Saturday, December 8, 2007

Random plant event: Ludisia discolor buds

Ludisia discolor (sometimes also Ludisia discolor) is one of the plants called "jewel orchid;" I knew they bloomed, but I don't think I've ever actually seen it happen. I was caught completely off guard by the buds -- we have four at work, and all four are budding simultaneously. I'm looking forward to seeing what the flowers look like.

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."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Question for the hive mind: Ananas comosus

The husband and I bought this a few days ago, with the intention of trying to plant the crown. It looked fine, if a little unripe, for the first couple days, but then it started to do this, where all the leaves started dying back from the tips down. There's a very good chance that it got really cold, if only for a short period. I haven't done this before (I wasn't actually planning on doing it ever, but the grocery store had pineapples at about half the price they usually are, so I thought if I was ever going to try, now was the time.), so I'm a little unclear about how to go about it, but what has me more concerned at the moment is, I'm wondering if the leaves beginning to die back means that it's already no good. Thoughts? Opinions? Questions?

Neurotic (Maranta leuconeura erythroneura)

After my experiences with Calathea ornata, I swore off the whole Marantaceae family.1 Not that they aren't beautiful, but I couldn't face the heartbreak again. And that worked for a while, but I have limits, and anyway, I read somebody saying that Maranta was easier, in general, than Calathea, in general, so there was that tiny sliver of hope. And then I saw a small one for sale for like $3, and bought it "just as a test run." Because I am weak.

And, not to ruin the suspense or anything, but I didn't wind up having any serious problems with the test plant, so I bought another and potted them together, and everything seems to be fine. So hooray for me.

The main differences between the two are temperature, humidity, and ease of propagation, as far as I can tell, with Maranta being easier on all counts.2 The differences are not huge: you still don't want to cook or freeze your plant, and it's not impossible to propagate Calatheas either, but the humidity requirement does seem to be significantly more relaxed for Maranta. Both genera are a little difficult when it comes to watering: you never want them to actually dry out, but if you water too much, they're likely to have small fits. (Mine drops a leaf or two just about every time I water, though it grows them back faster than that, so we're good.)

What the plant is known for, though, is its habit of holding its leaves vertically at night and horizontally during the day, which goes by the charming and memorable technical name "photonasty."3 The other members of the Marantaceae do this too, to some degree, but it's most dramatic in Maranta. According to this site, which is actually about Ctenanthe (I think it's safe to generalize on this point, as closely related as the two genera are), the movement is driven by two light-sensitive pigments in the plant: one is sensitive to red light, and raises the leaves; the other is sensitive to blue light, and lowers them. (Presumably, if you shine purple light on the plant, it begins to flap its leaves and flies away.)4 The actual raising and lowering is accomplished by pumping water into, or out of, specialized structures at the base of the petioles.5

I looked and looked, but couldn't find any watchable time-lapse movies6 that covered a full 24-hour period; I did track down this one and this one, both of which are short, but long enough to give you the general idea.

As far as I'm aware, there's no definitive explanation yet for why they move, but it's not hard to see how it might be helpful: vertical leaves at night will catch dew and funnel it down toward the plant; horizontal leaves during the day make the best use of the light-collection surface. I prefer to think of it as a Maranta-specific form of neurosis, like the plant's practice of rolling up new leaves super-super tightly before unfurling them.

To go along with the special-effectiness of the time-lapse thing, Plants Are the Strangest People is in 3-D! for the very first time with this entry. The below photo works more or less like one of those Magic Eye pictures, in that you have to cross your eyes a bit in order to get it to work. If you can cross them such that features in one picture overlap the same features in the other one, you should be able to fool your brain into seeing it as a single three-dimensional image. It's not the most exciting three-dimensional image. But if this works for enough people, it could open the door to future pictures which are bigger, more detailed, more relevant, or whatever. So let me know if it works for you.

There is also a variety known as "Maranta leuconeura leuconeura," which is frequently referred to but never pictured. Besides that, the verbal descriptions of it (in the few places one can find descriptions) are pretty close to being word-for-word copies of one another, which makes me wonder. At work, we have the plant pictured below, which differs from the plant above only in that the ribs on the leaves are green instead of red: it's possible that this is the plant in question. It is also possible that it is not. The tag that comes with the plant only gives the ID "Maranta leuconeura 'Marisela'," which the sharp-eyed reader will have noticed is something different altogether. I like this plant, though, which we have at work. I haven't bought it yet, because among other things, I'm still waiting to see if the erythro version is going to make it through the winter. If it does, though, I'm all over this 'Marisela' thing.

