Saturday, August 15, 2009

Random plant event: Leuchtenbergia principis flower

Although the husband and I had just been to my ex-workplace last Saturday, and I bought stuff then, I had a rare case of non-buyer's remorse with this particular plant.

Its name is Leuchtenbergia principis, and its coolness may not be immediately apparent: to the uninformed, it looks just like a somewhat disheveled Agave or Aloe of some sort, one where all the leaf tips have gotten damaged somehow.

But when's the last time you saw an Agave that could do this?

It turns out that this is actually a cactus, and this is an example of convergent evolution, hence the cactus-like flower. The crazy dead bits at the ends of the "leaves" (or what would be leaves if this were an Agave; they're actually just part of the stem like everything else) are what pass for spines. They're not sharp at all. They aren't even stiff; they're roughly the consistency of dried grass. Maybe a little tougher than dried grass.

As plants age, they're supposed to grow a fat, woody stem. The root is said to be thick and "parsnip-like:" for the time being I'm taking everybody's word for that. They're slow growers. I haven't heard much about what they're like to grow inside, but what people have commented have all said that they're fairly easy.

Leuchtenbergia principis is a native North American, from North Central Mexico (also the stomping ground of many Agaves, so perhaps it's less convergent evolution and more peer pressure), and is the only species in the genus Leuchtenbergia. Its closest cactus relatives are in the Ferocactus family, and it can hybridize with Ferocactus to form crosses called Ferobergia, which actually pretty much look like what you would expect, though depending on the particular Ferocactus, you may get things that look more like one parent or the other.

Originally, I wasn't interested so much, but I took a picture anyway, 'cause flowers are pretty. Then I got home and tried to figure out what the plant was, for the picture, and as I read about it I decided that it was cool enough to go back for. At the very least I didn't think I'd ever seen one for sale before. So I called them on Monday and asked them to save it for me, and then picked it up on Wednesday. Which I think was a good call. Right?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Too Far

I am extremely tired of ads promising to tell me my credit score, whiten my teeth, or teach me the one simple rule I need to follow for amazing weight loss. I've seen so many of these by now that they generally don't even register, unless they're in a really annoying location or something -- and if I do notice them, it's only to wish a miserable death on the company that paid for the ad, the websites that accepted the ad, and the designers who created the ad. However, this one was far enough over the line that I was actually amused (and repulsed) instead, briefly:

I swear this has not been resized, recolored, or modified in any way, aside from cropping it out of the page where I found it.

Pretty picture: Spathoglottis NOID

These were at my former job when we visited last Saturday. They got a surprisingly large number of them, too, but then, we had a good response when we'd ordered them previously, and anyway orchids are always good, so I suppose I'm not too surprised.

One thing that did surprise me a little bit about these is that the flowers were so small: the previous Spathoglottis flowers I've seen weren't enormous, but they were about the size of a smallish Phalaenopsis flower, maybe three inches across. These seemed considerably smaller, maybe two inches in diameter. Though there were a lot more flowers per plant with these, so I suppose it evens out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Random plant event: Tropaeolum majus flower bud!

I started seeds of some nasturtium variety, Cherry something, somewhere around the middle or end of May, after we knew we'd gotten the house but before we actually moved into it, and it has been my opinion ever since then that nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) suck. I had two sprouts came up, out of a whole package (something like 15-20 seeds to start with), which admittedly I didn't presoak them like the package said to, but I was prevented from doing so because of the whole problem of living in two different places at the same time and not being guaranteed a chance to get to the house every single day because of whatever. So it is totally not my fault that I couldn't soak them first.

Anyway. The two plants popped up, and looked very sad for a long time. I came to the conclusion that whether it was because they'd been started late, or because it's been a cold, wet summer so far, or some other reason, leaves were as much as I was going to get out of these. And so I kind of forgot about them, because I appear to have a tough time remembering that I have plants outside, particularly when they're being sulky or stupid. So of course now I'm getting buds.

