Saturday, April 19, 2008

Pretty picture: Dianthus chinensis 'Floral Lace Crimson' flower

And back to work again, I guess. My head is a brick of snot, so I can't really hear anything, and I was up for a little while last night with a sore throat, so I'm tired, and I'm not the greatest at thinking coherently, but maybe I won't need to hear anything or stay conscious, and I was never the best at thinking coherently when it comes to work, so we can at least give it a try.

I'm not, overall, all that impressed with the Dianthus: they're fine, but they don't bowl me over with gorgeousness or anything. Nevertheless, this is one of my better recent photos, I think.

Friday, April 18, 2008

King and Queen (Strelitzia nicolai and S. reginae)

There's nothing particularly hard-to-please about the Strelitzia clan. Quite the contrary, actually. So, I'm not going after "queen" in the "off with their heads!" / "we-are-not-amused" sense. Nevertheless, it makes some kind of intuitive sense to me to call them King and Queen, if for no other reason than because they are capable of getting so huge, so imposing, even while still relatively young plants. Whatever room you put a Strelitzia in, S. nicolai in particular, the room is going to kind of belong to them. These are not plants that are going to blend into the wall, off in a corner somewhere: these are plants that you bring inside to make a Statement, the Statement in question usually being a very high-volume "THIS IS A TROPICAL ROOM! VERY, VERY TROPICAL!"

Strelitzia reginae in bloom. Photo by Lauren Chickadel, at the Wikipedia entry for Strelitzia reginae.

There are other reasons for these two to be houseplant royalty. For one thing, S. reginae's got a provenance and pedigree, in the way that most indoor plants don't. With S. reginae, we know exactly when she arrived in European civilization,1 and for what reason: this is hard information to track down, for a lot of plants. In this case, Strelitzia reginae was brought to England from South Africa in 1773, as part of a group of horticultural specimens for George III's Royal Botanical Garden. And then it was duly named for the queen, twice: reginae for "queen," and Strelitzia referring to Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the ancestral home of Queen Charlotte, George III's wife.2

Queen Charlotte. Supposedly an enthusiastic amateur botanist. Probably not much of a gardener, though: I have trouble imagining her pulling weeds in this outfit. But maybe she had less ornate stuff to do yard work in -- something in a sable apron, perhaps?

There's no obvious reason why this particular plant should be named for this particular person, though I imagine I can see a little bit of a resemblance: maybe a close-up of Charlotte with googly eyes will help?3

The story behind S. nicolai isn't quite as solid, historically, but it was named for Czar Nicholas I of Russia. Couldn't dig up any particular reason for this; it's not like Nicholas collected the plants himself or anything. However, somewhere in the big tangled inbred mess that is European Royal Familial Relationships ca. 1800 (not one of my all-time best Jeopardy categories), there's an answer, I think. It's not really important, and I am also struggling with a rhinoviral brain fog as I try to write this so I'm a little confused, but if you're looking for a puzzle, see footnote.4 In any case, there was enough of a relationship to name this other species after Nicholas, so, nicolai.

I know, like you even care, right?

Strelitzia nicolai, preparing to reprimand the servants in charge of the royal laundry.

Strelitzia reginae is grown both for flowers and for foliage; the flowers are actually farmed in places with favorable climates. My husband worked on a flower farm in Hawaii during his misspent youth, chopping down blooms of Strelitzia reginae among other things (I'm told mostly Heliconia). This was apparently not all that interesting of a process, though: no amusing Strelitzia-related anecdotes or anything.5

Indoors, your Strelitzia is not likely to flower. I won't doubt readers who tell me that they had one flower indoors, if anybody wants to – it's just that a plant needs to be of a certain size and age, and it needs to be in very good conditions, especially bright light, in order to flower. This is all kind of tough to do inside, but summering the plant outdoors will definitely increase your chances. (Remember not to shock the plant by throwing it directly into full sun: as with any plant, the leaves will burn if the increase in light isn't gradual.) Any plant which does flower is, at least theoretically, capable of continuing for several months: plants can bloom at any time of year, and individual flowers are long-lasting.

