Saturday, February 9, 2008

Coffea tragica: the thrilling non-conclusion

(If you're just now finding the story, click here for the first part.)

Well folks, it would appear that I got every single point wrong, and we have something of a genuine mystery on our hands. The customer's version of the story is that he only bought it a week ago, on a day when the temperature outside was around 60F / 16C. Plausible? Well, yeah, kinda. I don't think we've had any days that were quite that warm, and I didn't record anything to that effect in the journal, but I remember there being a substantial warm-up not too long ago. So more or less plausible, at least to within ten degrees.

He said that when he got it, there were many yellowing leaves on it, like about half of the plant was yellow. He answered the obvious question (So why'd you buy it anyway?) by noting that it's uncommon to find a coffee plant around here in the first place, and even more rare to find one that's as big as that one was. He's right on both counts. I question whether or not the plant could have been half yellow, though: it never got to that point as far as I ever saw, and although I've been somewhat distracted lately by other stuff (we're starting to get seeds going for the spring, plus plugs -- basically small seedlings with some roots on them -- are coming in and need to be transplanted, and then Valentine's Day is a whole new layer of craziness on top of that, though Valentine's hasn't affected me much so far), I still think I would have noticed a half-yellow coffee tree.

The real clincher, though, is that he said he had several other Coffea plants in the spot where he put this one (prompting one of the non-Wonderful co-workers to ask me later on what kind of weirdo collects coffee trees; I was like, well, you know, they're nice enough plants when they're not dead: don't judge.), and this one was the only plant to act like this. The room these plants are in does have central heat and air, but he said the vents were far enough away from the plants that their impact is negligible.

In the end, the deal that was arranged was, we agreed to cut the plant back, keep it for observation in the greenhouse, and either try to rehabilitate it for as long as we can spare the space (probably about 2 weeks) or until we figure out what was going on with it. In the event that it dies on us while we're keeping it in the greenhouse, I'm not sure what happens -- the store owner approved giving him store credit for half the amount of the plant, which would be enough to get one in a 4-inch pot for free and have some credit left over, but this was before I'd heard the customer's story, too. If the plant actually croaks on us, I'd be inclined to push her to replace it, and for the time being we do have another plant in a 6-inch pot we could replace it with (it's not as tall or as full, but still, it's the biggest other one we've got), so it's an option.

The customer, of course, might still not know what he's talking about, or might be lying, or misremembering, and I still can't think of much that would cause such a drastic decline in such a short amount of time: it still looks like temperature, to me. Maybe we'll still find out what's going on, maybe we won't.

Coffea tragica, the newest Coffea species


It's heartbreaking to have a plant at home that you care for suddenly start to decline over one thing or another and eventually die. Sucks quite a bit, in fact. It's a different feeling to care for a plant at work, have it suddenly vanish, and then have it reappear two weeks later dead. It's definitely worse when it's your own personal plant, but there's a whole rage angle to it when the death is presented to you as a fait accompli and the customer won't accept any responsibility for the situation.

I didn't actually talk to the customer in question, and I only saw the plant in the last like ten minutes of work, so I'm not sure what the full story is. Maybe the customer does accept some responsibility. But the thirdhand account from the customer is that he bought it a couple weeks ago, and it wasn't really looking all that good then, but he bought it anyway, and the guy he talked to said all it needed was a little bit of fertilizer and it'd be fine, and then he gets it home and it does this:



So okay. If someone in fact told him that all it needed was a little boost of fertilizer, then we in fact are a little responsible, because that was stupid. As I mentioned in the profile for Coffea arabica, a scant five days ago, this plant had been dropping yellowed leaves occasionally, as has my plant at home, the other biggish plant at work, the plant of a customer who asked me about this a while ago, and the plant at a nearby greenhouse. And I was, and remain, pretty much convinced that this was happening because all of these plants were periodically getting too cold.

And anyway, even if it had been dropping leaves over some kind of nutrient deficiency, we'd started fertilizing all the tropicals anyway (Yeah, it seems early to me, too.) before the plant in question sold. So any nutrient deficiencies it might have had had already been addressed.

So okay. Bad advice. But feeding didn't cause this.

Was it bad watering? I doubt it. Overwatering would have caused yellow leaves, they wouldn't all have gone brown at once like this, and they wouldn't have stayed attached to the plant. Underwatering doesn't work either, because I felt the soil: unless it had just been watered before he brought it in,1 it was in perfectly good shape. Also, if you look at the picture again, there's a second, smaller plant there that's doing just fine, which couldn't have happened if the plant was just dry.

Pests? Don't think so. I mean, first of all, I didn't see any signs of any, but also, the leaves aren't just brown: they still have a lot of chlorophyll in them. Whatever happened here happened really fast. Also the plant only went out the door a couple weeks ago, and it didn't have a pest problem then: it'd have to be a serious pest situation indeed, for it to take down a halfway healthy plant in two weeks.

Light? Nope. It'd be tough to give this plant more light than it was getting to begin with, and too little light wouldn't kill it this fast.

Close-up of a leaf.

