Saturday, June 7, 2008

Pretty picture: Tagetes patula

I'm honestly unable to reach a decision on whether I like these guys or not. The smell's okay, the colors are good, the plants themselves come and go. They don't look so pretty when they need to be deadheaded, I'm discovering. (The same goes for Gazania, alas, though I still think I like Gazania.) Also they don't shake off spider mite infestations very readily, it seems. But still. There are worse plants out there. So I don't know.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Random plant event: Polyscias fruticosa budding

We have a single ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa) at work, which is a little bit ugly and expensive, so I expect to be spending quite a bit of time with it. I don't, however, spend a lot of time thinking about it lately, because there's been so much else going on, with the tropical order and the spring annuals before it.

So imagine my surprise yesterday when I looked at it and saw flower buds. They're not exciting flower buds, by any stretch of the imagination, nor are they actually open yet, but even so: not something you see every day. In fact, not something I've seen ever. And there are a lot of them:

It's anybody's guess what these flowers will look like when they finally open (anybody's except for the people who have seen Polyscias flowers before, I mean), but they look like they're going to be complicated. I count like 25-30 individual buds in each head, here, and something like nine or ten heads:

So stay tuned, gentle readers. If and when these buds open, you'll get to see them. Unless somebody buys it, in which case we'll have a contest to see who can imagine the best ming aralia flowers.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

New Plants Week, Part 2 of 2

A couple days ago, I showed you my latest plants from work; this post is because I also broke down and ordered from Asiatica Nursery recently, so there's that too. In the interests of making this potentially useful to readers, I'm also going to give kind of a review of my experience with Asiatica, because I know there are people out there who haven't ordered from them but window-shop occasionally, and I figure those people would be interested, if nobody else. This is also a bit of a primer on how to mail plants, for anybody who's never done that before and thinks they might want to someday.

First you have to place an order. I ordered five plants; it's pretty easy to navigate the Asiatica site (though a more obvious Search function would be nice), so we won't get into huge detail about that.

I didn't notice when placing the order, but when my plants arrived, I was immediately kind of struck by the fact that they all had a similar pattern: all five of the plants have white or yellow variegation in the leaf center with green along the edges, more or less. On four of the five, the variegation is speckly/blotchy, too. Apparently I have speckly, yellow-and-white-centered moods.

It was expensive. I paid $138, including shipping and all, for the five plants, which makes each of them $26.70 on average. This is a lot of money.1 Worse, these were mostly the cheaper things on offer.

I received e-mails from Asiatica when my order was received, when payment was received, and when the box was shipped, which is pretty good communicatin'. I placed the order on May 23, they got payment May 27, and my stuff arrived on June 4, so it was relatively fast: a lot of that was the time it took for my check to get from here to there (for some reason, they wouldn't take my debit card number; I keep meaning to look into that).

Asiatica is apparently fanatical about packing, which is a good thing. The box I got was three feet long and jammed full of newspaper (one suspects that Asiatica is expensive not because their plants are rare or because they take especially good care of them, but because they have eight million newspaper subscriptions to pay for).

The plants were wrapped as follows: they took a wad of shredded paper and held it on top of the root ball, then attached it firmly in place with a rubber band or two to keep the soil from falling out of the pot. The foliage was then surrounded by pretty dense shredded paper, and the whole thing was rolled up in big sheets of tissue paper, making them all look like gigantic joints:

Then the "joints" were taped closed, placed in the box, taped to the sides of the box, or to each other, and then wads of crumpled newspaper were stuck in the gaps between them. So I'm reasonably impressed with the packing. I myself have, in the past, just rolled plants up in semi-stiff paper (like what Asiatica's done, but without the shredded stuff or rubber bands) and stuck them together in a box and then filled in the box with crumpled newspaper. I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish with all the shredded stuff, but I figure they have their reasons, and I'm not going to question it.

(Okay, okay, Mr. S., but what about the plants? How were the plants? And which ones did you get? Make with the pictures already. . . .)

All right, fine.

