Friday, November 9, 2007

Evil Genius (Bryophyllum daigremontianum)

Pretty much all you have to do for this plant is give it reasonably bright light (full sun is best, though it will live through a lot less than that) and not overwater. They're very, very easy. Kind of too easy, actually.

And B. daigremontianum (sometimes Kalanchoe daigremontiana; Bryophyllum appears to be the current taxonomic consensus, though) isn't, like, the bane of my existence or anything, but it's kind of obnoxious. We don't actually plant any of it deliberately, anywhere, and yet it's all over the place. How? Because it is much, much smarter than we are.

This is what it usually looks like:

Just a couple little plants happily mooching off of an unsuspecting cactus. Now, the first thing you might notice here is how damned close these plants are to the cactus's spines. That's because the plant is an evil genius, and has realized that it doesn't need to grow its own spines if it can just get the cactus to defend it. Which it does (the cactus does, I mean.). I do go through the cacti and succulents on a regular basis, picking out the weeds, but with stuff like this, if I don't want to go to the trouble of getting tweezers, I just leave it alone, 'cause it's not worth getting stabbed repeatedly. Sometimes I get stabbed repeatedly even with the tweezers and give up. And if I don't pull it out of the pot because it's too much trouble to do so, then the plant lives to grow another day: it wins.

But this is only the first layer of its diabolical plan, because it's also figured out another trick: it's incredibly brittle. When you go to pull it out of a pot, if a leaf or stem catches on the side of the pot, or on a cactus spine, or even the leaf of another Bryophyllum right next to it, leaves will break off and fall deeper into the pot, where you really can't get them without tweezers, and they will eventually sprout there and grow into new plants within a few months, that will have to be pulled out again.

The detached leaves don't even care that much whether they're in soil or not: the next picture shows some leaves that have sprouted in an empty spot in a plastic tray. Granted, they have a little bit of soil to work with here, because the tray is dirty, 1 but it's still not what you'd call a nice little pot of soil or anything. Not even enough for a quarter-inch layer of soil. And they're growing anyway.

Another thing we can notice from this picture is that there seem to be two different kinds of plant here: one with sharply pointed leaves, and one with rounded leaves. (If you're having trouble seeing it, the two largest plants in the picture are the pointed kind, and the ones in the right top and right bottom corners are rounded.) I think that these are different morphs of the same plant (in which case it's also a master of disguise!), but I haven't bothered to let them grow out to check. I do know for sure that the rounded-leaf type will eventually grow up to develop spots and serrated edges, because I did grow one of those out, by itself, to see what it would do. So if anybody knows for sure that Bryophyllum daigremontianum is (or isn't) capable of changing its appearance like this, let me know. If not, I will be forced to grow out one of each and see what happens. (UPDATE: The other plant, with the pointed leaves, turns out to be Lenophyllum texanum.)

So, okay. It has minions (the cacti it gets to defend it), it hides so that you can never be sure whether you've really gotten it or not, it's a master of disguise. What else? Oh yeah: if you let it grow long enough, the leaves will eventually start growing baby plants on the edges. We don't actually encourage this to happen. When I started working there, there was one ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) that had two or three hitchhiking B. daigremontianum in the pot with it, that were big enough to produce plantlets, but I'm pretty sure the Bryophyllums in question have since been removed, or the plant itself sold, or something; I haven't seen it lately. So, I don't have original photos to share of this, but it's easy enough to find pictures on-line of this sort of thing (the species ID may not be exact, but the basic method looks the same for all the plants that do this):

What's going on here is actually very interesting, and is covered in excessively jargony detail here, in a post at I'm not sure if we're actually talking about the same plant, because the picture they use for the article doesn't resemble any of the plantlets I see at work. (I think the picture is actually of Bryophyllum tubiflorum, but I am not an expert in Bryophyllum taxonomy, and don't know anyone who is, so I'm just going with my best guesses here. My best guesses tell me somebody got the wrong picture.) The gist of the article is the same for any of the Kalanchoe or Bryophyllum species that reproduce this way, though: these plants have made a sort of deal with the devil. 2 A gene which normally is only used in making seeds has been altered in such a way that it's useless for seed-making. Thanks to the changes, though, this gene can be expressed in leaves. So instead of forming embryonic plants in seeds, it forms embryonic plants in the leaves, skipping the whole pollination-and-seed stage entirely. 3

