Saturday, September 5, 2009

Saturday afternoon Nina picture

Unfinished business: Hibiscus, Alocasia, Anthurium

Some odds and ends to take care of. First, I have finally obtained pictures of the Alocasia 'Frydek' I mentioned previously, for those of you who wanted to see it. The color is more true-to-life in the second picture, but the first picture does a better job of showing off the velvety texture:

If it were any genus besides Alocasia, I would have one of these already: they're so damn pretty. But I have all the spider mites I need for now, thanks.

There was also a request on last week's really big Anthurium leaf post for a picture that showed the context, as the leaf in question blocked view of the rest of the plant. So here you go.

Anthurium "hookeri." The really big leaf is pointing to the right in this picture.

I also tried to get a picture of the Anthurium "crenata" I mentioned in that post, but they don't appear to have one any more. There is still a very large Anthurium where I used to work, though, which is probably more closely related to my "hookeri:" it was sold to them as Anthurium 'Red Line' or 'Redline' or something like that, and allegedly gets a red midvein in bright enough light. Their plant didn't have the red midvein when it arrived, and hasn't developed it since, but it's a pretty impressive-looking plant regardless:

And then finally, I was asked for a picture of the Hibiscus flower that went with the buds in Wednesday's post, so here you go.

I have some buds on my other Hibiscus now, the pink one with the orange border, so there will likely be more Hibiscus pictures coming up soonish.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Random plant event: Yucca guatemalensis resprouting

Like most people, I have ideas all the time, and like most people, some of my ideas are better than others. Earlier in the summer, I thought it sounded like a good idea to cut back all of my big Yucca guatemalensis plants, because they were getting too big to be easily manageable, and there was all that bare, propagatable stem just sitting there doing nothing. So I cut them back down to maybe a foot tall or less, and stuck the tops in pots to root, and the leftover cane I put in vermiculite, in the hopes of getting it to root and sprout and make even more plants.

The stupid part of this was that I probably, I'm thinking, should have left more stem on the original plants. I also probably should have known better than to leave them outside in this summer, of all summers: so far they've just gotten really wet and cold. They're coping with it pretty well, considering, but I started out with seven separate plants (in three pots), and one of them rotted and died almost immediately. Of the other six, four have not yet done anything, and then there are these two:

Of course it's good that these two have decided to resprout, and as best as I can tell, every single one of the tops has already decided to start rooting, which is a lot quicker than I was expecting. The cane sections haven't really done anything yet, but cane sections take a while anyway, so I'm not worried about that. So overall it's not like I've lost anything. But I still wish I'd left a little more cane on the original plants, and that the weather had been a little warmer and drier for them.

They're Yuccas, so they might still forgive me yet. But you know how it is when you cut something way back and then realize afterward that maybe you overdid it a little.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Air Traffic Controller (Streptocarpus cvv.), Part II

Okay. So, when we left Part I, I was promising jokes, light refreshments, and nectar guides. Help yourself to some soda/cookies/nuts/whatever, and then we'll get started.

Streptocarpus 'Purple Martin,' with really obvious nectar guides.

Nectar guides are, like they sound, markings on the flower which guide pollinators toward the nectar. In some plants (e.g. black-eyed susan, Rudbekia hirta, or Gazania), the flower guide is simply a dark spot1 around the center of the flower. Other plants make the whole flower dark but make the pollen stand out very brightly (Zantedeschia does this in UV, as does Glechoma hederacea), and still others draw lines or spots which point toward the nectar (Digitalis, Streptocarpus, Geranium, Viola).

Viola NOID, also with really obvious nectar guides.

I admit to being kind of puzzled about this, initially. To my thinking, the flower itself should be advertisement enough. I mean, bees aren't usually that much smaller than a lot of the flowers they pollinate, so if they wandered around on the flower for a second or two they would find the nectar anyway, whether there were "EAT AT JOE'S" signs or not. And it's not like their eyesight is particularly bad, considering that they can clearly manage to see small distant objects pretty accurately in order to find the flowers at all.2 So what does the plant get out of this? What, for that matter, do the bees get out of it?

My best guess is that it's worth the effort for the flowers because there are a limited number of bees, and each bee can only visit a limited number of flowers in a day (or season, or whatever). If you want all the flowers in a field to have the best possible chances of being pollinated, it's helpful to make it as obvious as possible where the nectar is, to minimize time spent fumbling around trying to find the nectar. It may not seem like that big of a deal, but if you're competing with other plants for pollinators, any advantage you can get over your competition, everything else being equal, is going to be helpful. If you can get eighty pollinations in an hour when everybody else is only getting seventy-eight, you will inherit the earth. So it can be worth it to become an air traffic controller.

And if you're a bee? Well, obviously you can collect more nectar in a given amount of time if you don't have to fumble around looking for it, which enables you to bring back more nectar, which means you can raise more baby bees. That much is pretty straightforward, actually.

