Monday, December 31, 2007

I can has frog?

Um. So I was pulling the plants out of boxes and taking the plastic sleeves off them and attaching price tags and whatnot, and after a few hours of this, I look down in the box of asparagus ferns I've been unpacking and see this guy.

(It's somewhat alarming, by the way, to look down into a box of plants and see movement. Just in case you'd ever wondered.)

There's no point in leaving him in the greenhouse, because the pesticides would get him. I couldn't bring myself to do that. Mercy killing was out of the question also -- that's never gone well for me either. So I caught him and brought him home, and now I have no idea what to do. We gave him a shot glass full of water and a few fragments of roast beef (the theory being that frogs are carnivorous, even if they don't normally kill and consume cattle -- though what a PBS nature special that would be), and a plant for oxygen, but this leaves a lot of questions open, obviously.

I suspect he's probably doomed regardless of what I do. But I'm willing to try to meet him halfway. Anybody want to make any wild stabs in the dark on this one?

UPDATE: I'm reasonably sure that what I have is a Hyla cinerea, or green tree frog. As it happens, they're a popular species of pet frog, and they're even the state amphibian for two states (LA and GA). The down side is that they are said to need a lot of space: the articles I ran into on-line all seem to agree that a ten-gallon is the absolute minimum possible, plus there's advice about non-chlorinated water and sterilizing terrarium materials in bleach-and-water solutions before adding them to the terrarium, and there's all this stuff about crickets, and . . . well, and I need another thing to take care of like I need another piece of caucus-related campaign literature, so something is going to have to be done. I just have no idea what one does with excess frogs. Pet stores? Animal shelter? Still trolling for suggestions, here. . . .

Oh, and -- they don't eat roast beef, but then we kind of suspected that.

UPDATE: The story concludes here.

Random plant event: Dischidia nummularia flower

This plant was an oddball: both the only one of its kind that we had, and a plant I'd never heard of before. I got this picture of a flower a few days before the plant sold, but the lucky part is that because of the flower, the plant got my attention and I took a few cuttings before it sold. So far the cuttings seem to be doing okay, knock wood.

It's not that the flower is anything amazing or special. I actually walked right by it any number of times, I'm sure, before I saw it, and it didn't have any charming scent or anything either. But hey.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Criminal (Philodendron x 'Autumn')

Okay. So here's where things start to get a little weird. What could it mean to call a plant a "criminal?" What laws do plants break? What laws could plants break?

I mean, I suppose you could call invasive or weedy species "outlaw plants," if you wanted, and there's also the possibility that pot-breakers should be punished in some legal fashion, but, I don't know, somehow this wasn't a satisfying way of looking at the situation, to me, and anyway I've already done those particular plants, so I'd have to come up with something different.

So let's take a step way the hell back and ask ourselves what the contract actually is between a person and a houseplant. At first glance, it seems like the obligations are mostly on the human's side: we agree to water, feed, defend against insects, clean, mist, prune, and so on and so forth. But, the plant, in turn, is expected to: grow, keep itself more or less presentable, reproduce when requested to do so, and not give in overly easily to the attentions of others, by which we mostly mean bugs. In other words, the plant is more or less expected to be a 1950s TV housewife, but without the vacuuming-in-pearls business.1

In that light, a criminal plant would be the opposite: unattractive, no growth, unpropagatable, bug-prone, some kind of terrible joke of a plant that thinks you're just swell and everything but would really rather be out burning its bras and taking drugs with those dirty, dirty hippies.

Ahem. Perhaps I've let the metaphor get away from me. But still, you see the thought process. And in those terms, for me, there is really only one plant that's even competitive for the Criminal slot, and that is Philodendron x 'Autumn.'

Those of you who know me will have been expecting Syngonium podophyllum, and it's true that Syngonium and I have had our share of difficulties, but the problems were really entirely my fault: once I learned that it was all my fault, we've been getting along better. Not perfectly, but well enough that Syngonium doesn't qualify. Philodendron x 'Autumn' does.

I have had this plant for almost a year now (I bought it on January 6, 2007, so we've only got two or three weeks left before we hit an anniversary.). In that time, it has come as close to doing absolutely nothing as I think a plant can. Hell, even my Zamioculcas zamiifolia eventually grew a leaf, and propagated. 'Autumn' lost three leaves, and gained four, and that is all.

And it doesn't even look especially presentable:

As with the corresponding character in The Breakfast Club ("John Bender"), Autumn's problems are not entirely of its own making. There's been a little abuse, much of it inadvertent. I repotted it as soon as I got it home, just as I had done a few months prior with some similarly-sized 'Moonlight' Philodendrons (which had done beautifully for me, by the way, and are still looking quite fetching even as I type), and waited.

Eventually it became apparent that there was Something Wrong. It was staying wet after waterings way longer than it should have, like two or three times longer than the 'Moonlights.' A soil inspection turned up the fact that the poor thing had basically no roots anymore, and furthermore was in soil that would have been too heavy and wet for a perfectly healthy plant (if I'm remembering right, it would probably have been straight Miracle Gro), and had rocks blocking its drainage holes anyway.2 So it got brand-new, somewhat improved soil, and then, to my everlasting shame, I stuck it back into the four-inch plastic pot which had been too large and water-retaining for it in the first place. I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe I didn't have anything smaller at the time.

But otherwise, it got reasonably good treatment. It was watered when the top inch or two was dry (however infrequently that happened), it got decent light and a fair amount of warmth (it was certainly never cold), I never saw any bugs on it. And all it could ever muster were these little tiny leaves about two inches long, some of which never even unrolled all the way.

So eventually I took it out of the pot again, to see what was up, and – it still has no roots to speak of. Just a two-inch taproot, nothing more. So. I moved it down again, into a still smaller pot (now a three-inch square),3 and still we wait.

'Autumn' is rumored to be the most difficult of the four cultivars in its little clique: 'Autumn' is bad, 'Prince of Orange' can be reasoned with sometimes but is still kind of fussy, 'Moonlight' and 'Imperial Red' are everybody's buddies. I don't have any idea why this is: it makes no sense to me. (Your results may vary anyway.)