I'd bet money that this is a temperature problem. The customer, I'm told, insists that he didn't let the plant get cold on the trip home, but I don't think we can assume the customer knew the meaning of "cold" as defined by Coffea arabica. I mean, the customer might mean by that, I didn't let it get below freezing. And the plant (though you can't see this in the pictures very well) does have black tips on all the branches. That first inch or so is black shading into brown shading into green, on all the upper branches. Which is what you'd maybe expect from a plant that was in a little bubble of warm air, holding the plastic up with the tips of its branches.

Also the degree of leaf scorching makes me think that the customer had this in the path of a heat vent at home, or had it sitting next to a radiator or stove or something, too.

Anyway. (It's like an episode of CS-fucking-I sometimes around here.) So here's what I think happened.

Customer gets his plant all tied up in a plastic bag, and then either 1) chucks it into his unheated car and drives straight home, or 2) puts it in his heated car and then stops to run a couple errands before getting home. Upon getting home, he's thinking he's got to find a warm spot for it, so he sets it in a window a couple feet away from a radiator or stove or something hot, where it's also getting blown on by the central heat. And then he gives it a full dose of fertilizer. Two weeks later, when the damaged cells actually start to go black and fall apart, and the heat has sucked all the water out of the few leaves that are hanging on, he realizes that there's a problem and decides that because there were a couple yellow leaves on it when we sold it to him, it's our fault for giving him a defective plant. The smaller plant is spared the same fate because the hot air is being blocked by the bigger plant.

There is, as yet, no resolution to the story, but he was told to call us at some point today (Saturday) and ask for me or another person, and the other person has said that he'll hand it off to me when the call comes. So I, and you, will get to find out if I should apply for a job in the BCIU (Botanical Crimes Investigation Unit2) of my local police department, probably in tomorrow's post.

If somebody gave him bad information about how to grow the plant, beyond the fertilizing thing, then I'm inclined to cut him some slack and try to convince the boss to refund the money (which she will hate, but she'd probably still do even though, as previously noted, this is very emphatically not our policy). If, as is more likely for a male customer, he just zipped out the door having asked nothing about what it needs for care, then he kinda brought it on himself. We'll see.

All these cliffhangers lately. I don't know what's going on with that.

(Story continues at Coffea tragica: the thrilling non-conclusion.)


1 The same kind of psychology that leads you to floss right before a trip to the dentist, even though you don't usually floss, operates in the garden center world as well. Not everybody does it, but there have definitely been cases where somebody obviously watered their plant right before bringing it in to us, even though the plant was clearly shriveled and stunted and had been dry for some time. Wonderful Co-Worker and I have discussed this before, and concluded that it's like the floss situation, except that the only thing most people know to do for plants is water them, so that's the only way they have of pretending to be competent. It's cute, actually. People are great.
2 "Sir, if you won't willingly give me a DNA sample from your Dieffenbachia, I can be back here with a warrant in half an hour. Why not just make this easier on both of us?"

Friday, February 8, 2008

Teacher (Sansevieria trifasciata), Part I

Here's yet another plant that doesn't really catch any breaks in the naming department, just like Chlorophytum comosum. Sansevieria trifasciata is most commonly known as "snake plant," because the leaves are long and thin like snakes, and have irregular banding on them that sort of resembles the patterns on certain snakes, and that's okay. Not the most beloved of animals, but no big deal. It's also called "bowstring hemp" from time to time, owing to its past use in making bowstrings for African archers. (One source said Indian, not African. Maybe it's both. Maybe both of them are wrong. This is why using the internet for research can be dangerous.) Which is okay, too, I guess, though that's a little confusing because it's a totally different plant than hemp, and I think that most people of the world have moved on to guns anyway, not bows and arrows. Still, I suppose it's important to note its military past: I can't think of many other houseplants that have ever been in the service.

Sansevieria trifasciata 'Moonglow,' a.k.a. 'Moonshine'

But the common name that concerns me here is the name "mother in law's tongue." In the last couple weeks, I've seen two different sites get this confused with another plant, due to the common names of each. Since the misinformation in question is potentially dangerous to people, and since it further makes my point about common names being problematic, a topic I pound on relentlessly at every opportunity, I'm going to lead with an explanation of what the mixup has been.

There are two plants that have mothers-in-law in their common names. Dieffenbachia spp. are (very occasionally) called "mother-in-law plant," and Sansevieria trifasciata is (a little more often than Dieffenbachia but still not very often) called "mother-in-law's tongue." The Sansevieria version is a reference to the size and shape of the leaves, plus more than a little bit of metaphor.1 I think if we really wanted a description with strict accuracy, we'd do better with a common name like "Gene Simmons' tongue:"

Photo: public domain, I think. I saw lots of this same picture, none of which were credited to anybody.

Or possibly "giraffe's tongue," which is a little closer still, as far as size and color goes:

Source: My Confined Space

I mean, look at that shit.2 I'll leave these out there just in case the internet wants to take up either suggestion. Realistically, I suspect the mothers-in-law still have it, but I like my ideas better.

The Dieffenbachia version is more sinister: Dieffenbachia spp. contain gazillions of tiny calcium oxalate crystals, which are sharp and are driven into the tongue, throat, and cheeks when a stem is chewed. The leaves and sap also contain these crystals. The suspicion last I knew was that Dieffenbachia also contained a second chemical of some kind or another which makes the whole business more painful, though I'm unclear about whether or not anybody's ever actually identified one or just thinks something else might be in there. Maybe I'll know by the time I do a Dieffenbachia profile.

