Saturday, December 13, 2008

Pretty pictures: Schlumbergera 'Caribbean Dancer'

Hell yeah, I bought it. I was not aware that this sort of thing, with the two different colors on the same flower, was even possible.

UPDATE: See also the Schlumbergera truncata cvv. profile.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Scarecrow (Cryptanthus cvv.)

(This is part 5 of the Wizard of Oz plant profiles.)

In the movie, the Scarecrow doesn't get much respect. Had he not spoken, Dorothy would have walked right by him. He can't intimidate the crows at all. He gets set on fire once, and he's apparently brainless to boot. Not a curriculum vitae that inspires confidence.

Similarly, Cryptanthus spp. aren't high-profile in the houseplant world. We sell a few, occasionally, but customers walk by them all the time. This isn't particularly surprising: it's difficult to find a suitable display area for small plants. (Dionaea muscipula, venus fly-traps, pose similar issues for retail, but they're actually worse, because they have fairly specific cultural needs as well, so we're limited as to where we can put them before we ever consider whether the customers can see them.) When we do have a good spot for them, they tend to sell well, though they're never going to be a bread-and-butter1 plant.

One gets the impression, though, that Cryptanthus don't necessarily want a lot of people knowing where they are: they kind of work at being inconspicuous.2, 3 The varieties people grow as houseplants are terrestrial4 and small, forming low rosettes on the ground a few inches across. (Though there are larger varieties, and I've seen plants maybe a foot in diameter for sale around here before -- at Wal-Mart, if I recall correctly -- so just because it's a Cryptanthus doesn't mean it's going to be tiny. The smaller ones, in my experience, do seem to be more available than the larger ones -- I really have no idea whether it's because they're easier to produce, easier to ship, more in demand, or hardier, but it's surely got to be at least one of those things.) Gray, green, brown, black, and white are common leaf colors, and some of those can be very interesting (especially the brown, which is a really unusual color for a living plant), though the better sellers tend to be red, coral, or pink.

Different sources give different numbers of species: this page from the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies (FCBS) lists thirty-nine full species in the genus Cryptanthus, and 404 named crosses or sports or whatever; I'm inclined to go with their numbers because they seem kind of obsessively (in the good way) interested in precise identifications. On the other hand, "Dr. David Benzing, bromeliad expert extraordinaire, recognizes 42 species."5 So who knows. I confirmed some suspicions about what plants I had on the FCBS site, though I failed to identify everything I didn't know already. (They probably do have pictures of the remaining unknowns: on the other hand, life is too short to spend it looking at Cryptanthus pictures.)

As best as I can determine, all Cryptanthus species are native to Brazil, though the specific habitats in question are fairly diverse (dry and shady, on top of rocks, salty wet coastal spots), and the internet is divided about whether they're primarily from southern Brazil or eastern Brazil.

I can't say all Cryptanthus varieties are suitable for growing indoors, since I haven't met but a fraction of them, but any that you're likely to find offered for sale should be. They should also be safe for people with children and pets: to be best of my knowledge, they are not toxic (bromeliads aren't, in general: in fact, I don't think I could name a toxic bromeliad if my life depended on it6). They do try to be scary: every Cryptanthus I've seen so far had small, pointed serrations long the leaf edges, but they're too soft and small to do any actual damage, unlike certain other bromeliads I could name; I don't know what the Cryptanthusesuses7 think they're deterring.

This is also, I think, the only houseplant I've ever lit on fire.

It was accidental, if that helps.

(Er, semi-accidental, that is: I meant to light something on fire, just not the plant.8)

Provided that you don't light them on fire, and maybe even if you do, Cryptanthus are pretty easy houseplants. I've never had any of mine really do anything objectionable (perhaps because they fear immolation if they do?): no pests, no rot, no massive shedding of leaves. I find them pretty much indestructible, though they have a reputation for being semi-difficult, and I realized as I was writing this that I've been doing a lot of stuff "wrong" with mine, and they're still fine. There have been a few failures to propagate, but aside from that, you know. So I don't have a lot of confidence in my rating, above, as it applies to other people. Your mileage may vary:

LIGHT: Cryptanthus spp. usually require some direct sun, though not necessarily a whole day's worth. One of the ones I have now is in a west window and has done well there for a while, though it is turning white instead of pink at the moment, because we've been having a dark winter so far; another is near a very bright artificial light (one marketed for Seasonal Affective Disorder9 which has been bright enough to fool cacti and crotons), and it's maintained color and done well in that spot. Less light won't necessarily kill your plant, but it may make it change colors: white instead of pink, or green instead of brown, and new growth may be weak. Too much light can burn them, but this is not likely to happen to any plant kept indoors so I wouldn't worry about it if I were you. I mean, really, acetone fires are probably a bigger danger.