There are disadvantages: all of the plant's reproduction is now asexual, so there's no gene-shuffling going on at all from one generation to the next. Any pathogen that managed to crack the code and consume the plant would also be able to kill the plantlets, and grand-plantlets, and so on, and would be capable of wiping out all the plants in a given area within days. It's kind of like taking everything you own, putting it in separate rooms to protect it, and then putting the same lock on each of the rooms: yes, it's all separate, it's all protected from anything that can't open the door, but anybody who gets the right key can still come along and take it all. (Sexual species always have the hope that even if 99.999% of the population were wiped out by something, that remaining 0.001% could resist somehow, get together, and breed a new race of resistant organisms. 4 Asexual organisms like Bryophyllum daigremontianum can still change over time, because they still get hit by radioactivity and cosmic rays and ultraviolet light and so forth, so their DNA varies some, but change happens considerably more slowly, for various reasons which are beyond our scope. I can recommend books if you're really interested.5)

The plant might respond, call me stupid if you want, but I'm everywhere, and you aren't. You don't even have the power to make me go away, when you really, really want to. I'll be here long after you're gone. And then – the world will be mine! Then it would laugh maniacally, wait for thunder to crash in the background, and, I don't know, pet a cat or something.


Photo credits:
Baby plants on edge of leaf: CrazyD at the Wikipedia entry for Kalanchoe daigremontiana.
All others: me.

1 Yes, I am ashamed.
2 See? Evil.
3 Though, weirdly enough, it still goes to the trouble of making flowers. I suppose even an evil genius can find time to relax with a hobby occasionally.
4 The name for this happening is "evolution," which you may have heard of.
5The Red Queen, by Matt Ridley, is a good one.

Site-related: footnotes

This is mostly directed at the anonymous person who left the comment about footnotes on Clivia miniata, but everybody else may as well know too: I think I kinda figured out how to do clickable footnotes.

If I've done things right, clicking on the footnote in the main text should bring you down to the footnotes section, and then clicking on the footnote in the footnotes text should bring you back up to the main text again, right where you left off.

This is likely to have the side effect of greatly reducing the number of footnotes per post, at least until I get a little smoother at doing them -- there's a lot of text that I have to add in order for it to work right. I'm planning for new posts to have clickable footnotes when posted; older posts will be updated when I can't think of anything better to do with my time, so don't hold your breath.

Kamaaina (Ardisia elliptica)

I was pretty sure, starting this one, that I wanted a Hawaiian "people" term for the article title. For one thing, Ardisia elliptica is an invasive species in Hawaii, which is the main thing I know about the plant, and for another, my husband lived there for a while, off and on, so I have a handy reference source for these kinds of words, so why not. So I ask him what would be the word for someone who visits Hawaii as a tourist and then decides not to go back to the mainland, and he says kamaaina. Okay, I say, and then go to the internet to look for an official-type definition, so I can start the article with it like I did for Schlub, and I get definitions that tell me that kamaaina (sometimes kamahina) can only be used for people who were born there, or at the very least people who have lived there for a really long time. Which doesn't work at all, because the whole point of calling this an invasive species is to underline the fact that it hasn't been there for a long time, and wasn't native.

So back to the drawing board. Further searching of the net turns up the words haole and malihini, which are also both wrong. Haole has the right kind of meaning (foreigner), and even sort of has the connotation of invasiveness, but is actually used to mean mainly white people, and is generally racist and hostile, and apparently almost sounds wrong if it's not preceded by the word "fucking." (Sort of the rough equivalent of gringo, but significantly less kind.) I found some people claiming that it isn't intrinsically nasty, that it's all in the context, but people say the same thing about n*****, and I wouldn't use that for a title either, sooooooo I had to move on to something else even though haole was more or less the word I wanted.

So there's malihini, which mainly signifies visitors, tourists, people who are staying short-term and then going away. Which makes it the wrongest word imaginable, because this plant is almost certainly in Hawaii to stay, which is why I'd committed myself to using a Hawaiian word in the first place. A tourist plant would stay for a while and leave, not take over acres of countryside and settle down. So apparently kamaaina is as close as it gets, wrong though it is, and now I've burned a whole afternoon just writing the title. Awesome.

Now that that's out of the way.

It's a cute plant, right? One of the better pictures I've gotten, too, of any of the plants. I found it recently at a local supermarket (Hy-Vee, for those of you who have Hy-Vees), and didn't know what it was, and neither did the Hy-Vee floral department, so I concluded that I had to have it, much like with the Asplundia 'Jungle Drum' at Lowes. Plus it was only $3, so not a huge financial risk.