Consequently, though, 'Autumn' rates a much higher difficulty level. My experiences aren't necessarily typical, but I've heard enough things from enough people to make me think that it likes to be somewhat drier (hence: more rot-prone, more drought-resistant) and better-lit than 'Moonlight.' Not that doing those things will help you, if it decides you're not worthy of its respect: then it'll just make fun of your wardrobe and tear up a library book. But it's something you can try nevertheless. I suspect, too, that this is one of those plants like Dieffenbachia spp., where some people find it terribly easy and will read this whole piece thinking I'm insane, while others find it impossible no matter what they do and will be nodding their heads as they go. There are a few plants like that. (Pothos is another one: mine are all falling apart on me lately.)

In the greenhouse, 'Autumn,' 'Prince of Orange,' 'Moonlight,' and 'Imperial Red' all behave more or less the same: I haven't noticed any of them being more problematic than any of the others. Only at home has there been a difference. So it could be that I'm making too big a deal of the differences, and I just happened to get a specimen of 'Autumn' that was a bit of a bum. Time will tell. For right now, it's doing only as much work as necessary to keep me from throwing it in the trash, and that won't be enough to save it indefinitely. Watch your back, 'Autumn.'

EDITED 5/13/08: Decreased difficulty level from 5.1 to 4.4 after the combination of downpotting and public humiliation seemed to turn the plant around (see this post). It's still more difficult than the similar Philodendrons, but it looks like a lot of the mess was my fault.


Photo credit: Judd Nelson: from; all others: my own.

1 (Or, looked at in a more sinister way: 1950s housewives were expected to be potted plants, more or less, except that they also had to do chores.)
2 Whether or not to put rocks in the bottoms of your pots "for drainage" is between you and your god(s): I won't tell you that you have to or that you shouldn't. There's a lot of disagreement about the practice: some people always do it, for everything, all the time, and other people never do it because they believe it to be harmful. I personally fall mostly in the latter camp, though I make exceptions in the event that one is trying to move a plant from a standard-proportioned pot to an unusually tall and skinny one, in which case having rocks or clay shards or something in the bottom might well improve the inevitable center-of-gravity issues that this kind of pot always has. And there's also something to be said for doing something besides setting the plant down on top of six inches of wet, rootless soil, which couldn't possibly end well. The simpler way of dealing with this, though, is to just not use such a tall and narrow pot in the first place.
I myself always stuck stones in the bottom of pots for years, because my mother did and I assumed that that meant it was useful for something. In actuality, though, I think it generally either does nothing or impedes drainage, usually the former.
3 Did you know that round pots are measured by the diameter across the top, but square pots are measured by the length of the diagonal, by industry convention? A "three-inch" square pot is a square with sides 2.1 inches long. This leads to all kinds of chaos and confusion.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Random plant event: Davallia cuttings finally take, sorta:

Several months back, I cut my Davallia trichomanoides tyermanii all up because it needed to be repotted, and the rhizomes had grown over the sides of the pot they were in. So I cut them all back, moved the plant, and then tried to root the rhizomes, because I'd been told one could do that sort of thing.

Months later, I have to say, this has not paid off like I thought it might. I started 19 sets, each containing three small cuttings, and of all of those, only two seem to be alive at all, and of those two, only one appears to be doing well.

This is not necessarily bad, condidering that I didn't know what I was doing, but even so: I should have used longer sections of rhizome, I should have found some way of pinning them to the ground that worked, and I probably should have used something other than potting soil to try to root them in, because I think the potting soil wound up too soggy or too dry most of the time.

That said, I think I have a new plant (maybe two) anyway:

Friday, December 28, 2007


I don't think there's anything I can add to this.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Princess (Murraya paniculata)

This plant was my husband's decision. He doesn't choose plants for us very often, but about a year ago (Dec. 29, in fact), we were at the greenhouse where I now work, and he saw this, and decided he wanted it. And I was all like, no, no, are you kidding, it's $50, and we'll never be able to keep it alive more than a few months, but he ignored me and bought it anyway, as sometimes happens. And so naturally it's turned out to be one of my favorite plants, which means that now, it pretty much gets everything it wants, all the time, and I have to admit that I was wrong every time I tell this story, which is relatively often. (Though I was still right about the Hedera helix, which he bought at about the same time. So there.)

The plant is, by now, a bit spoiled. During the summer, I was watering it about every three days, which may not sound unreasonable until you consider that this is a huge plant, in a big (three-gallon?) pot:

And it was actually using that much water, too. Heavy watering kept it alive for quite a while, but it never bloomed as much as it did when we first got it, until I started feeding it. First I was feeding at half-strength, every month or so. And what I noticed was that it started blooming about every month or so. So then I started feeding at every watering, again in half-strength, and then it bloomed all the time. So then I started watering at full-strength with every watering, and – it kinda stopped, actually. I think the issue is that I did this at the same time that we had a bunch of cold, gray days outside, and so it had the food but not the light. In any case, it's the only plant that I feed that often, or make a point of feeding at all, because it's the only one that responds when I do.

Light is also important if you want it to bloom: ours here has gotten one of the coveted front-and-center spots in the only south window, because that's what it wanted and it tends to get what it wants. Often, buds will form all over the plant after a feeding and watering, but only the ones facing the window will develop and open, at least until the plant gets rotated.

The rest of the care is not terribly hard. Full sun, lots of food and water, but temperature is not a big deal: according to one site, it's hardy outdoors to 28ºF, and can be grown outdoors in zone 9b, so I think we can assume that any indoor temperature should be fine. I've worried about the humidity from time to time, but it hasn't seemed to have any problems with that, even in the winters when it's dry in here. It will dump a bunch of leaves if the soil gets too dry, which are a pain to pick up, and the flowers wind up all over the floor all the time when the plant is happy (individual flowers last only two or three days), so it gets some difficulty points added for grooming.

The leaves are dark green and naturally stay shiny. Growth is slow, but fairly consistent throughout the year.

The flowers smell more or less identical to orange blossoms (my mother's comment recently was that "it smells like Texas," referring to the orange groves all over the lower Rio Grande Valley where we used to live, and she came up with this before I told her that the plants were related). I've gotten sufficiently accustomed to the smell that it's starting to just smell like "home" to me: unless there's been some kind of terrible incident, the Murraya is usually the first smell I notice when I come through the door, and it's in bloom often enough that there's an association built-up. It's nice to come home to.

