Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pretty pictures: August roadside flowers

Hello, and welcome to the latest installment of the roadside flower series. This particular batch was all (with two exceptions) taken on Sunday, July 26, so they're not quite August flowers, but I figure they're all probably still blooming today, so it's close enough for PATSP. All of these pictures (again, with the two exceptions) were taken along the side of gravel roads between Iowa City and Lone Tree: not in somebody's garden, not in a park, just there next to the cornfields, getting covered repeatedly by gravel dust, soaking up car exhaust.

As always, the IDs are a little sketchy, and there are a few things I couldn't ID at all, so anybody who wants to suggest or confirm names is encouraged to do so. In fact, let's just begin with a kinda ugly NOID:

It looks a lot like a mint of some kind, which would make sense, but I couldn't find any pictures of mint flowers on-line that looked like this. There were a few things that looked similar, but were much, much shorter than these.

Close-up of the possible mint.

Trifolium repens, white clover. I like white clover, though I blame it for a childhood bee sting: I was maybe eight, barefoot in the yard, and stepped on some clover that happened to contain a bee. The bee stung me dead center in the bottom of my foot. The surprise of the pain was worse than the pain of the pain, but either way it sucked.

We've had Monarda blooming everywhere along the side of the road for quite a while now, and I just haven't bothered to get a picture before now. I probably should have gotten one earlier, because now they're all half-dead and beaten up like this one. Though Monarda kind of tends to look that way even when totally fresh. So perhaps I exaggerate.

We have several tall yellow flowers sort of in this general category blooming right now, though I didn't get pictures of the others. I'm not sure what this one is, though if forced to guess, I would guess Helianthus of some kind. (And if forced to be more specific, I would guess H. grosseserratus, but both of these would be something of a wild stab in the dark.)

Field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis. Pretty sure. I'm not a fan.

I feel very strongly like I ought to know this one, but I don't. Technically not a flower picture, but a seed-head picture, I include it here in the hopes of finding out what it is. Also it's a pretty decent picture, if I do say so myself. Which I do. Say so.

Yellow sweet clover, Melilotus officinalis. Despite claims of a sweet odor from the whole plant, I can't say I noticed anything when I was there taking the picture. Considerably more information about this plant can be found here.

Close-up of the flowers. This is a terrible plant to try to photograph, by the way. Not substantial enough to engage the autofocus, sways terribly with the slightest breeze, and doesn't show up against any green background.

Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. These are all over the place at the moment, often mixed in with the black-eyed susans (Rudbekia hirta), and the two are actually very pretty together. I don't remember noticing these around when I was a kid, also in Iowa, which is weird however you explain it. Either people have suddenly started to deliberately cultivate Echinacea in their ditches and fields when they used to mow them down, or I was completely oblivious to a large, abundant, brightly-colored flower as a child. I didn't notice everything, I know, but I surely would have noticed these if they'd been around. So it's a puzzle.

This is one of the two exceptions to the July-27 rule. This was taken in the same general area as the metal llama lawn ornament, though I've seen the plant closer to home, too.

This is a closer view of the flowers on the above plant. I have no idea what it is whatsoever.

UPDATE: Lynn'sgarden, in comments, suggests wild mustard. There appear to be a few different things going by that name, in the Brassica, Hirschfeldia and Sinapis (on some pages, spelled Synapis) genera, some of which may be obsolete names. I totally agree that the flowers look like they belong in one of those, but I can't pin it down to any species in particular; the flowers all look more or less the same, but the growth habits never manage to match up right. Call it pending.

SECOND UPDATE: I lean toward Brassica rapa, I think, even though most of the B. rapa pictures I found don't look quite right, because this is for sure the same plant, and that's how it's identified there.

Asclepias incarnata. This is the only one of these I've found so far this year. Lots of A. syriaca, not so much A. incarnata. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places.

I want to guess it's a tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica)? It did have little pod-like things like tomatillos have (though they seemed to be empty, one supposes the fruits were just undeveloped), and it was unmistakably in the Solanaceae. The flowers don't quite match the pictures I found of them on-line, though, so I'm unsure about the ID. I also have no idea what one would be doing growing on the side of the road in a ditch, which is where this one was.

