Saturday, January 5, 2008

Paranoiac (Euphorbia trigona)

This is one of a series of plants I bought during a quest to get one particular plant. The plant I wanted was Euphorbia ammak; I wound up buying E. trigona and E. pseudocactus first, and then eventually got two enormous cuttings of the one I really wanted from someone on Garden Web.1

The nice surprise is that all three have turned out to be great additions to the group, though in different ways. Euphorbia trigona had one quirk that I haven't seen anyone else describe before, though, which was: it waited to see if I could be trusted before it started to grow. Or at least that's how it looked to me.

The original plant had both of these stems potted together; I divided them when I bought it and gave them each separate pots. And then for the next year, they just sat there. The taller of the two got a little taller (less than an inch, but enough to be detectable), and that was all. Then, suddenly, around September of this year, they started to branch, and they both got taller as well, and now I guess we're off to the races. Apparently they finally decided that I wasn't going to hurt them, or something like that.

There was one other odd moment with these. At some point last winter, they both started to get brown and tan patches in the center of the main stems, though only on one side:

I never figured out what started this, and I never figured out what to do to stop it. The plants just kind of quit on their own. My best guess is sunburn, which fits in some respects (the affected sides were the ones facing the window, and the brown started with a reddish color, like some plants get when they're sunburning) and not in others (this all happened in winter, the season without a lot of sun). I suppose if it starts up again this year, we'll have a theory.

This is not a difficult plant to keep, though there are some things to bear in mind if you're going to get one. First, they are a Euphorbia species,2 and as such, there's some dangerous sap involved. How dangerous? Hard to say. I have seen one account recently (in the comments) by a guy who says he got Euphorbia trigona sap in his eyes and was blind for two days as a result. Also there was apparently excruciating pain. There are also a number of accounts of people getting blisters when Euphorbia sap (not necessarily E. trigona) dripped on them, and occasional, impossible-to-verify reports of people having reactions just to breathing the air in the vicinity of a cut plant.3 I suspect that there's some hysteria and suggestibility involved here, and also that people may be getting different species mixed up, but even so, Euphorbias are not wholly benign and should be treated with a certain amount of respect and common sense. Eye protection, in particular, is probably a good idea: they squirt latex when cut often enough, and the consequences if you get some in your eye are severe enough, that taking the ten extra seconds to put on a pair of goggles (or wraparound sunglasses, even) is going to be worth it, on average, if you're going to prune one. The only other thing I do with Euphorbias is make sure to have some paper towels handy, if I'm going to be making a cut. I try to cover the side of the cut closest to me with the paper towel, so that if it should squirt latex in my direction, I won't get sap shot into my face. (It's also handy to have paper towels because sometimes they drip for a while after being cut.)

For less traumatic plant maintenance, like picking off dead leaves, or repotting, I personally don't go to any extra trouble to protect myself, but then, I don't react to Euphorbias particularly. Occasionally I get a little itchy.4 Even so, I wash pretty carefully after dealing with these plants for any length of time; my skin may be fine, but if I forget about the Euphorbia sap and rub my eyes, I'm screwed. So I wash anyway. Rubbing alcohol is said to be useful for dried sap, by the way, if you find some you'd forgotten about.

So, if you have pets or small children, this is probably not the plant for you: even setting the sap aside, there are still thorns, and the plant does tend to be top-heavy over time. This is not a good plant for high-traffic areas, for people with small children that might stick pieces of it in their mouths, for people with large pets that could knock it over, or for placing on tall stands.

Now that I've completely scared you away from ever wanting one of these, let's talk about how you would care for them if you were to get one, which you won't.

Light and watering are the primary things to watch here; there are Euphorbia pests, but they tend not to be a huge deal. (At one time, I thought that mine had had whitefly, but I'm doubting this in retrospect; mealybugs or scale are probably more likely and/or more damaging. Euphorbias in general are pretty hardy folk.) Most propagation is by cuttings – just lop off a piece, let it dry for a few days to a few weeks, and then plant it. Start watering when you see new growth. My impression is that cuttings rarely fail, but are slow enough that they can try one's patience: I have yet to see the Euphorbia ammak cuttings I mentioned earlier do anything, despite having had them for six months (on the other hand, a E. lactea cutting I took at work has rooted already, so there's some variation from species to species and situation to situation). And of course you do have to feed once in a while, but that's not really a big deal. Light and water are big.