Plant #1: Pedilanthus 'Jurassic Park 2'

The size is impressive, and the variegation is pretty, when you can see it, but three of the five plants had really thick buildup of whatever builds up on nursery plants, that gray crusty shit that you have to wipe off by hand because nothing will remove it, and the Pedilanthus was probably the worst case:

The leaves are surprisingly thick and succulent; I don't know what species were involved in breeding this, but it's not your standard Pedilanthus tithymaloides.2 I expected smaller but bushier; this will make good cuttings, I imagine, but as it is, it's top-heavy and not all that pretty. There's an odd and unexpected resemblance to Zamioculcas zamiifolia; the leaves are all about the same size and weight. Kinda neat.

Plant #2: Aglaonema brevispatha 'Thai Snowflakes'

I'd thought there would be more of it, but the plant itself is fine. Again, there's the issue with the gray crust, but the color is good, the plant is relatively balanced-looking, and it seems like it's in excellent health. The only down side for me is that it doesn't compare especially well to the A. brevispathum 'Hospitum' I'd gotten a few months ago from work: the plant from work was larger and fuller, and about four times cheaper. I should have gone with something else instead. It is slightly nicer than 'Hospitum' insofar as the leaves are a darker color, sort of a green-black, which looks good. Not worth the money, though.

UPDATE: It was especially not worth the money because the plant subsequently died. The same thing happened to my 'Hospitum' from work, though, so I'm not saying it's Asiatica's fault necessarily, but the A. brevispathum/-spatha types are not as easy-care as they're claimed to be. Probably the issue was overwatering, in both cases.

Plant #3: Dieffenbachia 'Pacific Rim'

The most disappointing of the bunch, though this was entirely self-inflicted. As promised, the plant was a splotchy, variegated Dieff with white-edged leaves, and this time the leaves were even pretty crust-free, so it was just my expectations causing problems. (That, and that I already have a lot of Dieffenbachias I like, so the bar's set pretty high for what I consider cool.) The picture on the website (which isn't there anymore; I guess they're out of them?) was prettier; I think also the leaves were probably larger. Or the plant in the picture didn't have such a severe lean to it. I dunno. Nothing wrong with the plant except for not being what I'd built it up to be in my head.

Plant #4: Chlorophytum sp. 'Charlotte'

I'm a little worried about this one, though it looks beautiful: my concern is that it's going to be as subject to tip burn as all the other Chlorophytums I've ever met, a suspicion which is semi-confirmed by the fact that the oldest leaves on my plant have had their tips cut off. Whoever did it did it well, but even so. Still, it seems like it's in good shape, and it'll be interesting to watch -- I look forward to finding out whether it's going to offset or set seed or what (I'm hoping it will propagate itself somehow). The newest foliage (left side of photo) has a yellow-green center, which ages to white (right side), the opposite of how these things usually go, which is interesting all by itself.

Plant #5: Dracaena 'Indonesian Tracker'

Definitely the prize of the bunch, assuming that I can keep it alive. Crusty, alas, but enormous (considering), and the pattern of variegation is genuinely new and very pretty. One of the bigger surprises of the package was the discovery that instead of having regularly-spaced leaves all the way up the stems, 'Indonesian Tracker' has a whorl of leaves, followed by a gap, and then another whorl, all the way up the stem. This makes me suspect a hybrid, possibly of Dracaena surculosa3 with one of the regular strappy-leaf Dracaenas. I like when plants are weirder than expected, so I like this one.

The plant is badly potbound at the moment; Asiatica is pretty open about the idea that they kind of expect you're going to want to up-pot everything when it arrives. It saves on shipping to send small, tight pots, too, (less soil = less weight = cheaper shipping) which is sort of a bonus. The Dracaena is the only one of these that I figure I really have to move up, but I haven't checked the others closely.

So, overall: yes, I would totally order from Asiatica again, and probably will. I got the plants I asked for, I got them relatively quickly, they were intact and healthy on arrival, and there was good communication throughout the process. No complaints about the service. My only real issue is with the expense, which seems excessive even if I was willing to pay it, and the gray crusty stuff: I feel kinda petty for complaining about the gray crust, but at the same time, you know, there wasn't gray crusty stuff all over the plants in the pictures I was looking at when deciding what to order. I can appreciate that they probably have more profitable things to do with their time than sit around hand-cleaning the plants before they mail them off, and it's not like they're the only ones doing it: real Big Macs don't look like the Big Macs in the McDonald's commercials, either. It's just, I dunno. I pay a lot for the plants, and then when I get them here they're not even really presentable, some of them, because they have to be cleaned and moved up a pot size first. It's okay, but for that kind of money I hope for something that looks more like the pictures.

