Thursday, June 12, 2008

Melancholic (Ludisia discolor)

One of my family's darker running jokes revolves around the assumption that Dad is kind of perpetually put-upon and abused and resigned to not having control of how things go. The resignation part, at least, is true; the rest of it isn't so much, or at least it wasn't at one time: since I got married (in reality, if not by law), I don't have nearly as much contact with them as I used to. Things may have changed.1, which footnote is long and probably slightly self-pitying and has no plant content whatsoever so read at your own risk

At one point in the fairly distant past, Mom and Dad's Sunday school class did a thing where they took personality tests, or (more probably) read descriptions of personality tests from a book, and the descriptions of the various types were presented by analogy to characters from Winnie the Pooh, though the actual personality categories, and the system they come from, were old as dirt.2 I suppose it makes it more entertaining and memorable if it's related to familiar stuff. Anyway. Dad was labeled an Eeyore, or melancholic, which apparently pleased him enormously, because he started responding to observations with "Thanks for noticing," and plans with "Not that it matters," all in the same low monotone. He was doing it for the humor value, but I don't think it was entirely a joke to him.

Ludisia discolor reminds me a little of Dad that way. I've had a couple cuttings of this plant for about a year now, having received them in a Garden Web exchange last June, and so you would think that I would know something about how to take care of them by now, but boy would you be wrong. Although mine did root, and are still alive, they've never seemed to be all that happy with me. I give them water, and they thank me for noticing, and they grow new leaves – not that it matters - 'cause then they lose leaves right away to make up for it. They're resigned to the situation, but it's clearly not been the kind of environment they wanted. This has been going on for about a year, and now they're getting Dr. Seussian – long, twisty stems with a little tuft of foliage on top.

So, if I don't know anything about how to grow them, you'd think I wouldn't really be qualified to talk about how to grow them, and you're probably right, if you're going to insist on experience and knowledge-having and all that. But you're already here, so you may as well make the best of it. Besides, we're not just depending on me: I've been reading around, and I'm learning, too.

There are, it turns out, a number of species of orchids called jewel orchids. All of them have certain things in common: they're small, terrestrial plants with attractively-patterned leaves. Ludisia discolor (sometimes Haemaria discolor; Ludisia is more correct, as best as I could determine, but sometimes one also sees Haemaria) is the most commonly available of the group, and has velvety dark red leaves with highlighted veins in red, gold, or white, depending on whose description you happen to be reading, what variety it is, and how it's been taken care of.3

LIGHT: Ludisia discolor is not, surprisingly, a plant suitable for very bright conditions. Too much light will cause the leaves to bleach out slightly. It's not dramatic; leaves just get thinner and redder than normal. I used to have mine in a spot where it got a bit of direct sun, mostly filtered sun: it wasn't bleaching in this location, but I moved it to a darker spot anyway, for the sake of humidity. Too early to tell whether the amount of light in the new spot is going to be an issue. The plants at work are doing okay in fairly bright light, though they're under a few layers of shade.
WATER: A lot of people grow these in straight water, for long periods of time, including the person I got my cuttings from; this obviously eliminates watering as a concern. Naturally, they grow in soil, and the instruction I see on-line is that one should grow them in soil which is "moist but not wet," a description that clarifies very little for me but lets me know I've been letting mine get too dry, probably. A few places suggest growing these in sphagnum moss, which has the right kind of loose texture to maintain moist-but-not-wet conditions, though if you let it dry out once then you're kind of boned, 'cause it's hard to re-wet. The plants we got a few months ago in a tropical shipment from Florida were planted in sphagnum, and seem happy enough there. My own plant, the two cuttings, is planted in regular potting soil, and that's apparently okay.

