Saturday, February 2, 2008

Damsel in Distress (Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana')

I don't seem to be able to go to Lowe's without encountering a gigantic Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' for $5 and having to take it home. The first time it happened was last June, and the plant was badly sunburned from being outside in the summer heat. A few days ago, I ran into another one, and this time I'm not quite sure what the problem was: it doesn't seem to have anything obviously wrong with it.

The sunburned plant has more or less recovered, though it did lose a growing tip (which is okay: more are beginning to break). The original plan, to try to sell it for a profit by taking it to a consignment store, is still theoretically operative, though I've become a little bit attached to it by now and would kind of rather hold on to it. I mean, after all, I saved it from being destroyed by the heartless Lowe's bastards, so how mean would I have to be to send it back out into the cold, cruel world to be bought by someone who doesn't know how to take care of plants?

The sunburned plant.

The newer plant is in a more ambiguous place: I couldn't find any pests on it, and the stems felt solid. The only real problems it had as far as I could tell were that some of the lowest leaves had gone black and crispy, which doesn't necessarily mean anything, and the stems were a little wobbly in the pot, which isn't especially easy to fix but isn't unusual for Dracaena fragrans either. It might also have gotten a little chilled on the way out to the car (Lowe's offered no protective plastic bags), though so far all that's happened is that one of the sprouts has died. Even if it did get cold, though, this isn't likely to be fatal to the plant as a whole, and there are plenty of growing tips to work with.

The recent plant, cleaned-up.

These aren't usually in bad shape, of course. In fact, Dracaena fragrans is one of the easier houseplants out there. Lowe's just isn't all that interested in taking care of its plants.1 Am I complaining? Little bit, yeah. I do have a tendency to anthropomorphize plants (Which you may have noticed.), and consequently it pains me to see plants on the discount rack that didn't have to wind up there. Though I'm not above encouraging this kind of behavior by taking said plants home, either.

Dracaena fragrans is native to Africa,2 where it does double duty as an understory plant and as a full-grown tree, though it has long since expanded its range: it's been an indoor plant in Europe since the mid-1700s.3 The wild plant is plain green; the variety with the yellow stripe down the middle is a variety called 'Massangeana,' and is of unknown (to me) provenance. There is also said to be a variety called 'Lindenii,' in which the colors are reversed (yellow margins and a green stripe in the center of the leaf), but I've never seen such a plant in person.4

Plants will not grow corn, and don't even look that much like the real corn plant (Zea mays). There is enough similarity between the leaves that I can see where the common name came from. Once in a while I've allowed myself to think, whoa, look at all the Dracaenas! when traveling through rural areas around here in the summer. Knowing better is no reason not to entertain the occasional illusion.

Historically, most Dracaena fragrans sold in the U.S. are grown two times: the first time is on farms in Central America (or, once the global economy got really pervasive, anywhere else with an appropriately tropical climate), where canes are periodically harvested and cut to specified lengths (usually two, three or four-foot long pieces). The ends of the cane are then given a quick coat of wax,5 to keep the canes from losing too much water during transport, and then they get shipped to growers in Florida, or, to a lesser extent, other states which produce tropical foliage plants (Texas, California), where they are stuck in their final containers, the foliage is allowed to resprout, and then they are shipped to retail stores to be purchased by consumers. The staggered-cane style is used because it gives the impression of base-to-top foliage that would be more or less impossible to achieve with single-cane plants, or multiple canes of the same height, since the plants normally drop lower leaves as they grow.6

Waxed cane top. Obviously points were not being awarded for neatness.

Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' is very easy to grow, and isn't particularly picky about most aspects of its care, though there are things that will make it look better or worse than others.

The biggest issues revolve around water: like with most other Dracaena varieties, this one can roll with periods of neglect, but will not put up with overwatering for long. This is especially the case when the plant is kept in a relatively dark spot: it will downshift its metabolism to match the light it's getting, and if you don't reduce the water to match, you'll have some rotted canes on your hands. The other issue is that, as with Chlorophytum comosum, these plants are sensitive about fluoride levels, and will develop burnt tips if they're getting too much. Since most of these plants are watered in place, without any dumping of the water that flows through the soil, and since many people water too little at a time anyway, most plants will eventually build up enough fluoride in the soil to have problems. The solution, or at least one possible solution, is to make a point of periodically flushing the soil well with large amounts of water, say every three months, every six months, something like that. This isn't the ideal solution, but it's one that most people could probably pull off if they really had to. Another way to go would be to water with distilled water only – that might get expensive, but at least you won't be adding any fluoride.

