Saturday, February 7, 2009

Pretty pictures: Primula NOIDs

Lovely though they are, Primulas are perplexing to me at work. I don't think the greenhouse is quite the right place for them. I have no personal experience trying to keep them indoors, but just based on how and when they fall apart at work, I'm guessing that they need cooler temperatures than what we can provide (especially lately: the weathermen are talking partly sunny and 52F / 11 C for today. We'll have to open the ridge vents for the first time since fall!). Maybe it's something else. They also seem to need perfect watering, which is sometimes more of a problem than others.1

I may never get Primula care quite right: we generally only have them for a few weeks, and never very many at once, so I don't get a lot of practice.

They're especially interesting when mixed into the African violet (Saintpaulia) display: the size and shape of the plants are similar enough that your first impression is OMG yellow African violets!, followed by the crushing realization that no, they're just Primulas.

The one huge thing they've got going for them is, some of them are scented. So far, I've really only noticed the yellow ones, like the one above,2 being fragrant, but wow, what a fragrance. To me, it does a dead-on impression of a box of Froot Loops, though as usual I haven't been able to get anybody to agree with me on that.

There are blue ones, too. When I took these pictures, there weren't any blue ones that looked good enough to photograph, so I didn't. But we've had them before, and no doubt will again.


1 Earlier this week, we had a small leak in one of the pipes, and the water to the greenhouse had to be turned off for most of the day while this was dealt with, so I wound up filling a watering can in a sink and then lugging it into the greenhouse to water as many plants as I could get with two gallons of water, then went back to refill. I made sure to get the Primulas, but some of the other plants may have suffered a bit: this is a slow way to try to water a greenhouse.
2 Actually it may not be the plant pictured. We have two kinds of yellow Primulas at work, only one of which has a smell, and I don't recall which is in the photograph. But they're awfully similar to one another: the scented one looks a lot like that one even if that one is not the same plant.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Random plant event: Spores!

Love is in the air, apparently. Or whatever the fern equivalent of love is.

Phlebodium aureum 'Blue Hare.'

Nephrolepis exaltata.

Microsorum musifolium 'Crocodyllus,' newer spores.

Microsorum musifolium 'Crocodyllus,' older spores.

Cyrtomium falcatum.

The very very beginnings of spores on Asplenium nidus. The whitish lines covering the middle half of the leaf will eventually turn brown and shed spores.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Great Moments in Customer Service, Part I

Scene: Work. I'm trying to water plants in the greenhouse, but I've been interrupted a few times already by the CUSTOMER, who has explained that she's looking for a long-blooming plant for a man's hospital room. It's a big deal to her that the plant not be too "girly," though she's also rejected hints that maybe a foliage plant might be a good compromise. The plant must have flowers; they just can't be girly flowers, because they're for a man, and who knows what kind of flowers men like.

CUSTOMER, interrupting again to gesture at a dark-purple Cyclamen: Would you like this color, if you were a man?

ME, pointedly: "If I were a man?"

CUSTOMER, cheerfully: Uh-huh!

ME, furrowing brow: .

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

LOLSquirrel, except kinda not LOL

The recession (can we start using the D-word yet? I mean, is there anybody who's still unconvinced that this is a depression?) is hard on all of us, of course. But it's roughest on the squirrels.

Background on the picture: the squirrel is dead, obviously. I know some blogs have no-dead-rodent-pictures policies, but PATSP is not one of them. Explaining the beer can is harder, but it was the day after the Superbowl, so there were lots of unexplained beer cans around. It seems a pretty safe bet that the can didn't originally belong to the squirrel.

I was amused by the juxtaposition anyway.

Pretty pictures: Tulipa NOIDs

The forced bulbs march onward, I guess. Last year we tried forcing some of our own, not entirely on purpose (I forget what the deal was -- some unsold bulbs that got temporarily stashed somewhere and forgotten, that we went ahead and planted anyway?), and they didn't work out so well. I think I planted them too deeply, and maybe they also didn't get quite the full extent of the cold treatment that they wanted. They didn't open, or they opened before they emerged all the way, or I don't really remember what all went wrong. I just know it didn't work out so well. It's sometimes better for us to let the suppliers do the work.

