Saturday, December 8, 2007

Greta Garbo (Aspidistra lurida 'Milky Way')

"I never said, 'I want to be alone.'
I only said, 'I want to be let alone.'
There is all the difference."

-Greta Garbo, about her famous but misremembered
line in the movie Grand Hotel

I bought one of these a couple summers ago (July '05), and it did fine for me for a solid year and a half, and then one day last winter I noticed it had spider mites. There ensued a long spell of swishing the leaves through sinkfuls of soapy water, and hand-wiping leaves with wet paper towels, and dry paper towels, and spraying the plant in the kitchen sink, and all kinds of other stuff. Then, for some reason I no longer remember, I bought a second, smaller plant, which also promptly got mites, and then I decided that the way to fix it all was to pot the two plants together. I don't remember the actual thought processes involved.

Inevitably, the whole thing failed, and I had to pitch the plants out and start over later with a new one, which is so far going well, cross your fingers. But it should have become obvious to you some time ago (from the quote, if nothing else) that the problem was, the plant wanted to be let alone.

Greta Garbo.

Which is not to say that I shouldn't have done something about the spider mites. But I was definitely getting the plant too wet – every time I sprayed it with water, every time I did the soapy-water thing in the sink, I was also watering it, even when I wasn't trying to. During the winter, Aspidistra goes more or less dormant, and isn't really interested in water. This isn't absolute – you still have to water it once or twice, maybe – but ideally, you should just leave it someplace cool that gets a little bit of light and let it wait out the winter without too much fuss. I didn't know this (or if I knew it, it wasn't on my mind much) at the time this all went down.

What I should have done, probably, is give it a quick cursory wipedown with some damp paper towels and then spray it with one of the many oil-based mite products out there. We have one at work (Mite-X) that is primarily cottonseed oil, I think, with some clove and garlic oil mixed in,1 which I'm not overly impressed with when it comes to getting rid of mites on our plants at work, but that's maybe not an entirely fair test, since we never do all the plants at once, so there's no way to be sure that the oil hasn't worked beautifully, right before the plants are re-infested by whatever plants we set them next to. So I'm willing to give Mite-X the benefit of the doubt there. We also have a few preparations that include neem oil, though they're pricey, and list "clarified hydrophobic extract of neem oil" on the ingredients, as opposed to cold-pressed neem, which I've been told (at Garden Web) is vastly superior, because only cold-pressing preserves the active ingredients of neem in suitable quantity, or something like that. Unless I've misunderstood something along the way, which happens. In the last week or two, I've bought some of the clarified hydrophobic . . ., etc., and used it on some Dizygotheca elegantissima that I suspected of having mite issues, and while it's too soon to have a report on the effectiveness, I can tell you right now that the smell makes me kind of want to wretch. Not everybody has that problem with it, but for myself, I'm thinking summertime, well-ventilated outdoor use only.

You may be thinking, well what about actual poisons, though? Something synthetic and super-toxic to living things? You ain't-a-one of them organic fellers, are ye?2

I don’t mind a good synthetic chemical every once in a while, no. I mean, I have a chemistry degree, for chrissakes, so it's not like I'm afraid of chemicals. I actually rather like and approve of chemicals. But, you know, if these are mites I've brought home with me from work, as they probably are, then they've been getting sprayed every week, or every other week, with some form of noxious chemical which is probably formulated specifically for mites, and yet we still always have them. Some of this is because we bring new stuff in all the time, and there's no way to be 100% certain that it's 100% pest-free, but the more reasonable guess is that we probably just never get all of them in the first place, and we're building a race of resistant supermites which will eventually take over and enslave us all.3 So I'm not actually impressed with the effectiveness of hard-core industrial poisons. And anyway for a small infestation, like on a single plant, physical removal is plausible, so full-scale warfare isn't necessarily even a good idea. I mean, for mealybugs or whiteflies I'll go get the flamethrower out of the attic,4 but for mites? On one plant? Nah.

I don't know that the oil thing would have worked, for sure, but it would have been better to try that. If nothing else, I might have been able to get the plant through the winter and into a more active season, and once it was growing again I could maybe have used a combination of water and oil and soap.

In any case. They're not fast growers in general, though in my experience they do add leaves at a good rate during summer and fall. Sort of like Sansevieria trifasciata – they aren't often motivated to do a whole lot, but when they decide to wake up, they can add a pretty good amount of foliage in a pretty short period. The slow growth overall means that plants are often expensive for their size.

Under normal circumstances, Aspidistra is a very easy plant to keep indoors. It's unusually tolerant when it comes to temperature, humidity, neglect, and low light. Spider mites do find it attractive, and it's best to err on the side of underwatering (especially during the winter), but those are fairly minor points, unless you, you know, drench it repeatedly with water because you're freaking out about it getting spider mites. Mostly, you just have to refrain from fussing with it too much – even repotting isn't a good idea unless the plant really, really needs it. Just let it alone. It'll be fine.

UPDATE (1/30/10): Raised the difficulty level from 1.1 to 4.8, a pretty dramatic adjustment, because the replacement plant also just fell apart on me, over nothing, and I had been leaving it alone, so I give up. I don't know what it wanted, and I officially don't care anymore. Cast-iron plant my ass.


