Saturday, January 12, 2008

Supermodel (Dizygotheca elegantissima)

Readers who like mood music with their plant-related reading, and are by and large cool with drag queens,1 are encouraged to play the video below. Or anybody who just misses RuPaul, for that matter: what has she been doing lately? Everybody else can just proceed to the text.

Skinny leaves, skinny stems, skinny petioles, fussy, high-maintenance, tall: what could Dizygotheca elegantissima be but a supermodel?

I happen to like this plant, though I hadn't given it a lot of thought until a few months ago. They have a reputation for being buggy, and, frankly, I have enough bug problems to worry about already. But . . . you know how it is. You see a plant every day, you develop a kind of obsession about it, you do the math one day and find out you could buy it with your employee discount for less than $3, and then suddenly it's sitting on the back of the toilet. Whoops.

Shortly thereafter, K-Mart had a bunch of these too: 4-inch pots containing three plants for about $3. So I bought three of those as well. Double whoops.

And the results have been, shall we say, mixed. They were all doing nicely until one of the periodic plant rearrangements moved the K-Mart batch to the mini-greenhouse. They sat there happily for a while and then suddenly began pitching leaves left, right and center. I don't know what happened precisely: there may have been a situation with some spider mites, though I was never sure if I saw any or not. In any case. No air circulation + soil that was basically pure peat2 + possibly some contributing spider mites = badness and leaf drop.

I took them back out, sprayed them with some neem oil, and gave them spots with better air circulation, and things improved, though most of the plants had bare spots where leaves had been lost, so I potted them all up together in a single pot to hide the pitifulness. I have no idea what's going to happen now: they have better soil, which should make them happy, and the grouping of them should keep the local humidity a little higher, but at the same time, air circulation is down, and they're in a warmer spot, which might encourage spider mites. Really no way to know until it happens. So far, things seem to be okay, though there are some early signs that there's going to be another round of leaf drop before it's over. Call it a hunch.

I should probably mention sooner or later that Dizygotheca elegantissima is not the correct name for this plant anymore. It is now placed in the genus Schefflera, along with the more common houseplants Schefflera actinophylla and S. arboricola. The family resemblance is sort of difficult to see with young plants, since elegantissima has very long, thin leaflets (as opposed to the others' oval ones), which are a dark, almost metallic black-green (as opposed to the others' plain green, or green with cream-yellow variegation), and so on and so forth. But if you look at more mature plants,3 and others in the Schefflera family (e.g. the pictures at of S. digitata, S. taiwaniana, and the 'Nova' cultivar of S. actinophylla4), it becomes more obvious that no, Schefflera is probably the right genus. Readers who are still not convinced should look at this photo, also from, which shows mature and immature foliage side-by-side, or this one, which shows mature plants.

This, to me, is a tragic loss of a good botanical name. More than that, really, because "Dizygotheca elegantissima," to me, somehow sounded the way the plant looked. It was just the right name for this plant. So I am making the conscious and public decision to continue to call it Dizygotheca for at least a little while longer, even though I wouldn't ordinarily don't do that, and I resent people who perpetuate inaccurate names, because I'm just not ready to give it up yet.

Anyway. There are at least a couple cultivars, which I wasn't aware of until pretty recently. Asiatica Nursery has one for sale which is called 'White Parsley;' I've also seen a plant going by the name 'Gold Crest' at Lowe's, which is different in having cream variegation around the outside edge of the leaves, and the Exotic Angel website lists a 'Galaxy' that they seem to think is something special, though I'm not clear why they think that, a variegated 'Galaxy,' and 'Olympia,' which seems to be the regular plant with unusually fat leaves – it's possible that this version grows mature leaves at a younger age, or it may just be that the leaves are broader all the way around.

I haven't met any actual human supermodels, but what I hear is that they're frighteningly skinny and demanding. So you can guess where I'm going with this.

One of the reasons you don't see Dizygotheca in more stores overlaps with Dracaena sanderiana: they aren't busy, fluffy, full-looking plants unless you stick a bunch of them together. There are up sides to this: they rarely take up much more horizontal space than their pot does, which can be useful in filling specific empty spots in a home, or in a group planting.5 But even so.

