Thursday, November 15, 2007

Femme Fatale (Calathea ornata)

Let me be up-front about this. This is not an easy plant to grow indoors. Not an incredibly easy plant outdoors, either, though that's going to depend somewhat on where you find yourself when you open your doors, I suppose.

I can't even pretend to be unbiased about this one: I don't consider it an indoor plant at all, period, full stop. Now I know there are people out there who are going to read this and say, but I've had one for fifteen years, growing beautifully, and it's never given me a lick of trouble.1 And to you I tip my hat and say a sincere and slightly envious "Congratulations." But no way, not outside of a terrarium. Or, now that I think about it, not inside a terrarium either. I do not like them in a house.2

Okay, okay, mr_subjunctive, you think they're too difficult to grow indoors, we get it already. What's your problem?

See, the thing is, Calathea ornata kinda broke my heart, once upon a time. It was about a year ago, when I was much younger and as na├»ve as an egg. The latest round of plant obsession was just getting cranked up – and then I saw her. She stood out like a gun on a jailhouse floor. Roots a mile long, and stems that let you know she'd sell her own mother for a Hershey bar. Face all painted up in pink-white stripes, she was looking for someone that evening. She was looking for me.

I drifted over to her and looked her over. She was into me too; I could feel it. It felt like that rush you get when all the cards are coming up your way and there's a nice little pile of chips on the table.

"Buy you a drink?" I asked.

She turned slightly pinker before answering, "20-10-15." I signaled the bartender to bring us a couple glasses.

"I'd never ask you to trust me," I said, "but I'm gonna be going back to my place later, and it would look so much better with you in it."

She gave me a look as sharp as an Agave with a machete. "Maybe you shouldn't trust me, either. How do you know you can make me happy?"

"Maybe I can do something for you that other men can't."

She thought about it. "Maybe. I might have a job for you, if you're interested."

"I'm interested. Tell me."

"Maybe later. Let's see your place." Something smelled hinky, but a man could get lost in leaves that beautiful. Who am I, Saint Subjunctive? I took her home.

We had a beautiful night together, then another. Every time I asked about this job of hers, she said, "maybe later," and asked me to breathe on her again. Or water her. Or clean off her leaves. It was always something. Finally, after a couple weeks of this, she told me about the job. A gang of spider mites had been giving her a hard time, and she wanted me to make them go away. Far, far away. To China, to the ocean floor, to the moon. She didn't know where they were right that minute, though. I put on my hat and went out to track them down.

I saw a speck of dust here, the glint of webbing there, but as soon as I got close, the mites disappeared into the shadows and alleys. I began to doubt my own senses. What was I really seeing? Were there any spider mites at all? Meanwhile, I could no sooner get into the office but the phone would ring: it'd be her, of course, wanting to know if I'd caught the mooks. Then when I said so, she'd ask me to come over to her place. I need water, I'm too cold, I'm too wet, I need your sweet, sweet carbon dioxide. We went on like this for days. There was always some little bit of care she needed, just one more thing that I had to do and then she'd feel all right. But she never felt alright, and I wasn't making any progress on the mites. Some of my other plants were feeling neglected. I had to draw the line somewhere.

"Look," I said to her one night. "I've got you set up with plenty of water, there's no drafts or vents for miles around, you got your aquarium here to give you humidity, there's a huge bright window right over there, and still you're always tearing yourself apart, throwing leaves at me, telling me it's not enough. I can't do this anymore. Either you learn to take care of yourself, or we're through."

Dame was hysterical. (Dames usually are.) "You can't just throw me out there to fend for myself! The mites will eat me alive!"

"Pull yourself together!" I said. "The mites are all in your head!"

"No, they're real! Real, I tell you! They'll suck me dry!" Her beautiful leaves flexed up and down like she was trying to fly away.

"If they're real, why haven't I seen them?"

"I don't know! Maybe because you're not a very good P.I.!" I put on my hat and headed for the door. "No, wait, I didn't mean that! Come back!"

That was the last time I saw her alive and well. The next time we met up, she was neither, covered in spider mites, spotlit by a fluorescent light in my bathroom like an angel. A cracked, dry, dull-colored angel with bent stems, covered in webbing. As I gently lifted her into a garbage bag and heaved her in the dumpster, I vowed to her that I would get revenge on those damned spider mites if it was the last thing I did. I haven't been able to look at another Calathea since then.


