Saturday, April 5, 2008

Work-related: April 5

At the moment, we've got two greenhouses open to customers, both of which are attached to the store. One of these is open all the time, and the other is closed most of the year, but opened October to December for poinsettias and then February to June for outdoor stuff, which in practice seems to mainly mean geraniums.

So this is what that house looks like at the moment.

Compare to last November:

In both cases, the more interesting picture probably would have been taken from the opposite corner of the greenhouse, but wev. There will be more pictures.

The tropicals, tragically, are all smushed together in about 40% of the space they had previously, in the non-pictured greenhouse. We're selling a lot of tropicals now, weirdly: I think what's going on is, it's spring, so people want to buy plants, but it's too cold still to buy something and put it outside, but they've already given themselves permission to buy something, so they get a houseplant instead. Though we're also selling a little bit of actual outdoor stuff, too, which I think has to do mostly with people wanting to get all the good plants before somebody else does. I'm told it's normal to be out of some items by the beginning of May, even though our normal last-frost date is May 15.

I'm still working a lot, in that I'm scheduled for a lot of days. The boss tells me that I will probably want to come in early or stay late just to get everything accomplished, though she doesn't schedule me that way -- apparently I'm to show initiative or something. Wouldn't be so bad except that I've got nearly 400 plants at home, and a blog, and a husband, and I need to eat and sleep sometimes too, and I'm wanting to be really careful about overdoing it, since I have a tendency to burn myself out if I push too hard for too long, and heat exhaustion is becoming a concern as summer gets closer. There have already been a couple moments that made me nervous.

Orange Pelargonium.

My predecessor in the greenhouse apparently used to work twelve- and fourteen-hour days on a regular basis during this time of year, to make sure everything was getting done, and I'm getting mixed messages about whether or not this was really necessary or desirable. Certain of the co-workers have expressed the opinion that it wasn't strictly necessary for her to do this, but she was temperamentally unable to delegate even the most basic tasks, so she had to put in the extra hours but only because she had to do everything herself. My situation kind of has to be different, since this is my first exposure to a lot of this stuff, so WCW and others are sort of electing to be responsible for one thing or another and I'm just trying to keep my eyes open and remember as much of this as I can for next year.

I'm also seeing a recurrence of something that really used to bother me back in August when I started: if I mess something up, I hear about it one at a time from everybody who knows about it. Like, a couple days ago a fountain went dry, and I had three people tell me, at different moments, to be sure and watch the fountain so it didn't go dry. Last summer, memorably, one person told me a tree was wilty and needed to be watered, and as I was walking the six feet to the hose to water it, someone else popped up out of nowhere and told me about the same wilty tree. (Ack! Yes! I know! So let me water it already!)

White Pelargonium.

I guess I'd rather hear the same message from multiple people than not hear any messages at all. Or hear conflicting messages from multiple people.

Last day of a four-day week today, and then I have a day off. I'm sort of tempted to tell everybody, I'm going to sleep now. Wake me when it's September.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Random plant event: the very, very happy Alocasia

About half of our Alocasia 'Polly' plants are doing this now. Either they all have guns in their pockets, or they're just really happy to see me.

The other half of them aren't happy to see me, and it's kind of mutual. They're not my favorites of the plants we sell. Mainly they just get spider mites, or get in the way.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Random plant event: Vinca minor sport

Another new little mutant (the first mutant is still doing fine, though it's not growing very fast, which has me a little concerned. Not that it should be growing fast -- it's a Dracaena -- but until it's big enough that we can propagate it, there's only the one plant, and we don't have a backup should something go wrong, and not having a backup makes me very nervous indeed), this time on a Vinca minor.

