I've mentioned this phenomenon before, in the profile for Pandanus spp. The reason it's on my mind again is, I bought a used houseplant book at a consignment store a few weeks ago, and it's got a lot of plants in there I'd never even heard of, which reminded me that I'd wanted to talk about this.
Since these are all plants I've never or rarely seen before, I don't have photos for a lot of them. When I have one, I've used my own photo; otherwise, I've resorted to Wikimedia Commons or just gone without.
I am especially interested in speculation about why I don't see them for sale as houseplants, so if you see one on this list that you've grown and think you might have insight, leave a comment. (Some possible explanations: small window of attractiveness, poorly adapted to indoor conditions, low tolerance for shipping, prohibitively expensive to produce because of slow growth, replaced by a better plant with similar qualities.)
The five books I'm using are:
Crockett, James Underwood. Crockett's Indoor Garden. Little, Brown and Co., Boston MA / Toronto ON, 1978.
Kramer, Jack. The Illustrated Guide to Flowering Houseplants. Peerage Books, London, 1985.
Powell, Charles C. and Donald M. Vining. Ortho's Complete Guide to Successful Houseplants. Chevron Chemical Co., San Francisco CA, 1984.
Stuckey, Maggie. The Houseplant Encyclopedia. Doubleday Direct, Inc., Garden City NY, 1993.
Griffith, Lynn P., Jr. Tropical Foliage Plants: A Grower's Guide. Ball Publishing, Batavia IL, 1998.
This will be a five-part post, eventually. (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5)
I know there are gesneriad enthusiasts out there who grow Achimenes cvv. (Cupid's bower, hot water plant) indoors, but it appears that you can't grow them until you've grown several other gesneriads first. It seems obvious enough that people would buy them in stores if they saw them for sale, so the issue has to be one of production (not cost-effective to propagate), distribution (don't ship well), or long-term prospects (don't remain attractive long enough in stores for retailers to make any money off of them). No idea which, but I bet there are readers who'll have a guess.
Allamanda cathartica (golden trumpet) is mentioned in a few of the books, and I've seen them for sale intermittently at the ex-job, but I'm not aware of anyone actually growing one indoors, nor have I ever tried it myself. My guess, based on the behavior of the ones at the ex-job, is that they are probably too fussy and demanding to do well outside of a greenhouse.
I had never even heard of Anguloa spp. (tulip orchid) before I bought the Kramer book, but they sound fucking perfect, as orchids go. Large green leaves, fragrant blooms (not sure about A. clowesii above, but wikiposedly some or most Anguloa species have cinnamon-scented flowers), "easy to bring into bloom indoors,"1 etc. And the hybrids are, if anything, even more awesome (check the photo of Anguloa x ruckeri, here). So something must be horribly wrong with them. But what? What could be that terrible? We may never know.
I totally get why Aspidistra elatior (cast-iron plant) isn't more widely available: I haven't been happy with mine. All the books go on and on about what an easy plant Aspidistra is, and how if you absolutely can't grow anything else at all, you can grow a cast-iron plant, but: mine has had spider mites a few times, the leaf tips have burnt back pretty severely in the last year or so (in the worst cases, about 1/3 of the leaf is dead), now it has scale, and it doesn't seem to be growing at all. Seriously, I don't know when the last time it produced a new leaf was, but it's been at least a year. And of course when I check the books to see what I've done wrong, all they do is reassure me that it's the world's easiest plant and there's no possible way it could go wrong, which is UNHELPFUL. Add to that the fact that even in good conditions, they're apparently still pretty slow, and neither the leaves nor the flowers are especially flashy, and it's clear why a tropical plant grower might not want to invest in producing them.
That said, they're nevertheless available around here, very occasionally. We had them once or twice at the ex-job, and I've seen them at a couple other places in the area, though only once for each place. We eventually stopped bringing them in at the ex-job, because they always got spider mites right away, plus they were a lot more expensive than similarly-sized plants of other genera, because of the slow growth. So it was one of those deals where it was either going to sell in the first fifteen minutes off the truck, or it was going to get spider mites and find itself shoved under a table until somebody decided it was ugly enough to discard.
