Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Stoner (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

I bought my first Zamioculcas zamiifolia in December 2006, and then waited for it to grow a new leaf. Or drop a leaf. Anything at all, I would have been happy with. And it just sat there. I moved it to brighter light, exhorted it to do something, dropped it on my own head,1 all in vain. The plant made me wait for thirteen months before showing any signs of life at all, and then, it did nothing more exciting than grow a single leaf.

Zamioculcas zamiifolia from work, apparently quite a while ago: we haven't had 4-inch plants in forever.

I also, a few months after I bought it, took some leaflets off the plant to propagate new plants, since I'd heard that they did that, and that also took a ridiculous amount of time to happen -- like nine months, I think. Some of them from that batch, I'm still waiting on, actually.

So when I started thinking about what "person" to use for this plant, stoner was my brain's nearly-immediate answer. I wave my arms, I stomp and shout and beg the plant to move, and the plant squints at me through bloodshot eyes and says, very slowly and groggily, "Whoa. Dude. You just, like, pick up your roots and go from location to location. That's so, wow."2

So if you're not a patient person, you might want to skip this plant. We did eventually negotiate an agreement: it's now growing somewhat regularly, at a steady, if not blurry, pace, but that's taken a lot of time and not a little experimentation. So don't say I didn't warn you.

This has become a popular plant in recent years (though the species has been known to science for over a century, it didn't really enter the horticultural industry until around ten to fifteen years ago) because it's unbelievably tolerant of a wide range of conditions. They will allow you to forget to water for months at a time; they'll put up with dark conditions that would make a Sansevieria trifasciata recoil in terror, they're okay with no humidity and are more or less pest-free, and so this has been marketed as the plant to show to people who don't know what they're doing, who have never had plants before, who aren't home much, etc. You'll find them under a bunch of different names, some more accurate than others: eternity plant, ZZ plant, fat boy, aroid palm, arum fern, money plant, zu zu plant, zanzibar gem, timbuktu tree,3 and cardboard palm being the ones I ran across in the researching. Around here, they mostly go by "ZZ plant," and I regard "money plant" and "cardboard palm" as referring to entirely different species. (This might be a good moment for me to re-mention my abiding frustration with, and hatred for, common names.)


And it's not that they aren't really easy, tolerant plants: I tell customers from time to time that if we have any plant that you could keep in a closet for six months of the year, this would be the plant. I expect that you probably really could do that, and the plant would remain technically alive, though not very happy. But it's not quite that simple.4

Because, see, the problem with keeping it in the dark and never watering it is, it kind of needs light and water in order to grow. No light and water, no growth. As in, no growth for thirteen months. You see where I'm headed with this.

So it wasn't that my plant was being particularly unreasonable; it's that I was abusing it, unknowingly, having been told repeatedly that it could handle anything at all and still grow. That turns out to be only half-right: it can handle anything at all.5 If you want it to grow, though, well, that's a whole different deal.

The business end of the plant is the tuber: this is where the leaves and roots come from. The tuber also stores water for the plant, which (along with other adaptations, like thick, waxy leaves and low rates of transpiration) is why it's able to go months at a time without water. Tubers are more or less potatoey, as you would expect: brownish, irregularly shaped, watery. I assume they're also toxic, though it turns out to be difficult to track down any hard information on how toxic, or even to find an account of anyone being harmed by one. Still, they're in the Araceae, like Dieffenbachia, so odds are. Above ground, an average leaf has a thick, slightly bulbous stalk, with maybe 10-20 leaflets on it. Individual leaflets are about one to three inches long, and about half as wide. The difference between leaf and leaflet may seem a bit academic, but it's important later.

Zamioculcas zamiifolia removed from soil, showing the tubers.

So on to the care instructions.

Light: Zamioculcas will remain alive with almost no light at all; filtered sun seems to be preferable for growing. (I tried bright indirect at one point, and that didn't really help: only once I gave it some actual sun did we make progress. The cause-effect relationship there is a little questionable, but that's how it worked for me.) I suspect that they could probably take full sun if they had to - the plants at work are currently pretty close to this, though the greenhouse roof does filter the light somewhat - though nobody actually advises this and the process of adapting to it might be ugly.
Water: The big killer indoors tends to be rot due to overwatering. This isn't because the plant doesn't need a lot of water; it's because it won't use the water if it's not getting any light, and people don't ordinarily give it much light. If it's got a reasonable amount of light, though, you're going to have to match that with a fair amount of water, and this is particularly the case in the late summer until early winter, when they seem to be most inclined to grow if they're going to grow.6 (It also tends to be the case that people leave it to stand in water,7 or plant it in heavy, peaty soils that hold water too long. You really, really, really need to put this plant in soil that will drain quickly, regardless of how much light and water it's getting.)
Humidity: Doesn't seem to matter.
Temperature: At least 60ºF (16ºC) at all times; 70-85ºF (21-29ºC) is alleged ideal.
Pests: I've never seen any on my plant; I couldn't find any evidence on-line that anybody else has ever had any pest problems with Zamioculcas either. Which, stop and marvel at the concept for a second.
Grooming: In order to need grooming, it would have to do something, so this is very rare. You may occasionally need to move plants up to a larger container: the tubers will grow fast enough under good conditions that they can distort or break a plastic pot. Sometimes new plants will be potted in heavy, wet, peaty soil that should be discarded and replaced with something faster, though that's not grooming exactly. Leaves are naturally really shiny; leaf-shiner is not recommended, and you should smack any salesperson who tries to get you to buy some.8
Feeding: As best as I can tell, they're not big feeders (you don't need fertilizer for growth you're not growing), though unless someone tells me otherwise I'm going to assume that one should still feed when active growth is happening, since that's how it usually works.

Propagation is an interesting enough matter that I'm going to give it a couple paragraphs of its own later on.

