Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Name of the Blog

This picture is a clue.

Some of the other garden bloggers (e.g. Clay and Limestone, Soliloquy, The Gardener Side, The Brenda Blog) have done posts recently about how they came up with the name for their blogs. It's on the verge of becoming a full-blown internet meme, even.

And that alone wouldn't necessarily get me to do it, but it sounded like a post I could do fairly easily, with no research (except that it turns out that I did have to do some research; it seems that I always have to do research). So.

"Plants are the Strangest People" is a slightly altered quote from the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Specifically, it's a slightly-altered quote from one of my favorite episodes,1 "I Was Made to Love You," in which a mysterious but sweet-seeming stranger named April shows up in Sunnydale looking for her girlfriend Warren.

April turns out to be a robot, specifically a sexbot created by Warren, who got tired of her and became interested in an actual girl, Katrina. As April has been programmed only to be totally in love with Warren, and is wicked strong besides (because: robot), this is kinda dangerous for Katrina. The episode ends with a fight between April and Buffy, at the end of which April's batteries begin to run down. Buffy sits with her until April shuts down completely.2

April (Shonda Farr), looking for Warren.

Which leads to the following exchange between Xander and Buffy, while Xander is repairing a window that got broken because April threw somebody through it:

BUFFY: Yeah?
XANDER: One of the cool things about that, you see is, uh, the jamb can be shimmed to be square, even if the opening isn't.
BUFFY: Shimmed? Is that even a real word? Do you have any idea what you're talking about?
XANDER: Yeah, I do. (smiles) Scary, isn't it? I think I've actually turned into someone you want around after a crazed robot attack.
BUFFY: And if you ever start your own business, you have your slogan right there. (pauses, looks thoughtful) And she wasn't crazed.
BUFFY: She devoted everything to making this one person happy. And then it was like, with him gone, there was just ... no reason for her to exist any more.
XANDER: Robots are the strangest people.

Somehow, that one line worked its way into my head. Then one day at work, WCW was talking about something unexpected that one of her plants had done, and without thinking about it I said, "Yeah, well, it's like they say, plants are the strangest people."

Which also stuck with me.

I'd been contemplating doing a blog for a while prior to this, and had been having trouble coming up with a workable angle for it; once it occurred to me that I could organize the blog around different types of people, I knew I had a workable hook.3 I registered the address with Blogger on 30 September 2007, and then spent a few weeks writing some profiles so I would have some content to start with, and made them public on 18 October 2007.

So now you know.

Another quote from the episode that really resonated with me, while I'm on the subject, was this one (For the record: Anya actually is 1100 years old; she's not exaggerating. Long story.):

Anya: Well, at first [going online] was confusing. Just the idea of computers was like, whoa, I'm eleven hundred years old: I had trouble adjusting to the idea of Lutherans.
Tara: Well, I go online sometimes, but everyone's spelling is really bad. It's depressing.

Not sure what blog title could be made from that quote, though.


1 A Jane Espenson episode, in fact. Which are always the best ones.
2 Apparently, Britney Spears was intended to play April at one point, but the scheduling didn't work out, so we wound up with Shonda Farr instead. Thank God. Not that Britney couldn't have done it, but it would have been distracting. And I actually really, really like Shonda Farr in this.
3 Regular readers might be surprised at how planned out the whole blog concept was. I'd tried blogging before -- in fact there are six other blogs of mine out there, all published under the same nom de blog (which I will not tell you), not related to plants (except the last one a little bit), dating back as early as (in one case) summer 2004. I think they are all, without exception, weirder than PATSP. In any case. I had run into the problem with some of them that I had too narrow of a focus, and could only think of just so many things to say that would fit inside the parameters I had established, so they ended even though I didn't necessarily want them to, just because I'd painted myself into a corner. At the same time, I didn't want a blog where I could just write about anything and everything with no constraints at all either. So, I picked the specific content of houseplants, and the specific structure of the plant profiles, and the rest has kind of developed on its own. What was notable about the title "Plants are the Strangest People" was not that it suggested blog posts all by itself, but that it seemed to be flexible enough to accommodate more stuff if I wanted to do more stuff. And -- wow, you're really going to read this whole footnote, aren't you? 'Cause I'd have thought you'd be bored by now. Anyway. -- So the quote gave me the title and the title gave me the tone and structure, and the tone and structure have given me the posts.