It turns out to be a close relative of the much more common (around here) coral berry, Ardisia crenata, though it's a prettier plant, I think. It's not seen a lot as a houseplant; as far as I know we've never had it where I work.

The common name is shoebutton tree, or (disturbingly) "duck eyes," both of which refer to the berries, which are red, turning to black/purple as they mature. Berries are edible but kind of insipid, and are mostly eaten by birds (in Hawaii) or a combination of birds and raccoons (in Florida).

The problem arises because animals distribute the plants in their droppings, and Ardisia elliptica is shade-tolerant, so it can sprout pretty much wherever the seeds land and then grow up to three feet per year. Flowers are self-fertile, so you only need one plant to get started. Seeds are produced year-round once the plant reaches maturity, in 2-4 years. Then seedlings from those sprout, the native vegetation gets starved for light and dies, the seedlings mature and flower, and then soon you have large expanses of island that are nothing but Ardisia, or Ardisia with a thin cover of taller native trees.

Ardisia elliptica is even more problematic in parts of Florida, because it thrives in marshy, wetland-type conditions. Hawaii is spared total Ardisification1 by virtue of having drier highland areas and plenty of competition from other invasives (Ardisia elliptica isn't the worst one by a long shot); Florida is also competitive, but there's so much contiguous wetland area there that there's room for a much bigger expanse, and Florida also seems to have been more enthusiastic about planting it as an ornamental, before its invasive nature was demonstrated.

It's native to southeast Asia, by the way: India southeast to New Guinea and then up maybe as far as China; nobody seems to have a real clear handle on where it came from, but the consensus seems to be that it's that general area somewhere.

Of course, the aspects of the plant that make it so much trouble outdoors make it a good houseplant, as is often the case. It handles low light well, though it grows better in bright light, including sun. It's tolerant of wet soil, so overwatering isn't as likely to kill it as some plants. Mine seems to deal okay with drying out, too – it wilts, but doesn't throw leaves. (On the other hand, I've seen some at Hy-Vee since then that were badly wilted and had dead leaves and stems, so its tolerance for drought has limits.) It grows really quickly – I bought mine in a three-inch pot in July, and by early November I had repotted it twice, first into a four-inch, then into a six-inch. The height of the plant hasn't seemed to increase as quickly, proportionally speaking, but the roots are insane.

Temperature does seem to be a bit of a concern, cold more than hot. I'm still waiting to see about humidity.

If you should have one set flowers and fruit, the fresh seeds are said to have a germination rate of 75% (Smithsonian Marine Station link, above) to 90% (my handy grower's reference guide, thank you Lynn P. Griffith, Jr.) if kept warm and moist for one to three months. Which is also good news if you want to grow your own seedlings, though be advised that you have to act quickly, because seeds don't store well.

I like my Ardisia elliptica. I do. It's cute, and so far I haven't had any problems with it. But keep yours indoors. In Florida, at least, it may be illegal not to: it's on their Category I list for invasives.2 In fairness, so are other ornamental plants, including some very familiar houseplants: Asparagus sprengeri (asparagus fern), Schefflera actinophylla (umbrella tree), Syngonium podophyllum (arrowhead plant), and Tradescantia spathacea (Moses in the cradle) among them. So don't be afraid of your elliptica, if you get one, but do be aware of the threat posed by invasive exotics: many perfectly nice, innocent creatures (including potential houseplants!) depend on you behaving responsibly.

EDITED 5/13/08: Dropped difficulty level from 3.1 to 1.7; humidity is less of an issue than I thought, and propagation is a lot easier as well.


Photo credits:
potted plant: me.
plant with berries: U.S. Geological Survey.

1(Oh yeah? Well what would you call it, then?)
2Defined as: "Invasive exotics that are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives." This is the categorization for plants that have actually caused documented ecological damage already.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


For those of you who have somehow managed to miss the whole LOLcats phenomenon and are looking at this saying, "What the hell?", please click here for an explanation. Picture was created using the Awesum Cheezeburger Factory LOLcat Builder.

There will be more LOLSpaths, though it's harder than it looks, so probably not very many or very often.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Friend of a Friend (Clivia miniata)

Clivia and I have only just met. I've been hearing about them for quite a while, both from people at Garden Web who are enthusiastic about them, and from a co-worker, but I don't often see them in the stores (the last one I saw in a store was in February, in Ames, IA, at a bizarre but cool little organic-greenhouse-slash-antique-shop1, but it happened to be next to a Fatsia japonica with a bad case of aphids, so I didn't give it much serious consideration). So I've had to wait.