I like tulips. They were one of the few outdoor plants my mom bothered with, when I last lived at home with them, is part of it, but I think I'd like them anyway. Don't know what it is exactly. It's sort of mysterious to me, what exactly the appeal is.

After all, I'm very clear about why I don't like certain other flowers. A lot of them look like they're trying too hard. A thousand petals, every variety rufflier than the next, six different colors at once, bizarre shapes, as big as your fist, as big as your head, as big as a beach ball -- tulips never look like they're overcompensating for anything. Which is reassuring sometimes.

Not that a person needs a reason to like a particular flower. (It's more the case that one needs a reason not to.) There's just something particularly attractive to me about tulips.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fictional botany: Duggara iridophylla

The vampire begonia (Duggara iridophylla) is not a true Begonia. It gets its name from the supposed resemblance of the leaves to rhizomatous begonias, as they are broad (up to 6 inches / 15 cm across), hairy, and frequently brightly colored in shades of green, yellow, orange, brown, black, and red. Surprisingly, leaf color does not appear to be determined by genetics, but is instead dependent on environmental factors at the point of germination, such as temperature, nutrient availability, or other factors. Coloration, once established, remains constant throughout the plant's life.

Duggara iridophylla is a perennial, native to boggy, nutrient-poor regions throughout the Northwestern United States and coastal British Columbia. Its leaves emerge from a short, thick stem and are held on long, slightly hairy petioles well away from the stem. The entire plant can be up to 2.5 feet (0.8 m) in diameter.

The common name derives from the method the plant uses to acquire nutrients: among the long, soft leaves and hairs are a few modified leaves which are nearly-transparent, extremely sharp blades about an eighth of an inch (3mm) wide and up to 1.5 inches (4 cm) long. These are specially adapted both to be able to slice the skin of animals brushing against the plant, or attempting to eat it, and also to be permeable to nutrients, in particular iron and manganese, which contact them. A single one of these modified leaves is capable of absorbing half its weight in iron (III) chloride (FeCl3), according to laboratory tests. In the wild, minerals are not likely to be administered so directly, but spines are also capable of absorbing nitrogen, sodium, potassium, and other components of blood. Excessive amounts of iron are stored in the roots until needed or else translocated to developing seeds. Plants deprived of animal blood for long periods may produce small or pale new growth, grow more slowly, or be more susceptible to attack by insects and disease. It is eaten by several species of beetle in its native range.

The flowers are produced in late summer at the end of a tall (to 3 ft. / 0.9 m), thick stalk and may become a globe of flowers and buds 6 inches (15 cm) across. They are intensely fragrant, and have been described as smelling like pineapple. Flowers are usually vivid red, though pink and white varieties have been seen in the wild. They are pollinated by birds, though they are self-fertile if left unpollinated by the end of the season. The flowers eventually form small hook-covered seed capsules which hook onto animal fur and are transported to new locations.

Duggara is occasionally cultivated as a houseplant and garden plant because of its beautiful foliage, though its environment is difficult to reproduce outside of its native habitat, and its numerous, nearly-invisible and razor-sharp spines pose special difficulties for those who would try to cultivate it. Two cultivars are sold: the first, called 'Dracula,' has red flowers, leaves which are black with red veins, and a smaller habit than the species. 'Dracula' does reproduce true from seeds; whatever genetic mechanism controls the variable coloration appears to have been disabled. The second widely available cultivar is called 'Mary Fair,' and retains the variable colors of the species, but the leaf edges are ruffled, and the flowers are a delicate pink color and have a slightly sweeter scent. Duggara does not appear to have invasive tendencies.