Newly-purchased plants are especially susceptible to being overwatered, since cane-type plants like these (Dracaena, Yucca guatemalensis, etc.) are often not very well-rooted when they're shipped out. A cane two inches in diameter might only have one tiny little root, which could easily be overwhelmed by too much water. After you've grown one for a while, especially if it's in good conditions (warm, bright, humid), a root system will get going and you can water more like for any other plant, but until you've seen the roots for yourself, it's good to assume that there really aren't any.

Propagation isn't easy either, though the difficult part is mostly getting the opportunity: the plants grow slowly, especially indoors, meaning that a typical indoor gardener in a temperate zone isn't terribly likely to have a lot of spare canes laying around to experiment with. So it's not like you're going to be able to propagate at will, like you would for Pilea cadierei or Philodendron hederaceum or something.

Propagation is almost always from pieces of woody cane: green cane, like from a side sprout, is theoretically possible, but the growers' guide advises against it, and my one (failed) attempt at propagation of Dracaena fragrans thus far was with green cane, which succumbed pretty quickly to rot, so I tend to agree with him.

Woody cuttings are supposed to be relatively easy, though I haven't tried any myself. The usual procedure is to cut the cane into three- or four-inch segments, plant them upright in soil, and wait for them to root and break buds. The growers' guide says that rooting hormone should speed up the process, and even goes so far as to say that cutting the base of the canes around the edges with a circular saw every couple inches will induce more rooting. This probably isn't practical for people in home situations, but I suppose one never knows.

Thinner canes are said to root better, but thicker ones are more likely to form more growing tips. It seems not to be an issue particularly if you have to plant a cane deeply, or compact the soil around it (the commercially-produced variety, obviously, needs this in order to stay upright, whether it's good for the plant or not, to cover up the fact that it probably has no roots to speak of). Tenting the cutting in a plastic bag, or placing it in a warm, bright (no sun), humid space should also improve your odds of success, though rot is always a potential issue. If you're really worried about rot, cuttings can be rooted in sand, which may or may not be a more sterile medium. Misting isn't a good idea, according to the growers' guide. It's pretty much always going to be a slow process: figure about eight weeks.

It may go without saying, but: the plant won't root upside down, so if you're cutting up a long cane, be sure to have some kind of system in place so you can keep track of which end to plant. If the cane rolls off the table and spins around on the kitchen linoleum and you have no guess which end is up, you might be able to get it to sprout sideways, if you lay it half-buried in whatever soil you're planning to use, though I have no suggestions for how to deal with the resulting sprouts, which will not necessarily line up well with any roots that form.

Rooted canes can sprout in a variable number of spots. If a cane sprouts only once, the growers' guide recommends removing that bud, the idea being that usually the plant will respond by growing multiple heads. If, on the other hand, the problem is too many heads (too many will result in reduced development and / or greater incidence of tip burn, as well as just looking a little weird), removing all but the biggest few is said to help.7 My June rescue plant had a couple of sprouts when I bought it that it later dropped, and is presently starting another set of them: I'm unsure about whether to encourage this or not.

Other cultural conditions are not going to be that big of a deal for most indoor growers. Dracaena fragrans tolerates low humidity, though very low humidity levels may lead to tip scorch, especially if it's also dealing with high fluoride levels: the growers' guide recommends humidity of at least 40% at all times, which most people, most of the time, should be able to get. Winters, obviously, are tough, but that's true for a lot of plants. Temperature can be a touchy subject, especially during transport: cold injury begins to happen around 50ºF (10ºC), and wind makes the resulting injury much more severe. Typically, cold will lead to brown margins on the most exposed leaves, plus the possibility of dead bands across the leaves that emerge from the growing tip for a while thereafter. Heat injury is less common, both because the plant tolerates heat reasonably well and because it's somewhat self-regulating: the growers' guide says that in hot weather, the leaves twist themselves so as to be less directly exposed to the sun (they then go back to normal when they're cooler). I haven't seen that myself, but I'm going to be watching as we head toward summer, because that kind of adaptation always impresses the hell out of me. If heat does cause damage, it's usually expressed as burned tips and margins. Excessive sun exposure will bleach leaves out permanently, as well, though these photos don’t show it well:8

The paler parts, that sort of look like they might just be the light reflecting off the leaf, really are bleaching from the sun. Except, obviously, for the parts that actually are the result of light reflecting off the leaf.

