Saturday, June 20, 2009

Caring for Unidentified Tropical Plants

It will sometimes happen that the dedicated plant obsessive will see a plant that he or she absolutely must have, despite not knowing anything about its identity or needs or anything else. And then what do you do? You have to buy it, but what do you do with it once you get it home?

Araucaria bidwillii. An excellent houseplant so long as you don't have to move, touch, or repot it. Much sharper than it looks.

Obviously one of the smarter things one could do would be to buy your plants only from places where the staff knows what they have and how you should take care of them. Not everybody has places like that nearby, though, and even the people who do can't count on them 100% -- we had stuff at the garden center where I used to work that I couldn't identify for people. And if I hadn't tried to grow it at home, and we hadn't had it long in the greenhouse at work, then no, there wasn't a whole lot of useful information I could give about it. (I'm still trying to get an ID for one of the work plants.) So this is not always going to be an option.

Another way to go is to start scouring the internet for information once you get it home. (You are already on the internet, so good for you!) The main catch here is being able to describe your find to a search engine in a way that narrows it down. Obviously searching for "unknown plant" is not going to get you anywhere. As most houseplants come from the same fairly small number of species, though, you could do a search for "common houseplants" or "houseplants with heart-shaped leaves" and possibly get somewhere. Also, forums like those at Dave's Garden (subscription required to post, which limits its usefulness), Garden Web, or the UBC Botanical Garden website are good places to find people to ask. [EDITED TO ADD: CelticRose, in comments, recommends for cactus and succulent questions. I've also been known to refer problematic cactus and succulent questions to Cactus Blog.]

Begonia rex-cultorum assortment. Begonias are usually pretty easily identified as Begonias, because regardless of what else they may have going on, they'll always have asymmetrical leaves.

But even if you can't find an ID for your plant, tropical plants sold as houseplants tend to have similar requirements, enough so that you can probably keep yours going for a couple months while you figure out what it is. So here's what I recommend when you don't know what you've got but you know you had to have it.

Default care for plants with thick leaves and stems, especially those with thorns (succulents, cactus):

Hylocereus sp., possibly but not definitely H. undatus.

LIGHT: Filtered sun to full sun. Reduce light if plant develops brown or tan patches on stem or leaves, or if plant becomes red or brown overall. Increase light if new growth is small, pale, or weak-looking.
WATER: If it is not already, make sure the plant is in a sandy, gritty potting mix that will not retain water for very long. Never let the plant stand in its drainage water, or pot it in a pot without drainage: water thoroughly, let it stand for no more than thirty minutes, discard any drainage and put it back. Giving your plant tiny sips of water on a regular basis isn't good either: it won't drown the plant, but it's still not healthy. Don't try to keep this sort of plant constantly dry or constantly wet. Give more water if: the plant's skin wrinkles, it's summer, water runs straight through soil, temperature is consistently very warm. Give less water if: oldest leaves yellow and drop, it's winter, stems become mushy, soil stays damp for long periods after watering. (If stems become mushy, you've probably overdone the water so badly that you'll have to cut off a non-mushy piece and try to root it.)

Cissus quadrangularis.

HUMIDITY: Humidity level is not usually an issue for these kinds of plants, and drier indoor air is more likely to be good than bad. So don't worry about it.
TEMPERATURE: Some of these will discolor if they're too hot or cold, but usually anywhere from 50-90F (10-32C) will be fine.
PESTS: Learn the signs of mealybugs and spider mites, at the very least, and watch for those.
FEEDING: It's probably best if you don't feed, until you know what you've got.

Default care for plants that don't look resemble cactus is trickier, because this is a larger group of plants, and some have very specific needs. But since we're aiming for something that will be okay for most of the plants most of the time, and not perfect care for long-term, this is what I try to do with my unidentified tropicals:

Chamaedorea metallica. Uncommon, but pretty hard to mistake for anything else.

LIGHT: Bright indirect light, filtered sun, morning sun, or something in that general area. Give less light if: leaves bleach, turn tan or gray. More light if: new growth is small, plants with variegated or colorful leaves start to grow solid green leaves, no blooms on flowering plants.
WATER: Most of my plants do fine with being watered only when the soil is dry halfway down the pot. As with cactus and succulents, water thoroughly when you do water, and don't make the plant stand in its drainage water for more time than is absolutely necessary. Also don't use pots without drainage holes if this can be avoided. Water more if: leaves visibly begin to droop or wilt, air is very hot or dry, water runs straight through soil (that last one probably indicates a need for a repotting), older leaves turn brown and drop without turning yellow first, leaves are thin and broad. Water less if: oldest leaves turn bright yellow and drop, air is cold or humid, pot has no drainage, plant receives very little light, leaves are thick or small, or you start seeing lots of small, black, gnatlike insects flying around the plant.

Asplundia 'Jungle Drum.' Usually sold as Carludovica (when there's an ID at all), but I believe it is actually an Asplundia. I really have no idea whether getting the genus right has any bearing on what care it requires, but names are important anyway.