Streptocarpus 'Falling Stars:' slight nectar guides are present, but they're not very pronounced.

This waste-of-time theory has been observed in the wild, on a Delphinium species which produces both normally-colored flowers with nectar guides and albino flowers with no markings: both hummingbirds and butterflies took longer to pollinate the albino flowers. The researchers went the extra step to verify that this was because of the lack of guides, and not just that the hummingbirds and butterflies were less enthusiastic about white flowers, by painting nectar guides on the petals, and painting other petals on the same flower blue, and then timing the pollinators again. They even made sure that the change wasn't just because the pollinators were attracted to the paint, by painting blue flowers that were already blue and comparing the response.3 (ref.: .pdf file)

Having said all this, nectar guides are not a universal thing. Nectar, in fact, is not a universal thing either. Flowers that are pollinated at night don't really need guides, for obvious reasons.4 Cultivars don't necessarily have the same nectar guides as their ancestral species, and may not have nectar guides at all. Streptocarpus 'Falling Stars,' above, has much less pronounced nectar guides than 'Purple Martin' or 'Tanager.' We also had a fourth variety at work, 'Snow Bunting,' that was pure white. (Not only could I never get a decent picture of it myself, but I can't find one on-line, either.) I'm fairly sure it didn't have any markings at all.5 So nectar guides are not mandatory, just helpful.

As with human air traffic control, certain conventions have arisen to make everything run smoothly.6 Nectar guides are often in specific colors, either yellow or "negative ultraviolet."7 In some plants, the nectar guide, but not the rest of the flower, changes color when the flower has been successfully pollinated, signalling pollinators to move along to the next flower and not waste their time with this one.

Streptocarpus 'Tanager,' with relatively strong but somewhat shortened nectar guides, relative to 'Purple Martin.'

Streptocarpus nectar guides are relatively obvious and straightforward, at least in most cultivated varieties, though as with most things, if you get to digging around in the literature, you find some cool details. Most cultivated Streptocarpus are hybrids, with the bulk of their genes coming from the lavender-colored S. rexii, which displays very prominent nectar guides and is pollinated by bees. However, not all Streptocarpus species are bee-pollinated: some, like S. dunnii, are pollinated by birds instead, and lack nectar guides altogether. (ref.) Such species also show other signs of being specifically adapted against pollination by bees.8, 9

When I first had the idea of going with "Air Traffic Controller" for Streptocarpus, I wasn't really thinking about that choice much beyond the fact that it uses nectar guides, and I wasn't sure that was really enough to hang the choice of "person" on. Seems kind of minor, you know? But it turns out that this was even more apt than I imagined, because not only do Streptocarpus spp. use nectar guides to point pollinators to nectar, but they also use different colors when talking to different pollinators, and send them different signals about when and where to land. It really was the right choice. I love it when these profiles work out that way. (You can tell I'm excited when the footnotes have footnotes.)


Photo credits: all me.