Also I'm a little upset with myself for not noticing how similar the Dieffenbachia and Aglaonema were to things I have already, which is totally not Asiatica's fault. Had I known, I would have gotten other stuff, though. My advice: if you're looking at something on-line and thinking about buying it, and it's similar to something you already have, take the time to make sure it's different enough (or similar enough, if you're wanting more of the same) before you click it into your shopping cart.

So now you know.


Photo credits: all my own.

1 I was stimulating the economy, was my excuse. Or at least the part of the economy in Pennsylvania that deals in rare tropical plants: probably not one of the bigger economic engines in the world, but hey, small economies need stimulation too.
2 (Fortunately, I also have some standard Pedilanthus tithymaloides, as regular readers know.)
3 (Sometimes listed as D. godseffiana.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pretty picture: Dahlia 'Dark Angel Dracula,' 'Mussette,' 'Vincent'

My biggest problem with Dahlias, historically, is that I confuse them with lots of other flowers. I think after this spring, though, I've probably gotten that part under control.

Dahlia 'Mussette'

I don't especially like 'Mussette.' It's okay, but I'm not a huge fan of the "explosion of petals" sorts of flowers, like peonies and chrysanthemums.

Dahlia 'Vincent'

'Vincent' is okay, though. I wonder if it's named for Vincent Van Gogh, and what he would have thought about having an orange flower named for him. He semi-famously said that orange was the color of insanity. I've never known why, exactly, but there you go.

Dahlia 'Dark Angel Dracula'

The 'Dark Angel' Dahlias are nice. The picture doesn't quite do this one justice - the dark foliage is kinda neat in person, even if the flower is less elaborate. The 'Dark Angels' sold pretty briskly, too.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

New Plants Week: Part 1 of 2

Got a new batch of tropicals in this week, and I've already bought several. Since I'm excited about them at the moment, and since they're pretty, because they're fresh off the truck, I thought it would be appropriate to post some pictures. A couple of them I don't know the variety name for, so anybody with any knowledge, please sing out in the comments:


Ficus triangularis

We had one of these already, but it was grown as a bonsai, and the leaves were tiny. None of us actually knew that F. triangularis could grow leaves this big. I'm not necessarily a huge fan, but it was cheap and I was curious about how we'd get along, since I'm mostly on good terms with the rest of the family.


Pedilanthus tithymaloides

No, I didn't need another Pedilanthus, but look at it. It's huge. At least this way, I know I'll have cuttings available, if and when I need them. And I swear, nobody has these up here. In the kingdom of the Pedilanthusless, the one-Pedilanthused man is king.

Something like that.

I don't know. I just wanted it, okay?


Neoregelia NOID 'Gazpacho'

I don't know the variety, but I love the pattern and color, and it's also got an offset. Only thing I'm not giddy about is that the leaves have backward-pointing spines on them, which makes it tough to clean up. Well, and also it was expensive for a 4-inch pot. But even so. Not every plant knows that maroon and chartreuse go together so well.


Anthurium andraeanum NOID
This was one of the first things I saw when we started opening boxes, and it was also the first thing I set aside for myself. No way am I going to pass up a purple Anthurium. I don't have an ID for this one either; I couldn't find anything on-line in a quick search that had this color. WCW said that there'd been a variety called Plum something, or something Plum, earlier, but that those were lighter than the two we got in this time: this variety had a better color, in her opinion.

Closer picture of the flower.

God, I love Anthuriums.

And, you know, I guess I love everything else, too, pretty much. You'll have to stay tuned for the pictures of the bromeliads I didn't buy. Or, you know, didn't buy yet, I guess. Also there's an orchid which all the co-workers agreed was the most awesome orchid we've ever gotten: I have a picture to share later.