UPDATE: Thanks to Claude in comments, I have switched my guess to Physalis longifolia, or common groundcherry, which is the most common wild Physalis species in Missouri, according to this site. The leaves also match.

Blue vervain, Verbena hastata. I've been seeing these from the car, all blurry with speed, trying to figure out what they were, and I'd concluded that they were probably not that interesting. So it's cool to get up close and see that no, they're actually very nice.

Yellow coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa. This is another one that solved a question for me: I've been seeing lots of yellow flowers in large masses along the side of the roads as we drive by, most of which were Rudbekia hirta (black-eyed susan) and therefore not terribly interesting, but in certain spots the Rudbekias seemed to be holding their petals differently, and a slightly different shade of yellow, which was puzzling. Now I know that the Rudbekias looked funny because they were, in fact, Echinaceas.

UPDATE: Rosemary, in comments, suggests that this is probably prairie coneflower, Ratibida pinnata, instead of Echinacea paradoxa. I am especially pleased to know this, because I was passing on someone else's misidentification before she told me this. I'm sure it happens more often than I'd like, but I do try not to perpetuate bad information.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Random plant event: Chlorophytum 'Charlotte' flower

This has happened before, last September, but it still amuses me, so I'm posting about it a second time.

This is also, it happens, a good excuse (okay, a fair to poor excuse) for updating everybody on the progress of 'Charlotte' and the other four plants I got from Asiatica Nursery last summer.

Chlorophytum 'Charlotte' is, as you can see, looking a lot like it did then. I think a lot of this is my fault. I was worried about overwatering it, so I put it in a small clay pot, and then frequently made it wait too long between waterings, which wasn't good. I recently moved it into a 5-inch plastic pot, which retains water considerably longer, and it has responded by flowering. Could be good, could be bad, but it's not dropping leaves, so I'm tentatively calling the repotting a good idea on my part. Now if I could only get it to grow. Overall, I'm sort of mildly fond of it. Three stars.

Aglaonema 'Thai Snowflakes' is deceased, as of last January. Can't give it a good review, as a result, even though the death was probably my fault somehow. One star.

Dieffenbachia 'Pacific Rim' has sprouted an offset, though it still leans, and it's still not incredibly interesting to me. I should probably cut it back and try to reroot the top: it was always kind of a leaner, and the situation hasn't improved with age. Three stars: it has yet to impress me, but it's also not a bad plant, either.

Pedilanthus 'Jurassic Park 2' has grown a third branch, and the previous branches are much longer, but otherwise it looks more or less the same. Until the move, it was in a south window, which sounds good until you consider that it was a ways back from the window, with many plants intervening, so it wasn't getting the kind of light implied by "south window." It's now in somewhat less-crowded conditions in the plant room, which gets west exposure, and that will have to be good enough, because that's as bright as the house gets and the outside space is already spoken for. Four stars.

Dracaena 'Indonesian Tracker' is still doing fine. It's also probably the only one of the five that I feel like was actually worth what I paid for it. Like the Pedilanthus, it's not a particularly fast grower, but it is, at least, growing, and it's presentable as a plant, where the other three all still look kind of unfinished, awkward, or otherwise not quite right. Four and a half stars.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

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

In case you hadn't noticed, there's been an enormous jump in the population here at Casa del Subjunctivo (note to self: find a better name for the house) over the last week: I went from 567 on July 19th to 670 on July 27th. A few of these are new purchases, but the majority are divisions and cuttings. There are also some cuttings I'm not confident will work out, so I'm not counting them yet, but if and when they officially take, that might go up over 700. This may help to explain why I'm not doing more long, researchy posts, despite continually promising that I'm going to be. (The other reason is that I have a number of them started at once, some of which are proving to be really difficult.) I'm not lacking at all for subject matter, just for time, which oddly enough was also my excuse three months, one job, and 100 plants ago. I abjectly beg the readers' forgiveness and pledge to do better in the future.

Meanwhile, I will attempt to distract the reader with shiny, brightly-colored things:

(The previous transmitted light posts can be found here.)

Clivia miniata 'Aztec Gold.' As happens sometimes, the impressive thing here is not the details of the picture itself, but the fact that the picture exists at all: Clivia leaves are remarkably thick and opaque, and in order to get a transmitted light image out of one, you have to more or less set the leaf directly on top of a fluorescent bulb and photograph it that way. Which is what I did.