TEMPERATURE: Cool at night (to 60ºF / 16ºC), room temperature during the day (70-80ºF / 21-27ºC). I'm not sure how flexible this is; I didn't see that addressed anywhere. Given that the plants are from southeast Asia, though, it seems like cold is a bad idea.
HUMIDITY: I think this is where I've screwed up. (Says the plant, Oh. Well, thanks for noticing. . . .) A lot of sites are fairly insistent about these needing a lot of humidity, and quite a few suggest terrariums as the ideal growing situation. I ran into a surprising number of stories where people said, basically, that they had a Ludisia that sucked until they put it in a terrarium, and then it was cool. I don't think terrariums are probably mandatory – certain people say the same things about Saintpaulia ionantha, and yet Saintpaulia will grow just fine in a lot of homes without humidity-boosting – but it's something to consider if yours isn't doing well. Mine did start hanging on to its leaves better when I moved it from the bedroom to the bathroom.
PESTS: I had a brief run-in with spider mites, or else actual spiders. I never saw either one actually on the plant, so I never knew which it was. The leaves didn't get the dusty look that plants with mites get, either, but there was webbing, and it looked more or less like spider mite webbing. I haven't really seen any reference to any pests being a huge issue on these, so I'm going to say this isn't a major concern, though I'd still watch for mealybugs and spider mites, just because one should always watch for those.
GROOMING: Pretty minimal. Basically just pulling off the occasional dead leaf.
FEEDING: Pretty minimal. They're slow growers and don't seem to need much in the way of food; various websites back me up on this.
PROPAGATION: Cuttings root slowly, but easily, in water or soil. The parent plants are said to resprout, though I haven't witnessed this personally: mine have only recently gotten to the point where they're big enough to cut back, and I don't want to do that yet.

Ludisia discolor has a few named varieties, though I haven't seen any in person except H. discolor var. dawsoniana, the one pictured here: it has reddish veins on a red-black background. A variety with white veins also exists (H. discolor var. ondina), and there's said to be a green version with white veins called "alba." The species itself is naturally a solid red-black with a white central vein.

Plants are self-fertile, though I didn't find any specific information about how to sprout seeds or pollinate flowers. Seeds don't necessarily come true to the parent plant; they can sometimes have a different coloration, though as far as I can tell, the variation is very limited: veins can be more prominent or less prominent; the leaves can be black, black-red, or green; the veins can be black, black-red, gold, or white, and that's that. Not all the combinations of those options are permitted, either: a variety with black-red veins and green leaves would be pretty interesting, but it apparently doesn't work that way.

Unlike almost every other orchid, jewel orchids are grown for foliage, not flower. The flowers are, I suppose, cute, and one can definitely see the family resemblance, but they're not the traffic-stoppers that their more flamboyant relatives are known for:

I don't know that there's any particular trick to getting them to bloom; mine haven't yet, but like I said, they've not been treated properly. The flowers in the above picture were already on the plants we received at work in March, but we did have plants budding in early December. I didn't get to see the whole process from bud to bloom, because they all sold first.

The flowers aren't especially long-lived, by orchid standards, but they will hang around for a few weeks. I didn't detect a scent.

Is it a good starter plant? Well, kinda: it'll hold itself together while you learn, assuming that you bother to learn. And as orchids go it's not terrible, though it's also not what you first think of when you hear orchid.4

But it's probably not the place you want to begin with your houseplant hobby, either. God knows enough houseplants come up with melancholy spells all on their own; no sense starting out with a Debbie Downer orchid. I say, build your confidence first, then start buying the tragic plants.


Photo credit: All mine. Wish I could have come up with photos of the other varieties, though. The species form, actually, is very nice in a Dieffenbachia 'Sterling' kind of way. Check the site in footnote 3.

1 I'm now more or less beyond the reach of the immediate and extended families, and I'm definitely outside their particular belief system, so maybe I'm not seeing the full picture, but from here it looks like they are just getting increasingly afraid of everything, including and especially thinking and other people.

They never had a lot of friends to begin with, being basically shy people, but I don't think they have any now who aren't part of their church, or who weren't part of some previous church. And they go to small churches, as a rule.

