Friday, November 30, 2007

Practical Joker (Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight')

This plant is the oddball of the large and motley group of plants in the greenhouse at work. For one thing, nobody knows what it is: I get asked on a pretty regular basis about it, and by employees as well as customers. (I've even been asked on more than one occasion by the same employee, which I would make fun of, but alas, I had to ask twice myself.)

What it is, is Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight,' also known as "joyweed."1 The story is that it was brought in in the summer of 2006 as an annual, and when everything got brought in for the winter, they brought this in too, and it's been living in the greenhouse ever since, getting huge and changing colors and confusing people.

The above picture is a plant I produced from cuttings and brought home: you can see that the stems and main veins are a dark reddish purple color, but the leaves are green. This is because the plant apparently needs ridiculous amounts of light in order to maintain the purple leaves for which the variety is named. This is the main one from work, which looks more maroon than purple2:

The white bits in the second picture are flowers, which are tiny clover-like things that eventually drop seeds everywhere: I've found quite a few Alternanthera seedlings growing on the greenhouse floor. I haven't tried to plant any seeds deliberately yet, so I don't know how easily sprouted they are, but I'm guessing they're not difficult, considering the common name.

My own plant came from cuttings, which is sort of an entertaining experience with Alternanthera: when you first take a cutting, it will completely collapse within a few hours. And I do mean completely. Then it will remain that way for about a week, leading you to think something along the lines of crap, I killed it, at which point you will pull it out and throw it in the trash and hope for better luck next time, unless. . . .

You forget about it and go on about your business, in which case about 75% of the time, it will pop right back up, yell "Surprise! Fooled ya!" and begin to grow. That remaining 25% of the cuttings really are dead, but you have to wait until they go black and start to rot before you can be sure.

I don't know why it's considered an outdoor plant more than an indoor one; obviously it can perpetuate itself indoors for a while in greenhouse conditions, and mine hasn't shown any real signs of decline since bringing it home,3 which makes me think it can handle normal home conditions too. It's possible that they get scraggly-looking or something after a while: the one at work got really wild and leggy all at once when it decided to bloom, and so far I haven't really managed to get it under control. It seems very focused on building long, mostly leafless stems for the flowers, and cutting these back just makes it try harder.

Care seems to be remarkably easy: I keep it pretty evenly moist – it doesn't like to be dry – and give it the brightest light I'm capable of (which is apparently not enough to maintain leaf color, but at least the leaves are still reasonably large, and it continues to grow more of them), and pinch back the growing tip when it looks like it's getting too tall. It grows fast, befitting the "joyweed" name, and doesn't seem to have slowed down any yet, so it may be the case that it's one of those plants like Tradescantia pallida that you can count on to keep you busy during a long winter. Though it could just be playing with me.

UPDATE: I didn't have a picture or a cutting handy when I wrote the original post, but I had my plant collapse on me, so there is now a small follow-up post available here with a photo of a collapsed plant. If you wanted to know what that looks like.


Photo credits: all me.

1 [puzzled look]
2 It also looks that way in person, though like I say, the color changes a lot: bright green in lowish light, maroon if it's hanging up near the top of the greenhouse in full sun, and sort of a dark purple if it's getting bright light but not full sun.
3 Granted that I also have it in greenhouse conditions here, kinda. I'll have to do a post about my jerry-rigged mini greenhouse sometime.

Random plant event: Dracaena deremensis 'Warneckei' sport?

One of the first things I got to do when I started the new job was cut back a big Dracaena deremensis 'Warneckei' that had one cane that was too tall, and beginning to fall over. The particular plant in question was having all kinds of other problems too, mostly from being too hot and in too much sun, but there wasn't much we could do about that in late August.

So I cut part off and shortened the cane and stuck what was left over back into the soil, and it eventually (after about three months) rooted and everything, and after a little bit of cleaning up, it's . . . well, it's still not going to be winning the Miss Dracaena Pageant anytime soon. But it's still looking better than it was.