Older plants do get wider (because they develop longer petioles with age: this is also a general Schefflera characteristic), though they don't branch spontaneously. Cutting off the growing tip may encourage a too-skinny plant to bush out a little, but it wouldn't surprise me if it had to be done a few times before it took, or if the end result wasn't really all that great. (You think Gisele B√ľndchen does everything she's asked, the first time, precisely as instructed? Puh-leeze.)

This all makes Dizygotheca a plausibly good plant for apartment-dwellers or the otherwise space-challenged: they might get taller, but they're not going to push everything out of a small room like a Pandanus veitchii (screw pine) might. But. There are plenty of easier plants available for that situation, foremost among them the Dracaena family (D. fragrans in particular).

So far, mine are doing okay, and I’m pleased about this, because they are charming plants, especially when they're small. I especially love the weird metallic green-black color, which is unusual in the plant world. There aren't any other plants like it. But -- I worry about their long-term future here.

Which brings me, after 1600 some words, to the real problem with Dizygotheca elegantissima: she's a diva, in the Naomi Campbell mold. She doesn't like temperature swings, doesn't like dark places, doesn't like dry air or dry soil. Of course, soil that's too wet is also unacceptable, and good air circulation is a must (it just has to be air circulating at exactly the same temperature as all the previous air: no sharp changes.). Also all of the drinking glasses must be triple-wrapped in plastic, and if there are M-n-Ms in the dressing room, the blue ones must be removed.

Bugs, also, are potentially a huge issue. Spider mites love the Araliaceae family in general, and Scheffleras in particular, and as far as I can determine, the situation is even worse when it comes to mealybugs. So at the very least, if you're going to keep this one, you need to be prepared to be ready to jump to attention at the first sign of any trouble, because it can get out of hand really quickly. And girl, if there is a bug problem, you better work.


Photo credit: all me.

1 Though RuPaul is in kind of a class by herself, as "drag queens" go. For those readers not up on gay culture, which I'm going to assume is most of them: being a drag queen is different from transvestitism, which in its strictest sense is a sexual fetish (man derives sexual pleasure from dressing up in women's clothing), and it's different from being transgendered, which in its strictest sense is a psychological and medical condition (more or less the "woman trapped in a man's body" thing). Most of the time, someone who does drag does so as theater: there is an event involved, like a lip-synching contest or a fundraiser or a parade, and the performer dresses as a woman to become the character they play for such events (a given performer typically only "does" one character during any given time period, though there are exceptions). The performer may or may not try to pass for (appear to the casual observer to be) a woman, depending on individual tastes and the demands of the event.
The point here is to make it clear that drag queens, and gay men in general, do not believe themselves to be women, nor do they, in most cases, want to be women. Drag is primarily theater. For this reason, the term "female impersonator," which is sometimes used for drag queens, can be offensive in certain contexts. They're not impersonating women; they're impersonating drag queens, and that's a whole different category.
The correct pronoun to use for a drag performer in costume is "she." Out of costume is "he." There are exceptions, including some performers who are genuinely indifferent to which pronoun you use, but this is the safer way to go until you hear otherwise.
I've only really had extended contact with one drag queen in my life, who may not be typical but who did take me with him to a drag show in Waterloo once: he did a lot of fundraisers for various worthy causes, and as performers are usually compensated for participating in this kind of thing, he made enough money doing it to sustain it as a hobby. He lip-synched, mostly to very sentimental, down-tempo stuff by Reba McEntire. Nice guy, though I worried about his safety sometimes, and still occasionally do. Worried a bit about my own safety, actually, that night, when he and I and several other people (some still in drag from the show and some not) went to Perkins for a 2 AM meal. But it was kind of worth it: I didn't have any desire to do drag at the time, and I still don't, but it's a pretty wild subculture, as subcultures go. I mean, the outfits alone. . . .
2 That's what they were planted in when I bought them, and I didn't change the soil because I didn't want to traumatize them unnecessarily. Bad call, it looks like.
3 (Continuing the trend we've seen with Monstera deliciosa, Syngonium podophyllum, Epipremnum aureum and others)
5 Not that I approve of group plantings, as a rule. It's not impossible for them to work out, but even your longer-lived group plantings are still short-term: the plants with more aggressive root systems will, sooner or later, choke out the slower-growing plants, and then you either have to split the group up or let them die one by one. There's not really a middle ground here. And even that protracted unhappy ending is only available in the situations where you can get together a group of plants that 1) look okay together and 2) need more or less similar conditions. I've tried to assemble such groups for work purposes from time to time, and although there are occasionally combinations that turn out shockingly well (Peperomia argyreia, the "watermelon Peperomia," plus Dracaena sanderiana, plus a white-striped Chlorophytum comosum, or spider plant, all works out reasonably well. The Peperomia has gray and green stripes, the Chlorophytum is green and white striped, and the Dracaena ties it all together by being gray and green and white, and striped. I'm very proud of that one, though so far nobody's wanted to buy it.), by and large it's tough to do. A flower will be just a couple shades too orange, or a perfect fit will need a completely different watering regimen, or whatever. I suspect the flower shop guys get around this by just ignoring cultural requirements entirely and going with whatever looks good in the moment.
There. I said it. And I'm not sorry.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the education on the drag queen culture. I used to work with some guys at a nursery who were into this.

