Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blotties / Early Saturday Afternoon Nina

The finalists for the 2009 Blotanical Awards (or, as I prefer to think of them, the "Blotties") were announced during my hiatus, and I am pleased to be able to say that PATSP is up for four Blotties this year. (Last year, PATSP tied with Soliloquy for best Indoor Gardening Blog, a category which was discontinued this year because not enough people think of themselves as indoor gardeners to make the category competitive, which yes, does take a bit of the shine off of the win -- and it was only ever a tie anyway, which also bruises the old self-esteem slightly because I only just found out it was a tie -- but never mind.)

The categories are:

  • Best Blog Name
  • Best Container Gardening Blog
  • Best Educational Garden Blog
  • Best Iowa Blog
and one can vote here.

I would go on here and list the friends of PATSP who are up for awards of one kind or another, and encourage you to go vote for them as well, but A) some of them are in competition with PATSP and I'm not going to encourage you to go vote against me, even if they were more deserving, which they are not . . . or maybe they are, but they can advocate for themselves if they are so inclined, and what am I, Saint Subjunctive? and B) enough friends of PATSP are in competition with one another that endorsing people quickly gets awkward. (Best Asian Blog, Best Texas Blog, and Blog of the Year were all especially tough choices for me personally.)

Traditionally, and by "traditionally" I mean "I meant to do this last year and forgot for some reason," this is the time of year when I post a bunch of flower pictures in an attempt to bribe the reader into voting for me, but you will notice that I have, instead, tried to buy your affections by not going with the light-text-on-dark-background thing I was threatening before the hiatus, and have instead merely changed the light background to a different (and slightly darker) light background. Which will have to count as this year's bribery, because hey, we're in a recession, and do you think flower pictures grow on trees, etc. etc.

Except then I think, oh, well, maybe there were some people who didn't care about the light-text-on-dark-backgrounds thing. What about them? So here are some flower pictures, never mind what I said before:

Commelina coelestis communis, day flower or blue spiderwort. I assumed, as a child, that my grandmother had planted this on purpose, when I saw a small patch on the side of Grandma and Grandpa's house. It wasn't, of course, but it's an awfully decorative weed, as weeds go.

Stokesia 'Honeysong Purple.' This was quite a few weeks ago, at ex-work. I have no idea whether they would still be flowering now or not.

Nicotiana NOID. From a Home Depot, I think, in the Quad Cities somewhere. The overall verdict on Nicotiana for me at home has been kind of mixed: the one I had did nicely for a while and then kind of fell apart; I don't know whether that's normal. I think I like this color better than the red ones I had.

Coreopsis rosea 'American Dream.' From the Menards in Iowa City. I understand the appeal of Coreopsis intellectually, but I don't much like them. I think it's that being an indoor gardener who picks up his plants a lot, I've developed an aversion to plants that get tangled up in themselves (or other plants) and need a lot of work to separate.

Anthurium 'Florida.' This plant is actually my own: it decided to flower in the living room not too long after we moved. Decent-sized flower and everything.

And then for those of you who are indifferent to text color and unmoved by flower pictures, here is an early Saturday Nina picture:

Which I think should cover all the bases. Anybody who is still unconvinced to vote for me, e-mail me your street address and I will mail you a plant or a pair of scissors or a pony or something.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hiatus / Color Scheme Changes

PATSP will be on hiatus from 22-25 September. New posts will resume on the 26th.

(Celebratory Gazania picture.)

REPEATEDLY EDITED TO ADD: I'm really tired of the current PATSP color scheme (which I've had for almost two years now), and early attempts to change and get feedback were mixed, so I've quickly whipped up five options for everybody to vote for and against. I won't necessarily use the one that gets the most votes in favor, but I definitely will not use the one that gets the most votes against.

#1 is red-brown with chartreuse accents. It goes with a header picture of Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Gay's Delight' and was reviled and despised by Celtic Rose and Anonymous.