Photo credits:
Aspidistra -- me.
Greta Garbo -- public domain via Wikipedia

1 Why clove and garlic? I suspect it's so that the product has a funky smell, which will make consumers believe that it's doing something. Though sometimes I am too cynical for my own good, and I suppose they could both be expected to repel some kinds of bugs.
2 My apologies. I lapsed into cowboy/pirate-speak there for a second.
3 I, for one, welcome our new arthropod overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted blogging personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground English ivy farms. (slightly modified quote from "The Simpsons")
4 "We had to destroy the plant in order to save it."


Anonymous said...

I have one of these too, also with mites. For this plant, and palms and bananas, I like to take paper towels, dampen them with water sudsed up with Ivory liquid, and wipe each leaf top and bottom. A lot of the leaves on my aspidistra looked like crap, so I cut them off. It is now sitting there, rather sparse, doing nothing, but being left alone. Alive, but not pretty.

Mites are tough, especially on indoor plants. I just threw out an anthurium yesterday that the mites had taken over. I've tried neem with limited success, but it has to be repeated often and it's messy (I don't mind the smell myself).

Years ago, I tried a systemic that stunk like crazy and had so many warnings on it that I was scared to use it again (Di-Syston, I believe).

For plants I'm tending in people's offices, we drench the little buggers with leaf shine, which smothers them like a horticultural oil. Sometimes I wipe down the leaves with soapy water, but that usually takes too long, and doesn't work on plants with too many leaves or leaves that break easily, like dracaena marginatas or scheffleras.

I'm planning to experiment with beneficial insects this winter in the grow room. No mess, no chemicals. If it works well, we may try it in the plant storage area at work.

Anonymous said...

lol I love your thinking! This plant has mites, and this plant has mites too... I know, I'll put them together, mites + mites = no mites.

Or perhaps you were wondering if maybe the two plants together could combine forces to defeat the mites.

Anonymous said...

I really want to grow one of these. Their great age appeals to me and I've read George Orwell's KEEP THE ASPIDISTRAS FLYING. However, this is my 'easiest plant to grow' that I can never obtain long-term success with. In short order it is overwhelmed with mites and/or has leaves dry out and/or gets root rot. I am not an over-waterer either. I've never killed a snake plant or a cactus in my life.

mr_subjunctive said...

The problem there might be the soil. I mean, I have no idea, but that's what popped into my head -- if you're fairly sure you're not giving it too much water, then maybe the problem is that it's keeping too much of the water you do give it.

Just a thought.

I also have started to suspect lately that the reason why Aspidistras got a reputation for being hard to kill in the first place is because they handled the conditions in Victorian houses well during the winter. Victorian houses, as I understand it, tended to be gas-heated but drafty and cool, which means that modern centrally-heated homes are much hotter and drier. Possibly they'd be less prone to mites if they were kept cooler.

I'm pretty sure a similar thing applies with Hedera helix, which a lot of people apparently used to be able to grow indoors just fine, but nobody seems to be very good with currently. At least that's the impression I get from the customers.

Unknown said...

You have to keep this one bone dry in the winter and you absolutely can not give it too much attention at any time. I have a few plants that I will lovingly kill everytime I get one. I have been VERY careful not to love this one to death. Bone dry in the winter, well drained waterings in the growing season, keep it in the coolest spot in your house with enough light to keep it alive. I have not had a problem with pests. Course...mine is the all green variety. It gets about 3-4 leaves per year. Oh and it likes to be fairly root bound.

JeffB said...

Thanks for the tip about keeping aspidistras dry during winter. I will try this approach in hopes of actually keeping one alive longer than a year or so.

Anonymous said...

Steve here - 6 years after my first aspadistra post. I have 2 kinds of aspidistra growing now, Milky Way and Elatior. Both kinds are doing well. I give them much less light than I used to, larger plastic pots and a very light soil that contains a large amount of styrofoam. I turn the styrofoam to dust by rubbing it on a grater and mixing it with the soil. I also add sand, ground up egg shells and peat moss to the commercial potting soil. So far so good. The best results have been with the all-green Elatior - few spider mites. The 'Milky-Way' has no spider mites at all but caught scale. I got this under control with a couple of applications of insecticide. The 'Milky Way' grows much faster than the Elatior. I also got a cultivar called 'Green Flame', a shorter version of Elatior. It grows faster than Elatior but is no-where near as elegant being very squat so I gave it away after propagating it. That's another thing I like about aspidistra, it propagates easily. I have never lost a piece and somtimes the root segments have been tiny.

Anonymous said...

Steve here again. It is now 6 months since my last post and the 'Milky Way' continues to thrive and grow despite another re-potting. Some pieces were even left as stems and bare roots in a box of soil for over a week in the middle of summer and yet bounced back after being re-potted. When re-potting they seem to need deep pots, even the small pieces. Plastic seems to work better than clay.

Anonymous said...

I have a theory that the reason so many of us now find Aspidistra difficult is that it dislikes the warm, dry climate of modern houses.

I say this because my aspidistra under grow lights IN MY BASEMENT (cool, high humidity) seems happy, while the one I have upstairs in a window (where it tends to be warm and I use the forced air heating a lot) is kind of mopey.

I can also say that my experiments seem to indicate that aspidistra is fine with being grown in hydroculture, and this might help with keeping the roots moist enough without rot.