I've probably done this variety, and similar varieties, of poinsettia an unkindness in the past by assuming it was one of those spray-painted ones. Spray-painting poinsettias is wrong. It's doublesuperwrong if it's spray paint of a color that poinsettias don't normally come in, and triplesuperplusnastywrong if there's glitter involved. I have no logical basis for saying this: it's just self-evidently bad.
But this, in fact, is just how this particular variety is. I've been looking for information on this type of variegation (what genes, if any, are involved? How does the plant decide which cells to pigment and which ones not to?), and all kinds of other variegation types, for some time now, but I haven't come up with much. It's possible that periclinal chimeras are the only ones I'm ever going to understand.
Still working on it, though. And there's always Barbara McClintock, if I get really desperate to explain some plant colors, though I'll have to understand it myself before I can even attempt to explain it to anybody else, and that may take a while.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Pretty picture: Euphorbia pulcherrima 'Picasso'
Friday, December 5, 2008
Unfinished business: Codiaeum variegatum
This plant, and a second one just like it, have been in the greenhouse for a few weeks now; the boss and her husband picked a couple up from one of our local suppliers. There's no cultivar name attached to it, and I know nothing about it besides the species: it's a Codiaeum variegatum. It does seem to be, possibly, more mite-resistant than the standard varieties, though it might just be that the mites are harder to see on these. Hard to say. In any case, I thought it was odd enough to be worth sharing.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Book review: Flower Confidential, by Amy Stewart
I've never written a book review before. A book report, yes (though even that was fifteen years ago), but not a review. So I'm not sure what to do here, and you'll have to bear with me.
Fortunately, a quick Google search for "how to write a book review" has at least given me a pretty solid crutch to lean on, and if this post doesn't rise to the level of art, well, I'd settle for being thought competent. I'd even be okay with a well, dear, it was his first try, let's not be too hard on him.
The promise Amy Stewart (of Garden Rant, and also her personal blog Dirt) makes with the title Flower Confidential is that she's going to take the reader behind the scenes in the floral industry. We're going to hear secrets, in other words. And kinda we do.
I would like to find fault with the book, because of ongoing resentment about Stewart's anti-houseplant attitude (she's my nemesis, you know), but I really can't. There are spots I wish she'd gone into more detail about, and of course I'm not sure I like her skipping over live plants entirely, but there's nothing in the book that feels unnecessary. When I started to write this, I felt like the book didn't all hold together exactly -- nothing wrong with it, but the individual chapters felt like they stood alone and didn't really connect to the chapters before or after them, even though when I read through it the first time I didn't notice any jarring transitions. Going back through the book again for this review, though, there is a narrative there: Stewart basically takes us through the process, step by step, from the idea of a particular flower to its actual sale to a customer. So I can't even complain about that.1
In any case, the nine chapters give a pretty comprehensive look at the business, one aspect at a time, and usually with a single central species to illustrate the topic at hand.
The first chapter is about plant breeding, the old fashioned way with pollen, anthers, and camel-hair brushes, and revolves around the development of the Stargazer lily. It's not the happiest of stories, but it's fascinating, and probably my favorite chapter in the book (this being the closest to what I would like to be doing myself -- except for the semi-tragic ending).
Chapter two focuses on genetic engineering, and specifically, the efforts of breeders and engineers to create - for some reason - a blue rose.2 There's also a lot in this chapter about genetics and biology: why one has to trade scent for longevity when breeding roses, what florists do to keep flowers from dying until they're sold (and why those things work), why flower petals containing identical pigment compounds can, nevertheless, be different colors.
With chapter three, we move into the territory of the growers, and there's less of a solid species hook: much of the chapter is devoted to Don Garibaldi, a third-generation grower in California, whose family has been producing violets for a hundred years. Chapter three kind of dances around the idea that it's not really practical for people to grow flowers in the U.S. anymore, because they can be produced elsewhere and shipped in much more easily -- i.e., that the same thing has happened to flower producers that has happened to every other kind of manufacturing job -- but the focus is on the history, back when it was still feasible to grow things here. (Violets are an exception because they're so short-lived that they really have to be produced and consumed in more or less the same place, it turns out, though what this seems to have meant in actuality is that people have just stopped buying cut violets.)