1 Rudbekia "flowers," as well as those of Gerbera daisies, sunflowers, and many other familiar plants of the Asteraceae, are actually clusters of a large number of tiny, individual flowers. Only the outer ring of true flowers grow petals, which serve to attract the attention of pollinators (though cultivated varieties of these plants may produce inflorescences in which every flower produces petals, as for example in some of the more hideous cultivars of Echinaceaa). Although to us the petals of Rudbekia look uniformly yellow, to a bee the petal changes color about halfway out: the inner part of the petal absorbs ultraviolet and the outer part reflects it.
This is the same kind of thing people see when we look at, say, a Hibiscus that's yellow with a red center, it's just that in the case of the Hibiscus, the difference between the two parts of the flower is in the green part of the spectrum, which we're able to see. The outer part of the flower reflects both red and green (a combination our brains call "yellow"), and the center reflects only red. The same thing is happening in Rudbekia: the outer portion of the petals is reflecting red, green, and ultraviolet, and the inner portion is reflecting only red and green. There are pictures at this site which can show you what you're missing in UV wavelengths. The Rudbekia plan, with UV absorbed in the center and reflected on the outer edge, is typical of a lot of flowers, though that's not the type Streptocarpus uses.
a I know you like them, jodi, but they don't look right. . . .
2 Though their eyesight is not especially good, either: human eyes are much better at seeing detail, whether from far away or close-up, than bee eyes are. So this might be bad logic on my part.
3 This sort of double- and triple-checking, silly though it might sound to the non-scientist, is actually very important, and is called scientific control. Without it, experimental data is difficult or impossible to interpret accurately. For example, suppose I let Nina loose in the house ten different times, and each time I find her hiding in the Aglaonemas. I conclude, oh, anoles are crazy about Aglaonemas, and I post this on the blog and talk it up and publish papers and books about it and eventually it becomes my whole career, the anole-Aglaonema-attraction theory. Then somebody points out that when I did these experiments, all my Aglaonemas were in the same room, and how do I know that Nina didn't just prefer that room for some reason? And somebody else asks if I've tested this on any other anoles, and how can I be sure that Nina doesn't just have some "personal"a fascination with Aglaonemas? And somebody else wants to know whether I did this all at the same time of day: maybe she was just looking for the brightest/darkest/warmest/quietest/etc. spot she could find. And so on, and the questions keep coming and suddenly nobody wants to buy books about the special bond between anoles and Aglaonemas anymore, and my career is ruined, and the husband, Nina and I all lose the house and Nina's turning tricks in alleys in order to buy crickets, and it's all because I wasn't controlling for these variables in my original experiments.
There are some critics of science that don't understand this concept, many of them failed scientists themselves, and they will complain about how Western science is all about "controlling nature" and "making nature jump through hoops" and what have you, because they're not able to understand that there might be reasons for their experimental results that have nothing to do with their particular pet theory. I'm hoping to bring this up again in a different set of posts, eventually, so I figured I'd get the idea out there for everybody to chew on ahead of time.
a (In quotes because she's not exactly a "person," so "personal" is probably not the right word to use. Though "anoleal" doesn't sound right, either.)
4 Although I will predict that if nobody's found them yet, somebody is going to someday discover a night-blooming flower that uses texture, instead of color, as a nectar guide. There are already day-bloomers that use hairs pointing in a particular direction instead of pigments, for their nectar guides (e.g. Iris). It doesn't seem like that big of a stretch to think that a bat-pollinated flower might reflect sonar differently from different parts, in a way the bat could read. Color, after all, is just differences in the reflection of light, so why not differences in the reflection of sound? If I were an actual botanist, instead of just playing one on the internet, this would be something I'd be interested in going looking for.
5 (It was also really boring: I didn't care for it.)
6 E.g. saying "niner" instead of "nine," which seems like a quirky affectation until you imagine trying to tell the difference between the spoken words "nine" and "five" while trying to control a large, loud, potentially dangerous piece of machinery, and then all of a sudden it seems totally obvious and kind of brilliant. Similar logic underlies the use of the NATO alphabet (Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta Echo etc.) for letters.
7 "Negative ultraviolet" means "absorbs ultraviolet." Since people can't actually see ultraviolet light, we've never had to come up with a name for this color. I mean, to (non-color-blind) people, red is red, and red+green is yellow, and red+green+blue is white, but red+ultraviolet is also just red, to us, and red+green+ultraviolet is also just yellow, because the presence or absence of UV doesn't register on our eyes or brains one way or the other. Bees, on the other hand, do see ultraviolet, and so to a bee, red+green is yellow and red+green+ultraviolet is a different color, which they may not regard as being terribly similar to yellow at all. Weirdly, though, to bees, red+green+ultraviolet is the same color as green+ultraviolet, because they don't see red.a
This, incidentally, is why none of the great honeybee artists have ever been appreciated for their genius in the human world (Particularly BZbzbZZ and BzbzzbzZZbz, whose work human critics have called "derivative," "uninspired," and "cliched" despite their wide acclaim in the honeybee community. This has led to some frustrated and enraged honeybee artists stinging humans as an act of tragic revenge/suicide, made all the more tragic because they can't tell people apart from one another very well and therefore almost never sting their critics. The life of the honeybee artist is a tortured one.): we're literally not seeing the same pictures.
All of which is to explain what "negative ultraviolet" means: it's a color word we've had to make up for colors that we can't see, and would make little sense to the bees. Though very little makes sense to bees anyway, as you know if you've ever tried to talk to one.
a Which hopefully answers the question you've never thought about: how come red flowers are so attractive to hummingbirds? What's so special about red? The answer is, it's not that the hummingbirds are necessarily so attracted to red as that, if you're a red-flowering plant, you're basically invisible to the bees, so if you want to get pollinated, you have to either change colors or focus your attention on the non-bee pollinators. If the red-flowering plants are being pushed to adopt ever more hummingbird-friendly designs, then evolution is going to reward hummingbirds that focus ever more tightly on red flowers.
8 S. dunnii is also adapted in other ways to pollination by birds: besides having red flowers, the flowers are more tubular in shape, and narrower (suitable for a bird's beak, but not large enough for a bee to crawl in), and all face the plant's one large leaf, which is used by birds as a perch while they collect the nectar from the flowers. The flowers of bee-pollinated species like S. rexii face every direction. (From this paper, which contains a lot of interesting stuff relating to nectar guides and pollination.) There are a few "unifoliate" (= "one-leaf") species of Streptocarpus (S. dunnii, S. grandis, S. pusillis, S. polyanthus), which grow only one leaf, and which are a little too weird-looking to be commonly grown, though they're cultivated by people who are, you know, really into Streptocarpus and are useful in hybridization.
9 Species like S. dunnii, if not S. dunnii itself, are probably the original source for the genes which result in red-flowering Streptocarpus hybrids like 'Tanager.' You'll notice that 'Tanager's nectar guides are not as intense as 'Purple Martin's.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pretty picture: Hibiscus rosa-sinensis bud

