Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dr. Horrible Act III is up.

For those of you who watched I and II. Go see it and then come back here and we'll have some consoling Euphorbias. Milk and cookies, too, if the Euphorbias fail to be consoling enough. Perhaps heroin.

It's always advisable, when watching a Joss Whedon-connected project, to get the most terrified when things look like they might work out okay. If the angst level drops, something really, really awful is about to happen. You'll see what I mean.

Random plant event: liverworts doing . . . some liverworty thing

I've decided to declare liverworts officially cool. There will be no bad-mouthing of liverworts on my blog, even if they aren't ferns. 'Cause check this shit out (I recommend opening the picture in a new window):

I know there's a lot happening in that picture, but - they're flowering. Or whatever liverworts do. They don't flower, they . . . well, I don't actually know the technical term for whatever this is. I know gametophyting doesn't sound right. (See abovelinked Wikipedia article for a sort of explanation of what's going on.) But it's awesome, in any case. Some kind of very small tropical island, as imagined by Dr. Seuss.

Why we kept this around in the first place, I don't know. Originally there was a perennial in the pot, and there may still be the remains of one: I'm not sure what that sort of grassy-looking stuff is on the left. I'm glad we're not super-organized: if we threw stuff out when it was no longer sellable all the time, I'd never have gotten to see this.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Random plant event: Aechmea fasciata flowering

There were a few Aechmea fasciatas around when I started this job almost a year ago. I don't know when they'd been brought in; some of them may have been as recent as spring 2007. At least one had dying flowers still on it last August, so it would have been a semi-recent bloom; the others might have been from any time at all, I suppose.

The flower on 6 July 2008.

But anyway. They produced offsets, as A. fasciatas will do, and at some point WCW removed the offsets and planted them up separately in their own pots and that was that. I didn't really think about it much after that; I'd always thought that if you don't force them to bloom (as growers often do), it's always at least a two-year wait for offsets to bloom, and more often three.

But a couple of the offsets are blooming now. And I'm realizing, from looking at them, that I've probably never seen Aechmea flowers this early in development before. As they get older, the color gets sort of flatter-looking, somehow, which is maybe why I was never that interested in them. But these -- these are kind of awesome. The individual bracts shade from pink at the base up to a lighter pink or maybe even white at the tip, there's a whole yellowy thing going on in the center of the bloom, it all just kind of rocks.

A close-up of the flower, also 6 July 2008.

I like Aechmea fasciata anyway, of course (though possibly not as much as some people). It's been relatively easy to grow, and it's got an interesting look, and perhaps more to the point it's awakened a latent appreciation for bromeliads that I hadn't been aware of, to the point where now I have seventeen of them (four Aechmea fasciata, one Vriesea imperialis, two types of Cryptanthus, six Guzmanias, one Neoregelia 'Fireball' and a Neoregelia 'Gazpacho,' a Tillandsia cyanea, and a Vriesea splendens. All of which will someday be the subject of plant profiles.).

The same flower, but a week later, on 14 July 2008.

But these emerging flowers are something else.

If things go the way they usually go, they'll sell before the blooms progress much further, and that will be that. But it's been very exciting, actually. I never cared whether my blooming plants were actually going to bloom for me or not, and I still don't, insofar as all my plants made it in the apartment on the merits of their foliage, and nobody's going to get kicked out for failing to flower, but it would be awfully sweet to have an Aechmea flower of my own to watch, where it can't get sold out from under me. 'Cause I am getting kind of interested in the end of this story.

Same flower, 16 July.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


There's a really good chance that you'd find Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog amusing.

What is it? It's a musical about a geeky, shy supervillain (Neil Patrick Harris) who's got a crush on a girl he knows from the laundromat (Felicia Day), but she winds up meeting and falling for his nemesis, Captain Hammer, (Nathan Fillion) instead. Meanwhile, Dr. Horrible is trying to join the Evil League of Evil, a local supervillains' organization led by Bad Horse (the "thoroughbred of sin!"), which hasn't been going well because Captain Hammer keeps showing up and kicking his ass, more or less.

There are three parts to the story, each about ten fourteen minutes long: Part I went on-line a few days ago, Part II is new as of today, and Part III goes live on Saturday. They're only going to be available on-line for a short period (pulled at midnight on July 20 - probably midnight Pacific Time, though I'm not positive), though, so watch sooner rather than later. Your entertainment guaranteed or . . . I'll have to do something really really entertaining to make up for it, and/or give you back the ten minutes.