Light: These don't necessarily have to have full sun, but they do need very bright light or they will become thin and weak. Drastically increasing light intensity can lead to problems: if you're going to bring an indoor plant outside, do so gradually, in steadily-increasing intensity and duration. If you just chuck it out into the middle of the front yard, it'll burn and burn and burn.

Water: Euphorbia trigona actually tends to be a pretty problem-free plant, when left to its own devices. As with any succulent, rot is a concern, but it's not inevitable. Drench the plant with water when the soil is almost completely dry, then allow it to dry out almost completely before watering it again. If a plant has begun to succumb to rot, cutting the rot away with a clean knife is more likely to work than trying to poison it away with a fungicide. On a large plant, one may be able to cut away the affected tissue with a clean knife, though this depends on where the problem is located and how widespread it has become. If the plant's base is completely gone, you can still take cuttings and root them, as described above.

There is at least one cultivar: I'm unclear on the name, but I've seen it labeled 'Red,' 'Royal Red,' or 'Rubra.' It is, as you would expect, red:

I haven't seen anything to suggest that it is any more or less difficult than the normal green variety. (UPDATE: I did eventually get one. They're not any more trouble than the green variety, though the red color will fade if the plant's not getting enough light.)

E. trigona is often confused with another commonly-sold Euphorbia, E. lactea. The confusion is understandable; the stems are remarkably similar. Once a plant has branched, though, it's easy enough to tell the difference: E. trigona branches, once sprouted, remain close to the original stem, and grow parallel to it. E. trigona also grows small leaves on new growth: the leaves form between the thorns. In E. lactea, on the other hand, branches grow out away from the main stem at an angle, and may or may not ever wind up vertical. The result is that E. lactea has a more open, treelike form, and is thus unpleasant to bump into from any angle, and takes up more space, pound for pound, so you're more likely to bump into it; E. trigona is harder to hurt yourself with, unless you ignore warning signs about a shifting center of gravity.

Euphorbia lactea

Finally: I would hope that nothing written here deters anybody from buying one of these plants, if that's what they want to buy. I figure it's important to get people's attention, so they have a safe amount of respect for the plant, but it's not like the plant is going to come after you in the middle of the night with a sawed-off shotgun. It's all common sense, really, I swear.


Photo credit: all mine.

1 Enormous to the point where I was a little concerned that people might think I was getting severed human arms in the mail. Apparently, either 1) nobody thought that, or 2) people send one another severed human arms all the time.
2 Also: Euphorbias are not cacti. Very few things will rile up a pedantic cactus and succulent collector quicker than calling a Euphorbia a cactus. A lot of them have spines like cacti, they come in the same shapes as cacti, they serve the same general function in their ecosystems as cacti, you can root cuttings of them like cacti, and they are virtually interchangeable with cacti in every other respect, but they are not. Cacti. What's the difference? Oy. How about we go back to the main text and let me tackle this some other time? Or, if you just can't wait to find out, you could read this: it's not inaccurate, though I think it fails to make some distinctions that need to be made. It was the best answer I could locate, though.
3 Particularly the species E. cooperi, which has a fearsome reputation, and gets mentioned often enough that one assumes people aren't just making up stories about it. E. tirucalli ("pencil cactus," or "Firesticks") also has a lot of stories out there, and I'm more careful with that one, too. E. trigona, our subject here, has a lot of warnings, but few actual stories about it causing damage or irritation, and it's pretty widely sold, so it's clearly not a total ninja like E. cooperi that can kill you seven different ways in the blink of an eye. So don't panic: just don't forget what you're working on, and that you need to be mindful of where the sap is going.
4 Though, for itchiness, nothing at work has been worse than picking dead and yellowing leaves out of Ficus benjamina trees, which I can literally only do for a couple minutes before I have to run screaming to the sink. I suspect this is at least partially psychological, since I'm beginning to itch right now as I type this, but even so: there's something about Ficus benjamina that makes me itchy even when I'm thinking about other things entirely. My current theory blames pesticide residue, since the same thing happens sometimes when I weed under the tables in the greenhouse.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Random plant event: Capsicum annuum flowers