I couldn't find much information about the plant in the wild; at least one source told me that the plant is from Zanzibar and Tanzania, neglecting to mention that Zanzibar is Tanzania, at least sorta.9 And the range is, in any case, a bit wider than that, extending from Kenya and Tanzania south along the coast through Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. But so we're talking about the middle and southern section of Africa's east coast, an area which I'm told has fairly pronounced wet and dry seasons, which goes a long way toward explaining why the plant would need a lot of water to grow and yet still be prone to rotting out at the drop of a hat.

Zamioculcas is also what is called a (vocabulary word alert!) monotypic genus, which just means that there's only one species in the genus: there's no Zamioculcas polychroma or Zamioculcas trichophyllum or Zamioculcas infernalis or anything like that.10 Just zamiifolia.


The Wikipedia entry currently contains some really questionable stuff:

The leaves of the plant have been used by "sjamans" in the jungles of Ghana to relieve severe stomach ache. When consumed in large quantities it can be deadly. However, when cultivated with coffee for years, the plant can obtain heavy psychedelic effects, which are known by the sjamans in Ghana. This marvel of nature has also been used to relieve severe pains; however, the exact ingredients of the mix are not known outside the tribal structure of Ghana.

I did not see this confirmed, or even referred to, anywhere else. No reference for it was provided at Wikipedia, either. Also Ghana is all the way across the continent, on the west coast of Africa, which isn't part of the natural range of the plant. No reason why people in Ghana couldn't have brought the plant to them, one way or another (leaflets would travel well, I'm sure), but all the same, I call bullshit. I think that the author was either pulling our collective leg or had the plant confused with something else.11

Now propagation. There are a few different ways to propagate Zamioculcas, and they're all slow. The most obvious one is also the fastest: most plants sold contain multiple tubers, which can be divided into individual pots. This isn't done all that terribly often, because, among other things, individually-potted tubers aren't all that exciting to look at and don't make for a very full-looking plant. At least if you have three tubers in a pot, you're tripling your chances of seeing something happen. But still, division can be done. If you choose to divide your plant, handle the tubers carefully: they're not necessarily all that delicate, but any injury can leave an opening for rot to get in, and rot is the beginning of the end, so don't go digging into the soil with knives and stuff.

The slower methods are to grow baby Zamioculcas from leaves or leaflets. Entire leaves, with the stalk and everything down to the point where it meets the tuber, can be rooted in water, and will grow, eventually developing a tuber of their own, though as you may have guessed, this is a slow process. I assume that leaves would also root in soil, given enough time, though I don't think I've actually seen anybody recommend this: everybody who talks about rooting entire leaves does it in water, for some reason.

One can also propagate the plant from individual leaflets. You need a leaflet that's healthy (i.e., no fair pulling one off 'cause it's going yellow and expecting to get another plant out of it - though you might), but otherwise it seems not to matter a whole lot: basically what you do is, you plant the leaflet more or less vertically in some soil, water the soil occasionally, and wait until it does something.


Like I said, my fastest leaflet propagation took about nine months, and there are six leaves from that batch that I'm still waiting on (we're at seventeen months and counting for those ones). So this requires a certain amount of patience, but the silver lining is that it doesn't require any particular skill: you just stick the leaflet in soil, water occasionally, and sooner or later there are babies. I suspect the process can be sped up a little bit by placing the leaflets in a bright, warm spot, though I don't do that with mine so much because all such spots are either already occupied by something or are so difficult to get to that I'm afraid I'd forget about them and never water them.

If the leaflet dies while you're trying to propagate it, and turns brown and dries up and the whole deal, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a lost cause. If the leaf formed a tuber (which they will, at the bottom of the leaflet, where it used to connect to the central stalk of the leaf), the tuber will eventually get it together to send up a shoot, whether there's a leaf to supply the tuber with energy or not. How does this work? I don't know. Magic, apparently.

This plant is actually several tubers together; I forget what actually happened, but for some reason or another I was going to throw out a bunch of attempted leaves that had died, and found tiny tubers in there anyway, so for lack of a better idea, I planted them with one that had worked, so now I have four tiny little sprouts coming up besides the original one.


It's said to be bad to pull leaflets out of the soil to check on them while they're forming tubers and roots and stuff. I've done it myself, and still gotten plants, so if you've done it without knowing you're not supposed to, or if your cat (or husband) knocked the tray of leaflets you were trying to start onto the floor, there's still hope. But do keep the fiddling with them to a minimum. Either they'll do what they're supposed to do, or they won't, and breaking delicate early roots isn't going to improve your chances either way. I take a softer line on this than some people, because, you know, we're all scientists here,12 and it's important sometimes to observe things directly and see what's going on. So if you want to look at the developing tubers, by all means look. But maybe only look at one of them, instead of the whole trayful.



Zamioculcas zamiifolia, because it takes a longer time to reach sellable size than many tropicals, is often more expensive than other tropical plants of the same size. (I've previously noted that Rhapis excelsa and Aspidistra lurida tend to be the same way.) For a while, there, too, they were also somewhat difficult to find, though I think that's not so much the case anymore. I mean, we've had some continuously, or nearly-continuously, since I started work in the greenhouse, and I've seen them (less consistently) at the Lowe's in town too. Not so much at any of the other competition in Iowa City, but us and Lowe's at least. They should continue to get easier to find and less expensive as time goes on.

A few months ago, I ran into an article talking about a Zamioculcas cultivar, which is the only one I've heard of to date. It was called 'Zamicro,' and the selling point there is just that 'Zamicro' has a smaller habit than the species. It's also probably very hard to find - the cultivar was only "launched" in August 2007, according to the article, and as of last January only about 30,000 plants had been sold worldwide. I'd rather have a bigger Zamioculcas than a smaller one, anyway. Variegated would also work for me. But the plant really can't be rushed into making new cultivars any more than it can be rushed into growing or propagating or anything else. That's just how it is.



