Saturday, July 11, 2009


Another photo from last week at Menards some home improvement store somewhere, if you can believe it. Thinking back on it, I wonder if this dragonfly was feeling entirely well: s/he let me get fairly close and didn't fly away, or even move, but then I was also trying not to startle it, either, and I didn't get that close. I like to think it was healthy and happy -- or, you know, as healthy and happy as dragonflies get. They're kind of hard to read. Not a lot of emoting going on.

I don't know what species this is; the Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders includes a decent number of dragonflies, but none of them resemble this much at all.

Because I was pretty proud of the picture in its own right, here's the non-LOL version:

There's really quite a lot of detail visible in the large version of the picture: I highly recommend opening it in a separate window. The plant it's on is, of course, Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pretty picture: Lantana camara 'Patriot Firewagon'

Surreptitiously photographed at the Iowa City Menards. Not that they would necessarily have objected if the photographing had been brazen and obvious. I just feel weird wandering around, taking pictures of things. I keep expecting to be accosted by large men in sunglasses and accused of stealing trade secrets or something.

Though I suppose it wouldn't make sense to keep sensitive trade secrets out in the open, in the garden department, where they could be photographed.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fictional botany: Vestisperma acidophora

Note from Mr. Subjunctive: this plant was suggested, unseriously, by Mr. Brown Thumb, who said he'd mistakenly written "Mexican sour curtain" on a plant tag instead of "Mexican sour gherkin." He noted (via Twitter) that it sounded like something for my fictional botany series, so I tried writing it just to see how it would go, and below is what I came up with. How'd it work? It's at least not any weirder than any of the other fictional botany posts. In my head, actually, it's a really pretty plant, and I want one.

Your head may vary.

The Mexican sour curtain plant (Vestisperma acidophora), or cortina de vinagre (sometimes just cortina), is a tropical epiphytic plant in the family Vestispermaceae. Its native range extends from Southern Mexico, south into Guatemala and Honduras. It is a minor ornamental plant.

The plant is named for its seed heads: each flower produces from 7-20 seed "chains," which are flat, segmented, semi-transparent orange to pink pods. Dark black seeds are visible in the center of each segment. The segments are approximately 1.5 inches (4 cm) long and 0.5 to 0.75 inches (1 to 2 cm) wide. The chains are linked to one another by single, semi-flexible fibers, so the seed heads end up fan-shaped or folded like a piece of cloth, hence the common names. The terminal segment of each chain is somewhat sticky, and detaches on contact with animal fur or clothing, enabling it to hitchhike long distances from the parent plant. Within a matter of hours after the loss of a segment, the new end segment has become sticky, and its connection to the rest of its chain has loosened, so it may detach as well.

Seeds and seed pods are edible, though detached pods develop a strong, disagreeable vinegar odor after about 24 hours. Some ant species consume fallen pods. Contrary to popular belief, freshly collected seed pods are either odorless or have a very faint fruity smell. Seeds will only sprout in the rainforest canopy, not on the floor: it is thought that germination is triggered by chemicals in the bark of some types of tree, and possibly also by light levels.

When sprouted, the seeds quickly develop strong, thick whitish roots, which attach to the host tree. Vestisperma leaves are large (to 10 in / 25 cm long and 4 in / 10 cm wide), broad silvery ovals with the veins traced in dark green: they form loose upright rosettes which accumulate debris from the canopy, which nourishes the roots as it decomposes. The leaves are eaten by a number of caterpillars, slugs, snails, and beetles.

Flowering may occur at any time of year but is most common in fall. The flowers typically hang down slightly below the host tree's branch, well below the leaves and roots. Flowers entirely lack petals and sepals, and consist of clusters of very long (to 4 inches / 10 cm) orange or pink stamens and pistils, with each pistil being located in the center of a set of four stamens. A given inflorescence may contain up to thirty pistils. Flower color does not appear to correlate with seed pod color. The flowers have a peculiar, distinctive smell, described most precisely by a graduate student of the author's acquaintance as "a new car interior that's been rubbed with crushed raspberries." [I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it's dead-on. -Ed.] The flowers are believed to be pollinated by bats and moths.

