Saturday, October 27, 2007

Teenager (Pilea cadierei)

If Pilea caderei were a person, it would be a teenage boy: it wants to be everywhere at once, is more often in an awkward phase than not, and needs a grower who can set some boundaries once in a while, lest it throw wild drunken parties all night long.

It has some pretty specific ideas about exactly what it wants, too, with respect to lighting (bright indirect or filtered sun) and humidity (the more the better).1 So it's not that hard to grow, but it's hard to place: once you find a spot it likes, it'll grow, and grow, and eventually take the car on joyrides without your permission. (It's also difficult to place because you really need to be able to see it from above: the foliage is only patterned on top.)

Most of the difficulty is from the light and humidity needs, but, as I've hinted above, regular grooming is also more important than it is for most plants. Plants tend to get leggy pretty quickly, and sooner or later you reach a point where no amount of pruning is going to be enough. Fortunately, it's very easy to start new plants: I've started several at work, in the greenhouse, and had a success rate of around 90%; my track record at home is, if anything, better. And this is without doing anything special to the plants at all: cut a piece off, stick it in wet dirt, and wait, and nine times out of ten it'll be fine.

They're not enormously popular plants: I see them for sale occasionally in Lowe's and Wal-Mart and the like, but it's pretty rare. I suspect the deal is that although they're easy to produce in the first place, they have a very limited effective shelf life, due to their tendency to get leggy in a big hurry. In the home, this is totally controllable, and only takes the occasional pinching back or restarting, but pinching back takes time which could probably be more profitably directed elsewhere, and also the plant actually looks worse, not better, for a little while after a good pruning, so it would be hard for your average box store manager to see the point.2 Also, from a retail perspective, a plant is a plant, and if there's one type with a limited shelf life that needs a little extra work and one with a longer shelf life that can just sit there, you're going to sell the longer one. Period. Which is too bad, I think.

It may also be the case that Pilea cadierei is just not a "cool" plant right now. Fashions come and go in the plant world like anywhere else, and sometimes a plant can be hard to find for no other reason than that a lot of people are bored with it, particularly if it's difficult. If a plant is hot, though, it doesn't matter how difficult it is, they'll still find a way to sell them: majesty palms (Ravenea rivularis) aren't, I think, properly indoor plants at all, but boy, Lowe's always has some in anyway, and they must sell.3

I don't know for sure that mine are going to make it through the long, dry winter; I've got them in the bathroom (along with my Dizygotheca elegantissimas), and we'll see how it goes. If they don't do well once it gets dry and cold, then I suppose we have part of our explanation for why you don't see more of them. So far, I haven't had any noteworthy problems outside of a couple failed cuttings.

As far as work goes, we've sold a few, though they seem to move the best when they're very small and cheap: all the 3-inch pots I made up sold, while most of the 4-inch ones are still there. This may or may not mean anything, since I can't remember how many I made of each.


Photo credits: me

1 (The plant is native to Vietnam rain forest, so you know there are going to be some arguments over humidity.)
2 (In my experience, it's difficult to make box store managers see any points, but perhaps now I've crossed the line to just being snobby.)
3 Another plant I suspect of being "uncool" at the moment is grape ivy, Cissus rhombifolia, which I see only very occasionally in stores. Customers asked me for it a lot, though, this summer, so maybe it's making a comeback. We got a lot of them in in the big mid-October tropical shipment, and a few have sold already, so perhaps. Stuff like wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina) is kind of doomed to perpetual uncoolness in the trade, because it's too easily grown and passed around from cuttings, and also it takes almost no time at all before leaves and stems start dying back and then the whole thing just looks messy: nobody really has the time to keep taking cuttings and planting them in the pot to fill it out again, though we try sometimes.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Random plant event: Crassula muscosa flowers

I didn't have to work on Thursday, which meant that I had to water plants at home instead. (It's pretty much always one or the other.) While doing so, I kept smelling an odd scent, but I couldn't figure out where it was coming from, or even if it was coming from inside, until I picked up my Crassula muscosa (also sometimes known as Crassula lycopoidiodes) and saw these tiny little flowers on it:


The smell kind of has to be experienced to be understood; the best description I can come up with is that it's got a heavy perfumey odor -- floral, but kind of oppressively so -- that is cut with an undernote of something kind of animalistic, musky, even a little fecal. My best analogy is: imagine a private bathroom after someone has just used it. Before they came out of the bathroom, they washed their hands and sprayed one of those aerosol air fresheners around. Ideally it's a really old-style air freshener, something from the 80s. The flowers smell like what that room would smell like if you walked in right after this other person has just left.

It's hard to even narrow down exactly whether I think it's an unpleasant smell or not, that description aside. The main thing I think is too much, not yuck.