Overall, I'm positive about my experience with Zamioculcas, especially now that some propagation has begun and it's behaving more like it was supposed to. And it's not hard to take care of, and I almost feel obligated to be a fan of any plant that's as pest-resistant as this one seems to be. At the same time, whether I'd recommend it to you, or a customer, depends sort of on what you want from it. If you need a plant to sit in the corner and be pretty and take care of itself without needing a lot of input from you, or if you want a plant for a gift and you don't know where the recipient might place it or what they might do with it, this is probably as good a choice as any. A lot of beginning plant-growers, though, are looking for something a little more . . . responsive. Not that a beginner needs something that's going to drop a ton of leaves every time it gets dry, but just, you know, something that gives a little positive feedback when it's being treated well. Zamioculcas zamiifolia isn't that kind of plant. It's more the kind of plant that's sitting quietly in the corner, staring intently at the TV, wondering if there are any Doritos in the kitchen and whether it's worth it to get up to check. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not likely to get anybody all fired up about houseplants.

For further reading, Zamioculcas zamiifolia posts from affiliated blogs:
Mr. Brown Thumb
Water Roots

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Photo credits: mine, except for the map, and I didn't record the source of the map.

1 Which was accidental, but still -- if I'd thought it would help, I would have done it on purpose.
2 I picture Brad Pitt, in his bit part in True Romance. (Video here.) Your imaginative casting may vary.
3 Amazingly, both parts of "Timbuktu tree" are wrong: it's not from Timbuktu, or anywhere close to Timbuktu, and it's not a tree. I should start making a list of common names where every word is wrong. I know there are others.
4 (Is it ever?)
5 Or, almost anything.
6 I don't know whether this is how it's "supposed to" work. Dormant periods don't always happen indoors at the same times that they would happen outdoors, and it's also not out of the question that maybe the official sources (which mostly say dormancy happens during the winter) are making shit up as they go, and have never actually tried keeping one of these in normal home conditions. All I know is, I've been told by more than one experienced houseplant grower that Zamioculcas tends to start growing in about September, if it's going to grow at all that year. The plants in the greenhouse at work never actually stop growing, exactly, but there does seem to be a bit of a push above and beyond the usual growth that happens between about August and December.
7 If I could change one thing about the way people take care of plants, I would change the way people think about watering. I'm not sure who to blame, but the practice seems to be that people put a small amount of water into a pot every few days, so that the pot is never flushed out and excess water is never dumped. There are some plants that might do well with this, depending on how much water and how often - Saintpaulias, maybe, or a lot of ferns - and if you're growing plants in a very warm, bright, humid location, then that can work out, too. But most indoor plants need something very different: run lots of water through the soil at once, let it drain, dump the leftover, and then give the plant a period of drying out before hitting it again with another large volume of water. This keeps fertilizer or minerals from the water from building up, and it also eliminates the plants having to stand in water, which is a leading cause of premature houseplant death. I realize that it's a lot more convenient not to have to move the plant with every watering, especially if it's a large plant. But if you're constantly bringing home new plants from the store 'cause you killed your last one, how much plant-carrying are you really saving yourself? And anyway -- do you want the plant to live, or don't you?
8 In particular, you should smack salespeople who try to get you to buy leaf shiner for Zamioculcas, because if there was ever a plant that didn't need leaf shiner, it would be this one. But also you should assault salespeople who push leaf shiner for any purpose, because it's not good for the plant. Or the air. Or your decor (unless you're putting together a look that mandates that everything be really really shiny). There is one situation in which I approve of leaf shiner, which is, it's the quickest (and actually most effective, too) way to make that gray pesticide / fertilizer / hard water spots grime invisible. It's not permanent, and it's still bad for the plant (though it doesn't actually take a lot of spray: a lot of florists seem to overdo it, but it can be applied so that you don't really notice it's there), but it's a lot easier and faster than trying to wipe down each individual leaf with vinegar or milk or soapy water or whatever your particular solution is.
9 (Zanzibar became independent of Great Britain in 1963, after which it merged with another former British colony, the likewise newly independent republic of Tanganyika, and the two were collectively named Tanzania, a contraction of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Everything's pretty much been downhill since then, I gather, especially for gays and lesbians: Tanzania criminalized gay and lesbian sex in 2004. So the husband and I won't be looking for Zamioculcas in its native habitat anytime soon. This is kind of ironic or something, since arguably the most famous thing to come out of Tanzania was Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, and if you're surprised by this, join the club. I had no idea. In my defense, I'm also not really a fan of Queen, so I had no particular reason to know.)
10 The made-up names would translate as "many-colored Zamioculcas," "hair-leafed Zamioculcas," and "Zamioculcas from hell." I bet that last one would be pretty awesome.
11 It's worth noting also that Coffea arabica, also, is native to Africa's east coast, and so we're asked to believe that two species were imported across the continent, presumably long enough ago (i.e. before modern transportation) to be integrated into the tribal traditions of the native Ghanaians, and that the Ghanaians noticed that the Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which is poisonous and which they would not ordinarily be eating or chewing, produced psychedelic effects when eaten or chewed, and that nobody in, say, Kenya (closer to the native habitats of both species) had ever noticed this first and made it part of their own tribal traditions, and that this only happens when the two plants are grown together. While plants do interact in the wild, and have fights and conversations and all kinds of other relationships, the Wikipedia claims go well beyond the limits of what I can find believable without a lot more than just Wikipedia's say-so.
12 In the sense of believing that if you have a question, it's usually possible to find out what the answer is, and in those cases where one can't find an answer, it's not an acceptable substitute to say "it's magic!" or "God did it!" or something like that. (Yes, I know I said it's magic how a tuber can grow a leaf without having any leaves first. I was making an extremely dark joke.) Which at the risk of going off on an extremely long and upsetting tangent, I've heard some really disturbing things about how science is presented in M. Night Shyamalan's recent abomination The Happening, particularly in a reported early scene where a science teacher (a science teacher, for the love of Pete!), is portrayed as telling a student that the best scientific answer to the question of what's going on with the honeybees and colony collapse disorder is "It's an act of nature that we can't understand." Friends! Romans! Canadians! This is not science! It's not even doing a good job of pretending to be science! Science, if anything, operates entirely on the assumption that all acts of nature are things that we can understand, at least in theory, at least eventually. To have a science teacher, in a widely-watched (if not widely loved) movie, say something like this, is to completely misrepresent science and everything it stands for. If I sound a little over-the-top and hysterical, well, it's a pretty over-the-top and ridiculous thing to have a scientist say (especially one who, I gather, is eventually shown figuring out the answer to the whole situation -- it'd be different if he were otherwise portrayed as a really dumb, or evil, or crazy scientist). There's not really a nuanced, well-maybe-they're-both-right position to take here. Science as (apparently) portrayed in the movie is as much like real science as a file cabinet with a sticker on it saying "cow" is like an actual living bovine. The sad(-der) part being that science education in the States, at least, is already so watered down that I'd be shocked if more than a handful of any audience choked on that line at all, or understood why it was wrong.