The picture isn't the greatest; it's hard to get a good close photo with my camera. Or maybe it's easy and I just haven't figured out how yet. But this is good enough that you can see the basic coloration scheme, and also what the parent looked like (the parent is on the left). I don't have high hopes for this as a patentable plant, just because there's so little green area on the leaves that I'm guessing it's not going to be very vigorous, but it'd be a pretty striking filler plant if it could be kept from reverting. So we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Indoor Plants as Air Purifiers

This is weird to write, but it's been bugging me for a while now, so I figure I have to. I see a lot of people asking – more on line than in-person at work, but there's some of both – about which plants are good at removing chemicals from the air, and where one might find these plants. Semi-recently, I had a customer who was very insistent that she had to have some plants from this specific list (out of Reader's Digest: she'd brought the magazine in with her) because those plants had been tested by NASA, and they were good toxin-removers, and anything else might be nice and all, but unless NASA had proven it would improve air quality, she wasn't interested. Another subset of customers want some plants because of their capacity to produce oxygen, and have been told by the deluded or unscrupulous that more oxygen is the Answer! at long last! if you're feeling tired or run down.

Pictures in this post are of various NOID mums from work,
and are only tangentially related to the topic at hand.

This is what we call junk science. Junk science is stuff that's true in some fashion or another, but horribly misunderstood, distorted, or incomplete. This is distinct from pseudoscience, which is stuff that isn't even a little bit true, but is dressed up in the language of science (vibrations, energy, metabolism, crystal lattices, toxins, quantum, etc.). Plants are tools of both, though not very often – generally the peddlers of junk and pseudoscience want you to buy something manufactured, not a plant, because manufactured things won't propagate themselves. If there's a plant involved, it's usually been ground to a fine powder, or reduced to a picture somewhere in the logo.

Part I: Oxygenation

Let's start with the oxygen claim, 'cause it's easier to take down. First of all, in order for this to work, we have to assume that your home is airtight. If you're going to be opening your doors and windows, then all bets are off, because any (allegedly) beneficial accumulation of oxygen is negated once all the air inside your home has been replaced with air from elsewhere, an event which is called an "air exchange."

This first qualifier excludes everybody who's reading this. The average home completes an air exchange about once an hour, and the EPA recommends sealing your home tighter, to extend this to about every 2 hours and 51 minutes. I'm not saying that the air in your home is identical in every respect to the air outside: things can build up. However, there's always a point where the oxygen you generate inside is balanced out by the amount leaving, whatever those relative amounts might be. At that point, there's nothing you can do to increase the average oxygen level in your home except to produce it faster (as by getting more plants) or get it to leave slower (as by sealing your home up even tighter). If all the air is turned completely over every hour, or even every 2 hours and 51 minutes, then that's not going to allow for a whole bunch of buildup of anything. Keep this in mind for later.

When photosynthesis happens, oxygen is produced. In order for the oxygen to leave the plant, though, carbon dioxide has to come in, one for one, and a molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) weighs more than an oxygen molecule (O2). This means that the plant is going to put on mass over time, but we already knew that that happens: we call it growing. I'll spare you the chemistry, but when all is said and done, the plant adds one molecule of glucose for every six oxygen molecules it gives off.

So we can use this fact to do some math. I'll stick the math in a footnote, so as not to rile the mathphobic in the audience, but the upshot is, just to increase the oxygen content in a small bathroom, say 6 feet wide by 8 feet long by 8 feet tall, by a small (probably not even noticeable) amount, say 1%, over the course of a day (let's assume that the air exchange rate is once per day, which is more than eight times more airtight than the EPA recommends and is therefore damned unlikely) you'd have to have a plant in there that was putting on dry weight at the rate of 11.1 kg/yr (or 24.6 lb/yr).1 And this is to change the composition of air inside of a very tiny room by a very tiny amount. So, ma'am? That peace lily you're buying isn't even going to oxygenate your bathroom, much less your whole ground floor.

But – and this is really my main point here – that's okay. You wouldn't necessarily want it to, even if it could. Unless you are right this minute drowning at the bottom of a swimming pool, in outer space, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, adjusting to a move to a higher altitude, or in need of supplemental oxygen due to emphysema or some other lung impairment, you're already getting all the oxygen you need. Even if you feel tired and run down. You're probably not sleeping enough. You may not be eating well. You could be depressed. But lack of oxygen is not your problem. If everybody feels tired and run-down because of lack of oxygen, and oxygen only comes from plants in one's immediate vicinity, then: please explain this to the Inuit, who live a plantless existence on ice and permafrost for most of the year. (But explain it to them quickly! They have no oxygen!)

