Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pop Quiz, and an announcement

Pop quiz: in the below picture from work are the dead leaves, flowers, and whole plants of a number of species. Your task is to come up with a list which identifies as many of the species in the picture as precisely as possible (in a few cases, it may be possible to identify a particular cultivar; in a few others, no identification is possible beyond genus).

You may work together by posting guesses in the comments and discussing answers among yourselves: I will stay out of the comments except where necessary to clarify rules. You should select a leader to post a final list of up to 25 guesses on or before 5 AM CST on December 26.

On December 26, I will post a second photo, with annotations, so you can see where the various plants on my list were, at which point there will be complaints of unfairness and/or sadism, and possibly also comments resulting in hilarity.

Hints: my list contains twenty-two distinct species. Eight of these have been pictured (though not necessarily profiled) in previous entries. A much larger version of the photo will load if you click the picture below.


The reason for the above pop quiz is that I need to take a break. I hate to do this when I'm just getting people interested in the site and there's a respectable hit count and all that, but I need a few days to write new stuff (the Breakfast Club thing is unexpectedly difficult: I know which plant to do for Princess, but Brain and Criminal are making me crazy, and they all take more time than I can really afford right now.), and catch up on plant-watering, and work (the plants use water whether it's a holiday or not), and so forth. I figure this is as good a time as any to take a short hiatus, since my readers' schedules are likely to be a little atypical now too: perhaps no one will notice. And, if I use the hiatus to launch the pop quiz, maybe everyone will be entertained regardless. I'm hopeful, in any case.

Regular daily posts will resume on the 26th, with the posting of the pop quiz key.

Athlete (Monstera deliciosa)

The connection here, if you want to be picky about it, is kinda shaky. Monsteras don't do anything especially athletic. I mean, it's not like they run or swim or ride bicycles.1 But they do climb, and there's something about them – the size of the leaves, the thickness of the trunks, the overall robustness of the plants – that made this seem like a reasonable connection, and it's not like there were other plants that made any more sense (I considered Dieffenbachia spp. too, but I have another "person" in mind for them, eventually, after this Breakfast Club thing is over.), so there you go.

I went through a serious Monstera phase a little over a year ago, and then had a resurgence of enthusiasm in late winter 2007. They're not good plants to get obsessive about. I mean, don't get me wrong, they're nice plants, but they get huge. If you're prone to collecting plants, this is not a good way to go: now I have three big plants in 8-inch pots, and almost no places to put them where they could be happy. And they're only getting bigger.

Like the corresponding character in the movie, Monstera deliciosa pretty much just does what it's told. You put it in a hanging basket, it'll hang and get huge:

Photo: my own.

Give it something to climb, and it'll climb and get huge:

Photo: Raul654 at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

Want variegation? Consider it done. Hugely.

Ask it for food, and it'll give you an edible fruit . . . though not right away: it takes a year to ripen, and however long to convince it to flower. Even the most people-pleasing plants have their limits. But still. The flowers are – you guessed it - huge:

Photo: A9l8e7n at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

Photo: Bozejmonstera at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

and the fruit (which is huge!) tastes like some kind of cross between pineapple, banana, jackfruit, and mango, which I assume is the plant's way of yet again trying to be all things to all people:2

Photo: B. navez at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

The fruit is not likely to be a commercial crop anytime real soon, as it's very slow to develop (a lot of things could go wrong in a year of storage: it seems like that fact alone would make commercial fruit producers a little skittish), and unripe fruit is poisonous in roughly the same way that a Dieffenbachia is: immediate pain and swelling, itching, and blistering. Whether this is ever life-threatening, I don't know, but it seems unlikely that there's a place in the world market for a potentially painful fruit that takes a year to ripen and tastes just like everything else anyway. There are, even so, reports of the occasional regional recipe, like the Halloween dish "West Indian Pumpkin Pound Cake with a Monstera Mash Anglaise" mentioned here, in passing (sadly, there's a book you apparently have to buy before you get the recipe. I give him/r points for cleverness, though, for making it a Halloween dish so the "monster mash" pun could be used.).