61 comments:

Colleen said...

"Stoner" is the perfect persona for ZZ plant! I definitely agree that it's a good gift plant if you're unsure about how the recipient will care for it.

I was going to try propagating one, but I'm just not that patient :-)

Tons of good info here. And the footnotes are full of good stuff! This was a fun read.

Water Roots said...

Ha ha ha...yup, stoner is a perfect fit. Slow growth for sure, but a definitely easy-to-care for plant. I love it... I also have not had any pest problems with it since I brought it home. So maybe insects and such just don't like it (bad taste?). It would be nice...

Lance said...

This made me laugh, somehow the thought of a plant contemplating Doritos was funny. If not a bit cannibalistic of them.

On the other hand, mine did bloom last winter. An interesting if not pretty event. I should have taken photos of it. And I gather that it seeded, because I had a small plant show up in a close by pot. Unfortunately my sprinkler system decided to fail while I was out of town over memorial day and the small seedling was one of my two fatalities.

sheila said...

I love zz plants. I much prefer growing them in bright indirect light; they tend to get sprawly and floppy in the dark, although they will survive there at least, if not overwatered.

As for "The Happening", yeah, the science was pretty lame, as was much of the rest of the movie. But it's fun to see a movie with plants as one of the characters. "Music and Lyrics" is the only other recent one that comes to mind, and the plants had a very minor role there.

Aiyana said...

Large ZZ plants (expensive as hell) are really beautiful. I saw one in a 15 gallon decorative container in the multimillion dollar Sunset Idea House at Verrado a few years ago, and decided to get one. I kept in the house for a year, but stupidly decided to try it out on the patio. It really took off at first, grew quickly and produced several offshoots, but I left it out one week too long in late spring and it burned. I kept trying to grow the new leaves as the plant was dying. Just last month the final leaf bit the dust. If I ever get another one, it will remain in the house year-round.
Aiyana

nexstitch said...

Thanks for all this great information! I've got two plants that I've practically killed (I have a brown thumb) and I'm trying to figure out how to save them. Apparently, I'm an over waterer. :(

Anonymous said...

I got a ZZ plant as a gift and it is growing like crazy. I have little babies coming up by the 10's. I have had to cut my branches about 3 times in the past 6 months because they get too long and hang to the floor. How do I keep them from hanging? the stems just get too big and almost pull themselves out the the soil. Any suggestions?
Rachael
Orange Beach, Alabama

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, what I've been told is that they stretch out when they're in low light. Never really heard of any "hanging," though, so I'm not sure that's your problem.

When they pull themselves out of the soil, the roots look okay? Abundant, firm, whitish? 'Cause I could maybe see rot being able to do that.

I dunno. Kinda stumped. Do you have any pictures of the plants doing this? It might be easier to guess what's going on if there were a picture.

Anonymous said...

The plant was trimmed about two weeks ago. The longer limbs were touching the ground when I trimmed it. The limbs haven't come out of the ground. It is more like they break off and the limb starts to die. I don't know. I didn't even know what kind of plant it was until today. I do love it of all my indoor and outdoor plants. Thanks for the help. I don't have a blog so I cannot figure out how to add a picture. Any suggestions?
Rachael
OB, Al

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, I'm not sure what to tell you. You could ask at Garden Web; the Houseplants forum has a lot of people on it, and if this is something that happens often, surely someone will have seen it before.

Sites like Photobucket.com will host pictures for you if you set up an account with them; there are other picture-hosting sites but I can't think of them at the moment. So that's not that big of an issue.

Sorry I couldn't be more help.

Snazzy_Sara said...

I really enjoy your posts, Mr. Subjunctive! You present useful info in a clever and witty manner, which I love! I just bought my first zz today and am slightly dismayed to hear of its slow growth. I kinda figured such would be the case as the specimen had a hefty price tag for its size. I'm still in love with my zz though, and will try my darnest to get it to grow well and thrive over time!

Anonymous said...

good article, i didn't even know the name of my plant when i bought it in china town here in chicago, the lady who sold it to me called it a fortune plant. it did nothing for 2 months until i re-potted it and used a fertilizer spike. i now have a huge stem that is sprouting. i am already counting the leaves at 12 sets of leaves, and there are still more hidden. i am very excited to see this thing grow. thanks for the article

Anonymous said...

i really love my ZZ here in my office. actually it is the only plant which is decently surviving here as watering plants is often forgotten if i am not around for some time.
I bought it last year in August or September and now it has 3 new stems already which were really shooting up int he air like a rocket and if i see it correct, there is another one just popping up. So it doesnt seem to be very slow here actually. So probably the less water it gets, the better haha :D.

idalingi said...

Great blog! ;-)

ChicagoLizard said...

I love my ZZ. It was given to me as a house-warming gift when I moved into a new apartment. It was one stalk about eight inches tall in a four-inch ceramic pot.

It's been about three and a half years. It lives on my almost 100% shady patio in the summer and comes in when the temp starts dropping below 50 F (I am in the Chicago area). It sits inside the patio window (where needless to say it gets even less light - maybe an hour of direct sunlight a day). I water it maybe twice over the course of the winter. In the summer, I water every few weeks. I think I've been fertilizing about twice a year.