Chapter four highlights one of the few U.S. producers still operating, Sun Valley Floral Farms, in Oxnard, California, and describes large-scale flower production for the first time.
Chapter five takes the reader to the Netherlands, for more large-scale flower production, this time of gerbera daisies in hydroculture, and more roses (rosaphobes should probably stay away from this book). This, too, sounded awfully appealing to me, in a weird way: the part I was really jealous of was how clean it all sounded. It's not so much that it sounded high-tech (though it did, and one gets the uneasy sense, reading along in the book, that the world does not have room for any new flower producing companies at the moment, and if it's your dream to start one, you are probably s.o.l.), though I like high-tech: it's that it sounded orderly. Try though WCW and I might, there's only so much grooming, watering and rearranging two people can do in 48 hours a week, and there are always things left undone. I dream of having the time to actually get everything clean and where it is supposed to be.
Chapter six: if you can't go high-tech and enormous, go medium-sized and move your operation to Ecuador, or Columbia. At least for roses. (Yes, roses again.) Stewart glowingly describes roses of three colors (pink/white/green), roses the size of baseballs, roses displayed in perfect spheres four and five feet in diameter, the rose equivalents of high fashion and gemstones. And she's really very good: her description of 'Limbo' (a green rose) was so hyperbolic that I tried finding a picture on-line, though I wasn't able to come up with anything that gave me a clue of what she was talking about. (When I eventually did, much later, find a picture of 'Limbo,' I was actually kind of disappointed: I was envisioning a kind of pistachio ice-gream green, not chartreuse.) The set-up in this chapter is skillful: she tells you about all these absolute marvels of flowers coming out of Ecuador, and then she makes you feel bad for wanting one: oh yeah, and the typical monthly wage for a flower farm worker in Ecuador is $150. And one other thing: they dip the flowers, flower, stem and all, in fungicide, and they employ children,3 and the children do the fungicide dipping too, and have various neurological problems, and sexual harrassment is rampant, and so on in that vein. And then she flips it back around on you again, noting that whatever its shortcomings, people need to have jobs or they don't eat, and what would you have Ecuador do, wreck one of the very few obvious and prospering industries in the country to ease your conscience?4
Chapter seven opens with this tension still very much intact, but Stewart ignores it and takes us to Miami, where we look around at the airport, and the flower import inspection facilities, which is pretty much just as exciting as it sounds. The chapter gets more interesting as it goes along, though, eventually circling back around to the question of how to buy flowers without exploiting people in other countries. The answer seems to be to buy flowers certified as organic and Fair Trade and so forth, and Stewart does a good job of, having raised tension in the previous chapter, dispelling it in this one, by telling you what the various certifications mean, and without being preachy or tedious.
Chapter eight is where the going gets strange. Stewart first covers the Dutch flower auctions, the weird process by which flowers by the millions are brought into the Netherlands, bought and sold, and then flown back out again to their buyers. It's a little ridiculous-sounding, but it's also kind of the logical end result of a country that takes flowers as seriously as the Dutch do. The psychology of this chapter is very weird: Stewart asks some perfectly sensible-seeming questions about, you know, why on earth anybody would need to fly millions of flowers from the growers across an ocean to be auctioned off, only to have to fly them back out of the country again, why this whole auction system is necessary at all, and she doesn't really get particularly good answers. It's unclear whether the Dutch were failing to understand Stewart or Stewart was failing to understand the Dutch, but it reads like somebody was obviously not understanding somebody. Chapter eight is also where we see Multi Color Flowers, a company that buys up flowers, dyes them, and then resells them to exporters. And it doesn't have to be dye, either: it could be paint, it could be [shuddering] glitter, it could be whatever there's a demand for. There are more questions than answers at the end of that bit, too.