Strelitzia reginae flower. Picture from Mila Zinkova at the Wikipedia entry for S. reginae.

But the leaves are nice on their own. I'm a sucker for all kinds of plants, but there's a big subcategory of plants I fall for particularly hard: the guys with big, ovalish leaves. Strelitzia nicolai is the current record-holder for the biggest leaf in the apartment: 27 inches long and 10 inches wide, roughly 68.5 cm by 25.3 cm. And I've seen bigger than that, actually, just not on my own plant.

Most of the Strelitzia spp. sold as potted plants in Iowa City (as best as I can tell) are nicolai, not reginae, though if you want a flower, it will probably wind up being reginae and not nicolai. We have both species for sale at work as potted plants: I haven't asked the flower shop whether they ever get white bird of paradise flowers in, but so far I haven't seen any. I'd be surprised if there was much of a demand. I've been asked for one or the other species before, and this has been awkward, because until I started researching for this post I wasn't clear on how to tell the two apart, but I think I've got it now:

S. nicolai gets very large, on all counts: the flowers are larger, the leaves are greener, shinier, longer and broader, and the plant itself gets to about 30 feet (9 m) tall. The flowers are also white-and-blue. Representative S. nicolai photo here. S. reginae, on the other hand, has grayer, duller leaves, sometimes with a slight orange tint along the midrib. The leaves are proportionally narrower than those of S. nicolai, and are a little heavier and stiffer. The flowers of S. reginae are orange and blue (though there is at least one variety called 'Mandela's Gold' which is yellow and blue: picture here). S. reginae grows to about 5 or 6 feet tall (1.5-1.8 m) and then starts growing horizontally instead; it's unusual for one to offset indoors, but outdoors, offsets form relatively freely, leading to clumps that are about 5 or 6 feet across, as well as 5 to 6 feet tall. Sample photo for S. reginae here.6

S. reginae is probably the better long-term indoor plant: however old it gets, it should still be able to fit under your ceiling. S. nicolai will eventually get too big, and I doubt that you can cut them back without killing the plant. Indoors, though, that's not likely to happen fast, so you might be able to grow nicolai inside and defer the problems of a too-large plant to your home's next occupant, or your children, or somebody.

There are at least four other Strelitzia species, according to Wikipedia and combined (alba, caudata, juncea, parvifolia: Wikipedia leaves out parvifolia), though none of them appear to be widely available. S. juncea (picture) is particularly interesting to me: it looks like a reginae with petioles but no leaves. The overall appearance, at least in pictures, is of a large, coarse grass that for some reason grows bird of paradise flowers. S. alba resembles S. nicolai strongly, and also has white flowers, but the flowers are apparently structured somewhat differently. If the flower you're looking at has a single spathe (the strong, horizontal part, either green or blue, from which the rest of the flower emerges), with multiple flowers arising from that spathe, then it could be either species. If the flower has multiple spathes emerging from one another in a "triple-decker" kind of structure, and multiple flowers emerging from each spathe in turn, then it's a nicolai. This is according to one person's post at Garden Web, and I have no way to verify it, but it does kind of sound right. If this is in fact the way one tells the difference, then has pictures of nicolai in the photo sets for alba. The odds are strongly in favor of any very large greenish NOID Strelitzia being a nicolai: alba seems to be rarer both in cultivation and in the wild.

Strelitzia nicolai, winner of the Subjunctive Big-Leaf Challenge 2007.

I think the reason why there are more nicolai than reginae plants sold here is because in this climate, you're not likely to get the flowers no matter what you do, so people are growing the plants for the foliage, which means leaves, which means that the species with bigger, more impressive leaves has the edge. I would guess that the situation is reversed in the south, but I don't really know: I wasn't aware of the difference between species when I actually lived in South Texas as a kid. (Any Southerners want to share?)