And furthermore (since this dead horse is just laying here, I may as well beat it), if you think about it, the odds are pretty good that just outside your door, or maybe the next county over, there is a very large biomass of plant life just photosynthesizing like mad, in the form of a lawn, or a farm, or a tree, or whatever, which probably puts on all kinds of biomass in a year. Unless you went to completely ridiculous extremes to fill your home floor to ceiling with houseplants (and I don't know what kind of insane person would do that2), any contribution from your houseplants is going to be completely swamped by the plants outside every time you open the front door.

And if that's not enough, most of the oxygen on earth doesn't come from land plants in the first place. Wikiposedly (I couldn't confirm this with anything more reliable, though it makes sense), 70% of the oxygen in the air comes from sea life, algae and cyanobacteria and such. Your spider plant, however big and lush, is just not that big of a deal.

Part II: Toxin Removal

The word "toxin" used to have a more specific meaning. I'm not sure who to blame for the change, but now instead of meaning "something that can and will cause you harm if it gets in your body," it seems to mean "tainted" or "contaminated:" it's more of a psychological word than a physical one. There are a lot of products out there which purport to cleanse toxins out of your body, but there's not a lot of detail on the questions you'd think would be important, like: Which toxins? How did they get there? What happens if I don't remove them? How do you know? A skilled charlatan will have a blizzard of junk science to throw at you; a less-skillful one will have to use pseudoscience and hope you don't know the difference; the newbies will change the subject.

That said, there really are, probably, some things in your air right now that aren't good for you. Exactly how bad we're talking depends on what it is, and where it's coming from, and how frequent your home or office's air exchanges happen, but sure. Not everything in your environment is as pure as the driven snow, the driven snow included.

That said, it's not likely that these chemicals are going to be what finally does you in. They may not even contribute to it, not even a little bit, or reduce your quality of life in any way. But they're also not going to make you healthier, so you may as well get rid of what you can, and if doing this involves a plant, well, plants are pretty, or at least can be, and having pretty stuff around improves your quality of life anyway. So go right ahead: I've got no problem with that. But keep in mind when you hear and read these things that the whole plants-will-save-us-all crap may have been just a weensy bit oversold.

Where this whole plants & toxins thing crosses a line, for me, is the point when people think that it is very, very important that they get a plant for this one, specific purpose. They don't care what the plant looks like, they don't care if they have the conditions to support it, they don't care about the price: if it's on the list, then they have to have it, and it's an emergency.

There are situations where it might actually be sort of an emergency to do something about chemical vapors in your home. For example, if you survived Hurricane Katrina and got moved to FEMA trailers provided by the government, who knew that the trailers' air contained levels of formaldehyde 75 times the maximum level considered safe for workplaces but stuck you there anyway. (Remember when I asked you to keep in mind how oxygen never gets much of a chance to build up in the air, because the air cycles through so fast? Imagine how much formaldehyde has to be being released, continuously, to build up to levels 75 times the amount considered safe. Imagine how much higher the concentration would have to be at the source of the formaldehyde, then, like kids playing on the floor next to off-gassing carpet, or sleeping with the head of your bed pushed up against an off-gassing wall.) Then, it might be kind of an emergency to get some plants. Though in that case, you probably don't have enough room or money for the number of plants it would take anyway, so the whole discussion is still kinda moot.3

Although different plants do seem to preferentially take up one chemical or another, I've had trouble finding anything reliable-looking on-line about any chemicals except three: trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, and benzene. So, in the unlikely event that you're sure you have an issue with one of these, do the research and find a plant that will get rid of it. Most of us, though, aren't going to know which chemical might be our main problem. Since 1) it's hard to find specific chemical/plant match-ups anyway, and 2) all plants have some capacity to absorb organic compounds from the air, I say buy what you like and don't worry about it. In general, plants with more surface area will absorb unwanted molecules from the air faster and more completely than plants with less. So you're better off choosing bigger plants rather than smaller plants, rainforest plants rather than succulents, fast-growing plants rather than slow-growing plants. But this isn't a life-or-death thing, and anyway, you're (in theory) going to be living with this plant for a while, so you may as well get something you enjoy looking at.