Variegated Vanilla planifolia. From a plant at the ex-job. I never decided whether I liked the Vanilla plants or not. They were weird, and kinda cool, but also not incredibly exciting. Also expensive.

Hosta cv. 'Summer Breeze.' This reminds me: I have a bunch of Hostas here at the new house that I could be photographing. I don't know cultivar names for them, but that really doesn't matter that much. I should go do that.

Vriesea splendens. Yes, I've done this plant before, but this is a new picture. I don't know what's not working for me, but I think I'm still trying to get a picture of V. splendens I like.

Yucca guatemalensis, variegated variety. (Still often called Y. elephantipes.) I saw a similar gray-variegated Yucca in the Quad Cities a while back that was interesting. The gray and green stripes were more strongly delineated on that one, so there was greater contrast. It wasn't $55 cool, which was the price they had on it, but it was still pretty cool. I'll post a picture sometime.

Zantedeschia NOID. Best picture of the batch, as far as I'm concerned, though there are flashier, more colorful pictures to follow. Come back to this one when you reach the end and tell me it's not the best.

Neoregelia NOID. This is another plant I've had trouble getting a decent transmitted light shot of. The red shading on the left of the picture is real, not an artifact of the photography.

Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Kingswood Torch.' I was originally very taken with 'Kingswood Torch,' though since the move, I've had trouble finding a bright enough spot for it, so now neither of us are happy. Maybe coleus and I aren't meant for one another after all. Long-time readers will be pleased to learn that the mutant with three-part symmetry is still maintaining the weird growth habit, though its growth also appears to be slow compared to the others.

Caladium NOID. This was some random plant from work that I happened to get a picture of. Turned out reasonably well, I suppose. Probably my second favorite of the batch.

Colocasia 'Black Magic.' One of the more interesting venation patterns I've seen, though I think this plant was sick or light-starved or something: it should be darker than this. The veins show up better on the lighter-colored leaves, though.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Other: Blankets Huge Chemistry Nerds Knit

I haven't done any knitting in many years, but at one time, it was kind of my thing, instead of messing with plants. And for several years I was also very very bored, so I had a lot of time to do it, too. At the same time, I also had a chemistry degree, and a particular fondness for biochemistry, so it was only natural, in an odd, not-inevitable-at-all kind of way, that I would find a way to combine the two.

So I did a series of what I call "protein blankets." First, to explain protein: proteins are what do most of the actual work in your body: antibodies are protein, hair is protein, your metabolism is by and large executed by proteins. Your DNA contains, among other things, the instructions for making these proteins, and it works like this:

DNA is more or less a line of text. Different bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine) are attached to a backbone of sugars and phosphates, and these bases are read three at a time, and these base triplets determine how the protein gets put together. Proteins are made of twenty different amino acids, which can link together, also in a line, and their specific properties are determined by which parts of that chain are attracted to one another, or to water, or are repelled by water, and so forth. Each set of three bases specifies a particular amino acid for that slot in the protein. It gets complicated really fast, but the upshot is that just as DNA is a line of bases which read like CCT GCA ACG TCT CCC, the protein that is formed when these bases are read is also a line, of amino acids. (The particular example above would translate as proline-alanine-threonine-serine-proline.1)

So what I did for the blankets was, I assigned a yarn color to each of the twenty amino acids,2 and then knitted one row for each amino acid in the sequence until I was done, and then I went on to the next blanket. I don't know exactly how long it took to do this one, though the smaller ones, once I got a rhythm down, were taking me about a week each. (This is a week spent doing nothing but knitting and watching TV, granted.)

The blankets that result when this procedure is followed generally look like I was just grabbing random balls of yarn with no particular rhyme or reason, and are kind of ugly unless one knows why the colors follow the sequence they do. And even then, they're still ugly. It's just that the ugly means something.

They're also hard to photograph, but here is one:

That is the major prion precursor UJHU blanket. Major prion precursor UJHU3 is associated with, and found in high concentrations in, certain neurodegenerative diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, fatal familial insomnia, kuru, and so forth. The animal equivalent would be the agents responsible for mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), though I don't believe it's precisely the same protein in both cases. I should probably look into that.