WATERING: In my experience, Cryptanthus are not especially picky about when they get watered. I personally let mine get nearly but not completely dry between waterings, which winds up being approximately once a month for the one in a 4-inch pot and once every two weeks for the one in a 3-inch pot.10 That said, most of the websites I ran across recommend even moistness, with no drying out (some of them insisted on this, even), and the plants at work tend to be more on the wet side than on the dry side, so I'm not sure what to recommend here. I suppose I'll go with the experts, and start watering mine more often, but you may be able to get away with growing yours drier if you find you really have to for some reason. They do have certain water-conserving adaptations, see below.

TEMPERATURE: Not really that big of an issue: most varieties will tolerate any temperature found in the home (anything between 32-100F / 0-38C), though they're happiest in the 60-85F (16-29C) range, like most people. Plants kept in warmer conditions will need water much more often, just so you know.

HUMIDITY: Does need to be high for the plant to do well and grow continuously, though it doesn't seem to be completely unreasonable about it either. I guess. We don't do anything special here, but as I've noted previously, the apartment's humidity situation is not normal (we generally run between 40-60 percent at all times; the windows are fogged up all winter long), so if you have a normal home, especially if you live in a climate with particularly dry winters, a terrarium might not be a bad idea. Or at least a humidifier or pebble tray or something.

PESTS: I've never seen any pests on a Cryptanthus, nor did I run across anybody else warning about anything terribly specific. Mealybugs and scale are really the only pests I could imagine posing much of a problem. Plants that are kept too wet for long periods can rot out, and rot is a fairly routine problem with trying to root offsets, see PROPAGATION.

GROOMING: Very nearly zero. Your results may vary, but it's a pretty rare occasion when mine so much as lose a leaf.

FEEDING: One of mine got by for a year or better without fertilizer before I finally gave it a little bit. I don't think that it's a particularly urgent need, though. (Willing to be corrected on this point if anybody knows differently.) Bromeliads in general are poisoned by copper and boron, so avoid fertilizers containing these if you do intend to fertilize. Unlike most bromeliads, Cryptanthus do not absorb significant nutrients through their leaves, so foliar feeding is not going to be useful. The abovelinked site recommends a slow-release fertilizer in the soil, along with occasional very light fertilizer delivered in the water. I did eventually give mine a slow-release form, at less than the recommended strength, and that's done okay for us so far.

PROPGATION: A Cryptanthus will flower the same way a lot of bromeliads do, with a bunch of bracts to begin with, and then true flowers popping up out of the bracts for a period after that. The true flowers aren't especially interesting - they remind me of Tradescantia flowers more than anything: three petals, white - and last only for a day at a time (also like Tradescantia). I don't know what happens next if a flower has been pollinated. I mean, seeds, I assume, but I've never seen the process, so I can't tell you. But even if the plant has not been pollinated, this is usually the signal for the plant to begin producing pups.

In the varieties I've seen so far, the pups usually pop out near the top of the plant, from just inside the spots where leaves join to the main stem:

But some plants will also produce pups from beneath the soil, as well, just to hedge their bets, I suppose:

The thing I find fascinating about the pups is, they're only very loosely attached to the plants, and this attachment gets looser as the pup develops. So once a pup is a good size (the usual recommendation is 1/4 the size of the parent plant), rock it back and forth gently, and it will detach. I expect that pups not deliberately detached by a human would probably still eventually push themselves off the parent plant: in nature, they roll a short distance away and then root.

This is the part that gets tricky for indoor growers, because a plant that's buried too low, or kept too wet, will rot rather than rooting, and even if you get it all right, rooting takes a long time. There's no secret perfect way to do this as far as I know, but so far, the most effective way I've seen is what WCW did with some during this last summer and fall: she put sphagnum moss in a clay saucer and stuck the offsets in the moss. We watered the moss occasionally, the Cryptanthus formed roots in a few months, and then we moved them to regular soil. I've also tried sticking them directly into soil, which has worked better at work (so far) than it does at home, where it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I've tried vermiculite at work, too, but too recently to report on how well that worked.

It seems like a lot of work, to me, to go to all the trouble of producing a pup and rolling it off the mother plant without any assurances that it's even going to land right-side up, but I suppose we don't expect serious planning from the Scarecrow.

And now, because the "brainless" Scarecrow was actually the smartest one of the group (according to the book -- not so much the movie), here are a couple odd little Science! tidbits that were new to me, as reported by

1) They conserve water by taking up carbon dioxide primarily at night, the reverse of most plants.11 Most plants take in their carbon dioxide during the day because it makes sense to take up the raw materials at the time you're going to be using them, but some or all species of a lot of houseplants, including the genera Cryptanthus, Crassula (jade plants, among others), Ananas (pineapple), Euphorbia, Hoya, Zamioculcas, Agave, Aloe, Gasteria, Sansevieria, and Yucca, take up carbon dioxide at night, combine it with a compound in the cells called pyruvate, which a couple of steps later turns it into the four-carbon acid, malic acid.12 The malic acid hangs around until morning, when the plant splits it back into carbon dioxide (which is then used in photosynthesis like any other plant would do) and pyruvate. (Oh come on, this isn't that bad; you can follow this.) The pyruvate is then free to store another round of carbon dioxide the next night. This process is called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, in a rare moment of scientific lucidity, because it was first discovered in the Crassulaceae, it involves acids, and it's a type of metabolism. Usually it's abbreviated CAM.