The first set of flowers we got turned into small (less than an inch long) reddish fruits after the petals fell off; most of the flowers in subsequent batches, and all the flowers for at least the last nine months, have failed to fruit and I'm not sure why. I kept some of the early fruits, thinking that seeds could be planted and all that, but they went moldy almost immediately so I pitched them. It turns out, after some investigation, that moldy fruit may still contain viable seeds, but the plant hasn't given me another chance in a very long time, so unless and until it decides I've learned my lesson, that information is kinda useless to me. Everything I've read about propagation suggests that cuttings are not easily done and have a high failure rate, but seeds are relatively easy (though the plant will not flower until it's at least a year or two old, and seedlings aren't quick growers). I tried rooting a cutting once, some time ago, and it didn't go anywhere, though that was before the mini-greenhouse.

Murraya paniculata also has a long association with human beings. It's native from India, south and east to Pakistan, China (reflected in one of the common names, "Chinese box") and the Philippines, and then south through Malaysia, Indonesia, and into Australia. It is used as an outdoor ornamental, frequently as a hedge, in all kinds of tropical climates, with the predictable result that it is an invasive species in many islands of the South Pacific (including Hawaii), non-native areas of Australia (primarily Queensland), and south Florida: birds spread the seeds by eating the fruits.1

Humans have used the twigs as chew-sticks for cleaning teeth, the leaves for flavoring food, and various parts of the plant as treatment for dysentery and minor aches. The leaves are said to have an astringent effect, and so are used in the healing of wounds. Couldn't actually vouch for any of these practices personally, but the food-flavoring part interests me. (Actually, the minor-aches part interests me too: everything has been hurting, especially my head and neck, for the last two or three days. I don't know if I'm getting sick or what. Even if I am, I'm not sure I'm ready to start gnawing on the houseplants just yet, but I'm not going to rule it out.)

The wood is said to be used occasionally in woodcarvings or furniture, though this is not common because it's not economical: the plant just doesn't grow quickly enough.

The plant is used in bonsai a lot more than I ever suspected, too, because it will sprout from old wood after being cut back and isn't that tough to care for or induce to flower. (I admit to being a little puzzled about how one gets it to flower without feeding, or how one maintains it as a bonsai if one is feeding it enough to get it to flower. I'm also puzzled about why you'd want it to flower – the flowers aren't huge, but they're big enough that it seems like they'd be way out of proportion in a bonsai setting. Clearly more investigation is needed.)

Murraya also has connections to some interesting culture: this site says that in Javanese culture, the plant is said to be capable of warding off witchcraft, bad luck, and the devil himself.2 The story I find more congenial is from the specific Javanese site of Jogjakarta Sultanate, where the king always stopped to think by a Murraya tree before entering the palace hall for a meeting, so that the plant became associated with wisdom and contemplation.3 'Cause, I mean, if you're looking for a way to banish devils and witchcraft, you could do a lot worse than taking some occasional quiet time to think about stuff.

I'm just saying.


Photo credits:
Molly Ringwald: from; all others: my own.

1 The fruits are said not to be edible by people, but I doubt that means that they're toxic, just that they don't taste good. Incidentally, nothing I ran across suggested that any part of this plant is toxic to pets or children, which should be of interest to readers with one or both.
2 This has not been my experience, at least in the bad luck department: I have about as much bad luck now as I ever did. It does seem to be effective as a devil repellent, though: I have spotted no devils in nearly a year. It is also an effective thermonuclear bomb repellent, elephant repellent, and great-white-sharks-falling-from-the-sky repellent. It is less effective at warding off loss of employment and drunken college students, though in fairness, I don't think there's anything that can repel drunken college students.
Related note: Our upstairs neighbors just came back from wherever they've been for the last few days, and started up a drunken party with bongo drums at about 10:15 PM last night. This would be less problematic if they had longer attention spans, or any kind of natural rhythm whatsoever, but instead the drums start and stop, get louder and softer, arrive on, just before, or just after the beats, and come in 90-second segments before morphing into some other pattern, so it's impossible to try to sleep through. We called the cops, because it sounded like there were several of them (guys, not drums -- we think there are only one or two drums) and they were drinking and yelling, and also because anybody who doesn't understand that bongo drums at 10:15 PM in an apartment building is a bad idea is probably not going to respond to reason anyway. To their credit, they stopped pretty immediately. I personally hope that they stopped immediately because they all spent the night in jail for underage drinking, but that's because I am a mean, mean fucker when I can't get to sleep when I want to sleep.
3 Well, wisdom, contemplation, and royalty, let's note.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Boxing Day!

(I figure, let's celebrate the stuff that's really worth celebrating.
Like: getting rid of all the damn poinsettias.)

Wishing you all the very best during the joyous Boxing Day season, as well as a happy and prosperous New Year,


Pop quiz: answers and key

Well, I hope everyone had a pleasant Christmas and all that. I did get some writing done, so a little of the pressure is off. I suspect I'm going to have to take short vacations like that every so often, especially as we go into spring and work supposedly gets more intense. But we'll see how it goes.

Sarah S wins the pop quiz, by virtue of being the only person to make any guesses, so congratulations, Sarah. You nailed at least seven of them. Your $50,000 check should be arriving in the mail within a week.1

These are the leaves I know are in the picture:

Ficus lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig)
Syngonium podophyllum (arrowhead vine)

Epipremnum aureum 'Marble Queen' (pothos)
Ficus benjamina
Begonia spp. (flowers)
Pelargonium x hortorum (geranium) (flowers; would also accept "Pelargonium spp.")
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (leaves)
Plectranthus verticillatus (Swedish ivy)
Bougainvillea spp. (bracts)
Saxifraga stolonifera (strawberry begonia)
Bryophyllum daigremontianum (mother of thousands)

Chamaedorea seifrizii (bamboo palm)
Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia) (leaves and bracts)
Cyclamen persicum
Alternanthera dentata (Joseph's coat)
Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant)
Spathiphyllum spp. (peace lily)

Ludisia discolor (jewel orchid) (upper left)
Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant) (upper right)
Peperomia argyreia (watermelon peperomia) (upper right)
Ficus elastica (rubber plant) (lower right)

Dracaena marginata (Madagascar dragon tree) (lower left, mostly covered and wadded up)

(clicking on this picture will bring up a much larger version, with annotations written over the various sections of plant debris)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.