Duggara is uniquely adapted for its chosen lifestyle; not only does it have a novel means of acquiring necessary transition metals, but it's variable color is thought to be a defense against animals which would otherwise learn which plants to avoid: a wild animal may learn to avoid a red and green plant but still approach (and be cut by) one which is black and orange. This color-changing ability, if it could be transferred to other plant genera, could provide many new asexually-propagated cultivars of unrelated garden plants nearly overnight. Consequently, Duggara iridophylla is of considerable interest to plant breeders. It is also suspected of having antibiotic and anticoagulant properties, as cuts inflicted by Duggara bleed profusely (if briefly) but rarely become infected.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fluoride: What it is, and how it's spelled

I was inspired to write this post because of a recent Garden Web thread. It was one of those deals where I started writing a response about one specific thing, and kept adding in other stuff, and the response got longer and longer and longer until it reached the point where I thought I'd be kind of being a jackass if I posted it. Which is one way that having a blog is nice.

So here we go.

Fluorine is a chemical element. It's a greenish, very toxic and reactive gas, composed of diatomic (= two atoms) molecules, F2.

Model of a diatomic fluorine molecule. Not terribly informative, I know: I looked for pictures of the actual gas but all such pictures I found were copyrighted. This image is by benjah-bmm27 and was taken from Wikimedia.

When a molecule of fluorine picks up a couple extra electrons from somewhere, you get two fluoride ions. Fluoride is toxic to humans in large amounts, but in small amounts added to drinking water, it can strengthen teeth. More on that later. Because fluoride is negatively charged (due to the extra electron it's carrying), it can't just float around without something positively charged to balance it, e.g. sodium fluoride or calcium fluoride. More about calcium fluoride later, too.

Most plants aren't particularly touchy about fluoride levels in water, but there are a few that are, including some of the more popular ones:

  • Cordyline fruticosa is sort of famous for developing burnt tips and margins from fluoride; this, combined with its susceptibility to spider mites, probably accounts for why it's not a more commonly grown indoor plant.
  • Chlorophytum comosum will get tip burn from fluoride, sodium, or boron.
  • The entire Dracaena clan, except possibly for D. surculosa, gets terrible tip burn when fluoride levels are high; this is a difficult problem to deal with, as Dracaenas are often sold as large, floor-sized specimens which are hard to drag to a water source to flush out.
  • Calathea and Maranta spp. (e.g. Calathea ornata, Maranta leuconeura erythroneura) also develop tip and margin burn, especially on the oldest leaves, often with a yellowish halo at the edge of the burn.
  • Asparagus spp. don't seem to be that picky about fluoride in water, but fluoride in the air (which sometimes happens following volcanic eruptions, or near incinerators) can cause sudden, massive leaf drop.
  • The kentia palm, Howea forsterana, is also sensitive to atmospheric fluoride, and is slightly sensitive to fluoride in the soil.
  • Chamaedorea species (elegans, metallica, seifrizii, etc.) get tip burn, as will many other palms (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens, Rhapis excelsa).
  • Yucca guatemalensis can experience fluoride toxicity, but it tends to be slow in developing and fairly easy to fix with a soil flush.
  • Aspidistra spp. (elatior, lurida) and Tradescantia spp. (zebrina, pallida) are also somewhat, though not extremely, touchy about fluoride.

Probable fluoride burn on a Cordyline fruticosa at work. Or if it's not fluoride, it at least looks like fluoride damage would look. My own photo.

If your water supply contains a lot of fluoride, or if flushing your plants with large amounts of water is impractical for some reason, you should either steer clear of the above-listed plants or invest in a water purifier of some kind: reverse-osmosis filtration is popular, if expensive. Distilled water may also be an option. One can also just avoid the plants on the above list and grow plants which are less susceptible. (Most of the sensitive commonly grown species are in a pretty small number of families: avoid the Marantaceae, Arecaceae, Ruscaceae, and Liliaceae, and you should be relatively safe)