The plant is now in a twelve-inch pot and has 20 stalks. Three of them are new within the last two weeks, so there could still be more during this spurt. There are also a couple "sprouts" that look live maybe some leaves rooted themselves (they don't have the spiral stalk appearance at all, much more reedy, but the leaves are the same).

I think it likes being deprived of water. I let it dry out completely - to the point where my finger can't dig deep enough to find moist soil- and then I drench it. But not very often.

It is the only plant that my cats haven't been able to kill. They did like to bite holes in the leaves (not eat it, not even really chew it, just bite it).The hard shiny leaves made it possible to apply one spraying of Bitter Apple so it would taste bad to the cats, and they haven't gone near it since.

The only think I haven't tried is dividing it - I have so much plant to share, and I love this one,so I think I should try dividing it and giving some away.

I recommend it as a starter plant, from the perspective of the likelihood of success. It's really hard to kill. When in doubt, stop watering.

Enjoy!

paivi said...

I did not know what this post was all about until I moved house a few months ago. Before, the ZZ was on an east window and growing quite fast (it's huge now). Now it's sitting in a dark corner and has not really shown many signs of life lately - except that the top-most leaves have developed small round spots. The appearance isn't spider-mitey, but rather reminds me of Dalmatians. I guess this is because of low light?

By the way, Mr Subjunctive, your blog is made of great and awesome.

mr_subjunctive said...

I don't know what the spots would be; this isn't something I've seen before, whether in low light or not. Are they raised? Sunken? Black? Yellow? Gray? Do they rub off? It's unlikely to be something serious, but I couldn't rule it out without seeing the plant, either. . . .

(Also, thank you.)

paivi said...

They are small, round, necroid brown spots mainly affecting the topmost (oldest?) leaves on some stems. I'll try to take a picture, if you're interested. I've never seen this on other ZZ plants either.

I looked for pests, but there are none, and the plants seems to be fine otherwise, so I'm not overly worried, yet. Might have been caused by soil that was too dense, or maybe lack of light.

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, I'd be more worried about raised bumps, especially if they came off, so this seems reassuring somehow. If new spots were appearing, I'd be worried, but since they're apparently not, I'm inclined to shrug and go on. If you see new ones, take a picture and I'll look at it (and probably stroke my chin and say, "Hmmmmm").

Anonymous said...

Great article!

There's a couple plants at work that I plan on stealing. I think they're ZZ plants, but I'm not sure. Can I get someone's opinion?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/14121122@N06/4293614564/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/14121122@N06/4292871603/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/14121122@N06/4291822090/

mr_subjunctive said...

Anonymous:

Hell, I'll give you two opinions:

1) Yes, they're Zamioculcas.
2) Stealing is wrong in general; stealing plants is really wrong.

JC said...

Thanks for the blog! I recently received a forwarded email that says ZZ are poisonous, and if left beside other plants, it will kill them off!! Sounds ridiculous, but I'm concerned, bcos I have 3 ZZ plants in my house, plus many other plants! Any comments on this?

mr_subjunctive said...

JC:

Find the person who sent you that e-mail, and slap them for being an idiot.

Unless it was your mother, in which case skip the slapping and just tell her she's an idiot. I mean, she's your mother. You should be respectful.

There are two tiny grains of truth to this. One, Zamioculcas most likely is technically toxic if eaten. I haven't seen anything specifically addressing its toxicity, but the whole rest of the family is dangerous to one degree or another, so it stands to reason that you don't want to throw any into your salad.

Two, there are plants out there which produce chemicals to inhibit the growth of anything else nearby. Walnut trees (Juglans) are one of the better-known examples. This is called allelopathy, and it's a real thing. However:

-as far as I know, nobody has ever shown Zamioculcas to be an allelopathic plant.
-even if it were an allelopathic plant, usually the inhibiting chemicals are pumped into the soil from the roots; so it's only a thing if the two plants involved are planted in the same soil. Separate containers wouldn't do it.
-a few plants can produce allelopathic chemicals in the leaves, which then inhibit growth when they fall around the plant. In a couple extreme cases, water running off the leaves can pick up the allelopathic chemicals and basically clear the soil of everything under the plant's dripline. But again, even if Zamioculcas were one of these plants, which as far as I know they are not, nobody waters a windowsill full of potted plants by showering water on them from overhead.

So to sum up: it's a crock. You can grow ZZ plants near other plants. They'll all be fine. I do it myself. Now e-mail this person back to let them know the people who produce the Oxford English Dictionary have removed the entry for "gullible."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very informative and fun to read post! I received a zamioculcas from my mother-in-law eight months ago and we have been very happy with each other (the plant and I; MIL and I, not so much). I have dutifully neglected it in a hot, dry room, watering once every two weeks or so, and lo and behold! I now see two new shoots coming up. The excitement was too much for me - I urgently needed to understand more about my thriving plant, and here it is!
Thank you! Now I plan to go see if you have written on succulents...

Oliver from Malta said...

Hi, it's been one ear since I read your article and plucked two leaves from my Zamio and stuck them in the soil next to the main plant. I pulled them out and voila I have a small tuber with the leaves, I replanted them in separae small pots and I'm encouraged so next weekend I'll make another 8.
Thanks for your great informative article.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested if it is normal for a plant to be spotty? I've seen pictures on the net, some are, some are not. (mine is)
and also, mine never had a flower.. I have been very patient with it, and it has grown much in the past 2 years, but still no flowers. Any advice on that?
thanks

Blog is superb, and ZZ even more:)
I love mine very much, it really is a great plant, and i recommend it to everyone.

mr_subjunctive said...

Anonymous:

Spots are normal, as is lack of flowers. I don't think I've ever seen a Zamioculcas flower, but even if it did, flowers in the Araceae aren't pretty, and the pollination requires the presence of fairly specialized insects in the cases I'm familiar with (see this post about Dieffenbachia flowers, and this post about Philodendron bipinnatifidum).