The raison d'post here is that when the cane I cut resprouted, it did so with an interesting variegation pattern of green leaves with a broad white stripe in the middle:

It remains to be seen whether this is going to be stable, or whether it's just something it's doing with the new small leaves before it gets back to business as usual. There's potential money in this if it proves to be stable and propagatable, though I'd be surprised if this is something we're equipped to handle, legally and practically: patenting requires proof that it's a stable mutation, among many other things, and we don't have the space to devote to a large number of slow-growing plants, and so on and so forth. I'd be surprised if it were stable, too, as far as that goes. But I suppose even if we didn't do the propagation ourselves, we could still patent it ourselves and then sell the rights to someone else, so it's worth keeping an eye on. If I had any room at all inside the apartment, and a lot of extra money laying around, I'd consider buying it myself, just to see what it's going to do.

UPDATE: There's considerably more on this plant at the profile post for Dracaena deremensis 'Warneckei,' including its identification as a previously-known variety and a lot more detail about plant patenting.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I have to say, I'm surprised that Spathiphyllum would be the plant that I would choose for this project. Or that it would choose me. Whatever. I suspect the ultimate reason is that "cat" and "spath" share a vowel sound, so the progression from LOLcat to LOLSpath seemed more natural.

I'm not saying it's meaningful or important, just that it's surprising to me.


As with previous LOLSpath posts, confused persons are invited to look elsewhere on line for an explanation. A new page I'm recommending is here, though this, which I was recommending previously, should also more or less work.

Avant-Garde Artist (Lithops spp.)

I feel like a bit of a rube when it comes to Lithops spp. I don't really . . . get them. It's not that I don't understand why they are the way they are, and they're unusual, so I get why people would find them interesting. But I don't feel the interesting, personally. What I feel about them is more like a non-sophisticate in a trendy Manhattan art gallery.

"Check this one out, Ethel. It's a plant, but they made it so it looks like rocks."
"Oh my. What does it . . . mean?"
"You know, what's the artist trying to say with it. Are those supposed to be windows?!"
"Yes, George. Right there in the top. See how they're kind of translucent?"
"I'm pointing right at it."
"Look where I'm pointing. Look where I'm pointing."
"Well I'll be damned. Windows."
"So it's a plant, but it's a rock, and it's a rock, but it's a building. But it's a plant. What do you think it all means?"
"Aw, hell. I don't know about art, but I know what I like, and I don't like this. Probably just trying to say something about alienation or nucular disarmament or some garbage. Let's see if they have a gift shop."

Photo credit: "dysmorodrepanis," at Wikipedia

This is, of course, my problem, not the plant's. The plant doesn't need me to understand it. And there have been other plants that I've not really seen the appeal of until I brought one home (the most dramatic example being strawberry begonias, Saxifraga stolonifera, but there have been others). So the fact that they leave me kinda cold aesthetically is of no consequence, really. I might like them if I got to know them.

But. I find them a little intimidating, mostly because I've seen several of them now just shrivel and die, more or less overnight, over nothing in particular that I could see. Not only at my present job, either: this is something that Lithops spp. just seem to do, and it's bugged me. Why? What did I do?

What I did, most likely, is I watered them when I shouldn't have. They have a more complicated yearly watering cycle than most houseplants, with two wet periods and two dry periods. The first wet period is in late spring and early summer, and the second wet period is in late summer and early fall. So one might wind up watering only in May, June, September and October, or something sort of like that, and even then you don't necessarily want to water very much. During the midsummer dormancy, you can water if they start to shrivel, but otherwise keep them dry, and in the winter dormancy, don't water at all.

A lot of customers ask about them, but then they don't buy one. Sometimes this may be because I discourage them,1 but even when I don't discourage, it doesn't usually result in a sale: they're odd, and kinda cool, but that doesn't necessarily mean that your average person is going to want one in their house, you know? I mean, David Lynch is also both odd and kinda cool,2 but I wouldn't want to buy one to take home, if someone sold David Lynches.