Epilogue: A few of the details have been changed, here: there were actually two plants, they only lasted about 2 months, and there was never a honeymoon period where things were okay: it was all downhill from the moment I brought them home. I never did figure out what, specifically, went wrong, but the list of possible suspects is huge: too hot, too cold (it was Oct-Dec last year, so cold is a strong contender), too wet (soil), too dry (soil), too dry (air), high soluble salts in the soil, too much light, too little light, fluoride toxicity, heavy soil. Even now, after a year of fairly intense study of plants (at GW and elsewhere), I have no idea where it all went wrong, but I suspect that my first mistake was bringing them home. Not going to happen again. Never ever ever. One true bit: the leaves did raise and lower by a noticeable amount, which I knew Marantas did that but I didn't know that Calatheas would also.


Photo credit: me.

1 Why is the standard unit of measurement for trouble "licks?" Was licking stuff generally more dangerous in the past or something? When did this happen?
2(I do not like them with a mouse. I will not grow them in a box; I will not grow them with a fox. Etc.)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog post today. I really needed a good one. I read your blog every day, keep it coming, it gives me something to look forward to.

Have a Great Day.

mr_subjunctive said...

Glad you liked it. It didn't work as well as I wanted (something in the pacing of the story feels off), but I figure I can get away with that for now, since I've just invented the genre and everything. I think I'm calling it "Botanical Noir."

waterroots said...

Loved this story! What a great imagination you have. My own the Alocasia...

Keep up the great work on this website!

Anonymous said...

Ok this entry was hilarious.

Aiyana said...

Love your daily dose of wry humor!

Lidya <3 said...

Love love love your blog.

I'm a newbie gardener. The first plant I picked up early this year/late last year is this plant (I call it Zebra plant).

It's still alive outside on my balcony to my surprise. All plants that I bought early this year have died due to over watering (woops). But I've learned my lesson, I only water my Peace Lili and Palm when they need watering (using the finger poking in the pot method).

You got me worried tho! Cos I'm having spider mites problem at the moment with my chili plants and since I live in unit, I gotta chuck all my plants on my balcony. What do I do when those spider mites migrate to my Zebra plant?! Oh no.

That insecticidal soap that I bought last Saturday better works... or I'll be an upset brown thumb >.<

Have I told you I love your blog? =) I think I have, just gotta say it again.

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this blog, and all the others you have written. I also have had a difficult time with C ornata, despite living in the tropical highlands of Guatemala. It is quite difficult to get them the (low)light and humidity they require. After moving the plants around several rooms, I finally took the plant outside and it is now thriving. Now I have three plants!! Two plants are doing very well under the bouganvilea/avocado tree - one receives more light than the other, but both are great. The other plant is under a huge pine tree, getting some early morning sun. The newer leaves have grown quite a bit - about 40 cm (the others are half as big) and even more amazing - the stripes are gone!! Have any idea why this would happen? Do you think the soil pH might be related?
Keep up the good work.

Ste said...

hihi, nice blog!
actually I have had one in my office for almost a year now : she's not in great shape but still ok, with two newgrown leaves. And that's surprising since she was still in her initial pot, a really tiny one, with more roots than earth in it!
I've just changed all of it and I was wondering if I could get her a shower since her leaves are all dusty and covered with "salt".. let's see! :)

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Subjunctive,

Thank you for your blog.
It is truly unique.
Just discovered it, read about your Femme Fatale-experience.
She gives me a lot less trouble, maybe because I am a woman and know her thoughts?
I am looking forward to reading more about the plants you meet.
I met some nice ones along the way myself.
Good luck!

Anonymous said...

You have correctly pegged Calatheas as female. I've figured out that they also have the exceedingly rare "Botanical Attention Whore" gene and just need to be stared at for 15 minutes a day. Any less, and they do self-inflicted emo-type damage on themselves, just to make you feel bad.

LoveHer2 said...

Just discovered your blog and have read a handful of posts. This is the best one so far! Really funny and hits home in a sickly sweet kind of way. At least you learned your lesson with 2 plants. I don't think I'm reformed yet. Been about 15 years since the last whirlwind romance but I know I would go weak in the knees if I saw HER again! Women are equally susceptible to her charms! Please keep writing!

Matthias said...

I have this plant over 2 years and it is really a diva. Lots of light, shady, moist, less moist, encouraging talks...all tactics were not successful. The plant got more or less spider mites, died more or less, refused to grow. It´s really my most difficult maranta to date. But surprise surprise now it is growing. Conditions are the same, I just added granule made of pesticide and fertilizer into the soil. Three stems instead of one... i am more irritated than euphoric...