Asplenium bulbiferum (hen and chicken fern, mother spleenwort) seems to have lost a lot of popularity in recent decades. I don't know anything about what it's like to grow A. bulbiferum specifically (I have a vague memory of being told once by somebody that it was difficult), but if it's anything like the other Aspleniums I've attempted,2 that's just as well.
I've never seen one for sale. A likely explanation is that it was probably never that commercially viable: plants that self-propagate easily tend to get passed from person to person through informal sales or trades, instead of being bought and sold, and A. bulbiferum produces tiny rootable plantlets at the tips of the fronds.
Aucuba japonica (gold-dust plant) is the biggest mystery on this list. Four out of the five books mention it, but I have never seen one in person, for sale or not. Nor have I seen any indication that it's an especially problematic plant, either. It's possible that it's just been made redundant by plants like Dracaena surculosa and Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold Dust,' though if that's the case, I'm actually more interested in growing it myself, because I haven't been especially happy with either of those.
Real bamboos3 (Bambusa, Chimonobambusa, Phyllostachys, Pleioblastus, Sasaella, and others) get mentioned occasionally in books, and I know at least one blogger who
Billbergias seem to be showing up around here a lot more often in the last couple years. We could go to the ex-job and pick me up a Billbergia 'Hallelujah' or 'Borracho' right this second, if necessary. This is still a pretty recent development, though, and as far as I can recall, those are the only two I've seen being sold.
Billbergia nutans (queen's tears) is a great plant, as far as I'm concerned -- it grows fast, propagates easily, is difficult to kill, and produces short-lived but really interesting flowers in the late fall and winter. Unfortunately, all of those characteristics also make it a non-starter, pretty much, in retail. Growing fast and propagating easily means that anybody who has one can have as many as they want (not a particularly collectible plant, from a retail perspective); being difficult to kill means that once you have one, you're likely to continue having one (can't sell replacement plants), and the short-lived flowers means that they're only really appealing to consumers for like twenty minutes out of every year and the rest of the time they just look like a strange big coarse grass.
The other Billbergias are similar, in that they seem to be easy to grow and propagate, though they're colorful enough that we might see them more often as foliage plants in the future. If you do see one for sale: highly recommended.
Brunfelsia pauciflora (yesterday, today, and tomorrow) is another that's constantly mentioned in the books but that I've never seen for sale. (Or, possibly, I've seen it for sale but not recognized it as such.) They do apparently get kind of big, and the plant doesn't seem especially interesting outside of the flowers, so I could see favoring production of other plants, but the flowering period is apparently long, and obviously people found them worth growing indoors at some point, if all the books keep including them. I'm probably not actually interested in growing it myself, but I would like to know why I've never had the option.
I have only seen Calceolaria cvv. (pocketbook flower) being sold at the ex-job, and then only once or twice. The page at Top Tropicals hints at some reasons why this might be the case: they're annuals, they prefer cool temperatures, they're prone to stem rot. If this is in fact the case, then the question about Calceolaria is not, "why don't growers produce them anymore?" but instead "why did houseplant books ever include something so ill-suited to indoor culture in the first place?"
This particular topic doesn't lend itself well to recommendations, but in a perfect world, Anguloa spp. would be easy to grow. (In the actual world, Billbergia are.)
- Acalypha wilkesiana (copperleaf): sometimes available here as an outdoor annual.
- Acorus spp. (sweet flag): sometimes available as an outdoor annual.
- Aerides spp./cvv. (cat's tail orchid): have never seen.
- Angraecum spp./cvv. (comet orchid): have never seen.
- Astrophytum myriostigma (bishop's cap): seen occasionally, but when I've actually wanted to buy one, they're nowhere to be found.
- Begonia masoniana (iron cross begonia): have seen once.
- Buxus spp. (boxwood): I have a dim recollection of seeing these sold for outdoor use, but I've never seen one sold as a houseplant. Nor, frankly, do I know why anybody would want one as a houseplant: they're pretty plain-looking. They're in all the books anyway, though.
Are any of these widely available where you live? Can you shed any light on why I don't see them in the stores? Are there plants I chatter about at PATSP all the time that you've never seen for sale? Which ones? Etc.
aOh yeah. I went there.
2 (A. nidus and A. antiquum)
3 (The "lucky bamboo" in stores is Dracaena sanderiana, and is neither lucky nor bamboo.)