N. b.: the machines in the laundromat are the same brand that my own personal father makes for a living, so it's not out of the question that I may have touched the hand that touched a washing machine that was touched by Neil Patrick Harris!1 Though I can't prove it. And I'm not sure you can use washing machines in the degrees-of-separation game.


1 I had a bit of a crush on NPH as a kid, so this is a bigger deal than it sounds. Though not, you know, a lot bigger.

Pretty picture: Belamcanda chinensis

Sometimes it's almost a little tedious, even, how there's always something new to learn at work. Like for example this guy, Belamcanda chinensis, which I'd never heard of before. I guess it goes by the common name "blackberry lily?"

I was very impressed with this when I saw it the first time, which is why I took the picture. Looking at it now, I'm not sure what impressed me so; whatever it was didn't actually transfer to the picture very well. Possibly it's just neat that it exists at all. We had it among the daylilies, with their gigantic eight-inch blow-out-type bloom extravaganzas (pictures coming in a post sooner or later), and then to look in and see this little two-inch flower, with the spots and the different shades of red and orange, was just . . . I don't know. It was neat somehow. Words fail.

We have a yellow version too, which lacks spots, isn't as vivid of a color, and is just sort of all-around less dramatic. Also one that's sort of purple and yellow, I think: it sounds neater than it is. You're not missing anything.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What consolation looks like:

I let myself buy a plant from work yesterday, on account of the pretty crappy week I've just had. (Some people eat comfort food; I buy comfort plants.) And although there have been a few different plants at work talking to me lately (among them a very nice, black-purple Neoregelia with greenish spots that's just a little too enormous and expensive for me right now. Which means I don't get the Neoregelia until I need to make up for a week with three Emergency Room visits, I guess.), this is the one I went with:

I know: this looks neither new nor consoling. And you're half right, at least: I already had a similar plant called Euphorbia grandicornis, which I've written a profile about previously. It's actually possible that this is a second specimen of E. grandicornis, or that my original "E. grandicornis" was in fact something else, perhaps E. breviarticulata or E. pseudoburuana. There really should be a service. or something. You send pictures in to the site, and a few hours later a team of highly-trained but embarrassingly under-employed plant taxonomists e-mails you back an ID.

EDIT: I now believe the original plant to be E. pseudocactus, though that could change.

I think E. grandicornis is on the left and E. pseudocactus is on the right. What do you think: same species being grown under different conditions, or different but related species that were grown under more or less the same conditions? New plant is on the left; old plant is on the right. Just based on the size of the thorns alone, I'm inclined to say they're different species, but it's very hard to feel certain.

Probably not a terribly lucrative idea: there are already places where you can have that done for free, like the Garden Web Name That Plant! Forum. Though if I may say, sometimes the quality of the resulting guesses is kind of, er, crappy. It'd be worth a few bucks to have people looking at it who had some expertise in the area.

Anyway. It's also not really a normal mental image for consolation, either. I think consolation, and mostly what comes to mind are mothers and fuzzy blankets and warm chocolate-based foods. Plants that look like they want to tear you apart with their thorns and then suck you up with their roots are way down there on the comfort list for most people, somewhere after salmonella and Dick Cheney.

I really don't understand this love for the Euphorbias. I mean, it's like I'm not interested in a plant unless it can hurt me in some way: either by stabbing, or cutting, burning, or poisoning. The worrisome possibility is that I'm expressing a death wish in a really (really) roundabout way; the happy possibility is that this is what counts as thrill-seeking for me. Some people skydive; I buy a Pachypodium. There are arguments to be made in both directions.

In any case. Sharp objects, new plants, taxonomic investigation to be done: yesterday was pretty good.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Stoner (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

I bought my first Zamioculcas zamiifolia in December 2006, and then waited for it to grow a new leaf. Or drop a leaf. Anything at all, I would have been happy with. And it just sat there. I moved it to brighter light, exhorted it to do something, dropped it on my own head,1 all in vain. The plant made me wait for thirteen months before showing any signs of life at all, and then, it did nothing more exciting than grow a single leaf.

Zamioculcas zamiifolia from work, apparently quite a while ago: we haven't had 4-inch plants in forever.

I also, a few months after I bought it, took some leaflets off the plant to propagate new plants, since I'd heard that they did that, and that also took a ridiculous amount of time to happen -- like nine months, I think. Some of them from that batch, I'm still waiting on, actually.