HUMIDITY: Very few non-succulent houseplants will be bothered by moist air, and a few of them actually require it. So it's almost always better to have more humidity than less humidity. Also, although you generally do not want to have a fan or a heat/AC vent blowing directly on the plant, air circulation is almost always better than stagnant air.
TEMPERATURE: Most tropical plants can handle temperatures down to about 50-60F (10-16C), though there are a few with much broader or narrower ranges. If you don't know what you have, you're probably safest keeping the temperature between 65 and 85F (18-29C).
PESTS: Learn the signs of mealybugs and spider mites, at the very least, and watch for those. Scale and fungus gnats are good to know about as well, though scale is less common and fungus gnats are less problematic.
FEEDING: It's probably best not to feed until you know what you have, though it's generally safe to feed a plant half-strength fertilizer at any time when it is in active growth, or a very light sprinkling of a time-release fertilizer like Osmocote. The main exceptions are plants with long, strappy leaves (Dracaena fragrans, Chlorophytum comosum), which tend to be more sensitive to minerals and develop dead, black or brown tips when mineral content in the soil is too high. Those I wouldn't feed at all.

Ledebouria sp., possibly but not definitely L. socialis.

Again, I want to emphasize that the above instructions are meant to be temporary, until you can find out what you've got, and that there are plants out there for which these would be bad instructions. Cryptanthus spp., though spiny-looking and vaguely cactusy, need more water than most cacti, and during the growing season, so do Adenium obesum and Pachypodium spp. Dieffenbachia spp. have broad, thin leaves but will still complain if they're watered too often. Homalomena spp. will suffer if the air temperature is below 70F (21C); Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash' is best kept out of sun altogether, filtered or not; orchids are an entirely different category of plants and most of these instructions don't apply to them at all; and so on and so forth. But it's better than nothing.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Random plant event: Columnea fruit

These pictures are left over from work, and are consequently a few months old, just so you know.

In I want to say November last year, we ordered some hanging baskets of lipstick plants (Aeschynanthus lobbianus) from our tropical supplier, but we received a few of these NOID Columneas (goldfish plants) along with them. Which, I dunno. My impression of them was that the Columneas basically sucked. It might have been our fault, of course, but they didn't seem to do as well as the Aeschynanthus: they yellowed and lost a lot of leaves, and occasionally lost entire branches. They bloomed, but only sporadically, and were consequently punished by being heavily cut back (we propagated the cuttings by rooting in vermiculite: most of them made it) and stuck in a dark, wet spot where last I knew they were obligingly rotting.

One of the sporadic flowers. Better if opened in a separate window -- did you know the flowers were hairy?

So, overall kind of a disappointing experience. However, they did do one cool thing that the more responsible Aeschynanthus did not: they somehow managed to get themselves pollinated. Or at least one of the flowers did. This is what a Columnea fruit looks like:

I don't know whether this qualifies as a ripe fruit or not; it didn't survive long enough to turn any other colors, but maybe it wouldn't have anyway. When the fruit did fall off, the inside walls were also found to be white, and a bunch of tiny (roughly strawberry-seed-sized) seeds were attached to them. I didn't get a picture. Sorry.

I still like Aeschynanthus better, though the entire gesneriad family is getting on my nerves lately. Especially Streptocarpus.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pretty pictures: roadside flowers

Spontaneous (?) roadside garden, just off of Highway 218 near Hills, IA.

It's unfortunate that there doesn't seem to be a video up on YouTube of the Camper Van Beethoven song "June," 'cause that would be a near-perfect accompaniment to this post. Oh well.

The husband had errands to run in Iowa City on Monday, and he'd also just spread polyurethane on the living room floor for, like, the sixtieth time (we're getting coat 61 as I write this), so I went with him to get away from the fumes. In the process, I wound up taking pictures of some of the plants along the side of the road. These are better ones. Many of the actual plants in question have been mentioned here last summer, specifically in this post, so I tried to at least find different ways of photographing the same plants.

Securigera varia, purple crownvetch.

Lotus corniculatus, birdfoot deervetch.

NOID. Didn't know what it was last year, either.

It does seem like there's a lot more of it this summer than last, though, for whatever that's worth. It's pretty, though difficult to photograph.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Picture: Ants on a Centaurea bud

Didn't seem quite right to tag this as a "pretty picture." It's not especially pretty. But "unpretty picture" seemed harsher than necessary. So it's neither. Just a picture. (It is somewhat more attractive close-up, though: try opening in a new window for best effect.)

