Saturday, October 10, 2009

Saturday afternoon Nina picture

I really like this picture. It's not masterful work: it's a little out of focus, the water spots on the side of the tank are embarrassing, and she doesn't show up well against the dark soil. However, this is the closest she's ever let me approach with the camera for a picture, so even with all that happening it's more detailed than most of them. Also it's really big if opened in a new window -- in case you want to see the last thing a cricket sees.

And I am planning on cleaning the sides of the tank sometime soon. I don't yet have a good temporary space for her, and I'm nervous about trying to catch her, so I've been putting it off. But soon.

New blog & new plants

I am extremely pleased to announce the debut of a new blog, Life Among the Leaves, which is written by frequent PATSP commenter, Garden Webber, and all-around fine person Karen715. So go see. Say hello. Compliment her Hedera helix varieties.

I'd also been planning to show pictures of some of my newer plants for a while. I'd held off because a few haven't photographed well (Neoregelia NOID, Phlebodium aureum) and I was hoping for better pictures, but time is short, so we'll just go with the two most recent. The Neoregelia and Phlebodium can catch up later.

This one was first. The husband and I went up to Cedar Rapids a while ago to check Piersons and Frontier and Lowes, which is something we do from time to time, and stopped at an Earl May garden center on impulse. Good thing we did, because I managed to find this cute little Astrophytum ornatum.

I'm a little nervous around Astrophytums for some reason: I've had an A. myriostigma since December 2007, and it's done okay: not a lot bigger, but it's survived both a very minor mealybug problem and getting repeatedly knocked off a windowsill (until I learned not to put it on the windowsill). For some reason, I'm under the impression that Astrophytums are touchier than most cacti, though that hasn't really been the case with mine, and I'm not sure where I heard this. So I hesitated on buying for a little bit, but it was too cute to pass up.

Good thing, too, because I didn't find anything I wanted at any of the other three places.

Next up is the eagerly-anticipated Vriesea ospinae var. gruberi, which I have been excited about since I found out they were on the availability list at my former job. They didn't disappoint, in person:

I don't know if they're especially easy or difficult or whatever -- in my experiences with the genus so far, Vriesea seems to have an undeservedly difficult reputation, but I know next to nothing about this particular species and variety, and there's little information on-line, so we'll see.

Meanwhile, as I write this, it's Friday, and I have 248 plants yet to check for water, most of which will probably need to be watered, which means bringing them into the kitchen and watering them one at a time in the sink, because it is now too cold to take plants outside and go over them with the garden hose, itself a fairly time-consuming process. We're working on installing a shower in the plant room, so I can water that way, which is how I did it in the apartment, but we're not there yet. So: kitchen sink. Wish me retroactive luck.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Walkaways Part 4

A new tropical order arrived on Sunday where I used to work, so the husband and I went to look at the new stuff on Monday. I did buy one plant (Vriesea ospinae var. gruberi), which will have to get a post of its own later, but this post is about the three interesting plants I didn't buy. (I may eventually decide that I can't live without one of them: we're still evaluating.)

The one that might call me back is Anthurium podophyllum. It's a total geek plant, in that it wouldn't stand out as special to most customers. It would, though, be one of the first things you're drawn to if you are jaded with the usual houseplants and are looking for something new and different:

Anthurium podophyllum.

At this point, I hesitate to buy mostly because this would take most of my remaining money, and it seems sort of risky. I love the whole Anthurium genus, but that's mostly because I get along really well with A. andraeanum: when I've tried other plants, the results have been a lot more inconclusive (A. "hookeri" lives, but isn't getting enough light; A. crystallinum 'Mehani' and I have had watering issues. Even some of the A. andraeanums have fallen apart after being repotted.). So we will have to see what happens.

Bachelor Number Two was tagged Philodendron 'Cheesecake,' though it was pretty obviously a Monstera deliciosa, not a Philodendron. (This might not be as obvious from the picture: the lighting was awful, and I see I didn't really include the one fully-split leaf in the photo like I thought I had. You may have to just trust me on this.) It didn't appeal to me so much: they're handsome plants, but I already have a Monstera at home which is extremely overgrown. It's all but pulled down the stake I put in the pot for it to climb on, and even before that happened it was very awkward to move or water or do anything with. Perhaps if I had a hanging basket for it. So until I figure out how to handle the one I've got, I'm not going to get more.

