Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mealybugs and You

There are really a pretty limited number of pests that attack houseplants, when it comes down to it. Mealybugs, spider mites, scale, whiteflies, aphids, fungus gnats, and, if we're feeling really charitable and want to make them feel important, thrips. None of these are good for your plant, but some of them are considerably worse than others. And this guy:

is pretty much as bad as it gets.

There are a number of species of mealybug,1 and all of them are evil. The most significant, as indoor pests go, are the citrus mealybug (Planococcus citri) and the long-tailed mealybug (Pseudococcus longispinus), though there are others, including root mealybugs (Rhizoecus spp.). Root mealybugs are the vilest creature ever dreamed up in the fires of hell, and are too distressing for me to even discuss in detail here. If your plant has root mealybugs, not only should you give up on saving it immediately (you can try to take cuttings, maybe, if it's that kind of plant), but you should put it and the soil in which it was planted into a trash bag, seal the trash bag well, bury the trash bag, carve a granite monument to warn future generations of the dangers buried in that spot, and then salt the earth above the burial site so that no living thing will ever grow there again.2

But what we're talking about is the more ordinary (still evil!) foliage mealybug. These are usually light gray or white (occasionally kind of barely lavender or pink), and if they're off by themselves, they're perfectly oval-shaped. More often, though, they appear sort of ridged, like in the picture below,3 and have a sort of fringe around the outside of the oval. They may also be partly hidden under a fluffy, cottony-looking layer of wax, which is almost always pure white. The long-tailed mealybugs will have, guess what, long tails as well. All mealybugs tend to congregate in more cramped areas: around a cactus areole4 like on the picture, or in a leaf axil. 5

Pay attention to that "water" droplet. It'll come up again later.

Here's a typical day in the life of a mealybug:

You wake up in the morning and, if you are located on a plant, you begin to suck the sap out of it. If you are not located on a plant, you try to move until you are located on a plant. Depending on the sort of day you're having, you might also lay 300-600 eggs, mate 9-13 times, or take part in a three-way. Then you go to sleep and/or die. The end.6

The sap-sucking may or may not be a big deal to the plant: it depends on how severe the infestation, and how healthy the plant is otherwise. Some plants are also better sources of nutrition, apparently, too: mealybugs are an especially big problem for Hoya species (especially the 'Hindu Rope' variety of H. carnosa) and cacti, and at work we've also had to deal with them on Saxifraga stolonifera, Streptocarpus cvv., and Echeveria. No plant is immune, however, and there's no such thing as a tolerable level of mealybugs, either: they're always capable of stunting or distorting new growth, causing reduced flowering and dropped buds, weakening a plant to other attacks, and creating a mold problem.


Yes, mold. Here's the deal: plant sap has carbohydrates (=sugar) in it, mostly, and plant sap is the only thing mealybugs eat. However, all animals, mealybugs included, need protein as well, which is present in much smaller amounts. This is why life as a mealybug is so boring: you pretty much have to eat all day long in order to get enough protein to function, and all "functioning" gets you is the ability to stay in one place and eat all day long. But wait, there's a problem – if you eat all day long, you're going to get pretty full, right? Unless you do something? So mealybugs excrete whatever they don't need, on a pretty much constant basis. Since the sap is mainly water and carbohydrate (sugar), the waste is also mostly water and sugar. This is, I'm almost positive, the source of the "water droplet" in the picture. What likes sugar water besides teenagers and hummingbirds? Well, plenty of things, but mold is way up there too.

In a backhanded way, the mold is kind of a good thing for a houseplant grower, because it may get your attention when the bugs themselves do not. The bugs can look like dust, or lint, or a little chunk of perlite. The mold, though, is black and sooty, and there's no way you're going to mistake that for anything innocent.

By this point you might be saying, Okay, Mr. S., Jesus, I get it, they're bad. When do you get to the part about how to make them go away?

Patience, patience. Calm down. It'll be over soon.

So anyway. The common name of "mealybug" is apparently a reference to the waxy coating, which gives the insects a sort of "rolled in flour" look. Make the flour = meal connection, and there you have it. I mention this mostly because it's new to me (I've always wondered about the name), but it also happens to lead into our next topic, which is, why they're so goddamned difficult.

The coating doesn't just look waxy: it actually is wax. Wax, unfortunately, is very good at repelling water. What this means is, most insecticidal sprays aren't going to work, because most sprays have to contact the pest's body in order to do any damage. Two ways to deal with an obstacle like this: around, or through.