So, yeah. Everything perfectly normal.

emily said...

well mr s, i'm a fairly recent but faithful reader of your blog and you've just inspired me to take drastic measures with my zz, which i have heretofore all but killed. i promise not to hold you responsible, for which i'm sure you're grateful.
i have tried my zz in several locations--all inside--including indirect light, very little light, fluorescent light, but never outside. i have a glass top table (which is usually very messy) under an old redbud. so between the filtered light from the trees and the messy table i'm thinking i can provide it heat and actual sunlight but keep it dry until i decide to water it.
i would so like to see some kind of growth. i feel pathetic wanting so much from this stupid plant. do you have any advice besides a sandier soil (which i also plan to provide)?

mr_subjunctive said...

emily:

Not really; the only thing I can think of is that if it's outside and warm, it will probably need water more often than you would think. And depending on how you think, that might or might not be true.

I dunno. Moving it outside should encourage it to do something if it's going to, and even if it doesn't do anything, spending some time outside almost never hurts a plant, unless it's the wrong season, it's not acclimated to the increase in light (not likely to be a problem in your case), or the owner forgets to bring it in before it gets cold. See what happens.

emily said...

thanks mr s, that's pretty much what i think too. i mean, what's the worst that happens? i kill it entirely and i start all over with a new one? i was headed down that path anyway.
i really appreciate your reply. you have a terribly entertaining blog here. can't wait to find the time to read your back entries.

Anonymous said...

I read your page in 2009, made 2 leaves in potting compost and grew new leaves early this summer. At the same time I made 8 more leaves. Now the original 2 cuttings one of them sprung 2 new shoots so that's 3 in 1 growing season. of the 8 new ones 5 have made shoots in just 3 months! each shoot has 4 leaves. I guess its because of the heat and daily watering. they are in an east facing window with plenty of sun from 9 to 12 through tinted glass. Temperature is 25ºC-30ºC and humidity above 70%.

Great blog always enjoyable to read!

O, Malta EU

Moriah said...

Why Hello there, Mr. S

I wanted to ask you about a similar situation Paivi mentioned (brown spotting). This seems more like some kind of mold and DOES scratch off, and is mainly located on some of the older stalks. I hadn't noticed it before, but I just moved to a new house and came home after being gone all weekend. I'm quite worried as I've had this plant for ages. It's right in front of a window and gets an ample amount of sun, but isn't so directly in the light that the stalks could be burned. Here are some photos of the fuzzy stuff.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/52436863@N05/4983891934/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/52436863@N05/4983891054/

mr_subjunctive said...

Moriah:

Well, I was going to tell you that I've never seen anything like that before, but then I looked at my own personal plants, and found the same thing on one of the leaves of the largest one, but not any of the other leaves or any of the other plants. (I have seven, six of which are starts from single leaves.)

I don't think it's anything to worry about. If it were an insect, then it's a substantial coincidence that mine would be in the same place (the petiole connecting the leaflet to the stalk). I'd also expect them to have spread to other plants, but I don't see any evidence that that has happened, and the plant doesn't appear otherwise unhealthy. I have no good theories about what it is (edema or mold would affect more than one leaf; mechanical injury wouldn't usually scrape off), but I don't plan to lose sleep over it.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I've been growing Zamioculcas Zamiifolia for over 10 years. I have been plagued with a sort of bug which creates small tan lines horizontally across the stems. I also have tan color areas (like dry decay) where the leaf joins the stem.

I've searched and no one seems to report these issues but I would like to know how to handle ... I've been cutting off the stems that sport either, but this leaves my plants quite sparse.

Has anyone seen this before and what is the best solution? Thanks!!

mr_subjunctive said...

Anonymous:

I addressed this earlier in the comments; I think it's just how the plant grows, and it isn't a bug.

lyss said...

I was so happy to read this post! I was actually searching for someone who could tell me when it's time to re-pot my zamioculcas (could you tell me that?). I've only had mine since February when I bought it and a spider plant (my first house plants ever).

You're right, it's a really chill plant that looks rich and deep and there's nothing you can do but hope it knows what it's doing.

About a week and a half ago, a little sprout shot up so fast, growing about an inch a day. Just a couple days ago it stopped growing so fast, but man it was such a rush, especially since I live in a dusty brown city in the desert!

Thanks for the post--I feel like I know my plant a bit better now.

mr_subjunctive said...

lyss:

When to repot is a hard question. With mine, I mostly wait until the tubers are pushing on the sides of the pot and/or when it's drying out noticeably faster than it used to. I wouldn't worry about repotting yours for a while, unless you have a decorative pot (with drainage holes!) that you really want to use or the plastic pot it's in won't even flex anymore, because it's so tightly packed with tubers.

When you do decide to do it, of course, don't put the plant in a much larger pot -- it won't appreciate the extra room to grow, and will probably die. The usual rule of thumb is to go with a pot no more than two inches (in diameter) larger. If you're using an exceptionally gritty, fast-draining mix, and potting in clay, you might be able to do three or four, but I wouldn't recommend trying.

Anonymous said...

So much good info ... thank you. I bought a ZZ plant online and it came a couple of days ago. It's in a 6" plastic pot and the soil is very, very wet. Now I'm concerned that I should repot and put in a clay pot with different type of soil. Just don't want to do anything to it too soon after getting it. Any opinions?

mr_subjunctive said...

Anonymous:

I'd lean toward going ahead and repotting now: if the soil is peaty, it's never not going to be a problem, and you may as well get it out of the way while the days are long and warm. Unless you're in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case I'm not sure what you should do.

William said...

Wow this is a super long web page. I bought my ZZ plant about 3-6 months ago. I put the pot in a short plastic bin to catch the water that I feed it and to give it some humidity. I guess the soil soaked up the water and kept the plants constantly moist, because all of the stalks/tubers have died except one, which is hanging on for dear life, though starting to brown. I just repotted it because I think the soil was not fertile enough. Is that why almost all of the plants died? I have one tuber, which a pulled the mostly yellow and brown stalk off of, and I think that it had a small green shoot, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Should I try propagation with the remaining green stalk (which is a little burnt because I put it outside for about a week hoping it would help)? Thanks. Sorry for rambling.

mr_subjunctive said...