"Philodendron 'Cheesecake,'" which is actually a variegated Monstera deliciosa.

That said, I never expected to see a variegated Monstera for sale, here or anywhere else, and the price was pretty good, so I'm still a little tempted.

Finally, we had Aechmea 'Blue Tango,' which looks very similar to 'Del Mar' but has less white in its inflorescence --

Aechmea 'Del Mar.'

Aechmea 'Blue Tango.'

I have to say, I was sort of ennh, whatever when I was actually in the greenhouse, but when I got home and looked closely at the pictures, I was impressed. This is a pretty inflorescence. It might even count as gorgeous.

Aechmea 'Blue Tango' again.

It was, unfortunately, also $70, which would have been too pricey even if I had money, and also there's the matter of me already having a very similar plant (which is doing nicely, thanks for asking). So I left it. But daaaaaaaaamn.

Coming soonish: the plants I actually have bought recently.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MacGyver (Selenicereus chrysocardium)

For those readers who are too young to remember "MacGyver," or those readers who are old enough to remember but don't because they never watched it, "MacGyver" was a TV show from 1985 to 1992 starring Richard Dean Anderson. He played Angus MacGyver, who had some job with a fictional organization called the Phoenix Foundation. I was never that clear about exactly what the Phoenix Foundation did, or why, but whatever it was inevitably involved MacGyver getting trapped someplace, and having to improvise some way of breaking out, or distracting guards so he could sneak out in some other direction, or whatever. So probably the purpose of the Phoenix Foundation was to research ways in which people could escape from places, if captured.

Richard Dean Anderson, ca. 1990. Found via Entertainment Weekly, though this picture is all over the internet.

Also MacGyver got shot at a lot, but because of some childhood trauma or something he was firmly opposed to using guns, so he never shot back. The 80s were a simpler time, and it was still okay then to solve all of one's problems without shooting stuff. At least in this one show. Most of the time. If you were the star. And otherwise of unquestionable masculinity.

As I recall, they also used explosions as a gun substitute quite a bit. But I digress.

Richard Dean Anderson again; photo from Carpe Factum.1

So I was a fan. A gun-hating, self-effacing science nerd who was also somehow all hunky? Be still my twelve-year-old heart.2 But what everybody else remembers the show for is the trademark MacGyver improvisation: stopping a sulfuric acid leak with a chocolate bar, making an arc welder out of jumper cables, a generator and two half-dollars, using pyrite and clay as an antibiotic, etc. (There's a partial -- partial! -- list of stuff from the series here.)

Last one, I promise. Via Dromomania Int'l. The MacMullet got considerably bigger than this at various points during the series, but this is as large as I'm willing to let it get on my blog.

Selenicereus chrysocardium is an improviser too, in at least a couple different ways. It makes its own soil, for example: it lives epiphytically in tree branches,3 and collects fallen leaves, animal droppings, or whatever else happens to fall from above to make a loose but water-retentive medium for its roots.4 It's also re-invented the leaf, because it had to: Selenicereus chrysocardium evolved from cacti that had lost their leaves, but then moved into rainforest environments where moisture loss was no longer a big deal: the problem it encountered instead was reduced light.5 So, over an extremely long span of time, the plants with the widest stems, which made the best light-catchers, prospered, eventually culminating in the broad, leaf-like structures (called cladodes) we see today. This same sort of development can be found in a lot of epiphytic cacti, like Pseudorhipsalis ramulosa, Schlumbergera spp., and Epiphyllum spp., though in those cases the resemblance to leaves is less impressive, and they look more like the flattened stems that they are.6

Hey! Only four pictures in, and we've got pictures of the plant the profile is supposed to be about! Hooray!