To go around, one can use a systemic insecticide. These are insecticides which are introduced into the soil and taken up by the roots. They don't harm the plant, but they do change it from snack to poison. Since the mealybugs have to eat more or less around the clock, once the poison is in the plant's system, the bugs begin to die. It sounds elegant in theory, though I suspect that there's a catch somewhere. Still, we did have a pretty dramatic decrease in our whitefly problem within a few weeks of treating the worst-off plants with Marathon (imidacloprid).7 So systemics have impressed me before, and I just bought some to use on my cacti, so we'll see if they're as impressive at home.

To go through, we have lower-tech solutions: you can dissolve away (or at least soften up) the wax with rubbing alcohol, and then hit the plant with a regular spray pesticide after that. You can also go through by taking some Q-Tips and squishing the miserable little bastards by brute force: it's emotionally satisfying, but not especially effective, because you won't be able to see all of them. Rubbing alcohol might be useful just in loosening the grip of the bugs on the plant: a rubbing alcohol misting, followed by a forceful but not insanely strong shower of water, might get rid of enough bugs to be useful, but I wouldn't rely on that by itself. (I've tried. Doesn't work.)

A strategy that worked in the past on the smaller Cereus peruvianus, but which has not worked so far on the larger ones, has been to add mealybug-squishing to my daily routine for a few weeks. Every day, or at least every few days, I'd get out the rubbing alcohol and Q-Tips and go over the entire surface of every affected cactus, squishing every actual critter I saw and giving a good firm rubdown of everything else. After a month or so of this, the problem seemed to be more or less over (two weeks isn't enough, on the other hand: I tried that too, and there were still enough residual eggs and crawlers that they mounted a comeback. I may have an asymptomatic mealybug carrier somewhere in the group of plants, in which case you can expect a post titled Typhoid Mary sometime soon. Assuming that I can figure out which one it is.), though recent inspections of the small Cereus peruvianus have turned up new activity anyway. (I really did seem to manage to eradicate them from four out of the six affected small cacti, with nothing more than Q-Tips and rubbing alcohol, which is proof that the concept is sound. Wouldn't necesarily recommend it, because it's a time-consuming way to go, but it's at least more than theoretically possible.)

With the big cacti, or with any leafier plants that have more nooks and crannies, you need a different strategy. I've now spent a few nights going over the big cacti, areole by areole, with a fistful of Q-Tips and a quarter of a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and that's great stuff, but I think I'm not going to win this one without some systemics besides. And probably another few rounds with the rubbing alcohol. I started with the Bonide preparation of imidacloprid last Thursday; we'll see if I can shake the damn things that way.

Don't be ashamed to give up on a plant if you need to. It's better to throw a plant out at the first sign of trouble than it is to do a half-assed job of eradication and find them spreading to all your other plants. With my Cereus, especially the five-foot ones, I feel like I kind of don't have a choice but to fight, since I've had them so long and there's considerable sentimental attachment there. But battling pests can easily become a chore that will suck all the enjoyment out of the hobby, and with mealybugs, most other indoor gardeners will understand if you just don't want to go to the trouble.

Something to consider: if the plant is a recent acquisition, you might consider telling the store (nicely!) where you bought it that they sold you a bad plant. They're not necessarily going to offer you a new one, or hand you a complimentary bottle of pesticide, but it's only neighborly to let them know, in case they're not aware of the problem. And it's also a way to gauge what kind of business they are, and decide if it's really a place where you want to be spending your money. I'm not actually sure which way my own employer would jump, in this situation, though I could see the boss being okay with taking the plant back until the mealybugs were under control: we haven't done that before, to my knowledge, but it seems like the kind of thing we would do.

Two other final notes: never never never never never knowingly buy a plant with mealybugs, thinking that you'll be able to get rid of them easily. I have done this myself (with a small Hoya), and it did work out okay, but at that time I hadn't actually dealt with trying to get mealybugs off of anything, and looking back at that purchase now, I shudder to think of the risk I was taking. Just don't do it. Even if it's the most awesome plant ever. Even if it's only one mealybug. Just say no, and walk away.

Readers looking for another perspective on mealybugs may find Water Roots' discussion of them interesting. The perspective isn't so different that we don't both agree that they're evil, but she has a much more specific eradication procedure.


Photo credits: all me, alas.