But, you may be saying, why, Mr. S? Why would a plant bother to do this? It's not like there's no carbon dioxide to pick out of the air during the day, is there?

Well no. But -- do you notice anything special about the plants that do this? Anything, in particular, about the leaves of plants that do this?

CAM is yet another adaptation for plants that live in hot or dry (or both) environments, to minimize water loss. Most of the plants in the above list have thickened leaves, small leaves, or no leaves, most of them have a waxy coating to reduce the amount of water they lose to evaporation, and they use CAM to keep from losing water through their pores when they're trying to collect carbon dioxide. Instead, they take up carbon dioxide at night, when it's cooler and the relative humidity is higher. If it's very dry, they might still lose water that way, but when water is hard to get, anything you can do to conserve it and use it more efficiently is a good thing.

Cool though all this is (Oh my god! You learned a tiny amount of biochemistry! Pyruvate! Wheeeee!), I'm left a little puzzled. It's fine if water conservation through CAM is part of the Cryptanthus experience, but -- what for? They don't have especially thick leaves (at least not as compared to a Hoya or a Crassula: I suppose they do have thicker leaves than most bromeliads), and if you listen to people, they apparently demand humid air and moist soil. So what's the point of requiring lots of moisture around and resorting to CAM to conserve water? Why conserve it if it has to be all around you anyway? Why demand large quantities of something around you if you don't even use it all that fast?


Very well then.

2) The other item of interest is about chromosomes. While people have created a lot of hybrid Cryptanthus varieties, the genus as a whole is also, like some other plants (notably Syngonium podophyllum and Hedera helix), prone to throw out new sports all on its own, every once in a while, and there's an interesting possible reason for this, assuming that the above link, and Wikipedia, are trustworthy, which . . . well, I know. But I'm going to tell you anyway.

Most bromeliads, as I mentioned in the Vriesea splendens profile, have 25 pairs of chromosomes, or else numbers very close to 25 or a multiple of 25 (24, 25, 26, 50, 100, etc.). All Cryptanthus, though, have only 17 or 18 pairs, at least the ones anybody's counted so far. This is a little weird, but they still seem to more or less function, and it's not necessarily the case that they're actually missing anything much: on evolutionary timescales, it's not unheard of for chromosomes to link together or break apart in a stable way, so chromosome number can go up and down. If you think of chromosomes as books, this is like somebody taking Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter (the two original chromosomes) and printing a version that has them both bound together: all the same words are there, but instead of one large book and one small book, you now have one single very large book that changes stories in the middle. (The same analogy holds for increases in chromosome number: imagine a printer declaring that Moby-Dick was too long to bind in a single book, so they split it in two and publish it as two volumes instead.) Such big changes to chromosome structure are generally dead-ends, because it only gets passed on if you can find and mate with another organism that's rearranged their library in the same way, or at least a similar way, but that's a long story and this profile is plenty long already.

Not that it's not possible that Cryptanthus might actually have lost information, too. I ran across a scientific paper about the Cryptanthus chromosome number problem, that noted that yes, there were theories about why they're different from all the other bromeliads, but of course you have to be a paid subscriber to actually read the damn paper, so I don't know what the theory is. But really, there are only three basic possibilities: either the information contained in seven or eight pairs of chromosomes got lost along the way, and is no longer in the Cryptanthus genome (the library no longer has a copy of The Red Badge of Courage), or it got moved somewhere else, most likely by two chromosomes linking up to form a new, much longer one (the Moby-Dick-Scarlet Letter nineteenth-century SuperSaver volume), or both. This sort of thing happens all the time (on evolutionary timescales). But either way:

The secret to Cryptanthus variability is thought to be B chromosomes. Not X chromosomes, not Y chromosomes, not even Z or W chromosomes, but B chromosomes.13

You could think of the B as standing for "bonus." B chromosomes aren't required for the organism that has them to live, and if you have them, it's not terribly important how many of them you have. In fact, most Bs don't even code for anything and are never read, and sometimes one part of an organism might have them and another part of the same organism doesn't. They're also not necessarily transmitted to descendants, though when they are, the descendant usually winds up with more copies than the parent had, which is quirky. What B chromosomes can do is get in the way, though, which can make the plants that have them malfunction in ways affecting their fertility or appearance, which would lead to sports. Other organisms can be really variable without necessarily having B chromosomes, so I'm not certain that the B chromosomes are the whole ball game here. But it's at least a likely partial answer.

