Saturday, December 15, 2007

Identical Cousins, Part II (Pilea nummulariifolia)

I think our first order of business here has to be to acknowledge that Plectranthus verticillatus and Pilea nummulariifolia are not, in fact, identical. More than that, they're not even cousins - Plectranthus is in the Lamiaceae (mint) family, while Pilea is from the Urticaceae (nettle) family.

And they're not even really distant cousins, as the Lamiaceae and Urticaceae aren't terribly related; the Lamiaceae belong to the order Lamiales, and the Urticaceae belong to the Rosales. You have to go up one more rung, to the class designations, before we see overlap (both plants are in the class Magnoliopsida, or dicots).1

By this point you are probably wondering why this should matter to you. It probably really doesn't. Also it's not likely that it ever will. In fact, you could probably have gone your entire life without knowing this and been just fine. But where's the fun in that? We're all about the learning here at PATSP, even if it's the kind of learning that could only ever come in useful on "Jeopardy" or in a botany class.

The reason why these two plants make sense together is that they really do look awfully similar, though. I wound up with my Plectranthus verticillatus because I remembered my great-grandmother had one in a hanging basket on her porch in the mid-80s. Then once I got mine, I was like, wait. No, maybe it was that other plant. The Pilea. So now I literally don't know which plant I'm nostalgic about. It was a long time ago.2

But let's get to the side-by-side comparison already:

(L-R)Pilea nummulariifolia, Plectranthus verticillatus

(L-R) Plectranthus verticillatus, Pilea nummulariifolia

The first thing you notice is that the venation (pattern formed by the veins) is different. Pilea has three heavy veins on each leaf that run from the base most of the way to the tip (they do not, in fact, actually reach the tip of the leaf, which is easiest to see in the close-up picture), whereas Plectranthus has a single main vein down the center, with symmetrically-splitting branches. Is this important, you ask? Well, again, the answer is no, but venation is one of the ways that relatedness is determined, in houseplants, which makes it a little bit relevant. If somebody comes up to you with two plants you've never seen before and asks which one is the Pilea, you now have a basis for making an educated guess: it'd be the one with the three parallel veins, two of which don't get all the way to the end. And, if you can guess a genus, you can make educated guesses about how to care for them, whether or not cuttings will root, and that sort of thing.

I'm not going to pretend that knowing the scientific names is going to open up a whole new world of information to you and make you a houseplant expert overnight. It won't. Just because Cissus rhombifolia likes cooler temperatures doesn't mean that Cissus discolor, or Cissus quadrangularis, will too. But, as they tell you in school in preparation for standardized tests, being able to make an educated guess is still better than making a random guess. So it's not about having absolute knowledge, it's about having some knowledge.3 The ability to be sure that you and another person are actually talking about the same plant, as mentioned in Plectranthus verticillatus, is a related advantage, because of course the first thing you have to do in order to learn from someone else's experience with a plant is, you have to be sure that you're both talking about the same plant.4

And this sort of thing comes up a lot more often than you'd think, if you're at all serious about growing houseplants.

But hey. How do they grow? Glad you asked.

I haven't had mine long. The first picture, at the top of the page, was how it looked shortly after I got it as a cutting,5 and the picture below is how it looks now, roughly five or six weeks later, minus three cuttings I took to work a few days ago:

So as you can see, this one also works fast. Since I didn't really have anything to go on when I got it, not even knowing what it was for sure, I went with my all-purpose default treatment: bright indirect light, normal humidity, water when about halfway dry, room temperature. You'd be surprised how many plants that will work for. After figuring out what it was, I didn't change any of the treatment except for trying to keep it a little wetter, and this has worked out fine. The official references will tell you that it needs high humidity, and I suppose that's possible, but I've never gone to any effort with mine, and it's been okay, so I'm going to call that one pending. A little more light might be a good idea too, considering the internodal (between the leaves) distance on some of those, though in that case I'm doing about as good as I can. But really, not that difficult, all things considered. I'm becoming quite fond of the Pilea family as I get to know them.


Photo credit: all me.