I'm not saying that Hibiscus flower buds are anywhere near as pretty as Hibiscus flower flowers are, but I bet you we'd still grow Hibiscus even if the buds were all we ever got.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Ghost Greenhouses of Cedar Rapids

Long ago, when home ownership was still theoretical for me and the husband, he spent a lot of time looking for homes in the area (and also not in the area) that already had attached greenhouses, or businesses with greenhouses that might be for sale, or whatever, for what I hope would be obvious reasons.1 This place, in Cedar Rapids, was one that he came across, and we went up there and walked around inside it at one point in what must have been the winter of 2007-08. This may, technically, have been trespassing,2 but it was in the spirit of looking at it to see whether it would be suitable for buying and building a house nearby and all that stuff.

Oh, such dreams we had.

Anyway. We went back last Sunday. It was kind of a come-for-the-trespassing, stay-for-the-photography deal. (For unknown reasons, I didn't get any pictures during the first visit, and it had occurred to me a few days ago that an abandoned greenhouse would be something my readers might find interesting.)

The reader should be cautioned that it's kind of sad.

All pictures will enlarge considerably if opened in a new window. I did play around some with the contrast and brightness on the original pictures, but it appears that I didn't play around enough, because these all look a lot darker than it was in reality.

The place was named Cedar Rapids Greenhouses. The owners were not big on whimsy. Or possibly they were just sticklers for accuracy. It's still listed on-line in various places, though there's next to no information about it. A few of the on-line sites mention the place in terms of landscaping, though it's unclear whether they sold landscaping plants and supplies or actually did the landscaping themselves, and just grew their own plants too. The sign above says they were wholesale-only, though that's not the impression I get from looking around at what's left. I mean, some of it looks more like it was retail: there was a sign, for example, saying 2" houseplants were $1.49, which seems like a lot to ask for wholesale and maybe not quite enough for retail, even if you take into account that people are often confused about the size of 3" square pots.3 But who knows.

They want $550,000 for the 4-acre property, which seems like a lot: it's in a location with decent traffic, on the southwest side of town, but at the same time I don't know whether there's anything salvageable about the structure. Possibly you'd have to spend another $550,000 to demolish it all and clean up the mess. A couple of the houses have what look like new polycarbonate-panel roofs. The husband speculated that maybe the polycarbonate would be worth salvaging, maybe.

The giant weeds almost touching the ceiling here are goosefoot/lambsquarters; more on that later.

The $550,000 is what they were asking before the A) Cedar Rapids economy specifically, and B) real estate market in general, fell to pieces, so it might not be real firm. There may or may not be a second property under the same name, at a different address, too, which doesn't appear to be included in the sale, but Google Maps was frustratingly inconsistent about listing the second address, so I'm left unsure whether the second site even exists, or whether it's functional. The husband said that it seemed like he'd heard, at some point in his searching, that CRG had decided to sell the site in the pictures because they'd rebuilt elsewhere. I'm unable to confirm either way.

I'm not sure what this picture is supposed to be of; it's not set up at all like the property we were looking at, so either it's gone through a lot of changes or this is some other property. It was up on the wall in the customer service area. (Seems like a shame to leave it there: surely this was somebody's family business, and there would be sentimental value?)

There were two greenhouses which were pretty much fully intact: most of the pictures are from those. Then there was one that was not intact at all, beyond a basic framework and a few tatters of shade cloth, and a fourth one that was mostly covered except for a few panels missing in the roof.

This is the not-intact-at-all one.

There was also an addition where it looks like large equipment used to be stored. There were a couple walk-in coolers there, and a big pile of sand, and not much else. There were also: one smallish room that appeared to have been a front-counter area, another smallish room that looked like it had been an office, and a third room which didn't have any obvious use whatsoever: it was completely windowless, and I don't remember it having anything inside except for, of all things, a badly degraded, probably worthless, 1970s-era Pachinko machine,4 which I stupidly failed to get a picture of.

You might expect that being in an abandoned greenhouse would feel creepy or have a haunted-house / ghost-town kind of feeling. Yes and no. I never felt anything like that in the greenhouses themselves. Possibly it would have been freaky at night, but in full bright sunlight in the middle of the day with traffic noise all around, it just felt like a greenhouse that had been maintained incredibly badly. It may be the case that it's impossible to make a greenhouse feel creepy during the day.5 The offices and customer-service area were kind of creepy, on the other hand: not only were they darker, but they're the places where, under normal circumstances, you'd expect to find people, and it's a little unsettling to expect people and instead find a pile of dry-erase markers and thank-you cards on the floor and a two-drawer file cabinet with both drawers pulled open.

The $1.49 houseplant sign is barely decipherable in this picture.