Mexican sour curtain is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental tropical, or more rarely as a houseplant, due to its showy leaves and flowers. It does best in very warm, humid environments, with bright light but no direct sun. Cultivated plants are not ordinarily allowed to go to seed: this seems to encourage more frequent blooming. In its native range, the seed pods are sometimes collected in small quantity and used in cooking.

Related species:

V. acidophora is one of only four Vestisperma species known at this time. The other three, V. violacea, V. reticulata, and V. lithophila, are found further south than V. acidophora, and have smaller ranges. Though extremely rare in cultivation, V. violacea and lithophila have been hybridized with V. acidophora, and with one another. Only V. acidophora is known to have commercial applications at present.

V. violacea is larger than V. acidophora. Its leaves are solid silver with a green underside. Flowers and seed pods are violet or red-violet and reportedly smell strongly objectionable at all stages of development.

V. reticulata is extremely rare, and was designated an endangered species in 2005. Leaves are smaller than in V. acidophora, and are white or cream with a fine, netlike pattern of green veins. Seed pods are translucent, green, and much smaller than for V. acidophora. The flowers have not been described.

V. lithophila is a lithophyte, not an epiphyte, and grows at higher, cooler elevations than the other species. Its leaves are solid dark green, and much narrower relative to leaf length than other members of the genus. Flowers have the same form as V. acidophora and violacea, but are much smaller, reaching a maximum diameter of only 1.5 inches (4 cm). They are said to have a faint camphoraceous smell, and are orange. The red-orange, opaque seed pods are also small. Seed pods of V. lithophila are held erect above the plant, on sturdy stems, and are very sticky, though they do not stick to one another or to the leaves. Odor is reported as faintly vinegary.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Memorial Day: Late Entries

Just a few late additions to the dead-plant pile. These first two failed to get their registrations in on time, presumably because they were busy being dead. There might eventually be even more additions: some of the Saintpaulias are looking a little peaked, and have since before the move. Because I should not try to grow Saintpaulias.

Asparagus plumosus (or A. setaceus, if you'd rather). August 2008 to July 2009. Cause of death unknown, confusing.

Guzmania cv. Also August 2008 to July 2009. Cause of death: natural senescence of a post-flowering bromeliad, plus drought, plus I think it just never liked me in the first place. I know it doesn't look all the way dead in the picture, but trust me: it's dead. Some of the leaves haven't been told yet, is all.

Though it's not technically dead, I've also given up on the above Ferocactus (which sucks, 'cause it was a gift from Aiyana at Water When Dry, and I feel guilty1) because it somehow got mealybugs. A handful of other things also got mealybugs (Crassula ovata x 2, Astrophytum myriostigma), but they appear to have stayed mealybug-free after being rubbed down with alcohol and (in the case of the Crassulas) being cut back: not only did the mealybugs return to the Ferocactus, they came back more numerous than they had been to start with. I don't have it in me right now to fight mealybugs for a year and a half, not again, so I'm trying to cut my losses.

The scary part is that I don't know where they came from, or whether I still have some around elsewhere else. I mean, I must have them on something else, because the afflicted plants were all plants I've had for over a year, and I hadn't seen mealybugs on anything else in several months. So it's got to be a newish arrival, right? But which one? WHICH ONE?


1 Aiyana, if it helps: the Aloe variegata offsets are doing really well, and the Euphorbia anoplia . . . er, got a bit etiolated, which I really couldn't help. But it's alive, and otherwise healthy. The Ferocactus had been alive for quite a while, too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pretty pictures: July roadside flowers, yellow/blue

Here's the second round of roadside flower pictures from our trip last Thursday. As with the previous group, pictures will be clearer and more detailed if opened in separate windows, and I encourage people who know any of the unidentified plants in the post to speak up.