1 (which is actually a type of scale insect, just with a waxy instead of hard covering. Or at least that's what the scientists say, if you want to believe them.)
2 Kidding, but – not. Root mealybugs are the sorts of things indoor gardeners have nightmares about. They're just as bad as regular mealybugs, with the added obstacles of being more mobile and essentially invisible, because they live in the soil most of the time. It really is probably more in your interest to take a few cuttings and then destroy the plant and soil: the only exception to this would be for a very valuable plant that has a relatively light infestation, in which case as much isolation, systemic insecticides, and much bleaching of tools and workspace are all but mandatory. And even then, you should seriously, seriously consider whether and for how long you want to be battling mealys. The good news is, they're not all that common: I have yet to have a root mealybug infestation on any of my plants.
3 In case anybody's wondering: yes, this is a mealybug infestation on my beloved 5-foot Cereus peruvianus, both of them, at the same time, which is why I'm doing this post now and how I'm able to get pictures. It's really very depressing.
4 Areole: the small bumps from which clusters of cactus spines emerge. They get a special name because they are, for all practical purposes, very short "branches," from which the thorns (which are very pointy "leaves") emerge. Only plants in the Cactaceae family have areoles, and everything with areoles is in the Cactaceae. At least, that's my understanding of the term, and Wikipedia backs me up on that.
5 Axil: point where a leaf's petiole attaches to its stem.
6 (What – you were expecting a couple hours to work on your novel? You're a mealybug.)
7 Imidacloprid is also sold as "Merit," and it's one of three active ingredients in Bayer 3-in-1 spray, and the active ingredient in some flea control products for cats and dogs as well. It's thought to be pretty safe, and protection against pests lasts for about a month after application, though there is a granular preparation from Bonide that's supposed to last twice that.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Unsung Hero (Hylocereus undatus)

Pity poor Hylocereus undatus.1 Though a perfectly interesting species in its own right, you'll never see it when you're looking over the plants at your local Lowe's or supermarket or garden center or wherever you buy them, even if you're looking directly at it. Why's that? Because 99.99% of the time, you're seeing this:

These brightly-colored cacti are actually two different species of cacti grafted together. The top plant in these photos is a Gymnocalycium species, often called "moon cactus," which has mutated in such a way that it is unable (or maybe just unwilling: they seem kind of spoiled if you ask me) to produce the chlorophyll it needs to photosynthesize. These have been around for years: I remember seeing them as a little kid. The ones I remember, though, were always kind of a neon red: the pinks and yellows and oranges and purples like in the picture are a semi-new development.

The Gymnocalycium produces offsets pretty easily, even when grafted, and the offsets so produced can be grafted to a new base, perpetuating the plant, though it's my understanding that even the best grafts only last a few years, as the base grows faster than the Gymnocalycium. After that point, the difference in speed between the two becomes too great for the graft to hold together, and the two split apart. Some of the sites I ran across in researching this one seemed to be suggesting that the Gymnocalycium, if removed from the base and replanted, will remain colored until it dies from lack of food; other sites implied that severed grafts would spontaneously begin to produce chlorophyll even though they never had previously, and could be planted on their own. My personal suspicion is that both are true: the "purple" grafts, if you look closely, do contain some green, towards the center of the plant:

So they probably could begin making food for themselves if they really needed to. Peanut butter sandwiches, at least. At the same time, the neon yellow and orange and pink give no indication of having any green pigment in them whatsoever, and so I would guess that those probably couldn't make it on their own. We do have a few plain green Gymnocalycium at work, but they don't do anything terribly interesting and just look like your ordinary small green beanbag-shaped cactus. A couple of them do color up a little in the summer: they stay green but have a red / purple cast to them, especially on the most exposed portions of the plants. It's not especially attractive: mostly they just look kind of burnt.

But who cares about the Gymnocalyciums anyway, right? What we're really interested in is the base, the sad little, put-upon, servant of a plant that's doing all the heavy lifting.

The above is my own personal plant. I got it from Lowe's, after an excruciating wait to see whether anybody else was going to take it. It was one of a number of grafted cacti they had, all of them Gymnocalycium/Hylocereus types, but on this particular one, the graft had come off, and there were sprouts from each corner of the Hylocereus. I wanted to buy it, but the original plant was like $3.47, which seemed like a lot for a plant that was kinda, you know, broken. So I waited, and waited, and then finally there it was, waiting for me, on the half-price racks.