The native habitat of this plant can be pinned down with unusual precision. It is from the Mexican province of Chiapas, the southernmost province in Mexico. Chiapas is kind of a rough place even by Mexican standards: Wikipedia says that about 40% of the population suffers from malnutrition, a good chunk of the population doesn't even speak Spanish,7 infant mortality stands at 25%, less than 50% of the population has running water, and a lot of the province, particularly the eastern (inland) part, lacks roads or cities. So it's not the best neighborhood.

Perhaps because of this rough-and-tumble background, Selenicereus, like MacGyver, is non-violent: I've never seen any spines on one as far as I remember, and there are none on my plants at home (a couple aerial roots, but no spines).

Location of Chiapas. Adapted from the public domain map I found at the Wikipedia entry for Chiapas.

As for the plant itself, well, the main attraction is the flowers, which are like the nighttime blooms of Epiphyllum oxypetallum or Cereus peruvianus, that they are basically wedding cakes (huge, elaborate, mostly white). One of the more appealing things about Selenicereus chrysocardium specifically is that the flowers have a center full of golden yellow stamens.8 I have not been able to determine whether the flowers are night-bloomers, or fragrant: if anybody knows, I'd welcome a comment or e-mail or something.

Unfortunately, the plants are reluctant flowerers, even when you have relatively good conditions for them. We had a huge plant where I used to work, which was roughly six feet across, and in the year and a half I was there, I never saw it flower or even bud.9 So I don't have any flower pictures of my own, and unfortunately, I couldn't find any publicly-available pictures on-line, either. The best non-public one I could find is here.

At least keeping the plant alive is relatively easy, even if you never get flowers.

LIGHT: You're going to want some sun, though it doesn't have to be intense or all day long. In fact, it's probably better if your plant only gets sun for part of the day, or dappled/filtered sun all day long. Rumor has it that leaving your plant outside in dappled shade during the spring and/or summer is useful in getting it to set buds, though I haven't tried this.

WATER: All the advice I found about Selenicereus chrysocardium converged on the idea that one should use a loose soil mix, ideally some mix of orchid bark, perlite, regular potting soil and sand, and then water often. My personal experience has been that these are a lot more flexible about watering than that makes it sound, though, and you can pot them in regular potting soil so long as it's a reasonably good, quick-draining, non-Miracle-Gro sort of potting mix, which is the type of potting mix you should be using anyway. My experience has been that you run a bigger risk by underwatering than overwatering.

TEMPERATURE: There's fairly broad consensus that you don't want these to get colder than about 50F/10C. Some sources say 55F/13C. Most of the advice I've seen suggests that giving the plant lots of heat and humidity is the best way to induce blooming. Heat seems to be okay as long as the plant is not both hot and in direct sun at the same time.

HUMIDITY: I suspect that there is probably some margin for error, but as the plant's natural environment is humid, the more humidity you can provide, the more comfortable the plant is likely to be. This could have the side benefit of encouraging blooming.

PESTS: I have yet to see any pests on a Selenicereus chrysocardium. Pests weren't mentioned much (if at all) at any of the other sites that mentioned the plant. Scale and mealybugs are almost always the most likely and damaging pest problem with any plant, so keep an eye out.

PROPAGATION: Fern-leaf cactus is incredibly easy to propagate. As far as I can tell, any piece of stem, stuck upright into a loose, water-absorbent potting medium, should root. It may help to let the cutting callus a bit before planting, but even if you don't, most of the time you should be okay: I don't think WCW waited to plant the cuttings that make up my hanging basket, and they all did fine.

This was a piece that accidentally broke off of my plant one day as I moved past it, which I didn't find until it had been laying on the floor for a while. I stuck it in some soil and waited:

and within a couple months, it rewarded me by rooting and sending out new growth.

GROOMING: I can't think of anything about this plant that might constitute "grooming."

FEEDING: I didn't see any specific recommendations for fertilizer as far as I can remember, so I think ordinary houseplant fertilizer at half-strength with every watering should be okay. You're probably also all right if you want to stop feeding during the winter, though I think they do grow year-round.