It is, of course, very unusual for a plant to flower and set fruit indoors. So let's don't get carried away.

The plant has a number of unusual adaptations to its natural habitat (It's an understory plant in rainforests from Mexico south to Panama.). The most obvious one is the perforated leaves, which are pretty obviously a compromise between the need to have a lot of leaf area, to maximize light collection, and the need to minimize wind resistance during intense storms. Perforations allow wind to flow through without making the leaves completely useless for light collection.

Photo: my own.

Other plants have had different ideas on the matter: the bananas and bird of paradise, Musa and Strelitzia species, respectively, go ahead and grow gigantic leaves but make them in a way such that they tear themselves to strips in high winds, leaving all the leaf area still available for light collection but with no more wind resistance than a palm frond. Philodendron bipinnatifidum uses a similar approach, but builds the tears into the leaf from the beginning. Maple trees, Acer, have gone a whole different way, by constructing the leaves so that they fold into cones in high winds,3 which reduces drag and also reduces wear and tear.

Another notable adaptation, which I personally think is like the coolest thing ever, is that when a Monstera seedling first sprouts, it exhibits negative phototropism, also called scototropism (scoto being the Greek root for darkness or blindness), growing in whichever direction is darkest. Why? Because that's where the tallest tree trunks are going to be, and once it can find a tree trunk, it can scramble up and get good light. If it had to make a living from what light is available on the forest floor, it'd be screwed.

The aerial roots are a related phenomenon. From a houseplant-growers' perspective, aerial roots are kind of annoying: they're not what you'd call pretty,4 and if you can't bend them toward a source of moisture (they're brittle, like the rest of the plant, so until they get to a certain length, it's difficult to get them to go where you want without breaking them), they just hang there, useless. They can be cut off, with no harm to the plant, though I generally try to leave mine alone. In the wild, of course, the aerial roots can acquire some additional moisture, and incidentally anchor the plant (which brings us back to the whole high-winds situation), but even there, aerial roots don't seem to be required so much as just frequently handy.

Care is relatively straightforward: because they are adapted to survive in the understory of the rainforest, light levels are negotiable. They like sun, if you can swing it, but if not, don't worry about it, they'll make do. The same goes for heat and humidity, pretty much: you're not going to get a giant plant, or fruit, without a lot of light, heat and humidity, but if you're just wanting the plant to stay alive, you can do almost anything you like. They are a little touchy about cold (the growers' guide, oddly, doesn't mention Monstera, but from observation at work, I'm thinking they're okay as long as they stay above about 55ºF / 13ºC.).

Watering is the one area I have difficulty with, and especially lately: I have a tendency to overdo watering on aroids in general,5 but I'm especially bad about this with Epipremnum aureum and Monstera deliciosa. Part of the problem is that I have mine in those plastic pots with the saucers that can pop on and off: this is a good idea in theory, but they don't drain as well, since the bottoms of the pots usually only have like four smallish drainage holes in the first place (as opposed to eight larger ones in a grower pot), and then two of those get plugged up when you attach the saucer. So it's not the same as trying to grow a plant in a pot with no drainage, but it's not as different as it ought to be.

Photo: my own.

I've tried drilling additional holes in the bottoms of the pots, which mostly breaks them (They're prone to breaking anyway: just pulling the saucers free from the pot has cracked several of mine, and then they leak, which makes me all kinds of angry), and I hate to repot the Monsteras because they took a long time to settle down when I moved them the first time.6

The point of all this being – since I tend to overwater aroids anyway, and since my Monsteras are in a drainage situation where they're likely to hold water for a lot longer than they should, and since they continue, however reluctantly, to survive, I'm thinking that they're able to handle a certain amount of overwatering. Though it's still probably best to let them dry to somewhere between one-fourth and one-half dry before giving them water again. Possibly even less.