1 (Poetic license, as I'm sure you guessed already. There's no check, it wouldn't be for $50K if there were one, and I probably wouldn't get it together to have it arrive within the week if one existed. Other than that, the sentence is accurate.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pop Quiz, and an announcement

Pop quiz: in the below picture from work are the dead leaves, flowers, and whole plants of a number of species. Your task is to come up with a list which identifies as many of the species in the picture as precisely as possible (in a few cases, it may be possible to identify a particular cultivar; in a few others, no identification is possible beyond genus).

You may work together by posting guesses in the comments and discussing answers among yourselves: I will stay out of the comments except where necessary to clarify rules. You should select a leader to post a final list of up to 25 guesses on or before 5 AM CST on December 26.

On December 26, I will post a second photo, with annotations, so you can see where the various plants on my list were, at which point there will be complaints of unfairness and/or sadism, and possibly also comments resulting in hilarity.

Hints: my list contains twenty-two distinct species. Eight of these have been pictured (though not necessarily profiled) in previous entries. A much larger version of the photo will load if you click the picture below.


The reason for the above pop quiz is that I need to take a break. I hate to do this when I'm just getting people interested in the site and there's a respectable hit count and all that, but I need a few days to write new stuff (the Breakfast Club thing is unexpectedly difficult: I know which plant to do for Princess, but Brain and Criminal are making me crazy, and they all take more time than I can really afford right now.), and catch up on plant-watering, and work (the plants use water whether it's a holiday or not), and so forth. I figure this is as good a time as any to take a short hiatus, since my readers' schedules are likely to be a little atypical now too: perhaps no one will notice. And, if I use the hiatus to launch the pop quiz, maybe everyone will be entertained regardless. I'm hopeful, in any case.

Regular daily posts will resume on the 26th, with the posting of the pop quiz key.

Athlete (Monstera deliciosa)

The connection here, if you want to be picky about it, is kinda shaky. Monsteras don't do anything especially athletic. I mean, it's not like they run or swim or ride bicycles.1 But they do climb, and there's something about them – the size of the leaves, the thickness of the trunks, the overall robustness of the plants – that made this seem like a reasonable connection, and it's not like there were other plants that made any more sense (I considered Dieffenbachia spp. too, but I have another "person" in mind for them, eventually, after this Breakfast Club thing is over.), so there you go.

I went through a serious Monstera phase a little over a year ago, and then had a resurgence of enthusiasm in late winter 2007. They're not good plants to get obsessive about. I mean, don't get me wrong, they're nice plants, but they get huge. If you're prone to collecting plants, this is not a good way to go: now I have three big plants in 8-inch pots, and almost no places to put them where they could be happy. And they're only getting bigger.

Like the corresponding character in the movie, Monstera deliciosa pretty much just does what it's told. You put it in a hanging basket, it'll hang and get huge:

Photo: my own.

Give it something to climb, and it'll climb and get huge:

Photo: Raul654 at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

Want variegation? Consider it done. Hugely.

Ask it for food, and it'll give you an edible fruit . . . though not right away: it takes a year to ripen, and however long to convince it to flower. Even the most people-pleasing plants have their limits. But still. The flowers are – you guessed it - huge:

Photo: A9l8e7n at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

Photo: Bozejmonstera at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

and the fruit (which is huge!) tastes like some kind of cross between pineapple, banana, jackfruit, and mango, which I assume is the plant's way of yet again trying to be all things to all people:2

Photo: B. navez at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

The fruit is not likely to be a commercial crop anytime real soon, as it's very slow to develop (a lot of things could go wrong in a year of storage: it seems like that fact alone would make commercial fruit producers a little skittish), and unripe fruit is poisonous in roughly the same way that a Dieffenbachia is: immediate pain and swelling, itching, and blistering. Whether this is ever life-threatening, I don't know, but it seems unlikely that there's a place in the world market for a potentially painful fruit that takes a year to ripen and tastes just like everything else anyway. There are, even so, reports of the occasional regional recipe, like the Halloween dish "West Indian Pumpkin Pound Cake with a Monstera Mash Anglaise" mentioned here, in passing (sadly, there's a book you apparently have to buy before you get the recipe. I give him/r points for cleverness, though, for making it a Halloween dish so the "monster mash" pun could be used.).

It is, of course, very unusual for a plant to flower and set fruit indoors. So let's don't get carried away.

The plant has a number of unusual adaptations to its natural habitat (It's an understory plant in rainforests from Mexico south to Panama.). The most obvious one is the perforated leaves, which are pretty obviously a compromise between the need to have a lot of leaf area, to maximize light collection, and the need to minimize wind resistance during intense storms. Perforations allow wind to flow through without making the leaves completely useless for light collection.

Photo: my own.

Other plants have had different ideas on the matter: the bananas and bird of paradise, Musa and Strelitzia species, respectively, go ahead and grow gigantic leaves but make them in a way such that they tear themselves to strips in high winds, leaving all the leaf area still available for light collection but with no more wind resistance than a palm frond. Philodendron bipinnatifidum uses a similar approach, but builds the tears into the leaf from the beginning. Maple trees, Acer, have gone a whole different way, by constructing the leaves so that they fold into cones in high winds,3 which reduces drag and also reduces wear and tear.

Another notable adaptation, which I personally think is like the coolest thing ever, is that when a Monstera seedling first sprouts, it exhibits negative phototropism, also called scototropism (scoto being the Greek root for darkness or blindness), growing in whichever direction is darkest. Why? Because that's where the tallest tree trunks are going to be, and once it can find a tree trunk, it can scramble up and get good light. If it had to make a living from what light is available on the forest floor, it'd be screwed.