This is true even if it's not something that NASA specifically checked out.4 On the other hand, many of the NASA study plants are quite nice, including several that have already been the subject of plant profiles here at PATSP, so there's also no reason to exclude something from consideration just because it's on the list:

Aglaonema spp.
Chamaedorea seifrizii
Chlorophytum comosum
Chrysanthemum morifolium
Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig'
Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana'
Dracaena marginata
Epipremnum aureum
Ficus benjamina
Gerbera jamesonii
Hedera helix
Philodendron hederaceum (a. k. a. P. scandens, P. oxycardium)
Philodendron selloum (a. k. a. P. bipinnatifidum)
Sansevieria trifasciata
Spathiphyllum spp.

The NASA recommendation was for one eight- to ten-inch plant per 100 square feet of floor space (some sources say six- to eight-inch; I'm not sure which was the actual original suggestion); based on my best guesses of how that scales up and down to four-inch plants and sixteen-inch plants and so forth, I think I have at least nineteen times more than the recommendation. We have really, really non-toxic air here. Or so goes the theory.

One note of caution: in some situations, having a plant inside can actually make air quality worse, at least in a sense: certain plants are known to cause allergic reactions in some people, and if dried sap, for example, is on the surface of a leaf and then gets stirred up by the wind, or a featherduster, or whatever, then it could, in theory, lead to some respiratory distress, though I was unable to find evidence that this had ever actually happened to anybody in any kind of life-threatening way. I assume that the same plants that are known to cause contact allergies would also be the worst offenders on this count, so Ficus spp., Euphorbia spp., Synadenium grantii, Hedera helix, Pedilanthus tithymaloides, Yucca guatemalensis, Agave spp., and so on, might not be the plants you want for this, if you're extraordinarily sensitive to plant materials in general. Or use pots filled with dirt, which also works, though not as well.5

I'd prefer that the people buying houseplants were buying them because they liked them, not because they're expecting them to do a job. And I'd really rather that the people buying them weren't expecting them to give them super-oxygenated energy! or remove toxins (for "toxins" read evil itself) from their environment, because this is a lot more to ask of a plant than most plants are capable of, and all involved are likely to wind up disappointed in the end.

[shrug] It's not up to me why people buy, obviously. I suppose I just don't relate to people who need an excuse.


1 Air is 78.08 % nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, and the rest is miscellaneous junk (carbon dioxide, helium, neon, methane, ammonia, water vapor, ozone, nitrogen oxides of varying configuration, carbon monoxide, radon, krypton, sulfur di- and trioxide, hydrogen, etc.).

1 kilogram = 2.2046 lb.
The volume of one mol of any gas at standard temperature and pressure is 22.4 L.
The molecular weight of oxygen is 32.0.
The molecular weight of glucose is 180.16.
6x8x8 = 384 ft3. So then,

(384 ft3) x (28.3168 L / ft3) x (0.2095 L O2 / 1 L air) x (1 mol O2 / 22.4 L) x (32 g O2 / mol O2) x 1% = 32.5 g O2. This is the mass of one percent of the oxygen in the room in question.

(32.5 g O2) x (1 mol O2 / 32.0 g O2) x (1 mol glucose / 6 mol O2) x (180.16 g glucose / mol glucose) = 30.5 g glucose / day.

(30.5 g glucose / day) x (365.25 days / yr) x (1 kg / 1000 g) = 11.1 kg glucose / yr.
(11.1 kg glucose / yr) x (2.2046 lb / kg) = 24.6 lb glucose / yr.

This is a lowball estimate, because of course plants do things besides making glucose, like for example making proteins (for which they need nitrogen) and DNA (which involves phosphorus). Uptake of nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as the various other elements plants are made of, will increase the amount of mass involved still more.
2 my "office:"