One more parallel with the character in the movie ("Andrew"): Monsteras are horrible at thinking for themselves. In the wild, where they have all the heat and moisture to draw on, they can scramble up a tree with the best of them, but indoors, you generally have to tell them where to step. The ideal arrangement is said to be a mesh pole of some kind, filled with sphagnum moss or some other material that can be kept damp: the mesh permits one to guide the aerial roots into the pole, and the plant can anchor itself, and the damp moss inside the pole gives the plant the motivation. I've never been lucky enough to find a pole like this when I needed one, so I've had to make do with a pole made of plastic, with a half-inch layer of coir (coconut fiber) wrapped around it, and tie the plants to the pole. I don't think any of the plants have taken to this particularly well, mostly because coir doesn't really hold water at all, but even if I had found one of these poles in time, I couldn't afford to add water to it very often because of the aforementioned inadequate drainage situation. The ones at work get tied up, too, except for the few in hanging baskets. They don't seem to object too much.


Photo credits:

Emilio Estevez: from; all others: see text.

1 To my knowledge, anyway. I suppose we can't rule out a little bit of bike-riding.
2 In fact, all the accounts I ran across mentioned pineapple, and most of them mentioned banana, so I'm assuming that those are probably the dominant flavors. Still, it's called "fruit salad plant" once in a while, so it's not really supposed to taste like any particular thing.
3 Check it out, if you can find a leaf that's fresh enough to be pliable. They do.
4 Unless you have unusual tastes, I guess: I shouldn't make blanket statements like that about what people will think is pretty.
5 They just look so damn tropical that I assume they must be thirsty. Sadly, this logic, while satisfying to my brain, doesn't travel to the real world very well.
6 Which failure to settle may well have been because I stuck them in a pot that didn't have as much drainage as I thought.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Random plant event: Schlumbergera NOID flowers, Cordyline update

This was going to be a random plant event a long time ago, but for one reason or another, other things were posted instead. I know by now we've all seen plenty of Schlumbergera pictures, and I wouldn't ordinarily bother, but these are kind of special because they come from a pair of cuttings I got just this summer, from Garden Webber "hopefulauthor." I had no idea that they would bloom when still so small.

Buds; this picture is from November 8.

The first actual flower (of three, potentially), on December 15.


In other news, the flower on the Cordyline fruticosa 'Kiwi,' relatively unimpressive though it is, is still there (link to previous picture), and has changed a bit, so here's what it's up to now:

Monday, December 17, 2007


Why didn't any of you tell me that there were these in the world? Bad readers! No cookie!

The leaves really are a little bit lavender, by the way: the colors here are pretty close to real-life. Clicking on the picture will get you a slightly larger version.

I come back from lunch on Monday and there's a cardboard box with a couple of these that I'm supposed to repot. So I didn't meet the owner (hoping to this morning, maybe), but I desperately want to know where these came from.

There is a down side, that being that even by Saintpaulia standards, the leaves were terrifyingly brittle. I had, naturally, intended to take a leaf or two anyway, because . . . well, how the hell could I not, you know? But one of the repottings was actually a division, and the two plants that were together were so intertwined with one another that every time I touched them, or tried to move a leaf aside to untangle something, something broke off. It was horrible. I mean, I have dreams like this. (Not dreams about Saintpaulia specifically, but dreams about finding something super cool and new and awesome and then losing it or destroying it somehow. Often in the dreams, the valuable objects in question are turtles, which has sort of been explained already.) In the end, I brought a leaf home, I kept two at work to try to start plants from, and the remainder (about 7-10 of them) I stuck in a glass of water to give to the owner, who hopefully will understand about the brittleness (and maybe appreciate that I cleaned mineral deposits off of the old pots for a lot longer than the boss would have wanted me to, I bet).

Anyway. So: did everybody else already know about these? What might the name of this cultivar be? If I'm able to get anything useful from the owner (places, names, dates), I'll let you know.

Just tell me, next time, when somebody comes up with something this cool. I mean, damn. I tell you guys.