The aerial roots are a related phenomenon. From a houseplant-growers' perspective, aerial roots are kind of annoying: they're not what you'd call pretty,4 and if you can't bend them toward a source of moisture (they're brittle, like the rest of the plant, so until they get to a certain length, it's difficult to get them to go where you want without breaking them), they just hang there, useless. They can be cut off, with no harm to the plant, though I generally try to leave mine alone. In the wild, of course, the aerial roots can acquire some additional moisture, and incidentally anchor the plant (which brings us back to the whole high-winds situation), but even there, aerial roots don't seem to be required so much as just frequently handy.

Care is relatively straightforward: because they are adapted to survive in the understory of the rainforest, light levels are negotiable. They like sun, if you can swing it, but if not, don't worry about it, they'll make do. The same goes for heat and humidity, pretty much: you're not going to get a giant plant, or fruit, without a lot of light, heat and humidity, but if you're just wanting the plant to stay alive, you can do almost anything you like. They are a little touchy about cold (the growers' guide, oddly, doesn't mention Monstera, but from observation at work, I'm thinking they're okay as long as they stay above about 55ºF / 13ºC.).

Watering is the one area I have difficulty with, and especially lately: I have a tendency to overdo watering on aroids in general,5 but I'm especially bad about this with Epipremnum aureum and Monstera deliciosa. Part of the problem is that I have mine in those plastic pots with the saucers that can pop on and off: this is a good idea in theory, but they don't drain as well, since the bottoms of the pots usually only have like four smallish drainage holes in the first place (as opposed to eight larger ones in a grower pot), and then two of those get plugged up when you attach the saucer. So it's not the same as trying to grow a plant in a pot with no drainage, but it's not as different as it ought to be.

Photo: my own.

I've tried drilling additional holes in the bottoms of the pots, which mostly breaks them (They're prone to breaking anyway: just pulling the saucers free from the pot has cracked several of mine, and then they leak, which makes me all kinds of angry), and I hate to repot the Monsteras because they took a long time to settle down when I moved them the first time.6

The point of all this being – since I tend to overwater aroids anyway, and since my Monsteras are in a drainage situation where they're likely to hold water for a lot longer than they should, and since they continue, however reluctantly, to survive, I'm thinking that they're able to handle a certain amount of overwatering. Though it's still probably best to let them dry to somewhere between one-fourth and one-half dry before giving them water again. Possibly even less.

One more parallel with the character in the movie ("Andrew"): Monsteras are horrible at thinking for themselves. In the wild, where they have all the heat and moisture to draw on, they can scramble up a tree with the best of them, but indoors, you generally have to tell them where to step. The ideal arrangement is said to be a mesh pole of some kind, filled with sphagnum moss or some other material that can be kept damp: the mesh permits one to guide the aerial roots into the pole, and the plant can anchor itself, and the damp moss inside the pole gives the plant the motivation. I've never been lucky enough to find a pole like this when I needed one, so I've had to make do with a pole made of plastic, with a half-inch layer of coir (coconut fiber) wrapped around it, and tie the plants to the pole. I don't think any of the plants have taken to this particularly well, mostly because coir doesn't really hold water at all, but even if I had found one of these poles in time, I couldn't afford to add water to it very often because of the aforementioned inadequate drainage situation. The ones at work get tied up, too, except for the few in hanging baskets. They don't seem to object too much.


Photo credits:

Emilio Estevez: from; all others: see text.

1 To my knowledge, anyway. I suppose we can't rule out a little bit of bike-riding.
2 In fact, all the accounts I ran across mentioned pineapple, and most of them mentioned banana, so I'm assuming that those are probably the dominant flavors. Still, it's called "fruit salad plant" once in a while, so it's not really supposed to taste like any particular thing.
3 Check it out, if you can find a leaf that's fresh enough to be pliable. They do.
4 Unless you have unusual tastes, I guess: I shouldn't make blanket statements like that about what people will think is pretty.
5 They just look so damn tropical that I assume they must be thirsty. Sadly, this logic, while satisfying to my brain, doesn't travel to the real world very well.
6 Which failure to settle may well have been because I stuck them in a pot that didn't have as much drainage as I thought.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Random plant event: Schlumbergera NOID flowers, Cordyline update

This was going to be a random plant event a long time ago, but for one reason or another, other things were posted instead. I know by now we've all seen plenty of Schlumbergera pictures, and I wouldn't ordinarily bother, but these are kind of special because they come from a pair of cuttings I got just this summer, from Garden Webber "hopefulauthor." I had no idea that they would bloom when still so small.

Buds; this picture is from November 8.

The first actual flower (of three, potentially), on December 15.


In other news, the flower on the Cordyline fruticosa 'Kiwi,' relatively unimpressive though it is, is still there (link to previous picture), and has changed a bit, so here's what it's up to now:

Monday, December 17, 2007


Why didn't any of you tell me that there were these in the world? Bad readers! No cookie!

The leaves really are a little bit lavender, by the way: the colors here are pretty close to real-life. Clicking on the picture will get you a slightly larger version.

I come back from lunch on Monday and there's a cardboard box with a couple of these that I'm supposed to repot. So I didn't meet the owner (hoping to this morning, maybe), but I desperately want to know where these came from.

There is a down side, that being that even by Saintpaulia standards, the leaves were terrifyingly brittle. I had, naturally, intended to take a leaf or two anyway, because . . . well, how the hell could I not, you know? But one of the repottings was actually a division, and the two plants that were together were so intertwined with one another that every time I touched them, or tried to move a leaf aside to untangle something, something broke off. It was horrible. I mean, I have dreams like this. (Not dreams about Saintpaulia specifically, but dreams about finding something super cool and new and awesome and then losing it or destroying it somehow. Often in the dreams, the valuable objects in question are turtles, which has sort of been explained already.) In the end, I brought a leaf home, I kept two at work to try to start plants from, and the remainder (about 7-10 of them) I stuck in a glass of water to give to the owner, who hopefully will understand about the brittleness (and maybe appreciate that I cleaned mineral deposits off of the old pots for a lot longer than the boss would have wanted me to, I bet).

Anyway. So: did everybody else already know about these? What might the name of this cultivar be? If I'm able to get anything useful from the owner (places, names, dates), I'll let you know.