3 So, you may be wondering how the formaldehyde got in there in the first place, and why it stays. Well. For reasons too complex to go into here, a lot of foams, glues and plastics are produced by reacting formaldehyde with some other substance (in fact, Bakelite, the very first plastic, was produced by reacting formaldehyde and phenol). There's always a little of the reactants left over, and they can only be washed off the surface. Other products that aren't actually made with formaldehyde can break down into formaldehyde (and other things) over time. A third group of things is deliberately permeated with formaldehyde to kill mold and bugs and such, a fraction of which stays in the product. So all three kinds of materials are going to be continually leaking a little bit of formaldehyde from the center of whatever it is, until it's all evaporated away, a process which is usually known as "off-gassing" in the environmental literature. Wikipedia has a list of stuff that (wikiposedly) releases formaldehyde, though this won't probably mean much to you unless you're fairly versed in chemistry.
There is the occasional product where release of formaldehyde is the whole point, as for example imidazolidinyl urea, an antimicrobial added to certain shampoos and other cosmetic-type products. Imidazolidinyl urea can protect a product against mold and other unwanted organisms because it is constantly releasing a small amount of formaldehyde, which is sufficient to kill anything off before it can get itself established; consequently, you can squeeze the shampoo out of the bottle in the shower without having to worry about it having embedded chunks of mold, which I think most of us would agree is a good thing. (I know Martha Stewart would agree that it's a good thing. Unless she makes her own shampoo. I bet she makes her own. So never mind.) Though I doubt the Katrina survivors' trailers have high formaldehyde levels in them because they're full of shampoo.
Indoor air normally contains about 10-20 parts per billion (ppb) of formaldehyde. The work-safe level is currently set at 8 ppb by the CDC. The average level in the Katrina trailers was 77 ppb, though there was quite a range: at least one test showed a level of 590 ppb, which is a whole hell of a lot.
4 The original NASA-approved list seems to have been expanded somewhat since the original studies were published, or at least you'll find longer lists than mine at some other websites. Whether this is because people spontaneously expanded the list to include their own favorite plants, or because of common-name confusion and people copying one another's lists, or because there were actually additional studies done more recently, I'm not sure. It doesn't change my basic point, however big or small the official NASA list is.
5 No, seriously. One of the NASA tests on Chlorophytum comosum and another plant I can't remember (Epipremnum aureum?) used a Plexiglas box containing a certain concentration of formaldehyde. In order to see how much of the formaldehyde being absorbed was the plant, instead of the soil, the pot, etc., they ran a control test with soil-filled pots of the same size. The soil removed a third of the formaldehyde on its own, taking the concentration in the box from 15 ppb to 10 ppb. It's easy to forget about the microbes in dirt, even sterilized dirt, but they're still there.

Random plant event: Polypodium formosanum 'Cristatum'

This isn't really so much a random plant event as just a random plant, but whatever. In the post about the shoplifter, I mentioned that there was a weird plant in the latest shipment that was going to get its own post soon: this is that plant.

It's a little unusual from the top:

But the foliage isn't even the part we're interested in. It came in with a batch of "footed" ferns -- rabbit's-foot (Davallia) and bear's-paw (Polypodium?) and that sort of thing. So check out what we saw when we looked at the "feet:"

The picture doesn't quite do it justice, but it was the best I could do. The "feet" are smooth, and sort of a light green -- more than one co-worker spontaneously compared them to Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, though hornworms are thicker. And more mobile.

The supplier helpfully provided tags with the scientific name and the suggested common name of "E.T. fern;" I don't know if I expect that to catch on, but it certainly got my attention. In any case, it looks like a footed fern mutant that doesn't grow "fur" on the "feet." I'd buy one, but we're kind of at the low end of the annual cycle with my rabbit's-foot, where it's just starting to come out of dormancy after spending all winter looking increasingly like crap. Taking on another fern seems like asking for trouble. But maybe eventually.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Unfinished business: Ludisia discolor blooms

Just before Christmas, I posted excitedly with the news that the Ludisia discolor ("jewel orchid") plants in the greenhouse were all budding, and I was excited about what the flowers would end up looking like. Then they all got sold before any of them opened up, so I never saw even one flower, which was depressing. Well. In last week's tropical order, we had some come in that were already in bloom, so now I know, and I took pictures, so you also can know.

The bud:

And then the flowers:

A little anticlimactic, no?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The shoplifter

So I'm in the back of the store, trying to put away the tropical order (which arrived on Wednesday: pictures of three of the more notable plants are scattered throughout this post, though the weirdest one is going to get its own post in the near future), when Younger Co-Worker comes back and tells me, You should go out there; there's a guy who I think is just standing by the Joseph's coat or whatever it's called, breaking pieces off.

