Monday, May 12, 2008

Getting Away With Things

It's a fact that you can do everything "wrong" for a plant and still have it survive, or even do well sometimes. Place it on a radiator, give it only a teaspoon of water at a time, never feed, put it in a pot with no drainage, store it in the hallway closet six months out of the year – whatever form of abuse you want to include. If this hasn't happened to you personally, then the odds are that you've watched in envy as someone you know did all the wrong things to a plant of theirs and wound up with a beautiful plant to show for it.

Scindapsus pictus

So what's going on here? Why bother learning the right way to take care of a plant, if any moron can just come along and do what they like and get the same results?

Here are some possible answers:

1. The plant is new. This is the usual reason why plants in public places tend to look okay: there's an interiorscaping company involved that replaces plants that start to go downhill. The place where I work does a (very) little of this. Sometimes people, especially people with more money than they can really use, just have a certain amount of money budgeted for replacing plants that go bad: we have a few customers who I suspect are serial plant killers, who don't learn how to take care of their own plants because they don't need to. And, you know, that 15 minutes once a week for watering and picking off dead leaves is a killer. And sometimes you have to touch actual dirt with your finger. Ew.

2. The plant has a twin. This is sort of an alternate theory 1: it's not common, but sometimes people will go to the trouble of getting two plants and then rotating them every so often, so that one or the other always looks good. Basically this is being your own interiorscaping company, and it's a very good idea if you have the space to pull it off. A lot of plants will do pretty well under adverse conditions, at least for a couple weeks, if they really have to, especially if they're getting good conditions otherwise.

3. The plant's not actually doing that well. Some plants have the ability to look fine right up until that final moment when they collapse entirely. Spathiphyllum spp. are pretty good at this: after enough drought-induced collapses, they say fuck it and give up. I've also seen cacti hold their shape and color really well even though the interior was completely hollowed out by fungus. A healthy Ficus benjamina with 250 leaves, that also had 250 leaves yesterday, looks more or less the same as a Ficus benjamina that had 500 leaves yesterday but lost half of them to spider mites overnight (assuming that all the dead leaves have been cleaned up), but the first plant is in much better shape than the second. (Grooming can make a big difference in how healthy a plant looks, which is why I spend so much time doing it at work.)

Stromanthe sanguinea 'Triostar'

4. You are mistaken about the plant's requirements. This one obviously wouldn't apply to anybody reading this, because we're all very very smart people who do our homework, but unless you can bring home one of every plant and figure out what they need by trial and error, you're going to have to make some educated guesses, and sometimes those educated guesses will be wrong. Sometimes the only way to find out what works is – to find out what works. I myself would never have expected that my Strelitzia nicolais would do well with only a west window for light, getting direct blasts of hot and cold air from a heat / air-conditioning vent to boot, but they have prospered anyway. So now I don't dare move them anywhere else. Is it wrong? Well, kinda: it's not something I recommend that other people do. But if you're the sort of person who would be inclined to lecture me on the importance of keeping this plant out of drafts or hot, dry air, hold your fire: it can't be that important, can it? Really? I mean, the plant lives. Nay, the plant thrives. What am I going to get from listening to you that's better than a thriving plant? Which leads us naturally into . . .

5. Everybody else is mistaken about the plant's requirements. Some of the "care information" that comes with the plants we get in seems, at the very least, kind of suspicious to me, and some of the advice I see being thrown around on-line or in books or wherever strikes me as unnecessarily dogmatic. I don't find, personally, that Anthurium andraeanum or Maranta leuconeura erythroneura have humidity requirements that are all that unreasonable, even though the books say they do. Whether this is because my standards for "unreasonable" are different from most people's, or because I have higher indoor humidity than most people because of all the plants already in my home, or what, I don't know, but whatever it is, humidity for those plants isn't something I worry a lot about. I also find that Sansevieria trifasciata actually needs a fair amount of water during the summer, more than what people usually suggest (though still not as much as new plant-owners want to give), and many "low-light" plants, like Dieffenbachia, aren't low-light plants at all.

6. It's not the plant you think it is. We've already seen, on this blog, Aglaonema pretending to be Aspidistra and Dieffenbachia, Dieffenbachia aspiring to Aglaonemahood, Epipremnum mimicking Philodendron hederaceum, Yucca masquerading as Dracaena, Dracaena imitating Phyllostachys, Pilea and Plectranthus dressing up in one another's clothes, Euphorbiaceae aping the Cactaceae, Senecio in Hedera helix drag, and those are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head. In some cases, these kinds of confusion are even incorporated into the names, whether they're the common name ("split-leaf Philodendron") or the scientific one (Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which loosely translates from the Latin as "oh my god this totally looks like a Zamia but it's not"). Smarter people than you or I have gotten tripped up on plant IDs before. Care for some of these pairs would be more or less the same, but for others the difference between A and fake-A could be life and death. So don't judge unless you're certain on the ID. And then when you are certain on the ID, at least try really hard not to judge.1

Zantedeschia aethiopica.