William:

Most likely, the plants died because they were standing in water. ZZs that are kept too wet will rot. Soil fertility has nothing to do with it.

What I would suggest is that you take the one remaining tuber and plant it in the smallest pot it will fit in (probably a 3-inch pot), put it in a north- or east-facing window, and water when the soil is dry. (In a pot that size, you'll probably wind up watering about once every 7-14 days, though that depends on the temperature, amount of light, material the pot's made of, and various other factors, so check with your finger first.) If you damaged the roots or tuber when you repotted before, or if you do when moving it to the small pot, then it may well rot out anyway -- they don't like to be fiddled with -- but at this point there's really not that much to lose. If it dies, you can start over with another plant and keep that one drier, and dump the drainage water after watering the plant.

drnirmalaarun said...

The plants that I have are growing very nicely. But I found it difficult to trace it name as the person how gave it to me did not know it except that it grows indoors. My assistant had thrown it in open sun for some time (due to ignorance!!!) But nothing happened. It started growing well once it was brought inside. A secrete about slow growing plants is "donot look at them every day!!". You can't make out the change.
Nirmala

Marcie said...

Well, I have a spot in my entryway that needs a plant....a very low light plant. The net said to get a ZZ. So, I did. It was really big (they didnt have any little ones) and I thought I would just divide the sucker.....I didnt know about the tubers,I shook off the dirt and rinsed it, didnt see the tubers cause it was absolutely root-bound and cut right through the SOB. There are several "branches" in each pot (2 pots now) so I dont think I totally killed it. Jeez, I hope not. Will let you know....hmmm,in a year or 2????

mr_subjunctive said...

Marcie:

All is not necessarily lost, but you won't have to wait a year or two to find out: if you've killed any part of the plant, you'll know sooner than that. Odds are that some part of the plant will survive, no matter what happens with the cut tuber, if the plant was as big as it sounds.

Anonymous said...

Your post on this plant is a standout!
Informative, amusing, comprehensive, and a great example of an inquisitive disposition tied to great writing. Thank you for sharing!

Now on to Z.z. Some time back, when they were a little more pricey I had two in my living room. I have a sort of faux with windows facing north and two tiny side windows facing east and west. But it's an urban environment and they are in lots of shade from the tall building across the street. Northern climate, arid when the steam heat is on.

Those Z.z's did sit for a while as you describe, then they took off and grew like gangbusters. It was great fun to watch them frequently put out the new leaves which unfurl in such a charming way. They began to outgrow their pots and became out of proportion for their location.

This story has a sad ending. I became a new mother, my focus shifted, and the unattended plants succumbed. (A much sadder loss during that period was a Ctenanthe collected by an ethnobotanist friend in Peru.) I'm happy to report that my child is however a thriving 3rd grader, I seem to attend her growth with greater constancy.

I am now re-introducing greenery to my indoor life and have just acquired a pair of new Z.z's. Trying to remember what care they need I found your great site.

Now I will contemplate the soil these are in. I think it may not drain well enough. These were a bargain purchase at a grocery store, after searching for smaller ones at nurseries for a year or so. I am uncertain of my abilities to re pot by removing the tubers from most of the soil.

Anonymous said...

I have a distinct memory of encountering the ZZ plant in a hospital atrium in Atlanta about 4 years ago. There were three, three-foot round planters of this, and the plants were lush and thick. Makes me wonder about the slow-to-grow characteristics. I noticed the poster whose plant was drooping, was cutting (or they were breaking) off, yet lots of "babies" were developing...maybe this plant grows faster when you prune it?

Having a blast reading your blog :-) I deal with outdoor plants. A rooftop garden client asked me for advice on his indoor plants recently...I had no idea, 'til now. Thanks for the great advice!

nilla|utanpunkt said...

HI, although this post of yours is several years old, the comment field still seems to be kicking. I bought a ZZ on Ikea (! My excuse is hey're cheap and every plants I've bought there has positively surprised me). This guy however, started off being really fussy. I had put it on the floor, sort of mid roomish (it said on the label it could take shade, so). I watered it along with my other plants, kind of once a week. And it started to rot, of course. Still being oblivious and knowing I am a person who rather tend to forget watering, I was puzzled. The stalks started falling off, and I could see mould on the surface. Then I got it. Stopped watering it - completely - and put it in a north facing window. Whatta ya know, it started sprouting! And I am not sure if I think it's slow, I have a 20 cm long new stalk, it took a couple of months to grow. Still watering it incredibly little, although it gets light. I basically squeeze the leaves gently, and if they're still frim, I skip watering. The plant is blinking back at me.

ioana said...

I really enjoyed reading your article. I just recently bought a ZZ plant and I needed some infos and your article gave me what I was looking for. And btw, it also made me laugh. Thank you!

Ellen said...

I've had a couple of leaves (stalks) break off of my ZZ of their own weight...very frustrating, since it's a slow-growing plant. How can I avoid that? I've been fertilizing during the growing months with Peter's 15-30-15, which says to use with every watering.

mr_subjunctive said...

Ellen:

Not sure; I've never seen that happen. I've had leaves rot from the base and fall out before, so my best guess is that you might be keeping it too wet, or have it in a soil that's too water-retentive. (It could also be light-related, if the leaves are stretched from being in a dark spot -- they might weigh enough to twist themselves out of the soil, I suppose.)

Exotic Rainforest emphasizes, in his write-up for Zamioculcas, the need for a sandy, fast-draining soil, so if you're losing a lot of leaves to rot, you may want to consider repotting your plant into a mix that contains a lot of coarse sand.

That's the only theories I really have. Hope it helps.

Laura said...

I bumped on your site when I was searching 'zamioculcas seed propagation'. You did not mention anything about the flower. Can you add something on the subject of the zz plant pollination and its flowers? It would be interesting, can't find it out anywhere on the internet (or that it is very vague), on how or when or even what to do with the blooms. Thanks, and....you are wonderful. I like your humour.

mr_subjunctive said...