(Which, now that I put this up, I'm realizing that there's an older Dracaena fragrans at work that got badly burned last year in the greenhouse, which would have been a much better case study to photograph, and I forgot to take pictures and now it's too late to do anything about it. Oh well.)

Finally, pests are not often a problem, though Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' is subject to all the same slings and arrows as other plants: mealybugs, mites, scale, etc. None seem to be especially fond of this plant in particular.

The "fragrans" part of the botanical name refers to the flowers, which are, I'm told, quite impressively fragrant, and can permeate a whole two-story house with their scent, which is said to be pleasant. I've never smelled them myself. (The description I ran into most often was "honeysuckle," which does exactly nothing for me because I'm not familiar with what honeysuckle smells like.) Whether you want that much scent is questionable: it's not unheard of for people to move a D. fragrans elsewhere during flowering, especially if it's in a room they have to be in a lot, for example a bedroom, just so that the smell isn't completely overpowering. Flowers also drip with nectar, which can drip on anything underneath them and, in the worst-case scenario, ruin things. Realistically, it's more likely just to make stuff sticky, but either way, it may be worth your time to grab a dropcloth, if you notice blooming in progress on your plant (and you will notice, if it happens). The flowers can be cut off, if you really can't stand the smell and the dripping, though I think they must not be that terrible, because I don't read about people having to cut them off all that often.

The only real serious down side with a flowering plant is that the growing tip which produced the flower will die when the show is over. It's serious, but not tragic, because the plant will generally have other growing tips on it (they have to be pretty old and large in order to flower), and if it doesn't, new ones will sprout before all the leaves on the old one drop. You just need to be aware that the old tip will die, lest you panic and start messing with the plant after it flowers, thinking that it needs you to do something, when it was already perfectly happy. That's just how they roll.

I'm aware that this post has made them sound troublesome and difficult, so let me just say again that really they're not. The reason you're always seeing them in offices is because they like that sort of thing. Just don't overwater. That Lowe's seems not to be able to understand concepts like overwatering and underwatering isn't the plant's fault, and need not be your problem, either. So go mount your steed and rescue some damsels, if you're so inclined.


Photo credit: flowers - Josh Krup, at the Wikipedia entry for Dracaena fragrans. All others: author's own.

1 Which is not to say that there aren't perfectly nice people working there, and that said people don't care about or like plants. I'm sure some of them do, just by the law of averages if nothing else. But whatever corporate logic dictates the running of the plant departments in Lowe's clearly is not all that interested in the well-being of the plants, which suggests that it's not cost-effective for the employees to care for the plants, which suggests that either the employees are paid remarkably little (not that I'm raking in the bucks myself, but . . . well, actually, I guess there's not much up side to that, really. I'm not raking in the bucks. *Sigh.* Great. Now I'm going to be depressed.), the wholesale prices are so obscenely cheap that they're making huge profits on the plants regardless of what they do, or (most likely) both.
2 Precisely where in Africa is something I'm not really capable of answering: the growers' guide says Upper Guinea; Wikipedia says West Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia. Not only are these not the same place, but they're not even particularly close to one another. If we add in the inevitable confusion from people expanding its range artificially, the original location of D. fragrans gets hazier still. But at least we can nail down a continent.
3 (Says the growers' guide, anyway.)
4 There is a cultivar of D. deremensis called 'Lemon-Lime,' or (less frequently) 'Goldstar,' which has more or less this coloration. I like 'Lemon-Lime' a great deal, but it's kind of obviously not a cultivar of D. fragrans. 'Lindenii' is something else. This site explains away the rarity of 'Lindenii' as a side effect of its sensitivity to fluoride: dead spots appear in the margins and work inward in plants affected by fluoride toxicity, which is marketing death for a plant where the brightly-colored margins are the main selling point. (UPDATE: I actually found and purchased a 'Lindenii' around here, if you want to see what it looks like.) (SECOND UPDATE: It was probably actually D. fragrans 'Sol,' which looks enough like the way 'Lindenii' is always described that it is likely either an improved variety of 'Lindenii' or a renaming.)
5 Or, according to the growers' guide, a wax-concrete mixture, which raises some questions for me that Mr. Griffith leaves unanswered.
6 This is the same reason why Yucca guatemalensis is usually sold as staggered-height canes. People want floor-to-ceiling leaves, so they get floor-to-ceiling leaves, even if the leaves have to be provided by multiple plants. Yucca guatemalensis is also produced on cane farms, in a manner very similar to what's described in the text for Dracaena fragrans.
7 This is the case with Yucca guatemalensis too.
8 The most sunburnt leaves eventually got cut off, either because they were going brown anyway or because the bleaching was too severe for the plant to be presentable.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Random plant event: Monadenium stapelioides Euphorbia drupifera flowers