Friday, August 29, 2008

"Master Gardeners" Don't Know Everything

This spring sometime, we had a customer come in who wanted to send a small tropical arrangement to a friend. The flower shop dutifully threw something together and sent it out, and . . . well, I'm a little fuzzy on whether the recipient brought it back or whether she just declined to accept it and then called the store about it. But either way, the arrangement came back, and we heard about it from the recipient later that day, who berated the front counter person (not that she had had anything to do with taking the order, putting the planter together, or any of the rest of it) to the point where she nearly cried. It was something to the general effect of, we oughta be ashamed, the planter we sent had a diseased plant in it, and she was a Master Gardener so she knew there was something really wrong with this one, and so on for what was apparently a really long time. I heard all this second-hand from the boss and the front counter person (I think I was at lunch when this all went down), so I don't know how involved the cussing-out got.

The problem is, the plant that generated the objection, a Philodendron 'Moonlight,' was not, in fact, diseased or infested or otherwise unhealthy. 'Moonlight,' like many Philodendrons, will develop lighter-colored spots on its leaves if they are damaged during development. The damage may be from spider mites biting the developing leaf, or from the leaf being bent under another leaf while unfurling, or anything else that might cause little pinprick-type damage to veins, but once it's there, it's permanent.

I first saw this on a Philodendron 'Imperial Red,' which I wound up buying. I didn't know that spots weren't normal for that cultivar until the new growth started coming in without them. Since then, I've seen it on the other self-heading Philodendrons ('Autumn' and 'Prince of Orange'), as well as Ficus lyrata, F. triangularis and Homalomena 'Emerald Gem.' (The Ficus spots tend to be reddish-brown, unlike the others, which are usually just a lighter version of the leaf's normal color.)

Homalomena 'Emerald Gem' with spots.

It's not that big of a deal. It doesn't mean your plant is sick. It doesn't even mean your plant has ever been sick. And even if it were a sick plant, that wouldn't justify huffing and puffing and trying to pull rank because you're a Master Gardener and the store employee you're abusing isn't. Call up the store, explain the situation, talk like you're a human being and not like you're the Pope. (Who may also be a human being. Unverified. I'll let you know.) Being a certified Master Gardener doesn't make you infallible; it just means that after you're gone we all shake our heads sadly at what a moron you are, and cluck our tongues at how the MG standards have clearly declined.

Being a jackass, though, does make you a jackass. So, you know, your choice.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Eleventh Commandment?

Maybe this one should replace #9 or #10, but for now we'll call it #11:

11. Thou shalt not move thy plant directly from an indoor no-sun position to a full-sun outdoor position just because you believe it to be a cactus. Especially if you haven't heard of Euphorbias.

(For anyone who missed it, the previous post with the ten houseplant commandments is here.)

A customer's Euphorbia trigona.

This particular customer not only broke #11, but they also had the plant in a glass pot without drainage (#3) and thought it was a cactus (#5).

Not their fault exactly. Nobody knows these things automatically, and it is kinda logical to put a plant that wants sun into the sun. But still, this is why there's commandment #5. It's depressing. I cleaned it up as best as I could and put it in a clay pot with drainage. It could still make it. It's a tough species. We'll see.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How to Make Trees Scarier

(Link to I09.)

Infomercial Pitchman (Cissus quadrangularis)

The fun part of writing these profiles is finding out new, weird stuff. Sometimes (as with Epipremnum aureum), there's just no new stuff to be found, which is boring, and sometimes very unpromising-looking or obscure plants will turn out to be far stranger than my wildest hopes, as with Araucaria bidwillii. So I never know.

Cissus quadrangularis, though, takes the prize for the most surprising plant so far.

You wouldn't think, to look at it, that it was related to . . . you know, Earth plants. But not only is it from this planet, it's got familiar, planty-looking family. Stuff you'd know and recognize, like for example grapes (Vitis vinifera, V. labrusca) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which are also members of the Vitaceae. More related still, the genus Cissus is also the genus of a few common houseplants, like grape ivy (C. rhombifolia), oakleaf ivy (C. rhombifolia 'Ellen Danica'), kangaroo ivy (C. antarctica), and begonia vine (C. discolor). The family resemblance is not obvious to the naked eye. Or the casually dressed eye, for that matter.