It's done well for me so far. It grew really quickly when it first arrived, and has settled down a little bit now that we're in the middle of winter. One of the bigger surprises was the sudden appearance of aerial roots from the center of the stem segments:

This is perfectly normal, just not something I was expecting to see. The aerial roots are like aerial roots on anything else: they're not mandatory. If you don't like them, you can cut them off; if they dry up and die, the plant isn't necessarily hurt any.

The thing I was most surprised about, though, was that when I started looking into it, I found out that this was the same plant that gives us the dragon fruit, or pitaya. As a bonus surprise, I found out that "dragon fruit" really existed: I'd actually assumed that there was probably no such thing. (Based on the name, it sounded like a marketing ploy to me, and it's not like I'd seen any in the grocery store.)2 But they are real, and they look like this:

Photo: Allen Timothy Chang, at the Wikipedia entry for pitaya

I think you'll agree that "dragon fruit" seems like an appropriate name. The interior of the fruit is full of small, crunchy black seeds, which are (I hear) pretty easily sprouted; the pulp surrounding the seeds is white, pink, or red, depending on its ancestry. It is apparently typical for the fruit to be served chilled, and the flesh scooped out of the rind with a spoon. The taste is said to be something like a melon or kiwi (the crunchy seeds contribute to the kiwi comparison): sweet, but not intense.

The flowers are also kind of a big deal:

Photo: "roychai," at the Wikipedia entry for pitaya

The flowers are short-lived, opening only for one night. They're pretty damned elaborate, as you can see from the picture, and are heavily scented. By all accounts, they're awesome flowers, but alas, I've never seen one of those in person either.

Plants have to be large, if not old, in order to set blooms and fruit. Mine clearly has a ways to go. They are supposed to grow faster and do better in general if you give them something to hang onto, like with Monstera deliciosa, though since they get big (20 feet is not unheard of), you're going to want to choose something you can add to over time. They will climb trees in the wild, though they're not picky, and will attach to burlap-covered poles, concrete walls, slow-moving pets, or whatever.3 At least a couple places I ran across on-line seemed to be suggesting that it's reasonable to expect blooms at about two years old and / or two feet tall; to get fruit you need somewhat bigger plants, and the flowers have to be pollinated. I haven't seen anybody address the question of whether plants are self-fertile.

Care is fairly typical cactus, though since this is a jungle species (the Hylocereus genus as a whole is native to the Caribbean and Central America south to the northmost part of South America), it's somewhat more flexible about certain things. Full sun is desirable indoors; the plant can be moved outside during the summer but should be shaded from the hottest summer sun, and obviously one will want to make any big shifts in light level somewhat gradually. The plant adapts to a pretty wide range of soils, and tolerates very hot and very cold conditions (up to 110ºF/43ºC, down to freezing or below, though they can only withstand short periods of cold, so don't push this too hard). Humidity is essentially a non-issue.

Propagation is said to be pretty simple: they root easily from cuttings that have been allowed to dry for a day or two: stand the cutting up on a well-draining soil and water when the soil gets dry, and the plant will handle the rest. It's also supposed to be a piece of cake to sprout seeds, if you're lucky enough to get a fruit to take seeds from: my understanding is that a moist but not soggy, fairly loose soil mix, seeds sprinkled around on top, and a plastic bag over the top of the mix is all you really need. Seedlings can be transplanted when they've grown beyond their seed leaves.

I'm a little clueless on watering; I've been going with the standard cactus approach of letting it get pretty dry between waterings, which with my plant winds up being about every 10-14 days. So far, so good, though I have seen a few things around the net that suggest that this needs to be cut back even further during the winter. So far, there are no complaints, so I'm inclined to keep doing what I've been doing. But we'll see how it goes.

I'm going to assume mealybugs can be a problem, because when the hell are they ever not, but I haven't had any yet.

They're known for getting kind of top-heavy. Wider, shallower pots are sometimes advised for this, to lower the center of gravity, but you still have to bear in mind that the roots only need as much soil as they need, and you can't move them into a pot that's larger than they need without there being some consequences.

I don't expect to get fruit from this plant. I don't even really expect flowers, to tell the truth. But I do like it, all the same, for being this totally cool plant that was hidden in plain sight: crazy flowers, alien-looking fruit, a tree-climbing cactus, and the only time I ever saw it, it was relegated to being the low-key servant for some lazy-ass Gymnocalycium that won't even make their own chlorophyll. Not that you should go to your local plant supplier and start liberating the Hylocereus by knocking off their grafts: that would be wrong, if amusing ("Grow, my pretties! Grow and be free!"). But, you know, sooner or later you'll see one where the graft has come off on its own, through normal handling or whatever,4 and depending on where you find yourself, you may be able to get it for a song, if you ask the right people. And it'd be worth getting.


