay but I cannot remember what soil mix I added with the moss :(
I tried to add one to a second anthurium I bought around christmas time. This was a larger red one.The soil was uh.. gardening soil, some compost, sprinkle of charcoal and sphagnum moss.
Unfortunately, that one died within one and a half months. The leaves kept turning yellow - The soil always felt soggy although I kept changing the pot location and soil. (it gets rainy here in Dec, no snow)
Anyway, one of my neighbours solved the problem by throwing the remainder plant, by then with just two yellowed leaves over the railing when I wasn't in.It needless to say did not survive as I live in a high-rise building.

The smaller pink one has numerous tiny brown speckles on the underside of the leaves. I guess its spider mites? I used white oil but after a few weeks of some neglect it seems to be spreading fast.
The top has some yellow patches which I guess is burn cause it is now receiving strong sun. (this only lasts in the beginning of the year but induces some flowers)

Heart said...

OMG and I think I always mistake spider mites for normal spiders. moment of realization here

mr_subjunctive said...

Heart:

Usually when I see spider mites on my Anthuriums, there's webbing around the spot where the petiole and leaf connect -- it's especially noticeable on the ones with heart-shaped / arrowhead-shaped leaves, because the webbing usually stretches from one lobe of the "heart" to the other.

Gardening soil like topsoil? 'Cause topsoil pretty much never works for any indoor plant. The particles are too small, and they cut off air to the roots.