Laura:

I don't think there's really anything to do with them, under normal circumstances. If you have two different plants that bloom with just the right timing, you might be able to cross-pollinate them and get berries, which I would assume can be germinated in the same general way as Anthurium seeds, but one plant with one flower isn't going to do anything for you, and there are much easier ways to reproduce Z. zamiifolia anyway. You can look at the link in the comment before yours; there's a section there on sexual reproduction.

Anonymous said...

I was given a zz plant from a neighbor who basically told me to water it once a week and not to do very much else. Well, I did exactly that for the first two weeks and then I noticed the leaves turning yellow. One of the stems (four altogether)came off as I pulled on it. I realized it had rotted from too much watering.

I'm not sure what to do with this plant. I stopped watering it only to find that everything about it now is pretty much done. The other two stems, which were the actual plant, have now fallen off from rot. So, I pulled the leaves apart and have now planted them in some earth hopping that I can get new plants from propagating the leaves.

I hope my neighbor never asks me how the plant is doing?, I can't tell her that I killed it. Supposedly, you can't kill a zz plant. I am here to tell everyone, yes, you can, I did.

There is one stem left, it's a small one and it is still attached. However, the leaves are yellow and dark brown. So it's just a matter of time before that one bites the dust.

Can you give me any advise on what to do next. Right now, I have the leaflets placed on a basement window where there is light. The light varies during the day. I don't know where else to put them. I had the plant in my veranda with the shades closed, just filtered light and that did not help. Any advise would be appreciated.

meg m. said...

I am howling at the "stoner" plant...I went to U of Vermont, they should have them planted everywhere. Thanks for the heavy duty info. I have 5 that I have had for about 5 years. It's kind of like having a good hair day, all of a sudden, I have one in a room with 2 others and it send up 2 new strong shoots, and I am freaking out because I am not sure what I did right or how to replicate it. And the other two are right next to it...just sitting there.....most detailed info ever. I love this plant. Most people think it's fake because it's leaves are so glossy, but after I lapse into my diatribe about the toxicity of so many plants, it's surprising no one wants to eat my salad under my wisteria covered pergola...Thanks for the amazing research, writing and humor!!!

Vinny said...

I know this blog is old but I wanted to chime in. I have 4 zz plants, 2 were bought online, both were kinda scrawny but healthy. I didn't mind them being small because they'll grow. I keep hearing how they're slow growers but in just 2 years they have grown dramatically. They're thick and have beautiful dark green leafs. I water them with super thrive and water, spring time I start a weak mix of fertilizer and super thrive as well. During winter months here in Chicago I keep them in a south facing bay window and they're so used to direct light that in summer they sit on my patio with full mid day sun, no burns what so ever. I know everyone thinks they're slow growers but if you show them love they will sprout and sprout and sprout. Now I've started taking big leafs and rooting them in spare pots using rooting hormone and cactus soil. I think this plant is amazing and yes it can take abuse but treat it well and it'll be a very happy plant.

Anonymous said...

Completely true - given adequate light, water and food, these are actually fast growers. I live in the tropics and my nine ZZs get treated like "normal" plants, with almost daily watering. Temps are in the 80s to 90s F year-round, sunlight is plentiful (they can take a little morning sun, midday sun scorches them.) Soil must be fast-draining, though. I would guess that they have gained about two feet in height in about 8 months. But despite this. they still cost 2-3 times the price of everyday houseplants here. Sheesh...

KC said...

So glad I read this blog! Besides being hilarious and informative, it affirms that there is hope for the horticulturally disinclined. I got my ZZ from a farmer's market almost 3 summers ago and it is officially the oldest plant I've ever had/kept alive.

I live in a studio with limited floor space and the lighting situation is tough as well. So pair that with the ability to kill a Dracaena and that's what we were dealing with...So, after I'd had it a bit under a year, it began losing the few leaves it had come with. Once there was only a stem in tact, I replanted it (a little over a year later) then after a year and a half it died. Or so I thought.

I decided to keep watering it - though I'm not sure why. After about 2 months or so I got a sprout. I was floored. I mean, really taken aback. Since then, there hasn't been much activity; the third leaf on the single stem just made an appearance a few months back and I've just noticed a fourth today.

Nonetheless, I'm still grateful to have it. This plant actually caused me to develop an interest in how to adequately care for plants, after years of feeling indifferent due to my track record. I've since acquired two English ivies, a luxuriously long Dracaena, a plant that's been called an umbrella plant but isn't and a start from the above Dracaena. This might sound like nothing to a plant pro, but believe me, I've come a long way from killing cacti. As for my ZZ, I look at it everyday and believe in miracles.

Anonymous said...

I moved from the Usa to the Philippines. The zamio plant is not uncommon here. This year 2013, is the Chinese year of the dragon and the zamio is the lucky plant of the year. It is called the money plant here. I bought three individual plants and put the outside my easterly facing window last year. They now have about eight to nine growing tubers each growing briskly. They are about 3/4 meters tall. I saw a specimen in the Hong Kong airport. Wow!its was huge! I wasn't to divide them but don't see anything about doing this correctly. Each plant has about 3-4 sprouts and they look crowded.
I dropped a broken stem in the dirt ant new plants are sprouting after a few months. If I can get more information about splitting it would be appreciated.

mr_subjunctive said...

Anonymous:

1) It seems like just about everything is called a money plant, or a lucky plant, somewhere.
2) The only dividing I've done is in separating multiple tubers from the same pot, and that's more or less like you'd think -- you gently pull them apart until the roots untangle (or break off), then pot up the individual tubers. You shouldn't have to cut them apart from one another or anything: if they're fused, you should probably just leave them alone, since you don't want to introduce wounds that might rot the tubers.

Cheryl said...

I really loved your post as well. My two zz plants are in self watering pots from IKEA and growing quite fast. A large stalk broke off under it's own weight today so I'm going to try putting it in a vase of water and see what eventuates.

Anonymous said...

Moriah/MrSub I believe that is just the plant trying to heal stressed areas. (often from heavy watering after drought the leaves get heavy and break tissue resulting in scabs. No worries its just battle scars.