Photo credits: fruit and flower as noted in text; all others are my own.
1 (Some or all of this post will also apply to the closely-related species Hylocereus trigonus. The differences between H. trigonus and H. undatus are small enough that I couldn't determine how anyone tells them apart. So feel free to pity H. trigonus as well, if you are so moved.)
2 (I can sometimes be too skeptical for my own good.)
3 There is considerable on-line disagreement about exactly how fast these grow, with some sides saying they're practically a blur and others saying that they take forever to get anywhere. Based on the speed of my own, thus far, and the information at this site, I lean towards blur, but your results may vary, especially if you and I actually own different species. Selenicereus spp. are similar-looking, and also have big Las-Vegas-showgirl flower production extravaganzas, but appear to work much more slowly. Also different Hylocereus species can, I think, reasonably be expected to grow at differing speeds. Anyone with actual information about this, even anecdotal, is encouraged to share in the comments.
4 Thus far, nothing like this has happened to the batch we got a couple weeks ago, for which I am grateful. They've actually even sold pretty well. I'm not a fan of grafted cacti, never have been, and I liked them even less well when I read that the graft isn't stable for more than a few years, so I was kind of against ordering them in the first place, but apparently the rest of the world likes the damn garish and fake things better than I do.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Random plant event: Ledebouria socialis flowers

I bought a Ledebouria socialislast April, and divided it into three plants, and then it did nothing all summer. Recently, all three divisions have been producing new bulbs, but nothing's blooming, and nothing seems likely to, either. How much do I mind? Ennh. Not that much. It's fine. But still, I'm glad that some of them bloomed at work, so I could see what that's like.

If there's a scent to the flowers, it's really subtle; the plants in question are near a fan so it's hard to be sure that there's nothing, but it's not anything that's going to knock you on your back or anything.

Also, some of the plants have flowered, and others didn't, even though they're all in more or less the same conditions and getting more or less the same care. Not clear what that means, but I'm guessing it must be an age / size thing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

College Roommate (Hatiora salicornioides)

Like a lot of people, I doodle. Quite a bit less than I used to, but then, I don’t spend nearly as much time in boring classes as I used to, either, so I have fewer opportunities. There was a period beginning in high school, and lasting until a few years after college, where I had a fairly limited number of default doodles. I did spider webs (not very good ones), occasionally pipes (there was some fairly elaborate plumbing going on in my margins from time to time), fireworks, and once in a while a fountainy plant like a Dracaena or a Beaucarnea would surface. But I was especially fond of this one:

As you can see, my artistic skills aren't the greatest (they weren't then, either), but then, they don't have to be for something like this. You draw a couple lines coming from a point, then two or three lines from the end of each of those lines, then two or three lines from the end of each of those lines, and so on, and eventually you wind up with a "plant" of sorts.

Originally, this was just me doodling, and was abstract, but then at some point during I think my sophomore year of college, I saw this for sale somewhere:

and, naturally, I had to have one. So I bought it and took it back to the dorm, where it lived for a semester or so, after which point I seem to have lost track of it. I think I gave it to someone to take care of for the summer, and he killed it, or I forgot about getting it back, or we had a falling-out, or something. It was a while ago.

For both of those reasons, the doodling and the period in college when I owned one, this plant has a nostalgic quality to me, which I find endearing. I had to wait a long time (like, ten years or so) before I was able to find another, though: they're not especially popular.

They deserve to be, though. They're very easily grown and propagated, they rarely have pest problems, and they're not messy. They even have good manners – I couldn't find any references to it being invasive, and you know how rare a thing that is. I also couldn't dig up anything about toxicity one way or the other, though some plants from the same genus are said to be toxic to kids and pets, so I'd assume this one is too, just to be on the safe side.1

The only real requirements here have to do with light and water: light needs to be bright indirect light at minimum. Some sites advise against full sun for this species, but I think it's probably still a good idea for indoor growers: my plant has been in a pretty bright west window for months and it still looks like it's reaching for more light. Maybe that's normal, but I suspect it's trying to tell me something.