Chapter nine is the only part I had any real prior connection to: nine is where we get into retail. I knew something about this already, from the flower shop attached to the garden center where I work,5 though there was still a lot in this chapter that I hadn't considered before. The general trend seems to be away from flowers, for funerals and weddings and so forth. People would still buy flowers for friends and relatives in the hospital, but of course hospital stays are getting shorter and shorter as HMOs become more and more able to dictate the conditions of care. In the remaining cases where people might still buy flowers, there's increased competition from grocery stores and discount retailers like Wal-Mart. So regular florists are being pushed to come up with new ways to compete, either by moving into more specialized territory (becoming more experimental and artistic) or by trying to convince the population in general to buy more flowers, for more occasions. Either way, I think the profession is pretty screwed, though there will always be people who manage to do well anyway. Stewart also notes that florists are maybe not as up on what their customers actually desire as they could be -- but I'll let you read the book for that part.
Stewart then includes a small epilogue specifically about Valentine's Day, a smaller afterword about flower certification and the floral industry's efforts to drum up support for local retail flower shops, a page and a half of tips on caring for cut flowers, and then some statistics and notes. Just to cover anything you might possibly want to know that had been left out.
It's an admirably complete book. There might have been just a little bit about houseplants in there, considering that houseplants go pretty much everywhere that cut flowers do, are bought and sold by the same people, and have many of the same problems. I mean, one gets the impression that Stewart had to work to avoid talking about them (or, perhaps, that she stuck her fingers in her ears and started yelling "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" every time the subject came up6), which is not exactly surprising but still disappoints. (She could have at least given me something about orchids: I know they're occasionally sold as cut flowers.) It remains a good book, full of all kinds of interesting information, and even though it probably looks like I've given you all the good stuff in the review already, I assure you that I have not.
And just to point it out -- Christmas is coming up. If you know any aspiring flower breeders or florists or wedding planners or gardeners or immigrants to the Netherlands, you could do a lot worse than picking them up a copy of Flower Confidential. Seriously.
1 If I'd really wanted to find fault with the book, I could take my cues from the Amazon reviews: Stewart is criticized for her omission of seed production, for her lack of photographs (which I'd guess was probably the publisher's fault, not Stewart's: she mentions taking lots of photos in the text, but color plates are expensive and jack up book prices, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the publisher had vetoed photos in the hopes of selling more books), for "rambling in the middle," and (from a reviewer called "Informed Citizen") for sounding emotional, or for promoting organic gardening (the horror!), or something -- it's actually kind of hard to tell what "Informed Citizen's" problems are, though I wouldn't be surprised if psychiatric medications, and possibly lead-based paint, were involved at some level.
2 Everybody acts kind of baffled throughout, at the idea that anybody would want one, but even if they were never particularly good sellers on their own, I foresee a huge demand in the U.S. around Independence Day, if at no other time. The contortions we have to go through sometimes at work to pretend that a group planting is red, white and blue, when it is very obviously red, white, and dark purple (this is particularly the case with petunias), is kind of astonishing the first few times you see it. Stewart's attitude wavers during the course of the chapter, variously viewing the idea with disgust and finding it possibly intriguing -- in the end, she seems to settle on the perfectly sensible approach of, well, I'll decide whether I like it when I see it.
3 She doesn't come right out and say this, and it's conceivable that it's not actually the case, or that it used to be the case but isn't anymore, or that it was only the case with a few bad growers, or whatever. But still: UNICEF has reported that six percent of Ecuadoran children between the ages of five and fourteen are engaged in child labor of some kind or another, and Stewart also notes that "Even children who claim not to work in greenhouses can give a surprisingly detailed account of how the work is done, leading one to believe that at the very least, they have spent a great deal of time there." It's not clear whether this is her own observation or whether she's paraphrasing UNICEF, but whatever the case, there does seem to be something a little hinky about the whole situation. Where there's smoke, there's child labor, or something like that.
