Saturday, November 17, 2007

Work-related: final points pic for a while

Different angle, bigger picture, but it's more or less the same stuff we've been seeing all along. Probably not going to be posting these for a while now, until there's some kind of noticeable change in color or number or something.

We do still have a few that haven't really bloomed yet; some of the plants in the foreground have been close enough to the entrance into the store (which is sort of behind and to the right of me, in this picture) that the lights from the store kept them from getting long enough nights, so they're lagging behind everybody else. Also one of the cultivars (Cortez Burgundy) seems to just be slower in general. But this is basically the shot we've been working to get for the last month.

Click the picture for the full 2816 x 2112 px shot. It'd make a good jigsaw puzzle, no?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Random plant event: Hibiscus acetosella 'Brown Sugar' buds

My wonderful co-worker1 has one of these at home, I guess, which she took a bunch of cuttings from in the spring, and brought in to root and sell. Then, I guess, spring happened, and was busy, and so they never actually got put out to sell even though they apparently rooted pretty easily.

Then this fall, she found the tag that went with the original plant, which identified the particular variety (Hibiscus acetosella 'Brown Sugar') but also noted that it was a patented variety, and was consequently illegal to propagate and sell. Which meant we had 32 small pots of this plant sitting around, and there wasn't anything we could really do with them. They're not a hardy variety that could be planted outside just to be decorative, we couldn't sell them, and there was way too much of it there for any one of us to take it home as a houseplant. (Plus, wonderful co-worker2 has more plants than I do, and isn't necessarily looking to get more of them, and especially not more of something she already has.)

So I wound up taking four of these home, and potted them together. WCW had told me before I did so that this particular variety wasn't all that satisfactory to her anyway, that it had a serious tendency toward legginess, and it wasn't a strong flowerer either, so pretty much the foliage was all there was to get excited about. Which was fine with me. I like foliage.

But now: buds.

I have no real idea what to expect. The plants at work (granted, a different species and all that) like to sit on their buds without doing anything at all3 for extended periods, before the flower actually forms. So there could still be a lot of time for things to go wrong here. But nevertheless, it looks like I've got two stems with three pending flowers apiece, which seems like a lot, for as small as it is, and not being a strong flowerer. There will be updates, of course, and pictures, eventually.

Just in case anybody was wondering: I'm not actually intending "random plant event" to mean "something just flowered" every time I use it. It's just that that's what all the recent plant events have been.


Photo credits: me.

1 (Still not sarcasm.)
2 (Henceforth, "WCW," because that's a lot to type otherwise.)
3 (I myself like to sit around on my bud for a while when I get home from work.) (People say they don't like puns, but I choose not to believe this.)

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 naïve 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.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I know these aren't everyone's taste. (Not that anybody's complained -- I just know they're not.) But this one, when I saw how it turned out, actually did make me chuckle a little. So I hope everyone will be willing to indulge me from time to time.

(Explanation of lolcats, from which these derive, was here.)

Landlord (Aechmea fasciata)

If you're reading this (and apparently you are), you probably already know a thing or two about bromeliads. For example, you probably know that most of them are grown for their pretty spectacular flowers1. You might know that most of them are epiphytes, and grow on tree branches in the wild, not in soil. You probably know that pineapples are bromeliads, and that they're one of the exceptions to the epiphyte thing.

But you may not already be aware that they're also a convenient place for some creatures to lay their eggs. The center of the plant collects rainwater, and also organic debris from higher up in the tree (dead insects, bird droppings, fallen leaves), which serves as a stable supply of water and fertilizer for the growing plant. Mosquitoes need stable pools of water in which to lay eggs, so bromeliads are a natural and convenient place for them to go. (Sometimes, apparently, they hover over the water and drop eggs in from above, even.) Certain kinds of mosquitoes apparently don't lay eggs anywhere else. Some beetles do likewise.

Frogs, too, need water for their tadpoles, and the best kind of water, from a frog's perspective, is water that's not already full of tadpole-eating fish and other predators. So they join up, too. The brightly-colored poison arrow frogs are the most famous tenants, but there are others.

The strawberry poison-dart frog, Oophaga pumilio, "blue jeans" morph.

But don't go thinking that this sort of thing only happens in the wild. Here is a video describing a bromeliad-facilitated invasion of tree frogs ( Eleutherodactylus coqui, common name "coquí:" it's native to Puerto Rico but has spread to other areas, and has become a severe invasive pest in Hawaii2) in the biology department greenhouse at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I advise my readers to skip the comments. 3 The high point of the video for our purposes is the part where the greenhouse manager shows the camera an Aechmea fasciata in some detail.

Special thanks to the Invasive Species Weblog, kept by Dr. Jennifer Foreman Orth, for linking to the video in the first place. You'll be seeing plenty of links to ISW in the future. Why? Because it's important.

But should I say something about the plant itself? I probably should. Well, they're great, actually. It's difficult to find one in stores that's not in bloom (though we have some at work right now), and that's a complication, because they die after flowering. The dying can take over a year, though (I've had my mother plant for almost exactly a year, and it's still very much alive, still kicking out offsets, though I killed the last two, alas. The one pictured above is an offset, or "pup," from the one I bought. I don't know how long it had been in the store, in flower, when I bought it, but I know it was at least three months, and very probably six), during which time it will offset. Pups can be removed and planted up by themselves when they're of substantial size (the rule of thumb I usually see is, they can be removed when they're about one-third the height of the mother: I don't know whether this is actually a hard and fast rule or if it's just something people say.). Precisely how many pups a plant may produce before it kicks is variable, but my Aechmea fasciata has thus far tried three times, with a fourth in progress at the moment.