The plants in the greenhouses were the same plants as were in the field next to them. There was one large blooming thistle of some kind, and a few different goldenrods (Solidago spp.). More mulberry trees than I would have expected, though it makes sense now that I think about it: of course this would be where birds would go to sit and digest and get out of the rain.

I was also surprised to learn that goosefoot (Chenopodium album, probably) can get huge in greenhouse conditions: there were several there that were probably a good eight to ten feet tall, including the ones in the picture of the pulley and polycarbonate panels, earlier in the post.

There was also a plant there that answered a question it hadn't even occurred to me to ask, ever: what happens when a plant that depends on wind for seed dispersal receives no wind? It turns out that the seeds just kind of . . . accumulate.

With a big enough plant, this leads to a light blanket of seeds on everything --

-- which includes the plant itself:

That last picture is actually as close to creepy as anything we found in the greenhouse proper. Probably the resemblance to cobwebs is what's doing it in that case.

The ability of the weeds to find cracks in the pavement is impressive. And look how tall some of them are!

Probably the most difficult part, for me, was seeing all the abandoned pots and plastic saucers and whatever, knowing that they'd already been there for more than a year, were never going to be used for anything, and would probably just sit there until they broke, disintegrated, or were thrown away. I could have used them for something, rather than just letting them sit there. But I was good, and I didn't take anything. I didn't even touch anything, except for the door handle to get in. But still. Clay pots! Just sitting there, pointlessly, waiting to be broken! It was painful.

Actually, as far as it goes, I coveted the benches, too. A person could do a lot with that kind of bench space, though having to pull out ten-foot mulberry trees first would get tiresome.

I don't know what else to say about it. One hopes that this won't all just be thrown out, that it can be salvaged and used somewhere, though it's already sat for so long that this is looking less and less likely. And, again, even if the structure is sound, which I don't know whether it is or not, the amount of clean-up a person would have to do to make this all functional again would probably be such that it would be simpler to start over on a new piece of land and build everything from scratch.

I keep trying to find a way to sum it all up, and nothing sounds quite right. Mainly it was sad, more than anything else, with maybe a hint of postapocalyptic (though for postapocalyptic you also need silence, and we didn't have that). It seems like a huge waste of stuff, and space. But it's not like I would know what to do with this stuff, this space, if it were handed to me. And, like I said, probably the thing to do would be to tear it all down and start over anyway. Since I figure that's what's most likely to happen in the end, I guess the one bright spot is that I've seen and documented the place. If it can't endure forever, at least it has a web memorial, right? I hope this excuses the trespassing.

From the back; I neglected to get a shot of the place from the front.


1 If it's not obvious: I want a greenhouse.
2 When I mentioned this to the husband, he pointed out that there were no "NO TRESPASSING" signs posted on the property, which is true, though I don't think the absence of a sign prohibiting trespassing means that trespassing is necessarily desirable or encouraged.
3 Square pots are measured along the diagonal, not along the length of a side. This gets particularly confusing when you're talking about 3" square pots, because the length of a side of one of those is 2.1 inches, close enough that everybody (and I mean everybody -- used to drive me nuts) called them 2-inch pots at work, and we even had signage to that effect. This despite the fact that nobody seemed to have any problems with the 4" square pots being 4", not 3" which also only works when you measure along the diagonal. If the CRG people were also unaware of this particular industry convention (which it seems like that would be hard to miss, if you're in the industry, but things happen), then maybe they were actually selling 3" plants for $1.49. Still a little high, but not terribly unreasonable for wholesale.
4 Which I recognized as such only because one of my grandfathers bought and fixed up gambling equipment like Pachinko and slot machines and etc. for a while in the mid- and late 1980s (perhaps longer than that; I haven't actually seen him in more than ten years). I think he may only have let me play with the Pachinko machine once, during some kind of family get-together, but it was awesome. The time he gave my brother and me each a roll of quarters and told us to go upstairs and play the slot machines was a lot less entertaining, didn't last nearly as long, and was, I suspect, more of an oblique lesson about the perils of gambling than an attempt to keep us entertained.
5 Though before making such a sweeping pronouncement on the matter, I'd want to give David Lynch a fair crack at it. If anybody could do it. . . .

Monday, August 31, 2009

Air Traffic Controller (Streptocarpus cvv.), Part I

I don't actually swear off plants all that often. True, there have been a few that pushed me too far, but generally I'm optimistic enough that I stop short of ruling a plant out forever and ever. Originally, when I started writing this, Streptocarpus was going on the list too.

Compared to others on the list, it's not that bad, really. It's not especially buggy, like Hedera helix or Codiaeum variegatum, and it's not perpetually miserable like Philodendron 'Xanadu,' or a dramatic and heartbreaking failure like Calathea ornata. I've just never had a good experience with one, either at home or at work. Or, well, I had one good experience, with one individual plant. It lasted about two months. Then it turned into another bad experience.

