Wednesday, January 2, 2008

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 leavemethewhite.com; 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.


10 comments:

Yeray said...

I LOVE the blog and I love the bloggers brains. Hahahaha. If Mr Subjunctive wants a friend as far as the Canary Islands (and one that likes plants, by the way) here I am. angemonio666@hotmail.com

Yeray said...

by the way, I have just spotted a mistake in my previous message, an apostrophe missing... but since English is not my mother tongue I am pretty sure I can be forgiven.

shiver from GW said...

Hey Mr S, this is shiver from GW. I thought I'd post this question first to you, the houseplant expert: I saw a several stems coming up between the leaves on my fireflash, and I assumed they'd turn into seed stalks. Since I have been waiting to propagate this plant FOREVER I was quite pleased. But no, it appears they are turning into offsets---I now have several separate fireflashes growing between leaves, and I'm not sure how to separate them. Have you ever heard of this? I personally don't think I've ever seen such a thing...plants are indeed the strangest people!

mr_subjunctive said...

Hey shiver.

I haven't ever tried to separate them, though my plants have done that too. I really don't know what to advise, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if one of the offsets could be pulled away and rooted separately. If there's one thing these like to do, it's propagate, and they don't seem to object to rough treatment.

As far as flowers, I think it's a fairly strict time-of-year (or maybe length-of-day) issue: my own plants begin to flower during the first or second week of January, and so far that's been like clockwork. Though if you try to divide yours, that could set it back w/r/t flowering. I know I've had seedlings growing in early January that didn't flower.

shiver said...

Thanks Mr. S! I'll try to separate them and see what happens. :)

Anonymous said...

People in Thailand believed that the Chlorophytum X and other types of Chlorophytum as well, are named: Millionaire Plants. Here is the site:
http://naidokmai.blogspot.com/2010/05/blog-post_05.html

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. S.

I would love to have one of these plants, but so far I've been disappointed in my search. Where did you get yours? Do you know any retailers that carry them routinely?

Thank you!
FrugalFanny

mr_subjunctive said...

FrugalFanny:

I don't see them very often. Mine came from the place where I used to work (bought two plants there, and then the rest have come from seeds those two produced), but I've seen them in at least one other garden center, and Lowe's has had them a couple times that I remember.

I've sold them here in the past, but it's not clear at the moment whether I'll be doing that again this spring. I'm waiting to see whether adding imidacloprid to all the plants in the basement gets rid of my scale problem or not; until I know for sure that the bugs are gone, I won't be mailing anything out.

FrugalFanny said...

Thank you! Best of luck with the scalepocalypse.

If your fire flash plants produce any seeds, maybe that would be the way to go in order to be sure there aren't any hitchhikers on there. If I can't get any via gardenweb come spring I'll see how yours are doing.

Oh, and come spring, I'd be happy to send you some plant cuttings if you're ready/want anything I have. I have a trade list on gardenweb under FrugalFanny.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr S,

I recently just brought a chlorophytum amanuenses plant, (FireFlash). Your information help me understand how to handle and propagate this plant species. This species of plant likes temperatures around 20 degree Celsius in a subtropical zone. I have to wait and see what outcome of it propagation stage, which it is in flower. Indeed this plant is strangely quite unique in all aspects with its green leaves and brightly orange stems.