Introductory note: I apologize to any readers who are loading this page on dial-up. There are twenty-one images here. It wasn't intentional anti-dialup discrimination: it's just a varied and photogenic plant.
According to Wikipedia and The Straight Dope, Goody Two-Shoes was originally a children's story, which you can read for as long as you can stomach the eighteenth-century diction here. The "goody" was a contraction of the archaic "goodwife," which was more or less equivalent to "Mrs.," (which the "goody" & "goodwife" thing by itself is something I've wondered about for a long time, actually) and the "two-shoes" part . . . well, it's kind of a Cinderella story. See, Goody Two-Shoes, whose actual name in the story was Margery Meanwell,1 grew up poor and an orphan. How poor was she, you ask? Well she was sooooooo poor that she could only afford half a pair of shoes. (Not so poor, though, that her brother couldn't get a complete pair. This is only mentioned in passing in the story, but raises some questions.)2 And not only that, but she was just sickeningly good. Like, she was too poor to go to school herself, but she would hang out and borrow the books of the kids who did. So she did homework even when she didn't have to. But it was worse than that, because she also then carved out blocks in the shapes of letters of the alphabet - ten sets' worth - and then taught the other ruffians how to read.
Granted that this would have had sort of a different cultural resonance at the time, when reading was a valuable and non-universal skill, something not everybody had (the modern Goody Two-Shoes would, I suppose, build a workable computer from discarded parts in the city dump and then teach the poorest of the poor inner-city youth how to make spreadsheets or something, and would be called "Little Miss .Xls"), but still. You can see how this is a girl you would maybe not want to be friends with, if you were a kid. Especially since she had taught a raven to read and spell (yes – she was that good a teacher), and whenever one of the kids she was teaching got something wrong, she'd have the bird correct them (". . . when any of the Children were wrong, she used to call out, Put them right Ralph."). How humiliating. Anyway. So when she got an actual pair of shoes, at the top of Chapter 3, she was so excited by this that she went running around to everybody exclaiming about her two shoes, hence the nickname.3
Aglaonema spp. are, in certain odd ways, kind of like Goody: too good for their own good. They tolerate all kinds of conditions that other plants won't, and, consequently, they're found in all kinds of places where other plants aren't, like malls and airports and wherever. Of course, when you're too good, people will be tempted to be mean. Sometimes it's better not to be overly flexible.
How flexible are they? Well, they're one of very few plants that will tolerate pretty low levels of light, which is kind of a big deal. They're also not especially prone to pests,4 and they're not messy: to spend more than sixty seconds grooming an Aglaonema means that you haven't done it for quite a long time.
So there's that.
Certain other aspects of care are controversial: whether they need, or even like, higher humidity is a matter of some debate. I personally haven't found it to matter even a tiny bit. If you're having trouble with your Aglaonema, raising the humidity is the very last thing that I would recommend. (There is one exception to this, which I'll get to eventually.) But raising humidity won't hurt your plant either, and who knows, I could be wrong.
Propagation is slow. Plants will, given enough time, get around to forming suckers. (A sucker is basically a stem that grows out of the side of another stem, makes a sharp turn, and then grows next to the parent stalk: Spathiphyllum, Anthurium, Aglaonema, Dieffenbachia, and other aroids are usually chemically induced to sucker before they're sold, because a pot full of small plants looks a lot fuller and bushier and more . . . planty5 than a single large plant would. Plenty of suckers can postpone the inevitable stick-with-a-few-leaves-on-top look. Spathiphyllum is a special case, and the above doesn't exactly apply, but even so, a single Spathiphyllum plant, suckerless, in a pot, usually looks kinda forlorn.) Suckers can be separated from the parent and grown on their own, though for that to work out, you have to wait for the suckers to appear in the first place, and that can sometimes be slow to happen.
Aglaonema will also grow from cuttings: if you chop the top off of a stem that's gotten leggy, you can then root that stem in water or soil (the best course is probably a 2:1 mix of perlite to potting mix, or something like that – too much soil will encourage rot, but straight perlite is kind of difficult to work with) and then transfer it to a regular pot once roots have formed. The piece of stem you leave behind will eventually resprout (though it may take some time).