It was like Christmas. Open a box and find cool stuff, open another box and find more cool stuff -- just exactly like Christmas.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Lost causes, and not-lost causes

The half-off rack at Lowe's. Boy did I feel self-conscious getting this photo.

I enjoy, as I've mentioned, occasionally picking up an ailing plant (big-box distressed racks, consignment stores, yard sales, abandoned plants hanging out near dumpsters for long periods) and trying to bring it back to some semblance of respectability. At best, it's a good way to get a good future plant for free or cheap, and at worst, it's a chance to learn which gambles aren't worth the risk.

This is on my mind more than usual lately because right now at work we're sort of beginning to switch over to thinking about the tropicals again, after the long neglectful nightmare that was the spring. Specifically, we've been going through the old stuff, disposing of the lost causes and cleaning up those few that might still make it, in anticipation of a new order of stuff which just arrived yesterday right before close.

Tillandsia cyanea I got cheap from a grocery store over a year ago: it had bloomed out and was no longer especially desirable.

So I've been doing a lot of thinking about some trashy-looking plants lately, whether they'll come back, whether to give up, and in so doing, I've come up with some very general guidelines for how to make that decision. A lot of people, I think, are not as willing to take on fixer-upper plants as I am, and if you're one of those people, although there's no shame in that, a lot of this isn't going to be all that applicable to you. But if you are one of those people, here's how I do it:


1. Mealybugs, Scale, Whitefly

Even if it's on a 6-foot tall plant with gorgeous, huge, fragrant flowers and leaves like rainbows, that spontaneously generates hummingbirds and chamber music all day long, if I see a mealybug, it's out of the running, full stop. Ditto for scale or whiteflies. Enough of those sneak past me as is; I don't need to deliberately bring in more.

Mealybug on Cereus peruvianus.

2. Spider Mites

Spider mites may or may not count against a plant. If there aren't a lot of them, if it's a small plant with broad leaves that looks like it would be easy to wash off in a sink, if it's not a species normally prone to mites, then I might consider it. Spider mites always disqualify the following species: Hedera helix, Dizygotheca elegantissima, Araucaria heterophylla, Codiaeum variegatum, Hedera canariensis, Schefflera actinophylla, Schefflera arboricola, Ficus elastica, Ficus benjamina, Polyscias spp., Maranta spp., Calathea spp., Fatsia japonica and Fatshedera lizei.

Spider mites on a Ficus elastica.

I may be willing to gamble on Cordyline fruticosa or Dieffenbachia spp. with spider mites, depending on the extent of the damage, the size (washability) of the plant, and the density of the infestation, though this is less because it's practical than because I like them more than most species.

3. Aphids

Aphids, on the other hand, never disqualify anything automatically unless they've clearly been there for so long that the plant has distorted growth. Or if they're big enough or dark enough that I can see them moving around, which sometimes squicks me out. Aphids are too easy to get rid of to be worth worrying about. (Indoors. Outdoors is a different story.)
Aphids on a Salvia 'Black and Blue.' The plants are vigorous and look just fine, but they are bug magnets, and it's looking like a lot of the money we put into them is unrecoverable.

4. Fungus Gnats

Fungus gnats don't disqualify anything at all, ever. I don't mind fungus gnats. They're adorable. Like puppies. They're like puppies that try to crawl up your nose and drown themselves in your coffee.

5. Difficulty Level

I don't try to rescue plants that I have a hard time growing when they're in good condition, or that I haven't attempted in good condition. So no Gardenia, no Coffea, no Alocasia or Musa or Calathea. Basically, if it's above 7.0 on my difficulty scale, I don't even think about it. I have, however, scored some perfectly respectable Cordyline fruticosa (6.8), Saintpaulia ionantha cvv. (6.1), and Dieffenbachia spp. (4.5) before.

This looks similar to the Saintpaulia variety that had me so impressed in December, though it is in fact a different one. I found it at Lowe's in late March for like $1.50 or something crazy. It had been overwatered, but has come back very quickly and beautifully. I like when they're grateful.