It's black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) season again here. I think I would have to be lowered over a field on a crane or something in order to get the kind of photograph that would properly illustrate just how many there are: the flowers all but disappear when you try to take a long, low-angle shot of them. This, however, is maybe somewhat illustrative of the quantity we've got in the area right now. Just picture it multiplied several million times.

This, of course, is the more traditional PATSP view of a Rudbeckia. Only a few of the flowers had the dark spots at the base of the petals like this one does: I have no idea whether this is significant or not, but it's something I noticed.

Good old mullein. (Verbascum thapsus) I've loved these since first becoming aware of them. If I ever get a real garden going outside, I'll have to remember to try to include some of these. This photo doesn't really show you what the flower spike looks like: for that, you can look at last year's set of photos.

I don't know what this is, but I feel like I probably ought to: they had all but taken over the state a couple weeks ago. Simultaneously weedy (as individuals), pretty (en masse, or close-up as seen here), hideous (as the flowers die) and nondescript (all year except for June-August).

UPDATE: I think there's a good chance that this is Pastinaca sativa, wild parsnip.

Close-up picture of another NOID; any given plant will have hundreds of these little spikes of tiny white flowers.

The same NOID, but the whole plant. These, too, are everywhere around here, though they seem to favor the edges of fields, and recently-cultivated fields, instead of ditches and roadsides.

UPDATE: Almost certainly Melilotus alba, white sweet clover. Thanks to Hugh.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus), another sentimental favorite that I also took pictures of last year. Last year's picture was better, actually, because it wasn't quite as ridiculously windy on whatever day I took it. Still, this color is self-evidently awesome.

I don't know what this one is, precisely, though the arrangement of the flowers suggests an Allium or something like it. The flower color (which is more or less accurate), though, is something I've never seen in an Allium before. Maybe I just don't know my Alliums. Anybody know? I've only ever seen it growing wild in this one spot (a ditch along a highway).

UPDATE: Probably Tradescantia ohiensis, not an Allium. Which is kind of a relief. Hat tip to Claude.

I also don't remember ever seeing this before, but there was a lot of it in a spot just outside of Iowa City, and it's pretty enough that I want to suspect that it was deliberately cultivated.

This is the foliage that goes along with the flowers in the previous picture.

UPDATE: I think this last one is probably Verbena stricta, or hoary vervain. Partly this is because the flower spikes seem to be longer than in Verbena hastata, which is the next closest species, but also because the photo I linked to includes the detail that it's a roadside weed in Missouri. Thanks to RJ Flamingo for pointing me in a verbenerly (verbeasterly?) direction.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Infrequently Asked Question: 550ish plants? How?

I have, on occasion, been asked how I can manage to fit so many houseplants into my living space. It's a fair question. The answer hasn't always been clear to me, either. I've been thinking about it again lately because a reader asked (by e-mail) a couple weeks ago, and it occurred to me that this is something I hadn't addressed yet on the blog, exactly how I manage to stack plant upon plant in a way that enabled me to get 550 or so in a two-bedroom apartment.

There are three key components of my set-up. The first is simple and obvious: small plants take up less room than large ones. If you just want to impress people with how many plants you have, get a bunch of 3- and 4-inch ones and call it a day. This isn't quite how I do it -- I think just by the amount of space they take up, my 6-inch plants are probably the bulk of the collection -- but there are quite a few 3s and 4s, especially among the succulents.

The second part is: four-foot shop lights. They're easy to find, and can be had for about $10 if you shop around a little. Four-foot fluorescent bulbs are not cheap, but they also last for a long time,1 and fluorescent light is perfectly adequate for a lot of different plants as long as it's not too far away from them, so they're cost-effective in the long run.

African violets, Saintpaulia ionantha cvv. African violets are often grown under all-artificial light.

(I am not, by the way, a fan of the special "plant lights," formulated specially to produce extra-large amounts of the red and blue wavelengths plants need. They're outrageously expensive, for one thing, and I also don't like the unnatural purple color. Regular cool white and warm white bulbs2 do just fine.)

The third part, and arguably the most important from a plant-density angle, is: shelving.