I had a reginae at one point when I was in high school, and it didn't do well, which was most likely my fault but I have no idea what the specifics of that case might have been. It's been too long ago. So I can't give you a head-to-head comparison between the two species, though I'm under the impression that the care should be more or less the same for both, and for what it's worth, the nicolai I have at the moment have been awesome as far as care goes. So let's get to care:

Light: My own plants are in a west window, and have been fine with this for quite a while. Initially I tried a south window, which probably could have worked, but I had trouble watering often enough to keep them happy there. The ones at work get filtered sun more or less all day, year-round, and seem happy enough with that. I would not try growing Strelitzia in a room which got no sun at all, however bright the light in the room was.

Water: Plants that are too dry will let their lowest leaves yellow and drop; I have yet to see what happens to plants that are too wet (but see Feeding). As a general rule, I don't let mine dry out beyond the top couple inches of soil, and they seem to like that just fine, regardless of pot size.

Humidity, Temperature: Surprisingly, Strelitzia are quite lenient on both counts. I've had the largest of my plants sitting in a spot right under a heat / air-conditioning vent, and it hasn't complained at all about the dry air or the weird temperature changes. This is good, since that was pretty much the only place in the apartment left that had enough room and light for the plant. That said, they are supposed to like additional humidity. I see conflicting information on temperatures, but it looks like it takes fairly serious cold to kill a Strelitzia (in the neighborhood of 20ºF / -7ºC). They can handle the occasional light freeze, albeit with some cosmetic damage to flowers and leaves. So even playing it on the cautious side, and leaving a plant out unless the temperature is supposed to be below, say, 45ºF (7ºC), should be fine, though I'd probably be even more cautious with my plants, and not go below 55ºF (10ºC), for fear of stressing it or slowing its growth down. I suppose I should note here that if you move your plant in and out a lot, and leave it outside on windy days, the leaves are going to catch the wind and tear: while this is perfectly normal and natural, some people don't like the way it looks.

Grooming: Virtually non-existent; pretty much limited to pulling a dead leaf off every six months or so. Some dusting, too, I guess. Repotting is a bit contentious: they're said to bloom better if their roots are cramped. This may be, but their roots are also monstrous, so even if you're aiming to keep them cramped, you may still find yourself needing to repot every year or two.

Feeding: There's also considerable disagreement on this count: the growers' guide says they're not heavy feeders (though they like calcium), and can be damaged by too high a level of soluble salts in the soil, but some of the on-line sites that turned up said they need to be fed all the time. In the lower-light conditions indoors, I suspect that less food is probably better. The growers' guide does mention that in conditions of very iron-poor soil, very soggy soil, or soil which has broken down and compacted around roots, plants may show signs of chlorosis: if new growth is coming in yellow, consider adding some iron, easing back on the water, replacing the soil, or some combination of these.

Pests: Neither my plants at home, nor the plants at work, seem to have any particular susceptibilities to pests, though I think I've seen the occasional spider mite or two. It's always worthwhile to keep an eye out for scale and mealybugs, but I haven't seen anything to make me think that those are particularly likely.

Propagation: Strelitzia spp. can be propagated from seeds or from offsets, and there are big problems with both. Offsets are problems because you only get one when the plant decides it wants to make one, and as far as I know there's no way to speed that process along. Seeds you can buy whenever you like (as for example from, which offers 5 seeds of Strelitzia nicolai for $2.50, plus shipping and all that.), but you'll still have to wait: they're slow to germinate. One site said up to eighteen months (!) to germinate, another site said they should only take four to eight weeks. As the latter site was actually from Africa, where one would assume that the seeds are fresher and the climate more suitable, my guess is that four weeks would be lightning-fast, for an indoor grower. (One does not rush the king into doing anything.) On the plus side, both sites seemed fairly positive that seeds eventually would sprout: it's just a question of when. In fairly ideal conditions, a seedling of S. reginae is ready to flower when it is about seven to ten years old.

Strelitzia nicolai.

As with Monstera deliciosa, when I first started buying Strelitzia nicolai, I got a little overenthusiastic, and soon wound up with four of different sizes (one huge, two 6-inch, one 4-inch), which is too many. These are great plants, but they're probably not plants you want to develop an obsession about, or start collecting, 'cause if you do you'll run out of room really fast. (And not only run out of room, but you can really only have just so many kings and queens together before you start getting all kinds of crazy palace intrigues. Best to keep the plots simple.) A single Strelitzia by itself in a well-chosen spot, though, can be great.


