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 leavemethewhite.com; 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.