But so there you have it. Voila: Cryptanthus.

I suck at endings.


Photo credits: Scarecrow photo via; the remainder are my own.

1 "Bread-and-butter" is the work idiom of choice for the plants that pay the bills, as opposed to the plants that make mr_subjunctive, WCW, and the other plant geeks happy. Dracaena marginata, Codiaeum variegatum, Philodendron hederaceum and the self headersa like 'Autumn' and 'Moonlight' -- these are bread-and-butter. Stuff like Pseudorhipsalis ramulosa and Neoregelia are what make WCW and me happy, and you can tell the difference by the way we have failed to sell any of them to anybody but WCW and me. There is, fortunately, a little bit of overlap between the categories. There are also a few plants that are neither, but we don't talk about them. Shhh.
      a ("Phil O'Dendron and the Self-Headers" would make a GREAT band name, by the way.)
2 Which means they're probably going to be upset with me for drawing attention to them.
3 This is reflected in the botanical name, which almost every search result for Cryptanthus will tell you means "hidden flower."
4 The entire genus is terrestrial, as far as I can tell, though there's a species or two that grow on rocks rather than in soil, which depending on your perspective may or may not count as terrestrial.
5 Someday, I hope to be an "expert extraordinaire" at something. Also a supervillain, as I believe I've mentioned previously. Not sure which title should go first on the business card, though. "Expert extraordinaire, supervillain" seems to scan better, rhythmically. EXpert exTRAORdinaire SUPervillAIN. What is that? Trochaic? Ananpestic? (See kids? You never know when you're going to need this stuff in real life.)
6 Of course, if my life depended on it, I probably couldn't name a non-toxic one either: sometimes I can think quickly under stress, and sometimes I cannot. It's hard to imagine a situation where my life would depend on naming a toxic bromeliad, anyway. I'm only very infrequently held captive by plant-obsessed supervillains/-heroes, and so far, when I have been, they've been more interested in finding out why their Spathiphyllum is going black than in learning about obscure bromeliads. (A: overwatering. Nine times out of ten.)
7 I'm not sure what the plural of Cryptanthus should be.
8 The story, mildly altered from a version I told at Garden Web some time ago:
I was kind of a pyro at the time, with access to acetone (= cheap nail polish remover; the expensive kind is usually ethyl acetate) as the result of being a chemistry undergrad. (Acetone will dissolve almost anything, and is relatively cheap and nontoxic, so we used it to clean glassware and stuff. Plus it dries quickly, because it has a lowish boiling point.) This had previously been used to, for example, light flat tennis balls on fire and throw them out of my (4th-floor) dorm window, set brief but impressively large fires on the (ceramic-tiled) hallways, dissolve styrofoam, and so forth. I'm not saying any of this was a good idea, please note, but it seemed like one when I was however old I was (19? 20?).
The dorm rooms had a sink in a corner, with a mirror above them. (I'm trying to recall whether it was just a mirror or a whole medicine cabinet, and drawing a blank. Probably a medicine cabinet.) For some reason, I had the plant sitting on the sink -- possibly I'd just watered it, possibly I'd run out of room for plants elsewhere in the room.
If I'm remembering correctly, the idea was to spray acetone on the mirror, and then light it on fire, so the fire would be reflected and look bigger and brighter and so forth, but I didn't take flammable vapor and dripping into account, so I kind of lit the whole sink area on fire, including the plant, for a few seconds. I do not recall whether the fire looked bigger/brighter, because I realized midway through that I'd set my plant on fire and was distracted by that.
Hence, accidentally lighting plants on fire. The incident scared me enough that I believe it was the end of the acetone period, though I was still a pyro for a year or so after, though that was as close as I ever got to damaging anything of any actual value. The pyro thing stopped at about the time I came out of the closet: draw whatever conclusions seem appropriate.
Just to underline: this was not actually a good idea. Your results may vary. Do not attempt.
9 Which I do not have: the husband has at times thought that he did, which is why we have the light. It's possible that he still has SAD, but one of the side effects of having plants covering every available surface is that there also has to be a lot of light, so I don't recall him mentioning this last winter. I, if anything, have the other SAD: the one where you get depressed / irritable / apathetic in summer, though I figure that's got to be a heat thing, more than a light thing.
10 Interval periods given for comparison purposes only. I do not actually water my plants on a fixed schedule. Do not water your own plants on a fixed schedule: not only is it usually bad for the plant, it's sinful.
11 If you're one of those people who are worried about your plants suffocating you to death at night, when they absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide, and you don't trust me when I tell you that this is not something you should be worried about, you might consider buying some of the plants from this list, since they can take up the carbon dioxide from the other plants at night and in theory everything should balance out, then. Or you could just believe me, based on how you've not suffocated in your sleep every night of your life so far. Your call.
12 From malus, Latin for apple. You'd recognize it if you tasted it, as it's one of the main components of sour edibles like green apples, SweeTarts, grapes, Jolly Ranchers, etc. For this reason, supposedly the leaves of plants that do this taste sour in the morning (when malic acid storage is at maximum) and sweet (or at least less sour) in the afternoon (when most of the malic acid has been metabolized). I'm skeptical about this myself, but I'm not going to start eating the houseplants twice a day to check.
13 (Someday, we're going to run out of alphabet, and then the biologists are going to be fucked. . . .)