As for "combined plantings", which I usually see as "dish gardens", I hate them with a passion. I put them in the same category as poinsettias - they make a great first impression, but the long term care is a b*tch.

I have a client who insisted I take care of one that started with a spath, a philo, a dracaena, and a palm. The palm bit it right away (spider mites? darkness? soggy soil?). The philo and dracaena are mere shadows of their former selves, while spathzilla gradually takes over the garden.

I'm sure that the florists just take whatever makes a pleasing artistic statement and cram it in there. Oh yeah, there's never any drainage either.

They should be called "ditch gardens", because I want to ditch them after a month or two!

Unknown said...

I have one of these - so far a seedling, bought at Lowe's for $0.99. It just said "Aralia" on it, so I thought, "hey, I love my Ming Aralia, I'll get another kind." Try to find it online, end up browsing here as usual, and find that it's a fake. A FAKE! Still, I like it, though it'll look funny once it grows.

My version is variegated, meaning the sawtooth edges are a light green on new leaves and eventually turn a creamy yellow - pretty cool. A guy who came to interview for a sublet asked me why I grew marijuana - weirded me out. Anyway, mine is temperamental - I keep it on a humidity tray, and nothing terrible has happened yet. When I went on vacation for a week it was one of the few plants that looked the same as when I left (due to a friend forgetting to come by and water them). However, it likes to drop bottom leaves even though it's growing well, just as a reminder that it needs attention. I little seedlings needed it, but damn! Also, it's so twiggy that it bends toward the window A LOT every 3 days, so I have to keep turning it. We'll see what comes of it.

Anonymous said...

I worked in a nursery for 18 years, and this is by and large my favorite plant name. I even named one of my toons (avatar) after it. I love the way it flows off the tongue. And yes, over the years more than one customer brought it to us thinking it was marijuana. Always gave me a giggle.

ScottE. said...

I've had one for just over a year. I bought two. One stayed at home--died. One at the office--I thought it was going to kick the bucket, but I found it likes to sit on the top of my cabinet. It had some major leaf drops the first few months, but none in the past 6 and is doing really well now. I love it. I hope to make it stay with me for awhile. I am afraid to transplant it though. It's been in the four inch pot Lowes sold it to me in. I'm sure it would like to stretch out its roots, but I don't want to lose it!

Celeste said...

Hi hi hi! Late to the party, but:

1. Mr. Subjunctive, I am delighted that you DO have a blog. I discovered you today per your delightful gardenweb post about things you have learned working in a greenhouse. This came about as part of my search of all things False Aralia-related as part of my penance for what I shall describe below.

2. The rest of this comment is a confession.

3. A good nursery employee didn't want to sell me the plant. She KNEW. I was overconfident, am generally good with plants, assured her repeatedly that my office has a huge window and gets brint, indirect light. I brought the VERY large and bushy dizygothica with many stems for my office.

4. I neglected to consider the office's temperamental HVAC system.
And the fact that I am not often there, and don't have easy access to large quantities of water when I am.