The ID here is tentative: I think Monadenium is right but have no idea how to go about determining a species. (Please share if you think you know: I'm certainly open to ideas.) Also I don't remember what website made me think it might be stapelioides, and I have a nasty sinus headache at the moment which makes me kind of unmotivated to try to track it down.

The flowers aren't especially decorative, or sticky, or scented, or anything like that. They, like the plant as a whole, are more odd than decorative. But hey.

Clicking on a picture will get you a bigger version, if you're interested in details.

(Correct ID happened because I unknowingly ordered a new one, and recognized it when it arrived on the 17 Aug 2008 shipment of tropical plants at work. The one pictured in this post has lived with me at home since 1 Aug 2008.)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Random plant event: Dionaea muscipula flowering

So far, my goal of nursing the Dionaea muscipula along through the winter is going well, to the point where they've all budded. I knew this was possible in theory, but it's still a surprise, and now we're all eagerly anticipating whatever flowers we're going to get.

Click the picture to (somewhat) enlarge.

In a rare (possibly even unprecedented) non-wonderful move, Wonderful Co-Worker took the Venus flytraps out of the bright but cold place where they had been doing so well, and stuck them out in the middle of the greenhouse so the customers could see them. I appreciate the logic, that the ultimate goal is to sell them, and I agree that plants in flower (or at least in bud -- none of them have opened yet) are more likely to sell, but their dormancy wasn't necessarily over as far as I was concerned, and if this sets them back so that they all go black and die after I've tried so hard for them not to, then I'm gonna be pissed. The customers are supposed to kill the plants, if the plants are to be killed. Not us.

But anyway. It was terribly difficult to get pictures of this that were properly focused: I tried and tried for a close-up shot and failed miserably. If they don't all die or sell before the flowers actually open, I'll attempt to follow up with a picture of the flowers.

Bonus unrelated link:

I saw this a couple days ago, and find it intriguing. That's a story I want to hear more about.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Single Mother (Chlorophytum comosum)

A few jobs ago, I remember a Puerto Rican co-worker saying that she wanted to give her mother a plant for . . . some kind of event, I forget. Mother's Day, or a birthday, something like that. The problem was that she didn't think her mother was especially good with plants, so it needed to be something fairly low-maintenance. I forget what all we discussed, but I do remember suggesting a "spider plant" to her and being met with blank looks. A what?

Oh, um, they're also called "airplane plants," they used to be really popular in the 70s, kinda grassy-looking, with a white stripe down the middle of the leaves, you know. They get little baby plants on runners?

Oh, she said. No, I think that would just be weird.

Why weird? What's weird about it?

Well, she said, in Puerto Rico, they call that plant "mala madre," which translates as "bad mother." That might be awkward, as a gift for your mother.

Guess so, yeah. I retract the suggestion.

I never really found out why the plant is thought of as being a bad mother. I don't even know if the problem is supposed to be that it holds the baby plants too tightly to itself, or not tightly enough. Maybe it's something else entirely. So the whole thing is kind of weird for me to think about, but nevertheless, there it is.

I've also run into customers who had issues with this because it's called "spider plant;" arachnophobes or something, I guess. So it doesn't really catch any breaks in the naming department, in any language, so from here out we'll be using the scientific name, which is in Greek and Latin: Chlorophytum comosum.1

Chlorophytum comosum is a houseplant of fairly long standing; it's native to South African forest floors and has been kept as an indoor plant for decades. The wild plant is solid green; plants with white or yellow variegation are sports that have been kept going by propagating plantlets.