The plant is native to . . . somewhere. Different websites list different origins, usually one or the other of these options: "Asia and Africa" or "Ceylon and India." I'm inclined to believe the latter more, because it's more specific, but there was one site that mentioned the plant's presence in Africa, a site that talked about the plant being, possibly, toxic to livestock in Sudan. (Unfortunately, that's literally all the page had to say about the plant, Sudan, or livestock, so it's kind of a dead end, information-wise.) It's always possible that the plant is native to Ceylon/India and was introduced to Africa at some point later.


If you google Cissus quadrangularis, what you get are mostly bodybuilding sites, nutritional supplement sites, and the occasional medical site.1 Not what you'd expect from a houseplant, I know. What's even more unexpected is, C. quadrangularis is apparently the answer to every physical ailment that might affect you. Broken bones? Take C. quadrangularis. Hemorrhoids? C. quadrangularis. Open sores? How about some C. quadrangularis. And so on and so forth, through: obesity, tennis elbow, weight loss, asthma, high cholesterol, irregular or difficult menstruation, diabetes (implied), depression (implied), insomnia (implied), osteoporosis, low libido (implied), and ulcers.

Now, most of the sites couldn't care less about osteoporosis, asthma, and high cholesterol, because most of the sites are about bodybuilding. Apparently, it's common for bodybuilders to tear and snap tendons,2 and then when you've snapped a tendon, you can't use that particular muscle anymore for a while, while it heals, which if you're a bodybuilder is apparently terrifying, since if you can't work it out, it'll shrink and all the other bodybuilders will laugh at you. And, as we all know, there's nothing worse than being laughed at by a bunch of bodybuilders. So there's a demand for anything that promises to heal tendons faster.

Cissus quadrangularis is basically the answer to the sidelined bodybuilder's prayer, because not only is its extract supposed to heal tendons and broken bones faster, it's also supposed to reduce pain and inflammation and act like an anabolic steroid. So basically you're looking at a product that will: fix the stuff you broke, reduce the amount of pain you feel from breaking whatever it was, and help you regrow the muscle back at a faster-than-natural pace once everything's healed. You can see why they'd be interested.

As far as it goes, I think I might believe this, or at least I don't rule it out. I'm not a biochemist, but my degree is in chemistry, and I know enough about biochemistry that some of the claims and purported mechanisms at least don't sound like obvious gibberish. I'm prepared to accept that it might actually do something like heal bone and build muscle and all that. Healing of broken bones is apparently something it's been used for since ancient India, even.3 But of course, there's no FDA regulation of "nutritional supplements," which means that if you go to the store and buy a bottle of powdered whatever, the manufacturer is not obligated to list possible side effects on the bottle, no impartial government agency has proven that the supplement in the bottle does anything, there may or may not be scientific evidence showing that the product in question is even safe for human use, and I'm not positive that the bottle has to contain the product it claims to contain (or at least I don't know who would be in charge of verifying this, aside from the manufacturer itself). Persons reading this from outside the U.S. might have a little bit more government regulation and protection (or a bit less), but that still wouldn't make it safe and effective. So use at your own risk.

As for the rest of the claims, weight loss and hemorrhoids and all that, well, if it sounds too good to be true. . . .

But it's not just the answer to all your bone, muscle, and joint problems, it's also a houseplant. (Also a floor polish, dessert topping, and powerful rust remover!4)

As houseplants go, it's a pretty easy one. Granted, I've only had mine for three months, but it's a fast grower, it's not complained about its conditions yet or gotten any bugs, and it seems to be pretty okay with whatever care I give it or don't give it. So far, so good.

Despite it being easy to grow, it doesn't actually seem to be grown indoors all that often, which I can't easily explain. I mean, no, it's not the most gorgeous plant in the world. It's a little weird-looking. But, you know, Cissus quadrangularis is certainly no weirder to look at than Hatiora salicornioides or Schlumbergera truncata cvv., and people grow them all the time.

I had trouble finding any hard information about indoor care at all, so I'm going almost entirely on my own experience with the plant for the care directions. I welcome input from anybody else who might have tried this plant.

LIGHT: Mine is in a position probably best described as filtered sun. It seems to be okay there, though it's hard to know for sure with this kind of plant: if the stem segments start getting longer, does that mean it's happy or that it's reaching for light? Or both?

WATER: I treat mine more or less like a succulent that likes to be a little wet (roughly the same watering territory occupied by Pedilanthus tithymaloides or Pachypodium lamerei in the summer).