Some people also advise letting water sit out overnight before using it, to give the fluoride a chance to evaporate. This isn't quite wrong, but it doesn't work as well as you'd expect. Fluoride in water can escape, particularly in acidic conditions, by finding a stray hydrogen ion and combining to form the gas hydrogen fluoride, which will then drift away with the air. However, as best as I can determine, this happens too slowly to be useful for horticultural purposes. If the air is dry enough, you may find that letting water sit out to remove fluoride actually removes enough water to concentrate the fluoride.1

Changing your water supply may not be enough, depending on what other things you do. Certain fertilizers contain superphosphate, the name for phosphates derived by dissolving phosphate rocks with sulfuric acid.2 This is, you know, fine, except that the resulting superphosphate can have any number of other things in it, depending on what rocks were dissolved, and fluoride is a common impurity. Time-release fertilizers like Osmocote are typically safe; other fertilizers may specifically state that they do or do not contain superphosphate, or will indicate what amount of fluoride ion the product contains, or etc. Read the labels.

Another possible accidental source of fluoride is perlite, a common -- and very useful -- soil additive which keeps potting mix light and well-aerated, enabling soil to dry quickly and getting air to plants' roots. Alas, perlite is also made from rock,3 and so depending on the source, it may or may not contain harmful amounts of fluoride.4 Perlite can still be used for fluoride-sensitive plants if it's rinsed well with water first, though obviously if you're rinsing with fluoridated water then you're not necessarily helping. Also I imagine it feels kind of silly to wash perlite.

Growers add calcium to soil, and raise the soil pH, to keep fluoride levels from affecting plants. Calcium and fluoride form calcium fluoride (CaF2), a relatively insoluble mineral which is named fluorite when found naturally. The fluoride ions are still there, but the calcium prevents them from dissolving in water, so they're not available for the plant's roots to absorb and consequently don't cause problems.

Most people never make a point of flushing their plants' soil out, so minerals of all kinds accumulate, fluoride among them. For this reason, even if you're using fluoridated tap water, rinsing the soil heavily with water can reduce fluoride toxicity problems just by bringing the level down to whatever it is in the water. Also, flushing soil out at every watering (which is what I do) can prevent toxicity issues from ever developing in the first place.

Picture of fluorite crystals. Picture by Ryan Salsbury, taken from Wikipedia.

Finally, a note on spelling. I know that this is dickish of me, to rant about spelling, but it bothers me to see this done wrong, so I feel like I have to say something. It's not aimed at anybody in particular, if this reduces the dickishness at all. And as far as it goes, I know uor is a lot less common sequence of letters in English than our; it's easy to make typos, and I do it too. But:

The mineral fluorite (calcium fluoride, CaF2: I told you we'd get back to it eventually) is what started this whole stupid-spelling business. Fluorite glows under ultraviolet light; this action was named fluorescence after the mineral, which led to fluorescent lights and highly-fluorescent chemicals like fluorescein. The element fluorine was prepared from molten fluorite, and consequently was named after it. Then the fluoride ion was named for the element fluorine, as were things like chlorofluorocarbons and water fluoridation (which changes the mineral in tooth enamel from apatite to the stronger fluoroapatite).

Fluorite the mineral was named fluorite via the Latin fluo, meaning "to flow," which referred to its low melting point, and the stupid Latin vowel order has been passed along through all the above links, plus several hundred others.

More fluorite, obviously crystals again instead of molten. Molten fluorite is apparently difficult to come by, or not very photogenic, or something. Picture by photolitherland, taken from Wikipedia.

Flour, by contrast, is the generic word for grain which has been ground into a powder; there's no meaning as far as I know for the words flourescent, flouride, flourite, or flourine.5

(Though I suppose if flour glows when you shine UV light at it, the glow could reasonably be called flourescence. I don't know whether flour glows under UV or not. Probably not. But if it did, that'd be a name for it.)

So, to sum up: 1) some plants don't like fluoride in their water. 2) Those plants should get water without fluoride. 3) Sometimes you can rinse fluoride away or bind it with calcium. 4) The low melting point of calcium fluoride has made us all bad spellers.