UPDATE: So I talked to her a couple hours ago, and she said that she had no idea where it came from, that her sister-in-law had given them to her a long time ago. She was able to tell me that it blooms, and the flowers are infrequent and light yellow. So, not a lot of information, but still more than I knew before.

I hope everybody does go and check out alenka's links, in comments: some very cool, weird, or cool and weird stuff there.

SECOND UPDATE: All of the leaves at work or at home have already failed as of 28 December 2007. This isn't really surprising to me, given the general coldness and wetness at this time of year, and my inexperience with Saintpaulia.

THIRD UPDATE: There is now a Saintpaulia ionantha cvv. profile post up, if anyone reading this is interested.

Basket Case (Ficus benjamina)

I'm going to attempt something in the next several plant profiles, which is possibly too cute for words and therefore not really worth doing, but you know me, always pushing the envelope. So this is going to be the first of a series of five plant profiles constructed around the movie The Breakfast Club. Why? Well, it sort of had to happen sooner or later. I mean, how perfect, for a blog built on archetypes/stereotypes, is a movie full of pretty people who are all fictional examples of five arche-/stereotypes? I mean, come on. It's so perfect.

So there will be, in some order, an Athlete, a Brain, a Princess, a Basket Case, and a Criminal. This may take a while to get to; I'm having some difficulty coming up with much to say about the plant I was going to use for the Brain. So there may be the occasional non-Breakfast Club profiles until I can get it together. And we'll see how that goes.

Because Ally Sheedy is my favorite (except at the end of the movie where Molly Ringwald pretties her up: she was waaaaaaaay more interesting before and should have been left the hell alone. But I still like her best, even after.), we're going to start with Basket Case, which means Ficus benjamina, which you knew because it's written a few inches above this in big letters and you read it already.

Why Basket Case? Well. Ficus benjamina is famous for dropping tons of leaves at once over minor changes, or major changes, or because it's Tuesday, or whatever. And everybody thinks that this is a totally arbitrary thing, that this is just how they are, or whatever, but this is not really true.

My own personal Ficus benjamina 'Midnight.'

'Cause, I mean, think about it. This was a plant growing just fine in the wild at one point, right? Still is, even, as far as I'm aware. So what use could be served, if you're a plant in the wild, to just drop tons of leaves all at once over nothing in particular? Nothing. It's a slightly different thing to drop leaves in preparation for the winter, and it is my understanding that F. benjamina is in fact naturally somewhat deciduous,1 though it never actually drops all the leaves at once and the drop is not arbitrary: it's driven by the seasons and moisture levels. Arguments from incredulity are dangerous: any time you start a sentence with, "It's difficult to imagine why," you're leaving yourself open to contradiction by someone who has a better imagination, which will make you look stupid. But I don't see a way around it. It's difficult for me to imagine a way it serves the plant to do what everybody says it does.

And if we take that as a given, then we're left with the question, well, does it even do what everybody says it does? Does it really drop all its leaves just because it's Tuesday?

The answer, as I suspect you're suspecting, is no. Of course not. Garden Webber The Great Tapla the All-Knowing and All-Seeing, Destroyer of Worlds,2 says that massive leaf drop on an indoor plant is almost invariably due to a decrease in light intensity (or some other decline in conditions)3, and happens with nearly perfect predictability if you watch for it. And bless me, he seems to be right. I bought a F. benjamina 'Midnight' recently, and when I brought it home I had to put it in a spot where it was getting light from one side but not the other: I think every leaf it dropped was on the dark side. This has also tended to be the pattern with plants at work: the largest ones drop leaves at a slow but steady rate regardless of what else is going on, but the smaller ones pretty much only drop leaves when they're moved from a light spot to a dark one.

So that solves that problem. Pretty much. It's not like they won't drop leaves for other reasons, and if you have one that you've had for a long time, and you swear the light level hasn't changed, then there are other things to look for, but if you're seeing leaf drop on a plant that is established and undisturbed, then the things to check are the sorts of things you'd check for any other plant, and consequently not really newsworthy.4

Ficus benjamina lineup. (L-R) 'Too Little,' 'Spearmint,' 'Monique,' 'Midnight'

Ficus benjamina, as you may be figuring out from the above picture, comes in a lot of different cultivars5, and we have at least four of these at work, with one more ('Exotica'6) coming at the end of the month.