My first experience with Streptocarpus was in the fall of 2007, right after starting the greenhouse job. Apparently people here treat streps like annuals and keep them outside, and then pitch them in the fall. Or that was the theory: I've been watching, but have yet to see anybody with one on their front porch or planted in a flower bed. Who knows what they're doing with them really. Nevertheless: if they come in, they come in in the spring.1 And in August 2007 when I started, there were still a lot of those left over from the spring, on the east side of the building, getting cooked in the morning August sun. Which was kind of dumb, because they don't like direct August sun. (I never claimed we were smart.2)

So we brought them into the greenhouse (looking back at it now, this was probably a bad call: however hot the east side of the building got, the greenhouse got hotter), and then I noticed that some of them had mealybugs. So we pulled them out of the greenhouse into the back room, and squished the visible bugs, and sprayed all kinds of crap on the leaves to kill the invisible bugs. Which left big ugly black spots on the leaves. Not helpful. And the mealybugs persisted anyway, so we were scarring the leaves for nothing. So they got dumped. I don't know how many we threw out. It seemed like a lot at the time.

And then I didn't see any Streptocarpus again until the spring of 2008. We got a bunch of plugs in, and potted them up, and although a few rotted right away, that was fine: we had plenty. And when they started blooming, I thought they were pretty. So I picked out a nice one, all loaded up with buds, of a red-pink variety called 'Tanager,' and took it home. Whereupon it immediately dropped all of its buds and then sat there, sulking, for about six months, doing absolutely nothing.

The plants that stayed behind at work weren't doing any better: the greenhouse got hot, so we moved them outside, and then it rained, and rained, and rained, and flooded, so all of them rotted and died as a result.3

Meanwhile, around September, my 'Tanager' at home suddenly started growing leaves again. Which was great. I mean, leaves aren't as good as flowers, but whatever. I was just thrilled it was doing something. And then come November, we had flowers too. It was great.

It was also temporary: that plant was dead by January 2009. It just kind of went limp one day and wouldn't come back.

So I tried again, in March, this time with the cultivar 'Purple Martin.'4 It didn't come to a complete stop once I got it home, like 'Tanager' had: it continued to grow leaves, and it even flowered once or twice.

And then it all went limp at once and wouldn't revive when watered and it was dead by June. I lost a lot of plants between May and June, because we moved to a new house and everything was chaotic, including waterings, but still.5

So I've seen Streptocarpus die in all kinds of interesting and unexpected ways, and I'm not a fan, and I don't recommend giving them to anybody unless you're trying to break down their self-esteem or something.6 I'm not willing to rule them out entirely, because in the process of writing this profile I've seen some pictures of some really ohmygod beautiful ones, and for the right plant, I might be willing to try again. But we'd have to be talkin' about one charming motherfucking pig Streptocarpus.

But enough about me. You're probably here because you want to know how to care for them, right? Crap. Um. . . .

The other websites make them sound easy enough. Basically like African violets, but easier, is the impression I get from reading around. Here's the general consensus from the net, with particular attention given to places like and,7 which are trying very hard to give the impression that they know what they're doing, and maybe actually do:

LIGHT: Bright light, with some sun, appears to be ideal, as for example an east or west window. Too much sun will burn the leaves, and they won't flower if they're not getting enough light. One way around both problems is to grow them under fluorescent lights: like African violets, Streptocarpus do well in artificial light.

WATERING: Supposedly, Streptocarpus do best if allowed to dry out between thorough waterings, even to the point of going a little limp (like for Spathiphyllum), though they should never be allowed to stand in water or dry out completely. This is more or less the way I water all of my plants, with a few exceptions, so you'd think I would have been able to manage this, but no. It's also not as simple as that, because as with most other gesneriad species, if you get cold water on the leaves, the leaves will develop spots. (You can bottom-water to get around that, or just use room-temperature water.)

The bigger issue, though, seems to be with soil quality: Streptocarpus must have an extremely light and porous soil or they will develop root rot. (This is my best guess for what went wrong with my plants.) The exact composition varies depending on who is doing the recommending, but both and advise a minimum of 50% perlite.

Plants are best in wide, shallow pots than in tall, skinny ones. Azalea pots (which are 3/4 as tall as they are wide) are usually what is recommended, though this is more of a gentle recommendation than a hard and fast rule. The boss's mother at the greenhouse had her plants in pots that were deeper than they were wide, and they were the most amazing Streptocarpus I'd ever seen.

A number of sites repeat the same advice over and over, to water the plant when the top 1/2 inch of soil is dry. My advice would be, don't rely too much on that as a guideline, because the moisture level in that top half inch will indicate very different things in dense, wet soil than it will in light, airy soil. Waiting to see the leaves go slightly limp seems more reliable to me.8

HUMIDITY: Humidity levels have a large influence on certain other aspects of care, more so than with a lot of other genera of houseplant. If the plant is in high humidity, it can take more direct sun, and for a longer period, than a plant which is in low-humidity air. They are also more tolerant of underwatering and high temperatures if the air is moist. As a general rule, more humidity is better, the one exception being that tightly crowded plants in high humidity are prone to rot and fungus. So don't increase humidity at the expense of air circulation.