TEMPERATURE: Almost no data on this. I ran into two sites that said that the plant will die if it's exposed to freezing temperatures, and one site that said it's okay outdoors in zones 11 & 12 only. I didn't know there was a zone 12.5 So I don't know. I figure it should be okay to stay above 50ºF / 10ºC. Possibly colder than that.

HUMIDITY: Can't really see humidity being an issue for a plant that's this succulent.

PESTS: Haven't had any personally, and didn't find anything about them on-line, so I have no idea. Cissus spp. in general tend to be prone to spider mites and mealybugs (just like almost everything else).

GROOMING: It's possible that there is some, but I'm not sure what it would be. My plant does occasionally drop a leaf. I can't tell if this is something the plant would be doing anyway, or if it's an indication that it's unhappy over something.

FEEDING: No information on this either, so I'll say, feed like any other relatively fast-growing succulent.

PROPAGATION: I haven't tried it myself yet, but every site with any information on it at all says that these are very easily propagated just by snapping off a piece and burying a node in soil. In some cases that's the only real information that's included.

In the end, I think the people marketing Cissus quadrangularis supplements are promising much more than the product can possibly deliver. I'm cynical about "natural" and "herbal" products anyway, mostly for the reasons outlined above, that they don't have to go through any objective testing in order to be sold. But this doesn't mean that all such products are crap -- it just means that you, as the consumer, can't tell the difference between crap and medicine, you can't prepare yourself for any drug interactions or side effects, you don't know how much active ingredient you're getting, and it's not like these things are generally cheap6 or covered by insurance.

It's still interesting that this is a quote-unquote nutritional supplement that can be grown in the home. [shrug] If it turns out to be a useful one, then maybe more people will grow it, someday. Though that's probably enough right there to guarantee that nobody's ever going to check it out in any kind of rigorous scientific way. No money to be made in researching a plant that people will grow at home for their own use, right? Am I being too cynical?7


Photo credits: all mine.

Sudanese livestock
Pain reliever
Possible anabolic / androgenic (ref 1) (ref 2)
Hemorrhoids, asthma, ulcers, etc. ref 1 (WARNING: includes description of mouse torture which is couched in clinical language but still comprehensible enough to be unsettling), ref 2, ref 3, ref 4.

1 (Those readers who got to this page via a google search may mentally edit this to, "bodybuilding sites, nutritional supplement sites, the occasional medical site, and PATSP.")
2 Which might be a "doctor, it hurts when I do this" moment (for those unfamiliar with the joke: guy goes to the doctor, says, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this," and the doctor ponders for a minute and then tells the patient not to do that, then. Not the funniest joke. My delivery wasn't great either. But that's the joke I'm referring to.), but apparently a little tendon snappage is a small price to pay for having grotesquely large . . . everythings. I understand working out. Don't do it (basically no energy or time left once you factor in work, and I was never a big fan of exercise to begin with, because of how it's all boring and repetitive and hot/sweaty), but I understand it. Bodybuilding, though, I don't even understand, except insofar as it might be an anorexia-like body image issue, which apparently for some people it is. Whatever the activity, I think I'd be motivated to stop doing it once I'd snapped a few tendons, but this is apparently one of many, many reasons why I am not a bodybuilder, my author picture notwithstanding.
3 Not that that means that it works. Ancient people also thought that the sun, which revolved around the earth, was routinely eaten by dragons; and that hares grew a new anus every year, so a four-year-old rabbit would have four anuses (I am totally serious: check out p. 138 of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, by John Boswell. They also thought that weasels got pregnant through the mouth.); that malaria was spread through bad smells; and that virgin-slaughtering was just as important to agriculture as sowing seed. Ancient peoples were fucked up. Not good noticers.
4 "Dessert topping" is an exaggeration, but it actually can apparently be eaten as a vegetable. I was unable to find any description of how it tastes. I'm guessing probably not very good. I also want to note for the record that I am not willing to bet your life on the plant being edible, especially in light of the possible toxic-to-livestock thing mentioned previously, and I do not advise trying to eat this plant without first finding out how much you can safely eat, how to prepare it, etc. The only site I could locate that talked about preparation of the plant for consumption advises one to swallow without chewing, to minimize oral irritation, which doesn't sound promising.
5 According to the USDA map, there's not a Zone 12. So either it was a typo, or the site I was looking at (which of course I can't find again) was using a zone map other than the current USDA map, or the USDA has added a zone 12 since the map I looked at was produced. "Zone 12" would be a good blog title, by the way, if there's not actually a zone 12. Be especially appropriate for an indoor gardener.
(Alas, both and are taken. The former has been collecting dust since February 2005, only ever had one post, and that post was only four words long : "Golly, my first blog." The latter is even older (October 2004), and has a longish rant about [sub]urban sprawl in Maine (the author is against it), and ends with the promise of "More soon!" However, and are open, for the time being.)
6 Except, perhaps, relatively speaking. Prescription medication is even more not-cheap.
7 Or maybe not cynical enough? Exactly how lazy are people, anyway?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pretty picture: Delphinium 'New Millennium Stars'