I use wire shelves. I don't really have a good name for the particular product (The last boxes I bought said they contained "black wire storage," which amused me: finally! A place to stick all those annoying black wires!), but they're sold in a lot of different places: I've seen them at Lowe's, Menards, Target, etc. There are often a range of different sizes: usually a given company's shelves will fit together regardless of whether you have them all the same size or not, but it's worth paying attention to. (You should definitely try to make sure you're getting all the same color, and from the same manufacturer: this will save you trouble later. I've seen them in black, chrome, and white.) I recommend six-foot tall (72"), for the simple reason that six-foot is usually as tall as they get, and if maximum plant density is a goal, more height is better than less height. The widths vary, though they're usually three-foot (36") or four-foot (48") wide. Four foot is better if you're going with the standard four-foot shop lights. Three-foot may be more suitable for a window, if you're relying on natural light and don't have to worry about fitting shop lights on there.

As packaged and displayed, these shelving units are usually just four poles and four or five shelves, which can be placed more or less anywhere on the poles, so you can adjust the heights of the shelves to your individual needs. I've found that sometimes I don't want to use all the shelves they include: five shelves over a span of six feet means that the average distance between shelves is only 5/6 foot, or ten inches. You might be surprised at how few of your houseplants are under ten inches tall. However, if you buy two sets at once, there's a trick you can use to get much more usable space, which is that you can connect the two sets of shelves with a third set in between:

This way, instead of having ten shelves that are all only 10 inches apart on average, you have ten shelves that are all 21.6 inches apart (72*3/10) on average, which is much more useful spacing for your average houseplant. You can continue this if you want to, and buy a third set of shelves, and connect them twice across the gaps, which puts your spacing at 24 inches apart (72*5/15), and if you really need additional height you can always just leave out some of the shelves that come with the set.

If you run out of wall and need to turn a corner, you can connect two lines of shelves by having both sets share one pole. I'm not sure how to describe it in words, but maybe this picture will illustrate well enough:

The circled pole is shared by a long set of shelves going off to the right of the picture, and by a three-foot shelf going to the left. A fun thing about this is that if I'm really, really slow and careful about it, the shelves on the left can be rotated around the pole to get the two large cacti in the corner out to be watered or whatever, and then swung back into place when they're done, thus leaving the corner still, in theory, usable.

Anyway. So this was the basic set-up I had in three different spots in the apartment, when we lived there. You can, if you are so inclined, try to suspend shop lights from underneath each shelf, but it's easier to just lay the shop lights on top of each shelf, pointing downward through the shelf they're resting on to light the plantsbelow. In some cases, I took advantage of that by placing small cuttings on the back of the shop lights, using the light above the plants for intense illumination and the light below them for bottom heat. It worked better for some things than for others, of course, but when it worked, it worked amazingly well.

The lights can then all be plugged into power strips, and the power strips placed on timers, to turn on sets of lights all at once.

One bad thing about the shelves is that it can be hard to get smaller pots to balance properly: you have to place a three-inch pot pretty carefully on wires that are an inch apart. I eventually resorted to getting some flat plastic (acrylic? polycarbonate?) sheets to lay down on top. They don't have to be especially strong, just flat. The air circulation suffers, but you have less dirt raining down on the floor, which is a plus.

It's also very easy for plants to fall over the back edge of a shelf, so I find it works best when I have one of these up against a wall, with the lights in back. Though putting them close to, but not touching, windows did work in the apartment in a few spots, and sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

The basement shelves. These are possibly going to have to be redone later, because I'm not happy with the range of heights I got out of them and the distribution of warm and cool bulbs, but the general idea should be more or less clear by now.