TEMPERATURE: Everybody is in agreement that Streptocarpus do best in a cool room. Definitely keep the temperature below 80F (27C) as much as possible, and aim for somewhere in the range between 55-75F (13-24C). I can more or less vouch for this personally: in the greenhouse, our plants did well if they were near the doors (where they occasionally got cool air) and began to droop and look miserable at about the same temperatures I did.9

PESTS: Mealybugs are the only ones I've seen personally, and appear to be the most common problem, though thrips and mites, I'm told, can also affect Streptocarpus. None of the sites I ran into seemed to really emphasize pests as an issue, though, so I expect that cultural issues are the main cause of death. (I should be so lucky, to keep a strep alive long enough for it to get bugs.)

PROPAGATION: I've never managed to make this work out, either, but supposedly these can be propagated much like Saintpaulia or Begonia. The usual recommendation is to take a long, healthy, middle-aged leaf, and make two parallel lengthwise cuts, one just above the midrib and one just below, and then plant the leaves in moist potting soil or vermiculite, with the cut edges in the soil and the original leaf margins sticking up. In theory, this is supposed to result in new plantlets forming at every vein along the cut leaf.

One is also supposed to be able to cut leaves into chevron-shaped sections and plant those in potting soil or vermiculite, and get new plants that way. I've tried both of these methods and neither of them resulted in new plants, though in fairness propagation wasn't really a priority and I wasn't paying terribly careful attention to the conditions. Wedge cuttings are supposed to be more reliable, but the cut-out-the-midrib method is (theoretically) capable of producing more plants, total.

Sticking leaf sections into shallow water, provided that one has a way of keeping them upright, might also be effective, according to this thread at Garden Web. Cutting out the midribs, wrapping the resulting half-leaves in damp paper towels, and enclosing the paper towels in a Ziploc bag, instead of planting them in vermiculite, is also said to work. I've not tried either of these methods at all.

Plants may also be grown from seeds. The seed pods are long, thin, and twisted brown things which are occasionally seen on plants in retail situations. (I saw them at work a time or two; I don't know why I didn't get a picture but I'm sure I must have had a very, very good reason.) I have never seen the seeds directly, but they are supposed to be extremely small, and should sprout under more or less the same conditions as fern spores: fill one side of a clear clamshell-type container with damp vermiculite, sprinkle seeds over the top, don't cover the seeds, close the container and leave it in a bright spot until seeds begin to germinate. I don't know of any vendors who sell Streptocarpus seeds, but I'm sure there must be some out there somewhere.

One may also divide mature plants with multiple crowns; this has the advantage of providing you, in theory, with new plants that already have root systems, but the disadvantage is that it will make you feel like a big, lumbering brute who destroys anything s/he touches, as the stems, leaves, and roots are all very fragile. The plants don't necessarily care about this, though, and divisions will happily re-root in a bright, humid environment even if you didn't manage to retain any roots while dividing.

GROOMING: Grooming is actually kind of a bigger pain than I'd originally thought. Particularly in low humidity, leaves will develop brown edges and tips, which don't really hurt anything but which people generally cut off anyway. Also dead flowers need to be cleared out regularly, if you're lucky enough to get flowers, because otherwise they can begin to rot, which may lead to healthy leaves. These are not especially big issues. But:

Plants also fill their pots with roots very rapidly, in the improbable event that they're happy with you, which means that repotting and/or dividing is necessary for proper maintenance. Exactly how often this needs to happen will vary, but most of the sites I looked at that mentioned this said either every six to twelve months. That's a lot of repotting. The typical recommendation seems to be to move plants up to larger pots until they hit a 5-6" pot, and then divide plants and keep putting them back in 5-6" pots thereafter. I don't know what happens if you keep moving up to larger and larger pots. Probably they die. Dying seems to be a skill. At work, we did plant up some hanging baskets with four plugs to a ten-inch hanging basket -- some of these did fine, though what usually happened was that one or two of the plants would die, leaving the basket lopsided. A ten-inch hanging basket in which all four plants survived, particularly when all four are blooming, is definitely pretty, though, so I sort of understand going to the trouble anyway, even if it rarely worked out well enough to justify the work.

Flushing soil out with water from time to time is also sort of a big deal, apparently, though I'm a little surprised by this because it seems like you wouldn't have the plant in the same soil long enough for fertilizer salts to build up to the point of being a problem. Apparently not, though.

FEEDING: The people who are serious about growing streps recommend a high-phosphorous fertilizer from spring until fall, and then either no or very little fertilizer from fall to spring. The precise formulation doesn't seem to be particularly important: I saw recommendations for 7-9-5 and 10-30-10.10

The "person" to go along with Streptocarpus, air traffic controller, wasn't chosen because air traffic controllers sit around all day doing nothing at all, then suddenly fly into a panic and collapse, like the plant does. (At least, your better air traffic controllers don't.)

