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.


Anonymous said...

I loved your analogy about the 50's housewife! I haven't grown this particular philo, but I do have a Moonlight that is doing almost nothing. I recently moved it to a brighter spot, hoping to make it a little happier.

My personal vote for criminal would be the 3 screw pines that are about 6 feet wide and tall and stuck in the corners of a lobby at one of my accounts. They have thorns along the edges that are worse than roses or cacti, and big long arching leaves right at eye level. I'm quite amazed they haven't put someone's eye out yet (including mine - good thing I wear glasses!).

mr_subjunctive said...

'Criminal' was really tough to come up with a plant for, actually. The thought process at the beginning of the post is pretty much me trying to redefine the term so that I could come up with something that sounded plausible.

If danger-to-self-and-others were the only criterion, I wouldn't have gone with screw pines (Pandanus) -- we have a few, and they're sort of carefully tucked away in spots where they can't do any real damage. The plants we've got that are legitimately dangerous to somebody are the Agaves. We've got several on the floor in a display together by the entrance to the greenhouse, and although I've clipped off most (?) of the spines, I still worry that some little kid is going to be running around unattended and -- well, no need to be graphic. You can see how that might be a bad deal.

They persist in their location mainly because I don't especially want to hurt myself in the process of trying to move them, and because it really is one of the brightest spots in the place. But they do worry me.

It may well be that the self-heading Philodendron clique is just difficult in general, more so than I give it credit for. (Maybe I made the wrong movie analogy: maybe they should be the girls from Heathers instead, with 'Black Cardinal' as Veronica. The ideas I get that are a week too late. . . . *sigh*) My 'Moonlight' philos had bright overhead lights and a humid bathroom to get them going, so maybe that's why I found them easier. Though 'Autumn' had the same advantages to start with.

'Black Cardinal' hasn't been difficult for me at all, but then, the plant I bought was pretty big and established when I got it.

Aiyana said...

Criminal plants! What a concept. There are some plants that have been labeled criminal here in Arizona that are guilty of nothing, but have been barred from residence because they have the potential. I'm talking about Morning Glories, a plant that can't be purchased, transported, grown or even thought about here, because it could invade the cotton crops. The fact that I can't get it makes it even more appealing. I just love "Heavenly Blue" and would break laws just to have a vine in my garden.

Sarah Sedwick Studio said...

Mr. S, I give you points for mercy. I think your criminal is already on death row, and if it were my plant I would be executing it about now! Start 2008 off with a new one and call it a late xmas present to yourself!

Tracy said...

I am with you 100%. My philo hybrid "pink princess" is another one that does absolutely nothing. I have had mine for almost a year, and it has put on two or three leaves. Even in full sun, it did nothing. I won't be picking up too many of the hybrids because they just don't do anything but sit there.

mr_subjunctive said...


I know the sort of thing you're talking about, and I have really mixed feelings about them, 'cause on the one hand, it doesn't seem fair to ban a plant outright. Most gardeners could be responsible about spreading invasive or harmful plants. But those few who wouldn't could cause so much trouble. It's surprising how many houseplants have escaped cultivation in Hawaii or Florida and made pests of themselves. I mean, we've got troubles with invasives in Iowa, too, but I think the only one that's usually a houseplant is English ivy (Hedera helix, and I don't actually see that much of it.


Yes, well. It's an interesting thought, but here's the problem: we just got in a plant delivery at work today that is, I'm positive, going to be very, very expensive for me. Ficus 'Black Diamond,' an amazing blood red Anthurium, smaller, more affordable versions of the green-veined Maranta I was so taken with a while back, a Dracaena cultivar called 'Art' that's basically 'Janet Craig' with yellow stripes along the leaf edges, some awesome-looking rex Begonias: I have no room, I have no money, but I am almost certainly going to be buying at least four of those five plants. Buying an 'Autumn' on top of that, when I'm not even sure I can grow one, is just too much.

Oh. And there were also some kind of freaky Anthuriums with salmon-pink spathes. Not flesh-colored, but close enough to it that I find them sort of disturbing.

There will have to be pictures and pictures and pictures, of course.


'Pink Princess' is sort of infamous for being slow, though. I mean, I don't know that two or three leaves in a year is something you should be complaining about too loudly: from what I hear, that's blinding speed for that particular cv.

waterroots said...

Great story! And wonderful concept. In my home the Alocasia would qualify (easily) as criminal plant. No matter how much I pamper it, it eventually ends up neurotic. Every few months it gets down to one leaf that slowly withers and dies. When I think the plant has finally died and I'm ready to toss it (finally), I notice the slightest hint of a new leaf. I don't know what kind of drugs this plant uses, or what type of plants it hangs out with, but it's a bad, bad, mean plant...

Anonymous said...

waterroots: I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who has trouble with Alocasia inside. I'm killing one as we speak, a small variegated one (I think it's 'Hilo Beauty', but I'm too lazy to go check right now).

I do have a huge A. microrhiza (at least that's my best guess, it was unlabeled when I bought it) that is surviving its second winter indoors with me. I find I do better with that one putting it in a cool, dim room and letting it go semi-dormant over the winter. At least it's too cold there for the spider mites to do much damage. This year it was 6 feet tall when I dug it up and brought it indoors. I grew it as a houseplant until I found the mites a few weeks ago, cleaned it up, whacked it back, and banished it to the cool room until it can go outdoors again in the spring.

mr s:

Where in the world does your employer get their plants from? You have some REALLY cool plants at work. We put some of the Dracaena 'Art' out on a job a couple of years back. I loved them but haven't seen them anywhere else.

When I worked at a garden center, we just got the generic florida tropical stuff. There is one high-end garden center about an hour away that gets the really oddball plants sometimes, but it's very pricey. Very healthy plants, though!

mr_subjunctive said...

One of the people who used to work where I work eventually wandered away to Florida and started her own business. As near as I can tell, she's a middleman (middleperson?): she contacts the retail places and gets lists for what they want, then she assembles the orders and sends it all out as one batch. Since we get to choose from multiple growers (about 20 of them, I think, with this last order), we can get the coolest stuff from each and wind up with some pretty neat stuff; since it all gets shipped up together, we can keep freight charges more manageable. Or at least that's my general understanding. I don't know what the other private greenhouses in the area (Pierson's and Frontier, in Cedar Rapids; Wallace's, in the Quad Cities) do, but I assume they must have similar arrangements with somebody, because they often have some very odd stuff too.

We also have a half dozen steady contacts with local wholesalers in Iowa and one from Wisconsin, which get used as fill-in sources between orders, but the majority of the foliage tropicals come from the same source in Florida.

'Art' in person is nice and everything, but the price I wound up having to put on them was high enough to put me off buying one for right now. I was also disappointed in Ficus 'Black Diamond:' the variegation is neat, but apparently it's only on the newer leaves. The older leaves all look more or less identical to 'Midnight.' Plus the plants we got were braided standards, and I don't like the braided look so much. Or the standard look, either, as far as that goes.

So the total take: one blood-red Anthurium with green spadices (no cv. name given), three three-inch pots of Maranta leuconeura 'Marisela,' one rex begonia called 'Harmony's Red Robin,' which is a dark burgundy/maroon sort of color. This was about half the amount I expected to spend today, so yay me.