But, then, my wonderful co-worker 2 in the greenhouse brought in an offset of hers, and so now my Clivia adventure has begun.

For the time being, I'm kind of flying blind; time will tell if this is going to work out or not. I am generally leery of plants with pronounced dormancies or wild seasonal swings in care, mostly because I'm afraid that sooner or later, I will make the switch too early, or too late, and I'll wind up killing the plants in the process. This is one of the reasons why I won't touch Lithops, though there are plenty, and it's why I am not inclined to deal with Alocasia either. I have been known to make an exception for Caladium, but my Caladium experiences have been so uniformly depressing that I don't think that's going to happen again.

So we shall see. My plant is not large enough to bloom – I'm not sure how big they have to be, but mine only has three leaves, and the longest is maybe 14 inches, so I'm thinking it's going to be a while. This is fine. Like with poinsettias, or Anthurium andraeanum, I think the foliage is plenty nice on its own, and have no particular desire to see flowers.

My understanding of the care requirements, and hopefully someone will correct me if I'm mistaken, is:

LIGHT: Filtered sun, year-round.
WATER: Keep dry from late summer to early winter (roughly Sep. – Jan.) and moist at other times.
TEMPERATURES: Prefers cool temperatures.
HUMIDITY: Whatever.
OTHER: Feed monthly when in active growth (Jan. – Aug.) and repot as infrequently as possible. Use a soil that drains well and doesn't hold a lot of water, to avoid rot.

All this adds up to a 4.4 rating, mostly on account of the overwatering, bright light, cool temperatures, and moderately heavy feeding.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one; I know it's possible to keep them indoors, so it's really just about how many times I'm going to have to try before it works.


Photo credit: racka_roadrunner, at (first); me (second)

2(Not sarcasm. She's great.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Work-related: whitefly

I've talked previously about how we got our poinsettias in two different batches; the majority came from a company in Pella (IA) that appears to be a major greenhouse supplier in the area, and then we had a second batch, about 1/3 the size of the first, from a different grower in Centerville.

Along with the Centerville plants came whiteflies. A few of the Pella plants may also have had a whitefly or two on them, and we'd had some in the greenhouse already, that came in with some of the things that had been outside, but we'd undertaken a pretty serious effort to get rid of the stuff that came in from outside (nearly killing a few Hibiscus in the process, though they did all survive in the end), so: one, it was frustrating as hell to be bringing in new whiteflies and unable to stop them, and two, I'm pretty sure Centerville is responsible.

This is what they look like: this one is photographed on the back of a poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) leaf. The picture, if you open it in a new window, shows considerably more detail than I've ever been able to see with just my eye; normally I just see a tiny white rectangular shape and start leaping to conclusions.

Now for a confession: whiteflies scare the crap out of me, more so than any other bug, even though they're not necessarily as damaging or as difficult to get rid of as some other bugs.1 I had a small invasion of whitefly in late winter this year, brought in on a plant that was huge, and beautiful, and (most importantly) free, which meant I didn't inspect it as closely as I might have. (UPDATE: I have since determined that the bugs in question were not whitefly, but were some other, as yet unidentified, thing that has a particularly strong affinity for Sansevierias.)

(The trojan Sansevieria.)

The infestation never got as bad as it could have, because I went into full alert mode and started hosing down all the plants with rubbing alcohol2, and I hand-defoliated a few to remove pupae. Eventually the crisis passed. But whiteflies still freak me out, because unlike spider mites or mealybugs, they fly.

Happily, my observations at work have shown me that they're not that mobile. In theory, yes, they could fly around your home, laying eggs on every plant as they go, but they're not that ambitious, and flying seems to tire them out quickly: the ones at work rarely spend more than two seconds in the air at a time. In fact, if you turn a leaf upside down and find one there, it will probably be too lazy to fly away,3 which is how I managed the photo above.

They also have strong preferences for which plants they like and don't like. Hibiscus is a big favorite, as are poinsettias. We've also seen a lot of them on sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas), various herbs (don't recall which ones specifically) and ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea). My own infestation centered mainly on two plants: the Sansevieria they arrived on and a couple Euphorbia trigona that they enjoyed laying eggs on.

Supposedly the favorite color of the whitefly is yellow. I don't know about this personally. In my experience with the (white, yellow, green or red) poinsettias, eggs and adult flies are usually on the underside of the green leaves. If disturbed, they do often settle back down on a yellow or pale green leaf or bract, but I think that's because the points are just starting to bloom, so yellow and pale green are the colors of the topmost leaves/bracts, and the whiteflies are just trying to land as soon as they can. So I'm not convinced. They don't go out of their way to land on the yellow sticky traps we've got laying around for them.