In any event, chewing on a Dieffenbachia stem or leaf will drive bajillions of little needles into your sensitive mouth parts, possibly also with an extra chemical kicker to make it more painful, and your mouth and throat will react to this by swelling up. If your mouth swells, this is probably going to be painful, but it's not likely to be any huge or permanent deal, not really. If your throat swells, on the other hand, we have a problem, 'cause a person has to use his/r throat on a pretty routine basis, for swallowing and breathing. That does get life-threatening, potentially. Even if your throat doesn't swell shut, you're still going to have trouble forming words or getting them out, which is the (kinda mean) motivation for the name "mother-in-law plant" (i.e., plant you want to feed to your mother-in-law) and the more frequently encountered common name "dumb cane."3

clockwise from top left: Sansevieria trifasciata 'Black Coral,' 'Laurentii,' 'Futura.'

So I hope that cleared everything up. I'm told that a lot of the reason for the misunderstanding is that someone at this link, at, put this on-line and so now when people check for info, this is something they see, and it gets passed on because it's scary, and after all what if it's true? This is the first houseplant urban legend I've ever run across, so it's interesting in that way, but research and experience tell me that urban legends get passed on a lot faster than they get refuted (check sometime if you don't believe me: there's stuff on there that's been circulating for forever), and I found similar stuff on other Sansevieria pages at, so I doubt that all of them are ever going to be corrected. So expect to be hearing about this for the next twenty years.

The same thread I linked above also contains misinformation about Kalanchoe daigremontiana (now Bryophyllum daigremontiana, *sigh*), or "mother of thousands," though that misinformation, at least, got corrected downthread. Sansevieria trifasciata is poisonous, at least to cats (unsure about dogs or people), but it doesn't paralyze anybody's vocal cords. Dieffenbachia doesn't paralyze anything either, of course, unless paralysis has been redefined to include swelling.

Sorry that took so long. At least you got to see Gene Simmons.

There are many species in the genus Sansevieria, but only a few are commonly grown as houseplants, and Sansevieria trifasciata is the most common of those by miles. Time, chance and greed have given us a number of cultivars, and new ones are coming along all the time. (There is excellent Sansevieria eye candy here: if you can't get the link directly, go to "products and services" and click "new products." I want 'Onyx Black' something fierce. Another fine site for your Sansevieria porn needs is this one.) The most common cultivar is 'Laurentii,' which is a tall plant (to five feet) with yellow-edged leaves. A few people claim that 'Laurentii' occurs in the wild (Sansevieria trifasciata is native to west Africa, Wikipedia says, though the growers' guide says Sansevieria the genus is found in Africa and Asia. Aggravatingly non-specific about S. trifasciata, but I think because of this we have to allow the possibility that it could be from somewhere else, or maybe more than one place); this seems unlikely to me, because it seems like it would be disadvantaged (less green photosynthetic area, so less energy, and leaf sections, if they sprout, revert to the nonvariegated plant: we'll get to why and how this works much, much later), but it's not impossible, I suppose.

Sansevieria trifasciata 'Laurentii.'

Sansevieria trifasciata is a common houseplant because it is so very easy to grow. Now, there are betterer and worserer ways of growing it, but if your goal is just to keep it alive, there are really only three rules to remember, and one doesn't count:

1. Do not overwater this plant, and really, really don't overwater this plant in the winter.
2. Do not expose it to cold (below 35ºF / 2ºC).
3. Never, ever feed it after midnight.

Well, okay. That last one is actually from the movie Gremlins. Not actually bad advice, though.

For best results: water when the soil is almost completely dry (in summer) or not at all (winter).4 Bright indirect light is good, though any level except full sun (which may bleach leaves a bit, especially if it's also hot) should be okay. The plants are more or less indifferent to humidity levels5 or temperature (as long as it's above freezing and all). Well-draining soil is very important for all plants, but especially so for this one; if it sits in wet soil for too long, it'll rot.

Pests aren't usually a problem. I think I brought in some whitefly on the 'Laurentii' pictured above (story at the link), but it wasn't hard to get rid of and I'm not positive about the ID. (UPDATE: I'm pretty sure, as of January 2010, that it wasn't whitefly. Though I have no idea what it was, if not whitefly.) They're also supposed to have the occasional scale or mealybug situation, but they're not known for anything in particular, like some plants are.

They are supposed to be somewhat heavy feeders, from what I've read, and I suspect that this is a big part of a common Sansevieria problem: on a lot of older plants, you'll see the leaves flopping over the side of the pot. The leaves are still alive, and the plant continues to grow, but it no longer holds itself upright. I think lack of fertilizer, lack of light, and soil being washed away from the top of the root ball all play a part in this. Limp leaves will remain limp, but if you feed the plant, give it a little new (well-draining!) soil on top of the roots, and move it to a brighter spot, the new growth should do a better job of holding itself up. Can't say I've done this myself: that's just a guess.