UPDATE: (30 Jan 2010) These do need to be watched for pests, unfortunately. I've personally lost plants both to spider mites and to mealybugs, which happened soon enough after purchase in all cases that I've been convinced not to bother with this genus anymore. Were it not for Stromanthe, I wouldn't bother with the whole Marantaceae family, but so far, Stromanthe and I get along strangely well, so they're the exception.


Photo credits: all me.

1 (Which includes the genera Maranta, Calathea, Stromanthe, and Ctenanthe, though only the first three are sold commonly enough in my area to matter for swearing-off purposes.)
2 (It does, however, require a bit more in the way of grooming, since it grows more quickly, drops more leaves, and flowers more – this wouldn't be a big deal except that unlike many plants, Maranta leaves often don't detach cleanly when they die, and almost always have to be cut off. Calathea leaves don't either, really, but they're slower to drop leaves, grow leaves, and everything else, unlike the fast-living, pretty-corpse-leaving Marantas, so there's less to clean up.)
3 "Photonasty" technically refers to any movement of a plant part which depends on light but does not change according to the direction the light is coming from. In other words, when your Syngonium grows toward the window, that's phototropism, but when your Hibiscus opens its flowers in the morning and closes them at night, that's photonasty. I think.
4 (Kidding. Obviously. But wouldn't it be cool?)
5 Petiole: the "stem" that connects the leaf to the actual stem, or the rhizome, in those plants that grow from rhizomes.
6 (I found a couple unwatchable ones. One refused to load within a reasonable amount of time, and the other crashed my browser.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Mini-Greenhouse

This is the fabled mini-greenhouse, by request.

front view, plastic down

front view, plastic up

To make your own, you will need:

8 square wire-mesh panels for cheap modular college-student shelving
12 plastic connectors that go with the above
1 flimsy translucent tarp
1 roll packaging tape
1 Sharpie
3 8-inch acrylic rods or something similar
1 fluorescent light fixture with 24-inch bulbs
1 measuring tape

I won't spell out the step-by-step instructions here, because it should be relatively clear how this was done, but essentially, I assembled two cubes' worth of the shelves, measured them carefully, measured and cut out plastic to fit around this, and then used packaging tape to tape the tarp together around the frame. Stick a light on top, tape acrylic rods to the opening flap to weight it down, and voila. More or less.

interior view

The original intent of the thing was to serve as a high-humidity enclosure for trying to grow cuttings of a Davallia trichomanoides. The cuttings have, for the most part, not taken (I've had difficulty remembering to water them, though I haven't given up on any, either, and it looks like some of them actually are taking, just very slowly), but even so, it's worked well for growing other sets of cuttings (Begonia, Pedilanthus tithymaloides, Senecio macroglossus, Haworthia, Dieffenbachia, Cordyline fruticosa, Ficus maclellandii, etc.), and it was easy enough to make. I put it together in an afternoon.

another interior view (note the black tray with the 4-packs: this is the bottom tray from the original, pre-made mini-greenhouse: see below)

According to the thermometer and humidity gauge (admittedly a very low-tech humidity gauge), this normally keeps the plants inside at about 70ºF and between 60-70 percent humidity. Though the humidity level can get as low as 40% if I'm not paying attention to the watering, or if the plastic front is a little more wrinkled than normal, or whatever.

looking up from inside

I had had a pre-made mini-greenhouse before this, something with a watertight plastic tray and a plastic dome that fit over it. It was perfectly nice, but I outgrew it quickly. My self-made one gives me a couple more inches in height than that one did, and close to twice the surface area, and it's sturdy enough to support a light, so I can get a little more light on them too.

what the plants typically see when they look out

Something you can't really see in the pictures is that the shelf above this whole contraption has mirror tiles on it, facing down, so some of the light gets a second chance to land on a plant. There's a mirror outside the box on the Dizygotheca side, too, which you can kind of see in the first three pictures.

It's not that big of a deal, not something I would have thought to make a post out of if not prodded to do so. If it gets as dry in the apartment this winter as I think it's likely to, I may actually need another, though let's hope it doesn't come to that, because I don't have anyplace to put one. In theory, of course, pretty much any frame you can wrap with plastic should be capable of doing this; this just happened to be a really simple shape to wrap, and it's handy that it's got a solid top and bottom.