Were it not for the smell, I would never have noticed it: you can see from the picture how tiny the flowers are relative to the stems, and these are not big stems. See a wider view of the plant for perspective:

EDITED TO ADD: Over time, the smell becomes both less overpowering and less pleasant. It's now a kind of musky, guy-put-on-cologne-six-hours-ago smell. Not really floral at all. (Not especially fecal either.)

Secret-Agent Man (Yucca guatemalensis)

Yucca guatemalensis (more widely known by the incorrect name Y. elephantipes) is my very favorite houseplant. This is not to say that there aren't others that I like very very much, but I would be nearly inconsolable if I were to lose mine, particularly since I have a couple variegated versions that I haven't seen anywhere else, ever, which wouldn't be easy to replace. The first one of these, with gray variegation, I've had since 1998 or 1999, a couple plant-obsession cycles back (it's also the only survivor from that cycle, since a Sansevieria trifasciata I'd had since 1998 bit the dust about a year ago).

I've gotten a lot of very nice plants through mistaken identity. When I bought the gray Yucca,1 it was just a bunch of leaves with no visible stem in a 4-inch pot, and I thought it was a Dracaena of some kind. (It does sort of resemble a D. deremensis 'Warneckei,' if you're not looking too closely.) So for a very long time I persisted in thinking it was a Dracaena, even though I knew that Dracaenas didn't, for example, have leaves with serrated edges.

Some rooted cane cuttings from my original plant, now about the size of the plant I bought

Then I moved in 2001, up to the Iowa City area, and my new apartment was many, many times the size of where I'd been living before, so there was a whole bunch of room for new plants. I went to Target and found a couple more Dracaena-like plants, which had sword-shaped, thick but kinda floppy leaves, that were solid green with about a half-inch of yellow on the sides. No serration on the leaves this time2. I thought, well, Dracaenas are supposed to be pretty easy, so why not? And then eventually, again, it became clear to me that this, too, was a Yucca.

Top cuttings from the original yellow-variegated Yucca, now a bit bigger than the original plant was.

So then I met my husband in 2002, and we moved in together in 2006 (he had a cat, I had cat allergies: for this and other reasons3 there was a transitional period from 2004 to 2006 where we kept separate apartments in the same building4). He had a Yucca of his own but had assumed it to be a Dracaena fragrans, because the Yucca was smallish and looked enough like the Dracaena fragrans massangeana it was with that nobody really ever bothered to think about it too hard. Then at some point, I noticed that the little "corn plant" in this group planting of his had leaves with slightly serrated edges, and after some investigation, we concluded that 1) it was actually a Yucca, and 2) it was rotting to death. The group planting was subsequently divided, my husband gave the Yucca to me, whereupon I cut it into pieces and rooted it, making four even smaller plants out of it.

The pieces, now rooted and with adorable little sprouts. Who's a cute wittle Yucca? Who's a cutie? A-booj-a-booj-a-booj-a!

I do not know what Yuccas are hoping to gain by infiltrating Dracaena territory, but clearly they're planning something or another. Be on the lookout. Question your own Dracaenas.

Should war break out between the Yuccas and Dracaenas, my money is on the Yuccas. Their leaves are usually slightly serrated, which would be advantageous in battle, and also terminate in a fairly sharp point. Many species of Yucca have actual spines at the ends of leaves; Y. guatemalensis doesn't, but the leaves are still sturdy enough that they can hurt you if you walk into them wrong. My grower-guide reference book (useful in all kinds of unimaginable ways: here's the Amazon page for it, if you're interested. There's also a second edition, which I was not aware of when I got mine.) says that the author got a punctured eardrum from a Yucca leaf tip. So they're not to be toyed with, but at least they're not overtly mean, like Agaves are.

The other reason I love Yuccas is, they are incredibly tolerant of all kinds of things. The books will tell you that they need very bright light, ideally full sun, and while it's true that they do well in full sun (and they are very grateful if you can swing leaving them outside for a summer), they will put up with a lot less for a long time. During the transitional-apartment period, mine were all a few feet away from a north window, and their growth was unaffected, as far as I could tell. They also seem to be relatively easy-going as far as watering: I know mine have periodically been wetter or drier than they would have preferred, and they've come through it fine, except for one barely-rooted cane section that rooted, and sprouted, but then rotted out when I planted it with three other canes. Overwatering is a much bigger deal than underwatering; a lot of the risk can be eliminated by using an appropriately-sized pot (something that's not huge compared to the root ball) made of clay. Most of mine are in plastic, though, and apparently they couldn't care less.

I've never had any pest problems with mine, though I know they can still be attacked by scale and mealybugs, so you do want to be careful when you pick one out. I also suspect one of mine of being a highway for a spider mite migration last winter, though I have no proof of this, and in any case the mites seem not to have bothered the plant itself, just the plants around it.

