Friday, October 19, 2007

Lucky Bastard (Dracaena sanderiana)

You know, normally I would say that "lucky bamboo" is a pretty cynical attempt at selling crap (alligator feet, assorted coins, not just dreamcatchers but paintings of dreamcatchers, sleeper sofas, etc.) by associating it with luck. This is something that people have been doing for ages, and has a long, if not honorable, history.1 But it has occurred to me that I'm looking at it from the wrong perspective. It's not about making people luckier. It's about making the plant luckier.

Allow me to explain.

Dracaena sanderiana is a perfectly nice plant, as plants go. It's pretty undemanding – normal resistance to pests, doesn't need a huge amount of light or humidity, tolerant of normal indoor environments. The trouble is, it's also not much to look at. Unlike its fellow Dracaenas, sanderiana has relatively small leaves, that are attractively striped in gray and white but which never, ever look bushy at all. And people like bushy.

For a while, D. sanderiana languished on the outer edges of the plant trade, occasionally sold by itself but mostly used in group plantings, where it provided a little bit of contrasting color, and some height. One can also fake bushiness by planting several canes together, like in the picture, though that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. (I think it's working just fine in the picture.) But then one day, someone – I don't know who – realized that it would sell really well if it were completely misrepresented.

So. A soil-grown, variegated, straight-stemmed plant from west Africa with no particular cultural associations became Lucky! Bamboo!, a water-grown, all-green, curly-stemmed plant from somewhere vaguely Chinese in Asia that was, miraculously, perfect for feng shui, which just happened to be taking off at about the same time. There is, of course, no way that Dracaena sanderiana could ever have had anything to do with feng shui in the past, since it lived half a world away, but historical accuracy has never been marketers' (or Americans') strong suit, and so millions of canes were grown in all kinds of contorted directions, plunked in water, and then sold at a premium for people to take to their office cubicles and slowly torture to death.

And this is what I mean by "lucky." The people who buy "lucky bamboo" aren't going to get any luckier, and whoever is responsible for this marketing strategy isn't so much lucky as a genius, but from the perspective of the plant, whose entire aim in life is to reproduce (even photosynthesizing is a means to that end), this is the best thing to happen to it in millions of years. It's escaped the little pocket of Africa it grew up in and become a global phenomenon, reproducing beyond its wildest imaginations. No doubt it will shortly begin to squander its resources on fancy cars and hookers, and then slip back into obscurity, but for now, let's give it props just for being here.2

At work, we have tons of the standard white-striped variety, which doesn't sell well at all, and which we, frankly, can't figure out how to get rid of. I've mentioned to the floral department that they might want to start using it for group plantings, which are frequently (though far from always) at the discretion of the florist.

If you want to grow your own, my understanding is that the curly stems are created by placing the plant in a box which is open on one side, and then as the plant grows to the side, reaching for the light, one keeps turning the plant, or the box. It doesn't have to be grown in water, though this is probably a lot easier for most people to keep up with, since that way you don't have to wonder when to water it. Opinions differ about whether this is a practical long-term growing situation: I've seen it claimed that plants grown in water indefinitely will yellow and die, and that it's better to plant it in soil. I couldn't say, personally, though a certain percentage of the plants we have in soil at work will also suddenly decline and die for no obvious reason from time to time, so I kind of lean to the theory that this is just something they're prone to do. Anyone with actual information is encouraged to share in the comments.

Like most Dracaena species, it is sensitive to fluoride: too much will cause leaf tips to burn and die.

My attempts to propagate the plant at work (not to make more, because we already have too many, but to shorten unsellably long stems) have not gone well. Sometimes cutting the top off of a plant will result in a new sprout from near the top of the stem that remains, but the top isn't easily rooted (I have a success rate of about 1/5), and the new sprout has an annoying tendency to get so far and then just stop. Presumably there's a trick of some kind I'm missing. This would probably work better if I were rooting in water, but we're not really set up to do water-rooting at work, so it's only done occasionally and in the short-term.


Photo credit: anonymous Garden Webber.