So when I started thinking about what "person" to use for this plant, stoner was my brain's nearly-immediate answer. I wave my arms, I stomp and shout and beg the plant to move, and the plant squints at me through bloodshot eyes and says, very slowly and groggily, "Whoa. Dude. You just, like, pick up your roots and go from location to location. That's so, wow."2

So if you're not a patient person, you might want to skip this plant. We did eventually negotiate an agreement: it's now growing somewhat regularly, at a steady, if not blurry, pace, but that's taken a lot of time and not a little experimentation. So don't say I didn't warn you.

This has become a popular plant in recent years (though the species has been known to science for over a century, it didn't really enter the horticultural industry until around ten to fifteen years ago) because it's unbelievably tolerant of a wide range of conditions. They will allow you to forget to water for months at a time; they'll put up with dark conditions that would make a Sansevieria trifasciata recoil in terror, they're okay with no humidity and are more or less pest-free, and so this has been marketed as the plant to show to people who don't know what they're doing, who have never had plants before, who aren't home much, etc. You'll find them under a bunch of different names, some more accurate than others: eternity plant, ZZ plant, fat boy, aroid palm, arum fern, money plant, zu zu plant, zanzibar gem, timbuktu tree,3 and cardboard palm being the ones I ran across in the researching. Around here, they mostly go by "ZZ plant," and I regard "money plant" and "cardboard palm" as referring to entirely different species. (This might be a good moment for me to re-mention my abiding frustration with, and hatred for, common names.)

And it's not that they aren't really easy, tolerant plants: I tell customers from time to time that if we have any plant that you could keep in a closet for six months of the year, this would be the plant. I expect that you probably really could do that, and the plant would remain technically alive, though not very happy. But it's not quite that simple.4

Because, see, the problem with keeping it in the dark and never watering it is, it kind of needs light and water in order to grow. No light and water, no growth. As in, no growth for thirteen months. You see where I'm headed with this.

So it wasn't that my plant was being particularly unreasonable; it's that I was abusing it, unknowingly, having been told repeatedly that it could handle anything at all and still grow. That turns out to be only half-right: it can handle anything at all.5 If you want it to grow, though, well, that's a whole different deal.

The business end of the plant is the tuber: this is where the leaves and roots come from. The tuber also stores water for the plant, which (along with other adaptations, like thick, waxy leaves and low rates of transpiration) is why it's able to go months at a time without water. Tubers are more or less potatoey, as you would expect: brownish, irregularly shaped, watery. I assume they're also toxic, though it turns out to be difficult to track down any hard information on how toxic, or even to find an account of anyone being harmed by one. Still, they're in the Araceae, like Dieffenbachia, so odds are. Above ground, an average leaf has a thick, slightly bulbous stalk, with maybe 10-20 leaflets on it. Individual leaflets are about one to three inches long, and about half as wide. The difference between leaf and leaflet may seem a bit academic, but it's important later.

Zamioculcas zamiifolia removed from soil, showing the tubers.

So on to the care instructions.

Light: Zamioculcas will remain alive with almost no light at all; filtered sun seems to be preferable for growing. (I tried bright indirect at one point, and that didn't really help: only once I gave it some actual sun did we make progress. The cause-effect relationship there is a little questionable, but that's how it worked for me.) I suspect that they could probably take full sun if they had to - the plants at work are currently pretty close to this, though the greenhouse roof does filter the light somewhat - though nobody actually advises this and the process of adapting to it might be ugly.
Water: The big killer indoors tends to be rot due to overwatering. This isn't because the plant doesn't need a lot of water; it's because it won't use the water if it's not getting any light, and people don't ordinarily give it much light. If it's got a reasonable amount of light, though, you're going to have to match that with a fair amount of water, and this is particularly the case in the late summer until early winter, when they seem to be most inclined to grow if they're going to grow.6 (It also tends to be the case that people leave it to stand in water,7 or plant it in heavy, peaty soils that hold water too long. You really, really, really need to put this plant in soil that will drain quickly, regardless of how much light and water it's getting.)
Humidity: Doesn't seem to matter.
Temperature: At least 60ºF (16ºC) at all times; 70-85ºF (21-29ºC) is alleged ideal.
Pests: I've never seen any on my plant; I couldn't find any evidence on-line that anybody else has ever had any pest problems with Zamioculcas either. Which, stop and marvel at the concept for a second.
Grooming: In order to need grooming, it would have to do something, so this is very rare. You may occasionally need to move plants up to a larger container: the tubers will grow fast enough under good conditions that they can distort or break a plastic pot. Sometimes new plants will be potted in heavy, wet, peaty soil that should be discarded and replaced with something faster, though that's not grooming exactly. Leaves are naturally really shiny; leaf-shiner is not recommended, and you should smack any salesperson who tries to get you to buy some.8
Feeding: As best as I can tell, they're not big feeders (you don't need fertilizer for growth you're not growing), though unless someone tells me otherwise I'm going to assume that one should still feed when active growth is happening, since that's how it usually works.