Photo credits:
-Queen Charlotte painting via Wikipedia entry for Queen Charlotte. (Googly eyes added by yrs truly.)
-Both Strelitzia reginae pictures taken from the Wikipedia article on Strelitzia reginae.
-Strelitzia nicolai in the laundry room picture used by permission of an anonymous Garden Web photo donor.

1 Not that there's anything all that special about European civilization, not exactly. Other civilizations stuck around for a long time and had various cool things going on in them. But had Strelitzia reginae not been on that boat to England in 1773, there's a good chance I wouldn't be writing about it now. (Lest you think I'm some kind of hostage to political correctness for feeling the need to make that clear -- you know, so much of so-called political correctness is just about trying not to be an asshole. Seriously. I am completely mystified by the people who rant and rave about how unfair it is that they can't say the word [fill in misogynist, racist, homophobic, or etc. slur of your choice], how the Language Police are taking their right to free speech away in the name of Political Correctness, and it's so hard to be [some combination of: white, male, straight, wealthy] these days. Why would you want to? What is the point of demanding the right to say words that are hurtful to complete strangers? How do you benefit? Maybe everything is not about you. When I say Europe wasn't the only game in town, civilization-wise, I'm mainly just trying to acknowledge that, you know, it wasn't, and incidentally I'm trying not to be an asshole who thinks the whole world revolves around me and my particular culture. Because it doesn't. I don't feel like I've phrased this especially well, but I'll let it stand anyway.)
2 Being Queen of England is a good way to get stuff named after you, though not as good as being King: Charlotte, North Carolina, was named for her, as were two counties in Virginia and one in North Carolina (Charlotte, Mecklenberg, and Mecklenberg, respectively); Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada; Queensbury, New York; the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, Canada; and so on. Being King, on the other hand, will get you Georgetowns all over the place. Americans tend not to be terribly fond of George III, as he was the monarch in charge of England when we revolted; I couldn't really get a sense from reading around whether he's really all that terrible. As British monarchs go, he seems to be mostly notable for being a faithful husband (no, seriously!) and for going crazy near the end of his reign (due to porphyria). The mental decline is dramatized in the movie The Madness of King George: I saw it a long, long time ago in a mostly-empty arthouse theater in Houston, TX, with my best friend and his then-girlfriend, and I think I liked it but I really, frankly, don't remember anything about it beyond the obvious: there was a king named George, and he went mad. Also there was something about a chamberpot and funny-colored urine, which is less obvious. But I digress.
4 Ummkay. So Nicholas I of Russia married Charlotte of Prussia, who subsequently, for reasons I didn't care to investigate, changed her name to Alexandra. Maybe Nicholas already had the bath towels monogrammed for someone else or something. Charlotte/Alexandra was the daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenberg-Strelitz. Louise's aunt was Queen Charlotte of England. So the relationship between Charlotte and Nicholas is, Charlotte was the aunt of Nicholas's mother-in-law. Which really muddies more up than it clarifies: they weren't particularly related to one another, were they? So why? I do not know.
5 Heliconia was apparently more memorable: he says they used to kind of suck, because rain or dew or whatever would collect overnight in the flowers, and then when you cut the stems the water would fall all over. Also sometimes there were mosquitoes.
6 Just FYI: I figured all this out after naming and saving the pictures, so those pictures in this post which are mine all have file names referring to reginae even though they are, I think, actually all nicolai.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pretty pictures: Petunia cvv.

Petunia 'Burgundy Madness.' The color on this is as close as I could get it, but the real thing is considerably more impressive.