7. Natural selection. This is kind of like # 1, but accidental where that is deliberate. Say Mr. Hypothetical Plant Buyer ("Please. Call me Hypothetical.") goes to the nursery and just grabs anything and everything that gets his attention: a Yucca guatemalensis, a Chlorophytum 'Fire Flash, a Synadenium grantii, an Aspidistra lurida, a Homalomena 'Emerald Gem,' a Murraya paniculata, and a Tradescantia pallida. He gets them home, repots each one in Miracle Gro soil mix, in an 8-inch pot with no drainage, sticks them right up against a south window, and gives each one exactly one cup of water every Friday afternoon. This is not the right situation for any of these plants, but some will last longer than others. The Chlorophytum will go black from the sun relatively early: it won't die, but it'll look so ugly that Hypothetical will think it's dying and throw it out anyway. The Aspidistra will rot and die at the next winter, if not before. The Murraya will probably hang in there, but it'll forever be dropping leaves, and it's unlikely to bloom; eventually he'll give up on it too. The Yucca will probably rot out and die quickly, as will the Synadenium. The Homalomena will be throwing leaves all the time because it's too cold. But the Tradescantia will probably do okay. And you'll go over to his place and you'll say, oh my god Hypothetical, what are you doing to this poor Tradescantia, don't you know that they have to have drainage, and what is this it's planted in, pure peat, and on and on, and he'll get mad at you and say the plant is doing just fine and he's had it for years and you clearly don't know what you're talking about. Well, you're not wrong, but he's not going to listen to you, because he doesn't realize that the other six plants he bought should also have survived, because he's forgotten that he ever had them.

8. Two wrongs make a right. There are a number of ways this one can work, but it's easy enough to see, I think. If the pot has no drainage, maybe they don't give much water at a time. If it's on top of a radiator, maybe it's also in a cold draft. If it's not in as much light as it needs, maybe there's an artificial light that's on eighteen hours a day. A cactus without enough light might belong to an owner who likes the weird etiolated look.2 Or whatever. The plants always want to live, no exceptions. So if they can find a way, they will.

So my point - and I do have one - is that other people's plants are frequently not what they seem. It's still worth finding out what conditions your plants actually want, whether you can provide them or not, whether they seem to tolerate less than that for someone else or not. There really are rules - they're just fuzzy, and sometimes people get lucky, or plan around them, or pick plants with an exceptionally strong will to live. Planning is fine, but for the other two, you probably don't want to rely on luck alone.


Photo credits: Scindapsus, Stromanthe - mine; Zantedeschia - Yun Free Stock Photo

1 Semi-recently, I was asked by a customer to redo a planter she had: Aglaonemas in the center, with Epipremnum around the outside. She apologetically noted that it looked like the Aglaonemas weren't doing so well. Once I got in there and started pulling stuff out, I realized that there was no drainage in this whatsoever (not even a pot, really: the plants were planted directly into a deep plastic plant saucer, and then the saucer was set inside a big wicker basket and filled with decorative moss), and so of course none of it was doing well: it was being overwatered to death. I told WCW I was having to kind of struggle against the impulse to be angry at the customer for doing this, and I was actually even more angry to be replacing the abused plants with more of the same, which were then going to suffer the same fate. WCW knew the feeling I was talking about but didn't have any advice for me about how to deal with it, other than to say that I could maybe try some strong hints to the customer when I gave the plant back to the effect of, you know, it's okay to let these dry out a little bit every once in a while. Which I was not, then, able to do, because she picked up the basket at a time when I wasn't working. My point being that I understand that sometimes it's difficult not to judge.
2 Hold your fire! It's not like bonsai is natural and healthy. Or topiaries. Or grafts. I'd find it hard to look at, admittedly, but if somebody thinks their etiolated cactus looks cool, and it's still alive and everything, well, it's their plant; what matters is how they feel about it.


Anonymous said...

I found this really interesting. I didnt know that some people buy more than one plant in order to swap them around - how bizzare. I always read the label - but sometimes the combination of the plants requirements see impossible!!

Nancy J. Bond said...

I think there's definitely something to this -- I was given a miniature rose for Valentine's Day and, determined to see it through until spring when it could be transplanted, I babied the thing the rest of the winter, carefully making sure it got enough sun, water, fertilizer, etc. Well, it didn't do well at all and lost leaves at an alarming rate, despite of all my efforts to change its routine. So, I did put it in a nice summer pot and set it out on the balcony. I got so frustrated, that I snipped off the bare "branches" and shoved it in a sunny corner and more or less forgot about it, deciding something else would go in the pot, after all. To my surprise, last time I checked it, I found new growth! Maybe it didn't like being fussed over, and I should have left it to its own devices in February! :-)

Anonymous said...

What a great topic, and a terrific post. (Why yes, I did vote for you at M&T; bribery wasn't necessary.)

What can get to me in these days of internet plant forums is that occasionally someone who is "getting away with things" decides to give advice to others. Such a person usually falls under categories 1 and 3, with a bit of 8, (being satisfied or downright pleased with a substandard plant, like the etiolated cactus), combined with a bit of dumb luck.

I myself have tried the buy twins to swap around thing, but was too disorganized to pull it off.

Esther Montgomery said...

I'm afraid I sort of work backwards.

I have a place.

I know what kind of shape, height, colour would go there.

I buy a plant that fits it.

I see if it grows.

The only thing I pay proper attention to is the soil.

I don't buy a plant which definitely won't like my soil - or I adjust it in that one place.

You are right, we probably forget the experiments that go wrong - but delight in the ones which succeed.

Esther Montgomery

Hermes said...

Great post, I've seen this myself. Plants become accessories (like some people treat pets) and if they don't look perfect, the plant is blamed, not the grower / situation / care regime and out they go.

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

Wonderful post with a lot of common sense advice. Some effort and commitment is required for plants to look their best, together with flexibility. There are certain rules, for sure, but sometimes you have to bend them a little. Some experience combined with some knowledge is the key; no one is born with a green thumb. And when you've spent enough time with plants, you will pay attention to the signals they give and adjust their care accordingly.

tm said...

Great post! I red you blog daily...I'm from Bangkok. How do I email you? have some interesting plant pictures.