Don't have a lot to say about this, aside from the obvious (that it's pretty). This particular variety has taken its sweet time to bloom -- the perennials are already discounted, for chrissakes -- but I suppose you'd have to say it was worth the wait.

Both of these pictures will get much larger if opened in a new window. That was accidental (I'd set the camera to take large pictures for a different thing, and then forgot about it until after I'd taken these), but it worked out well. The picture below is especially cool in extreme close-up.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Ten Houseplant Commandments

(from the book of Cereus, Chapter 3, verses 1-10)

3 1 Thou shalt water thy plants when and only when they require water, eschewing the calendars of man.

2 Thou shalt learn the signs of the plagues of insects (and arthropods)a I will send against thee, and be watchful against them, lest they overtake your plant.

Dieffenbachia 'Sterling'

3 Thou shalt not plant thy plants in a pot lacking drainage: it is an abomination, saith the LORD.

4 Thou shalt not cause thy plants to stand in drainage water.

5 Thou shalt learn the names of thy plants.

6 Thou shalt water thoroughly, until water saturates all of the soil in the pot.

7 Thou shalt not plant thy houseplants in topsoil or garden soil.

Peperomia obtusifolia variegata

8 Thou shalt not give fertilizer to an ailing plant, nor too much fertilizer to a healthy one.

9 Thou shalt not covet or steal cuttings from thy neighbors, nor from public spaces, nor from any other plant which does not belong to you.

10 Thou shalt share cuttings with thy neighbors as with thyself.


a Some manuscripts do not contain (and arthropods).


These are arranged in approximate order of how often they're broken by the people who come in to work, or call with a question, or post at Garden Web. Most common errors at the top, least common ones at the bottom. At least, more or less. It's not like I count. Though maybe I should.

If pressed, I could come up with many more (as, please note, did Moses: the actual Ten Commandments starts out Exodus 20, but then he spends Chapters 21-22, most of 23, 25-30, and most of 31 on various rules and laws and instructions, some of which are still relevant and sensible -- Exodus 22:21 and 23:7 are personal faves -- and others of which are less applicable to 21st Century America. Like e.g. Exodus 22:16-17. I'm just saying.), as there are a ton of other things people do wrong. But, you know, ten is a nice round number, and one has to stop somewhere. I'd be willing to drop 9 and 10 if somebody has some better suggestions.

I've personally, at some point in my life, broken all of these except #7 (though #5 was involuntary), and especially #9 (mostly with the coveting, not the stealing). Recently, only 3, 4, 5 (still involuntary), and 9.

Those of you who were hoping for the Sermon on the Mount ("Blessed are the Dieffenbachias, for theirs is the understory of Heaven") will just have to keep waiting.

If anyone was curious: the opening picture is from Hope Lutheran Church in Germanville, IA (which may or may not be an actual incorporated town: I was always confused on this point as a kid, and thirty years have not clarified anything for me. But it is listed on Google Maps.), which is the actual church that my parents and I attended from the time I was about two to maybe eight years old. The above picture is almost exactly how it looked then, too: I think the TV is the only addition in the last twenty years.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Random plant event: Asplenium nidus with trunk

Strictly speaking, this isn't an event. The plant in question has looked more or less like this for at least a year now. But I bring it up anyway in the hopes of settling a question that arose recently at Garden Web, regarding whether or not birdsnest ferns can develop trunks.

Looks like it to me.

This fails to answer the original question, which was how one gets one to produce a trunk. I still have no idea. I assume it involves lots of time.