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I thought, until reviewing this picture, that what we had were mainly fungus gnats. This isn't a fungus gnat, though: it's some kind of smallish, fungus-eating fly.

I know you're thinking, but, Mr_S, aren't fungus gnats smallish, fungus-eating flies? Well, yeah, actually. But it's different. This is some other, more housefly-looking species. I know it sounds like a pretty trivial distinction, but it matters. Kinda. To me, at least. This actually looks to me more like a very young housefly, and possibly it is, though I'd be a little surprised.

Whatever the organism is, I think the picture is pretty clearly of the conqueror-stands-upon-his-conquest ilk. It'd be perfect if I could just photoshop in a tiny little Spanish flag or something.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Work-related: Ardisia crenata discoloration

It's generally the case that a plant that's not doing well will become uglier. In fact, that's often enough the rule that I can't think of any exceptions, until this one:

What's going on here is that this particular plant's roots were rotting. I don't know why this would lead to rainbow colors (I've never seen them turn red under any other circumstances), but there you go.

Ardisia crenata (coral berry) was one of the very first things, possibly even the first thing, I ordered when I started work in August 2007: they're maybe not incredibly exciting, but I figured if nothing else, there would be the berries, around Christmas, and that would be interesting to see. Since then, though, we've sold very few, or maybe none, there have been no berries, and the plants have been through a pretty terrific amount of abuse. On the plus side, we've also thrown almost none of them away, so there's still, theoretically, the possibility of making this work out.

The Ardisias have had an especially tough time lately, though, because the tropicals are already getting pushed to the edges of the greenhouse in preparation for spring,1 which left the Ardisias over the heaters, and in a lot of hot, dry air. So the plants on the outside edges of the Ardisia block dry out super, super quickly, and need to be watered all the time. The plants on the inside of the Ardisias never get to dry out at all. They were all planted in really crappy soil when we got them: it's something like a cross between topsoil (heavy, dark, prone to clumping) and peat moss (holds moisture for a long time and then dries out to an unwettable brick). Nothing good about it at all.2 So at any given moment, we've had some plants rotting out and some plants dry to the point of wilting, in the same trays. All the other plants have this same situation to contend with too, of course, but some of them mind more than others.

The plant in the picture was one that was staying too wet, which somehow or another led to the yellow and red coloration in the picture. I finally decided, last Saturday, that it wasn't fair to the plants to be treating them this way, and I moved them all into larger pots, where hopefully they will grow and look nice and eventually, maybe by next Christmas, produce berries and then sell. When I took the one in the picture out of its pot, it was barely rooted anymore. It may or may not survive, but I was potting three four-inch plants, each with several individual stems, together in a six-inch pot, so we can afford to lose a few individuals here and there and end up with a nice group anyway.

WCW says that they won't produce berries until they're a few feet tall, but from what I've seen with my Ardisia elliptica at home, I think there's every chance that they could gain a foot and a half in the next year. So maybe it'll only take two years to sell them.


1 I know, I know. But we're going to be starting Viola seeds in about three weeks: it's really not too early to be rearranging the greenhouse. I never have had a very good sense of what day of the week it is, or even what's supposed to be happening in any given month, but I'm really messed up now, since I have to live a good three months ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to the greenhouse: poinsettias in October, Violas in December, mums in August, etc.
2 And for what it's worth, the stuff we use in the back room for repottings, Ball potting mix, is the best stuff I've run across yet. It drains well, it can dry out and still remain workable, it doesn't break down quickly: it's awesome. It's also expensive, relative to the other potting mixes we sell, but it's the one I always recommend to customers. If they want a second option, we sell a "cactus and succulent mix" from some company, can't remember which, that's acceptable, cheaper, and comes in smaller bags, but I'm a huuuuuuuuuuge fan of the Ball mix, and try very hard to push customers towards it. It's especially good if you mix in a little bit of an "aquatic" "soil" "mix" we sell: this is basically just small pieces of fired clay, about 1/8 inch (2 mm) in diameter. (The scare quotes are because: it's not a mix of anything, it's 100% fired clay; it's not really soil, because it doesn't contain anything organic, and it's only aquatic because it's heavy enough to keep plant roots anchored, not because aquatic plants have any particular need for pieces of fired clay.) That improves drainage even more, and makes it more suitable for cactus and succulent plants -- though for a lot of succulents, the Ball mix can be used as-is.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

[Exceptionally] Pretty pictures: transmitted light -- Part III

(See the other transmitted light posts here.)