We got a few of these plants in the fall, and they all sold except this one, which has gamely been killing time ever since. I was surprised to see it flowering a couple weeks ago. A number of people have picked it up or looked at it like they were going to buy, but so far, our lonely ornamental pepper is always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

I tried planting seeds from one of the peppers, just to see what would happen, but I clearly didn't get something right, 'cause they haven't gone anywhere so far. Or possibly I'm just impatient.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

How Often Should I Water This?

WARNING: The following contains a bit of a rant. Readers of delicate constitution or sensibilities should not continue reading. Neither mr_subjunctive nor Blogger, Inc., nor mr_subjunctive's unnamed employer, nor Google, Inc., owners of Blogger, nor your internet service provider, are responsible for any injuries, whether physical or mental, nor any distress or anxiety, incurred by readers who proceed below this point. Readers with rant sensitivity disorder are welcomed to the internet and advised: You're so going to hate it here.

Maranta leuconeura 'Marisela'

How often should I water this?

Almost everybody asks this at some point, if I'm helping them choose a plant. Which is good, as far as it goes. I mean, you should want to know how often to water, the same way you should want to know how much light to give the plant.

And I always say, you should water this one when the surface of the soil is just barely dry, or when the top inch and a half is dry, or when it's dry about halfway down, or something like that. There's a subset of customers for whom this is not good enough, though. I've been asked, in all seriousness, how one would know when the surface of the soil is dry. And when I answer (probably with a stunned facial expression) that the way to tell is to, you know, touch it, they act like I've suggested something completely ridiculous and unreasonable. Oh no. No, I couldn't possibly.

Anthurium NOID

Fortunately, I have a backup, which is to say, well, you can pick it up and water when it's light in weight. People have, on occasion, acted like that's ridiculous, too. (You must be joking. Surely one shouldn't have to touch a plant in order to care for it. And I'm certainly not going to lift it. What are you, crazy?) At that point, I should tell them about our water meters, though I'm always so shocked and appalled (The stupid! It burns!) that it slips my mind that we have them, and anyway I've never used one so I'm not sure if I trust them or not anyway. Though I suppose for customers like this they'd be better than nothing. I mean, the plant is not going to communicate telepathically with you, to let you know when it needs to be watered.1

What people really seem to want is for me to tell them to water every Thursday, or every ten days, or only on the 15th of the month. They don't realize that plants don't use calendars, and don't know what day of the week it is. Plants need water when they need water, which is to say, when their soil has dried out to a certain degree. And even if a plant could be watered on a schedule like this, I have no idea what your home is like or where you're going to be putting the plant, so I couldn't give you a schedule anyway. A plant that needs water only every ten days in a dark, humid bathroom might need water every six days in a bright, warm kitchen, or every three days in a sunroom. The best I can do is make a guess based on what it would need in my own place.

Begonia rex-cultorum 'Harmony's Red Robin'

And this whole phenomenon makes me want to scream, and occasionally to throw things, because if you aren't willing to occasionally touch dirt or lift a pot, then you have no business owning live plants at all, and you should get the hell out of the store right now. Also, you probably shouldn't have an aquarium or a hamster, either, and you should definitely not be allowed to have a cat, dog, or child. In fact, I'm not entirely sure you should even be going home by yourself, so is there someone we can call to come pick you up? I mean, I know that there are people out there who have happened on a schedule that works for their plants, and they've been watering their jade plant (Crassula ovata) every Saturday afternoon at 3 PM for the last twenty years and it's doing just fine. But what the people who do this won't tell you is, they tried keeping the same schedule with fifty other plants, and the jade is the only one that survived.

So, just to be clear: if you're thinking about buying a plant, keep in mind that you may have to get a fingertip dirty from time to time. If this is too much for you, I hear they're doing lovely things with artificial these days.2 Watering on a schedule is not a good substitute for, you know, paying attention.