#2 Is primarily dark blue with light blue, light green, and white accents. It goes with a header picture of Brunnera 'Jack Frost' flowers and got a positive comment from Nancy from Sun Lakes AZ:


#3 is mainly dark blue with some semi-neutrals. Its accompanying picture is a Pachypodium geayi trunk. Nobody had commented on it yet when I took down the original hiatus announcement.


#4 is mainly dark reddish-brown with some coral and blue highlights. It goes with a transmitted light picture of Stromanthe sanguinea 'Triostar.' I expect everyone will find it kind of hideous, but I like it (the coral is very close to the color I'm thinking about painting my office).


#5 is mainly dark purple with some cream and green highlights and goes with an overly-large Viola picture. I'm not happy about the picture being so big, but otherwise it seems fairly inoffensive.


Nosy Neighbor (Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Hypoestes phyllostachya, or "polka-dot plant," has two main distinguishing features. One is the small pink dots all over the leaves, which are both sort of adorable and the main reason why people bother to grow the plant, and the other is its deep, burning desire to find out what's going on over there, with over there defined as wherever the plant is not already growing.

So far, this latter tendency has brought the plant out of its native Madagascar and into homes and gardens all over the world. As well as, alas, quite a few wild areas.

Yup, that's right, it's another invasive species. I found reports of it becoming invasive in Australia, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Zimbabwe, and India, though details are hard to find. The most specific information I could find about Hypoestes' invasiveness was this short article from Invasive Species Weblog, which tells us that Hypoestes isn't doing anything very dramatic in Costa Rica, but it is crowding out native species, and it's confusing the local butterflies,1 some of whom are trying to use it as a host species to lay their eggs on. This doesn't work; for whatever reason, the caterpillars in question can't, or won't, feed on polka-dot plant, and so starve, and then there are that many fewer butterflies the next year. This sort of quiet ecological disruption is likely also happening in the other areas Hypoestes has taken an interest in, because that's how these things usually work.

According to one site I ran across, Hypoestes phyllostachya is that rare creature that began its interactions with humans as a houseplant, and then moved out into the garden as an annual. I doubt this, though I suppose it's possible. Certainly it's become a lot more potentially useful to outdoor gardening in recent years: for quite a while, the regular species form, green with pink dots, was the only variety available. It's nice, and apparently not hard to grow, but not everybody's garden has space for pink polka dots. That's changed recently, with the addition of new, white- or red-spotted varieties, as well as varieties where the dots have gotten so large that the leaves are basically just pink (or white, or red) with green margins and veins. These all have variety names, but the names are wildly inconsistent from seller to seller and are best ignored.

Various three-inch plants from work. We didn't very often have the red and white varieties: I think this particular batch might have been brought in for Valentine's Day (2008), though I'm not positive about that. As far as I ever noticed, all three colors act the same way and need the same care, though the pink is the only one I've ever had at home.

I don't know how outdoor gardeners actually feel about the plant. We had it both springs I worked in the greenhouse, and it didn't sell well either year, though there could be a lot of reasons for that. 2008 had the historic flooding, and 2009 had the overall collapse of the economy, so neither one was a particularly good or typical year.

I have been surprised to learn, though, that some people really hate this plant indoors. I recently checked a book out from the Iowa City library (House Plants, by Andy Sturgeon; it's unclear whether it's the exact same edition as the Amazon link, though2) where Hypoestes was, first of all, categorized as a "pariah" plant,3 and then also repeatedly insulted: "this objectionable little thing," "There's one [variety] called 'Splash' which is particularly nasty," "they aren't as easy to kill as they should be." This seems to me like an overreaction, though I'll admit it's not my favorite plant either.

I've personally only ever grown Hypoestes indoors, and I find it kind of unsatisfying as a houseplant, mostly because it seems to need constant grooming in order to look nice. Since I have very little time for plant-grooming, this means that my Hypoestes will rarely if ever look nice. But let's move on to the care information, since we're practically there already. I'll try, in this profile, to give care information for the plant indoors and out, since a lot of people do in fact move from one to the other through the year, but I've personally only ever grown them indoors, so bear that in mind.

A six-inch pot with three plants in it. They've been allowed to get a little out of control, I suppose, but this could look pretty good if it were shaped a little. Or at least it could look good by Hypoestes standards.