Propagation is an interesting enough matter that I'm going to give it a couple paragraphs of its own later on.

I couldn't find much information about the plant in the wild; at least one source told me that the plant is from Zanzibar and Tanzania, neglecting to mention that Zanzibar is Tanzania, at least sorta.9 And the range is, in any case, a bit wider than that, extending from Kenya and Tanzania south along the coast through Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. But so we're talking about the middle and southern section of Africa's east coast, an area which I'm told has fairly pronounced wet and dry seasons, which goes a long way toward explaining why the plant would need a lot of water to grow and yet still be prone to rotting out at the drop of a hat.

Zamioculcas is also what is called a (vocabulary word alert!) monotypic genus, which just means that there's only one species in the genus: there's no Zamioculcas polychroma or Zamioculcas trichophyllum or Zamioculcas infernalis or anything like that.10 Just zamiifolia.

The Wikipedia entry currently contains some really questionable stuff:

The leaves of the plant have been used by "sjamans" in the jungles of Ghana to relieve severe stomach ache. When consumed in large quantities it can be deadly. However, when cultivated with coffee for years, the plant can obtain heavy psychedelic effects, which are known by the sjamans in Ghana. This marvel of nature has also been used to relieve severe pains; however, the exact ingredients of the mix are not known outside the tribal structure of Ghana.

I did not see this confirmed, or even referred to, anywhere else. No reference for it was provided at Wikipedia, either. Also Ghana is all the way across the continent, on the west coast of Africa, which isn't part of the natural range of the plant. No reason why people in Ghana couldn't have brought the plant to them, one way or another (leaflets would travel well, I'm sure), but all the same, I call bullshit. I think that the author was either pulling our collective leg or had the plant confused with something else.11

Now propagation. There are a few different ways to propagate Zamioculcas, and they're all slow. The most obvious one is also the fastest: most plants sold contain multiple tubers, which can be divided into individual pots. This isn't done all that terribly often, because, among other things, individually-potted tubers aren't all that exciting to look at and don't make for a very full-looking plant. At least if you have three tubers in a pot, you're tripling your chances of seeing something happen. But still, division can be done. If you choose to divide your plant, handle the tubers carefully: they're not necessarily all that delicate, but any injury can leave an opening for rot to get in, and rot is the beginning of the end, so don't go digging into the soil with knives and stuff.

The slower methods are to grow baby Zamioculcas from leaves or leaflets. Entire leaves, with the stalk and everything down to the point where it meets the tuber, can be rooted in water, and will grow, eventually developing a tuber of their own, though as you may have guessed, this is a slow process. I assume that leaves would also root in soil, given enough time, though I don't think I've actually seen anybody recommend this: everybody who talks about rooting entire leaves does it in water, for some reason.

One can also propagate the plant from individual leaflets. You need a leaflet that's healthy (i.e., no fair pulling one off 'cause it's going yellow and expecting to get another plant out of it - though you might), but otherwise it seems not to matter a whole lot: basically what you do is, you plant the leaflet more or less vertically in some soil, water the soil occasionally, and wait until it does something.

Like I said, my fastest leaflet propagation took about nine months, and there are six leaves from that batch that I'm still waiting on (we're at seventeen months and counting for those ones). So this requires a certain amount of patience, but the silver lining is that it doesn't require any particular skill: you just stick the leaflet in soil, water occasionally, and sooner or later there are babies. I suspect the process can be sped up a little bit by placing the leaflets in a bright, warm spot, though I don't do that with mine so much because all such spots are either already occupied by something or are so difficult to get to that I'm afraid I'd forget about them and never water them.

If the leaflet dies while you're trying to propagate it, and turns brown and dries up and the whole deal, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a lost cause. If the leaf formed a tuber (which they will, at the bottom of the leaflet, where it used to connect to the central stalk of the leaf), the tuber will eventually get it together to send up a shoot, whether there's a leaf to supply the tuber with energy or not. How does this work? I don't know. Magic, apparently.