We don't know exactly what purpose this protein normally serves in the body, though the fact that everybody makes it, and yet we don't all have degenerative neurological diseases, suggests that it must do something. (Wikipedia reports that it might have something to do with forming long-term memories: we know Wikipedia isn't the most reliable source on these things, but these kinds of diseases do all involve the brain, so memory is at least plausible, and the article does contain a reference.) It's also not clear how the disease is actually triggered. Prions are thought to work when a protein normally found in the body is induced to adopt a different, unusual shape, and then this misfolded protein is able to induce other copies of the same protein to also adopt this altered shape. Over time, this results in small clumps, called plaques,4 of these misfolded proteins, which as they get larger interfere with normal function of the brain.

Most (all?) cases of prion-related disease appear to be the result of mutations in the DNA which encodes this protein, which in turn causes the amino acid sequence to change. In some cases, the eight amino-acid repeat of PHGGGWGQ on the left side of the blanket (It's mostly white, with a little pink and blue. It starts just after the left side and takes up most of the left third of the blanket.) may be missing a repeat, or may get extra repeats, either of which could change its shape and function. (Repetition of a chunk of DNA is known to happen, though ordinarily I think they're smaller chunks than that.) More commonly, certain kinds of damage to DNA might change a single base in the DNA, causing the body to use a different amino acid in the finished protein. In blanket terms, this would barely be noticeable: we're talking about a white line changing to a light green one, or a dark green turning into a different dark green. Although these changes are not huge, they can affect how the protein folds itself, making the bad, plaque-forming shape more likely and leading to disease over time.

The whole blanket thing is mostly just interesting because most proteins interpreted this way actually look like what they are: random assemblages of amino acids that happen to be good at doing something. If you don't know the background, the blankets just look like I was grabbing random balls of yarn out of a bin and doing a line or two of them and then reaching in for a different ball, and the blankets are ugly. I mean, the blankets are still ugly if you do know the background, but it's very much not the case that I was grabbing random balls of yarn. It's all very, very specific and precise: it only looks sloppy.

The picture above of the actual blanket is kind of crap, since I haven't figured out a good way to photograph them yet. I think the camera needs to be like ten feet away to capture the whole thing, but I can only get the camera eight feet off the floor before running into ceiling. So here's a kind of idealized version: same colors, same sequence, but in a neat, tidy computer file instead of as a blanket. Just in case anybody's really dying to try to read the sequence of colors for themselves.

Major prion precursor UHJU isn't my best protein-related work, I should note. Everybody's favorite is salivary glue protein sgs-3 from Drosophila yakuba, which I only have as a blanket, not as a computerized picture like the one above. Perhaps someday I'll figure out how to take better pictures. Zein, a nitrogen-storage protein from corn seeds, is also nice. If there is any interest, I may occasionally post more blanket pictures, assuming I can get better photos than this. And also I'll probably have to look up which proteins they go with: at one time I could tell them apart pretty easily, but it's been a while. I've also got an RNA blanket (potato tuber spindle viroid), a neon emission spectrum blanket, and other science-related stuff I'm failing to remember right now. 'Cause I'm a big nerd.


The N-terminal end of the protein is on the left. This is a precursor protein: about 20 amino acids on the C-terminal side are cleaved off after transcription. I do not know whether there are any disulfide bonds between the cysteine residues, though I'd be surprised if there weren't.

For the right amount of money, I could be convinced to take requests. The best proteins to do are between 200 and 400 amino acids long. Although I said above that I used to be able to knock out a smallish one in about a week, I would probably require considerably longer than that to do one now, and I'm not sure how we could set it up so that neither of us could back out of the agreement once it was made. But if you have a particular pet protein that you'd really like a blanket of, well, I do still have a lot of yarn, and the husband would like to see it go away, so . . . my e-mail address is in the left sidebar.


I maybe should have done stockinette stitch for this, as it would have left me a smoother, more finished-looking surface in the end. Unfortunately, when I started these, I could knit but not purl, and even if I could have purled, the blanket would have curled up on me, which is not a particularly desirable quality for a blanket.

Of course, the stretchiness of the all-knit blankets leaves something to be desired, too. I'm really a very unsophisticated knitter (or, you know, was, since I haven't done any knitting in about three years). The blankets work more on a, you know, conceptual level.