Chlorophytum comosum can be perpetuated more or less indefinitely: the picture immediately above is of my husband's plant, originally a gift from his mother, which he has managed to keep going through seven generations. This seventh one has yet to produce any plantlets, which is unusual but not unheard of: sometimes they take a long time to do this. The growers' guide says that "plantlet production is distinctly photoperiod related," and claims that variegated varieties produce more plantlets during short days, while solid green varieties send out runners during long days. This might be correct, but I think there's got to be more to it than that, because my husband's plant has been around for a couple years now and hasn't made any runners at all yet, irrespective of day length. A different source says that bright light and long days will encourage offsets regardless of variety. Both say that "interrupting" the plant during the night by turning a light on it will encourage production of runners as well. I don't care enough to try this personally, but feel free.

The way this plant is usually grown is in hanging baskets, as in this picture:

The reason for this is that hanging baskets permit the runners to hang over the edge of the pot, which creates a waterfall / cascade sort of effect that a lot of people like. Because of this, they're excellent plants to use when you want to block out an unpleasant view. Individual plantlets die from time to time, though infrequently: every so often I pick a couple out of the monster plants at work. Exposing plantlets to a lot of hot, dry air is a good, efficient way to kill them, if that's something you're into.

To propagate, just pull off one of the plantlets (they come off pretty easily, which may be why I find dead ones on the monster hanging baskets from time to time) and stick it in dirt, or water. The only way they'll fail, as far as I can tell, is if you keep them in sopping wet soil, and even then it's pretty difficult to kill them: the best you can do usually is just kind of disappoint them a little.

Plantlets will outgrow small pots in a matter of weeks, given good (bright, warm, humid) conditions, though they don't seem to mind terribly if they're potbound. Given even more time, however, the continuing growth of the roots will eventually push the whole root ball up and out of the pot, a phenomenon which also occurs with asparagus ferns (Asparagus setaceus, A. densiflorus 'Myersii' and A. densiflorus 'Sprengeri') and occasionally with Sansevieria trifasciata, though it's faster for Asparagus and slower for Sansevieria.

There are not actually all that many things that can go wrong with Chlorophytum comosum, as befits the extremely low difficulty level above. What problems do exist tend to be cosmetic, rather than potentially lethal.

The most common is tip burn: the tips of the leaves turn black and begin to die back towards the center of the plant. There are a number of factors which contribute to this, but generally the problem is that the soil has built up a level of fluoride, sodium, or boron which is harmful to the plant. Extreme heat (prolonged exposure to temperatures above 90ºF) can also result in tip burn. According to a few sources, including my growers' guide, the specific substance causing the burn can be determined from its appearance: sodium causes black tips, boron causes tan or gray tips, and fluoride causes reddish tips. (High temperature or excessive light is said to lead to light gray or yellowish patches, not necessarily at the leaf tips, though the plants we've moved closer to a heat source at work have mostly just gotten black tips, in those cases where there was a reaction.) Excess sodium is probably from softened water; excess boron is probably from overfertilization; excess fluoride is probably from overfertilization or too much perlite in the soil,2 though in a few cases the water may just contain a lot of fluoride naturally and you have no choice but to switch to bottled, distilled, or reverse-osmosis water.

In any of these cases, flushing the soil heavily and thoroughly with regular tap water isn't going to hurt anything, and may help the plant a little bit in the short term. If you are not watering your plants until water runs through the bottom of the pot and then discarding the water that runs through, or if (worse!) you are using a pot without drainage holes, you're going to build minerals up in the pot to the point where tip burn of some kind or another is more or less inevitable.

Chlorophytum comosum are also "heavy breathers," for lack of a better term. This means that they are said to be very good at removing chemicals from the air,3 and the NASA study that showed that plants could clean air was particularly effusive on the advantages of Chlorophytum comosum. The down side to this is that they also breathe deeply of stuff that can harm them, including ethylene (a very small component of natural gas, and also a plant hormone released through a variety of processes; click the link for details), certain insecticides (notably chlorpyriphos), and bleach (which is probably the most relevant chemical for our purposes, since it's the one you're most likely to use around the plant). The solution? Try not to use bleach, or the certain insecticides, near the plant, and if you must, then provide good ventilation.

Diseases and pests, on the other hand, are not usually a problem. Mealybugs (including the dread root mealybug) and scale are specifically mentioned here and there, as are caterpillars, though caterpillars aren't likely to be problems inside, and mealybugs and scale don't seem to be common problems. In the event that you have mealybugs or scale, my recommendation would be that you just take a plantlet off and start over, but if you really want to try to save the parent plant, I'd skip the rubbing-alcohol step and go directly to the systemic insecticide, whether this be imidacloprid or something else. The growers' guide recommends bendiocarb, S-kinoprene, or acephate, though I couldn't promise you that these are available for home use.