LIGHT: Outdoors, there's more or less general agreement that these should not be placed in full sun, which is too intense. After that, opinions diverge, with some websites saying that partial sun is okay and others saying they should get no direct sun at all. I personally would go with partial sun, if I were planting some outside, but it may not matter that much. Either way, the plant will let you know whether it's happy: the pink spots will shrink and/or vanish if the plant isn't getting enough light, and the leaf will bleach to a lighter green if it's getting too much.

Indoors, the story is surprisingly similar: partial sun, very bright indirect, or very bright artificial light works just fine. I've grown Hypoestes with and without natural light, and the plant doesn't appear to care which.

WATERING: I'm sure Hypoestes could be overwatered if a person were really trying hard, but it's not easily done, in my experience. All the normal cautions apply indoors: don't make the plant stand in its drainage water, water thoroughly when you do water, etc. Outdoors, I'm really not sure, but my impression of these in the greenhouse was that they always needed water, and even if they didn't need water, it was good to water them anyway because they were about five seconds away from needing water. If your plant should happen to dry out, it will usually come back, if you catch it soon enough, though you will generally have to pay for your mistake with a little defoliation.

TEMPERATURE: I hear these will not grow well below 60F/16C. They will, however, survive light freezes (they'll die back to the ground but will resprout), and are perennials in USDA zone 11. Possibly. Allegedly. Plants which are too hot will wilt, because they transpire a lot, but this doesn't necessarily mean anything's wrong with the plant: usually it will go back to normal when it cools down.

HUMIDITY: Indoors, this is potentially a problem, though I'm not sure how one knows when to blame humidity specifically. Outdoors, there's only so much you can do, of course. Indoors, you have the options of putting the plant in an enclosed space, like a terrarium (which it will outgrow almost instantaneously), setting the plant on a pebble tray (which I'm not convinced does much to increase humidity, but people keep recommending it), adding a humidifier to the room, grouping it with lots of other plants, or doing a hell of a lot of misting.4

An unplanned seedling growing in a pot at work. The first pair of leaves are always solid green like this.

PESTS: This plant is surprisingly pest-resistant. Outdoors, the only problem everybody mentions is powdery mildew, though depending on the source, root rot, mealybugs, aphids and whitefly could also be an issue. I've not personally ever had any pests on my Hypoestes, nor do I remember any such problems at work.

The plant is also not attractive to deer, though it's uncommon to have a deer problem indoors.5

PROPAGATION: The primary purpose in life of any Hypoestes is: to get somewhere else, so it is an extremely agreeable propagator. The flowers are self-fertile, and if you permit the flowers to develop will produce seeds, which have a tendency to fall into a neighbor's pot and sprout (hence the "person" for this profile: Hypoestes phyllostachya is possibly the single best example of a plant that is always trying to get all up in another plant's business). This self-seeding, indoors at least, happens just often enough to be annoying, but not so often that one can rely on it for propagation purposes.

A not-great picture of a flower.

Polka-dot plant is much more reliably propagated from cuttings. In fact, you can treat cuttings pretty much however you want, and they'll work. Planted directly into damp soil, cuttings will look dead as hell for about three to ten days, and then all at once they will stand up, dust themselves off, and start looking for neighbors to seed into. Rooting cuttings in water is even easier: water-rooted cuttings don't even play dead, and are looking for new territory before they even have roots.

GROOMING: And you will have cuttings to work with. Oh, will you ever have cuttings to work with. The reason for this is that Hypoestes needs to be pinched back ruthlessly, all the time. Which is okay if you have that kind of time and focus, but it does, seriously, require a bit of dedication.

My personal plant, last Friday morning before I cut it all back. I'm ashamed, but this illustrates a lot of what I'm talking about in the profile: the lower stems are bare because I've let the plant get too dry, the one sprout at the bottom came up after I cut the plant back, the stem furthest to the back is a flowering stem, with tiny leaves at the very tip of the stem but nothing else. All of these except the resprout were cut back to the ground; there should be new stems coming up within a month.