Photo credits: all me (my most recent batch of acquisitions from the Dec. 30 order, actually. Two birds, one stone.).

1 At least not right away. Telepathy takes months, sometimes years, to develop. I'm only sort of kidding.
2 This is a lie. I've seen the stuff they're doing with artificial plants, and it is my fervently held belief that none of it is lovely, and it's very rarely even competent. But if you're not willing to dirty your finger then I really don't care what your place looks like, and I sort of strongly doubt that you care either. Or else you care too much. Either way, I can't relate to you, so buh-bye.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I can has frog: the conclusion. . . .

Those of you following the harrowing two-day saga of the green tree frog I found in the box of plants (original post here) will be pleased to know that the frog has been placed in a suitable home. Apparently one of the Iowa City Water Treatment sites has a good-sized terrarium in its lobby, and my husband took him there this morning at the advice of the local animal shelter.

Since the camera was with me today, I have no pictures of the new home, but I'm assured that it's nice, and I'm encouraged to come by and visit sometime.

The frog could not be reached for comment.

Brain (Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash')

And in the thrilling conclusion to the Breakfast Club plant series, we have . . .

More name confusion. The species name is given in different places as Chlorophytum amaniense, C. orchidastrum, or C. orchidantheroides, and a few places say it's a hybrid and just call it C. x 'Fire Flash.' We will be emulating the example of the last one there, because I have no way of figuring out who's right, and neither do you (probably),1 and it's not the most important thing to nail down anyway. There's more confusion about the cultivar name: sometimes it's the poetic 'Fire Flash' or 'Fire Glory,' sometimes the bluntly descriptive 'Green Orange,' and occasionally the sort of opaque 'Mandarin Plant.' 'Fire Flash' seems to be the name by which it's most commonly known, so that's what we're going with here too.2

Care information for this plant on the web varies from site to site. I have not found it to have any really hardcore preferences whatsoever, though some sites disagree with me on that. I suspect that what all this confusion about names and care signifies is, it's relatively new to the industry (it seems to have first shown up in the late 1990s), and everybody just grows it in a way that's convenient for them and calls it whatever they think sounds best, and tries to inflict these preferences on everybody else. But I don't know for sure or anything.

What we have here is a relative of the spider plant, Chlorophytum comosum. It doesn't form runners and offsets, though: what it does instead is, it throws seeds everyfuckingwhere. The seeds don't have the best germination rate (in one set of 50 last winter, I got three to sprout; this seems to be more or less typical), but what they lack in vigor, they make up for in sheer quantity.

I couldn't come up with a picture of a flower: none of the ones at work or at home are in flower at the moment. If you've seen a spider plant flower, though, you've more or less seen it: the flowers are about 1/2 of an inch (1 cm) in diameter, white, and have six petals. They generally last a day. On 'Fire Flash,' the flowers are borne in groups, though, instead of singly like with C. comosum: a spike rises from the middle of the plant, flowers bloom and fade over a period of a week or so, and then each flower becomes a small triangular pod. (Flowers will form pods whether or not they're pollinated: like "Brian" in the movie, 'Fire Flash' is a virgin. At least usually.)

I don't know of any way to make the plants flower: both of mine were either already in flower when I bought them, or flowered right after I got them (which was in December), and neither has shown any inclination to go again in the year since. It's possible that they only flower once, but I'd guess that they probably just have particular environmental triggers that I haven't provided. The ones at work in the greenhouse haven't flowered since I've been there either. Maybe it's a day-length thing. (UPDATE: See this post for more about flowering.)

Spider plants also get these pods, occasionally, which I didn't realize until very recently: it seems to be a family characteristic, though spider plants' pods are beige to light orange, and 'Fire Flash' gets pods which are the same pink-orange color as its stems. The pods can remain on the plant for a long time: though they will eventually, left to their own devices, go black/brown and dry up, this can take weeks. It seems to be okay to cut off the flower spike after a couple weeks of waiting, which will make the pods dry up faster; I don't know if this affects the germination rate or not.