Watering is genuinely a bit tricky: we have trouble at work keeping them dry enough. I know that sounds weird, but space is kind of at a premium, so they're bunched in with other plants, for one, and there are usually hanging plants above the table, too. So we have to be really careful not to water them when we're watering the stuff near them, and often we wind up getting them wet anyway. They then punish us by throwing a leaf, and the cycle begins again. At home, I usually let them dry out until I can't feel damp soil by sticking my finger in, and then I wait another three or four days, but even so, sometimes we disagree.
The other tricky thing is temperature: Aglaonemas are somewhat notorious for not tolerating cold well. Supposedly some of the newer cultivars are better about this than others, but in general, if you let your plant get below about 60ºF (16ºC), you get big patches of sort of greasy or waterlogged-looking dead tissue. It's not a huge deal; you can cut it off and the plant will go on, but obviously it's not something that you want to happen.
Aglaonemas are also supposed to be heavyish feeders, though I couldn't really speak to that point. My own plants don't get fed all that often, and the new growth is more or less the same size as the old, the plants appear healthy, etc. So this may or may not be true.
I never set out with the idea of collecting Aglaonemas, but I have several anyway. It started innocently enough, with a couple about a year and a half ago. 'Diamond Bay' was pretty, and didn't look like anything I'd seen before, and 'Emerald Bay' reminded me of a plant my mom had many years back (which was probably Aglaonema 'Silver Queen'). And then from there, new Aglaonemas started to drift in at regular intervals, to where I now have eleven of them (pictures of which are, obviously, scattered throughout the post).
It's still the case that when I see a variety I don't have, I usually can't hold out for very long before I buy it. 'Golden Bay' (above, a few pictures up) is likely to be the next one to follow me home. I also really like 'Silverado,' but 'Silverado' gets huge.
Which I suppose I should mention that none of these are all that fast-growing. Given enough time, of course, they'll get there, but for the most part, they move slowly. This is both a bad thing (if you're wanting to propagate) and a good thing: taking the growth rate, pest resistance, tolerance for low light and humidity, and infrequent grooming all together, you have a plant that you can buy and stick more or less wherever, and it will look reasonably nice for a pretty long time, which is, let's be frank, what most people are looking for in an indoor plant. This is why they're common mall-and-airport plants, and why I say they're probably too good for their own good, because when they're that easy, not only do people treat them badly, but a new and interesting cultivar is immediately introduced everywhere, as everybody tries to be up-to-date and cool, and then right afterward, everybody's sick of seeing that particular cultivar and the stage is set for the next one to come along.
Fortunately, the genus Aglaonema is playing along, so far, with the help of people like Plant Daddy, who has actually been responsible for breeding and evaluating untold numbers of new cultivars. He is, for example, the guy who brought the world Aglaonema 'Silver Bay,' Anthurium 'Red Hot,' and Dieffenbachia 'Sterling.'6 Or at least that's what he says, and why would he lie? (For the groupies?)
One of the biggest developments in Aglaonema variety development has been the addition of genes from A. rotundum to the gene pool. Only A. rotundum, apparently, makes leaves which contain red pigments, which means that there are new cultivars in the future with red and orange variegation in the leaves, instead of (and in addition to) the usual green, white and silver. Naturally, this comes with a catch: these tend to be a lot fussier about humidity and watering, and consequently are tougher to keep indoors. (This is the exception to the raising-humidity-is-the-last-thing-I'd-recommend note, many paragraphs back.) I bought one of them myself, a couple months ago, as a tryout, and so far we're doing okay, it looks like – it's even grown some new leaves with a bit more red in them than I had in this picture from when the plant was new:
But then, it's only been a couple months. Plenty of time for things to go wrong. Still, given their reputation, I was expecting more things to be more wrong more quickly.
I've actually had a tougher time so far with 'Peacock,' which I bought at about the same time: 'Peacock' hasn't been dropping leaves or anything, but the new leaves aren't coming in with the same pattern of variegation as the old ones, and a lot of the new leaves are also curled under, very long, and very skinny. (I suspect either inadequate light or excessive temperature swings.)
I only have one more real point of interest here: this is the first case where I just had way more pictures than I did text. So I guess we'll cover that and then I'll just pile on the pictures.