The only down side I've discovered thus far is that this doesn't allow for any real air circulation, which has led to some unhappiness among the Dizygothecas in the pictures (the pictures were taken before I discovered that they were unhappy). But it's always something.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Messenger of God (Gardenia jasminoides)

We have one Gardenia jasminoides at work. I think it's been the same one for a while now, because it's big, and it's old enough that the price tag has partly faded and fallen apart, which happens to plants that have been around a while. I think I've even seen this particular plant bloom before, last spring, as a customer. And it's a nice enough plant, and flowers are pretty and all, but I never really saw the point to trying to grow Gardenia indoors. Flowers, okay. Reasonably pleasant, glossy green foliage – great. But they could hardly be worth the trouble, could they?

Because let's face it, they don't go out of their way to be growable indoors. Many, many pests and diseases like them, including: spider mites, aphids, scale, mealybugs, whiteflies, assorted beetles and fungi, and powdery mildew. The petals will turn brown if handled (or even, in some cases, touched). They don't like windy conditions. They can sunburn. They drop flowers if they're too wet, overfertilized, too hot, or too cold. They don't like stuffy conditions with no air movement either. They're prone to iron chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves due to lack of iron) if the soil pH is too high, if roots have been damaged, if soil isn't well aerated, and so forth. They tend not to rebloom indoors, though they may if they get to summer outside when temperatures are warm. They need bright light pretty much all the time, and high humidity, and they won't set buds without cool night temperatures. There's just nothing easy about them at all.

Even so, there are some people out there who can do it. We got a call at work a couple months ago from a woman who said she was having troubles with a Gardenia that she'd had for thirty-some years. Which, granted, the problems sounded pretty serious over the phone, and possibly she lost the plant, or will at some point, but even so, anybody who's kept one for that long has more or less proven that it's possible.

But for me, the question was still, why bother? I mean, the flowers are kind of elegant, the way the petals are all kind of folded up together in a spiral when they open, and they're nicely scented and everything, but surely there are nice architectural flowers with pleasant scents out there that wouldn't be so problematic. Maybe a Citrus of some kind, or Jasminum. What's the big deal with Gardenia?

And then the one at work flowered. Just one flower. And I realized that it's not so much about the shape of the flower, nice though it is, or the leaves being dark green and glossy, though that is also attractive. It's not even about the flowers' scent being pleasant, not in and of itself.

There is a depth to the scent, a dimension, that you don’t pick up just from leaning in to take a quick sniff and then moving on. You have to live with a Gardenia for a little while to experience the smell properly. Or any smell, really. I have similar feelings about the orange jasmine tree, Murraya paniculata: smells change from one time of day to another, they get mixed with others, they progress. Sansevieria trifasciata and Crassula muscosa flowers both smell very different on the first day than they do on the third. Gardenia doesn't seem to change as much (though they do smell better when newer and fresher), but you need some time to appreciate them properly all the same. You have to be going about your business and then stopped in your tracks by a whiff of the scent, repeatedly, for it to really sink in: it's not enough to just stop and sniff one when you're in Lowe's and say, oh, that's nice, or whatever it is you'd say.

I find it hard to come up with a sensible description that would explain the smell to someone who had never encountered one before, but the two words that keep coming to mind are sweet and balanced. Sweet because there's a sort of powdery vanilla (verging on glazed donut) angle to the smell that's not something you usually find in flowers, though it's subtle, and balanced because there's nothing to the smell that's especially overpowering or cloying: it's sweet, and it's floral, but neither one dominates. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that a room full of Gardenia flowers would be just as awesome as a room containing a single one, unlike some flowers where one is nice and ten is way too much.

There are, of course, many plants that have pleasantly-scented flowers: Hoya carnosa, orange trees (Citrus x sinensis), the aforementioned Murraya paniculata, even Spathiphyllum spp.1 and Dracaena surculosa. But there's no comparison. Let me make an analogy with sounds: Gardenia is k. d. lang doing the whole Ingenue album. Citrus, by contrast, is Fran Drescher whining about something.2

I may sound like I'm exaggerating, or overdramatizing, and I am a little bit. But it all makes sense now. I would understand, if a tribe of Gardenia-worshipping cultists were found on some previously unknown island in the South Pacific. Also Billie Holiday3 makes more sense.

I'm never going to try to grow one myself. There are just too many things that could go wrong. I accept that not all of the plants I have are going to survive and grow well for a long time, but I don't have anything like the conditions a Gardenia would want, and there's no point in putting us both through the anguish. Fortunately, the one at work is priced at like $120,4 so I expect I can enjoy it for at least a little while longer. And maybe someday. When I have a gigantic, state-of-the-art greenhouse. Maybe then.