1Not that there's anything wrong with buying something that's marketed this way, necessarily, but you have to like it for itself: if you're gambling on it being lucky even though it's expensively priced, obviously cheap, and you don't especially like it, then once you've been charged for it, the only person it's been lucky for is the one who sold it to you.
2It would not surprise me at all to find that it was already an invasive species somewhere outside of Africa. When your whole raison d'ĂȘtre is to reproduce, you reproduce, whether you're at home or not.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Celebrity (Spathiphyllum spp.)

The greenhouse where I work is only a small part of the overall business: there's also a flower shop (which delivers). One of the guys in the flower shop and I were discussing peace lilies (Spathiphyllum spp.), and he commented that he has a lot of people call up and want to order a green plant of some kind, but of course they don't know their plants especially well, so they almost always wind up asking for a peace lily, because it's the only plant they know by name to ask for. I said the same kind of thing happens in the greenhouse: people come in and want something, but they don't know what, so they buy a peace lily (or a Dracaena marginata) and they're on their way1.

The other way people wind up leaving with peace lilies is when they come up to me and say that they don't have a lot of light, but they want something that flowers, is there anything I can recommend? There aren't even any other good candidates: in that case it's pretty much peace lily or nothing. (Generally I try to talk people towards a nice non-flowering plant, if I can.)

So the flower shop guy and I commiserated for a while over our shared disgust for peace lilies.

Or, well, it wasn't exactly like that.

Certainly the word wouldn't be disgust. But all the same, peace lilies get way more attention than they deserve, and they're not easy enough that they should be everybody's first plant, though it increasingly seems like they are.

The pluses first. They do often have nice foliage. There is a medium-sized variety with thinner, glossy, very dark green leaves (wallisii?) that can be quite the knockout, whether in flower or not, and I am a huge fan of the very large cultivars ('Mauna Loa,' 'Sensation') because I find them significantly easier to care for than the medium and small ones. Plus being a sucker for large plants to begin with. There are also not many other indoor plants that can be induced to flower as easily or as abundantly, which is a plus if you like the blooms, though I find them hard to like, myself.

Breeders have also been working hard on getting new color variations of Spathiphyllum, which hasn't been exceptionally obliging, but there are a few: I have 'Golden Glow,' which is a bright chartreuse yellow2, and I have seen 'Domino,' a green-and-white variegated plant which is interesting if examined close-up. (The variegations on 'Domino' are often so fine that if you're not close enough to see them clearly, it just looks like the plant has gotten kind of dusty.)

And it's also a plus that the Spathiphyllum is willing to accept less light than most plants. That quality, though, is why they're so often labeled as easy-care plants, I think, and that's not quite right.

One of the more notable features of Spathiphyllum is that when it dries out, the leaves visibly droop, to the point where in severe drought, they will all lay flat on the ground. Give it water, and within a few hours, the leaves pop right back up to their original positions. This would be a good indicator of when to water, except that by the time things reach the point of laying flat, damage has been done: the roots die back slightly each time this happens, and if it happens often enough, it will eventually fail to come back at all. I suggest that beginners get to know your plants better than this: the drooping process lasts two or three days, from the first indication of dryness to leaves laying flat. If you know your plant well enough, you can see the change in posture on the first day, and water then, and never have to deal with a slumping plant.

Supposedly they flower better when rootbound, and supposedly flowering is mainly between April and September, though I would question both of these. My own plants have flowered better for me a few months after repotting, and – although this could be coincidental – also after being moved. (It seems not to matter where they've been moved to, or from, only that the location change. This has happened for me at least three times, with different plants.)

Spathiphyllum negatives: it's difficult to get the watering just right. If it's too dry, it'll let you know, by drooping, and that’s useful, though not something you want to rely on. If it's too wet, there's a tendency for plants to rot where they sit, except that they do it in such a way that you don't necessarily realize what's going on. One day you go to pull off a dead leaf, and a whole rootless plant comes out. This will generally not be salvageable. To make things trickier, the plant (like a lot of other plants) responds to being too wet by – you guessed it – drooping, which would make an inexperienced grower think that it needs more water.