The flowering stalks are also not nearly as attractive as the regular foliage, and the latter turns into the former in a gradual, sneaky way: the new leaves start out large and then steadily get smaller and more vertical as the stem lengthens. Eventually, short-lived flowers start popping out of the spaces between the leaves and stems. Ideally, you will want to pinch back any branch that starts looking like it's going to turn into a flower spike as soon as it starts to happen, but if you don't, all is not lost. The stems can be cut pretty much anywhere at pretty much any time. If things turn really dire, you can even cut all the stems back to the ground: the plant will (usually) start over again by sprouting new stalks. With a plant that's gotten tall and leggy, this is often the best way to start over.

I'm not sure how much of the grooming stuff is applicable to people growing this plant as an annual outdoors: they may be less leggy and weird under more ideal conditions. No experience with this.

FEEDING: As you would expect, a plant that grows this fast needs to be fed pretty regularly too. I don't think they're terribly particular about the formulation you use, though since you want to promote leaves and not flowers, a high-nitrogen fertilizer (like 24-8-16) is probably better than a 20-20-20 or whatever.

I have reluctantly concluded that polka-dot plant must be toxic to children and pets (which probably explains why deer won't eat it). Nobody is willing to identify a particular toxin or provide any specifics about how dangerous it is, but it does tend to be on all the lists. A few sites seem to really emphasize that Hypoestes is toxic to cats, though I don't know why, whether the listmakers just think cats are really important or whether it's significantly more dangerous to cats than other animals. You know how it can be with toxicity lists. I expect it's probably toxic to a lot of things, though, which might explain the Costa Rican caterpillars.

The poor, confused things.


Photo credits: all mine.

1 It turns out that butterflies actually are the airheads you've always secretly, deep down, suspected that they were.
2 And I don't recommend it anyway: the pictures are beautiful, but there's remarkably little information in it. Each plant he discusses gets maybe 200 words, if it's lucky, and a lot of that isn't care-related: it's just, like, a verbal description of this plant that there's a gorgeous picture of on the same page. The book might be decent for finding out what you have, because the pictures are generally large and clear and pretty, but it would be very close to worthless for trying to figure out how to take care of it. The one positive (besides the photography) is, there's a bit of snark here and there: although I believe that all plants have their good points, I like a plant writer who's not afraid to stake out positions against certain plants occasionally for the sake of being interesting.
3 Part of the category description: "Some plants are unquestionably vile. Laws should be passed to prevent their sale in the shops and they should be made unwelcome in our homes. There are plenty to choose from: brash gaudy things that totally lack style and plain ugly things without any obvious merits. Many were popular in a bygone era and quite frankly should have been left there."
I agree with Sturgeon about some of the plants he calls pariahs (Begonia rex-cultorum, Ficus elastica, Codiaeum variegatum), disagree about others (Saintpaulia ionantha, Epipremnum aureum), and have mixed feelings about, or no experience with, the rest (Hypoestes phyllostachya, Peperomia caperata, Impatiens walleriana, Solenostemon scutellarioides, Aphelandra squarrosa).
4 Of those options, the terrarium is the most effective, followed by humidifier, grouping, pebble tray, and misting, in that order. Misting sounds like a good idea, but if your home has any kind of air circulation in it at all, the humidity gain you get from spraying water around is going to be lost the moment the moistened-air has a chance to drift away. You either need to prevent the wet air from leaving (terrarium, grouping) or continually replenish the moisture (humidity, grouping, pebble tray). Misting doesn't really accomplish either.
5 And if you find that you do have a deer problem indoors, usually you can manage it by spraying plants with soapy water: this interferes somehow with the deer's natural egg-layinga cycle, as well as killing deer larvae.
     a Look it up.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pretty pictures: Road trip / September roadside flowers

The flower pictures in this post are from Saturday, September 12, and were taken either in Fairfield, Iowa, or along the gravel roads between Fairfield and Richland. This was supposed to be an errand-running kind of trip, but both the husband and I lived in the area for substantial parts of our lives, and the places we intended to go were mostly closed, so little erranding was achieved.