What does a set-up like all this cost? Well, say you're going to buy two sets of 6-foot tall, 4-foot wide3 wire storage units and connect the fifteen shelves you get from that as far as they'll go, and light the backs of every shelf you can light the back of. Target often has these units available for about $60 each,4 so that's $120, and then if you're setting up like in my amateurish sketch above, you can light nine of the shelves (the very lowest one is too close to the floor to get any plants under, so there's no point in lighting it). That means nine shop lights and eighteen fluorescent bulbs. Figure $10 each for shop lights, and figure a box of twelve cool white bulbs costs $25 and a box of twelve warm white bulbs costs $35, and that a light timer can be had for $4 and a power strip costs $8:
$120 shelving units
$90 shop lights
$25 warm white bulbs
$35 cool white bulbs
$24 power strips
+$12 light timers
$306 total

And what have you gotten for the $306? Well, you have ten shelves plants can go on, plus two sections of floor underneath the shelves where plants could also go. Each shelf is roughly 1.5 x 4 feet, or 6 square feet, so that gives you 72 square feet of space, except that the shop lights take up about (9*4*0.4) 14.4 square feet of that so you're really only getting (72-14.4) 57.6 square feet of space.5 And then that's only a net gain of (57.6-18) 39.6 square feet, because the whole set-up takes up 18 square feet of floor space that were there previously.

So 39.6 new square feet of growing space for $306: it's $7.73 per square foot. Pricey, but: all the new space, plus the floor area it takes up, is well-lit, higher-humidity (because the plants are closer together) space with good air circulation (wire doesn't block airflow), it's vastly cheaper than the equivalent 6'x6' greenhouse or room addition would be, you won't have to buy fluorescent bulbs for a while, the heights of the shelves can be adjusted as plants grow, and it doesn't add to your heating bill as dramatically as adding a room would. (It does use some additional electricity, but not really so much that you'd notice a difference unless you get really crazy with it.)

I was getting, on average, about 12-18 plants per shelf back in the apartment, so this would be space for approximately 135 plants, or more than that if you pick up more 3- and 4-inch plants like I recommended.

My mini-greenhouse. If you desperately needed to have a very, very high-humidity area for propagation or whatever, you could probably wrap a shelf or two in clear plastic more or less like this and get something functional, if not pretty.

Set up another three units like this in another three rooms, and you have (57.6*4) 230 square feet of plant-growing space plus another 40 square feet of bottom-heat propagation space, room for 540 plants, and you've spent about $1224. The best part of this is that you can buy new shelves one unit at a time, so it's $1224, but in lots of little chunks over a long period. Unless you're really getting serious about propagation, or planning to buy a very large number of plants all at once, you can spend the cash in dribs and drabs, which makes it all sort of affordable. Or at least the kind of expensive you don't notice while it's happening.

The shelves are also moderately good bookshelves or aquarium stands,6 if you change your mind later and decide that you'd rather not keep so many plants. I mean, they're a decent long-term investment on their own.

So now you know how I crammed them all in. Is it an example to be emulated?7 I suppose depends on your priorities.


1 A lot of people will advise you to change bulbs after a year, even if they've not burnt-out. I know this is something the hard-core, competitive African violet growers do, for example. It is unquestionably the case that light output of fluorescent lights drops over time, and I can definitely see how this might become relevant if one were trying to create very standardized, uniform plants, or if one were trying to grow plants with very exacting light requirements. I don't worry about it so much, personally, because as I mentioned, fluorescent bulbs are not cheap. Also, the sites recommending this never really say what you're supposed to do with a whole bunch of dim, year-old fluorescent bulbs.
2 One recommendation I've seen, that I do like, is to mix one cool white (more blue) bulb with one warm white (more red) in each fixture. I honestly don't think the plants care, but the resulting color of light is a little more natural. Also, if you're worried about the red/blue wavelengths thing, mixing warm and cool bulbs would be a good way to feel like you're doing something about this without going bankrupt or turning your home lavender. I don't personally mix warm and cool lights in all of my light fixtures, because, again, I don't think the plants care that much, but in the cases where I have mixed the colors, I like the color of the light better, personally.
3 In most cases, the depth of the shelves is 18 inches, though other sizes are available. It really doesn't matter as long as you're careful not to buy different depths. You can mix three-foot-wide shelves with four-foot-wide shelves easily enough, and if you plan it properly you can mix different heights, too. But depths you have to match up correctly.
4 (though not always: right now their web site says $150: that's not typical, or even heard of, in my experience. The website's price structure is clearly different from that of the brick and mortar stores.)
5 Plus the backs of six of those shop lights could be used as bottom-heat, top-light propagation areas, so that's (6*4*0.4) 9.6 square feet of propagation area, in theory.
6 Mine were originally used as bookshelves; the plants didn't begin to crowd out the books until I'd had the shelves for eight years, and by then a lot of the books had moved on anyway. I'm not 100% certain about using them as aquarium stands: I forget exactly what the maximum weight capacity is supposed to be. Enough to have them full of books, in any case. They should certainly be adequate for a ten-gallon aquarium full of water, or a twenty-gallon terrarium, on each shelf. One minor drawback: the wires do bounce a little bit when heavy things are dropped on them, so they may not be quite as stable as you'd want: that could probably be dealt with by adding a sheet of plastic or a piece of plywood or something. Also, shop lights don't have quite as many alternate applications as the shelves themselves do, so you would still be stuck with those. But your shop, if you have a shop, would be blindingly bright.
7 No. It is probably not.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pretty pictures: July roadside flowers, pink/orange