A more subtle indicator of overwatering manifests as blackened leaf tips, which quickly spread to the margins of the leaf. The prevailing wisdom is that blackening leaf tips and margins means too much fertilizer or air that is too hot and dry, and it's true that a lot of plants do react this way. However, it's been my experience that, nine times out of ten, a peace lily with black leaf edges is suffering from root suffocation, either because its soil has broken down and compacted, or because part of the soil never gets to dry out. Especially in a very large pot, and especially especially in a plant that's been overpotted (put in a pot that's too large for the plant), and especially especially especially in a plant that's in a very large pot, too big for the plant, with no drainage hole, the top of the soil can dry out while everything after the top three inches is soaking wet. With very large plants, it's probably actually best to wait for the leaves to go a little limp before watering again.

Common sense is important. If your plant is droopy and the soil feels wet, the plant is obviously not drooping because it's too dry: don't give it water. If the plant looks fine and the soil feels dry, the plant doesn't need water just because the soil is dry: wait for the leaves to get a little limp first. Spathiphyllums are nothing if not good communicators.

They are also prone to go into sudden tailspins over nothing (or at least not over anything a new houseplant owner would be able to detect: the most likely cause is one of a few fungus infections that afflict Spathiphyllum more than most), which can make them frustrating. This isn't terribly common, but it's happened to me before, and I see it from time to time in the plants at work as well.

I do not find humidity to be an issue at all, ever. This will surprise some people, but, you know, show me a plant that's suffering because of dry air, instead of because it's too wet or too dry, and I'll change my mind. Until then, I wouldn't worry about it, because I've never seen a case where it obviously made a difference.

In the time I've been at Garden Web (since Dec. 2006), I've seen more people post about issues with their peace lilies than any other plant, no contest: too many marketers think that the only important thing about a plant is how much light it needs. It's true that Spathiphyllum doesn't require a lot of light; that doesn't make it the best plant for you, any more than knowing Jennifer Anniston's name makes her your best friend.


photo credit: a Garden Webber who prefers to remain nameless

1(This happens with distressing frequency. Maybe as much as 90% of the people who don't really care what they get and just want to buy something wind up with one or the other of these. Jade plants, Crassula ovata, make up the bulk of the remaining ten percent.)
2(When I saw the 'Golden Glow' for the first time, I started grinning uncontrollably and couldn't stop myself. I think it was also on sale, too, which made the grinning problem worse. My husband, who was with me at the time, was mildly confused by this, but he's seen stranger interactions between me and plants, so it didn't faze him hugely or anything. 'Golden Glow' has turned out to be a relatively unproblematic cultivar, though I'm still not entirely used to the color, eight months later.)

Psychopath (Agave victoriae-reginae)

Let me say first that "psychopath" is probably a bit strong for this particular species of Agave. It's the only Agave I personally own, and although it is pretty well-behaved, really, all things considered, its brethren where I work are pot-breaking, knife-waving maniacs.

Several weeks back, I was running around in the greenhouse, doing whatever it is that I usually do there, when I noticed a plant on the floor. It was an Agave americana in a clay pot, that had fallen. The pot was broken, and the roots were a little tight in there anyway, so I went ahead and moved it up to a slightly-bigger pot, all the while cursing out whatever oblivious customer had knocked it over, or let his/r kids knock it over. You know the kind of grumbling this would involve: Stupid customers don't even tell people when they knock shit over, just leave it for me to find as if it happened all by itself, shouldn't have those down so low to the ground anyway, some day some kid's going to come along and fall and lose an eye on one of those spines. . . .

And then, a couple weeks after that, it happened again. Similar deal, except that this happened like ten minutes before I was supposed to go home, so I didn't do the repotting on that one. But it, too, had a pretty compact root ball, and at some point when I was running it to the repotting room it hit me – the plants were the ones doing this, not the customers. Presumably the jumping off of the inverted pots we were using to display them better was the result of the movement created when the pots cracked, and the pots were cracking because the plants were terribly, terribly rootbound.