And I suppose this means I can't write them off completely for next year. Though next year we'll pre-soak first.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New plants!

The husband and I went to my ex-job last Saturday, because they'd gotten in a new shipment of tropicals on Thursday. And I bought some, which was the point of going. However! I was also thinking of you, my readers, and took pictures of various things I did not buy, just because you will find them interesting. (No, seriously: very high probability of interestingness.) However, for this post, we're talking about the slightly more boring, but prettier, stuff that I did buy. These are them:

Fittonia albivenis, apparently.

I don't think this was probably a good decision in the long run, but you never know. I like the look of these, and always have, but as we know, I'm not good with plants that don't bounce back if they get a little dry. But it was small and cheap, and in the event that it looks like it's falling apart, a little bit can always be salvaged (maybe) by rooting a cutting in Nina's terrarium, so we're going to try it.

Also, according to, the correct name is no longer Fittonia argyroneura nor F. verschaffeltii, but is now F. albivenis. We'll see whether I can manage to remember this. It's not as nice-sounding of a name.

Philodendron 'Golden Emerald.'

Yes, I know what I said, not even that long ago, about not wanting to try this one until I have a better understanding of Philodendrons in general. However, this one was five times less expensive, so I can experiment on it with less risk. Which makes it acceptable.

I saved all my genuinely risky stuff for another plant:

Heliconia psittacorum 'Bright Lights.'

WCW has had one of these before, maybe not 'Bright Lights' but some kind of Heliconia, and had told me about it a long time ago. The only part I remembered was the part where she said that they're really prone to spider mites inside. I asked her about this (she was working on Saturday) and she said that they're not as bad about it as bananas (Musa spp.; Ensete spp.), maybe more along the lines of Strelitzia. Which I've seen mites on Strelitzia before, but not on my plants at home, so I figured success was plausible enough to be worth a try.

Also like Strelitzia are the flowers, kinda, in that they're orange and strange and spiky-angular. Not what I generally think of for "Heliconia." I don't mind, though. If my Strelitzias are never going to flower indoors, and smart money says they won't, I may as well have something kinda sorta similar that does stand a chance of producing flowers. No?

Neoregelia 'Ardie.'

And then there's 'Ardie,' who somehow wound up on my wish list (see sidebar) a while back, and who I never expected to meet in person, but who WCW was so impressed with that she called me at home on Saturday morning to tell me about it. (Some of the other plants got mentions too. But she knows I like Neoregelias.) I'd already been planning to go in, but finding out about this made me really happy about it.

I obviously have all of four days' experience with 'Ardie,' and don't know how it's going to work out between us, but so far, the only Neoregelias that haven't worked well for me are divisions that failed to root. So I think we'll be fine.

He's definitely got a trustworthy-looking face, right?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fictional Botany: Spiculogramina greenii

Note from Mr. Subjunctive: This post contains two references to people, included because it amused me to do so. One is a real, if obscure, person and a work of his/rs, which is moderately straightforward if you happen to know it to begin with. The other is roundabout in a way that will give away the joke if I describe it, but the person in question is probably more widely known. I will award 50,000 PATSP points to the first person who can identify either reference.1

Spiculogramina greenii, which goes by the common names cut the devil down, kingwah, sharpgrass, Confederate razor blade, and African rat grass is a plant in the family Poaceae, common in dry, warm climates throughout the world. Though superficially similar to Cladium jamaicense, or sawgrass, Spiculogramina is a true grass, not a sedge, with round stems (Cladium stems are triangular in cross-section) and broad, alternate leaves (Cladium leaves are narrower and arranged in spirals).

It is of substantial economic significance, because it is a very aggressive competitor for resources and because it provides a protective habitat for a large number of harmful insects and rodents. The International Council on Invasive Plant Species, or ICIPS, lists Spiculogramina greenii as number two on its Most Destructive Plant Species List, after Pugnaxis robusta (common names: fighting banana, Dawson's banana).