Plectranthus verticillatus. Don't know what the little dark speckles are doing there.

Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash.' You know, the color combination really is pretty. It's a shame the leaves turn so dramatically ugly when they go.

Philodendron 'Congo Green.' Awfully similar to the first post's Philodendron hederaceum micans.

Ficus elastica, immature leaf. Heavy vein, light vein, heavy vein, light vein and flip: heavy vein, light vein, heavy vein, light vein. . . .

Chamaedorea metallica, immature leaf. (The mature ones are too opaque to photograph well with this technique.) Made of awesome.

Aglaonema brevispathum 'Thai Snowflakes.' Didn't quite work out as well as I'd hoped, though I'm not sure what I wanted to be different.

Peperomia caperata. Wasn't happy with this one, and attempted it several times, but the Peperomia thwarted me. I don't know if you've ever been thwarted by a Peperomia before, but it hurts.

Begonia 'Coffee Texas Star.' I like it, though I still wish I could have kept the petiole out of the photo, like with most of the others.

Syngonium podophyllum 'Pigeon Schitt.' No, that's really the name they gave it when they sold it to us. I go back and forth about whether or not I find it clever.

Vriesea splendens. What can I say? It's pretty slick, no?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pretty picture: Tillandsia NOID flower

Picture may be slightly improved by opening it in a different window.

I find air plants interesting, but I don't have any myself, nor do I think I'm likely to in the future. There's something off-putting, for me, about any plant that doesn't need soil. (I still think orchids, though beautiful, are a little untrustworthy.)

WCW thinks air plants are awesome, though: when we got this last shipment of stuff in, including a large box containing 100 air plants, I was informed that although I could put any of the other plants out on the sales floor, in any arrangement desired, if I so much as thought about displaying the air plants before she'd had time to go through the box and buy the ones she liked, there would be unspecified, extreeeeeeemely dire consequences.

So I left them alone. (What am I, stupid?)

They don't always flower, though a good proportion of them usually do. I don't know how long the blooms last, because generally once there's a flower, they sell and then I never see them again. I know they at least last more than a day. For some reason, this often surprises the customers: I don't know how many people, when I point out the flowers, have exclaimed, Oh! I didn't know they flowered!

I never know how to respond to that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Music video: Sunscreem "Love U More"

Dance pop from 1992, back when electronic music was going to be the next big thing and raves were going to overthrow the oppressive establishment once and for all and usher in a brand new world of peace and love.

Boy did that not work out. But the hype was fun.

I still love this album (O3): it's like electronica, but it sounds okay even when you're not on ecstasy. (I know! I wouldn't have believed it either!)

This is apparently the version that sounds good if you're on ecstasy:

Whatever. I prefer the original.

PATSP Bottom Ten Houseplants

I figure if I have a top ten houseplants list, I should also do a bottom ten. For the balance. Or because it's fun to rip on plants that have given me trouble.

I'm using the same criteria here as in the previous list (difficulty / beauty / anxiety), but I've left out some things that scored low because I haven't actually tried to grow them, and it seems unfair to call a plant bad if I've never actually had one. For the record, this disqualified Dionaea muscipula (venus flytrap), Gardenia jasminoides, Ravenea rivularis (majesty palm), Musa spp. (banana), Alocasia 'Polly' (African mask plant), Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia), and Adiantum spp. (maidenhair fern), which all had low enough numbers but no actual in-home experiences.

As before, #s 11-20 are included at the end of the post as honorable (or dishonorable, in this case) mentions. But first, here are the ten worst wastes of time and money I've tried to grow indoors. Please bear in mind that I actually still like some of these plants, but since beauty and difficulty both count, easy but ugly plants will show up on here, along with beautiful and difficult ones. And there are a few ugly and difficult ones, too. The top ten list made a lot more sense, overall, though I would have guessed some of these before I did the math.

10. Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight.' (joyweed, Joseph's coat)
Difficulty: 7.0
Beauty: 4.0
Anxiety: 1.0

Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight.'

The wilting and reviving is a feature, not a bug, but even so, it does make a person plenty anxious over time. Also, I had some minor run-ins with spider mites, and I never seemed to be able to provide my plant with enough heat, light, humidity, and water as it wanted: the ones at work grew enormous dark purple leaves, and mine at home, under as much light as I could manage, only ever seemed to just get by. The leaves stayed relatively small, and green, and it dried out often enough that a lot of the leaves at the base of the plant dropped, so it didn't wind up looking very impressive. I'd like to try again at some point, but it wasn't, overall, a particularly good experience.

9. Codiaeum variegatum. (croton)
Difficulty: 1.9
Beauty: 8.0
Anxiety: 2.0

Codiaeum variegatum 'Mrs. Iceton.'

