Monday, January 14, 2008

Employee (Senecio macroglossus)

I've never been an employer, but I've been a supervisor, once, briefly, during a disastrous three months of my life just out of college, at a Pizza Hut in Waco, Texas. One of the cooks was, I think, illiterate, and interpreted all long words beginning with "P" as either pepperoni or pineapple, according to his mood; one of the delivery drivers had fathered babies all over the Waco metro area and liked to visit them after he delivered his pizzas, and sometimes he liked to visit them before he delivered his pizzas, too. So I'd get calls from people telling me that they'd ordered their pizza two hours ago and what the hell, and I'd have to promise them free pizzas in the future and stuff. The waitresses tried really hard to avoid doing anything that they didn't absolutely have to do, which sometimes included serving the customers.1 The assistant manager, also gay but a good 20 years my senior, was constantly hinting in a creepy way that he and I should get together sometime, with no regard for my complete lack of enthusiasm about the idea (or the fact that I was still, technically, in the closet as far as work went, or at least really trying to be, which made it a shade creepier). The guy who actually owned the franchise seemed to regard it more as a hobby than as a source of income, so any complaints about any of this were met with overwhelming indifference.

At the time, my Pizza Hut period was the lowest point my life had yet hit, but I was only 22 and there were unfathomably worse things waiting for me at 23. (23 was a terrible, terrible age.) I lasted all of three months at the job, and only one month as supervisor, which ended when I got called at 8 AM on a day off one too many times. It wasn't my fault that what's-his-face didn't show up, and the schedule says I have the day off, so leave me the hell alone and let me sleep.

This plant reminds me of that time period.

It's not a difficult plant to keep alive, is the good news. It's even very, very easy to propagate. It grows very very quickly once established – literally putting on several inches in a week when it's motivated.

The bad news? It almost never, ever looks good, because it alternates between growing like a weed and dropping leaves as fast as it grew them.

It could be that this isn't a feature of the plant, that it's a matter of me being inept with the watering. Lord knows I've been responsible for plenty of inappropriate watering, over the years. But as best as I can determine – and I have been watching, okay – the plant just decides from time to time that it's going to get rid of a few inches' worth of leaves, and then it does, and there's nothing you can offer it that's going to convince it to hang on to them. For the longest time, I blamed myself for overwatering, because leaves tended to drop after I watered. So I held way back, and . . . well, the situation actually did improve a little bit; the plant does better if kept slightly on the drier side. But it was still ripping off clumps of leaves and hurling them at me on a regular basis over nothing.

It's very aggravating to have a plant in your home that plays with your emotions this way. You see it put on six inches practically overnight, and get excited: yes, yes, it's finally taking off! You like me, you really like me! Go baby go! only to have it slack off severely when it thinks you're no longer paying attention.

This one shows up, punches the clock, grows when it thinks it's being watched, and screws around the rest of the time.

From looking around on-line, I get the impression that these are not commonly grown as indoor plants. There aren't a lot of sites providing any information about growing them outside, either, and most of the ones that do spend more time ooohing and aaahing over the flowers, which are big, yellow-to-white daisy-like things that you wouldn't expect from a plant that looks so much like English ivy (Hedera helix). (I've never seen the flowers, so I can't tell you anything about them. There's an extremely underwhelming picture of a flower here.)

So I'm just going from my experience here, but:

They seem to be unhappy with any amount or frequency of watering, no matter what you do. My own seem to be least unhappy with a cactus-like cycle: heavy drenching, followed by drying out to the point of being almost completely dry, followed by heavy drenching again. If I water more frequently than that, the lowest leaves get limp and yellow overnight; if I water less frequently than that, the tips of the lowest leaves will begin to turn black on Monday, and by Tuesday the whole leaf is shriveled, brown and crumbly. I would ordinarily blame soil, because soil has historically caused a lot of problems for me, but I checked that out, and it's got fine soil: it's just being a slacker. So don't overwater, don't underwater, and be prepared to groom like you've never groomed before.2

Light seems to be pretty flexible, as far as I can tell: I had3 mine under fluorescents (technically it's more to the side of fluorescents, but whatever) and they never seemed to object; the conditions at work are probably the equivalent of filtered sun, and they're okay there too. So let's call it bright and move on.

Everything else seems to be more or less a non-issue. Cold and heat aren't necessarily desirable, but the plant seems to roll with them. Propagation is so simple that your toddler could do it (but, um, don't do this: the plant is toxic. Forget I said anything.), and is the same cut-and-stick-in-dirt procedure that we've seen with Tradescantia pallida and Pilea cadierei. I have not yet seen any evidence that this plant cares about humidity levels. Pests are negligible, though aphids, of all things, are said to like it, and in fact mine did have aphids when I bought it.4

I imagine it's probably pretty when in bloom, though. The flowers are said to have a "lemony" fragrance; the same site claims that the crushed foliage does too. I've never detected any fragrance, pleasant or un-, from the crushed foliage. (That site also claims that it's very drought-tolerant, which has not been my experience either, though in that case we'll make an allowance for indoor growing vs. outdoor growing.)