4 Actually, no, this is probably my favorite chapter, and it's mostly because of the way Stewart does this. Just when you think the whole thing is going to be boosterism for the Ecuadoran flower trade, out come the UNICEF statistics. And just when you think she's gone off into bleeding-heart liberal territory, ruining roses for you forever, she yanks you back in the other direction. Global economics is complicated, and it's to Stewart's credit that she manages to acknowledge this in an even-handed, fluid way. (Or at least I thought it was even-handed.)
5 In a rare reversal of gender stereotypes, the garden center is run by the boss, and the flower shop is run by her husband. I don't have a lot of direct contact with the flower shop, though the greenhouse and flower shop overlap on certain things. Like for example, the flower shop has a table of seasonal blooming plants (mums, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, azaleas, so many cyclamens it makes me sick, gerbera daisies, the vile rieger begonias, etc.) in the greenhouse, which are their responsibility to keep groomed and watered and stuff. However, I've discovered that if I actually rely on the flower shop to watch their table, I still get yelled at for not keeping that table properly watered and groomed. Also, the flower shop sells and delivers a fair percentage of the green plants (particularly Spathiphyllum, Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime,' and Ficus elastica) for office-warmings and sympathy plants. They have the extremely annoying habit, which we've discussed repeatedly, of taking flowers off of the greenhouse plants, especially the Anthurium scherzerianums, rather than buying them from their suppliers as needed for arrangements. This is particularly offensive when it comes to the Anthuriums, as I have usually spent a couple weeks anticipating the opening of the flower, and then I come in one day and it's just gone. It also makes it, as you could imagine, harder to sell the Anthuriums in question if they are never actually in bloom. (The flower shop's excuse is that Anthurium flowers are expensive, and they usually don't need them very often, so there's little call for them to buy a whole box at $7 a stem or whatever it is, especially not if we happen to have one right there. This seems reasonable, but if that's going to be how it is, then the flower shop should get and maintain a few of their own Anthuriums as stock plants, and leave the ones that are for sale alone.)
6 Yeah, I'm still a little bitter.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Pretty picture: Beallara Peggy Ruth Carpenter
I like Beallaras. I don't know if they're difficult to grow (I suspect probably they are, or you'd be seeing them by the truckload instead of Phalaenopsis), but they just have a nice look to them. This particular plant is notable for having multiple colors of flower on the same spike: the older ones, like the one pictured, are a dark purple, and the newer, younger ones (you can see part of one in the top left of this photo) are considerably lighter. It's possible that this is a side effect of shipping or some other environmental thing, but even if it was accidental, it was a striking look.
The amazing part was that this one, though it was prominently displayed up at the front counter since its arrival a month ago, never sold. I don't know what people were thinking. Now the flowers are starting to drop, and we're probably not going to sell it at all, at least not until it flowers again. It seems like we were doing okay selling orchids this time last year, so it must be the economy. 'Cause there ain't nothing wrong with that flower.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Random plant event: Kalanchoe thyrsifolia flowers
What is it with desert plants wanting to put their flowers way high in the air, anyway? Are there no pollinators near the ground? I'm just wondering.
I've been waiting for this one for a while; we got it in June, and although it seemed to be doing more or less okay, the new leaves kept getting smaller and smaller, which irked me: now nobody's ever going to want to buy you, I told it. Then at some point I realized it was a flower spike, and stopped haranguing, because I figured surely it would sell once the flowers (which I was envisioning as tubular red-orange things, like on Bryophyllum tubiflorum and Bryophyllum daigremontianum) appeared. But no blooms appeared, for months: it just kept getting taller instead:
So finally they started to open, and they turn out not to be all that terribly interesting: like K. blossfeldiana, but without the bright colors or abundance of flowers that makes blossfeldiana (barely) worthwhile.
I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised. I tried to keep one of these indoors once, several years back, and then again in the last couple years, and . . . let's just say that this is not the first time this plant has disappointed me.
Probably some of the stretching is because it's not getting enough light. There's only so much I can do about that, unfortunately: the greenhouse only gets what the sky gives it. Maybe when I finish my weather-control ray.