The variegated versions are, according to the abovelinked Tropical Foliage Plants: A Grower's Guide (Lynn P. Griffith, Jr.), often more vigorous growers than the plain green kind. This flies in the face of all common sense, but that actually matches my experience pretty well. The yellow-variegated version of mine in particular seems to outgrow the gray-variegated and plain-green plants.

All three canes in this pot, plus the three small plants in the first picture, are descendants of the original grocery store plant in a 4-inch pot.

How do you penetrate a Yucca's ingenious disguise, if you see one in the store? Here are some tips.

1) If the leaf edges are slightly serrated (you won't be able to see this, probably: you have to run a finger along the side of the leaf), it's a Yucca. If not, it could go either way.
2) If the newest leaves have a blue-green cast to them (called "bloom"), like the coating on grapes or Echeverias, it's a Yucca. If not, it could go either way.
3) If the leaves have ridges running lengthwise down the leaves, it's a Dracaena. Smooth leaves could go either way.
4) If the leaves are wider than a couple inches (5 cm), it's a Dracaena. Thinner leaves could go either way.
5) If the leaves fall up, out, and down away from the stem in a smooth curve, it's probably a Dracaena. Yucca leaves tend to be heavy enough and thick enough that they will only curve down when they're too heavy to hold themselves straight anymore, so you wind up with two straight segments separated by a kink.

It's not that they're all that special, exactly, in and of themselves, but I really can't help but praise them: they've hardly ever given me a moment of trouble, and there's almost nothing else I can say that about. (Possibly Haworthia retusa, as well: we'll get to it eventually.)


Photo credits: all me.

1 (From the grocery store, surprisingly enough.)
2 It eventually developed serrations, which is kinda weird when you think about it.
3 (Reasons which are complicated, none of your business, and surprisingly uninteresting anyway.)
4 He gave Tara, his cat, to his parents. They then promptly moved to Minnesota, where Tara was killed by a wild animal of some kind, likely a fox, that broke into their back yard somehow.

Work-related: The Points

This is what I come to every day at work: a vast sea of greenish poinsettias.

Just thought you might like the visual.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Actor (Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig')

Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig' works hard. Nobody labels screencaps of TV shows according to what plants are in the background, which makes this difficult to prove to you, but I managed to find two pictures. The first is of D. deremensis 'Janet Craig' acting on the set of "The Office:"

Personally, I think the plant was doing more believable work in the second season (that picture is from season 3, episode 15), but you know how the acting often gets kind of self-indulgent when someone gets famous.

For the longest time, I have been confused about the difference between D. deremensis 'Janet Craig' and D. fragrans. The two look pretty similar, except that the latter is almost always sold as D. fragrans 'Massangeana,' which has a group of yellowish stripes across the middle third of the leaf (give or take). 'Janet Craig' has darker, solid green leaves. It doesn't matter, for all practical purposes, because the two need exactly the same care, but sometimes one wants to know.1 It turns out that the key is the leaf texture. Fragrans has flat leaves, 'Janet Craig' has leaves with lengthwise ridges. 'Janet Craig' is also usually shinier, but you can't always go by that because of leaf-shine products and dust and stuff like that.

All of the D. deremensis group are solid members of the houseplant community: besides 'Janet Craig,' there are also 'Limelight' (which looks like a chartreuse 'Janet Craig,' and is awesome), 'Warneckei' (which looks like a 'Janet Craig' with lengthwise white and gray stripes), and 'Lemon-Lime' (which looks like 'Warneckei' with chartreuse margins). There's also 'Janet Craig Compacta,' which is, as the name suggests, a more compact version, both shorter and with shorter leaves, and I have a plant that is shaped like a 'Janet Craig Compacta' but has the coloration of a 'Warneckei,' which I'm assuming is called 'Warneckei Compacta,' but I haven't actually seen that name anywhere. (UPDATE: I think "Warneckei Compacta" is probably 'Jade Jewel.')

I'll be focusing on all or most of these at some point or another, but you may as well know now that they're all closely related, because there's going to be a quiz.

Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig' (center) on the set of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," season 1, episode 1

The reason D. deremensis 'Janet Craig' is so common is that it is very easy to take care of, and is pretty long-lived, which naturally leads to a lot of them being bought and sold and surviving indoors for long periods of time. They're one of those plants that do best when you're only kind of half aware that it's around. They can be damaged by extreme temperatures: don't leave them above 90F (32C) or below 55F (13C) for long periods. They are also supposed to develop burned leaf tips and margins in response to fluoridated water and underwatering, though I can't say I've seen this personally. The surest way to kill one, if you're wanting to kill one2, is to overwater it, though even then you may have to work at it, or at least put it in a pot that's way too large.