This might all sound pretty bad (tip burn! chemical sensitivity!), but if this is the worst you got, you have a pretty easy plant on your hands. Honest. Light levels can range from filtered sun down to moderate (light that's too low will slow or stop new growth, and leaves will droop noticeably). Watering is also flexible: the roots can store a lot of water to get a plant through a drought, and plants can also roll with a wet spell, though neither extreme is tolerated indefinitely. Humidity is essentially a non-issue, though extremely dry air may bring on or accelerate tip burn. Feeding should be minimal to nonexistent: they don't need much in the first place, and too much will just cause problems, especially if your fertilizer preparation includes boron.

Chlorophytum comosum will not survive really cold temperatures, but it can go down to just above freezing before it's actually damaged, and it actually can freeze and then come back in spring, I'm told, so cold isn't a huge issue. (Not that the plant is any happier to almost die and then struggle back than you would be: I'm not recommending leaving your plants outside in the winter if they're going to freeze.) I expected to find that it was an invasive species somewhere, just because the runners and rapid growth rate seem custom-made for invasiveness, but it really hasn't been an enormous problem anywhere as far as I could find, though it has established itself in a few Pacific islands.

There are a few cultivars, though the differences between some of them are extremely minor. The 'Hawaiian' version has yellowish variegation instead of white: my personal plant (the little one in the photo after the how-to-propagate paragraph) is a 'Hawaiian.' 'Bonnie' has leaves which curl dramatically, often all the way around to the underside of the pot (the previous photo of the hanging basket is a 'Bonnie'). There are also varieties with the variegation pattern reversed (i.e. white edges and green center), though the cultivar names begin getting confusing at this point so I'm going to drop the subject in a moment. There are pictures and side-by-side comparisons of some of the cultivars on these pages, and the author gives every indication of knowing what he's talking about: the species, 'Bonnie,' 'Ocean,' 'Picturatum,' 'Silver Surfer,' 'Variegatum,' and 'Vittatum.'

So, what kind of mother is it really? Well, I couldn't say exactly, though overworked seems like a reasonable adjective for any plant that has this many children. And where is the father? Hmmm?


Photo credits: first hanging basket (a 'Bonnie'): anonymous donation from a Garden Webber. Others: my own.

1 The scientific name isn't much of an improvement either; it translates more or less as "long-haired green plant." But that's still better than "bad mother."
2 Some minerals naturally also contain a lot of fluoride, including perlite and some phosphates. This is normally benign, but soil mixes containing a lot of perlite, or fertilizers with high phosphorous content (phosphorous is the middle number on the package: a fertilizer labeled 10-20-10 is a high-P fertilizer), may incidentally contain enough fluoride to cause a problem for sensitive plants.
3 I say "said to be" because I'm not quite sure I buy into the whole plants-as-removers-of-toxic-chemicals hype. I mean, I believe that they can absorb a lot of chemicals: benzene, trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, etc. I just question whether most people, under most circumstances, would be affected by the levels of the chemicals in question anyway, i.e., whether it matters that these plants are able to do this. That said, it's certainly not going to hurt you if they do take chemicals out of the air, and plants are nice for lots of other reasons, so whatever (see my longer essay on the subject here). I just worry that concern about vague environmental "toxins" is causing us to lose perspective about which things are actually dangerous.
My grandmother smoked herself into emphysema, but was phobic about microwaves because she read somewhere that they destroy nutrients, and she was adamant about not destroying nutrients. (Microwaves do destroy nutrients. So does heating them on the stove. So does exposing them to oxygen.) I can't complain too much, since I got a microwave as a result (her children bought her one because she was getting to the point of being too weak to cook for herself, as the result of the emphysema and related medical issues, so she wasn't eating – seriously, she weighed like 70-80 pounds when she died. But she wouldn't take the microwave, so they wound up taking it back, and somehow I ended up with it. Which was nice, because I had just moved, and kind of needed one.), but if she'd been as scared of smoking as she'd been of microwaves, she'd probably still be alive. Not to mention the convoluted logic of not eating any nutrients because you don't want to lose a fraction of them by cooking them in the microwave.
So are there dangerous chemicals out there? Sure. Are some of them in your home? No doubt. Are you breathing them in right this minute? Odds are. Are said chemicals going to be what kills you? I'd be surprised.