As far as whitefly control goes, the most effective by far seems to be Marathon (imidacloprid), which the Pella group of plants had already gotten before they came to us, and which we've added to the Centerville batch but probably too late. Imidacloprid is a derivative of nicotine which can be absorbed by a plant's roots and taken into its tissues, effectively poisoning all parts of the plant (this type of insecticide is called a systemic insecticide). It comes with its own problems,4 but it does seem to work. The alternative, walking among the points, turning over leaves, and squishing flies with my fingers, is also effective, more entertaining, and less likely to result in pests becoming resistant, but it's also much slower and doesn't affect eggs, larvae or pupae.

Imidacloprid is approved for indoor amateur use (and it's also in a lot of treatments for fleas on cats and dogs), usually as a spray. We sell a few different formulations of it at work. Yellow sticky traps might also be helpful in small infestations, if you can place them close to the affected plants without actually touching the affected plants, though I'm skeptical, as I've indicated. Yellow sticky traps do have going for them that they're not toxic (at least, not if used as directed - I wouldn't lick one). But, as with all pests, the better approach is to not get them in the first place. Check your plants before you buy.


Photo credit: me.

1 (If I were more rational, I would be more alarmed by mealybugs.)
2 Exaggerated for comic effect. Do not use hoses to apply rubbing alcohol to your own plants.
3 (I sort of imagine that the one in the picture is looking back at me with an annoyed expression on its face, saying something like, "Do you mind?")
4 It could be responsible for some or all of the recent decline in honeybee populations. Though the jury is still very much out on that, and there seem to be as many theories about the bees as there are people looking into the situation.

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.


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.)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ex-Girlfriend / Ex-Boyfriend (Codiaeum variegatum)

About a year ago, I bought a couple of Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold-Dust'. I don't remember why, exactly: we had just cleared off a lot of space in front of the (south-facing) living room window, so maybe the logic was just that I had full sun, therefore, I needed some full-sun plants. I'm pretty sure that I knew that they could be difficult when I bought them. I think I'd even had them before, or something very similar. So I held my breath and crossed my fingers and brought them home.

And then – anticlimax. I moved them up into 4-inch pots (I'd bought them in 3-inch), and after a period of adjustment, during which time I wound up moving them out of the window and next to a pretty intense fluorescent light, they did fine.

Better than fine, actually. They grew pretty steadily, didn't drop any leaves, everything was good.

Then around June things got to the point where they were a little overgrown, and I wanted to condense them. Two 4-inch pots don't take up a lot of room, maybe, but one 6-inch pot takes up even less. Plus they were doing so well already: I could have a really impressive-looking croton on my hands if I combined these, I thought. So I put them together.

And it's been all downhill from there. About two-thirds of the leaves fell off. There were spider mites. New soil meant a new watering cycle, which I couldn't get the hang of: sometimes I would water them when they didn't need it, because I thought they did, and vice-versa. We are only just now beginning to pull out of this, and I'm not positive that the leaf-dropping and name-calling is over yet.

The 'Gold-Dust' plants now. I know they don't look all that bad here, but they used to be so much fuller and happier. You'd weep, if I had pictures to show you, which I don't.

So what happened? Not sure, but it was bad.

Enter Codiaeum variegatum 'Andrew.' Before I worked at the greenhouse I'm in now, I was a customer there, and they got a bunch of these in about a month before I was hired. They were novel, certainly – variegated in the same kind of pattern as some of the other plants in the greenhouse (specifically, there was a resemblance to Ficus benjamina 'Spearmint' and Citrus limon 'Pink Lemonade,' which aren't related to one another, or to Codiaeum variegatum, but which nevertheless all look more like one another than they look like their actual relatives), but with crazy bumpy leaves. It's really just easier to show you a picture:

So but anyway. I was impressed by these being unusual, and so I got one, and then I came back a short time later (the same day?) and got two more, also in 3-inch pots, and I potted the three together into a six-inch pot. And since then? They've dropped a ton of leaves. They've developed spider mites. I've had a tough time getting the watering schedule down. This crisis, unlike with 'Gold-Dust,' is ongoing. I have 'Andrew' in the south-facing living room window, and it's positioned such that I can't actually see the soil, so sometimes I forget to water it, which never makes it happy.