But I digress. At some point before I started work, someone brought in a whole bunch of them, in little 2-inch pots. I don't know how many, exactly, but we had two full 4x8 flats when I took this picture,

and we used to have more than that. So maybe three flats' worth, let's say. Whether someone got a good deal, or just got overly optimistic, I'm not sure (I wasn't there when this happened.), but it will be interesting to see how many get thrown out and how many get sold, in the end.

The biology here is interesting. Lithops spp. (and there are several species, some of which have multiple varieties, and then we get into hybrids and cultivars, so good luck identifying which particular one you've got)3 have a number of adaptations which enable them to survive an environment which you wouldn't ordinarily think of as a place likely to grow plants.

The western part of South Africa is dominated by two similar but distinct types of terrain, called Nama Karoo and Succulent Karoo. Both have very rocky, lime-rich soil and low rainfall: Nama receives between 100 and 520 mm (4 to 20 inches) of rain per year, and Succulent receives 20-290 mm (0.1 to 11 inches). If that weren't bad enough, what little water there is tends to be quickly evaporated, by hot, dry winds, perpetually clear skies (pretty much) and temperatures which are routinely above 40ºC (104ºF). What's a plant to do?

What Lithops species have done is, essentially, to jettison everything that doesn't directly assist with reproduction or water conservation. Some of these adaptations are pretty drastic when you think about it: Lithops has gotten rid of stems. (Stems!) The taproot connects directly to the leaves. The plants also often grow mostly buried, and the top of the leaves are translucent (this enables light to travel into the leaf, which is lined with photosynthetic tissue,4 permitting essentially evaporation-free light collection). They only ever have two leaves at a time (presumably, annual replacement of the leaves is their way of coping with leaf damage – which if you'd been sandblasted in a furnace for the last twelve months, you'd probably be looking to freshen up too), and offset only occasionally. They are also very slow (hence patient) plants, which can live to be 40-50 years old, or possibly over 100, depending on whose sites you're inclined to believe. Old, in any case.

Some poison would probably be helpful, since they apparently are edible,5 but I suppose camouflage is a nice alternative. It's certainly awfully effective.

Photo by Christer Johansson at Wikipedia

My favorite bit of Lithops-related trivia that I've run across is that they are apparently known to the people in their native area by names like beeskloutjie (cattle hoof), skaappootjie (sheep hoof) and perdeklou (horse's hoof). I would never have come up with this on my own, since sheep hoof-prints aren't something I encounter in everyday life, but since I read this, I can no longer look at them without thinking of hoof-prints.

Late addition: I found a very short (3 second) time-lapse video of a flowering Lithops, which may or may not be interesting to you: link.


References: Susan Mahr, at theUniversity of Wisconsin.
South African National Biodiversity Institute 1 (Succulent Karoo) and 2 (Nama Karoo)

Photo credits: see text.

1 Which I often feel guilty about, but I don't consider them beginner plants (although many people, apparently, do). So if I know someone to be new to houseplants, I'll steer them elsewhere, just to avoid the heartbreak.
2 I think, anyway. He seems to have fallen on losery times lately, a bit.
3 This does mean, though, that you are likely to be able to find a Lithops that matches your interior décor, as long as your interior décor is mainly some kind of washed-out, low-saturation earth-toney kind of thing.
4 Other succulent species have had the same idea: many Haworthia species, including H. retusa, H. truncata, H. transclucens and several others, Senecio rowleyanus ("string of beads") and S. radicans ("string of bananas"), Peperomia graveolens, etc. The Haworthias and Senecios are both also native to Southwest Africa, which suggests that maybe there's something about that area in particular that encourages plants to evolve window-leaves. The Peperomia, though, is from Ecuador, though.
5 At least, that's the rumor. I wouldn't be inclined to test it personally. (Unless I were very, very thirsty, I guess.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Blind Date (Alworthia x 'Black Gem')

I got this plant in a trade from a Garden Web member back in April 2007. It wasn't something I'd asked for, to trade – I had actually asked for an Aloe variegata (partridge-breast aloe), and the person with whom I was trading included several bonus Aloe cultivars and species in addition to the one I'd asked for. 1 So the plant and I were "set up," if you will.