If I had a whole lifetime for knitting and didn't have to take care of plants and stuff, I'd do some of the spider silk proteins: a lot of them would wind up very pastel (white, light green, aqua, lavender), and they'd maybe be nice for a baby blanket or something. Though it'd be weird to notice that you were wrapping your baby in spider silk, even if only on a really meta level.


1 For the sake of convenience, faster typing, etc., each of the amino acids has been assigned a single-letter abbreviation. Our example, in the single-letter code, would be "PATSP". (What a crazy random happenstance!)
2 Alanine (A) -- light green
Cysteine (C) -- yellow
Aspartic Acid (D) -- red
Glutamic Acid (E) -- dark red
Phenylalanine (F) -- black
Glycine (G) -- white
Histidine (H) -- medium blue
Isoleucine (I) -- dark gray-green
Lysine (K) -- dark blue-green
Leucine (L) -- dark green
Methionine (M) -- orange
Asparagine (N) -- light pink
Proline (P) -- aqua
Glutamine (Q) -- medium pink
Arginine (R) -- royal blue
Serine (S) -- lavender
Threonine (T) -- royal purple
Valine (V) -- kelly green
Tryptophan (W) -- brown
Tyrosine (Y) -- dark purple
Readers with some biochemistry knowledge will recognize that for the most part, I've coded small amino acids with light colors and heavy amino acids with darker ones. Also hydrophobic amino acids are varying shades of green, basic amino acids are shades of blue, and acidic amino acids or their close relatives are shades of red and pink. Purples indicate neutral hydrophilic groups, and yellow and orange involve sulfur.
There are some things I'd change about this setup now. Like, methionine really should have been more of an acid green / chartreuse color, cysteine should have been a pastel yellow, lysine should have been more of a straight blue, and asparagine and glutamine maybe should have been purplish (maybe fuchsia/magenta). But I was also having to make do with what was available at the Wal-Mart in town, too, and they had a limited range of colors.
3 I think the "UJHU" part is an internal identifier code for this particular protein at the specific site where I got the sequence, and not, properly speaking, part of the protein's actual name. I include it anyway because, in theory, this will make it easier to look up. Incidentally: is incredibly slow and balky looking anything up for me, so don't take it personally if you have to try multiple times to load the page. It took me, no lie, like three hours to find and load the pages. I don't know what their problem is.
4 Totally different from the plaque one gets on one's teeth, though.

Pretty picture: Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Satin'

Call me an idiot, but I did not know until a few weeks ago that there was such a thing as a blue Hibiscus. This is not the tropical one, H. rosa-sinensis (which as far as I know still does not come in a blue version): these are H. syriacus, or rose of Sharon, which are allegedly hardy here in Zone 5B. I say "allegedly" not because I think they're not, but because I want to hang on to the hope that there's something wrong with the plant: I could have bought one (not, mind you, a big one: they're expensive. But still.) and I didn't, and I'm kind of regretting this.

Why am I regretting it? Because this:

is so pretty it hurts. So please tell me they're horrible and I don't want them. Or share my envy and tell me you also want them. Either way. I can be flexible.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to Divide an Alworthia

As you may have noticed, I'm trying to do more how-to posts lately:

This is sort of the natural consequence of 1) not being able to rely on pictures from work for posts to the extent that I used to, and 2) not working also means that when I have to do stuff around the house, I'm a lot more likely to have the time to take pictures of the process.

So this particular task involves my Alworthia 'Black Gem.' I got it as a single little rosette in the mail, through a plant exchange in 2007, and in the two years since, it has grown into a tightly-packed bundle of plants, which is awesome.1 When this sort of thing happens, I want to propagate, because . . . well, because that's just what you do when you have an easily-propagated plant that grows well for you. I mean, what were my other options?

(Aloe and Alworthia cvv. vary considerably in their tendency to offset, by the way. Many of mine have not offset at all. This may be, to some degree, a function of how long I've had them and what kind of care I've given them, but at least some of the latter group are "tree aloes," which grow tall and branched, rather than producing offsets in low clumps. 'Black Gem,' 'Walmsley's Blue,' and 'Doran Black' are all good offsetters, though, and even many of the trees will offset occasionally.)