The ease of propagation makes it kind of a puzzle to me that this plant isn't more widely available. I'll grant that it's a little odd, and it doesn't look stereotypically planty, but it's not any weirder or less stereotypical than Zamioculcas zamiifolia, and customers don't seem to have any problem buying them. The closest any of my internet sources came to describing a catch or hidden flaw or something was, a lot of them noted that it's hard to bring into flower. But again, that's just as true of Zamioculcas, and at least if you can get a flower out of Selenicereus it will be awesome, which is not true of Zamioculcas.

Whatever the reasons why it isn't, I think this plant probably ought to be more commonly available, because it's interesting, and kinda pretty. Someday, I may have some to sell or trade or whatever, but for right now I can only point you to a couple places I found that sell them. Both (who calls his Marniera chrysocardium but they're the same thing) and Glasshouse Works (who call it Epiphyllum chrysocardium) are offering some on their respective websites.10 You might also be able to find them in a local garden center, if you keep your eyes open, or organize a trade via Garden Web or somewhere.

Or if you get really desperate, you can always just make your own out of duct tape. Mac would want you to.
DISCLAIMER: I have been offered no goods, money, or services in return for promotion of the businesses above, nor am I affiliated with them in any manner.11 If this should change, as for example by extravagant retroactive bribery, HINT HINT, I'll edit the post to say so.

Special thanks to Allan Self at, for this post, which inspired the "person" to go with this plant.

1 Begging the indulgence of anyone in the audience whose sexual preference does not include Richard Dean Anderson, but this is the best opportunity I'm ever likely to have to post pictures of him on this blog, so I'm going to take it. I mean, what would you have me do, not post pictures of Richard Dean Anderson? Be serious. (Also: there is a lot of heartfelt but very, very bad MacGyver fan art out there, and I ran into some of it while looking for pictures. You should be glad I didn't use that for the post.)
2 The one change I would make, if I could jump to the alternate universe in which I was a network TV executive at the age of 12, would be that there really needed to be more fanservice. Somehow, for all his improvising, Mac's plans rarely required any shirt-type fabric. Or if they did, he was always wearing a second shirt underneath.
3 This is one piece of information that actually doesn't fit very well with the character of MacGyver: I don't remember him saying it (it was a long time ago!), but the internet tells me that Mac was afraid of heights. If there are epiphytes which are acrophobic, they're hiding it pretty well.
4 Some other epiphytes do this as well: Asplenium nidus, the bird's-nest fern, also collects its own soil this way, as do some Anthurium species, staghorn ferns (Platycerium spp.), and some orchids (often called "trash-basket" orchids).
5 "Moved" is, of course, in a very odd and figurative sense: the individual plants stayed put, but the previous habitat was no longer available, so the range of the species moved, and either the best open location was as an epiphyte, or being an epiphyte was what the plant "thought of" first. Evolution doesn't necessarily choose the optimal solution: all it has to do is find a solution which is good enough for reproduction, and there may sometimes be a number of different options which are good enough.
6 You may wonder why they wouldn't just re-evolve leaves, if their ancestors had had them. Well, there are two different ways to lose leaves: you can let the leaf-building genes fall into disrepair, to the point where they are no longer any good for building anything anymore, or you can keep them intact but regulate them such that they never turn on.
If you go the first route, by the time you decide you want leaves again, there may not be any functional genes and gene fragments left to rebuild from. The only way to get everything back up and running again would be to unbreak everything, in exactly the right ways, which is fairly unlikely: there are always more ways to break a thing than there are of putting it back together. So evolution is not likely to reverse this type of leaf loss.
If you go with the second way of losing leaves, and build regulators to stop leaf development, then all you have to do to get leaves back is break or lose the regulators. This, by contrast, is awfully easy to do.
Some cactus species actually have taken the second route, and built genes to suppress the development of leaves: we know this because they occasionally turn off the suppressors and let leaves form for brief periods, usually during flowering. (See link.) My guess -- and I emphasize to the reader that this is a guess -- is that with Selenicereus, the leaf-producing genes were probably actually broken, rather than suppressed, which made reinventing the leaf from a stem more practical than fixing the leaf-building genes.
7 So what do they speak? Well, Wikipedia doesn't exactly say. A large chunk of the population of Chiapas, about 40%, is of Mayan descent, and the majority (55%) of Chiapas residents are of mixed Mayan and European ancestry, so it seems like a safe bet that they speak an indigenous language with Mayan roots, but I don't know. Whatever the name for it is, Mexico has the eminently sensible policy that any language spoken by indigenous peoples living in its borders has the status of an official state language, equivalent to Spanish, and citizens living in the provinces where these languages are spoken may request public services and documents in said language.(See Wikipedia.) Still, not speaking the dominant language of the nation and region is going to have consequences for non-governmental business, so it's still kind of a bad thing to not speak Spanish in Mexico.
The Mexican official-language policy is different, of course, from that in the United States, where certain parts of the population will fly into a spittle-flecked rage if they're asked to press one for English in a phone tree, never mind printing 1040s in Vietnamese or driver registration forms in Swahili or whatever. I gave up trying to understand these people a long time ago, and now limit myself to hoping that they won't hurt themselves, or anybody else, while being outraged.
8 The botanical name refers, in part, to the flowers: selene = moon; cereus technically means wax, or torch, but has come to be the generic Latin word for cactus; chryso- = golden; cardium = heart. Put it all together and you get something like "moon cactus with a golden heart," which I think even the most diehard fan of common names will agree is way more poetic and evocative than the usual common name for this plant ("fern-leaf cactus").
9 It lives on, in three pieces: it had developed some dead stems in summer 2008, and WCW divided it while cleaning it up, so now there are two of them at work. A number of fragments also broke off or were salvaged from otherwise dead stems in the process of dividing and cleaning, which WCW put into a hanging basket, where they rooted: this hanging basket is now my plant.
10 wants $3, but is unclear about whether they are unrooted cuttings or rooted plants, and also has a $20 minimum order. Glasshouse Works charges $12 for unrooted cuttings and has a minimum order of $15. I have never ordered from either place and accept no responsibility for any damages, disappointments, inconveniences, etc. which may ensue from your placing an order with either of them.
11 (Sucker!)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pretty picture: Heliconia psittacorum 'Bright Lights' flowers