This kind of experience is not all that unusual with crotons, though clearly I'm to blame for some of it. Repotting was, in retrospect, obviously a bad idea, though I'm a little hazy about why. We repot crotons all the time at work without tears and recriminations. But although there's blame to be assigned and accepted and so forth, I'm not really wanting to so much. I think we just need to walk away from one another1 and be done. She needs things I can never give her, like heat and humidity and super-consistent care; I need things from her that she can't give me, like a little co-operation when it comes to repotting, and resistance to spider mites. So it's probably best if we just separate now. Thank god we at least don't have any seedlings to worry about.

On a less whimsical note: crotons are everywhere around here right now (mostly C. variegatum 'Petra,'2 which seems to have been the dominant cultivar for many years), because they're one of very few plants that have autumny-colored leaves, and this is autumn, so, you know, my employer's got a bunch, and the grocery stores around here have a bunch, and some of them are quite nice-looking. But they need heat and humidity, which you're not going to be able to provide in a centrally-heated home in the Upper Midwest for the next six or seven months, and even if you could, they're still one of the favorite meals for spider mites. They need a lot of light in order to maintain their color, they're heavy feeders, they'll drop a lot of leaves if you let them get dry, they're not easily propagated indoors or out3 and all in all they're just really not the right indoor plant for anybody, especially right now. 'Gold-Dust,' my bad experiences notwithstanding, is possibly one of the less demanding varieties, especially if you don't try to repot it when it doesn't want to be repotted. 'Mrs. Iceton,' below, is the cultivar that I wish I could keep but will now never try: I think it's pretty.

It's not that Codiaeum variegatum is impossible to keep indoors. Some people do it for long periods and never have any serious problems. I myself might, after this little hiccup in the relationship, manage to keep both the 'Gold-Dust' and 'Andrew' crotons around for a while, and if we do well enough for long enough, then maybe I'll reconsider getting back together again. Or at least a date. But if they don’t straighten out pretty soon, I'm not buying any more, ever. There are plenty of other plants out there that are a lot less trouble.4

UPDATE: See also a picture of another weird cultivar with extremely narrow leaves at this post from December 2008.


Photo credits:
'Gold-Dust,' 'Mrs. Iceton,' and 'Andrew:' my own photos.
'Petra,' or whatever it is if it's not 'Petra:' from photogirl7 at

1 (The "walking away," obviously, would be figurative in the plant's case.)
2 (I think it's 'Petra.' I always expect 'Petra' to be darker, more green and purple. It's possible that the one everybody has, which is also the one in the picture, is of a new cultivar with more autumnal coloring. Who can keep up with all the new cultivars anyway?)
3 (in my experience; some of the books say they're easy to propagate from cuttings)
4 And only a couple that are more trouble.

Random plant event: Dracaena surculosa flowers

This started happening a while ago; the first flowers of the Dracaena surculosa opened on Friday. I had been looking forward to this since seeing buds, because I'd seen a few things that said that the flowers smell like airplane glue, which seemed like a weird enough occasion (even though I don't necessarily like the smell of airplane glue) to be worth looking forward to. Glasshouse Works, in fact, enthuses about it, promising "easy to bloom indoors for an overpowering airplane glue 'fragrance!'"

So far, I would question "overpowering." And "airplane glue" doesn't seem quite right either. Points for getting "fragrance" right, but then there's "easy to bloom indoors," which is true to the extent that I didn't do anything to make this happen, but false to the degree that this is the only one I've seen happen personally, and that includes the many, many plants at work. So really, Glasshouse Works is kind of full of shit, I think, but I kind of suspected that already.1

Searching the net turns up reports of fragrance and reports of odorlessness in about equal number. I think I can maybe explain this, though: the intensity of fragrance varies a lot with the time of day. At 6 PM, almost odorless (maybe a very faint solvent / rubber cement / model glue smell, though that could be because I was expecting one). At 9 PM, a pretty intense (but hardly room-permeating) generic perfumey floral smell. This morning at what would have been 6 AM,2 we're back to basically odorless.

In any case, here's what they look like: it's new, so I'm sharing. For some reason they come out yellowish in the picture, but they're actually pure white. Some of the reports say that the flowers (and the berries as well, should any form later on) are sticky. Don't see that yet, but I'll keep you informed.


Photo credit: me, obviously.

1It'd be a little weird if someone who could get that excited about the smell of airplane glue wasn't a little bit off in some way or another, frankly.
2Damn daylight saving time all to hell. I mean it. I hate daylight saving time.