Spiculogramina is native to Northwestern Africa, where it grows in marginal areas with little rainfall, though it is not, strictly speaking, a desert plant, and does not grow in the Sahara. The plant is a perennial. Long (to 7 ft / 2.1 m), narrow (to 4 in / 10 cm wide), semi-rigid leaves sprout from thick rhizomes, particularly following rains. Leaf edges contain spiny, silica-containing projections which are capable of cutting flesh and harbor bacteria which can cause serious infections. The genus name refers to these silicaceous spines (spiculo- for sharpened, pointed + graminus for grass).2

Given favorable conditions, one seed may become a dense sod of rhizomes covering 300 square feet (28 sq. m) during a single year. This is facilitated by the plant's secretion of allelopathic compounds into the soil, which kill or stunt competing plants. All parts of the plant are also poisonous to most animals, though in its native habitat, leaves are eaten by several species of beetle and the caterpillars of four or five moths, and the stems are hollowed out and eaten by a particular weevil.

Spiculogramina also produces two distinct types of roots: deep taproot-like ones, which frequently reach eight to ten feet (2.4 to 3.0 m) into the soil, and thinner roots with small (to 0.5 in / 1.2 cm in diameter) watery nodules along their length, which store water. Both types of root, as well as pieces of the rhizome, are capable of sprouting new plants if severed. The plant also uses C4 carbon metabolism, another adaptation to the infrequent or erratic rains and heat in its native environment.

The wind-pollinated flowers may appear at any time of year: plants are therefore a continuous source of seeds. Plants are mature enough to flower after two months of growth. Seeds are small, lightweight and downy, and are consequently capable of traveling large distances by wind. Spiculogramina seeds are irregular germinators: in any given batch, only about 20% of new seed will germinate immediately upon landing; 8% will germinate in the following year, 5% two years later, and so on. Seeds known to be fifteen years old may still be viable under certain conditions, making total eradication extremely difficult.

The dense stands formed by Spiculogramina frequently shelter nocturnal rodents, specifically rats and mice, which have protection from predators in the form of the sharp, rigid leaves, water, which collects in small shallow pools among the closely-packed rhizomes, and a tiny amount of food in the form of seeds and insects. Generally, rodents leave the stands to forage elsewhere at night, then return and spend the day among the Spiculogramina. The abundant rodents and pools of water attract more visitors, in the form of mosquitoes, who can treat the Spiculogramina stands as one-stop shopping for blood with which to form eggs, and water in which to lay them.

As one can imagine from this description, this is an extremely undesirable plant, even in its home range. The native word for the plant, kingkua'dgene'bu, translates approximately to the common English name cut the devil down (kingkua'dgene'bu is also the source for another common name, kingwah). Eradication, however, owing to the plant's remarkable capacity for regeneration from root and rhizome fragments, prolific seed production, and staggered germination, is all but impossible to achieve without the persistent and dedicated application of herbicides. The most frequently used are glyphosate (Roundup), clethodim (Select) and sethoxydim (Poast), though glyphosate-resistant stands have been reported. So far, all such stands are located in the Caribbean.

The World Health Organization is experimenting with techniques for freezing the plants in place using rapidly decompressed air (Spiculogramina cannot survive even brief exposure to temperatures below 10F/-12C, though this includes the rhizomes and surface roots as well. It is less clear whether the taproots are as cold-tolerant as the rest of the plant.); dry ice and liquid nitrogen have also been used. To date, the WHO is cautiously optimistic, though some have questioned the practicality of this method, which is quite expensive, needs to be repeated frequently, and is of uncertain benefit. (Dry-ice treatments are particularly opposed, as errors during application can have the dual consequence of failing to freeze the plant enough to kill it and infusing the air around the plant with extra carbon dioxide, enabling it to grow even faster than it otherwise would have.) Some private companies in the southeast U.S. offer liquid-nitrogen treatment for stands of Spiculogramina, though treatment needs to be repeated approximately every six months to keep the plant manageable, due to the seeds which are almost certainly present in soil.