Anyway. So to divide a clumping Alworthia like 'Black Gem,' first you pull the plant out of its pot and assess the overall situation.

You can't really see it in the picture so well, but these are all connected to one another by thin underground stems. I didn't want to remove the soil to show you because I figured I'd be traumatizing the plant enough already as it was.

Separating the plants from one another is so easy I'm not sure how to tell you to do it. You just grab the base of one rosette gently and pull it away from the rest of the plant: that's it. Generally the daughter plant will come away with a bit of a root system already, though if it doesn't, it's not that big of a problem. You'll notice the one furthest to the left in the below picture doesn't really have anything you could call a root yet. It'll be fine.

From this point on, it's basically indistinguishable from repotting. You fill a pot loosely with dirt:

Then you stick your finger in to make a hole in the dirt:

Then you set the plant in the dirt:

Then you add soil as necessary and firm it up around the roots, so the plant stands upright on its own:

And then you're basically done. I personally water mine in afterward:

Watering in is slightly controversial, in that the usual recommendation is to, at the very minimum, wait for a few days before watering, and some people will even tell you to pot the plants up a few days after separating them, giving the plants time to callus over any wounds incurred in the process of separating them. I don't disagree with this, exactly, but I've also never done it, and I've never lost any plantlets as a result, as far as I can remember. (With Aloes, I'm much more likely to have a plant root and do well for several months, and then die when I overwater it during the winter.)

Certain things might make the callusing / delayed watering thing more necessary: if you're having to reuse old soil from a sick plant, or garden soil (you should not do either of these, but I know some people will anyway), then there's more risk of a fungal or bacterial infection, and allowing some time to callus will do the plant some good. It might also be worth waiting a day or two to plant and water if the plantlets didn't come loose easily: if you think you might have injured the plant a lot in the process of pulling the plantlets off, then by all means, wait.2

However, if you're using clean, sterile soil, as you ought to be, and the plantlets came free easily, your actual risk of rot is pretty minimal, and my experience is that there's no penalty for impatience if you're not cutting corners elsewhere.

Something that is very important is your soil composition. Not only should it be a clean, sterile, and loose mix, but you want to avoid soils that will retain a lot of water. This means no Miracle Gro, or any other mix that's mostly peat moss. Your mix needs to drain quickly, it needs to be permeable to air, and it needs to dry out quickly when it's wet and re-wet quickly when it's dry. Miracle Gro has none of these characteristics.3 I prefer Ball Potting Mix with a bit of Schultz Aquatic Soil4 mixed in to speed drainage up a little bit, though you can vary the recipe somewhat. With Aloes, any decent potting mix will work, ideally with a little coarse sand, aquarium gravel, or "aquatic soil." All it really needs to do is sit there and not rot, dissolve, or absorb water.5 Perlite, though it will absorb water, does a good enough job of allowing air into the root ball that it's also okay to use, though I still like my aquatic soil better.

Water the new plants cautiously. You should have been doing that anyway, because they're Alworthias, but it becomes even more important with freshly divided plants. I've also found it useful to use bottom heat and bright light while the plants establish: Aloe aristata x Gasteria batesiana offsets were the main beneficiary of the top-light-bottom-heat system I described in the post about my shelving set up, and the 'Black Gems' seem to be settling in very quickly already. I think I'm even seeing new growth already, even though I only did this a couple weeks ago.

This is fairly basic stuff, but it comes up often enough at places like Garden Web, so I figure there must be someone who wants to know.


DISCLOSURE: Mr_subjunctive was not compensated to endorse Ball Potting Mix or Schultz Aquatic Soil in any way, though if someone from Ball or Schultz wanted to cut him a check after the fact, he would totally deposit it. He would also accept a lifetime supply of either product. Ball, Schultz -- think about it, okay?