1 I think a lot of the confusion here stems from the fact that one can remove chlorine, a very similar element, from chlorinated water by letting it sit out. The trick is that the chlorine in chlorinated water is present as a complex mix of ions and molecules, including chlorine (Cl2), hypochlorous acid (HOCl), hydrogen chloride (HCl), hypochlorite (OCl-), chlorite (ClO2-), chlorate (ClO3-), and perchlorate (ClO4-), with chloride ion (Cl-) forming a very small proportion of the total. Some of these species are more easily evaporated than others.
Fluoridated water, by contrast, contains most of its fluoride as hexafluorosilicate ion (SiF62-) or fluoride ion, depending on the city adding it, and so the chemistry is very different: there are no fluorine analogues for many of the chlorine compounds listed above. Fluoride ion pretty much only leaves under acidic conditions; hexafluorosilicate can decompose in water to form hydrogen fluoride (HF) and silicon tetrafluoride (SiF4), both gases. I couldn't find anything that addressed the question of whether the hexafluorosilicate was stabilized to prevent this from happening, but it seems like something really ought to be, because if it's not going to stay in the water then it's not going to serve any purpose to add it.
Iowa City's drinking water fluoride concentration ranges from 0.8 to 1.5 ppm, according to the 2006 Water Quality Report for the University of Iowa (pdf). I could not determine whether it was added as fluoride ion or as hexafluorosilicate. Chlorine levels (including all forms of chlorine, not just chloride ion) were similar (1.3 ppm) in the most recent report I could find.
2 Yeah, sulfuric acid is pretty badass stuff. For fuck's sakes, be careful with it.
3 Perlite is essentially rock popcorn: pieces of rock, heated very rapidly, without giving the water in the rock time to evaporate. When the water can't take it anymore and evaporates anyway, it breaks and expands the rock as it goes, turning it into glass foam, basically. The bright white color is due to reflection from all the little bubbles so formed (like with the head on a beer, or thick soap suds). Actual popcorn is essentially the same thing: quickly heated water vapor, in a starchy seed, expands all at once and produces a light, fluffy white foam of starch.
4 According to Wikipedia, perlite is usually produced from obsidian, which does not contain enough fluoride to be worth mentioning, but you know how reliable Wikipedia can be. And anyway, even if it's not a lot -- not a lot relative to what? We're talking about parts per million here; it doesn't have to be a lot in order to hurt sensitive plants.
5 Also I believe someone should write a children's book about a young female baker named Flourine. Possibly she could have a partner named Sugarette and a dog named Butter. I'm not sure what the plot of the book would be, but c'mon: I shouldn't have to come up with everything.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

For the "Battlestar Galactica" fans:

The husband and I went for a drive to the Quad Cities today; the objective was to go to Wallace's, and we did go, but it was a crushing disappointment, as they've closed their greenhouses for some unknown period of time, and had somehow whittled down their tropical selection down to a sad two tables' worth of the most ordinary stuff imaginable. Which is not what I go there for, obviously.

But the trip wasn't a total waste: I did eventually find a plant to buy, at Lowe's (a Polyscias fruticosa, which hopefully hadn't been there long enough to be mistreated too severely), and on the way up, we encountered this bar in Davenport:

Close-up of the relevant bit:

So that was pretty cool.

(For non-BSG viewers: "frak" is the word BSG uses to get around censorship of the word "fuck" on the show. The spelling's not quite right, but obviously it'd be pronounced the same way.)

Pretty picture: Phalaenopsis NOID

Hopefully it hasn't been noticeable, but my work schedule and the home watering schedule came together last week in such a way that I spent more or less every second of every day for several days in a row either at work or watering at home, or scrambling to throw together a blog post at the last minute. The botanical names post from a few days ago was also being unusually uncooperative, and had to be started over from scratch three different times. This sort of sucked, not least because I had to throw out some really good jokes in the process.

Life is maybe going to be a little more easier for a while, but then it'll get crazy again as work accelerates. So try to be patient.

Meanwhile: Phalaenopsis NOID.