Seedling, roughly 9 months old

Each pod contains three rows of seeds, which are small (about 2 mm across), rounded, and black. Each row has three to five seeds in it. Plants seem to vary a lot in how many pods they produce per flowering, but 30-70 is more or less the range. If you do all the math, like a Brain would, you can see that one flowering is good for roughly 270-1050 seeds, which even at a germination rate of 3 in 50, means that you could expect one flower spike to get you between 16 and 63 new plants.

Getting the seeds out is relatively simple: when the pods turn black, they also become crumbly. You can open them up with a pair of tweezers and shake out, or pull out, the seeds.3 If seeds are kept in a dry, room-temperature spot, they seem to last for quite a while, though I assume the germination rate declines over time, and they can develop mold even in dry storage. I'm testing a batch of seeds now to see if mold makes them less sproutable. (UPDATE: It does. If they're moldy, toss 'em out. You can always get more.)

As far as sowing seeds goes, I've always just sprinkled them over damp soil and then covered them with a very light layer of dry. Nothing more complicated than that. Sometimes I don't even bother with the layer of dry soil. Judging from work, what's more successful is to throw them back in with the parent plant and go on about your business: I don't know if this actually improves the germination rate or not, but it's easier to get the soil moisture right for germination if you don't have to think about it at all, and if it's in with the parent, you don't have to think about it at all. If the flower spike is not removed, plants will self-sow eventually regardless, as we can see in this plant from work:4

Self-sown plants in the soil of an older plant

I transplanted my seedlings to individual pots when they got their third leaves, which is about three months after sowing, give or take a few weeks. Seedlings lack the orange coloration until they're about six months old and about three inches across, at which point they're still tiny, but they start looking like small versions of the plant they came from.

But wait! There's more!

In addition to being absurdly prolific, which would be a smart enough thing for a plant to do, 'Fire Flash' is also very difficult to kill. It tolerates very low levels of light. It also tolerates high levels, though with too much light the leaves will develop hideous black patches or bleach out to an unhealthy-looking yellow, usually both at once, so it's best not to get carried away.

'Fire Flash' is so easygoing about watering, I don't even know what it might prefer. Water it every day, water it every six months: it doesn't seem to have an opinion. I mean, I know it must have a breaking point somewhere, but I don't know what it would take. The secret to drought survival is, apparently, the little root nodules visible in the above photo, which store water. They have about the same texture and consistency as a potato,5 but as far as I've been able to determine, they aren't capable of sprouting new plants like potatoes are: they store water, and maybe starch, and that's all they do. On-line consensus seems to be to keep the plants fairly moist, but if you miss a week, or two, or five, don't sweat it.

Humidity levels are a big point of disagreement on-line, with some sites insisting that 'Fire Flash' has to have 40% humidity, minimum, in order to do well, and others not mentioning humidity at all. I can't say I've seen any evidence that the plants care about this either, and 40% isn't all that much anyway, so I'm inclined to say this isn't worth going to any trouble over. (If you see a lot of black leaf tips, you might try misting just to see if it helps.) Air temperature also doesn't seem to be a big deal, though one site says that they suffer chilling injury (undescribed, of course) if temperatures go below 50ºF for more than 12 hours, and I suspect I've lost leaves here and there from cold damage on the plants at home, which are near a cold window.

In fact, the only serious issue I have with these is grooming: the petioles ("stem" connecting the leaf to the stalk) are brittle and easily broken. Because of this, it's not a good plant for high-traffic spots. Old flower stalks go black and become unsightly, and need to be removed. Any tear in a leaf or break in a petiole will develop black marks outlining the injury. Unwanted seedlings may pop up in the pot from time to time in older plants, though that's minor: the only reasons you might care are 1) if you want some smaller plants or 2) if the seedlings get tall enough to cover up the orange stems on the parent. Black scorch marks appear on plants in very strong light, or in cold temperatures, and some of the plants at work have burnt tips and some don’t. So there is some maintenance, which is not intense but is constant.