Took a back-roads route from Iowa City last Thursday, and found all these. Plus there's another post with more flowers coming up tomorrow Tuesday. As always, if you know the identity of the one NOID, let me know in comments.

All of these will be bigger, clearer, and more detailed if opened in a new window.

When I took this picture, I was pretty sure it was a Queen Anne's lace, Daucus carota. Then as I got to looking at it afterward, I was thinking that it seemed awfully full for Queen Anne's lace, and maybe it was some other, related plant. Now I'm kind of leaning toward the Daucus theory again, but I'm unsure. Open in a new window to see the odd insect sitting right in the middle of it all.

I've taken photos of fleabane (Erigeron sp.) before. It's not a big thrill, and this particular batch looks kinda ratty (it's been windy a lot lately) but I feel obliged to include it for the sake of completeness.

Hadn't ever really noticed these NOIDs before: they're pretty tiny, and the plants look like hell (which you can kind of see from the foliage I didn't crop out), but when you get up close enough, the flowers are very nearly attractive. Not quite, but very nearly.

I have yet to take a picture of milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) flowers that didn't also include a ton of bugs as well. I think the common name should be changed to "pink orgyflower" or something similar. Interesting greenish, non-metallic bee in the top right.

I think this is a Rosa arkansana, prairie rose, in which case it is the official state flower of Iowa. If I'm wrong, then it's most likely a multiflora rose, Rosa multiflora, in which case it is a noxious invasive weed. Thorny son of a bitch either way.

Red clover, Trifolium pratense. I can't imagine any readers not knowing this plant, but I've led a sheltered and exclusively North American life thus far, so maybe they're news to someone. These are everywhere here, all the time. I also really like them.

Michigan lily, Lilium michiganense. We have orange daylilies all over the place here -- in some spots they're lining both sides of the road for a couple hundred feet. I remembered my grandmother having Michigan lilies along a slope to one side of her house, but was beginning to think I must have confused them with daylilies, because I'd never seen any around here that weren't obviously cultivated: I was pretty sure that hers hadn't been deliberately planted.

Now that I've seen this bunch, though, which was just sitting in the middle of nowhere along a road, with no house or other structure nearby, I feel a little more confident in saying that no, what she had really were Michigan lilies (which she called tiger lilies). 'Cause apparently they are around if you look for them. Just not to the same degree as the orange Hemerocallis.

Asclepias tuberosa. OMG guys I love these. We had had them at work last year, but sold out before any flowered, so I never got to see.

I've been noticing little flashes of orange low in the grass along Highway 218 for a couple weeks now, but of course we're always going by too fast to get a good look, so I wasn't sure what they were. The batch I finally took a picture of happened to be conveniently located near a gravel/highway intersection near Lone Tree, where we had to stop anyway.