So, not only a psychopath, but a suicidal psychopath.

The Agaves and I coexisted peacefully for a while, and then I had to do some rearranging of a table full of 4-inch Agaves which had been packed too closely together. Every time I tried to reach in to pull one out, it seemed like, I got jabbed by a spine or caught on a hook of some kind. It was like they didn't realize that I had their pathetic little lives in my hands – no rain unless I say so, after all. Except – maybe they did know, and this was another suicide attempt.


In any case. The one I have at home is much better behaved, though the photo here doesn't really do it justice. We have some that are the color of the one in the picture, and then others that are a much darker, bluish-green color and a little less densely-packed; mine at home is one of the darker ones. The blue-green is very striking against the white leaf edges.

Something you wouldn't know from looking at the picture is that the leaves actually have small backward-pointing hooks on them, so if you reach in to pick a chunk of perlite away with your fingers, you're likely to feel a slight jab when you try to pull your fingers back out again. It's worse if you're in a hurry. Like any good psychopath, Agaves are only reluctantly disarmed: you can cut off the spines at the end of the leaves, but the leaves remain pointy regardless, and it becomes a question of, would I like to be stabbed a quarter of an inch deep, or a half an inch deep?

You cannot, under any circumstances, overwater, and it absolutely, positively, has to have full sun indoors. Most everything else – neglect, dry air, wild swings in temperature – it can roll with just fine. They also don't propagate easily: the most common way is to separate offsets, and that's not hard to do, but they are very slow-growing plants that offset when they want to, not when you want them to, which means if you're having trouble with one, it's not usually going to be possible to grab an offset and try again.


photo credit: Stan Shebs at Wikipedia entry for Agave

Horde (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

The greenhouse / garden center where I work got its poinsettia orders in on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Everybody had been talking about this for so long – all scary stuff, too, like you think this is bad, wait 'til the points1 get here, it'll take four or five of us an hour or two just to unload the truck – but the event itself, at least the first time, wasn't that terrible. On Tuesday, it did in fact take six people about an hour to unload roughly 600 plants, but so what, I thought. Usually when something takes me an hour, it's because it's a simple thing and nobody's helping; at least for this I have assistance. And setting them out on the tables wasn't bad either, because there were two other people helping me do that. So no big deal.

Wednesday, though, was different. On Wednesday, another 200 or so poinsettias came in, and I had next to no help at all. On the surface, this seems fair, since on Tuesday, there were three people distributing 600 plants on tables, and on Wednesday, it was one person doing 200 plants. 200 plants per person, either way. The difference is that on Wednesday, most of the table space was already spoken for, so in order to place the new 200, I had to first rearrange the 600, and so it took a hell of a long time and I didn't feel so hot in the first place.

But so anyway. I don't necessarily dislike poinsettias. I'd like them a lot better if they didn't bloom; the whole red-and-green thing strikes me as kind of gaudy, and it keeps you from noticing that the foliage is actually quite nice in its own right. Plus, in a few months, they're going to be everywhere, and I get tired of them. But it's not necessarily the fault of the plants that they've gotten associated with our biggest, most extravagant consumer holiday.

What I'm less thrilled about – and keep in mind that I've never tried to grow one personally, so I'm going according to what people tell me at work – is that they're kind of difficult plants. It's hard for me to separate what people are telling me we need to do in order to get them to bloom from what a person needs to do just to keep them alive, but so far, I've been told that: 1) they're whitefly magnets, 2) they're pissy about getting too hot or too cold, 3) they're sensitive to chemicals in the environment, 4) they can't stand being overwatered, 5) the leaves break off easily so you have to be careful about bumping into them, 6) they need enormous amounts of light, and 7) they need enormous amounts of fertilizer. Add in there the need for long nights in order to set buds, and we've got what looks like a greenhouse full of really demanding, touchy plants that have to be cared for really well, or else I'm the guy who ruined Christmas.

What's wrong with Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla), anyway?