He's what?

Just go go in there and see.

Tillandsia xerographica. This plant is something like 10 inches in diameter, and is impressive, but I strongly doubt that we're going to convince many people to pay $30 for one. ($30 is actually cheap: with our usual mark-up it should have been $40. Certain people had to be talked into reducing the price.)

So I go in the greenhouse and look around, and there's only one guy in immediate sight, who sees me see him and immediately asks me something I don't remember, about Begonias. I remember the phrasing was weird -- something along the lines of, I need to steal a couple leaves from one of your reddest Begonias. And we look around at Begonias for a bit, and he's chattering at me the entire time about how he's connected with the University of Iowa1 and there's some guy there who's got this thing he does with dissolving cell walls away until the protoplasm from differing cells can be combined together, and he has to have really red leaves so they'll be able to tell whether or not it worked, etc., which chatter is actually moderately interesting.2

Anthurium andraeanum 'Florida,' at least according to the tag. The picture is more or less true to the actual color: it's sort of orange-but-not-orange. Yellow spadix. WCW and I were both unwilling to buy a whole plant (they were pricey), but we divided one between us and are buying most of the pieces of that instead. WCW, by the way, said that she'd had dreams already about some of the plants that came in in this last order, that she wants some of them that badly.

And I think to myself, I should really probably make sure he knows he's going to have to pay for those, and I consider saying just flat out, "You know you have to pay for those, right?" but I don't, because that's, you know, awfully blunt, and for all I know the University has some special arrangement with us to where they can take stuff like this from time to time, for their purposes, whatever those purposes may be. So I figure, okay, no, I'll just go up towards the front with him, and jump behind a register and tell him $3.253 or whatever, and that actually would have worked, except that another customer caught me at that moment and asked me a question about a fern, and while I was answering her question he blew past me, through the store and into the parking lot.

So then I go to the boss as she's leaving for lunch, and while she's telling me that she's leaving, the guy pulls out of the parking lot right in front of the window where we're standing, and I get his license number and ask the boss for a pen, and then I ask her, So, um, do we have some kind of special arrangement with the University where they can come here and take cuttings and leaves and stuff for free? And she says no.4 And I'm like, oh. 'Cause the guy who just left, with this license number, just did that.

Euphorbia bougheyi variegata. I bought this particular specimen a couple days ago, because I remembered Aiyana said she had one a while back. Also it's pretty.

And then there was a rehashing of the part of the story I've already told you, followed by a minor lecture about watering the petunias, some of which have gotten too dry recently. So not a huge deal. Also he didn't really get much of value: he did get some rex begonia leaves, but most of them were the mildewed ones, which were also scorching from being in front of a heater and which we were unlikely ever to sell anyway. Plus we haven't been able to propagate the Alternanthera dentata lately from seeds5 or cuttings either one, so even if he got cuttings off of that, they're probably worthless to him. He may only have gotten a couple leaves from some cane-type begonias, and they'll be growing more soon enough. So no real damage done. We're unlikely to prosecute: it'd cost more to get what we're owed than to just ignore it. But I just hate getting played like that, particularly since I did kinda know better and did think about making the right call. Damn this midwestern niceness! It's a curse, I tell you.


1 (plausible: half the town seems to be connected to the University of Iowa in some way or another)
2 Though now that I think about it, he was probably bullshitting me. I remember he threw in some comment somewhere in there about how "and this doesn't count as genetic engineering," which -- the fuck it doesn't! That's totally genetic engineering! And there was something else where he was talking about dissolving the cell walls with cellulose, which a real scientist would have known was actually cellulase, and a few other things like that. He was talking very quickly, though, obviously, so I had to kind of ignore shit like that if I was to have any hope of following the conversation.
3 This is also the price of a 3-inch plant, and is kind of the default charge for people who want to buy cuttings.
4 (To her credit, she said it fairly nicely, not at all in the oh my god, I forgot you're retarded sort of tone that I would probably have used had our positions been reversed.)
5 (Well I think they're seeds: the flower heads have been dropping pieces of themselves when the plant gets bumped, so I'm assuming. Though we still haven't been able to sprout them yet.)