Thursday, March 20, 2008

Goody Two-Shoes (Aglaonema spp.)

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.

Aglaonema 'Peacock'

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.

Aglaonema 'Silverado'

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.

Aglaonema 'Golden Bay'

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).

Aglaonema NOID. I'm positive it's an Aglaonema, but it's not listed on any of the galleries or growers' sites that I could find. If you know what this one is called, please leave a comment.

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.

Cold damage (I suspect: it was a customer's plant, so I don't know the history here.). Usually the patch has smooth edges and is on the side of a leaf, not spotty and in the center, but this could also be a dead spot in progress.

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).

Aglaonema 'Diamond Bay,' which is either my favorite or my second-favorite (with 'Brilliant' being the other of the top two).

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?)

Aglaonema 'Emerald Bay.' Thanks to Anonymous, in comments, for explaining how 'Emerald Bay' and 'Silver Bay' differ.

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:

Aglaonema 'Red Gold.' Maybe.

One of the newer 'Red Gold' leaves.

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.:

Aglaonema 'Gold Dust.'

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:'

Aglaonema '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:

Aglaonema brevispathum 'Hospitum'

Side-by-side comparison: Aglaonema brevispathum 'Hospitum' on the left; Aspidistra lurida 'Milky Way' on the right.

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:

Aglaonema 'Maria' or 'Emerald Beauty.' This is a very common cultivar, with many aliases.

Aglaonema 'Stars.' I have posted about this one previously. One of my favorites, but it was depressing and problematic for about the first year I had it, because I didn't know that its roots were slowly rotting away, and although it was trying to tell me, it wasn't enunciating well.

Aglaonema 'Stripes.' Similar to 'Moonlight Bay,' but with simpler color patterns: 'Moonlight Bay' has irregular light patches toward the center of the leaves, separate from the striped pattern, which 'Stripes' doesn't. I'm not sure if I have a preference either way.

Aglaonema 'White Lightning' (probably actually 'Brilliant,' but it was sold to us as 'White Lightning:' I can't tell whether it's 'Brilliant' or not.)

Probably a very anemic Aglaonema 'B. J. Freeman,' 'Jewel of India,' or 'Patricia.' All three have the same basic coloration, though 'Jewel of India' is the only one with leaves this skinny. No, it's a 'Jewel of India.'

A more vigorous Aglaonema 'B. J. Freeman.' A full, big, floor-sized plant of this would be sort of cool, I guess, but it doesn't do much for me.

Aglaonema 'Jubilee.'

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.


Aiyana said...

Silver Bay, Diamond Bay and Silverado are my favorites. I've never seen this many varieties all in one place. The nurseries here usually carry only two or three of the more common types. I guess they are not popular here.

Anonymous said...

Well if you've set me up as some sort of benchmark, I think all will agree that you've exceeded it. After all, you enlighten us with stories about 18th century children's stories--providing context for a common expression, a lesson in cultural literacy--while I just throw out a few quotes from Heidegger in an effort to counter-balance a really bad pun.

And the footnotes. I love the footnotes. I simply can't compete with footnotes.

Esther Montgomery said...

Umm . . . would you mind if I were to mention you in the text of my blog?



Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

I love Aglaonemas, but, unfortunately for me, there aren't very many different types available locally. I believe all in all, you may find about four kinds at the local greenhouses - and only once in awhile.

Thanks for such a great post. The information is fantastic; the photos are fabulous! Aglaonemas make for great eye candy!

Julie said...

You know, you are such a great person with these awesome posts you do! Unbelievable! Entertaining, and informative...LONG (loads of info)...just GREAT!!!
Love your footnotes! I have to go read your whole blog now! I like the Diamond Bay best, BTW!
Take care...

Anonymous said...

NOID Aglaonema--could it be modestum or sinensis?

Great article about Alaonemas.


Anonymous said...

The plant you refer to as white lightning was sold to me as "golden madonna".

mr_subjunctive said...

Yeah, I saw a plant being called 'Golden Madonna' that I think was actually 'Brilliant,' too. I suspect 'Golden Madonna' is real and 'White Lightning' is not, but the differences between varieties can be really subtle sometimes (e.g. between 'Emerald Bay' and 'Silver Bay,' which I still can't tell apart).

Anonymous said...

I have the same NOID aglaonema. I believe my friend, Russ, told me that it is probably A. commutatum v. maculatum f. maculatum.

You can see a picture of mine on my blog post entitled "Aglaonemas!"

The Variegated Thumb

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, and nice pics too. Would you mind explaining with some detail how to get cuts from Anglaonemas?

I must admit, I know of a B.J. Freeman at work that is gorgeous and I'd like to take a little snip of it to take home with me.

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, it's not the sort of thing you can just pinch off without people noticing. When I've done it, I've cut the canes off with a knife or shears, and then either stuck the cane in water (at home) or soil (at work) to root. I suppose it's possible in theory to just snap off a piece of cane, too.

You might consider finding out who does your plants at work and then asking them for a piece, as opposed to just taking one. I suspect the life of the interiorscaper is frustrating (people dumping drinks into the plants, helping themselves to cuttings, sticking chewing gum in the soil, being "helpful" and watering when they think the plant is dry, etc.); asking would not only give them some measure of control over the situation but also might start up a relationship that in the future could lead to more cuttings. Just a thought.

Water-rooting is relatively fast, but then they're slow making the transition to soil. Soil is more straightforward, and they don't have to adjust to a new medium later, but when I've tried soil-rooting at home, they've always just rotted on me. Considering my recent experiences, I think it might be good to try vermiculite, which seems, often, to be the best of both worlds. Leave the plant there until it's rooted, then transfer to soil and treat as normal. Eventually, the plant will sprout new shoots from below the soil, and the pot will fill in, though that kind of takes forever.