This plant is actually several tubers together; I forget what actually happened, but for some reason or another I was going to throw out a bunch of attempted leaves that had died, and found tiny tubers in there anyway, so for lack of a better idea, I planted them with one that had worked, so now I have four tiny little sprouts coming up besides the original one.

It's said to be bad to pull leaflets out of the soil to check on them while they're forming tubers and roots and stuff. I've done it myself, and still gotten plants, so if you've done it without knowing you're not supposed to, or if your cat (or husband) knocked the tray of leaflets you were trying to start onto the floor, there's still hope. But do keep the fiddling with them to a minimum. Either they'll do what they're supposed to do, or they won't, and breaking delicate early roots isn't going to improve your chances either way. I take a softer line on this than some people, because, you know, we're all scientists here,12 and it's important sometimes to observe things directly and see what's going on. So if you want to look at the developing tubers, by all means look. But maybe only look at one of them, instead of the whole trayful.

Zamioculcas zamiifolia, because it takes a longer time to reach sellable size than many tropicals, is often more expensive than other tropical plants of the same size. (I've previously noted that Rhapis excelsa and Aspidistra lurida tend to be the same way.) For a while, there, too, they were also somewhat difficult to find, though I think that's not so much the case anymore. I mean, we've had some continuously, or nearly-continuously, since I started work in the greenhouse, and I've seen them (less consistently) at the Lowe's in town too. Not so much at any of the other competition in Iowa City, but us and Lowe's at least. They should continue to get easier to find and less expensive as time goes on.

A few months ago, I ran into an article talking about a Zamioculcas cultivar, which is the only one I've heard of to date. It was called 'Zamicro,' and the selling point there is just that 'Zamicro' has a smaller habit than the species. It's also probably very hard to find - the cultivar was only "launched" in August 2007, according to the article, and as of last January only about 30,000 plants had been sold worldwide. I'd rather have a bigger Zamioculcas than a smaller one, anyway. Variegated would also work for me. But the plant really can't be rushed into making new cultivars any more than it can be rushed into growing or propagating or anything else. That's just how it is.

Overall, I'm positive about my experience with Zamioculcas, especially now that some propagation has begun and it's behaving more like it was supposed to. And it's not hard to take care of, and I almost feel obligated to be a fan of any plant that's as pest-resistant as this one seems to be. At the same time, whether I'd recommend it to you, or a customer, depends sort of on what you want from it. If you need a plant to sit in the corner and be pretty and take care of itself without needing a lot of input from you, or if you want a plant for a gift and you don't know where the recipient might place it or what they might do with it, this is probably as good a choice as any. A lot of beginning plant-growers, though, are looking for something a little more . . . responsive. Not that a beginner needs something that's going to drop a ton of leaves every time it gets dry, but just, you know, something that gives a little positive feedback when it's being treated well. Zamioculcas zamiifolia isn't that kind of plant. It's more the kind of plant that's sitting quietly in the corner, staring intently at the TV, wondering if there are any Doritos in the kitchen and whether it's worth it to get up to check. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not likely to get anybody all fired up about houseplants.

For further reading, Zamioculcas zamiifolia posts from affiliated blogs:
Mr. Brown Thumb
Water Roots


Photo credits: mine, except for the map, and I didn't record the source of the map.