1 To put this into some kind of perspective: at the class level, human beings belong to the class Mammalia. So what this is suggesting is that the two plants under discussion here are about as related to one another as people are to bats. Or deer. Or mongooses. Or bears. Or whales. So you see how I'm using some poetic license here, talking about the plants as being "cousins." Seeing as how I blew the strict-accuracy bit from the word "identical," I think this is not really a big deal, though.
2 There are really an awful lot of plants in my head that I associate with particular relatives, presumably because the relatives in question had the first specimens of these plants that made any kind of impression on me. My mom's mom gave me a painful introduction to Opuntia when I was very little (hate glochids). Dad's mom was Aloe vera, Schlumbergera, Sempervivum, and Haworthia attenuata. Great-grandma had Plectranthus verticillatus, or Pilea nummulariifolia, whichever it was. A step-grandmother showed me Sedum morganianum and Gynura aurantiaca for the first time. One of my aunts had an impressively exploratory Syngonium. Not every relative, or every plant, has an association like this, but it has driven a few of my purchases, over the years.
3 Which can be just as dangerous as the cliché would have it, but only sometimes. Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and sometimes knowledge is power. You never really know which direction it's going to go, but I think power has a slight edge over dangerous.
4 And, for the record: I almost never know where these profiles are going to go when I start writing them. It's been convenient that these last two both wound up going to a technical, nomenclaturey-type place, because this was something that needed to come up sooner or later, but that wasn't really what I was expecting to happen when I started with the identical cousins idea.
The original idea was actually to do the good twin / evil twin thing (There was a spell in the mid- and late-90s when I followed "Days of Our Lives" in a regular, if not serious, way, which may explain something), but I got hung up for days on which plant was good and which one was evil, and finally had to pick some other direction to go with it. You don't have to care about any of this, of course; I'm just saying, that's what it's like backstage here at PATSP.
5 Actually, it was less a cutting and more a kind of a little bit of a theft. Technically. I am, under normal circumstances, very much against people taking plant material without asking, from wherever, and particularly so when it's the theft of plant material which is for sale. And had it been aaaaaaaaanybody except for the particular big box retailer it was, I wouldn't even have entertained the idea. But I am angry with this particular big box retailer, and that led me, at that time, to excuse taking the cutting. I'm not sure whether or not I'm sorry.
I never said I was a saint.
Also I feel compelled to add that there was no indication anywhere in the vicinity of what the price was supposed to be for this plant, which doesn't excuse or explain anything but somehow figured into the rationalization at the time.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Random plant event: Ficus maclellandii flowers

Maybe it's more like, the Ficus fruits, since the fruit and the flower are kinda the same thing with Ficus (see Wikipedia). Either way, I guess.

Sadly, I won't be able to watch this fruit develop, because when I asked a co-worker to confirm whether it was an actual fig or some kind of weird growth, he did so by pulling the fruit off the tree, cutting it open, and then throwing it away before I could protest or even get a photo. (He also was under the impression, or seemed to be, that the wasps which pollinate Ficus somehow spontaneously generate themselves in the fruit, because he said there should be a wasp in the fruit he sliced open. The wasps are actually a very specialized species which aren't found in North America -- or if they've been introduced, they're still not in Iowa -- so there's no reason why there should have been.) There are two more fruits forming on the same branch, which I'm just not going to show to him; we'll see if maybe that protects them from the knife-happy co-worker.

(Full profile on Ficus maclellandii here.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Everything's Coming Up Anthuriums

(The title is more amusing if you imagine it sung by Ethel Merman.)

I don't know if it's meaningful, but lately it seems like I've been running into a lot of stuff about Anthurium cultivars, particularly A. andraeanum. I'm also noticing that the aforelinked post is getting a lot of hits, more than most of the other plant profile pages.1

Bafflingly, it seems to be impossible for me to get a good picture of my own plants. I can't figure it out. They're really not normally this blurry.

So, with that in mind, I'm doing the first PATSP link dump about Anthuriums. Here we go:

Water Roots did a long piece on Anthurium recently, which is very much worth checking out.