I get colds so infrequently that I'm always surprised, when I get one, at just how much they suck. I mean, I get a lot of sinus infections, and I think I have a touch of hay fever, and I'm accustomed to thinking of those as being more or less the same as a cold because some of the symptoms overlap, but colds are so much worse. Today's the second day I've called in sick to work, and presumably there will be people there who are upset with me over this. It's not a good time of year to be sick, a point which the boss hammered into me over and over again in the months leading up to spring (I think she even mentioned it at my interview.). But I really would be as useless there as I am if I stay home, so wev. (See sidebar for definition of "wev.")

Petunia 'Tidal Wave Pink'

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Haven't done one of these in a while. Tragically, right as I'm getting a lot of Mouse-&-Trowel-related traffic, I've also gotten hit by the cold that people have been passing around at work for months, so I'm not thinking clearly enough to write anything terribly good. I mean, it's not like I'm rolling around on the floor screaming in agony. I just have that thing that happens with colds where you can't concentrate on anything very well, and you can feel that your brain's not really hitting on all cylinders. This is probably a good thing, in a backhanded kind of way: I think I get funnier when I'm sick (because my brain leaps from topic to topic more easily).

Anyway. For more LOLSpaths, and maybe even an explanation of what they are, click here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

You tolerate me! You really, really tolerate me!

Huh. So I'm actually on the ballot for the Mouse & Trowel awards. Only in the one category (Best New Garden Blog), but hey: am I complaining?

I am not. Though I'm almost certainly going to lose, since one of my competitors in that category (Gardening Gone Wild) is also up for Best Design, Most Innovative, and Garden Blog of the Year, suggesting a level of readership (or ballot-stuffing, or blackmail of Mouse & Trowel's Colleen Vanderlinden) far beyond anything I can dream about yet. I suppose it's, as they say, an honor just to be nominated.

I put in my votes already; I like the general tone of Garden Rant, but I'm somewhat embittered against them for a post from 2006: Top Ten Reasons Why I Hate Houseplants. I kept running across it in the course of searches for one thing or another, and it annoyed me every. Single. Time. I like it even less because I can't tell whether it's tongue in cheek or not. (I'm not sure which would please me less: if it's not a joke, then it's just ignant; if it's tongue in cheek, then they got me all riled for no good reason.) So Garden Rant didn't get any votes from me. Not that they needed my vote anyway.

Which is probably unfair and childish of me, but so be it. Don't nobody come between me and my houseplants. Perhaps next year, after they write a new post praising indoor plants and apologizing for their sad, sad attempt to build up their own plants by tearing down those of others, I'll think about it.1

(UPDATE: Added a link in the sidebar to Garden Rant. I'm not above being sweetalked, and Susan was persistent.)

I would encourage readers to throw some votes to Mr. Brown Thumb for Post of the Year. Although it's looking more and more like the blog has been retired (though I've seen claims to the contrary, nothing has happened yet; I'm kind of losing hope), Everyone's a Garden Coach is pretty awesome in its randomness.

One of the three sites listed for Best Photography crashes my browser when I try to load it, so I skipped that category. I am not technologically advanced enough to be comfortable with podcasts, so I skipped that one too, though I'm sure they're all very nice.

In any case. Voting is now open, and will remain so for a month. There may be periodic outbreaks of kitten photos from now until the results are announced, as well.2 Oh my god -- here comes one now!


Photo credits: both from

1 I'm kidding, to the extent that I'm not really that angry about it, but not kidding insofar as -- what the hell? Houseplants are all that some of us have. And they're perfectly harmless. What'd houseplants ever do to you? My Yucca guatemalensis would like to have a word with you, Amy, if you don't mind.
2 (Referencing this post and this post.)

Random plant event: Dahlia 'Munchen' flower

The more time I spend working with all these annuals and perennials, as opposed to tropicals / houseplants, the more pairs of plants I'm running across that I realize now I had confused with one another. Like for example, I thought petunias and pansies were the same thing for a long time. I was even worse about Dahlias, which somehow I had confused with Zinnia. Or at least I think it was Zinnia. Now that I've had a proper introduction to both, it's hard to remember what I thought. Even when I know the difference, sometimes the similarity of the names trips me up: I may never be able to talk quickly and fluidly about Callas or Cannas.