'Too Little'

'Too Little' is mainly used as a bonsai specimen, as far as I can tell: I can't say I've ever seen it grown into a floor-sized tree, though I suppose that doesn't mean it never happens. I'm not a big fan, personally: they're messy, and although the desired effect is a bushy plant, they don't actually grow that way: one has to trim back the leaders as they form, which means that they don't maintain a rounded, outdoor-tree form for very long. That said, I may be being unfair. It's entirely possible that they're awesome if they're well-treated. Most of our bonsai is in pretty lousy shape at any given time, primarily because neither WCW or I like bonsai particularly well, or know anything much about it, and so the whole bonsai collection kind of lurches from crisis to crisis.


'Spearmint' I like. We have a very large, floor-sized plant that is pretty well-behaved, and I've managed to get some cuttings from it to take (though not very many: maybe 10-25%), plus it's pretty. The 'Spearmints' were the worst about dropping leaves when they arrived off the truck, but 1) there were more of them to begin with, so my perceptions may be skewed, and 2) they were still not very bad about it, considering that they'd been in boxes on a truck for about a week.


'Monique' is, according to its tag, bred to be more resistant to leaf drop than most other varieties, and also has a more weeping habit. The leaves have wavy edges on them as well, which is nice if you like that sort of thing, I guess. Allegedly, the leaves get more ruffly in lower light (probably because Ficus tend to get larger, thinner leaves when grown in low light, and more leaf area means more opportunity to ruffle, though I'm told that in very bright light, plants will grow cupped leaves to shade themselves, which is kind of remarkable if you think about it). I haven't seen one all grown up yet, to my knowledge, so I don't know if the "weeping habit" business is hype or reality. They were pretty good about hanging on to leaves when they arrived.

'Midnight.' There is a 50-50 chance that this is the same exact plant pictured above, because I bought mine after I took this picture, and we only had two come in on the truck.

The main draw here is, as the name implies, the darker leaves, but it's really not that the leaves are dark as that they start out normally-colored and then become dark, so the effect on a large plant is of a big dark mass with brighter specks at each of the growing tips. Big specimens can be quite pretty, and unlike the variegated cultivars like 'Spearmint,' they're actually prettier from further away than they are close-up, which is rare. This cultivar is also supposed to be relatively resistant to leaf drop, and maybe it is, but I wasn't exceptionally impressed with mine on that count, once I got it home. Granted that it had had a kind of rough time, getting shipped up from Florida, with all the acclimation that that involves, and then going from the work greenhouse to my apartment, which means another round of acclimation, but the Ficus maclellandii I bought last winter lost way fewer leaves.

Maybe that's not a fair comparison. I don't know. I will say that after six weeks, 'Midnight' seems to have stopped dropping leaves and is putting on new growth. It seems like it's going to be okay here. 'Midnight' also seems to grow more readily from cuttings than most of the other Ficus types I've tried so far, though that could be more a matter of me getting better at doing it, not anything the plant is contributing, and the cuttings in question are hardly done yet, so that could change.

There are other varieties out there, but those are what I could get pictures of, and they're pretty much representative of the variation out there. Care for any of them is pretty close to the default plant: bright indirect light (though this is flexible: they can survive in a range from moderate light up to full sun), high humidity is nice but average or even dry indoor levels are acceptable, room temperatures (or warmer), water when about half-dry, or a little before. (Overwatering seems to be worse than underwatering, though they can adapt to a range of conditions, given enough time. Don't let them stand in water, whatever watering schedule you end up with: that never goes well.) They are supposed to be especially pleased if you can give them a summer outside, though of course this means that in the fall when you bring them back in, they're going to drop a bunch of leaves over the light-levels thing, so don't say you weren't warned.7