Anthurium is also one of the fastest-growing segments of the horticulture industry, apparently because there are suddenly many highly-trained plant cultivators working round the clock to create new varieties, some of which are legitimately exciting and cool. Not all of these are necessarily available yet in the town (or continent, alas) where you live, but even so, the Earth is now home to Anthurium cultivars in the following colors:

*bright red
*white, with a pink spadix
*another pink
*pink veins on cream background, which over time shade into pink-on-pink, with a white spadix tipped in orange and green2
*lemon-yellow spathe with a white, yellow and green spadix2
*a double-spathed brown flower with red veins
*a slightly orangish red
*red with green "ears"

At work, we're going to be getting another shipment of tropical plants from Florida at the end of the month, which has me very excited: we're supposed to have just a ton of Anthuriums in there (including Anthurium crystallinum 'Mehani:' I don't intend to buy one, 'cause I don't think I could keep it alive, but I'm curious about how they're going to look), as well as a Dracaena I want ('Art'), and a whole mess of Haworthias. It's going to be an expensive shipment for me, I'm betting, even though I am just about sick of losing entire days to plant-watering and I have no places for any more plants anyway. WCW3 is almost beside herself with anticipation over a batch of Vanilla orchids -- not only have I never seen her that excited before, I've very nearly never seen anyone over the age of twelve that excited about anything.4

My own Anthuriums (and thank you for asking) aren't actually doing all that well at the moment; I didn't clue in to the change in season, so I was keeping them too wet, and they've dropped some leaves. I think we're going to pull out of this, though, relatively soon. This is happening to a degree with the ones at work, too.


1 It would not surprise me if this was a popular page solely because the title has the word "hooker" in it. I can't decide whether or how much this bothers me.
3 (Do I need to keep explaining that this stands for "wonderful co-worker," and is meant sincerely, or no?)
4 Just in passing, I'd like to mention that this is one of the most wonderful things about my job. Previously, I worked in a couple grocery stores, and people go to grocery stores because they have to, not because they want to, and this shows up in how they deal with staff, and other customers. Not a good time. People come to look at houseplants, on the other hand, because they want to, by and large, and consequently most of them are in a really good mood. It's nice to see people see the plants, and get excited about a find, or about learning something (a customer just yesterday was just giddy when she found out that sometimes you can grow Citrus from cuttings and have it bloom). That WCW and I occasionally also get to behave like this is just gravy.


It's that time again . . . .

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Identical Cousins, Part I (Plectranthus verticillatus)

(I don't know about this. Do people still know "The Patty Duke Show?" 'Cause that's where this "identical cousins" thing comes from: stay tuned for Part II, which will probably be posted Saturday.)

This is the plant commonly called Swedish ivy. The botanical name has been P. australis and P. nummularius, and a lot of people still use one or the other of those, but currently, officially, the name is P. verticillatus. It's native to Australia, one of a pretty small number of houseplants1 which are. (UPDATE: Yeah, um, this might be wrong too. There is no consensus about where this plant is from. The most authoritative-sounding sources say South and/or East Africa, but other sources claim Australia or Southeast Asia.)

Beyond that – well, let's say this was a difficult plant to research. Not only is the botanical name sort of uncertain at the moment, but there seem to be a number of plants with the common name "Swedish ivy," which confuses things. Also, this is sometimes called "creeping Charlie" as well, which makes it one of a gazillion plants going by that name, including the other "identical cousin." Care information is likewise all over the place, with some people saying that it's called Swedish ivy because it can handle cold temperatures and was consequently popular in Sweden, and other people saying not to let it get below 55ºF, which conflict of advice may well be because different people are talking about different species. There are, altogether, maybe ten to fifteen different plants involved in this whole mess. This is why common names drive me insane, and why I stick to the scientific names as much as I can (in case you'd ever wondered).2

So I'm going to just skip over all that and talk about what my own plant, and the identical ones at work, seem to like, and if somebody has a problem with that then we can just take this outside and settle this like childish men.


Care information: this is an easy plant to keep alive, but it's a pain to keep it looking nice. Light is the main difficulty I have with mine (or the ones at work, for that matter): too little, and the stems get weak and elongated, but too much, and the leaves bleach out. They do self-branch, a bit, though if you want a presentable, bushy plant, you have to pinch back the tips occasionally. They also seem to be pretty heavy feeders, but that's sort of to be expected for a plant that grows as fast as it does.