5. Some of my students wondered if I was growing pot in my office but were too polite to ask.

6. That's the end of the fun part.

7. The dizygothica got a vicious mealybug infestation. I half-heartedly tried to wipe them off, but got distracted.

8. This winter, every time I enter my office, it is about 90 degrees and desert-dry. Naturally, this plus the under-watering epically fried the already-stressed plant. By the time I brought it home yesterday, it had... one leaf left. But only if you count new growth smaller than my pinky-nail as a "leaf."

9. It also had an even-more vicious infestation of scale, which I didn't realize until I'd taken much of the dead stuff off.

9. It has been showered, apologized to repeatedly, de-bugged, and trimmed of everything dead. What remains is just ONE four-foot stem with aforementioned "leaf" at the top, and 8 healthy-looking leaf buds, all in the top 4 or 5 inches of the stem. It is on disease-watch in the bathroom, which has a south-facing window.

So. After my afternoon's reading, I realize that if this plant survives, it will forever remain a long lonely stalk with growth only at the top. (Yes?) But I promised to try. When it is out of rehab, I will find a nice place for it in the HOME office (my best room, light-wise), next to some shorter plants or something so it doesn't look too awkward.

10. That is all. Thank you very much for letting me get all of that off my chest, and for your wonderful blog.

11. Oops. I have another question: "DIZZy-gothica" or "DIE-zy-gothica?"

mr_subjunctive said...


When I think it to myself, I pronounce it DIZZ-ee-go-THEK-uh, but I believe the "correct" pronunciation is probably DIE-zy-go-THEK-uh.

And both are incorrect anyway, because the correct botanical name is Schefflera elegantissima.

I'm not sure whether it would come back if you cut it back; Schefflera arboricola will resprout pretty easily, and I'm pretty sure a healthy S. actinophylla will resprout if the plant is otherwise in good condition, but I don't know whether S. elegantissima will or not, never having tried it. Your plant may be under too much stress still to have the energy to resprout.

However, there's very little use for a plant with a tiny tuft of foliage at the top of four feet of bare stem, too, so I'd say you may as well try it, later on. Maybe in the summer, once the night temperatures are supposed to stay above 60F/16C, you could put the plant in a shady, protected spot for a couple weeks, cut it back to the size you want, and then let it sit out until the nights get cool again. If it's capable of resprouting, those would be the conditions in which I'd expect it to do so. They're not big branchers, so you'd probably only wind up with one new growing tip, the kink in the trunk would be permanent, and you'd risk exposing it to pests anew while it was out there. But you could at least start over, and I expect it would grow like a weed while it was outside, provided it had enough water.

Prince of Pinkness said...

Ah-ha, the reason for my love of Dizygotheca elegantissima is revealed at last. Totes a supermodel! You must come up with a common name for this plant, perhaps something like, 'Naomi's Hand' (inspired by Buddha's Hand citron)?

I have a mature grouping of two elegantissima's growing in my home office, where I write posts for my gay humour blog. Scale was a problem once, and I applied white oil with seeming success. It's also a challenge to keep the humidity 'just right', which has led to some leaf tips getting crispy. I've since lined the pot surface with sphagnum moss and this has helped solve the problem. Overall, she SEEMS alert, perky and happy. But you know supermodels, it's all about the image. ;)

Eventually I'm going to do a post on redecorating my office with pics of Dizygotheca elegantissima, included. (FYI I'm the tortured artist type, so if you visit my blog just think 'Daddy Dearest').

Enjoyed my first visit to your blog!

alejandro morales said...

Ack! I just bought an Olympia version of these. I was so drawn to it despite its buggies. Now I think I made a mistake. I was planning on keeping it away from my other plants for the time being. We'll see ...

mr_subjunctive said...

alejandro morales:

I've had an 'Olympia' for about 2 1/2 years now, and it hasn't been particularly bad, bug-wise. (It's difficult to check for bugs, but it hasn't been as prone to getting them as I would have feared.) What bugs do you have? Some are easier to live with than others.

InkPenArt said...

I always loved the word 'Heimerliodendron', but now they are just 'Pisonia' :( And we always cut back our Dizygotheca at work and they come back lovely and bushy.