It's heartbreaking to have a plant at home that you care for suddenly start to decline over one thing or another and eventually die. Sucks quite a bit, in fact. It's a different feeling to care for a plant at work, have it suddenly vanish, and then have it reappear two weeks later dead. It's definitely worse when it's your own personal plant, but there's a whole rage angle to it when the death is presented to you as a fait accompli and the customer won't accept any responsibility for the situation.
I didn't actually talk to the customer in question, and I only saw the plant in the last like ten minutes of work, so I'm not sure what the full story is. Maybe the customer does accept some responsibility. But the thirdhand account from the customer is that he bought it a couple weeks ago, and it wasn't really looking all that good then, but he bought it anyway, and the guy he talked to said all it needed was a little bit of fertilizer and it'd be fine, and then he gets it home and it does this:
So okay. If someone in fact told him that all it needed was a little boost of fertilizer, then we in fact are a little responsible, because that was stupid. As I mentioned in the profile for Coffea arabica, a scant five days ago, this plant had been dropping yellowed leaves occasionally, as has my plant at home, the other biggish plant at work, the plant of a customer who asked me about this a while ago, and the plant at a nearby greenhouse. And I was, and remain, pretty much convinced that this was happening because all of these plants were periodically getting too cold.
And anyway, even if it had been dropping leaves over some kind of nutrient deficiency, we'd started fertilizing all the tropicals anyway (Yeah, it seems early to me, too.) before the plant in question sold. So any nutrient deficiencies it might have had had already been addressed.
So okay. Bad advice. But feeding didn't cause this.
Was it bad watering? I doubt it. Overwatering would have caused yellow leaves, they wouldn't all have gone brown at once like this, and they wouldn't have stayed attached to the plant. Underwatering doesn't work either, because I felt the soil: unless it had just been watered before he brought it in,1 it was in perfectly good shape. Also, if you look at the picture again, there's a second, smaller plant there that's doing just fine, which couldn't have happened if the plant was just dry.
Pests? Don't think so. I mean, first of all, I didn't see any signs of any, but also, the leaves aren't just brown: they still have a lot of chlorophyll in them. Whatever happened here happened really fast. Also the plant only went out the door a couple weeks ago, and it didn't have a pest problem then: it'd have to be a serious pest situation indeed, for it to take down a halfway healthy plant in two weeks.
Light? Nope. It'd be tough to give this plant more light than it was getting to begin with, and too little light wouldn't kill it this fast.
I'd bet money that this is a temperature problem. The customer, I'm told, insists that he didn't let the plant get cold on the trip home, but I don't think we can assume the customer knew the meaning of "cold" as defined by Coffea arabica. I mean, the customer might mean by that, I didn't let it get below freezing. And the plant (though you can't see this in the pictures very well) does have black tips on all the branches. That first inch or so is black shading into brown shading into green, on all the upper branches. Which is what you'd maybe expect from a plant that was in a little bubble of warm air, holding the plastic up with the tips of its branches.
Also the degree of leaf scorching makes me think that the customer had this in the path of a heat vent at home, or had it sitting next to a radiator or stove or something, too.
Anyway. (It's like an episode of CS-fucking-I sometimes around here.) So here's what I think happened.
Customer gets his plant all tied up in a plastic bag, and then either 1) chucks it into his unheated car and drives straight home, or 2) puts it in his heated car and then stops to run a couple errands before getting home. Upon getting home, he's thinking he's got to find a warm spot for it, so he sets it in a window a couple feet away from a radiator or stove or something hot, where it's also getting blown on by the central heat. And then he gives it a full dose of fertilizer. Two weeks later, when the damaged cells actually start to go black and fall apart, and the heat has sucked all the water out of the few leaves that are hanging on, he realizes that there's a problem and decides that because there were a couple yellow leaves on it when we sold it to him, it's our fault for giving him a defective plant. The smaller plant is spared the same fate because the hot air is being blocked by the bigger plant.
There is, as yet, no resolution to the story, but he was told to call us at some point today (Saturday) and ask for me or another person, and the other person has said that he'll hand it off to me when the call comes. So I, and you, will get to find out if I should apply for a job in the BCIU (Botanical Crimes Investigation Unit2) of my local police department, probably in tomorrow's post.
If somebody gave him bad information about how to grow the plant, beyond the fertilizing thing, then I'm inclined to cut him some slack and try to convince the boss to refund the money (which she will hate, but she'd probably still do even though, as previously noted, this is very emphatically not our policy). If, as is more likely for a male customer, he just zipped out the door having asked nothing about what it needs for care, then he kinda brought it on himself. We'll see.
All these cliffhangers lately. I don't know what's going on with that.
(Story continues at Coffea tragica: the thrilling non-conclusion.)
1 The same kind of psychology that leads you to floss right before a trip to the dentist, even though you don't usually floss, operates in the garden center world as well. Not everybody does it, but there have definitely been cases where somebody obviously watered their plant right before bringing it in to us, even though the plant was clearly shriveled and stunted and had been dry for some time. Wonderful Co-Worker and I have discussed this before, and concluded that it's like the floss situation, except that the only thing most people know to do for plants is water them, so that's the only way they have of pretending to be competent. It's cute, actually. People are great.
2 "Sir, if you won't willingly give me a DNA sample from your Dieffenbachia, I can be back here with a warrant in half an hour. Why not just make this easier on both of us?"