I have seen the claim on-line that this plant, like Chlorophytum comosum, is extremely sensitive to fluoride and will develop black splotches and tips if you even talk about fluoride on the phone while in the plant's vicinity. I think this is probably overstated, but it's something to keep in mind if you have plants that are consistently getting black tips: make sure they're not hot, cold, or getting too much light, and then if that doesn't work, try humidifying and using distilled water. I water my own plants with fluoridated tap water, and they do have brown tips, even though I flush the soil at each watering. Whether there's a cause-effect relationship there, I don't know, but it doesn't bother me enough to try to change what I'm doing: the tips aren't that pronounced. Anybody whose experiences differ significantly from what I've described here is encouraged to comment or e-mail.

Clay pots might be helpful with respect to the fluoride issue, since they do have a tendency to concentrate minerals outside the pot. The main reason my larger 'Fire Flash' are in clay pots, though, is because the colors of the pot and plant match really well and I think this looks nice. Granted that as the pots age, the match is increasingly imperfect. But oh well.

It bugs me sometimes, a little bit, that more people aren't interested in this plant. They don't sell well, and I feel bad for them. At the same time, I understand. It's difficult for us to keep them looking nice: they especially suffered this summer, when the greenhouse got hot – and the fact that we had several of them in high-light spots didn't help either. I felt kind of the same way about Brian, in the movie – it didn't seem fair that everybody else pairs off and he's stuck writing the essay.6 With any luck, we'll figure out a way to keep them cooler and darker this summer, and people will realize that they're not that bad, but I suppose it can't take very long to saturate the market on 'Fire Flash,' either. If they're hard to kill, and everybody can make as many of their own as they could possibly want . . . maybe they're not really the plant to stake a business on. I dunno.

In any case. I think what we've learned here is that each of us is really a Ficus, and a Monstera, and a Murraya, and a Philodendron, and a Chlorophytum. Or something like that. As much fun as this has been, I'm not in any big hurry to try something like it again. Some of these were hard. Though ever since the comments for Criminal, a few days ago, I'm kicking myself over not doing the self-heading Philodendrons as the girls from Heathers, so . . . well, so I'm not saying it couldn't happen again.

UPDATE: Here's a link to an Unfinished business post on this plant, which includes a picture of the actual flower and some seed pods.


Photo credits: Anthony Michael Hall: from; all others: my own.

1 But hey, if you do, drop me a line.
2 There is an outside chance that the different names might refer to actual different cultivars, though all the pictures I've ever seen look like the same plant to me, regardless of what they were called. The differences, if any, must be damned subtle.
3 The seeds roll, so it's good to do this over a plate or something, if you're interested in maximum seedage.
4 We have little incentive to pull the seedlings. They could be potted up on their own and sold, but there are so many of them, and the plants are just not strong sellers. So they sit in there with the parent.
5 I have, in fact, been tempted to nibble on one, just a little, just to see what it's like. It'd probably be safe – Chlorophytum species aren't renowned for being toxic in the way that Dieffenbachia or Euphorbia tirucalli are – but it's probably just as well I've been able to resist so far, 'cause you never know.
6 A lot of my feelings on Brian in the movie are because that's who I would have related to best, in high school (college too, as far as it goes). I was a Brain, and most of my friends were Brains, Basket Cases, or both at once. Occasionally there was a Princess or Criminal. The Athletes were underrepresented because I was completely unable to relate to them and far too attracted to them, both of which bring down the quality of conversation.

Monday, December 31, 2007

I can has frog?

Um. So I was pulling the plants out of boxes and taking the plastic sleeves off them and attaching price tags and whatnot, and after a few hours of this, I look down in the box of asparagus ferns I've been unpacking and see this guy.

(It's somewhat alarming, by the way, to look down into a box of plants and see movement. Just in case you'd ever wondered.)

There's no point in leaving him in the greenhouse, because the pesticides would get him. I couldn't bring myself to do that. Mercy killing was out of the question also -- that's never gone well for me either. So I caught him and brought him home, and now I have no idea what to do. We gave him a shot glass full of water and a few fragments of roast beef (the theory being that frogs are carnivorous, even if they don't normally kill and consume cattle -- though what a PBS nature special that would be), and a plant for oxygen, but this leaves a lot of questions open, obviously.