Sansevieria trifasciata also don't tend to develop incredibly deep root systems. More than once, people have brought plants in to work for repotting, in giant pots twelve or more inches deep, and then when I've slid the plant out, there were no roots in, like, the bottom eight inches of soil.6 There's not really a good way to handle this: if you put the plant in a shallow pot, it'll be top-heavy and uproot itself all the time; if you put it in a deep pot, you risk rotting it out because of all the heavy, water-retaining soil under the roots. The best compromise I can suggest is, get a deep pot, and plant it lower than you usually would. Leave no more than a couple inches of soil under the root ball. It doesn't solve the whole problem, but it avoids the worst of it, and the edges of the pot will also help support any plants with a tendency to fall over.

Sansevieria trifasciata 'Black Robusta?' (ID uncertain)

The root systems aren't deep, but they are active little guys. (Shallow but busy: sorta like Keanu Reeves, twenty years ago.) The plant will reproduce itself via rhizomes, which are, for all practical purposes, underground stems. The rhizome travels a certain distance and then throws up a new rosette of foliage: given enough time, a single plant will fill its pot this way. (The photo immediately above is sort of a good illustration: the lighter-colored new growth on the far left of the pot is such a sprout.) While this is great if you're wanting to propagate a plant, it's not such great news if you don't: a rhizome that's frustrated for long enough can place enough pressure on a pot to break it open, all at once, usually on a day when everything else is also going wrong and you don't have time to clean up after a plant that's delirious with its first taste of freedom after years of confinement. Plastic pots, though not as good for the plants (because water can't exit the pot through the sides, so the soil stays wetter longer), make this situation easier to monitor, because they visibly bulge and stretch, though it doesn't come up very often in the first place.

The plant's tendency to spread by runners has made it into an invasive weed in places, mainly in islands in the South Pacific where it has been deliberately cultivated. It's also a problem in Hawaii, Australia, and Florida, but then, what the hell isn't a problem in Hawaii and Florida, right?

Propagation is easy, but there's a big catch. The easiest way to do it is to separate rosettes by cutting the rhizomes that separate them. Each rosette can be planted up individually, and, given proper care, it will begin to fill out its pot relatively quickly. The (kinda obvious) down side to this is that you can only get as many new plants out of this as you have rosettes in the original plant, at least until the divisions decide to make more.

There's another method: leaf sections. You take a long, healthy-looking leaf, cut it into pieces about two to eight inches long7 (I'm planning on doing this soon for another post, with pictures and stuff, though it's not so complicated that you couldn't just read about it and then do it for yourself), plant them right-side up in a rooting medium of your choice (ordinary potting soil should work on its own, though when I try this, I expect I'm probably going to amend the soil with sand or perlite), and keep the medium just barely moist until you see shoots appear from the base of the leaf. At this point, the original piece of leaf is no longer necessary, and can be cut away from the shoot, which will support itself after that. At least one site I ran across claimed that the leaf section could be re-used, and another shoot made from the same leaf section. I don't know whether this is true, but I wouldn't be surprised.8

Oooookay, Mr. S. Still not seeing a catch, though.

The problem is that certain kinds of variegation will reproduce from cutting apart rhizomes, but won't reproduce from planting leaf sections. So, if you want to, you can take a leaf of 'Laurentii' and cut it up and plant the sections and get new plants, but the new plants will lack the yellow variegation on the edges of the leaves. Other kinds of coloration will reproduce this way: 'Moonshine' / 'Moonglow,' for example, is supposed to retain its coloration when propagated from leaf sections, as will the other silver-gray cultivars (I'm using this link as an authority.), and plant habit also reproduces (as for example with Sansevieria trifasciata 'Hahnii,' a low-growing sport with a flatter rosette and much shorter leaves), but 'Laurentii' and 'Bantel's Sensation' (pictured below) will revert to plain green plants with the same habit as the variegated parent. I have not yet seen a definitive answer on whether or not the black cultivars ('Black Robusta,' 'Black Coral,' 'Black Gold') revert to a lighter color when propagated from leaf sections, but I suspect not, based on my incredibly limited understanding of how this all works (though 'Black Gold' almost certainly loses the yellow edges, just like 'Laurentii'). The planned leaf-section propagation is mainly to find out if the silver-gray plants, or the very dark green plants, really will retain their unusual coloration using this method.

[UPDATE: Karen715, in comments, says that 'Moonglow' doesn't come true from cuttings but reverts to the standard Sansevieria coloring of dark green stripes on light green leaves, though the habit remains the same. This has its own cultivar name, 'Robusta.' A test to see what 'Silver Queen' does will be underway in a couple days, as soon as I get a chance to cut up and plant a leaf.]

Sansevieria trifasciata 'Bantel's Sensation' (pretty sure)

Why does this happen, the reversion to non-variegated plants? Well, fasten your seat belts, 'cause there's gonna be some science. . . . in the second half of the post, which I'll post on Monday.

I know, cliffhangers suck. But so does trying to read 5000 words at a sitting. You know there are better things you could be doing with your time. I promise it'll be worth coming back for.

(Link to Part II of Sansevieria trifasciata)


Photo credits: mine, except as otherwise noted.