When I was a kid, they had other friends. I remember. I was there.

Neither one of them were great students, either, and I guess mostly what they learned in high school was that they're not good at learning. This is not, I think, actually true, but they believe it, and everything they encounter that they fail to understand immediately just confirms it for them. This is something else that has gotten a lot worse over time. I mean, I remember them trying to learn stuff when I was a kid. Dad played guitar (not well, but still), and they were at one time genuinely into trying to learn about the Bible, even; I don't think this is the case anymore, though it's hard to articulate exactly why. I suppose it's because when you're trying to learn things, sometimes you actually do, and it's exciting, and you want to tell people about it: learning can be energizing, and they never seem to be excited about anything more thrilling than if the Wal-Mart has something in stock that they weren't expecting to see there. Instead they're just bitter, Dad especially.

It's like, oh my god, my parents are turning into old people. Old people who don't drive faster than 25 mph or travel more than 15 miles from home, who bitch about kids these days and mean it. Dad's already been complaining about rap music for, like, twenty years. What comes next? Cat collecting and conspiracy theories? I don't think I'm ready for this. They're not even that old. Chronologically, I mean. (They're 56.)

My younger siblings, who are 30, 17, and 13 (brother, brother, sister, respectively), all still live at home, and always have, and the two youngest are being homeschooled because Mom and Dad can't afford the private Christian school in town and don't want the kids learning anything alarming (People of other faiths don’t worship Jesus! Or even necessarily want to! Plants and animals evolve! Sometimes boys are attracted to other boys, instead of girls! The U.S. Constitution doesn't say everybody has to be Christians!) and poisoning their delicate little minds. 'Cause, you know, just look what happened to the firstborn.

(Wait a minute, you may be saying here. You're trying to tell me that your thirty-year-old brother doesn't know that gay people exist? Aren't you gay yourself? Yeah, well, I'm fairly sure he knows, on both counts. And I think the two younger kids know too, at least that gay people exist. They may or may not know they're related to any; I barely ever see them, and they've not been permitted to meet the husband. I don't even know whether they've been told of his existence for sure. It's a singular thing, to be treated as threatening by your own family, when you haven't even done anything.)

So anyway. My original point: their world gets smaller and smaller, and scarier and scarier. What news they get comes from pretty blatantly biased sources. We literally haven't lived in the same worlds for about sixteen years, and it's increasingly awkward to talk to them: we don't share enough assumptions in common.

(Though, me being me, sometimes I can't resist anyway, like the time I told Dad about running into something on-line from the 2000 election about how people shouldn't vote for Gore because if they did we'd end up with - gasp! - $2/gal gas. [Can't re-find it, but I did run into this gem about Candidate Bush, in 1999, "bashing" the Democrats for letting gas get to $1.64/gal, and saying, among other things, President Clinton “must jawbone OPEC members to lower prices." Yeah, okay.] Dad came back with something like well, if all those liberals would let us just drill in ANWR, we wouldn't have these problems.*sigh*)

The whole situation is a lot like having a trick knee: I mostly don't think about it, sometimes for months at a stretch, but when it does make itself felt, it's painful and awkward and inconvenient. And this, like it or not, is one of two times of the year when it tends to make itself felt (late April to mid-June, which includes my Mom's birthday, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and the anniversary of the day I came out to them), the other being mid-November to late December (my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Dad's birthday). Hence the family being on my mind, and this whole TMI digression, which I hope you will excuse.

Also: please don't tell me it could be worse (I know) or that they might come around eventually (they won't. I know them better than you do.).