Although Hatiora salicornioides2 is in the cactus family, its watering schedule should be more like that of a regular houseplant: it's not good to keep them constantly dry, but watering when about halfway dry (or even a little wetter) will work just fine during the summer; in late fall / early winter, they should be allowed to dry out more between waterings. They're not easy to overwater during the period of active growth: if you can keep a Philodendron hederaceum (and most people can), you can keep one of these. A well-draining soil mix is helpful but not necessarily mandatory, because the plant will give you plenty of feedback: overwatering causes pieces of stem to yellow and fall off; underwatering causes the whole plant to shrivel up.3 These are epiphytes in nature (rainforest epiphytes, actually, which is why they're okay with being kept wet), so they don't need or want a dense, soggy, peaty soil, but bagged mix cut with some perlite and/or coarse sand has worked fine for me.

I have never had any pest problems with my own plants, but I've read stuff on line which suggests that mealybugs can be a problem for this species. Since mealybugs can be a problem for any species (keep watching: there's a post about mealybugs in the pipeline here: I'm thinking Saturday), I'm inclined to believe this, but even still, that's not a reason not to get one so much as it's a reason to check it over carefully when you buy.

It's a fast grower in general, though there's a bit of a winter slowdown (more of a late-fall full stop, actually, from what I've seen), and propagation is very simple: I have probably doubled the overall mass of my plant since I bought it. Some of the cuttings were sent out on trades through Garden Web, some came with me to work to be sold there, some have made new plants here at home. Propagation can be done at any time of year, but it seems to work the best in summer: I cut a piece off (it seems not to matter whether the cut is in the middle of a segment or at the end), let it dry overnight (not necessarily mandatory, though I recommend it), and then stick it in soil and wait. I have yet to see any of them actually fail, though a few of them at work have shriveled from being too wet for too long, or from getting pulled loose from the soil. I tried rooting in perlite once, which didn't work for me so well, though some of the problem there was that I didn't keep the moisture level up in the perlite. The cuttings from the perlite transferred to soil without incident and took off shortly thereafter.

The plant is supposed to produce smallish yellow flowers on the end of the stems in spring and early summer; I've never seen a plant in flower. The pictures don't look all that impressive, and anyway, flowers would complicate the doodles, so I don't care so much, but I'm a little curious. It would certainly be cool if it happened. (UPDATE: It eventually did.)

As it's a cactus, it has the ability to grow thorns, though it's inconsistent about doing so and any thorns it does grow are hardly dangerous. A few segments here and there will grow lots of white, thin spines about the width and stiffness of a hair; most of the plant will be smooth.

I'll grant that this is not really what you'd call a beautiful plant. Stems grow until they bend under their own weight, which can look nice in a hanging basket, if that's your thing, but mostly it's about the oddity of the form and the weird, bottle-shaped stem segments, and all that. Not everybody would find that appealing, and maybe it's just that Hatiora salicornioides and I go back a long time that makes me like them. But I think they've been undeservedly ignored for far too long.


Photo credits: me.

1 Probably worth pausing here to note that, however toxic H. salicornioides might be, it's got to be a lot less so than the similar-looking but much larger Euphorbia tirucalli.
2 It is also known by Rhipsalis salicornioides, Hariota stricta, Hariota villigera, Rhipsalis villigera, Rhipsalis stricta, Rhipsalis bambusoides, Hariota bambusoides, Hatiora bambusoides, Rhipsalis teres, Cactus salicornioides, Cactus lyratus, and Hariota salicornioides. Plus I probably missed some. Clearly some sort of horrible taxonomic turf war is underway, or just ended, or something. It's possible that some of these are still valid names for some other plant.
3 The exception to this is with newly rooted cuttings, which will sometimes shrivel if they're too wet. The root system is very small for the size of the plant and is easily overwhelmed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Mystery of the Returned Ficus

I came back from lunch a few days ago and there was a woman with a Ficus benjamina all wrapped up at the front counter next to her. And I thought, okay, we sold another Ficus benjamina, good on us.

Then I got back to the potting room, and there was a bagged up benjamina there too. A mystery was afoot! (Or ahand. Or ajar. At least, a mystery was a vailable. Maybe two vailables.)

So I went up to the counter and asked what the story was with this plant, and, after the lady and her tree left, I was told that this customer had called and complained that she bought a Ficus from us some weeks ago, and that when she got it home, it started dropping tons of leaves and generally acted miserable.

Oh, she was told over the phone, they'll do that. Just keep it away from heat vents and give it plenty of light, and it'll come around eventually. Customer's response: oh, no, I have the perfect spot for it; it's the plant, not me, and you sold it to me so it's really all your fault.