I used to think these were prettier than I do now, but I still think they're pretty, especially 'Mrs. Iceton.' But oh, god, the spider mites. I don't actually mind mites that much as a general rule: I've gotten them off some plants before, even plants like Cordyline fruticosa that are supposed to be mite magnets, and it hasn't killed me. But I absolutely cannot get spider mites off of crotons at home, even spraying all the time with soapy water, even wiping the leaves off by hand one at a time with a damp paper towel every other day. It'd maybe be less of an issue in someone else's home: someone who could get a manageable number of plants and then hold there indefinitely, without a compulsive need to collect more, might not have such difficulty: less risk of introducing them by accident. But in my apartment or in the greenhouse, they're like cat hair and white couches: it's only a matter of time before they find one another.

8. Asplenium spp. (bird's-nest fern)
Difficulty: 3.4
Beauty: 6.0
Anxiety: 2.0

(l-r) Asplenium nidus, A. antiquum.

These, on the other hand, do great in the greenhouse, and never seem to have many problems there, but whenever I've bought one in the past, it does great for about six to nine months and then suddenly starts to fall apart. I have an Asplenium antiquum from April 2007 at home that is still technically alive and everything, but it doesn't seem to be producing new fronds anymore, and a lot of the old ones have been turning brown at the base and falling off. I think these are probably not really houseplants, even if they are included in all the books.

7. Hylocereus undatus. (dragon fruit, pitaya)
Difficulty: 6.9
Beauty: 1.0
Anxiety: 3.0

Hylocereus undatus. This is not my personal plant; it's a former graftee at work, that was freed from the oppression of the bourgeoisie Gymnocalycium by a clumsy customer and got its own pot and support. Not really making the best use of it so far.

I feel guilty for letting this one show up on the list: it's not like it's been a lot of trouble. At the same time, it is a very, very ugly plant as things stand at the moment, and I'm not seeing any signs that it's going to age any prettier. Plus it's gotten big enough now to be wobbly, and it's tipped itself over a few times and broken pieces of itself off. I mean, it's a mess. And then with the aerial roots all over the place, too -- I just, I don't know. I hate to just get rid of it, if it's growing okay, but you know, space is limited, and I know there's got to be a more attractive plant out there somewhere that would make better use of the space this one is in.

6. Chamaedorea elegans. (parlor palm)
Difficulty: 3.3
Beauty: 4.0
Anxiety: 3.0

Chamaedorea elegans.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: everybody has a supposedly "difficult" plant that they have no trouble growing, and everybody has a supposedly "easy" plant that they can't do at all. Chamaedorea elegans is one of the latter, for me. The fronds start going black at the tips and working their way backward; sometimes whole plants rot out at the base; spider mites -- it's always been a variety of things happening simultaneously, but it's also always been bad. But then I'll have customers bring theirs in to get repotted, and they won't even know what they've got, and they'll have it in a drainageless pot, next to a heater at home, and they'll tell me that they've had it for fourteen years or something insane like that, and it'll look great. It's insane. I don't even think they're that pretty, compared to some other palms (Chamaedorea cataractum blows elegans out of the water), but it irks me that I can't grow one.

5. Adenium obesum. (desert rose)
Difficulty: 3.7
Beauty: 6.5
Anxiety: 0.0

Adenium obesum.

I'll have more to say about these when I do the plant profile for them (soon), but I had a bad experience with trying to grow one at home this summer. It lasted about two months, looked like hell for all but the first week, and made me extremely angry in the process.

4. Hedera helix. (English ivy)
Difficulty: 3.8
Beauty: 5.0
Anxiety: 1.0

Assorted Hedera helix varieties.

Again with the spider mites. Some houseplant books will tell you that these are easy, and they might be correct, if you live in a house without central heat. But if your air is at all dry, if the temperature is usually above 60F (16C), if you don't have fans going all the time in the middle of winter, you're better off without one of these. Get a Hedera canariensis instead, if you have to have something from this family (though H. canariensis isn't a vast improvement, it's at least somewhat of one); get a Senecio macroglossus if it's the leaf shape and habit you like, get a Plectranthus verticillatus, Philodendron hederaceum, Epipremnum aureum, or a Pilea nummulariifolia if you just want something that trails, but nobody with central heat should ever get one of these unless they want spider mites. The same qualifiers apply here as for Codiaeum variegatum: you might be able to get away with it if you're not bringing in a lot of other plants and you never set your plant outside. I mean, people do do this. I'm just not one of them.