Covering stands of plants with black plastic is also somewhat useful, though plastic is difficult to apply on fully mature plants and tends to tear on leaf edges. Spiculogramina can also survive short periods of extremely warm temperatures (to 140F/60C), so application can only be done on days which are already very hot and expected to remain so for several days. A U.S. company is developing a black polypropylene sheeting product for control of Spiculogramina which is sturdy enough to resist puncture, can be reused up to five or six times, and is fully recyclable. It remains to be seen whether such a product can be marketed at low enough cost to make it practical for widespread use. Black-plastic treatment of Spiculogramina also leaves large amounts of debris behind, which can still shelter animals, remains sharp enough to cause injury, and is highly flammable. Until disposal of the waste material can be streamlined, this will probably not be a primary method of eradication.

Burning of Spiculogramina is also not considered practical, as there is some evidence that fire increases the germination rate of seeds, and Spiculogramina fires burn very hot and are very difficult to control.

Biological control is generally thought not to be an option for control of Spiculogramina, as the beetle, caterpillar and weevil species which feed on it in its native habitat are all either known to feed on desirable plants or are unable to complete their life cycle outside of their native range (due to climatic conditions and/or symbiotic partnerships with other plant and animal species).

Spiculogramina has spread to many tropical and semi-tropical climates around the world during the Twentieth Century; this is thought to be primarily due to seeds being inadvertently transported in airplane cargo holds. The southeast U.S. has a much longer history with this plant than most other areas where it has become invasive: Spiculogramina appears to have arrived in North America and the Caribbean at roughly the same time slaves were being brought there from Africa, primarily in the seventeenth century. Legends suggest that at least some of the introductions of Spiculogramina were deliberate acts of sabotage by Africans against their captors, though there is also one well-documented case of South Carolina plantation owner Richard Derbyshire deliberately cultivating the plant in 1845, hoping to use the strong leaf fibers in the manufacture of cloth, rope, and paper. (He was unable to do so competitively, and was already nearly bankrupt before the Civil War happened and put him completely out of business.) Today, Spiculogramina is found throughout most of the eastern half of the United States, kept at bay only in parts of New England and the Upper Mississippi Valley by their winters. It is hardy to USDA Zone 5B. The worst infestations still tend to be in the Deep South, particularly abandoned or uncultivated land in MS, AL, GA, SC, and FL, throughout the Caribbean, and in coastal Australia.

On a happier note, Spiculogramina may prove useful in controlling other weeds: the allelopathic chemicals it produces are being investigated for use as herbicides, in particular against Ailanthus altissima, the "tree of heaven." There is also renewed interest in Spiculogramina as a source of paper and rope, as stands regrow almost as soon as they are cut down, and Spiculogramina-fiber products are generally sturdy and of high quality. Some have suggested that its deliberate cultivation could be useful in fixing atmospheric carbon dioxide, since the plant can grow very quickly and takes up a considerable weight of CO2 in the process.3 It is unclear how this could be done without spreading the plant to ecologically-sensitive habitats, however. Scientists are also interested in the toxins the plant produces, which are thought to have promise as medications in the treatment of some forms of cancer and certain metabolic disorders.

The genus Spiculogramina also contains two other African species and one Madagascan one:

S. marsterei is a smaller (to 4 feet / 1.2 m) plant with a similar form as S. greenii. Unlike S. greenii, new growth emerges very pale yellow and gradually darkens with age. S. marsterei's leaf margins also contain silica-based serrations, though they are much smoother and less likely to cause injury than those of S. greenii. Though found in the same native region, it does not appear to be particularly widespread and is not considered likely to become invasive, because its seeds are heavier (reducing spread by wind), fewer in number, edible, and produced only between April 1 and May 15, instead of year-round.