1 Without the metaphor part, one would assume that when you become a mother-in-law, your tongue magically becomes several feet longer, green, and pointed. My understanding is that, historically, this almost never happens. Maybe once.
2 As a child, I found Gene Simmons' tongue, and KISS in general, sort of alarming and terrifying, though this had less to do with the tongue than the evangelical Christian environment in which I was being raised. Now, I look at that picture and think, stop! You're trying too hard! Also: giraffes are cute.
3 Pet peeve: kids today seem not to know the word dumb can mean "mute." To them, dumb = stupid, end of story. Since there is a printed card near the Dieffenbachias with the name "dumb cane" prominently displayed, and since we're in a college town and consequently have a lot of customers who are nineteen, look twelve, and think at an eight-year-old level, I get to hear somebody say "dumb cane" to somebody, followed by Beavis-and-Butthead style laughing, every couple weeks or so. Yet another reason to hate common names. Though for the record, I loooooove Beavis and Butthead.
4 It's actually usually recommended that you water at least once during the winter, and I've been watering my smaller plants monthly this winter so far. But if you're not confident about being able to gauge when it needs water, leaving it dry is always the safer course of action. At least until spring.
5 I ran into a few sites that claimed that Sansevierias like humidity. It's possible, I suppose, but I've never seen anything that made me think they give a damn one way or the other. Even if they did like high humidity, I don't think they get it in their natural environment, so it's certainly not worth the time and effort to try to increase the humidity for this plant by itself.
6 Which raises questions. Is my responsibility to the customer, the store, or the plant? The store gets money if I do the repotting, and doesn't if I don't. The plant could die if I do the repotting, and won't if I don't. The customer may or may not change his/r mind about the procedure if I ask them, and the customer may or may not be upset that his/r judgment is being questioned, and the customer may or may not blame the store if the plant dies because I didn't say something about this to somebody. So far, the tendency has been to try to contact the customer and explain the reservations, and as far as I can remember, this has not yet resulted in anybody changing their minds about anything. Though it may, soon, get me to change my mind about whether or not I bother to call people anymore.
7 Longer sections are said to produce more shoots per section, and are also supposed to produce shoots faster. The big disadvantage, obviously, is that you're not going to be able to get as many long sections from a leaf as you could get short sections. The typical recommendation, which I assume is where one maximizes the number of potential new plants, is supposed to be about 4 inches (10 cm).
8 Off-topic, but one of my co-workers tells me that his grandmother, who had hundreds of African violets (Saintpaulia spp.) at any given time, was able, with one lucky leaf, to produce twenty-six plantlets from a single leaf cutting, by doing the same kind of thing: when the new sprouts came up, she would cut off the petiole of the original leaf and replant it. I don't doubt that this is true, and mention it solely to marvel at the dedication required to do something like that. Whether a similar cut-and-replant procedure would work for Sansevieria, I have no idea, but I wouldn't be surprised if you could get a second batch every now and again. Maybe more.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Random plant event: Begonia rex plants from leaf sections

I don't know how easy it's going to be to tell what's happening in these pictures, but I'm a little pressed for time so I can't really spend much time messing with them, and anyway it's a little hard to tell what's going on in person, too and there's only so much clarity to be gotten by messing with the pictures. So I'm sorry.

Some time ago (November 6, 2007), I was visiting another greenhouse (Wallace's, in Bettendorf, IA) and saw a big huge Begonia with large, star-shaped red-black leaves. I asked the person who was tending the plants there if I could have a leaf to take home and try to propagate, and she said she guessed so. Something to the effect of, well, we don't get a lot of people who ask, 'cause most people don't know how to do it, but I don't care if you want to take one and try.

So then I had to buy something, to assuage my guilt at getting something for free, but that was cool because I got a nice Sansevieria trifasciata 'Black Gold,' which was even on sale, so everything worked out and it was a good day.


So I cut up the leaves and planted them when I got home, and now here we are. I'm not sure how many individual plants are in the tray, but I counted at least ten, though so far none of them are quite old enough to develop the star shape of the parent leaf. You can see a few that are headed that direction, though. All of this came from a single leaf maybe three inches across.

I wasn't expecting this to work out that well: I will probably bring some of the abundance to work with me at some point, though I'm not eager to try to dig through the tray and divide them up: they seem to be doing so well where they are, and it's likely to be a pain to divide them and transport them in the cold. But in any case.

Our last plant delivery included a box of Begonia rex-cultorum, and several leaves broke off in the box during delivery; I tried doing the same with the broken leaves, but I think mostly they were too old or damaged: it looks like I'm only going to get one plant out of all those, and that might not happen either: we're still waiting for something to happen.

At some point I'll maybe get to posting about how to propagate from wedge cuttings like this. The best I could find while scrambling to get ready for work this morning was this page: wedge cuttings are discussed about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way down.

UPDATE (8 Sep 2008): After I posted this, I started to question whether it was, in fact, a rex-cultorum, because the leaf shape and pattern of coloration were not like most of the rex-cultorums I've ever seen. I'm still iffy about it, but I did find pictures of a variety called 'Coffee Texas Star' that does look quite a lot like my plant. So maybe it was a rex-cultorum all along.

UPDATE (7 Nov 2009): I did eventually get around to posting about how to do this. (When I say "eventually," I mean eventually.) The post is here.