Bought this plant in August, and so far so good, I guess. I'm surprised at how long the flowers have lasted: I've gotten a solid two months out of them, and although there are signs that the show is winding down, the bracts remain bright orange and everything, so it's still not over.

I do need to repot the plant: it's in some peat-based garbage that dries into a brick, and dries out too quickly besides. Some real potting mix would no doubt do a world of good. There always seem to be five other things I should do first, though, so I haven't gotten to that yet. Soon, though. Maybe.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Random plant event: Cereus peruvianus buds of some kind

This plant was already in the greenhouse when I started my (now-former) job in August 2007. I think it's a Cereus peruvianus, though it doesn't look exactly like my plants at home so I've gone back and forth on that. Obviously it got cut back at some point before we met, but I don't know when or how that happened.

So for the year and a half I was working there, I kept waiting for it to do something, to sprout some new growing tips and grow again, but it never did. So then maybe a month ago, I go back to visit and see it doing this:

My first thought was that maybe it was resprouting, like they're supposed to when you cut them back, which is what I'd been expecting it to do all along, so I was kind of mad at the plant for waiting until I was gone and denying me the satisfaction. But upon closer inspection of the photo, I think it's actually getting ready to flower.

Can anybody confirm whether those are flower buds or stem buds? (Picture is clearer/larger if opened in a separate window.) If flower buds, then what, exactly, is it going to take for this plant to create a new growing tip? Was I wrong to expect it to? Can these not be cut back? What is going on here?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pictures: Lithops spp.

I function more or less just fine on days which are sunny, or partly cloudy, and I work just fine at night after the sun goes down, too, usually. But gray, cloudy days just completely kill any productive impulses I have.

And Friday and Saturday were both gray and rainy around here. I was trying to work on plant profiles, but got almost nowhere, and then around 5 PM I remembered that I didn't have a Sunday post ready yet. So here we are, and I apologize for it being sort of lame. Perhaps tomorrow's post will be better.

Though if you're into Lithops you may not think this is lame at all. In which case I apologize for the apology.

My favorite one is third from the top.