However, being unable to do what we came to do, and having gone so far to do it, we tried to make the best of it by driving around the area a bit. For example, we visited the "American Gothic" house in Eldon, IA. You can't go in the house, but you can take pictures of the outside. They also have a small museum full of "American Gothic"-related items. Mostly these are parodies, though there was a tiny bit of stuff in there which might come up if and when I do a Pelargonium x hortorum profile, and they also had a print of a lesser-known Grant Wood painting of a woman with a Sansevieria:

They also have a gift shop (naturally) and a staff of two really bored, sort of aggressively friendly people who will descend on you like locusts if you drive up and talk your ear off with speeches about the house and Grant Wood and the people in the painting (Wood's sister and dentist1) and how many visitors the center has had since they opened and how long ago that was, and so on and so forth until you just want to get away. They apparently have the whole thing completely memorized, though, so you can't interrupt them; you just have to kind of let the tape run until it's over, and then they'll let you look around.

If you're interested, they also have a prop pitchfork on the premises for anyone who wants to try to recreate the painting. The husband and I did try (without the pitchfork: we felt silly enough as it was), though getting the perspective remotely right is nearly impossible. One of the staffers offered to take our picture, and we let him, but he stood so far away from us that we're barely even visible in the picture: it's like 75% house and 25% us, which I suspect reflects our relative importance in the staffer's eyes. So I advise anyone who's planning to try this to bring your own photographer, ideally someone slightly shorter than whoever is going to be in the picture, and for the love of God have them stand close.

We also drove around a little bit in Ottumwa, IA, (pronounced: uh-TUM-wuh) though even the parts of Ottumwa that don't smell like assorted pig fluids are kind of unpleasant (lots of tattoo parlors, strip clubs, pawn shops, that sort of thing), and the pig-fluid stench made the husband nauseous for a good fifteen or twenty minutes. One feels bad for Ottumwa, and Ottumwans: there are still some people there who are trying very hard to make it pleasant, but they are failing. I saw evidence of gardening, for example, and a few brave souls were trying to operate restaurants downwind of the Cargill Meat Solutions plant (translation: slaughterhouse).2 But it's really kind of a lost cause. And no, I didn't take any pictures.3

But anyway. Flowers.

From what I'm able to see from the road, there are exactly five plants blooming right now in East-Central and Southeast Iowa. One of them, Canadian thistle, I didn't get pictures of, because although the flowers are quite lovely, the plants are ugly, and dangerous to stand close to, and distributed unevenly. Another, Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota), I've taken pictures of before, and the few flowers that are left this time of year aren't very pretty, so I didn't feel compelled to do that again.

Which leaves three.

I've posted pictures of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) before, but it's more or less unavoidable out in the country now, so I'm going to again. It's a good thing it doesn't actually cause hay fever (that would be ragweed, which is also blooming now), because it is everyfuckingwhere right now. I mean, I like it, but that just makes me lucky, because you can't get away from it.

Then the asters are beginning to bloom now as well, here and there. My best guess for an ID would be Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, but I don't really know. Some kind of Symphyotrichum would seem likely, in any case.

The real star at the moment, though, are the Heliopsis, though. They've been blooming their little heads off for at least a month already, but like the goldenrod, they are everywhere, and they also manage to be even brighter and more noticeable than the goldenrod.

It's stuff like this that makes me think I must have been an extraordinarily dull and unobservant child: surely if this was going on along the side of the road, I would remember seeing it?

And there are entire fields of the stuff, here and there. All the uncultivated land seems to be claimed by either the Heliopsis or the Solidago right now. Though the Solidago I actually remember seeing, as a kid.

I suppose it could be worse. No doubt there are people who have lived their entire lives in Iowa without yet noticing the Heliopsis.


1 They're apparently not meant to be a couple, though everyone interprets the painting that way, which is interesting, considering how the woman is clearly a good thirty years younger than the man. Wood's sister was apparently kind of mortified by this.
2 I find the name "Cargill Meat Solutions" darkly hilarious, as it implies the existence, somewhere, of a "Cargill Meat Problems" plant.
3 You're welcome.