On the contrary, real air traffic controllers have to be unusually calm, and able to keep a clear head in stressful situations, and it's a difficult job to get in part because there are tests in place to weed out the people who are likely to fly into a panic and collapse. So the temperament could hardly be more wrong for this plant. However: Streptocarpus are actually one of the better houseplant examples of the phenomenon of "nectar guides," which does work as an air traffic controller reference (or at the very least it's close enough for PATSP). We'll pick up on Thursday with a discussion of what nectar guides are and why they matter. Jokes and light refreshments will be provided. Those of you who already know about nectar guides, please try not to spoil it for everybody else.

Photo credits: all my own except for the Streptocarpus fruit picture, which came from LucaLuca via Wikipedia. I would have liked to include pictures of other varieties, but I've only ever directly encountered four ('Tanager,' 'Purple Martin,' 'Falling Stars,' 'Snow Bunting'), one of which ('Snow Bunting') photographs badly, and I couldn't find public domain / Creative Commons pictures I liked. There will be a picture of 'Falling Stars' in Part II.

1 For the spring of 2009, we'd ordered them again, but they didn't arrive when they were supposed to, nor did anyone at our supplier seem to know where they were, and our supplier was actually buying them from someone else, and they (our supplier) couldn't contact anybody at the other place. In the end, we had to just assume that the other place had been a victim of the crappy economy and had gone out of business. We didn't have to pay for the Streptocarpus plugs we didn't receive, but there was also no backup plan from the supplier, either. So we just didn't get plugs, period, see footnote 4.
2 (Or, if I did, I totally take it back.)
3 "All" might be an exaggeration: I don't remember whether there were any survivors. We lost the overwhelming majority of them, in any case, and none survived to the following spring, so one way or another, bad things happened to them.
4 Although the supplier didn't deliver any to us, we were able to get some from the boss's mother, who had some amazing, huge ones from the 2008 batch, or maybe earlier than that, which we divided. I hated dividing them: however careful I was trying to be, they were incredibly brittle, and they didn't break in particularly good spots, and I was sure when it was all over that I'd just butchered the hell out of her plants and killed them for no good reason, that nothing was going to be salvageable. I was overreacting, though, because the same percentage loss was about the same as we would have gotten from plugs. The 'Purple Martin' I bought was one of these divisions.
5 Worse, I think the streps were setting a bad example for the Saintpaulias, because around this time all of the Saintpaulias, which had previously been looking a little unhappy but were still basically functional, started falling to pieces as well.
6 If so, be advised: there are cheaper and more effective ways to do this than showering the person with difficult houseplants. Many people, I'm told, don't even care that much whether they can keep a plant alive or not.
7 Though is immediately suspicious on account of saying things like "They are a great flowering houseplant for people without 'green thumbs.'" In my experience, there are no good flowering houseplants for people without "green thumbs," and if there were, Streptocarpus would definitely not be one of them. I should also note while I'm here that "like Saintpaulia, but easier" is backwards in my experience, which is reflected in the higher difficulty level for Streptocarpus. Your mileage may vary.
8 However: leaves will wilt when the plant is too wet or too dry. Spathiphyllums are like this too. So, don't just take the leaves' word for it that they're dry: check the top of the soil too, and the weight of the plant, before reaching for the watering can.
9 Although I hadn't really been particularly prone to heat exhaustion before the greenhouse job, I definitely was once I'd been there for a while. Although my psychiatrist told me it wasn't really known to cause heat sensitivity, I suspect now that the reason behind this is the wellbutrin I'm on for depression. It's possible that switching to a different medication might also handle my depression fine without the heat thing, but odds are I'd just have a different set of side effects to deal with, and those side effects might be worse, plus switching to a different medication might well not control the depression at all, which would definitely be worse. The heat thing was a good percentage of the reason I left the job, though there were lots of other reasons.
10 I also saw a recommendation for 10-10-10, which would probably work if you wanted it to, but it looks like you'd be throwing away a lot of the nitrogen and potassium that way.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pretty pictures: Euphorbia milii cvv.

Just some close-up pictures of Euphorbia milii from my former job. These came in as I was leaving, plus or minus a couple weeks. Most of the pink and dark pink ones have sold now; the yellows are still mostly there. This seems weird to me: surely yellow is a less common, more desirable color?

Meanwhile: I have an E. milii at home with salmon-pink flowers. Or, rather, I have an E. milii at home without salmon-pink flowers. Part of the problem is that I think I'm not watering it often enough, so it's dropped a lot of leaves since it arrived, but also it's probably not getting enough light even though I'm doing the best I can. (Near-total lack of south windows is kind of a problem.) Not sure if this is remediable, but I'm working on trying to rearrange stuff so it can get more light. We'll see.