Pup #4

Care is a piece of cake, though.

Light: The books say bright indirect light with no sun; mine haven't seemed to mind some filtered sunlight.

Feeding: Feeding is a bit tricky, in that feeding is generally done directly into the vase ('cause, remember, you're trying to imitate tadpole poop) at greatly reduced strength. Feeding the roots is fine, too, and foliar feeding (spraying a fertilizer solution directly onto leaves) is also popular. However you do it, remember to go easy on the feeding. We're trying to simulate tadpole poop, not elephant poop. More is not better. 4 Aechmea does have a higher than standard requirement for magnesium, though this is probably not worth going out of your way to supplement, if you're growing a plant at home for your own enjoyment.

Water: The vase does not have to be full of water at all times, and in fact some growers advise against putting water in there ever, in interior situations. If you do keep water in it, remember to rinse it periodically, to keep mineral deposits, fertilizer, algae, etc., from building up and disfiguring the leaves. I personally do keep water in the vase of my plants . . . when I remember to. They don’t seem to notice whether I do or don't.

Soil: Use a barky, woody mix, with osmunda fiber and perlite or sphagnum or something in there that can hold some water. But there's no need to get carried away with the specialness of the occasion. My own plants are in the usual potting mix I use for everything; lots of perlite in a peaty kind of Miracle Gro base, with random bits of other stuff (sand, bark, gravel) floating around in there. It's not good for starting offsets, I've learned the hard way (too wet, not enough roots), and wouldn't actually be what I'd recommend for other people to use, but since the plants seem happy, I'm not inclined to make any drastic changes. If and when I need to repot, or when I take off that fourth offset, I might change the soil, though, having recently had the importance of good soil impressed upon me.

Temperature: The books advise against letting Aechmea fasciata go below 50ºF (10ºC); cold will cause dead spots to form on leaves and other kinds of badness.

If all that sounds complicated, it's really not that bad. Getting a plant to bloom is sort of a circus, potentially, and I don't really want to get into it here and now, but it should be mostly a matter of time. Plants are generally ready to flower when they're about three years old, though they may or may not do so. Growers have ways to force flowers early, when plants are about a year and a half old, but this isn't really practical for home growers. And besides, what's your hurry?


Photo credits: Aechmea fasciata, me;
strawberry poison-dart frog, "pstevendactylus" at the abovelinked Wikipedia entry;
pup, me again.

1(More correctly, their inflorescences. The individual flowers are nothing special, but the massing of them together, and the brightly-colored bracts, are what make them a big deal.)
2 If this seems familiar, it's because we've seen it before. I kind of get the impression that it's always a bad idea to bring a new species to Hawaii.
3(In fact, as a matter of general policy, it's almost always a good idea to skip the comments at YouTube, which seem to invariably degenerate into racism and homophobia and dumbass macho posturing regardless of the subject matter of the video. The consistency is remarkable and mind-blowing and possibly a little admirable, even – imagine if this single-mindedness were used for good instead of evil! – but a little goes a long way.)
4 More is almost never better. Err on the side of starving your plants, as a rule. Too much food will cause bizarre growth, dead roots, burned leaf tips, and other problems, like death.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Work-related: beginning to look a lot like Christmas

We sold our first points on November 5; since then, they're not exactly flying out the door, but they're beginning to mosey, at least. Which I take it is how it's supposed to be. We've hit full color on a few varieties, and all of them are showing color of some kind or another. It turns out that the angle I chose for pictures isn't ideal for demonstrating this: all the most impressive flowers are at the opposite end of the greenhouse, way in the back of this picture, and just show up as kind of a red scum on the sea of green, but oh well.

Going into work this morning (12 Nov), I'm expecting my day to revolve almost entirely around rearranging the points. The boss says they're still too crowded (which she's been saying since they got here: it may well be true, but I'm a little unclear on what I'm supposed to do about it. I can't create more tables, and I can't make the plants smaller1, so I somehow have to make there be fewer plants, I guess, and move some of them into the already somewhat crowded main greenhouse. This promises to be a good time.


1(Well, I could, but nobody would like what I'd have to do to them to make that happen.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Random plant event: Chamaedorea seifrizii flowers

For some reason, both of the bamboo palms (Chamaedorea seifrizii) at work have flowered recently. Maybe they do this every year and I just never noticed when I was a customer. Maybe it's special. Don't know. But in any event, it was my first time to see these particular flowers, so I took pictures, which I pass on to you.

The first two pictures, in particular, are clearer if you click on them to enlarge.

The overall situation.

Closer view.


These are only pictures of one of the two plants; the other one is in a less photographable spot. The only big difference between the two of them is that the color of the seeds, or pods, or whatever those things are, on the other, is roughly the color of blueberries.

I'm not sure if one being purplish-blue and the other being bluish-green (the stalks are bright orange in both cases) means that one is fertile and the other isn't, or if it's just an artifact of the different care they got (purple-blue gets less light, and was less hot this summer, and probably also gets watered more often).

The purple-blue one also dropped a lot of fronds recently, which the books tell me is normal, and thought to be the plant's way of making it easier for pollinators to get to the flower. The blue-green one has so far held on to all its fronds, which might mean it has more faith in the pollinators.

EDITED: Changed Chamaedorea erumpens to Chamaedorea seifrizii, which appears to be the more dominant name for this species.