Just tell me, next time, when somebody comes up with something this cool. I mean, damn. I tell you guys.

UPDATE: So I talked to her a couple hours ago, and she said that she had no idea where it came from, that her sister-in-law had given them to her a long time ago. She was able to tell me that it blooms, and the flowers are infrequent and light yellow. So, not a lot of information, but still more than I knew before.

I hope everybody does go and check out alenka's links, in comments: some very cool, weird, or cool and weird stuff there.

SECOND UPDATE: All of the leaves at work or at home have already failed as of 28 December 2007. This isn't really surprising to me, given the general coldness and wetness at this time of year, and my inexperience with Saintpaulia.

THIRD UPDATE: There is now a Saintpaulia ionantha cvv. profile post up, if anyone reading this is interested.

Basket Case (Ficus benjamina)

I'm going to attempt something in the next several plant profiles, which is possibly too cute for words and therefore not really worth doing, but you know me, always pushing the envelope. So this is going to be the first of a series of five plant profiles constructed around the movie The Breakfast Club. Why? Well, it sort of had to happen sooner or later. I mean, how perfect, for a blog built on archetypes/stereotypes, is a movie full of pretty people who are all fictional examples of five arche-/stereotypes? I mean, come on. It's so perfect.

So there will be, in some order, an Athlete, a Brain, a Princess, a Basket Case, and a Criminal. This may take a while to get to; I'm having some difficulty coming up with much to say about the plant I was going to use for the Brain. So there may be the occasional non-Breakfast Club profiles until I can get it together. And we'll see how that goes.

Because Ally Sheedy is my favorite (except at the end of the movie where Molly Ringwald pretties her up: she was waaaaaaaay more interesting before and should have been left the hell alone. But I still like her best, even after.), we're going to start with Basket Case, which means Ficus benjamina, which you knew because it's written a few inches above this in big letters and you read it already.

Why Basket Case? Well. Ficus benjamina is famous for dropping tons of leaves at once over minor changes, or major changes, or because it's Tuesday, or whatever. And everybody thinks that this is a totally arbitrary thing, that this is just how they are, or whatever, but this is not really true.

My own personal Ficus benjamina 'Midnight.'

'Cause, I mean, think about it. This was a plant growing just fine in the wild at one point, right? Still is, even, as far as I'm aware. So what use could be served, if you're a plant in the wild, to just drop tons of leaves all at once over nothing in particular? Nothing. It's a slightly different thing to drop leaves in preparation for the winter, and it is my understanding that F. benjamina is in fact naturally somewhat deciduous,1 though it never actually drops all the leaves at once and the drop is not arbitrary: it's driven by the seasons and moisture levels. Arguments from incredulity are dangerous: any time you start a sentence with, "It's difficult to imagine why," you're leaving yourself open to contradiction by someone who has a better imagination, which will make you look stupid. But I don't see a way around it. It's difficult for me to imagine a way it serves the plant to do what everybody says it does.

And if we take that as a given, then we're left with the question, well, does it even do what everybody says it does? Does it really drop all its leaves just because it's Tuesday?

The answer, as I suspect you're suspecting, is no. Of course not. Garden Webber The Great Tapla the All-Knowing and All-Seeing, Destroyer of Worlds,2 says that massive leaf drop on an indoor plant is almost invariably due to a decrease in light intensity (or some other decline in conditions)3, and happens with nearly perfect predictability if you watch for it. And bless me, he seems to be right. I bought a F. benjamina 'Midnight' recently, and when I brought it home I had to put it in a spot where it was getting light from one side but not the other: I think every leaf it dropped was on the dark side. This has also tended to be the pattern with plants at work: the largest ones drop leaves at a slow but steady rate regardless of what else is going on, but the smaller ones pretty much only drop leaves when they're moved from a light spot to a dark one.

So that solves that problem. Pretty much. It's not like they won't drop leaves for other reasons, and if you have one that you've had for a long time, and you swear the light level hasn't changed, then there are other things to look for, but if you're seeing leaf drop on a plant that is established and undisturbed, then the things to check are the sorts of things you'd check for any other plant, and consequently not really newsworthy.4

Ficus benjamina lineup. (L-R) 'Too Little,' 'Spearmint,' 'Monique,' 'Midnight'

Ficus benjamina, as you may be figuring out from the above picture, comes in a lot of different cultivars5, and we have at least four of these at work, with one more ('Exotica'6) coming at the end of the month.

'Too Little'

'Too Little' is mainly used as a bonsai specimen, as far as I can tell: I can't say I've ever seen it grown into a floor-sized tree, though I suppose that doesn't mean it never happens. I'm not a big fan, personally: they're messy, and although the desired effect is a bushy plant, they don't actually grow that way: one has to trim back the leaders as they form, which means that they don't maintain a rounded, outdoor-tree form for very long. That said, I may be being unfair. It's entirely possible that they're awesome if they're well-treated. Most of our bonsai is in pretty lousy shape at any given time, primarily because neither WCW or I like bonsai particularly well, or know anything much about it, and so the whole bonsai collection kind of lurches from crisis to crisis.


'Spearmint' I like. We have a very large, floor-sized plant that is pretty well-behaved, and I've managed to get some cuttings from it to take (though not very many: maybe 10-25%), plus it's pretty. The 'Spearmints' were the worst about dropping leaves when they arrived off the truck, but 1) there were more of them to begin with, so my perceptions may be skewed, and 2) they were still not very bad about it, considering that they'd been in boxes on a truck for about a week.


'Monique' is, according to its tag, bred to be more resistant to leaf drop than most other varieties, and also has a more weeping habit. The leaves have wavy edges on them as well, which is nice if you like that sort of thing, I guess. Allegedly, the leaves get more ruffly in lower light (probably because Ficus tend to get larger, thinner leaves when grown in low light, and more leaf area means more opportunity to ruffle, though I'm told that in very bright light, plants will grow cupped leaves to shade themselves, which is kind of remarkable if you think about it). I haven't seen one all grown up yet, to my knowledge, so I don't know if the "weeping habit" business is hype or reality. They were pretty good about hanging on to leaves when they arrived.