Long story short, the customer talked long enough, and hard enough, to a large enough number of people, that eventually she wore us down. We don't do exchanges on houseplants because they're not guaranteed, and they're not guaranteed because there's no way to be sure that people are giving appropriate care to the plants. We encourage people to call and ask questions, and we're even willing to do a physical inspection if someone's willing to go to the trouble of bringing a plant in to us, but we don't do exchanges for non-guaranteed plants.

And this is something I hate about customer service: you can have a perfectly reasonable policy, for perfectly reasonable reasons, and most of the customers will be fine with that and play within those rules. There will also be a handful of customers who are likeable enough, or disadvantaged enough, or regular enough, or whatever, that you don't feel bad about offering to bend the rules for them without them even having to ask. And then there's the handful of customers who comprehend that there are rules, but somehow don't feel like the rules should have to apply to them. And it actually drives me crazy that those customers, more often than not, get whatever completely unreasonable thing they're asking for, and set precedents, and then before you know it, every time Mrs. So-and-so buys her groceries, somebody has to carry them to her car three blocks away because she's Mrs. So-and-so and that's just what you do for Mrs. So-and-so.


So this lady got to walk out with another perfectly healthy Ficus, fresh off the truck, and sticks us with one that isn't going to be sellable for at least a few months, because the perfectly healthy plant we sold her didn't work right in her perfect spot for it, under her perfect care. Grrr.

The best part happened when I took the plastic bags off of it, though, to assess the damage, and it was immediately obvious what had happened. In fact, it was so immediately obvious that it was hysterically funny, I thought (everybody else had a comment, but I was the only one who thought it was funny).

A minor factor in the situation is that she'd added a layer of what I assume is garden soil to the top of the pot. Don't do this. Not ever. Garden soil is too heavy, it won't drain, it'll lead you straight to root rot, plus it could have bug eggs or weed seeds or whatever. Potting soil for containerized plants is different from topsoil for a reason. But that wasn't the main problem. Can you solve the mystery of the returned Ficus just from examining the picture? This very thing was mentioned in passing, in the abovelinked Ficus benjamina profile. . . .

(Photo converted to black and white to heighten mysterious / noir / spooky effect.)

(Answer to be found in comments. No fair looking before you have your own theory, though.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Employee (Senecio macroglossus)

I've never been an employer, but I've been a supervisor, once, briefly, during a disastrous three months of my life just out of college, at a Pizza Hut in Waco, Texas. One of the cooks was, I think, illiterate, and interpreted all long words beginning with "P" as either pepperoni or pineapple, according to his mood; one of the delivery drivers had fathered babies all over the Waco metro area and liked to visit them after he delivered his pizzas, and sometimes he liked to visit them before he delivered his pizzas, too. So I'd get calls from people telling me that they'd ordered their pizza two hours ago and what the hell, and I'd have to promise them free pizzas in the future and stuff. The waitresses tried really hard to avoid doing anything that they didn't absolutely have to do, which sometimes included serving the customers.1 The assistant manager, also gay but a good 20 years my senior, was constantly hinting in a creepy way that he and I should get together sometime, with no regard for my complete lack of enthusiasm about the idea (or the fact that I was still, technically, in the closet as far as work went, or at least really trying to be, which made it a shade creepier). The guy who actually owned the franchise seemed to regard it more as a hobby than as a source of income, so any complaints about any of this were met with overwhelming indifference.

At the time, my Pizza Hut period was the lowest point my life had yet hit, but I was only 22 and there were unfathomably worse things waiting for me at 23. (23 was a terrible, terrible age.) I lasted all of three months at the job, and only one month as supervisor, which ended when I got called at 8 AM on a day off one too many times. It wasn't my fault that what's-his-face didn't show up, and the schedule says I have the day off, so leave me the hell alone and let me sleep.

This plant reminds me of that time period.

It's not a difficult plant to keep alive, is the good news. It's even very, very easy to propagate. It grows very very quickly once established – literally putting on several inches in a week when it's motivated.

The bad news? It almost never, ever looks good, because it alternates between growing like a weed and dropping leaves as fast as it grew them.