1 Which was accidental, but still -- if I'd thought it would help, I would have done it on purpose.
2 I picture Brad Pitt, in his bit part in True Romance. (Video here.) Your imaginative casting may vary.
3 Amazingly, both parts of "Timbuktu tree" are wrong: it's not from Timbuktu, or anywhere close to Timbuktu, and it's not a tree. I should start making a list of common names where every word is wrong. I know there are others.
4 (Is it ever?)
5 Or, almost anything.
6 I don't know whether this is how it's "supposed to" work. Dormant periods don't always happen indoors at the same times that they would happen outdoors, and it's also not out of the question that maybe the official sources (which mostly say dormancy happens during the winter) are making shit up as they go, and have never actually tried keeping one of these in normal home conditions. All I know is, I've been told by more than one experienced houseplant grower that Zamioculcas tends to start growing in about September, if it's going to grow at all that year. The plants in the greenhouse at work never actually stop growing, exactly, but there does seem to be a bit of a push above and beyond the usual growth that happens between about August and December.
7 If I could change one thing about the way people take care of plants, I would change the way people think about watering. I'm not sure who to blame, but the practice seems to be that people put a small amount of water into a pot every few days, so that the pot is never flushed out and excess water is never dumped. There are some plants that might do well with this, depending on how much water and how often - Saintpaulias, maybe, or a lot of ferns - and if you're growing plants in a very warm, bright, humid location, then that can work out, too. But most indoor plants need something very different: run lots of water through the soil at once, let it drain, dump the leftover, and then give the plant a period of drying out before hitting it again with another large volume of water. This keeps fertilizer or minerals from the water from building up, and it also eliminates the plants having to stand in water, which is a leading cause of premature houseplant death. I realize that it's a lot more convenient not to have to move the plant with every watering, especially if it's a large plant. But if you're constantly bringing home new plants from the store 'cause you killed your last one, how much plant-carrying are you really saving yourself? And anyway -- do you want the plant to live, or don't you?
8 In particular, you should smack salespeople who try to get you to buy leaf shiner for Zamioculcas, because if there was ever a plant that didn't need leaf shiner, it would be this one. But also you should assault salespeople who push leaf shiner for any purpose, because it's not good for the plant. Or the air. Or your decor (unless you're putting together a look that mandates that everything be really really shiny). There is one situation in which I approve of leaf shiner, which is, it's the quickest (and actually most effective, too) way to make that gray pesticide / fertilizer / hard water spots grime invisible. It's not permanent, and it's still bad for the plant (though it doesn't actually take a lot of spray: a lot of florists seem to overdo it, but it can be applied so that you don't really notice it's there), but it's a lot easier and faster than trying to wipe down each individual leaf with vinegar or milk or soapy water or whatever your particular solution is.
9 (Zanzibar became independent of Great Britain in 1963, after which it merged with another former British colony, the likewise newly independent republic of Tanganyika, and the two were collectively named Tanzania, a contraction of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Everything's pretty much been downhill since then, I gather, especially for gays and lesbians: Tanzania criminalized gay and lesbian sex in 2004. So the husband and I won't be looking for Zamioculcas in its native habitat anytime soon. This is kind of ironic or something, since arguably the most famous thing to come out of Tanzania was Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, and if you're surprised by this, join the club. I had no idea. In my defense, I'm also not really a fan of Queen, so I had no particular reason to know.)
10 The made-up names would translate as "many-colored Zamioculcas," "hair-leafed Zamioculcas," and "Zamioculcas from hell." I bet that last one would be pretty awesome.
11 It's worth noting also that Coffea arabica, also, is native to Africa's east coast, and so we're asked to believe that two species were imported across the continent, presumably long enough ago (i.e. before modern transportation) to be integrated into the tribal traditions of the native Ghanaians, and that the Ghanaians noticed that the Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which is poisonous and which they would not ordinarily be eating or chewing, produced psychedelic effects when eaten or chewed, and that nobody in, say, Kenya (closer to the native habitats of both species) had ever noticed this first and made it part of their own tribal traditions, and that this only happens when the two plants are grown together. While plants do interact in the wild, and have fights and conversations and all kinds of other relationships, the Wikipedia claims go well beyond the limits of what I can find believable without a lot more than just Wikipedia's say-so.
12 In the sense of believing that if you have a question, it's usually possible to find out what the answer is, and in those cases where one can't find an answer, it's not an acceptable substitute to say "it's magic!" or "God did it!" or something like that. (Yes, I know I said it's magic how a tuber can grow a leaf without having any leaves first. I was making an extremely dark joke.) Which at the risk of going off on an extremely long and upsetting tangent, I've heard some really disturbing things about how science is presented in M. Night Shyamalan's recent abomination The Happening, particularly in a reported early scene where a science teacher (a science teacher, for the love of Pete!), is portrayed as telling a student that the best scientific answer to the question of what's going on with the honeybees and colony collapse disorder is "It's an act of nature that we can't understand." Friends! Romans! Canadians! This is not science! It's not even doing a good job of pretending to be science! Science, if anything, operates entirely on the assumption that all acts of nature are things that we can understand, at least in theory, at least eventually. To have a science teacher, in a widely-watched (if not widely loved) movie, say something like this, is to completely misrepresent science and everything it stands for. If I sound a little over-the-top and hysterical, well, it's a pretty over-the-top and ridiculous thing to have a scientist say (especially one who, I gather, is eventually shown figuring out the answer to the whole situation -- it'd be different if he were otherwise portrayed as a really dumb, or evil, or crazy scientist). There's not really a nuanced, well-maybe-they're-both-right position to take here. Science as (apparently) portrayed in the movie is as much like real science as a file cabinet with a sticker on it saying "cow" is like an actual living bovine. The sad(-der) part being that science education in the States, at least, is already so watered down that I'd be shocked if more than a handful of any audience choked on that line at all, or understood why it was wrong.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pretty pictures: Iowan roadside flowers, and a large wad of metal