'Midnight.' There is a 50-50 chance that this is the same exact plant pictured above, because I bought mine after I took this picture, and we only had two come in on the truck.

The main draw here is, as the name implies, the darker leaves, but it's really not that the leaves are dark as that they start out normally-colored and then become dark, so the effect on a large plant is of a big dark mass with brighter specks at each of the growing tips. Big specimens can be quite pretty, and unlike the variegated cultivars like 'Spearmint,' they're actually prettier from further away than they are close-up, which is rare. This cultivar is also supposed to be relatively resistant to leaf drop, and maybe it is, but I wasn't exceptionally impressed with mine on that count, once I got it home. Granted that it had had a kind of rough time, getting shipped up from Florida, with all the acclimation that that involves, and then going from the work greenhouse to my apartment, which means another round of acclimation, but the Ficus maclellandii I bought last winter lost way fewer leaves.

Maybe that's not a fair comparison. I don't know. I will say that after six weeks, 'Midnight' seems to have stopped dropping leaves and is putting on new growth. It seems like it's going to be okay here. 'Midnight' also seems to grow more readily from cuttings than most of the other Ficus types I've tried so far, though that could be more a matter of me getting better at doing it, not anything the plant is contributing, and the cuttings in question are hardly done yet, so that could change.

There are other varieties out there, but those are what I could get pictures of, and they're pretty much representative of the variation out there. Care for any of them is pretty close to the default plant: bright indirect light (though this is flexible: they can survive in a range from moderate light up to full sun), high humidity is nice but average or even dry indoor levels are acceptable, room temperatures (or warmer), water when about half-dry, or a little before. (Overwatering seems to be worse than underwatering, though they can adapt to a range of conditions, given enough time. Don't let them stand in water, whatever watering schedule you end up with: that never goes well.) They are supposed to be especially pleased if you can give them a summer outside, though of course this means that in the fall when you bring them back in, they're going to drop a bunch of leaves over the light-levels thing, so don't say you weren't warned.7

They're not especially prone to any particular bugs; we have trouble with spider mites at work, but we lean to having problems with spider mites on everything at work, because until recently, we had a gigantic F. benjamina that shaded an area maybe 20 feet in diameter, that had mites, which would fall off and get on everything else. The plant was far too big for effective pest management, and it was also tall enough to be interfering with air circulation and the shade cloths, and it was basically unsellable because it was planted into the ground under the greenhouse, so it was kind of a problem. To deal with the first few problems, I cut it back (as I was told to), and then somebody didn't like the way I did it, so it got cut back more, and then a third person thought that was kind of lopsided, and cut it a bit further, and then finally the boss said, you know what, we can't sell it anyway, so just cut it back to about eight feet tall and if it wants to come back from that, let it, and if not, we can get rid of it and stick something else there? And so it was:

The spider mite situation in that area has improved since, though the sudden increase in light was a problem for a few plants. The tree has elected to come back, though as you can see from the below picture, the new growth is laughably out of proportion so far:

It's not the easiest plant in the world, though like Ally Sheedy ("Allison"), it's not particularly difficult, either. It just doesn't want to be ignored. Why would you want to ignore it anyway?

(More photos of more cultivars, including the intriguingly-named 'Exotica,' can be found at the follow-up post here.)


Photo credits:
Ally Sheedy: from
Ficus pictures: me

Other credits:

Special thanks to Al / tapla for reading an early draft of this and suggesting corrections. For the record: the "The Great Tapla, tAKaASDoW" joke was in the version I sent to him, and not something he himself suggested.

1 (deciduous = drops all its leaves in winter) Ficus benjamina is from India and Southeast Asia, a region with distinct wet and dry seasons. The plant may, therefore, drop leaves if it believes that the dry season is imminent, as for example if it gets, you know, very dry.
2 (He prefers "Al." I just call him TGTtAKaASDoW in my head 'cause it sounds cooler.)
3 (Other decline-in-conditions possibilities: lowering of temperatures, being over- or underwatered.)
4 I'd check for overwatering, pests (especially spider mites), underwatering, and temperature changes, in that order. There could be other reasons, like root rot, but it's more work to pull the plant out to look at the roots, so start with the stuff you can check easily, and work up to the rest.
5 A contraction of "cultivated varieties." Ficus benjamina cv. 'Midnight' is to Ficus benjamina as Holstein is to cattle, or basset hound is to dog. At least to a first approximation.
6 I haven't seen anything that explains what's so great about 'Exotica,' relative to the others: the info we got from the wholesaler just says small leaves and "open" habit, which could mean a lot of things. The pictures I've run across look pretty ho-hum. I'll let you know.
7 It's still probably better for the plant in the long run, and it will definitely grow faster and better. It's just that it's also going to crash once a year. Moving the plant into shade first, when nighttime temperatures start dropping below 50ºF (10ºC), will ease the transition and make for a softer landing. Pick whatever approach seems most appropriate to your level of emotional stability.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Random plant event: Cordyline fruticosa 'Kiwi' flowers

Just bopping around the greenhouse the other day and saw this:

Yes, that's a flower. This is the only Cordyline fruticosa we've got at work, so I don't know if they're doing this everywhere, but we've got one, and I was checking out one of the semi-competition in Cedar Rapids last Thursday, and they also had one that was flowering. So it's at least not impossible to do in a greenhouse.

The flowers don't look like they're going to be terribly showy or anything, but they're something I've never seen before, so there you go.

spider content below.

I'm throwing in an unrelated bonus picture today just because it doesn't seem weighty enough to justify its own post.

The restraining order stated that Warren had to maintain a 10-inch distance from Katherine at all times, but that was not enough to stop him from buying a leaf in her neighborhood.

This would have been better if I'd gotten the picture a few minutes earlier, when they were on opposite sides of the same leaf, but oh well. This particular species, whatever it is, has been all over the place this year. They seem nice enough.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Identical Cousins, Part II (Pilea nummulariifolia)

I think our first order of business here has to be to acknowledge that Plectranthus verticillatus and Pilea nummulariifolia are not, in fact, identical. More than that, they're not even cousins - Plectranthus is in the Lamiaceae (mint) family, while Pilea is from the Urticaceae (nettle) family.