None of these are enormous problems, and there are a number of good points, too: overwatering and underwatering are taken in stride (though watering when the soil is about halfway dry, or a little drier, seems to be about ideal), it isn't particularly prone to pests, and humidity and temperature seem to be non-issues as far as I've seen. Plus it propagates easier than almost anything – root it in soil, root it in water, root it in dirty socks (haven't tried it, but I bet you $5 it would work: just, you know, keep the socks damp but not soaked, and send me a picture). This is useful in a few ways: one, you can always give away cuttings if somebody asks, secure in the knowledge that you can easily get more where that came from, and two, if you get tired of a particular plant that isn't looking great, starting it over takes about three minutes and a glass of water. You can also fill in empty spots in a plant pretty easily, just by taking a cutting, making a hole in the soil, and sticking the cutting in the hole: this won't work out every time, but it will work often enough.

If you're adding cuttings to an existing pot, you shouldn't have any worries about the soil. If you're trying to start a new plant entirely, in most cases you still won't have to be concerned about soil, but make sure it's not something that's going to be really heavy and wet, because too much water will cause the cuttings to fail.

Plectranthus verticillatus seems to be one of the old standard plants, though it's not often sold in stores: it's one of those like Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew) that gets passed around from person to person and generation to generation without ever really seeing retail.3 We sell it at work, and it's not a big mover, though hanging baskets do well if they're full. Unfortunately, the hanging baskets I started in the early fall have gotten way too much light, and are kind of a sickly yellowish color. I'm hoping that if I move them to a darker spot, the leaves will green up, but even if the old leaves don't get darker, the new growth should be normal. It'll fix itself one way or the other.

There's also a variegated version, which looks almost exactly the same:

For reasons which aren't entirely clear to me, my variegated plants have not done nearly as well as I was expecting. I think a lot of my problem is just that I didn't plant a lot of cuttings together in the first place, so they don't look as full, but I've also had a lot of cuttings (30-40%?) fail at once when the weather turned colder here, because the soil was suddenly staying soaked for long periods.4 It's not such that I can't take more cuttings and go on with my life, but I'm not entirely sure that I want to: they revert to all-green pretty readily anyway, and I already have plenty of green Swedish ivy.

This is, in any case, a really excellent beginners' plant: it's not difficult to keep alive, and it grows gratifyingly quickly when it's happy. I find it difficult to get excited about, but it's hard to find fault with it, either.


Photo credits: me.

1 Among the others: Schefflera actinophylla and S. arboricola, and Araucaria bidwillii (monkey-puzzle tree Bunya pine, or bunya-bunya tree). It's not a long list, though.
2 Best example of this I can think of, which I either used at Pick a Plant or else really, really meant to use there: if I say "zebra plant" to you, you probably have a more or less immediate picture in your head of which species you expect me to be talking about. The trouble is, you have no way to know whether the zebra plant I'm talking about is the succulent Haworthia attenuata, the yellow-flowering Aphelandra squarrosa, the foliage plant Calathea zebrina (and to make that more ridiculous, the photo for C. zebrina at this site is a picture of Calathea ornata instead. Also, there is apparently a second Calathea, C. bella, called "zebra plant," so even if you get the genus right, we might still be talking about different species), the outdoor plant Sanchezia nobilis glaucophylla, or the bromeliad Aechmea chantinii. Even if you have a hard time with the scientific names, you should be able to see from this example why they're necessary.
3 Though I'm told that Tradescantia zebrina actually sells really well here in the spring, so maybe I'm going to find out that it's a hot retail item after all, in a few months.
4 A little baffling, actually, since the temperature and amount of light and so forth didn't really change that much: the plants just stopped taking up water one day, is what it looks like.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Unfinished business re: Chamaedorea seifrizii flowers

In the original post about this, I mentioned that we had two plants flowering, but the colors were different, and the darker of the two was in a spot that was difficult to photograph. This has since been remedied, so I give you: the other Chamaedorea seifrizii flower. We're still unclear about when or whether to try to get seeds out of this. This flower looks like a better candidate, though: the berry-things are larger and have a richer color, which often means good things.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Unfinished business re: Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight'

Remember when I said that Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight' cuttings would collapse within hours of being taken? Well it turns out that the whole plant will do this too, especially if you move it somewhere where you can't monitor its progress and then forget about it. It may yet come back -- I didn't call it a Practical Joker for nothing -- but even so, you can imagine the stab in the heart I felt this morning, when I was checking for things to water and found this:

I guess I'll let you know if/when it comes back. I'm posting this mostly as an illustration of what cuttings will do, since I didn't have one available when I made the original post.

UPDATE: It came back. It's a little wrinkly, still, but it came back. Utterly insane.