Anonymous said...

I actually found a Jewel of India at a local store and bought it. I'm happy now :-)

The new baby is not as big as the plant at work but it will grow in time.

Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

I recently moved to Central Florida (yeah I know, your heart bleeds) and was excited at the prospect of growing Aglaonemas in-ground (though I have several indoors as well). I trialed 'Petite Jubilee' and 'Jewel of India' because of their supposed greater cold tolerance than many other Ags. (In this part of the state we are nominally in zone 9b so hardiness is still a concern). The winner, by a landslide: 'Petite Jubilee'; which survived our record cold spell of almost 2 weeks of near and below freezing lows with some daytime highs only in the 30s and 40s. (An unwelcome reminder of the North from whence I came! No offense to Mr. Subjunctive or other Northerners...) Through all this abuse it suffered only some margin and tip burn. On the other hand, 'Jewel of India', planted perhaps 2 feet away, under the same conditions (semi-sheltered near West-facing but shaded wall, with evergreen canopy and some roof overhang) lost almost all of its leaves and most of its canes and is still struggling to come back. I don't work for the Elite folks but I have to say that based on this admittedly small (ok, minute) 'study', I would heartily endorse the 'Jubilee' series for marginal climates and for indoor use in chilly/drafty conditions (or where heat may be lost due to prolonged power outages).

Lily said...

Loved your blog - informative and nice humor - that's what made it stand out from the rest.
I bought this dying leafy plant (very cheap) from some store that I don't remember. Since then it grew nicer (just needed TLC). Your pictures tell me that my plant is probably a Jubilee. Since March I have been feeding it every two weeks and it's growing vigorously. Thanks for the photos and info.

Clem said...

Cool blog about Ags. 'Jubilee Petite' is by far my favorite cultivar...stays very bushy, doesn't get leggy quickly in low light, very tolerant of dry air and soil and temperature extremes, and has a nice, clearly defined coloration on its foliage. It's a great replacement for 'Silver Queen' and has a much better-behaved habit and no bronzing of leaves in cool temps. A real winner!

Anonymous said...

Great information. I thought I'd help you out with ID on one of the Ag's you have listed. The one you say may be emerald bay or silver bay is in fact Ag. Emerald Bay. It took me a long time to be able to tell the difference. Emerald bay has a narrower edge of variegation with more of a broken pattern similar to 'rabbit tracks'. Silver Bay has almost a striped pattern.

mr_subjunctive said...


Thank you very much.

Helen said...

I want some now. Had no idea there were so many varieties.

foxhead128 said...

I think I might have one of these. It could be a "Diamond Bay", but the coloration isn't very well-defined, so I'm not sure what it is that I've got. Looks like I'll have to do a bit more research.

Emily said...

So I figured out how to get mine to put out new shoots on my schedule: stab the soil with sharp, thin stakes (I use metal barbecue skewers). Somehow nicking the roots or whatever you're nicking in this process makes shoots grow where you've skewered as long as you manage to hit something other than pure dirt (and obviously NOT the canes, either).

mr_subjunctive said...


That sort of fits with my experience since this post went up; I've noticed that new shoots come up in my plants most consistently after a repotting. It's not quite the same thing, and maybe they're just responding to the extra room, but obviously there's a chance for root damage during repotting too.

Unknown said...

Aglaonemas are rather uncommon where I am in NZ, so I was excited to see a new variety pop up on a trade list with one of our suppliers.
I got the boss to order some Aglaonema "Snow White", I was pretty excited, but when the order showed up I was quite disappointed. What I was looking at was certainly not "Snow White" but rather what I believe to be "Snow Cap".
I rang the supplier and the lady there agreed with me, she said they were sold to them from China as "Snow White" *facepalm*
You'd think they would check for these things, I wonder if they feel a bit silly now.

Unknown said...

That shot of the leaf with the cold damage also looks like it has scale down along the midrib. And isn't it funny about the comment from New Zealand, where the ags are hard to find? You'd think they'd be all over the place there, since they're native to China, S.E.Asia, and Indonesia.

mr_subjunctive said...

Marlie Graves:

I agree that it looks like it, but I'm pretty sure it was a scar from the leaf getting scraped or folded. (Can't be 100% certain -- it was 8 years ago, and not my plant, and I don't have a larger version of the photo -- but pretty sure. That much scale would be hard to miss, especially if I was focused enough on the leaf to be getting a picture of it, and I didn't mention it in the caption.)

HandMade Goods said...

The Noid is a Simplex, according to the Tristate Foliage page on Ags. I am an interiorscaper and we get most of our plants from Tristate. They have an impressive list of varieties!

Unknown said...

HandMade Goods, Tristate's list is indeed impressive, more than I've seen offered by other nurseries. Aglaonema's popularity has exploded since Dr. B. Frank Brown explored, collected and hybridized aglaonemas over 30 years ago.

If you look closely at the NOID pic again, you'll see there are some dots of light variegation along the lateral veins. A. simplex is an all-green plant with a slightly different leaf shape.

Also, I think Tristate's A. simplex is actually the species modestum, which is all-green as well. There is a variegated form of modestum that is very attractive.

All the best, Russ

Debra L. White said...

Aglaonema NOID is Aglaonema Commutation maculatum.Very hard to find. A classic variety.I had one in the late 90s.Looking for another one

Anonymous said...

Debra, if you're still looking for the ag commutatum and others, give me a shout. I have a very large collection, can send for price of postage. Russ,