3. Coffea arabica. (coffee plant)
Difficulty: 2.2
Beauty: 5.0
Anxiety: 2.0
Coffea arabica.

I've had a Coffea arabica for two years now, and it's still alive, it's grown noticeably, but we go through this thing every winter where it gets a bunch of yellow leaves, and any progress it managed to make during the summer is erased. It's now an eight-inch stick with four inches of leaves on the top, and by this time next year I expect it might be a twelve-inch stick with four inches of leaves on top. It's not much of a houseplant, though there are people out there who love them and are happily growing dozens right this minute. (There are people like that for every plant, it turns out.) My personal plant's fate is uncertain: on the one hand, it's alive after two years, and there are not a lot of plants I can say that about, but on the other, I don't foresee it ever looking much better than it does at the moment, so I might replace it with something a little easier to get along with.

2. Fenestraria rhopalophylla.
Difficulty: 3.7
Beauty: 3.0
Anxiety: 2.0

I bought one of these from Lowe's this summer. About two-thirds of its leaves had dried up and died within two months, and so I said, well screw this, and I threw it away. Then we got some in at work, and I bought one, and about two-thirds of its leaves have dried up and died within two months. It's still around, but it's getting increasingly hideous, and I know I'm not terribly good with plants that have different requirements in different seasons, so I think this one, though it lasted longer and was probably healthier to begin with, is going to be my last. Ever. Even when they're in very good shape . . . well, I like the look, but they're more odd than pretty.

1. Philodendron 'Xanadu.' (xanadu philodendron)
Difficulty: 4.1
Beauty: 4.0
Anxiety: 0.0

I've talked about my 'Xanadu' experiences pretty recently, but the short recap is: they're surprisingly anti-water, for a tropical plant. They're certainly interesting-looking when they're happy, but it's not like there are flowers or bright colors or huge, bold leaves, and they're not even the most interesting-looking Philodendron. Plus, they're paradoxically difficult to kill: they string you along, making you think that they're going to cooperate, putting out a little bit of new growth every once in a while: the difficulty is not so much in keeping them alive as in keeping them presentable. The ones at work are still doing okay (we're overwatering, I believe, but it's inadvertent: there are hanging baskets above them and there's only so much we can do), and I have no doubt but that there are customers out there who are capable of doing whatever the hell it is that 'Xanadu' wants, and who may run across this post one day and wonder what I'm going on about, but nothing about my experience with them has been pleasant. Never again at work, never again at home.

[Dis-]Honorable mentions (number in parentheses is the overall average rating):

11. Calathea ornata. (4.1) So beautiful, and I'm tempted to try again -- we have some new ones, 4-inch pots, relatively cheap -- but I can't imagine it actually working out. Once really should be enough.
12. Dizygotheca elegantissima. (4.1) One of the rare cases where a plant made it on the list despite performing pretty well for me; I did lose some cheap K-Mart plants to overwatering and spider mites, but the one I bought from work is still doing just fine. I do live in fear of mealybugs, but then I kind of was already.
13. Homalomena 'Emerald Gem.' (4.1) 'Emerald Gem' and I had reached an agreement, up until I noticed that I was having to water it, like, all the time, and repotted it. That was a mistake: since then it's dropped a lot of leaves and we've gone right back to it being a problem child again.
14. Portulacaria afra. (4.2) Not really a bad plant, but it's been frustrating for me all the same: it grows slowly, it drops leaves if it gets too dry and rots if it gets too wet, and it doesn't manage to be as attractive as the similar and much easier jade plant, Crassula ovata. I'm keeping it, but we're not really getting along.
15. Euphorbia bougheyi variegata. (4.2) It did get over its self-destructive tendencies, and we're okay, but it still makes me nervous to move it anywhere or put it near any other plants, and the growth habit is more odd than beautiful.
16. Cereus peruvianus. (4.3) I think the mealybug problem did eventually get solved, knock wood, but it took more than a year, untold amounts of pesticides, and more time than I care to think about going over it with rubbing alcohol. And now they're developing weird grayish patches that could mean any number of horrible things. I could tell similar stories about the ones we've had at work. Like the fabled little girl, when they're good, they're very very good, and when they're bad, they're horrid. But I like them anyway. Given up on them at work, but I'll still try to keep some at home.
17. Echeveria spp. (4.3) I can't manage enough light for these guys indoors, I think is my main problem, but they're also annoyingly brittle, I've rotted more than one out with overwatering, and I don't, frankly, like the look of them all that well once they start to develop a stem.
18. Begonia rex-cultorum. (4.3-4.4) A lot like the Calatheas: gorgeous but more or less impossible, at least for me, right at the moment.
19. Hedera canariensis. (4.4) Superior to Hedera helix on the spider mite front, but otherwise about the same. I like them, still, kinda, but I don't like them so well that I'm ever getting another. Probably. Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia), though it has a similar reputation for bugs, does much better for me.
20. Polyscias fruticosa. (4.4) Hasn't actually been a problem for me at home yet, but it's very new (I've had mine for about a month). The ones at work have been sort of iffy from time to time, though they seem more resilient than their reputation would suggest.

As before, I'll open the floor up for alternate bottom ten lists. Hit me.