6. Sunburn

Sunburn is not usually a problem. Yes, it looks crappy, but most plants will pull out of it, given enough time to do so. Sunburned Dracaenas are a particular enthusiasm of mine, but I've also seen Chlorophytum 'Fire Flash' on the racks at Lowe's, and they'll bounce back from just about anything. Sunburnt Spathiphyllum will also come back fine, so long as they're not having some other problem simultaneously (like being too wet, e.g.).

Formerly sunburnt Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana.'

7. Too Wet

Rot and overwatering usually are problems, especially if the plant is coming from a big box store: if the soil is soaking wet, or the plant is in a drainageless pot, it still might work, but I'm a lot more cautious about it. I passed up a Asplundia 'Jungle Drum' I wanted once, because of this. Sometimes I buy anyway, and I've had mixed results: roughly every other waterlogged Dieffenbachia from Lowe's I buy makes it. Always pass up overwatered plants from species that are especially sensitive to overwatering, like Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig,' cacti, Haworthia spp., Zamioculcas zamiifolia, and Sansevieria trifasciata: the odds are very much against you. (Though see #11.)

Half-drowned Aglaonema 'Jubilee', saved from an abusive customer and partially-rehabilitated. It's going to take forever to get anything particularly good out of the plant, but it's eventually going to happen.

One also needs to be on the lookout for signs of rot with too-wet plants: mushy stems, bad smells, etc. Sometimes it's possible to salvage a bit of healthy cane from a plant that's partially rotted away (Aglaonema and I get along well for that reason); with other plants, by the time the rot is obvious, there's usually not anything left to save (Dracaena marginata, for example).

8. No Good Reason to Discount

Some places will discount plants just to make space for new stuff: they may have a torn leaf or two, but essentially they're fine. Those can be rescued with no shame whatsoever. I've gotten a nice Strelitzia nicolai that way, and I've seen slightly irregular Monstera deliciosa that would have been of interest to me except that I have too many of them already.

I think I paid Lowe's like $10 for this. It might have been less. I don't remember anymore.

9. Too Dry

Underwatering depends on severity: if there's no green left and the whole thing is crispy, it's a lost cause. If there's still some green, surrounded by brown, it could go either way. If it's all green but very limp, you've got a good chance. Again, some plants bounce back better than others. I'd skip over dry Homalomena, Coffea, ferns, Radermachera sinica, Hedera helix, and Codiaeum.

Asparagus plumosus, rescued from a customer who was I guess just not that into watering. The comeback is excruciatingly slow, and I may decide that I don't have the patience, but it's not taking up that much room so wev.

Other plants will spring back to life after a long dry spell, even if they've been dry for a long time. Aspidistra elatior is one of those, as are Yucca guatemalensis and Sansevieria trifasciata.

10. Too Cold

Plants with cold damage have a good chance of coming back if they like cold anyway (Hedera helix, Rhapis excelsa, Cissus rhombifolia), if there's not much visible damage, if they're known to be tough plants (Crassula ovata, Yucca guatemalensis), or if they're very large plants with large rootballs. Plants like Dieffenbachia, Aglaonema, Dracaena, and Musa, with tropical origins and big broad leaves, tend to be more tender and are probably not worth your time. Also bear in mind that although a lot of plants will survive some degree of cold damage, just because it doesn't kill them doesn't mean they're ever going to be pretty again.

Also the odds of survival are, as you'd expect, related to how cold the plant got, and for how long. Almost all houseplants can survive a brief dip into the 50s (F; roughly 10-16C): they may drop some leaves, but it usually won't kill them. On the other hand, most of them will die from sustained temperatures in the 30s (4C to -2C), and only a rugged few will come back from 20s.

11. Propagatability

Sometimes plants aren't ever going to look any better than they do already, but they may be a decent source of raw material for propagation. A thoroughly trashed Syngonium, Epipremnum, vining Philodendron, Aglaonema, Cissus, Hoya, Begonia, Ficus, Peperomia, Cordyline, Tradescantia, Sansevieria, Echeveria, Zamioculcas, Sedum, etc., may still be perfectly good for starting a new plant: the question is just, how long do you want to wait for it, and how much room are you willing to devote to it? A plant that's too far gone may, of course, still not make it, but I've managed to propagate a lot of plants from bits and pieces. Peperomia caperata is particularly valuable in this respect: as we have seen a couple times, all you need is a single moderately healthy leaf and some time. Zamioculcas is likewise, except for needing considerably more time.
Discounted Syngonium podophyllum from Lowes.