The husband and I went southwest down to Sigourney, IA, a week ago,1 and I was kind of shocked at how many things seemed to be blooming along the side of the road. I guess it hadn't occurred to me that summer was necessarily a bigger time for that than spring, but it pretty definitely seems to be.


So I know some of them, but there are a few that I can't identify, and one of the NOIDs has been bothering me for several years now, but for some reason it only just occurred to me to ask the internet. I suppose because I didn't have a picture until now.

(I've also thrown in a few other plants that I didn't see on the trip, because they're also weedy and they fit this post better than they could fit another one later.)

So, Iowa roadside stuff. I suppose we should get the obvious one out of the way first:

Zea mays, and Zea mays, and Zea mays . . .

Not really amber waves just yet, but still. That's a whole lot of photosynthesis there, my friends. Oxygen!

Asclepias syriaca, the common milkweed.

I've always liked milkweeds. The leaves get no attention but are actually quite nice. Somebody should slap together a tropical version of these that can be grown indoors.

Or maybe not. "Yeah? You got mealybugs? Well listen, buddy, I'd kill to trade for mealybugs right now. I got monarch caterpillars all over my bed, my toothbrush, the kitchen sink; chrysalises (chrysali?) blocking the air vents and dangling over the toilet; and we can't even watch TV anymore because as soon as we turn it on, all these butterflies jump up and fly into the screen. So I don't even want to hear about your mealybug problems."

One of the NOIDs.

Very patchily distributed. Maybe a deliberate planting. Damn pretty in large quantity.

Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed susan.

Not a good picture, but I don't like black-eyed susans well enough to care, apparently.

A chicory (Cichorium intybus) flower.

These were everywhere in certain areas, which surprised me: I don't remember seeing them as a child, and I grew up not far from Sigourney, so it's a puzzler. I remember violets, asters, milkweed, plantains, red clover, white clover and dandelions; surely I would have noticed chicory, had it been there.2

Another NOID.

This is the NOID that's been troubling me. Again, I don't remember seeing it as a kid, and yet now it's everywhere -- large stretches of I-80 are lined with it on one side of the road or another. Occasionally both. It's such a vivid yellow that I can't imagine how I would have missed it all those years. So is it new? Invasive? What is this thing?

UPDATE: Julia, in comments, says it's the birdsfoot trefoil, or birdfoot deervetch (Lotus corniculatus), which does appear to be the case. I'll be back to add to the post again if I can find out anything about what it's doing in Iowa.

Another NOID.

This one sort of looks related to the yellow NOID; they both produce small circles of flowers, and they tend to grow in the same places. If I remember right, though, the foliage is completely different. So maybe not.

UPDATE: When I was watering perennials yesterday at work, I saw that we actually have this for sale. It wasn't in flower, but the foliage looked right. Turns out it's crown vetch (or purple crownvetch), Securigera varia, which is found in most states of the U.S. and is a problematic invasive in some of them. So why are we selling it, when it can be invasive, and when anybody could dig some up from along the side of the road if they really wanted some that badly? Bless me, I have no idea. I'll have to ask the boss, or somebody, if anybody actually buys it.


When I was a kid, I remember being told that this was an aster. The actual botanical genus Aster has been split up, with Old World species retaining the designation Aster and the New World species getting shattered into a half-dozen or so other genera. So I don't know what this is, but I remember seeing it as a kid. Lots. The bees liked it, as I recall.

UPDATE: Well, it's an Erigeron of some kind, probably E. annuus, which is known to be in southeast Iowa and is a pure white. There are other Erigeron in Iowa that are supposed to be slightly pinkish, though I can't say I've ever seen anything like that. Thanks to Frances for the tip.

Verbascum thapsus, the common mullein.

I like this plant. I see these particular specimens on my way to work every day, but the species seems to be common around Iowa City.

Another NOID.