Dahlia 'Munchen'

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pretty pictures: Impatiens

Impatiens 'Merlot Mix'

We've had these around long enough that they no longer look all that pretty: some of the flowers have dropped, and some varieties ('Dazzler Red') have flowers that age weirdly, developing white spots all over like the flowers' color is just paint and it's peeling off. But even so.

Impatiens 'Super Elfin Lipstick'

I've never been a big fan of Impatiens in general, and I'm not liking this type any better than I ever did, now that I'm working with it. I don't go as far as a few of my co-workers, who have effectively re-named it: they never refer to "Impatiens;" it's always "fucking Impatiens." So far, I haven't seen what it is that inspires this level of hostility, though there are a lot of them, and they get tedious.

I actually like the New Guinea types, though that shouldn't be all that big of a surprise. They have nice foliage, I like nice foliage, so it all works. Undecided about the flowers. I'm not much inclined to buy one, in any case: I already have way too many plants (398, as of Saturday -- this really has got to stop).

Impatiens x hawkeri 'Strawberry Star'

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Unfinished business: Vinca, Murraya, shoplifter

Just three odds and ends today, referring to previous posts, plus decorative but unrelated photos of Reiger Begonias.

1) The Vinca minor sport:

A few days back, I realized that WCW hadn't seen the Vinca sport yet, so I went and found it and showed it to her, expecting her to be as excited as I was, and she was all like, "Oh. That's 'Wojo's Gem.'"

It's who?

It turns out that there is already a plant on the market like ours, so this is not the way we're going to make our millions. Oh well. I was even told that it was a fairly vigorous grower, considering how little green tissue it contains, though I was told that by a salesman so I'm not sure if this is true. In any case, we still have the Dracaena, which is doing okay so far.

2) The rescue Murraya paniculata trees:

Too little, too late. Or possibly too much too late. Whatever it was, we were too late, and there wasn't anything saveable. Which may be just as well; the one Murraya paniculata we've got already is kind of a pain to water and move around, and these two were both bigger than that.

3) The shoplifter:

He came back in. I had to go outside to check his vehicle to make sure it was the same guy, and it was, and so then I kind of, um, ran up to him and let him know how this whole cutting thing worked, though I was pretty thrown by him showing up again, and there were a lot of words trying to come out of my mouth all at once so I'm not sure how coherent I was actually being.

I'd report his general attitude on the situation, except it was hard to read: he said something to begin with to the effect of, well, you know I'm doing this tissue-culture thing, and I (not wanting to get another full lecture about this and have the conversation derailed already) was like, yes, yes, I know why you were taking them but that's not really the point. He also gave me kind of an eye-roll (not a literal eye-roll, it was kind of the audio equivalent, whatever that is) about So what you're saying is that if I want the leaves, I should buy the plant, which was irritating because 1) I dislike it when people beat me to my conclusions, and 2) I dislike it more when they beat me to the wrong conclusions. The actual answer, of course, is that if you want the leaves, you can take just the leaves; you just have to acknowledge that you're taking something, and work out a price at the front counter. Or, better still, ask people about a price before you go taking anything.

The whole conversation was kind of baffling, as was the previous one, because this is all stuff that we take so for granted. It's incredibly weird and awkward to be in the position of trying to explain, you know, capitalism to someone in his late 30s / early 40s. ("You see, there's this place called the U.S. Mint, which is where they make the money, and then they send it to the banks, and people exchange the money for goods and services with one another. . . .")

And then finally, it was even more frustrating, because for reasons I'm not entirely clear on, the front counter person, who wasn't around for the original theft but who had, nonetheless, been filled in on that when this guy came in, declined to charge him retroactively for the cuttings, even after he brought the idea up to her. I wasn't there for any of that, though, and didn't find out until yesterday. In the long scheme of things, it's not that big of a deal, and he did buy another plant so we're probably pretty well covered, but it's still annoying to go through this whole emotional thing and then have it not pan out at the end because the cashier didn't feel comfortable charging the guy for something just because he didn't have it (the thing she was charging him for) on him right at that moment.

But at least it's been more or less resolved.