Random plant event: Aloe aristata hybrid offsetting

I apologize for the relative crappiness of the photo; it wasn't an easy picture to get because the offset isn't visible from most angles, and lighting became an issue too. (There are actually two offsets forming, but all of the pictures of the other one looked even worse than this.) You get the general idea, though.

This is exciting to me mostly because this is my favorite of the various Aloe varieties/hybrids I have (maybe: I like several of them, of course. This'd be way up on the list, though, if I were to rank them.), and I'm looking forward to being able to propagate it, assuming that everything goes well with the development of the offsets. I'll get to making a proper plant profile for this one eventually, but for now, just know that this is what I look forward to being able to reproduce, someday:

(UPDATE: This is probably Aloe aristata x Gasteria batesiana, not the species Aloe aristata, as it was originally identified.)

Monday, January 28, 2008


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Con Artist (Homalomena 'Emerald Gem')

I'm very much of two minds on this one. All the plant-seller websites tell me that it's a super-easy plant; my actual experience with it has been decidedly mixed; and lots and lots of other people have had a really tough time with it.

If you do a web search for Homalomena1 'Emerald Gem,' you will inevitably run into sites that praise the hell out of this plant. You'll read things like, Compact shape! Tolerates low light! Disease resistant! Tolerant of stress conditions! The perfect choice for an area with height restrictions! Humidity is not critical! Easy-care! Remains lush and healthy! Durable foliage!2 In fact, the word "durable" and variations on "durable" are repeated in almost every profile.

This raises some questions. Like, what does it mean for a houseplant to be "durable?" Exactly what sorts of conditions can it survive because of its durability? If it's so durable, why are all its leaves turning yellow? Nobody ever says.

For my own plant, this was never really that big of an issue, because I got it cheap ($3) and only got it because . . . well, because it was cheap, and because I wondered if it would work for me.3 So, you know, durable or not, who cares. That was about eight months ago, and although it doesn't look as good now as it does in the above picture (which is from October), it's still alive, and it gets by okay.

The number one problem actual people will report to you about this plant is that it drops its lower leaves. A lot. I'll be blunt: I do not know why this happens. I would normally assume that it's from overwatering, and watering is probably a factor in there somewhere, but my plant doesn't drop leaves with any kind of predictable pattern at all. I have no idea what it wants me to be doing differently.

The two concessions to reality that (some of) the plant sellers make are, they tell you 1) don't leave the plant to stand in water, and 2) don't let it get cold. There's wide disagreement about exactly how cold is too cold, but I've seen warnings about 70ºF (21ºC), so be aware that we may be talking about a plant with a pretty extreme understanding of the word cold. My problem might be temperature: the plant is a reasonable distance away from any doors or windows, but it's probably not so far away that it never dips below 70ºF.

We had an opportunity to get some of these in, on the last tropical plant order we placed. WCW4 nixed the idea, on the grounds that Homalomenas5 have not been easy to maintain in the greenhouse in the past. This is easily explainable, though, if we accept that they might start throwing leaves at 69ºF: certain areas of the greenhouse are at or below that temperature all the time in the winter.

When customers ask for recommendations for dark spots, I run through the standard list pretty quickly6, and more often than not people don't like any of them. So more options are always nice, and Homalomena would fit the bill if I could recommend it with a clean conscience. As it is, though, it's too difficult to recommend to most people, we can't keep it in the greenhouse anyway, and if neither of those were a problem, there's still the issue of it not really looking that exciting. The leaves are nice, true: they're shiny, they're green, they have an interesting texture, and the plant is self-heading, but all of that also applies to Spathiphyllum spp. or Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which are also much easier plants, and the first even has attractive flowers into the bargain.

Which brings me to the other adjective that all the plant-sellers bring up for Homalomena: "compact." This probably is a legitimate selling point for this plant: they aren't likely to outgrow whatever space you put them in.7

Look! A ladybug!