This was also one I saw on the way to work; the flower didn't last long, and turned into a dandelionish puff of seeds. I feel like I ought to know the name, like I did at one time or something, but I got nothing right now.

Ostrich ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris. Pretty sure.

I took this picture because I think these are resprouts from disturbed ground: they're alongside of a house in a town near here (Wellman, maybe?) that has, for some reason, had all the ground around the foundation dug up. These appeared to be coming back from roots under the soil, or maybe the original plants were just covered up, not torn to pieces. Not sure how it works. All I know is, I've heard ostrich ferns were tough, and now I believe it.

Large wad of metal.

This was a large wad of metal sitting in a field near West Chester. What is it from? Why is it just sitting there? Is this, perhaps, Art? We do not know. There was some brief discussion of how we might heave it into the car and take it home with us, or offer to buy it as scrap metal and then try to pawn it off to someone else as sculpture, but practical considerations prevailed. Also it's actually more interesting, attractive, and likely to give a person tetanus than a lot of art I've seen, which made the whole thing seem less workable.

If you know any of the NOID plants, or if you'd like to bid on the giant ball of twisted rusty metal (what a garden ornament it would make!), sing out in comments. Or, you know, keep it to yourself, if that's how you want to be.


Photo credits:

1 (To look at an empty library. Sort of a long story.)
2 I know: stop calling you Shirley. Wilco.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Soooooooo, the other day I was thinking that maybe I wanted to change the colors around on the blog here. The pale green just wasn't doing it for me anymore so much. And because I like to make things complicated sometimes, I thought, wouldn't it be cool if I could co-ordinate the colors of the blog to the colors of the pictures that I post on the blog?

Which was an interesting enough idea that I decided to pursue it, by bringing up various pictures in Irfanview, shrinking select pieces of the photos down to one-pixel-by-one-pixel squares (to get the "average" color for that section), and then blowing them back up and making little swatches of the color. It was very roundabout, and I probably could have achieved the same thing, more or less, much faster with the eyedropper tool, but there you go. Anyway. So two and a half hours later, approximately, I had a bunch of colors to pick from for the blog, but I had completely lost interest in changing the colors anymore, so there was really no point in keeping them. Since I wanted to salvage something from the whole affair, I made this, a 13x13-square containing the colors I came up with.

(I recommend opening the picture in a new tab or window or whatever: the shrunken version is blurrier, and therefore the colors are muddier, than the actual picture.)

The only real point of interest to readers, I'm afraid, is the relationship of the colors to the plants that inspired them, and having already burned hours on this project, I'm not going to go in and write names over the colors. But perhaps it's interesting in a non-botanical sense? It sort of resembles a Bridget Riley painting, a little.


List of genera involved: (also the sequence of colors if you go from left to right and then top to bottom. Any given genus may have gotten more than one square for itself, though, so it's not like you can just count along. And if you find yourself tempted to count along and figure out what's what, you're welcome to do so, though I'd invite you also to consider the possibility that you have too much time on your hands.) Acalypha, Adenium, Adiantum, Aechmea, Agave, Ageratum, Aglaonema, Aloe, Alternanthera, Anthurium, Aquilegia, Araucaria, Ardisia, Argyranthemum, Asparagus, Asplenium, Astrophytum, Bakerara, Beallara, Begonia, Bougainvillea, Bracteantha, Caladium, Calibrachoa, Campanula, Capsicum, Catharanthus, centipede, Cereus, Chamaedorea, Chlorophytum, Clematis, Codiaeum, Cordyline, Coreopsis, Cosmos, Cryptanthus, Dahlia, Davallia, Dendrobium, Dieffenbachia, Dizygotheca, Eschscholzia, Euphorbia, Ficus, Gardenia, Gaura, Gerbera, Glechoma, Gomphrena, grower pot, Gynura, Hibiscus, Hoya, Impatiens, Kalanchoe, Lithops, Ludisia, Maranta, Neoregelia, Oenothera, Oncidium, Osteospermum, Paphiopedilum, Pedilanthus, Pelargonium, Peperomia, Petunia, Phalaenopsis, Philodendron, Platycodon, Plectranthus, Portulaca, Sansevieria, Saxifraga, Schlumbergera, Scindapsus, Solenostemon, Strelitzia, Streptocarpus, Stromanthe, Synadenium, Syngonium, Tagetes, Tillandsia, Tradescantia, Tropaeolum, Viola, whitefly, Zantedeschia, Zebrina Tradescantia zebrina.