1 As discussed at some length in the Alworthia 'Black Gem' profile, I was not much of an Aloe fan, to begin with: I'd initiated the exchange because I wanted an Aloe variegata, which were (and still are) impossible to find in Iowa, for some reason, and I got a whole bunch of other Aloes thrown in for free. Some of these have worked out better than others: 'Black Gem' is one of the biggest successes, but A. maculata and A. greatheadii var. davyana have also done quite well, and A. 'Walmsley's Blue' is a monster. (In the good way.)
That fall, the husband found me a bunch of assorted succulents for my birthday, including the Gasteraloe previously mentioned, which I like so much it placed #5 in my Top 10 Houseplants list. So I've been forced to progress from a mere tolerance of Aloes and their relatives to actual enthusiasm for them. I even bought a new one, an A. vera, on Sunday. (I hadn't gotten one previously because everybody has them and I find them boring, but Lowe's had one on the sale rack for $1 and I couldn't pass it up.)
2 There are situations where it is important to callus a plant before sticking it in soil: if you're taking cuttings of certain cactus or Euphorbia species, for example, you probably need to do this. Some succulent cuttings will work much better if allowed to callus, too, like for example jade plants (Crassula ovata). I don't worry about callusing so much for plants like Aloe, Gasteria, Haworthia, and the like, because these all tend to be somewhat pre-divided: they usually already have some roots, the points of attachment to the rest of the plant tend to be fairly constricted and dry already, and so forth.
3 Well I'm sorry, but Miracle Gro is not particularly good stuff to use for indoor plants, whatever the people at Scotts tell you. It's a particularly bad choice for succulent plants like Aloes and Alworthias. The best mix I've found so far is Ball Potting Mix, which is what we used at work (and sold a lot of, too, as far as that goes). It's more or less perfect directly out of the bag for your average tropicals; for succulents and cacti I do like to amend it a little (keep reading).
I don't know that I necessarily endorse Ball as a company overall: no doubt they're as bad as anybody else. But I will buy their potting mix so long as they keep the composition and price the same, even if I find out it contains puppy blood, because it's really good.

Maybe I'm kidding about the puppy blood. But maybe I'm not.
Ball's product is not cheap, unfortunately: we were selling it at work for $22.50 per 79L bag (the size in the picture) when I left work. It's possible to get it cheaper than that, but around here you have to know people who know people (which I do) and make plans (which is harder), and I haven't gotten it together to do that yet. But then, with any luck, I won't need any more for a long time.
4 Schultz Aquatic Soil isn't what you normally think of as "soil" at all: it's basically just a bunch of pieces of fired clay, of more or less uniform size. It's outrageously priced for what it is, but as with Ball's mix, I will be loyal until presented with a better option, because it improves drainage very nicely, even in small proportions, and it won't add fluoride to the soil like perlite will, so it's safe for fluoride-sensitive plants like Dracaenas and Chlorophytum comosum. Prices vary a lot, and less-expensive substitutes may be available (I haven't ever really looked into it that much), but a bag this size will run you maybe $6 at Menards, if you're shopping at the right time of year and in the right store:

5 Not quite true, actually: it also needs to have a fairly large particle size. If the particles are too fine, as in very fine sand, they can pack together tightly and cut off air to the roots. So it needs to not rot, dissolve, or absorb water, it needs to be coarse enough in texture that it won't pack around the roots and kill them, and it can't break down immediately into something that will pack around the roots and kill them, either.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Random plant event: Hypoestes phyllostachya flower

This isn't a particularly good picture as regards the color of the flower, which is a much purer, more saturated purple than this, and which looks, frankly, hideous next to the light pink spots on the leaves (another example of nature having poor color sense).

It is, however, a pretty good illustration of the overall shape and construction of the flowers, which have a certain elegant simplicity. Or maybe it's a simple elegance. And they're very good at what they do, which is why if you've had a Hypoestes phyllostachya for any length of time, you will start finding seedlings of it popping up in neighboring pots.

I go back and forth on whether I like Hypoestes: it seems like it forever needs watering or pinching. On the plus side, they're tougher than they look: Many times at work, they got too dry and collapsed, looking like they were complete goners, but then bounced back just fine after getting a little water. I've also managed to get cuttings from nearly-dead plants to come back to life with no more difficulty than one would expect from a healthy, thriving plant. So there's that. They just always look kinda . . . weedy, though, and it's all but impossible to keep them pinched back enough to prevent them from flowering, which makes them look weedier.

There will probably be a Hypoestes phyllostachya plant profile coming up relatively soon, because I have an idea for which "person" to use. Though "relatively" is an important word, in the preceding sentence. (This has now happened: the Hypoestes phyllostachya profile can be found here.)