I suspect he's probably doomed regardless of what I do. But I'm willing to try to meet him halfway. Anybody want to make any wild stabs in the dark on this one?

UPDATE: I'm reasonably sure that what I have is a Hyla cinerea, or green tree frog. As it happens, they're a popular species of pet frog, and they're even the state amphibian for two states (LA and GA). The down side is that they are said to need a lot of space: the articles I ran into on-line all seem to agree that a ten-gallon is the absolute minimum possible, plus there's advice about non-chlorinated water and sterilizing terrarium materials in bleach-and-water solutions before adding them to the terrarium, and there's all this stuff about crickets, and . . . well, and I need another thing to take care of like I need another piece of caucus-related campaign literature, so something is going to have to be done. I just have no idea what one does with excess frogs. Pet stores? Animal shelter? Still trolling for suggestions, here. . . .

Oh, and -- they don't eat roast beef, but then we kind of suspected that.

UPDATE: The story concludes here.

Random plant event: Dischidia nummularia flower

This plant was an oddball: both the only one of its kind that we had, and a plant I'd never heard of before. I got this picture of a flower a few days before the plant sold, but the lucky part is that because of the flower, the plant got my attention and I took a few cuttings before it sold. So far the cuttings seem to be doing okay, knock wood.

It's not that the flower is anything amazing or special. I actually walked right by it any number of times, I'm sure, before I saw it, and it didn't have any charming scent or anything either. But hey.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Criminal (Philodendron x 'Autumn')

Okay. So here's where things start to get a little weird. What could it mean to call a plant a "criminal?" What laws do plants break? What laws could plants break?

I mean, I suppose you could call invasive or weedy species "outlaw plants," if you wanted, and there's also the possibility that pot-breakers should be punished in some legal fashion, but, I don't know, somehow this wasn't a satisfying way of looking at the situation, to me, and anyway I've already done those particular plants, so I'd have to come up with something different.

So let's take a step way the hell back and ask ourselves what the contract actually is between a person and a houseplant. At first glance, it seems like the obligations are mostly on the human's side: we agree to water, feed, defend against insects, clean, mist, prune, and so on and so forth. But, the plant, in turn, is expected to: grow, keep itself more or less presentable, reproduce when requested to do so, and not give in overly easily to the attentions of others, by which we mostly mean bugs. In other words, the plant is more or less expected to be a 1950s TV housewife, but without the vacuuming-in-pearls business.1

In that light, a criminal plant would be the opposite: unattractive, no growth, unpropagatable, bug-prone, some kind of terrible joke of a plant that thinks you're just swell and everything but would really rather be out burning its bras and taking drugs with those dirty, dirty hippies.

Ahem. Perhaps I've let the metaphor get away from me. But still, you see the thought process. And in those terms, for me, there is really only one plant that's even competitive for the Criminal slot, and that is Philodendron x 'Autumn.'

Those of you who know me will have been expecting Syngonium podophyllum, and it's true that Syngonium and I have had our share of difficulties, but the problems were really entirely my fault: once I learned that it was all my fault, we've been getting along better. Not perfectly, but well enough that Syngonium doesn't qualify. Philodendron x 'Autumn' does.

I have had this plant for almost a year now (I bought it on January 6, 2007, so we've only got two or three weeks left before we hit an anniversary.). In that time, it has come as close to doing absolutely nothing as I think a plant can. Hell, even my Zamioculcas zamiifolia eventually grew a leaf, and propagated. 'Autumn' lost three leaves, and gained four, and that is all.

And it doesn't even look especially presentable:

As with the corresponding character in The Breakfast Club ("John Bender"), Autumn's problems are not entirely of its own making. There's been a little abuse, much of it inadvertent. I repotted it as soon as I got it home, just as I had done a few months prior with some similarly-sized 'Moonlight' Philodendrons (which had done beautifully for me, by the way, and are still looking quite fetching even as I type), and waited.