It could be that this isn't a feature of the plant, that it's a matter of me being inept with the watering. Lord knows I've been responsible for plenty of inappropriate watering, over the years. But as best as I can determine – and I have been watching, okay – the plant just decides from time to time that it's going to get rid of a few inches' worth of leaves, and then it does, and there's nothing you can offer it that's going to convince it to hang on to them. For the longest time, I blamed myself for overwatering, because leaves tended to drop after I watered. So I held way back, and . . . well, the situation actually did improve a little bit; the plant does better if kept slightly on the drier side. But it was still ripping off clumps of leaves and hurling them at me on a regular basis over nothing.

It's very aggravating to have a plant in your home that plays with your emotions this way. You see it put on six inches practically overnight, and get excited: yes, yes, it's finally taking off! You like me, you really like me! Go baby go! only to have it slack off severely when it thinks you're no longer paying attention.

This one shows up, punches the clock, grows when it thinks it's being watched, and screws around the rest of the time.

From looking around on-line, I get the impression that these are not commonly grown as indoor plants. There aren't a lot of sites providing any information about growing them outside, either, and most of the ones that do spend more time ooohing and aaahing over the flowers, which are big, yellow-to-white daisy-like things that you wouldn't expect from a plant that looks so much like English ivy (Hedera helix). (I've never seen the flowers, so I can't tell you anything about them. There's an extremely underwhelming picture of a flower here.)

So I'm just going from my experience here, but:

They seem to be unhappy with any amount or frequency of watering, no matter what you do. My own seem to be least unhappy with a cactus-like cycle: heavy drenching, followed by drying out to the point of being almost completely dry, followed by heavy drenching again. If I water more frequently than that, the lowest leaves get limp and yellow overnight; if I water less frequently than that, the tips of the lowest leaves will begin to turn black on Monday, and by Tuesday the whole leaf is shriveled, brown and crumbly. I would ordinarily blame soil, because soil has historically caused a lot of problems for me, but I checked that out, and it's got fine soil: it's just being a slacker. So don't overwater, don't underwater, and be prepared to groom like you've never groomed before.2

Light seems to be pretty flexible, as far as I can tell: I had3 mine under fluorescents (technically it's more to the side of fluorescents, but whatever) and they never seemed to object; the conditions at work are probably the equivalent of filtered sun, and they're okay there too. So let's call it bright and move on.

Everything else seems to be more or less a non-issue. Cold and heat aren't necessarily desirable, but the plant seems to roll with them. Propagation is so simple that your toddler could do it (but, um, don't do this: the plant is toxic. Forget I said anything.), and is the same cut-and-stick-in-dirt procedure that we've seen with Tradescantia pallida and Pilea cadierei. I have not yet seen any evidence that this plant cares about humidity levels. Pests are negligible, though aphids, of all things, are said to like it, and in fact mine did have aphids when I bought it.4

I imagine it's probably pretty when in bloom, though. The flowers are said to have a "lemony" fragrance; the same site claims that the crushed foliage does too. I've never detected any fragrance, pleasant or un-, from the crushed foliage. (That site also claims that it's very drought-tolerant, which has not been my experience either, though in that case we'll make an allowance for indoor growing vs. outdoor growing.)

I will give it at least this much: I've had a better experience, all-around, with Senecio macroglossus than I have with Hedera helix, the plant it sometimes fills in for (You know: Hedera calls in sick, Senecio needs some extra hours. . . .). The pest-resistance is a big plus, and it's also nice that humidity doesn't seem to be an issue. Hedera helix lasts about five seconds in our apartment, and Senecio macroglossus has been around for eleven months. But it's been disappointing all the same.

UPDATE 1/30/10: Have adjusted the difficulty level down to 3.9 from 5.4, because although the plant I had when I wrote this post was fired, I've brought in a new one that seems to be working out much better. I'm not sure how to account for the difference completely, but the new plant is in a much smaller pot, proportionately speaking, has much faster-draining soil, and gets a lot more light. Any of these things, individually or in combination, might have made the difference.


Photo credits: me.

1 (Tips, schmips, apparently being the theory. Never quite figured that one out.)
2 Or at least, groom like you haven't groomed since Tradescantia pallida. Or the Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), perhaps, if you're one of those people.
3 The past tense here is because I dumped my plant as of yesterday. Took some cuttings first, but I'm really unhappy with the plant as a whole, and watering all the plants yesterday took me 5 1/2 hours so I'm really trying to drop the ones that are clearly just not working out. And I've been unhappy with this plant for a long time. So.
4 Though since this was also my easiest pest problem ever, I'm inclined to give the plant a pass on this point. Five minutes with the sprayer in the kitchen sink, and they were never heard from again. Aphids are wusses.

Sunday, January 13, 2008