I will give it at least this much: I've had a better experience, all-around, with Senecio macroglossus than I have with Hedera helix, the plant it sometimes fills in for (You know: Hedera calls in sick, Senecio needs some extra hours. . . .). The pest-resistance is a big plus, and it's also nice that humidity doesn't seem to be an issue. Hedera helix lasts about five seconds in our apartment, and Senecio macroglossus has been around for eleven months. But it's been disappointing all the same.

UPDATE 1/30/10: Have adjusted the difficulty level down to 3.9 from 5.4, because although the plant I had when I wrote this post was fired, I've brought in a new one that seems to be working out much better. I'm not sure how to account for the difference completely, but the new plant is in a much smaller pot, proportionately speaking, has much faster-draining soil, and gets a lot more light. Any of these things, individually or in combination, might have made the difference.


Photo credits: me.

1 (Tips, schmips, apparently being the theory. Never quite figured that one out.)
2 Or at least, groom like you haven't groomed since Tradescantia pallida. Or the Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), perhaps, if you're one of those people.
3 The past tense here is because I dumped my plant as of yesterday. Took some cuttings first, but I'm really unhappy with the plant as a whole, and watering all the plants yesterday took me 5 1/2 hours so I'm really trying to drop the ones that are clearly just not working out. And I've been unhappy with this plant for a long time. So.
4 Though since this was also my easiest pest problem ever, I'm inclined to give the plant a pass on this point. Five minutes with the sprayer in the kitchen sink, and they were never heard from again. Aphids are wusses.


waterroots said...

Loved this post! A great way to start the day. Looking back, I suppose we all have had an experience or two with 'lousy' jobs. And creepy managers...

Anyhow, I once grew this plant at home. Just once. Never again. It actually stressed me, and my plant hobby is something I enjoy so much, something that is supposed to relax me. So you can imagine where this plant ended up in the end…

And you’re so right; Aphids really are wusses. They’re certainly not in the ‘thug’ league that scale and mealybug are in :)

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that about the aphids, because my Algerian ivy just got them! I hit them with horticultural soap a few times over a week or so, then I trimmed off all the tasty, succulent new leaves and dipped the whole plant in soapy water. Then I put the ivy back where it did so well last winter, a nice cool stairwell, instead of my warm grow room where pests breed every few hours...

Anonymous said...

mr s, I forgot to ask - 5 and 1/2 HOURS to water?? Holy crap! How many plants do you have, and how do you haul your water?

I started saving a lot of time when I switched from the 2 liter watering can filled in the bathroom sink, to the 2 gallon watering can filled from the bathtub faucet.

I also train all my plants to deal with getting nice and dry before they get watered again. Unfortunately, a few of them rebelled, mostly cute orchids in little pots with freely draining media. I'm still trying to bring these back to the land of the living.

Anonymous said...

Never mind. I just read the "About Me" section. 306 plants! Wow, I'm impressed! I got a job with plants to keep that from happening to me. Guess that approach didn't work for you, huh? ;)

I keep wondering when the burnout will hit, too, because my days are spent much like yours!

mr_subjunctive said...

The problem isn't the number of plants, it's that I take the plants to the shower to water them, because I:

1) Don't want to worry about plants sitting in water in their drainage saucers.
2) Think it helps to keep bug populations down.
3) Know that that way I'm keeping the soil reasonably flushed out: no mineral / fertilizer buildup.
4) Don't have to dust.

Ordinarily, this means I wind up watering 80-100 plants every time I water, which is roughly every three days. Some actually get watered every three days, and others go longer.

The main issue yesterday that led to the 5 1/2 hours is that I spent about 2 hours going over some plants with rubbing alcohol and Q-Tips to try to get rid of mealybugs, as a precursor to watering, which held up the whole process. Usually, watering's only about 3 hours long, which I think we can all agree is much more reasonable.

Anonymous said...

mr s, you are definitely a better plant parent than I! I have a bunch of the permanest trays that are about the size of a flat but much sturdier. I also got some of the appliance trays that they make to put under a washing machine. Then I bought some eggcrate (the plastic grid stuff that is used to diffuse light in ceiling fluorescent fixtures in offices). I cut it to fit the trays. It's tall enough that the water can drain through without the pots sitting directly in it, and it doesn't need cleaning like pebbles would. And it probably helps humidify a bit too.

Of course, this won't help much if you have to have plants in individual little saucers because of how your space is set up. This is on tables and shelves in my grow room under lights.

This doesn't help with major leaching or bug showers. And my plants ARE dusty! :)

Jenn said...

What this plant is, if not 'drought tolerant' is 'dry tolerant' - I have one in Phoenix that gets the once a week drench and does fairly well. I don't see a lot of growth, but it's not dying, either.

Our year-round humidity is pretty low, and in the dry part of the summer can be as low as 3 or 4% humidity. Out here, a plant that can tolerate that is a keeper.