Something to be grateful for: I haven't seen any indication yet that I'm going to be asked to spray-paint them, or coat them in glitter. It's not a moral issue; it doesn't make you a bad person if you sell them that way, or if you like them that way, but the idea makes me want to vomit all the same, so it's good if I don't have to.


Photo credit: Ewen and Donabel @

1(Garden center slang for "poinsettias," apparently.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Introduction, Goals, etc.

Over the past year, my life has increasingly revolved around plants, specifically tropical houseplants, to the point where things now have gotten completely out of hand. I work in a greenhouse / garden center, as of Aug. 2007, and I have approximately 300 plants in my home right now, though that number varies.

I don't remember ever not having houseplants around: when I was something like 5 or 6 years old, my mom got a prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura kerchoviana), and I remember her pointing out the leaves raising and lowering every day. I think my own personal plant probably happened shortly thereafter: the first one I remember was a purple passion plant (Gynura aurantiaca). I have pretty much always had at least one plant around at any given time over the last 20 years, though the actual numbers varied wildly – I've tended to go through alternating phases of lots of plants and very few plants, depending on how things were going for me.

So I've had some kind of relationship with plants for essentially my whole life, and, conversely, my whole life at the moment is pretty much my relationship with my plants (and my husband1).

My main interest in writing this is to introduce (both in an anthropomorphizing and non-anthropomorphizing way) readers to the different plants in my life, and possibly to encourage people to take a second look at plants that they might have dismissed as too difficult, too common, too plain, or what have you. I sometimes get frustrated with the customers at work, who either always want 1) the brightly-colored flowering things that won't grow well inside, from which I have to dissuade them, or 2) the ordinary plants they could get anywhere because they're super-easy to care for. I only ever wind up talking about those two groups, which amount to about ten species total. This is my chance to rectify that, by spotlighting plants that are prettier than the easy plants and easier than the pretty plants.

I am hopeful that eventually, I will have a digital camera of good enough quality that I can include some photos of the actual, individual plants I'm talking about, but this hasn't happened yet and I'm not, frankly, sure when it might. So until you hear otherwise, pictures are from friends on Garden Web's House Plants forum, public domain sources, or my own personal drawings in crayon on lined tablet paper.

Care information will sneak in here and there, though it's not necessarily a goal. I am including a 0-to-10 "difficulty rating tag" for each species described, which takes nine things (unequally weighted) into account:

• appeal to pests
• tolerance for over- and underwatering2
• tolerance for variations in temperature
• need for very bright light
• ease of propagation
• amount and frequency of fertilizer
• amount of grooming, pruning, etc. needed
• need for high humidity

Your results will vary, of course, depending on the normal temperature in your home, the amount of water you tend to give when you water (some people soak, some people dribble), how much you like to water / prune / etc., and so forth, but even so, you should find that in general, plants with high numbers are going to be less worth bringing home than those with low numbers. Things break down roughly thus:

• [-0.3 Hypothetical score for an artificial plant.]
• 0 to 1.5 Anybody should be able to handle this, though beginning growers might need to practice a couple times before it works.
• 1.6 to 3.1 Easy plants that might occasionally be tricky or time-consuming because of one or two specific requirements.
• 3.2 to 4.2 Intermediate difficulty, less forgiving plants requiring some expertise, special attention, or luck.
• 4.3 to 6.3 Not impossible, but difficult even for some experienced growers.
• 6.4 to 10 Advanced students only.
• [12.4 maximum possible score]

There is color-coding as well, with the low numbers being green, and ranging through chartreuse, yellow, and orange before turning red at the hardest levels.

Comments are welcome, except as noted in the footnotes.


1(Not a typo: I am gay. Persons who have hangups about this are encouraged to look elsewhere for plant information, as it's really, really unlikely to change, and there's no benefit in upsetting everybody. Abusive comments will be deleted on sight.)
2(Over- and underwatering is as compared to the ideal watering situation for the specific plant in question, not as compared to all plants. So overwatering is kind of the equivalent of "susceptibility to rot," and underwatering is roughly equivalent to "susceptibility to neglect.")