2 I believe they were the melancholic-sanguine-choleric-phlegmatic classification first proposed by Hippocrates, which is about as accurate as Myers-Briggs, astrology, or any other system that attempts to classify billions of people into a small, manageable number of types. Which is to say, it's not especially accurate, but it's a good source of conversation. I guess.
3 The others, which I've never seen for sale except on the internet, are primarily in the genera Macodes, Anoectochilus, and Goodyera. They can be purchased on-line from this site, though I do not know these people, nor do I necessarily endorse this business or its products, so caveat (as always) emptor. If nothing else, though, the site has decent pictures of the other species, which is good because it's nearly impossible to find public domain pictures of some of them.
4 What I still always think of first when I hear the word "orchid," though it's off-topic, is testicles. Why? Because in medical terminology, which I know more than my fair share of, thanks, that's what "orchid" means. E.g. an orchidectomy is when they remove a testicle (orchid = testicle; -ectomy = removal of), and cryptorchidism is when there's an undescended testicle (crypto = hidden; orchid = testicle). The "testicle" meaning came first: the genus Orchis has paired bulbous underground structures for storing water that, if you're an ancient Greek philosopher / naturalist named Theophrastus, remind you of testicles. (I was unable to find a picture, so I couldn't check to see how good the resemblance actually is.) For what it's worth, avocados (Persea americana) are also named for testicles, but in a different language (the Aztec word ahuacatl), and "testicles" itself comes from Latin, meaning "witnesses," though it's not clear how the concepts are related: multiple explanations exist. So now you know.


themanicgardener said...

WOW. My first visit to your blog, and I will definitely be back. I love all the family stuff! Not into indoor orchids at the moment, but when that hammer falls, I'll know where to go (if I can still move.) My boss wants an article on indoor plant care if and when I ever finish the one on organic lawn care, so you'll be hearing from me.

Thanks for that amazing post.

Anonymous said...

Here have a hug on me! I'm sorry it has to be this way. No one should be treated like this by their family. If you were my brother I'd love you just the same as the rest of my family, gay or not.

Ps. This is the "bestest" blog ever" Ds.

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

Great post. I do love this plant, and have seen it at the local greenhouses now and then, but haven't brought one home - maybe never will; much too pricey!

And I won't say anything about your family, like they'll come around and stuff, because you are right - you know them better than anyone else. Still. Families can sometimes be, well, 'special'.

Lance said...

Thanks for sharing about your parents, I too tend to avoid family things for the same reasons. However, my situation with them isn't as extreme, still I live in the bible belt too, and have to put up with the family that believe only what is said in church. You're parents may not come around, but I hope you are able to some day have some sort of relationship with your brothers and sisters.
Thanks also for the plant discussions, I've been enjoying them very much.

Anonymous said...

Ludisia "pricey"??? Where have you been shopping waterroots? Course I suppose too it depends on what one considers "pricey". You shouldn't have to pay more than 8-$10 --- and if you are a member of any forums, you could very likely work out a trade for one.

aleisha said...

I love these plants. They do better in low light than in high light. I put mine under a normal light that has grow light bulbs in it. I treat it once a month with a special fertilizer from fantasy orchids in lewisville Colorado. I tend to water it once a week in the winter and twice a week in summer.

The Ludisia Discolor can handle normal house humidity levels. In the winter I try to get my home to be around 30 to 40 percent humidity, but it gets as low as 20%. Just put the plant pot on top of a tray that has stones in it and fill partly with water. Just don't let the water hit the level of your pot.

There are many jewel orchids and most of them require high humidity. Ludisia discolor doesn't need high humidity. The Ludisia discolor Alba and Ludisia discolor Nigrescens can all be grown in normal home humidity. Just use a tray under them.

atropos_of_nothing said...

I know this is an old post, but dammit, I had to say something: there is a distinction to be made between "self-pitying" and "mournful." Your footnote was the latter, not the former. And you have ever right to mourn. You and your family seem to be trend-setters, as this is a lament I see much more widely-spread since, oh, about 2016 or so. I've stopped trying to be civil about it; if my mom wants to talk to me or her grandchildren, she can keep her poisonous bigotry to herself. It took a few hang-ups, but she learned.
But anyway. I hope things have gotten better in the last decade.