Also a discounted Syngonium podophyllum from Lowe's, except this one's been turned into cuttings.

Bromeliads also tend to fall especially into this category. Guzmania, Aechmea, and Vriesea, specifically, are all usually discounted after the blooming period is over, so if you're willing to invest the time, you can get five or six plants for the price of half of one. This can be a pretty good deal, but you do have to make a bit of a commitment. I think Vriesea splendens is plenty attractive even when not in bloom, so it's consequently an especially good prospect, though it also tends to be more expensive than most, even when discounted, and because it's still attractive when not in bloom, I think it's often held at full price longer. It's good to check bromeliads for root rot before getting excited, but if the roots are still working to anchor the plant, there shouldn't be a problem.

Baby Zamioculcas zamiifolia from a leaflet I grabbed from the floor of a competitor, well over a year ago. (They would have just thrown it away, and it was already broken off. Also this was before I had my present job, so they weren't a competitor at the time, exactly.)

12. Wouldn't Know a Good Thing if it Bit Them on the Ass

My Hylocereus was discounted when I bought it, because it had been the base for a graft, and the graft fell off. I didn't care about the lurid red Gymnocalycium anyway, so I wound up getting the plant that I wanted, for half the original price, and with some of the work of de-grafting done for me already.

Hylocereus undatus.

13. Repetitions

Plants that you have had before, and cared for successfully, are more likely to work out as rescues, for the obvious reason that you already have some idea what these plants want and how they communicate.

My third Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' rescue. This is a piece that got broken off of a plant we got in the last tropicals shipment, in March. I rooted it in water, planted it, and I think I'm going to wind up keeping this one.


So those are the basic ideas. Most of it's pretty common sense, really.

My employer, incidentally, doesn't put tropical plants on clearance ever: it's something I've talked to her about before, and the gist of the logic is, if the plant could be brought back to respectability, then we should just do that and sell it at full price, and if it can't be brought back to respectability, then we shouldn't be selling it to the customers under any circumstances, discounted or not. This, I think, is a little oversimplified (yes, we could put $25 worth of man-hours into bringing back a Peperomia with one good leaf, but if we're then going to turn around and sell it for $3.50, we'd be money ahead to just put it on clearance, no?), but she worries about us getting a reputation for having trashy plants.

I agree that this should be a concern. We aren't going to have the cheapest plants in the area, ever -- it's just not possible, given our size and suppliers and stuff -- so the least we could do is try to have nice plants, and unusual plants. People will still buy from us if ours look the best and if we have stuff nobody else has. (Although, it's difficult to have the best-looking plants when everybody else gets them straight from the supplier looking perfect, has them a week or two, and then puts them on clearance, without ever having to put any time into caring for them. Plus the competition can buy them cheaper to begin with. I think this may be a losing fight. Hence the pushing to get different stuff, weird stuff, etc., so that at least we can have stuff that nobody else does.) So I try to maintain everything as best as I can, but I don't think there's anything necessarily trashy about repricing things that aren't selling.

WCW agrees. If we can't get permission for discounts, we have to look for other options, and what we've come up with instead is, anything that looks unhappy gets brought into a back room, or is shoved under a table, and has to fend for itself. If it comes back, then awesome, we'll put it back out and sell it; if it won't, then it gets thrown away, chopped to pieces and propagated, or it follows one of us home. Benign neglect in a new location does sometimes work, though it's not an especially efficient way to go about fixing things up, and sometimes, depending on what kind of space is available, we may end up displaying crappy-looking merchandise anyway.

Don't look at me like that. Like your job doesn't involve catch-22s too.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Pretty picture: Campanula carpatica 'Deep Pearl Blue'

Not, perhaps, the most impressive picture: I was a little rushed when I took it. But the flower is only okay anyway. The coolest part about it is the color. I'm coming to appreciate blue and bluish flowers a lot more, after seeing how few of them exist.