And they're not even really distant cousins, as the Lamiaceae and Urticaceae aren't terribly related; the Lamiaceae belong to the order Lamiales, and the Urticaceae belong to the Rosales. You have to go up one more rung, to the class designations, before we see overlap (both plants are in the class Magnoliopsida, or dicots).1

By this point you are probably wondering why this should matter to you. It probably really doesn't. Also it's not likely that it ever will. In fact, you could probably have gone your entire life without knowing this and been just fine. But where's the fun in that? We're all about the learning here at PATSP, even if it's the kind of learning that could only ever come in useful on "Jeopardy" or in a botany class.

The reason why these two plants make sense together is that they really do look awfully similar, though. I wound up with my Plectranthus verticillatus because I remembered my great-grandmother had one in a hanging basket on her porch in the mid-80s. Then once I got mine, I was like, wait. No, maybe it was that other plant. The Pilea. So now I literally don't know which plant I'm nostalgic about. It was a long time ago.2

But let's get to the side-by-side comparison already:

(L-R)Pilea nummulariifolia, Plectranthus verticillatus

(L-R) Plectranthus verticillatus, Pilea nummulariifolia

The first thing you notice is that the venation (pattern formed by the veins) is different. Pilea has three heavy veins on each leaf that run from the base most of the way to the tip (they do not, in fact, actually reach the tip of the leaf, which is easiest to see in the close-up picture), whereas Plectranthus has a single main vein down the center, with symmetrically-splitting branches. Is this important, you ask? Well, again, the answer is no, but venation is one of the ways that relatedness is determined, in houseplants, which makes it a little bit relevant. If somebody comes up to you with two plants you've never seen before and asks which one is the Pilea, you now have a basis for making an educated guess: it'd be the one with the three parallel veins, two of which don't get all the way to the end. And, if you can guess a genus, you can make educated guesses about how to care for them, whether or not cuttings will root, and that sort of thing.

I'm not going to pretend that knowing the scientific names is going to open up a whole new world of information to you and make you a houseplant expert overnight. It won't. Just because Cissus rhombifolia likes cooler temperatures doesn't mean that Cissus discolor, or Cissus quadrangularis, will too. But, as they tell you in school in preparation for standardized tests, being able to make an educated guess is still better than making a random guess. So it's not about having absolute knowledge, it's about having some knowledge.3 The ability to be sure that you and another person are actually talking about the same plant, as mentioned in Plectranthus verticillatus, is a related advantage, because of course the first thing you have to do in order to learn from someone else's experience with a plant is, you have to be sure that you're both talking about the same plant.4

And this sort of thing comes up a lot more often than you'd think, if you're at all serious about growing houseplants.

But hey. How do they grow? Glad you asked.

I haven't had mine long. The first picture, at the top of the page, was how it looked shortly after I got it as a cutting,5 and the picture below is how it looks now, roughly five or six weeks later, minus three cuttings I took to work a few days ago:

So as you can see, this one also works fast. Since I didn't really have anything to go on when I got it, not even knowing what it was for sure, I went with my all-purpose default treatment: bright indirect light, normal humidity, water when about halfway dry, room temperature. You'd be surprised how many plants that will work for. After figuring out what it was, I didn't change any of the treatment except for trying to keep it a little wetter, and this has worked out fine. The official references will tell you that it needs high humidity, and I suppose that's possible, but I've never gone to any effort with mine, and it's been okay, so I'm going to call that one pending. A little more light might be a good idea too, considering the internodal (between the leaves) distance on some of those, though in that case I'm doing about as good as I can. But really, not that difficult, all things considered. I'm becoming quite fond of the Pilea family as I get to know them.


Photo credit: all me.

1 To put this into some kind of perspective: at the class level, human beings belong to the class Mammalia. So what this is suggesting is that the two plants under discussion here are about as related to one another as people are to bats. Or deer. Or mongooses. Or bears. Or whales. So you see how I'm using some poetic license here, talking about the plants as being "cousins." Seeing as how I blew the strict-accuracy bit from the word "identical," I think this is not really a big deal, though.
2 There are really an awful lot of plants in my head that I associate with particular relatives, presumably because the relatives in question had the first specimens of these plants that made any kind of impression on me. My mom's mom gave me a painful introduction to Opuntia when I was very little (hate glochids). Dad's mom was Aloe vera, Schlumbergera, Sempervivum, and Haworthia attenuata. Great-grandma had Plectranthus verticillatus, or Pilea nummulariifolia, whichever it was. A step-grandmother showed me Sedum morganianum and Gynura aurantiaca for the first time. One of my aunts had an impressively exploratory Syngonium. Not every relative, or every plant, has an association like this, but it has driven a few of my purchases, over the years.
3 Which can be just as dangerous as the cliché would have it, but only sometimes. Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and sometimes knowledge is power. You never really know which direction it's going to go, but I think power has a slight edge over dangerous.
4 And, for the record: I almost never know where these profiles are going to go when I start writing them. It's been convenient that these last two both wound up going to a technical, nomenclaturey-type place, because this was something that needed to come up sooner or later, but that wasn't really what I was expecting to happen when I started with the identical cousins idea.
The original idea was actually to do the good twin / evil twin thing (There was a spell in the mid- and late-90s when I followed "Days of Our Lives" in a regular, if not serious, way, which may explain something), but I got hung up for days on which plant was good and which one was evil, and finally had to pick some other direction to go with it. You don't have to care about any of this, of course; I'm just saying, that's what it's like backstage here at PATSP.
5 Actually, it was less a cutting and more a kind of a little bit of a theft. Technically. I am, under normal circumstances, very much against people taking plant material without asking, from wherever, and particularly so when it's the theft of plant material which is for sale. And had it been aaaaaaaaanybody except for the particular big box retailer it was, I wouldn't even have entertained the idea. But I am angry with this particular big box retailer, and that led me, at that time, to excuse taking the cutting. I'm not sure whether or not I'm sorry.
I never said I was a saint.
Also I feel compelled to add that there was no indication anywhere in the vicinity of what the price was supposed to be for this plant, which doesn't excuse or explain anything but somehow figured into the rationalization at the time.