There is one tiny little bit of quirkiness to Aglaonema spp. that indicates that maybe they're not total Marie Osmonds.7 They do impressions. You've already seen them look like Dieffenbachia spp.:
Usually you can tell the difference because Aglaonema usually has some silver-gray on the leaves, and Dieffenbachia never used to, but then some cultivars of Dieffenbachia were brought out that had gray in them ('Tiki,' for example), and then some Aglaonemas showed up that contained some yellow patches, like 'Brilliant:'
and then everything got all confused. Further muddling the issue - Aglaonema leaves are generally long and thin, relative to Dieffenbachia, but then Dieffenbachia 'Star Bright' happened and messed that up, too.
But they also do an impression that's far more impressive, considering it's not even in the same family, much less genus: they do a passable Aspidistra:
Which, yes, those petioles are coming up out of the ground, with no aboveground stem at all. This is the only Aspidistra like this that I've ever seen, and information about it is tough to come by, but so far what I can tell you is that: 1) the imitation extends to growing speed: this variety is even slow by Aglaonema standards; 2) dividing the rhizomes seems to work just fine at propagating the plant - I didn't have any issues with rot or anything;8 3) low-light tolerance seems to be more or less the same as for the other Aglaonemas, possibly even better. They were sold to us as "indestructible!" plants, and so far have lived up to the hype. 4) I also like them better as regards watering: like other Aglaonemas, these will visibly wilt if they get too dry, but they do so to a more extreme and obvious degree, which makes it easier to notice.
So that's Aglaonema spp. I leave you with the various leftover photos:
UPDATE: And if you've still not had enough, there's a picture of 'Silver Queen,' one of the oldest Aglaonema cultivars, here.
Photo credit: all my own, and boy am I exhausted.
1 Which should be a warning sign right there: you know what people who mean well can be like.
2 The brother, in any event, disappears early in the story and leaves her by herself, which is a shame, because I think I'd like her better if she, you know, waited until he fell asleep some night and then stole his shoes. This would be out of character, admittedly, but she kinda needs a better personality anyway.
3 I actually feel a little bad even attempting to be snarky about this, so I won't. 'Cause damn, going from a single shoe to a pair of shoes would be pretty exciting. Especially if you were like six years old and an orphan and stuff. Seems like going from one shoe to zero shoes might have been an improvement too, though. One shoe . . . would kinda just suck.
4 Not that they're immune: they can get all the pests anything else gets. It's just that so far in my experience with houseplants, I've only ever seen Aglaonemas affected by two things: mealybugs and a weird black fungus on the undersides of the leaves. The fungus wiped right off, didn't come back, and didn't so much as leave a mark, so it really was never much of a problem. The mealybugs did result in the destruction of some plants, but even then, the situation wasn't dire, and probably could have been reversed; I just didn't want the mealys to spread to other plants where they could do more damage, and I didn't want to put a lot of time and effort into mealybug removal, which is a slow and agonizing process under the best of circumstances.
5 I think the difference is actually not that the plant looks more planty, but that the plant and the container are more or less proportional to one another. However tall a Dieffenbachia you have, if it's a single stem, it's likely to be too tall and skinny for the pot, because Dieffenbachias are individually tall and skinny plants. (q.v. Dizygotheca elegantissima) This is something that takes a while to clue into, the idea that a plant should be a certain degree of fullness in order to be presentable, and it's more often the cause of a sort of tired, sad-looking plant than you'd think. Often, the plant is fulfilling its side of the contract, but the human has delayed cutting back, or has neglected to water one too many times (killing off all the suckers, or in the case of Ficus benjamina, side branches, in the process), or whatever.
6 Dieffenbachia 'Sterling' is totally awesome, to me, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why I like it so much, because it's a fairly plain-looking plant. Something about it just does it for me, though.
7 (Debby Boones? Amy Grants? Well, probably not Amy. She's all edgy now.)
8 I divided one of the plants we got in (of the size in the photo) into four pieces and potted them up, and then bought one of the divisions. Neither the plant I brought home, nor any of the ones that stayed at work, have thrown any leaves or otherwise acted upset about the division at all.