The catch to their relative indestructibility is that they're also not fast growers, so you should buy a plant that's at or just below the size you want.

Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig' is not easily propagated inside, though that isn't to say that it can't be done. Air-layering is traditional, though I would be surprised if you couldn't get away with chopping the top clean off and rooting the cutting in water.3 The cane left behind should, given enough time, sprout two new growing tips, plus or minus one, though until new growth is fully underway you need to be really, really conservative about watering, lest you rot out the cane. Segments of cane can also sprout if placed in damp soil, though Dracaenas haven't been as willing to do this for me as Yuccas and Dieffenbachias: so far, the canes just rot. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but I should have material from work to practice with from time to time, so I'll get it eventually.

If your plant starts growing narrower and narrower leaves over time, this is an indication that it's not getting enough light, or is being kept too wet. It'll stay alive that way, but the leaves will broaden if you move it closer to a window and let it dry more. I have not personally found humidity to be much of an issue, though the books advise at least 40% (which is on the dry side of normal). So don't put this plant right next to heating vents or units.4 To minimize fluoride content, just in case that really is a big deal, minimize the amount of perlite in your soil mix (perlite contains some fluoride) or else flush the soil out with large amounts of water on a regular basis.

One odd thing that happens sometimes with 'Janet Craig' is that the new growth starts coming in yellow with green veins. This could be the result of iron deficiency, but also happens when the plant is being grown in conditions which are too hot – we had a couple 'Janet Craig Compacta' do this over the summer, and I recused a 'Warneckei' from work that had done this as well. These plants have difficulty making enough chlorophyll when the leaves are too hot. If it happens, add chelated iron according to the manufacturer's directions, and/or move the plant into a cooler spot; the yellow color may not disappear entirely, but new growth, at least, should come in more normally.

I don't actually have a 'Janet Craig' at home right now (I do have a 'Limelight,' 'Jade Jewel,' two 'Warneckei,' and a 'Lemon-Lime.'). We just got a big order of tropicals (it came in on October 18), and there were some 'Janet Craigs' in there, and they look nice, so I'm tempted, but realistically – there's not room, or money, and I shouldn't even be thinking about it. I would like to get one eventually, though; I've been increasingly impressed with Dracaenas over the last couple years, and I've always thought 'Janet Craig' was pretty, never mind the plain coloring and the fact that there's already one everywhere I go.

If I know me, I'll probably resist for a week or two and then get one anyway. *sigh*


Photo credits:
"The Office" screencap was from here.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" screencap from Screencap Paradise. Used by permission.
Plant picture courtesy of the mysterious anonymous plant picture donor at Garden Web

1 D. fragrans 'Massangeana' is also an actor: when I was looking for pictures of 'Janet Craig,' I found fragrans on the set of "Veronica Mars" and "Charmed" also. If they ever do a show together ("Dracaena and Dracaena, Private Investigators," perhaps), you'll be the first one to know.
2 (Why?)
3 Air-layering seems like a propagation method of last resort, to me. Maybe I'm wrong. I know I'm impatient, at least, if not wrong.
4 In fact, don't put any of your plants right next to sources of hot or cold air. None of them will like it.


Well, God bless Sears. Went out today to try to get a camera to use for the blog: it wasn't that I don't appreciate the generosity of the people who have volunteered their photos, because of course I do, but I didn't think I was going to be able to handle it, emotionally, if I couldn't post about any plants until I tracked down a public domain photo. When I'm in the mood to talk about a plant, I'm in the mood to talk about that plant, and I don't want to spend six hours trying to find a picture before I come up with something to say. By the time I find illustrations, the mood is gone.

So the husband and I went out to get a camera, and the first couple places wanted more than I wanted to spend for even their lowest-end cameras, which was depressing. Then we went to Sears, and they were working on pricing last years' floor models when we got there, which, long story short, means I got a newish 6.0 megapixel camera for $30. It's not perfect: I have trouble holding the camera still enough to get sharp pictures, because of the way it's designed, and the pictures I get are still only 640 x 480 px, but it's a vast improvement over the previous camera.

So, to (literally) illustrate my point --

This is a picture of Spathiphyllum x 'Golden Glow,' taken with the new camera:

So perhaps you can see what I meant about the color taking some getting used to.

Is it the best picture imaginable? Well no. But for $32.79, I'm not sure I care.

The camera in question here is an Olympus FE-170, if anybody cares. Sears wanted, I think, $129.99 or better for the newer Olympus FE-210, so I figure I did well.

Some of the borrowed photos from public domain or volunteer sources will still be used from time to time, but I think most of them from here out will be my own original photos, of my own personal plants. It should be clear from the photo credits which is which.