S. pachyphytum is found only in the extremely dry regions of Western Africa abutting the Sahara Desert. Its leaves have adapted to the climate by becoming shorter and thicker, taking on a rodlike form tipped with a sharp terminal spine. They are also usually covered with fine grayish hairs, which deflect the intense sunlight, retain moisture, and provide some camouflage against predation. Leaves are usually very close to vertical during the day, but spread slightly more open at night. The plant is only 1 foot (0.3 m) tall at maturity, and is extremely slow-growing. Flowers appear quickly following rain and are self-fertile. Seeds are spread by wind, as for S. greenii, but are viable only for a short period of time, unlike S. greenii.

S. madagascensis is approximately the same size as S. greenii but has broader, dark green leaves with narrow, bright yellow, non-silicaceous margins. It grows much more slowly than other members of the genus and does not appear to pose a significant invasive threat, though it is on most watch lists, because its seeds are spread by wind and germinate irregularly, and it is, like S. greenii, highly flammable. Its natural range appears to be limited to the island of Madagascar.


1 Employees of PATSP are not eligible to receive points. PATSP points have no cash value. All offers and promotions relating to PATSP points are only valid individually and may not be used in combination. Such offers and promotions may be withdrawn at any time and for any reason by Mr. Subjunctive or any employee of PATSP acting on his behalf. PATSP points are not transferrable. PATSP points are not valid if duplicated, incomplete, or altered.
2 The specific name, greenii, refers to the American botanist Keith Green, who first described it in Africa in 1981.
3 Spiculogramina greenii has, in fact, been measured as the second or third most efficient converter of carbon dioxide to biomass in the plant kingdom.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Random plant event: Tillandsia NOID flowering

This was at the ex-job sometime in June or July; I'm not sure when I visited and took this picture. Whatever it is (I know it's a Tillandsia of some kind, but not sure which one: they usually shipped them to us with identifications, but we didn't have a particularly good way of keeping them identified once we put them on the sales floor.), they still have them, and they're still blooming, if anyone in the area is reading this and thinking OMG I must have one.

I also bought four new plants, two of which were brand-new things I've never seen for sale here before. If I can get decent pictures of the four, then there will be a post about them soonish: so far, only one of them has photographed well, and it's not, you know, the greatest picture ever. I'll be working on it, I promise.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pretty pictures: Sinningia speciosa cvv.

I'm not a particularly huge fan of Sinningia, though in fairness to the genus I should point out that I've also never tried to grow one. They just seem like they'd be easily upset.

Part of this is my semi-recent bias against gesneriads, who have really not been co-operative since the move and were frequently not patient or forgiving before the move either.

The other part of it is that I've noticed that I don't know anybody who has one, or ever has had one, which makes me suspicious. I mean, maybe WCW has had one before and just neglected to tell me about it. But that seems unlikely.

They also always used to fall apart as soon as they arrived at work, too. Which was frustrating. Anyway. In conclusion, Sinningias suck. Probably.

But enough badmouthing of the plants. Let's speak of happier things, by which I mean Nina:

I've been trying to get a picture of this forever, but there's usually not been enough light to make it work. (My camera is sometimes extremely selective about what light levels it thinks it requires in order to get a picture.)

So but the above picture is Nina, looking daggers at me for interrupting her sleep, which lately has been taking place inside her Vriesea. She had previously been sleeping out in the semi-open, on one of the leaves. It took me a while to clue into this, and so there were a few episodes of panicked room-searching because I couldn't find her anywhere in the terrarium. Eventually, though, order was restored. She sleeps in there about six times a week. It's not the same leaf every time; if she has favorite leaves, I haven't been paying close enough attention to notice.

The real reason for bringing this to your attention is, of course, that it is THE MOST ADORABLE THING EVER!!!1!1!!!