I'm also realizing that these pictures were crappy. I should probably not have posted these. Oh well.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Random plant event: Philodendron 'Moonlight' flowers

This has been going on for a while now (the earlier of these photos was taken Nov. 30), but it's still timely, because they're still doing it. The 'Moonlight' Philodendrons are the only ones I've noticed blooming so far, and all of them of a certain size (6-inch pots and up) are doing it now. The other varieties we have in the greenhouse are growing just fine, but not interested in blooming.

The flowers are often nearly as thick as the main stem of the plant, and consist of a pink-red spathe wrapped almost completely around a long (maybe about five inches / 12.5 cm) white spadix. They're also relatively long-lasting, at least in greenhouse conditions: I never wrote it down anywhere, but I'd guess that the one in the first picture lasted for a good 4-6 weeks before the spathe started getting kind of a water-soaked look to it and I removed the flower (the plant responded by producing two flowers right away).

'Moonlight' has more decorative flowers than most Philodendrons I've seen: the typical flower for the genus tends to be smaller and greener, though I have seen pictures of a few that were deep red with a white spadix. My plants at home have never done this, though all of them but one are, realistically, probably still too small.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Rainbow of Thumbs

I actually get kinda angry with people when they compliment me on my 'green thumb.' I mean, I know they intend it well, and I get it, but it also irks me. It's taken a while to figure out exactly why that is.

It is entirely possible that this picture of a NOID Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cultivar is the best, most professional-looking photograph I will ever take in my entire life. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I also get peeved, more so in fact, when people tell me that they need me to suggest something really unkillable for them, because they have a black thumb, or brown thumb,1 or they're just hopeless with plants, they just look at them and the plant dies. I go ahead and do it: generally I suggest a Dracaena of some kind – I really like Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime,' as I believe I've mentioned over and over and over – or a Sansevieria trifasciata, Philodendron hederaceum, Haworthia attenuata, or Zamioculcas zamiifolia. These are all fairly uncomplicated and forgiving plants, which most people, under most circumstances, should be able to keep easily enough, and if the customer doesn't like those, well, there are plenty of others I can recommend.

But that's not the point. The point is that there are people out there who have the idea that they can't keep a plant happy in their homes. Possibly a lot of them don't care that much: I have a hard time relating to such people, but I know they're out there. But then there are the rest of them, who would really like to have a plant, and don't try because they think there's something about them personally, something intrinsic, that makes plants die.

Cineraria something. Pretty, and the colors are very close to being this intense, for real, but they last about five seconds, even in the greenhouse. I don't actually know why we bother to try, but I'll grant that they're stunning to look at.

And this bothers me not because it's wrong (though it is), but because it's lazy. These people are telling me, I don't know anything about plants, and I'm not interested in learning anything, either, so just give me something that will die slowly kthxbye.2 It's also a little insulting: my entire life for the last year or so has increasingly revolved around plants, so to be told that you're not willing to learn even the most basic stuff about them, that it's not worth your time somehow, even when I'm Right. There. To be asked, sometimes gets me a little wound up. Do I say this to the customers? No. Is it, probably, more my problem than theirs? Oh sure. But I have yet to find a productive way to deal with the emotions this stirs up.

Without the brown- and black-thumbed folks, I probably wouldn't have a job. So even if they're being completely ridiculous, I do still need them, so I can't get too upset. And it's not like I expect them to go to the lengths I have, or enroll in a community college, or something like that. But, you know. Library books. The internet. Asking people stuff. It's not like you have to go terribly out of your way to pick up the basics.


The people who compliment the green thumb are less obnoxious. I mean, I always know it was intended well. But this, also, manages to take a lot of hard work and time and wave it away as trivial. Nobody is born knowing how much water to give a Yucca guatemalensis, or what the difference is between a 20-20-20 fertilizer and an 18-6-12. These are things you have to go out of your way to learn, either the hard way (by getting it wrong and killing plants until you happen on a good combination) or the easy way (by looking it the hell up). I do, kinda, at least with tropical plants, have a pretty good success rate at getting plants to do what I want them to do, whether this be growing or rooting or jumping through flaming hoops or whatever, and by now I've developed some general rules that would be hard to explain to somebody, but which work out when I apply them. But it's not because I have some mystical connection with the plants --

Also from

it's because I've grown some. Anybody can do this. You just have to do it.

So don't tell me that there's anything innate about either of us that makes us able or unable to grow plants. That makes about as much sense as complimenting someone on being able to drive, answer a ringing telephone, or file things in alphabetical order. It's a skill. You practice it, it develops. It's not supernatural.

To sum up, then: if the greenhouse looks nice, just tell me the greenhouse looks nice: you don't have to tell me I'm magic. If you haven't grown a lot of plants before, just tell me you haven't grown a lot of plants before: you don't have to tell me you're the Botanical Grim Reaper. Skills can be learned, "green thumbs" are myths, and I will not sympathize with your plant troubles if you make it clear that you've never tried to learn how to grow them.



Photo credits: mine unless otherwise noted.

1 This does not apply to Mr. Brown Thumb, since his moniker is clearly ironic.
2 Net slang for "Okay, thanks, bye," but, like, even more curtly dismissive. Kids these days.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Bad Influence (Coffea arabica)

This is in fact the same plant as the one that gives us commercial coffee. As the botanical name suggests, it's from the general Horn of Africa area, though the specifics are still being argued about, particularly the question of whether it was first farmed on the African or Arabian side of the Red Sea.