Eventually it became apparent that there was Something Wrong. It was staying wet after waterings way longer than it should have, like two or three times longer than the 'Moonlights.' A soil inspection turned up the fact that the poor thing had basically no roots anymore, and furthermore was in soil that would have been too heavy and wet for a perfectly healthy plant (if I'm remembering right, it would probably have been straight Miracle Gro), and had rocks blocking its drainage holes anyway.2 So it got brand-new, somewhat improved soil, and then, to my everlasting shame, I stuck it back into the four-inch plastic pot which had been too large and water-retaining for it in the first place. I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe I didn't have anything smaller at the time.

But otherwise, it got reasonably good treatment. It was watered when the top inch or two was dry (however infrequently that happened), it got decent light and a fair amount of warmth (it was certainly never cold), I never saw any bugs on it. And all it could ever muster were these little tiny leaves about two inches long, some of which never even unrolled all the way.

So eventually I took it out of the pot again, to see what was up, and – it still has no roots to speak of. Just a two-inch taproot, nothing more. So. I moved it down again, into a still smaller pot (now a three-inch square),3 and still we wait.

'Autumn' is rumored to be the most difficult of the four cultivars in its little clique: 'Autumn' is bad, 'Prince of Orange' can be reasoned with sometimes but is still kind of fussy, 'Moonlight' and 'Imperial Red' are everybody's buddies. I don't have any idea why this is: it makes no sense to me. (Your results may vary anyway.)

Consequently, though, 'Autumn' rates a much higher difficulty level. My experiences aren't necessarily typical, but I've heard enough things from enough people to make me think that it likes to be somewhat drier (hence: more rot-prone, more drought-resistant) and better-lit than 'Moonlight.' Not that doing those things will help you, if it decides you're not worthy of its respect: then it'll just make fun of your wardrobe and tear up a library book. But it's something you can try nevertheless. I suspect, too, that this is one of those plants like Dieffenbachia spp., where some people find it terribly easy and will read this whole piece thinking I'm insane, while others find it impossible no matter what they do and will be nodding their heads as they go. There are a few plants like that. (Pothos is another one: mine are all falling apart on me lately.)

In the greenhouse, 'Autumn,' 'Prince of Orange,' 'Moonlight,' and 'Imperial Red' all behave more or less the same: I haven't noticed any of them being more problematic than any of the others. Only at home has there been a difference. So it could be that I'm making too big a deal of the differences, and I just happened to get a specimen of 'Autumn' that was a bit of a bum. Time will tell. For right now, it's doing only as much work as necessary to keep me from throwing it in the trash, and that won't be enough to save it indefinitely. Watch your back, 'Autumn.'

EDITED 5/13/08: Decreased difficulty level from 5.1 to 4.4 after the combination of downpotting and public humiliation seemed to turn the plant around (see this post). It's still more difficult than the similar Philodendrons, but it looks like a lot of the mess was my fault.


Photo credit: Judd Nelson: from; all others: my own.

1 (Or, looked at in a more sinister way: 1950s housewives were expected to be potted plants, more or less, except that they also had to do chores.)
2 Whether or not to put rocks in the bottoms of your pots "for drainage" is between you and your god(s): I won't tell you that you have to or that you shouldn't. There's a lot of disagreement about the practice: some people always do it, for everything, all the time, and other people never do it because they believe it to be harmful. I personally fall mostly in the latter camp, though I make exceptions in the event that one is trying to move a plant from a standard-proportioned pot to an unusually tall and skinny one, in which case having rocks or clay shards or something in the bottom might well improve the inevitable center-of-gravity issues that this kind of pot always has. And there's also something to be said for doing something besides setting the plant down on top of six inches of wet, rootless soil, which couldn't possibly end well. The simpler way of dealing with this, though, is to just not use such a tall and narrow pot in the first place.
I myself always stuck stones in the bottom of pots for years, because my mother did and I assumed that that meant it was useful for something. In actuality, though, I think it generally either does nothing or impedes drainage, usually the former.
3 Did you know that round pots are measured by the diameter across the top, but square pots are measured by the length of the diagonal, by industry convention? A "three-inch" square pot is a square with sides 2.1 inches long. This leads to all kinds of chaos and confusion.