They're not especially prone to any particular bugs; we have trouble with spider mites at work, but we lean to having problems with spider mites on everything at work, because until recently, we had a gigantic F. benjamina that shaded an area maybe 20 feet in diameter, that had mites, which would fall off and get on everything else. The plant was far too big for effective pest management, and it was also tall enough to be interfering with air circulation and the shade cloths, and it was basically unsellable because it was planted into the ground under the greenhouse, so it was kind of a problem. To deal with the first few problems, I cut it back (as I was told to), and then somebody didn't like the way I did it, so it got cut back more, and then a third person thought that was kind of lopsided, and cut it a bit further, and then finally the boss said, you know what, we can't sell it anyway, so just cut it back to about eight feet tall and if it wants to come back from that, let it, and if not, we can get rid of it and stick something else there? And so it was:

The spider mite situation in that area has improved since, though the sudden increase in light was a problem for a few plants. The tree has elected to come back, though as you can see from the below picture, the new growth is laughably out of proportion so far:

It's not the easiest plant in the world, though like Ally Sheedy ("Allison"), it's not particularly difficult, either. It just doesn't want to be ignored. Why would you want to ignore it anyway?

(More photos of more cultivars, including the intriguingly-named 'Exotica,' can be found at the follow-up post here.)


Photo credits:
Ally Sheedy: from
Ficus pictures: me

Other credits:

Special thanks to Al / tapla for reading an early draft of this and suggesting corrections. For the record: the "The Great Tapla, tAKaASDoW" joke was in the version I sent to him, and not something he himself suggested.

1 (deciduous = drops all its leaves in winter) Ficus benjamina is from India and Southeast Asia, a region with distinct wet and dry seasons. The plant may, therefore, drop leaves if it believes that the dry season is imminent, as for example if it gets, you know, very dry.
2 (He prefers "Al." I just call him TGTtAKaASDoW in my head 'cause it sounds cooler.)
3 (Other decline-in-conditions possibilities: lowering of temperatures, being over- or underwatered.)
4 I'd check for overwatering, pests (especially spider mites), underwatering, and temperature changes, in that order. There could be other reasons, like root rot, but it's more work to pull the plant out to look at the roots, so start with the stuff you can check easily, and work up to the rest.
5 A contraction of "cultivated varieties." Ficus benjamina cv. 'Midnight' is to Ficus benjamina as Holstein is to cattle, or basset hound is to dog. At least to a first approximation.
6 I haven't seen anything that explains what's so great about 'Exotica,' relative to the others: the info we got from the wholesaler just says small leaves and "open" habit, which could mean a lot of things. The pictures I've run across look pretty ho-hum. I'll let you know.
7 It's still probably better for the plant in the long run, and it will definitely grow faster and better. It's just that it's also going to crash once a year. Moving the plant into shade first, when nighttime temperatures start dropping below 50ºF (10ºC), will ease the transition and make for a softer landing. Pick whatever approach seems most appropriate to your level of emotional stability.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Random plant event: Cordyline fruticosa 'Kiwi' flowers

Just bopping around the greenhouse the other day and saw this:

Yes, that's a flower. This is the only Cordyline fruticosa we've got at work, so I don't know if they're doing this everywhere, but we've got one, and I was checking out one of the semi-competition in Cedar Rapids last Thursday, and they also had one that was flowering. So it's at least not impossible to do in a greenhouse.

The flowers don't look like they're going to be terribly showy or anything, but they're something I've never seen before, so there you go.

spider content below.

I'm throwing in an unrelated bonus picture today just because it doesn't seem weighty enough to justify its own post.

The restraining order stated that Warren had to maintain a 10-inch distance from Katherine at all times, but that was not enough to stop him from buying a leaf in her neighborhood.

This would have been better if I'd gotten the picture a few minutes earlier, when they were on opposite sides of the same leaf, but oh well. This particular species, whatever it is, has been all over the place this year. They seem nice enough.