The general area where Coffea arabica is native; Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen in particular. (I couldn't find an actual range map: consensus seems to be that it all started in Ethiopia somewhere.)

We also, of course, have no real idea who first cultivated it, either. There is a cute and almost certainly false story involving an Ethiopian goatherder: the story says he noticed that goats eating the berries became more playful and energetic (for some reason almost every account uses the word "frisky"), tried them himself, and then went on to farm the plants purposefully for the beans. This story almost has to be leaving out a few important developments, like for example whether the berries or the beans were the initial justification for early coffee farmers: the flesh of the berries is edible, and apparently tastes good, though it doesn't contain caffeine as far as I can tell. But in any case, we can glean at least this much from the tale: 1) it was a long time ago, 2) Starbucks didn't invent coffee, and 3) people like caffeine.

(A more thorough and interesting story, including an explanation of why we associate the word "mocha" with coffee, the theft that led to the first European coffee production, and the highly caffeinated political radicalism that started in the first coffeehouses, can be found here, at the website of the International Coffee Organization.)

Coffee growing is now an international business, and almost 80% of the coffee produced is from Coffea arabica. Most of the world's crop is from Brazil (about a third of the total), but there are other coffee growers in Central America (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras), Southeast Asia (Vietnam, India, Indonesia), tropical South America (Peru, Columbia), and its native Africa (Ethiopia), as well as smaller growers scattered elsewhere around the world. In the year 2000, U.S. consumption of coffee was 22.1 gallons per capita; in that same year, my own personal consumption was probably about 500 gallons in a year.1

The remaining 20% of coffee that is not Coffea arabica is from Coffea canephora, a related species with higher caffeine content but a harsher taste. C. arabica is the more delicate plant, and are more susceptible to burn (especially at low altitude) and certain diseases, but it produces the superior beverage.

There are a few varieties and cultivars of Coffea arabica, including some crosses with C. canephora, but none of them are exactly household words, and aren't especially relevant to houseplants. There is one variety, referred to here as "purpurascens," which supposedly has purple leaves, but I couldn't track down any pictures, and in any case it's not something you see in stores. Maybe someday?

C. arabica is in the family Rubiaceae, which is also home to Gardenia jasminoides. If you tilt your head and squint a little bit, you can kind of see the family resemblance: both have very glossy, dark green leaves, with white, fragrant flowers.

Coffea isn't as difficult a plant indoors as Gardenia, but it's still pretty demanding. My own big issue, and at least for the moment, the biggest issue for the plants at work, is temperature: although the greenhouse is warm, there are cold spots, or spots where roof condensation causes persistent cold drips (previously mentioned in Ficus maclellandii). The largest of the Coffea arabica at work (which has since sold, but is pictured below) has been dropping yellow leaves every now and again, and my much smaller plant at home is doing the same thing. I would be more worried about this if not for the fact that I've had a customer ask me about the very same behavior on her Coffea at home, and I recently saw a large plant with berries and everything in another retail greenhouse that was also dropping leaves. I figure this more or less clinches it: yellowing leaves during winter has to mean either that the plant is too cold (which is plausible for all four of my examples) or that this is a normal reaction to shorter day length. In either case, it's a winter thing, and there's not a whole lot I can do about it.

The biggest of the work Coffea arabica plants, since sold, which very sneakily started branching and going all treelike while still in its original four-inch pot. By the time I noticed that it was shading out neighboring plants, it had developed to this point and had to be moved up to a six-inch pot.

Come summer, the big issue will be water: C. arabica transpires enormously when it's in full growth mode, and consequently it needs to be watered a lot, even inside in an air-conditioned living room. In the greenhouse at the end of last summer, we were needing to water the Coffea and Codiaeum variegatum two or three times a day. (Meanwhile, many of the other plants were scorching, or notching,2 or otherwise falling to pieces.) Both over- and underwatering can be problems: with mine I water when the pot feels noticeably light, and that's worked okay so far.

Other than those two things, you're basically aiming for a tropical, really tropical, rainforesty kind of situation: high humidity (too little will get you brown leaf margins) and high light (pretty much the more, the better, though this has to be eased into gradually or the plant will burn). Some sites say east or west exposure, with the implication being that south is too much: I think south is the only reasonable place to put them, so we have ourselves a controversy. I wouldn't put a Coffea in full sun outdoors, though, just so we're clear: though they do eventually get to be tree-sized, I'm told they need shade when they're younger.

None of the Coffea arabicas I know personally have been especially prone to pests, and they're not likely to need any more grooming than just the usual removal of dead leaves. They are supposed to be pretty heavy feeders, though, and every site I've seen that addresses soil at all is very insistent that they need soil with really, really awesome drainage. No particular kind of food is necessary, as far as I can tell, so long as there is some: 20-20-20 should work just fine, mixed according to the label directions and given once a month or so.

But what you're really interested in is, can I grow my own coffee beans at home, right?

Well, it's not likely to be practical. But.

Plants are mature enough to flower at around three or four years old, and will, if given good enough conditions, flower every year thereafter. Flowers are white, fragrant, and star-shaped, and are produced along the leaf axils.