As best as I can figure out, here's how you grow one:

Light: flexible. I wouldn't put one in partial sun, but filtered or reflected sun should be okay. And, actually, my plant was doing pretty well during the summer when it was getting about an hour of direct sun every day.
Water: Bless me, I have no idea. Overwatering is bad, underwatering is bad, standing in water is bad. Mine gets watered about three or four days after I can't feel moisture in the soil anymore, and . . . well, and it's still alive. The growers' guide helpfully suggests that they be kept "on the dry side."8 They may be one of the plants that people overwater just because they have a tropical look and people assume they must need a lot of water. (Dracaena fragrans and Aglaonema spp. have this problem in spades: it's very hard to convince people that the plants would be happier if they were cared for less. This is also the reason why I think I used to have trouble growing Dieffenbachias: it seemed like anything with such watery stems and such broad leaves had to be thirsty all the time. But no.)
Humidity: Nice if you can get it, but seems not to be critical.
Temperature: Already covered above.
Pests: I assume it's probably subject to the same ones as any other plant. I've yet to have any pest problems with mine, and pest / disease resistance is supposed to be a selling point, but considering how hard the plant sellers are hyping the plant, I'm thinking the pest resistance may be overstated too.
Grooming: One does get tired of picking off yellow leaves, though it's not like you're doing it constantly.
Fertilizer: I've fed mine once or twice, but really don't know what it needs exactly. My growers' guide says they're pretty heavy feeders, though not insatiable, and they're also sensitive about high levels of soluble salts in the soil, so it's potentially a bit of a catch-22.
Propagation: I assume that plants like my own, which have multiple plants potted up together, can be divided fairly safely, but beyond that, I have no idea. The growers' guide says they're mostly from tissue culture.

The hype isn't the plant's fault, obviously, but even so, somebody is being a little dishonest. They're not all that easy to grow, and it's a little cruel of the tropical foliage industry to suggest otherwise. I understand that business is business, and people are in it to make money, and it's hard to make money if nobody buys your plants, but it seems to me like there's not much money in convincing people that they have black thumbs, too: people who think they have black thumbs don't buy very many plants. Either give better instructions, or acknowledge that it's maybe not the easiest plant, you know?

EDITED 5/13/08: It actually got worse, so I raised the difficulty level from 5.5 to 6.7. We seem to be arguing mostly about how much water it deserves, but it's also not bouncing back since I started trying harder. I'm afraid its days are numbered.

EDITED 10/21/09: We seem to have come to an understanding of some kind on the watering; I'm watering less, and it's doing okay, so I've re-evaluated the difficulty level and now consider it a 5.6. (Subject to change, of course.)

EDITED 1/20/10: Not sure what changed, exactly, but it's behaving itself just fine now, so I moved it down to a 3.8, which is approximately "normal" difficulty. The location it's in at the moment has a bright fluorescent light about 2-3 feet above the rim of the pot, it's warm all the time (because it's near the ceiling, in the kitchen / living room), and I water it when it begins to droop a little. The drooping is pretty subtle, unfortunately. I'm also feeding it, and I wasn't before, though I'm not giving it a lot of food. This all seems to be working out just fine, so possibly it was over-potted before and has only now grown into its pot, or it really does begin to throw leaves at 70F/21C and is only happy now because it's never that cold, or it's not the low-light plant it's advertised as being. Something doesn't add up about all this, but it's working now, so I'm not going to complain.


Photo credit: both my own.

1 This is actually pronounced "Hahm-uh-low-MEE-nuh," but I always pronounce it "HAHM-uh-LAW-muh-nuh," for reasons which will be explained shortly.
2 (All are actual quotes from various websites, in case there was any doubt.)
3 Also, I enjoy saying "Homalomena," the way I pronounce it, which inevitably gets this stuck in my head:
The ultimate expression of this association is that now my husband or I will automatically sing "doo doo de doo doo" in response to the other of us saying "Homalomena," which I hope we never have to explain to anybody we don't know.
4 = Wonderful Co-Worker, the other person working in the greenhouse right now, who has been mentioned repeatedly in the blog already.
5 (Doo doo de doo doo)
6 Dracaena fragrans, Dracaena deremensis cvv., Aspidistra lurida or A. elatior, Spathiphyllum spp., Sansevieria trifasciata, Zamioculcas zamiifolia, Aglaonema spp., Philodendron hederaceum, Epipremnum aureum, and Chamaedorea elegans, more or less. Sometimes also Rhapis excelsa, Chlorophytum comosum, and Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash,' depending on how low they seem to mean by "low."
7 Particularly not if you kill the plant.
8 The dry side of what?