(There's a follow-up post, q.v.)
Monday, December 1, 2008
Pretty picture: Paphiopedilum Supersuk 'Eureka' x Paph. Raisin Pie 'Hsinying' x Sib
I've seen better pictures of this plant elsewhere on-line, but it's not like I didn't try to get a good picture. The lighting was apparently problematic.
You get the basic idea anyway. This is the plant I mentioned last Friday, the Paphiopedilum that attacked me and wouldn't let me leave without it.
I've always liked the mottled Paphiopedilum leaves, and the flowers . . . well, I can't really complain about the flowers, I suppose. I've been looking around since I got it for information about Paphs and how difficult they are, and so far I haven't seen anything terribly conclusive: apparently, like Dendrobium spp., Paphiopedilum might be difficult, or it might be easy, and it all just depends on what particular plant you've bought. Can't say I like those odds, but oh well.
At least it wasn't outrageously expensive: I got this cheaper than I would have gotten it from work (even with the employee discount), and it's also a variety I've never seen come to work, from a hardware store. The customer side of me is thrilled that everybody, now, is apparently getting into the houseplant game: flower shops, grocery stores, hardware stores, home improvement stores. There's even a pet store in town that often has plants, though they're almost always really pathetic and I've never actually bought one there.
The employee side of me, on the other hand, is kinda scared, and I know I'm not the only one. My theory is that we might see sales of small plants increase, because in bad economic times people do like to buy themselves little presents, to cheer themselves up, but everything else, the bigger plants, may or may not go, depending on how people feel about the economy. Plants are not, technically, necessities (really! I was surprised too. . .), and if it's a choice between a new Cyclamen for your windowsill or buying your medicine . . . let's just say I'm not feeling the job security right now so much.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
PATSP Top Ten Houseplants
A few days ago, Elizabeth Licata at Garden Rant posted a list of her top ten houseplants, rating them by "killability," "beauty," and "maintenance." I think killability and maintenance should really be the same thing: a properly-maintained plant, regardless of its requirements, ought to be pretty hard to kill. (It's just that some plants have completely unreasonable ideas about what "properly maintained" should involve.) But whatever. I went ahead and used that anyway, though I've renamed maintenance as "anxiety," since Licata used how much anxiety the plant causes as her test of what maintenance rating to give.
But whatever. Anyway. So here are my choices for top ten houseplants, using the same criteria she did, on 0-10 scales.1 The numbers for beauty and anxiety were quick and dirty subjective values, and would not necessarily come out the same were I do do this again, but if I did it again, you'd probably see the same twenty plants showing up repeatedly, in varying combinations. I've included the ten runners-up at the end of the list, as honorable mentions.
10. Aglaonema cvv. (Chinese evergreen).
I'm not surprised Aglaonema made it on the top ten, but I would have expected them to place a little higher, since I consider them pretty much the perfect houseplant.
9. Schlumbergera truncata cvv. (Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus)
This was the first surprise to show up on the list: I have one, but it's tiny and asymmetrical and kind of goofy-looking, and not a plant I think about very much. I don't disagree with my numbers, though, so I guess it deserves to be here.
8. Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant, airplane plant, mala madre).
I know there are people who have trouble with these, but . . . well . . . but they shouldn't. They're really not that complicated.
7. Saxifraga stolonifera (strawberry begonia)
Not something I would have thought to put on the list if I were coming up with it off the top of my head, and in fact not something I even particularly cared for before starting the present job, but they've grown on me. They've also grown on everything else.
6. Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash' (Fire Flash, Green Orange, Mandarin plant)
These are a little messy sometimes (if only the leaves didn't go so dramatically black when they die!), but I've never met a plant that was so indifferent to care, pests, etc. And although I kind of take it for granted now, that's a really pretty orange.
5. Aloe aristata hybrid (no common name as far as I know)
Another surprise. Not that I don't love mine, not that it hasn't been, like, the easiest plant ever, but I would never have thought of it for a top ten list, and it's weird that it showed up here.