I was pleased to have bonus plants, but not so pleased to have Aloes, which I've never been all that keen to grow. 2 I've heard a lot of stories about Aloes being prone to sudden declines over nothing in particular, which tends to make a person wary, and Aloe vera leaves me kind of cold aesthetically, probably a case of familiarity breeding contempt. But 'Black Gem,' along with another cultivar ('Walmsley's Blue,' not shown), have both done quite well for me, offsetting multiple times and having no watering or pest problems to speak of, and all of the others save one (A. nobilis, which rotted on me over the summer) have done fine here. So I've come to like them, and for a blind date, you'd have to say it's worked out well.

But about 'Black Gem' specificially: it's an attractive plant. It has a nice color (evenly dark green in lower light, dark red-green in high light: it's tough to get enough light on it indoors to see it change color, and you can't see it in the photo at all, but it's happened once, briefly), it's not sharp or thorny, it seems to offset freely, and it doesn't seem to be particularly attractive to pests. So I'm pretty happy with it. I worry about overwatering, and getting it enough light, but that's about it. I'm looking forward to when I can separate the offset and grow it on its own, but that's probably going to be a long wait: it's growing pretty slowly.

Trivia about the plant: well, there's not a whole bunch. I did find one site, which, alarmingly, notes that this plant is "fire retardant," leading me to wonder what kind of nutbar worries about his plants getting set on fire. Since when is this a selling point? Aren't most plants fire-retardant when they're not dead (Eucalyptus and Pinus aside)?

Anyway. Care is pretty much what you'd expect: bright light with at least some sun, water when dry, propagate from offsets. Humidity, feeding, underwatering, pests, temperatures, and grooming aren't huge issues.


Photo credit: me.

1 (brevifolia, greatheadii var. davyana, nobilis, maculata, 'Black Gem,' 'Minibelle,' 'Walmsley's Blue')
2 (Though for one reason or another, I've sure wound up with a lot of them. I've also been given an A. aristata hybrid and 'Doran Black.' Additionally, I've actually chosen and purchased 'Crosby's Prolific' and A. harlana. I only actually paid for two, yet I have ten different varieties (and seventeen individual plants) – does that seem right to you? Clearly I have some kind of Aloe-related karmic thing to work out. Maybe I was an Aloe in a previous life. That'd be weird.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Work-related: flocking room

I had always assumed that the fake snow people put on Christmas trees was something akin to Silly string, some sort of petroleum-based plastic that needed an aerosol can to be applied. And I have seen do-it-yourself kits for fake snow that seem to operate in more or less that way. At work, though, we fill orders for flocked trees by spraying trees with a mixture of water and glue, I'm told. The process is kind of elaborate and difficult-sounding.

First, the tree to be done is placed on a metal stand to hold it upright. Then, each and every one of the branches is forced to stand more upright by wiring it to the trunk -- this is because without the wiring, the weight of the wet flocking will pull down the branches at the bottom, but not the ones at the top, leaving a big and unsightly gap around the center of the tree. Wiring is a time-consuming and tedious process, and not anybody's favorite part of the job (I'm told).

The wired-up tree is then stood on a tree-sized turntable, and the glue-water mixture is sprayed up and down it as it spins around until everything is covered, after which it's left to dry. I'm a little fuzzy on the exact mechanism of the mixer and hose and all that; it's possible that I wouldn't recognize them if I saw them (I've never been in the room while this was actually being done.) Drying takes approximately a full day, potentially longer for larger trees: we ask for people to give us at least two days between order and delivery, and three is really nice if they can manage it, and this is mostly related to drying time (though availability of delivery drivers is also a factor sometimes). I've not done any of this personally, myself: it's mostly the nursery lot people who do it, though they've also brought in at least one seasonal person who does nothing but tree-flocking and related tasks.

All this glop being sprayed around winds up coating the room where the flocking is done, (uncreatively, but accurately, called "the flocking room," though it has other uses outside of the Christmas season) leading to scenes like the above. The first time you see it, it has kind of a surreal charm, but this wears off quickly.