Photo credits:

I'd Turn Back If I Were You! -- cropped picture from "The Wizard of Oz," I forget where I found this particular picture, but I'm pretty sure TWOO is old enough to be public domain by now.

The rest -- me.

1 Surprising but true. Though you apparently have to get quite a few of them together at once for the scent to be very noticeable, because I had never detected any scent until we got a bunch of plants in that were all blooming heavily at once. It's not the most interesting smell, but it's not unpleasant.
2 Oh my gaaaawwd! Somebody paaaaaaaalinate me already! [I have no particular beef with Fran Drescher, by the way. She seems like a nice lady in real life.]
3 (Who somewhat famously preferred the gardenia over other flowers, and liked to perform with one in her hair.)
4 It's a 6- or 7-foot standard -- i.e., a plant that's been shaped into a ball of foliage on top of a length of bare stem -- so this isn't completely ridiculous. Though I'm sure you could get the same thing for less in some parts of the country. I didn't get a picture of the entire plant because that's a difficult photograph to get, given the size of the plant and where it's located and everything.

Random plant event: Senecio rowleyanus flowers

This is a plant at work; the common name is "string of beads." This picture only tells part of the story: there were many, many more flowers than this one, for one thing, though that's not what I mean. What I mean by only part of the story is -- they do the most amazing cinnamon imitation. Better, even. It's like the smell of cinnamon chewing gum: slightly fake, slightly over-sweet, but still pleasant.

I hadn't previously given this plant much thought (and, given the way the succulents at work are arranged, I frequently forgot to notice it at all, until now), but it's earned my respect with this.

Smell is a terribly underrated sense, and especially so when it comes to plants. Very few plant references even attempt to describe the smell of a flower, and those that do often don't go beyond vague descriptors (sweet, floral, spicy) that don't do much to tell you what the experience is actually like.1 I've been thinking about this quite a bit, actually, since starting this blog, because there have been a number of occasions where the smell is an important part of whatever experience I'm talking about. It's particularly been on my mind since I started trying to write about Gardenia jasminoides, which will be posted Tuesday. Just something to think about.


Photo credit: me, duh.

1 To say that the smell of a hyacinth is "floral" is like saying that having a piano dropped on you is "being hit." It's not wrong, but it's also not useful. If this is the best you can do, you may as well not mention it at all.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

New link

Just wanted to call people's attention to the addition of a new blog in the links section: Casa Coniglio. It's written by a masters student in landscape architecture at the University of New Mexico, or at least that's the claim. I suspect he and Aiyana (Water When Dry) would have a lot to talk about.

Random plant event: Zamioculcas zamiifolia can grow new leaves!

I confess, I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek with the title there: I knew they could grow new leaves, because I see it regularly with the plants at work. But my own plant hasn't done a thing since I bought it (November 3, 2006), which is a long time for a plant to do nothing. Granted, it hasn't dropped any leaves in that time either, but one does expect something to happen after a year, for even the slowest plant. (Hell, even Lithops will grow a new pair of leaves, minimum, in the course of a year.)

I had actually given up on seeing anything meaningful happen, and then about a week ago, the plant in question fell on me. It was up high, and I was trying to slip a tallish Dracaena fragrans by it, and leaves tangled, and the end result was that I got thunked in the head. And then I had to replace the spilled dirt. Three or four days later, we've got new growth poking up through the soil I replaced. Coincidence?1

This is actually the second plant I've had that started growing after getting dropped on the floor; the first was an Araucaria bidwillii (monkey-puzzle tree Bunya pine) that put out a small spurt of new growth after wind blew it off a shelf. Of course, that was the one and only time it grew at all, and it didn't last long. But I'm developing a theory that the way to deal with stubborn plants is to hurl them into the floor.

Which is often my first impulse anyway.

As if that weren't enough, I had fourteen Zamioculcas leaflets I was trying to root as well, and I noticed last Friday that one of them also had new growth.

So it can be done. This is no guarantee, obviously, that the plant is going to live to see its first birthday, but let's be hopeful. Of the other 13 leaflets, one got mangled and was thrown away, four have gone brown but could still be functional, and eight are green but have done nothing. I assume professional ZZ growers get their kicks doing more fast-paced, action-packed things, like betting on cake races, or watching building demolitions-by-erosion.


Photo credits: all me.

1There's an outside chance that I got thunked on the head more severely than I thought, and the new growth I'm posting about is some kind of brain-damage-related hallucination.