4. Sansevieria trifasciata cvv. (snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue)
Difficulty: 8.5-7.6, depending on cultivar
Beauty: 5.5-7.0, depending on cultivar
A surprising number of customers don't like these; people seem to either love them or hate them. A big, full 'Laurentii' is a gorgeous plant, though. And 'Black Gold' kicks ass all over the place.
3. Haworthia attenuata (or possibly H. fasciata: see comments) (zebra plant)
It's true that I've never had any trouble with these, and when they're happy, they do look very good. But #3, Mr. S? Seriously?
I have no explanation.
2. Philodendron hederaceum cvv. (heart-leaf philodendron)
Difficulty: 8.8-9.7, depending on cultivar
Beauty: 7.0-8.0, depending on cultivar
Okay, now this is more like it. I'm always surprised when I see a list of easy-care houseplants that includes pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and not Philodendron hederaceum, because pothos gives me considerably more difficulty.
A lot of people can't tell the two apart, either, which makes me think that the omission of Philodendron might be because people think they've included it already. It's the much better plant, in any case, and the all-yellow version ('Aureum,' or 'Lemon-Lime') is really very attractive, with reddish new growth, bright yellow mid-aged growth, and green older leaves. I also like 'Brasil,' which is both green and yellow, and micans, which is reddish, with a velvety appearance.
Even my mother can grow Philodendron hederaceum.2 So you really couldn't ask for a more tolerant plant.
1. Dracaena deremensis group ('Warneckei,' 'Limelight,'3 'Lemon-Lime,' 'Goldstar,' 'Art,' 'Janet Craig,'
Difficulty: 7.9-9.0, depending on cultivar
Beauty: 7.0-8.0, depending on cultivar
Anxiety: 9.0-10.0, depending on cultivar
God help you if you don't like strappy-leaved plants, but if you do, there's something somewhere in the deremensis species for you. They're robust, undemanding, come in a variety of colors, patterns, and sizes, and are just all-around solid members of the houseplant community.
Amazingly, Licata and I overlap on only two and a half plants: Schlumbergera (though she calls it something else5) and Sansevieria are the full overlaps, and Dracaena is the partial one (she mentions every kind of Dracaena except the deremensis group, but they're probably close enough to count). I think a lot of this is because she's biased toward flowering plants more than I am. I evaluated flowering plants too, and I did give them points for beauty -- you'll notice that the plants in this list don't actually have particularly high beauty scores -- but none of them are conspicuously easy, for all the drama of the flowers. The three highest-rating plants primarily grown for their flowers were Schlumbergera, which did just barely sneak into a spot on the list, Anthurium andraeanum, and Vriesea splendens.
11. Yucca guatemalensis (7.5)
12. Zamioculcas zamiifolia (7.5)
13. Ardisia elliptica (7.4)
14. Alworthia 'Black Gem' (7.4)
15. Strelitzia nicolai (7.4)
16. Anthurium andraeanum (7.4)
17. Echinocactus grusonii (7.4)
18. Ficus microcarpa (7.3)
19. Ficus maclellandii (7.3)
20. Synadenium grantii (7.3)
So . . . what's your top ten list look like?
Photo credits: All mine, except the Schlumbergera picture.
1 In order to make the average work out properly, and make higher-ranking plants get higher numbers, I had to flip the PATSP difficulty rating around. So the number for "difficulty" here is just ten minus the PATSP number.
2 The plant thing skipped a generation. Grandma always had lots, though mostly her stuff was outdoors. Mom has frequently tried, but she's not consistent enough with tropicals and just flat-out doesn't like succulents (Mother! You're embarrassing me in front of the other garden bloggers!), so there are usually only a few at any given moment, and none of the few are usually doing all that well. But: I've given her a Philodendron hederaceum and a Saxifraga stolonifera, and she reports that both of them are currently doing okay.
5 "Schlumbergia." It's actually Schlumbergera.