Coffea canephora is dependent on cross-pollination, but C. arabica, with twice as many chromosomes (44, compared to canephora's 22), is self-fertile and will fruit without any intervention on your part.3 Berries (sometimes called coffee "cherries") will form, but they take roughly nine months to ripen. Ripening is signified by a change in color (they turn red, hence "cherry"), and doesn't happen all at once: berries that are right next to one another don't necessarily ripen at the same time. The flesh of the "cherry" is edible, though most of the weight and volume is taken up by a pit, which usually contains two seeds (the coffee "beans" you're familiar with). Once in a while, three seeds are found in the same pit; slightly more often than that, there will be only one seed. These solo beans are referred to as "peaberries" and have a different flavor than the regular beans. Peaberries are often separated out from the batch and sold separately, at a higher price.

Beans intended for beverage use must be roasted before they can be ground: roasted beans have a better flavor, apparently. I'm not going to go into the specifics of how you roast your own coffee beans, but you can find a description of the process here and another one here, if you're really that interested.


Beans for propagation also go through some changes: in the wild, they're usually passed through the digestive tract of a bird, because, um . . . well, who among us doesn't want to be passed through the digestive tract of a bird?4 If you're germinating your own seeds at home, this is probably not going to be practical, but that's okay, 'cause it's not entirely necessary either. Seeds which have been removed from their pits and allowed to quietly dry somewhere can be planted; this site says that the best germination rate is observed for seeds which are about eight weeks old. I'd assume bottom heat would be helpful for germination, and probably also a humidity tent, but I didn't find any specific instructions for how to do this, so your guess is as good as mine, I suppose.5

Propagation from cuttings is also said to be possible, but apparently it's not done often, and when it is done it doesn't succeed that often. I haven't tried it myself, but I would guess that bottom heat and a humidity tent would be useful here too.

Coffea arabica will get to be a tree, in time, if not routinely pruned back. 40 feet (13 meters) is not unheard of. On coffee plantations, plants are pruned to keep them at a convenient height for harvesting, usually around 6 feet (2 meters). Individual plants can be very long-lived, as well: they begin to produce fruit at about 3 or 4 years old, reaches its full yield at about 6 years old, and can live to be 60-100 years old, given good conditions.

My personal plant, late October 2007

In keeping with the vague quality of drug-pusherness surrounding the plant, it's also somewhat noteworthy that Coffea arabica has become invasive in the Australian rainforest. (hat-tip to the Invasive Species Weblog for the link) The article doesn't say, but I'm guessing that the relatively quick growth and abundant, animal-spread seed, probably have a lot to do with its success. I was unable to find evidence of invasive Coffea plants elsewhere, though that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.


Photo credits:

map: public domain from a site I can't remember
work plant, my personal plant: me
flowering plant, "cherries:" Marcelo Corrêa at the Wikipedia entry for Coffea arabica


1 You'll be happy to know that this is down to the much more reasonable 180 gal/yr. I was working, for most of the year 2000, as night auditor in a motel, and the actual paperwork I had to do only took me a couple hours: I had nothing to do between about 1 AM and 5 AM except smoke and drink coffee, and consequently developed a bit of a dependency on both. "Bad influence" indeed, though I do loves me some coffee, so I don't feel especially guilty about this. (The math: 12 cups before work and about 10 cups while at work = 22 cups/day. 22 cups/d times 365 d/yr times 1 gal/16 cups = 501.8 gallons / yr. Now it's more like eight cups a day, which I think we can all agree is quite moderate by comparison.)
2 "Notching" is a quirky little thing that Dracaena deremensis (especially 'Warneckei') does when it's too hot: incoming new leaves develop what look like cuts, at the base of the leaf. The growers' guide says that light foliar sprays of boron will make it stop happening, but any damaged leaves will remain damaged. For indoor growers, the more sensible approach to notching would be to move the plant out of the heat and light that's causing the notching in the first place. I don't think it's very likely to happen indoors anyway. D. deremensis also get a mosaic-type pattern where the veins stay green but everything else yellows (this is called chlorosis, or netting), and although they will return to green when temperatures go back to normal, getting back to normal takes months.
3 One of the weirder things about being a plant is that every once in a while, a plant inherits a whole extra set of chromosomes from a parent, or spontaneously doubles its own, and still functions perfectly well as a plant. Often, there is also an increase in the number for some part of the plant: ten petals on the flower instead of five, bigger fruit, more seeds. This situation is referred to by the technical name "polyploidy," and it's fascinating stuff, if that's the kind of stuff you find fascinating. Polyploid animals also happen, with some species being entirely polyploid. In most cases, of course, having a whole extra set of chromosomes will just fuck you up: double your chromosomes at your own risk.
4 (Hey. Don’t judge.)
5 (No it's not. My guess is totally better.)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Unfinished business re: Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash'

Just updating the record to include pictures of the flower:

and the seed pods:

of Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash.' Many of you will have seen these in person before, and will think me kind of lame for making a whole post out of these, but so it goes.

This particular flower stalk isn't the most impressive I've ever seen. I mean, it should be adequate as far as getting me all the seeds I could want and then some, but they do get a lot bigger than this.