It would appear that maybe peonies are not the only flowers that enlist the aid of ants in opening their flower buds. Or maybe there's some other reason why they would be so interested in this particular bud. I don't know. Fairly certain there's an explanation somewhere.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

[Exceptionally] Pretty pictures: transmitted light -- Part XIV

I am beginning to experience actual anxiety about whether or not I can maintain all of the plants while we're trying to get everything set up in the house. I don't actually have a good way to water set up just yet, so if they're dry, I have to take them to the kitchen sink (low-capacity, slow, but easy and relatively clean) or outside to the garden hose (high-capacity, fast, but awkward and messy). The plan is to get a shower in the plant room at some point, eventually, but until then, I don't like any of my options.

This is, of course, intensified by the fact that the in-laws will be here in a couple weeks, give or take, which tends to make the husband slightly nuts, and by the fact that last I knew, we were planning to get married at some point while the in-laws were here. Which would be good and all, the being married, but I would kind of rather not do it while the husband is slightly nuts and when I don't know where my clothes are. Which I don't. Know where my clothes are.

Also we've never had to put them up before, when they've visited, because we didn't have spare rooms in the apartment. We still don't really have spare rooms (in a way -- it's a three-bedroom house, but all three are already spoken for to the extent that we couldn't put a bed in), but there's been talking of having them stay here anyway. Now, the husband is not a morning person, and neither am I (more of one than he is, though), so the idea of them roaming around in the morning bumping into the plants and rummaging through the breakfast cereals before either of us are in a state capable of directing their behavior is mildly terrifying. It's still all up in the air.

Anyway. So there's all this pressure to have everything in place by the end of the month, and it's all going very slowly. Also, despite having much more time to work on the blog, the house, the plants, etc., I somehow seem to be getting less done than ever. I blame the internet.

In any case. Transmitted light photos.

(The previous transmitted light posts can be found here.)

Epiphyllum NOID. Not really any veins visible, or at least not very many, but that's okay, since these aren't really leaves anyway. (They're stems. They're just big, flat, leaf-like stems.)

Raphanus sativus 'Plum Purple.' It had never occurred to me to wonder what radish leaves even looked like, before WCW started some from seed at work. They're larger than I would have expected.

Convallaria majalis cv. We happen to have a healthy-looking clump of these in the backyard, left over from the previous owners. I kinda like them. The leaves are kinda cool, too, in an understated kinda way.

Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Electric Lime.' One of the more boring coleus varieties, though the picture is dull less because it's an intrinsically boring cultivar and more because the picture just sucks.

Brassica oleracea 'Copenhagen Market.' I find cabbage completely incomprehensible. Some people feel that way about lentils.1

Phlebodium aureum 'Blue Hare.' Trippy.

Dracaena 'Indonesian Tracker.' This is one of the plants I got last year from Asiatica Nursery, and although it's been prone to dropping leaves every time I water (which I'm sure means something, but I don't know what it's trying to tell me), it's been doing pretty well overall.

Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Fishnet Stockings.' Fun, right? The variety seems to be remarkably inconsistent about whether it wants to be chartreuse with dark purple veins; some of the plants I've seen were more just chartreuse with an irregular dark purple spot near the petiole, or chartreuse with a purple ring around the outside of the leaf. But when it works, like in the above picture, it can be pretty awesome.

Heuchera cv. 'Georgia Peach.' Not my best photo, but it was basically impossible to keep reflected light out. This is kind of an ongoing problem with Heuchera cvv. in particular.

Petunia grandiflora 'Sugar Daddy,' petal (-s?). (Do Petunias have just one big petal, or several small but fused petals? How does that work?) I thought these were pretty damn amazing flowers, though I don't think they sold especially well. People don't seem to be looking for innovation in their Petunia flowers so much. Pretty awesome venation, in any case.


1 This is a quote from "Dollhouse," just so you know. Adelle says "Oh my god -- I find lentils completely incomprehensible" in episode seven of the first season. It's funny in its own right, but it's funnier if you know the character.

I truly do, though, have trouble with cabbage, conceptually, both with the eating and with the growing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Iowa City Graffiti: Misbehave

About a month before we moved, at least two of these (in the same handwriting) showed up in our general area of town. I assume there were probably more than that, but I only saw the two. I don't know if college students really need to be encouraged to do dumb shit, but whatever.

The pink and blue streaks running down the side of the building were pre-existing, and look to have been done with paint-filled balloons. I think the little three-balloons icon is probably drug-related, and probably a late addition to the composition, though of course it's hard to know for sure.

Have not yet determined whether Lone Tree has graffiti or not. I mean, it seems like they'd have to, somewhere, but it's hard to imagine where. We only have just so many buildings in town, and it's not like the teenagers here seem significantly more discontented than teenagers anywhere else. I'm sure if there is some, I'll find it sooner or later.

Question for the Hive Mind: NOID outdoor plant

Although a lot of them got trampled when the new windows were put in for the plant room (Pictures of the plant room are still pending. The plants and I plan to retake some of the territory in the East Living Room region, which will depend on repelling the forces of Paint and Painting Accessories. Meanwhile, the refugees continue to occupy all available surfaces in the plant room.), the previous owners of our house apparently planted a bunch of these things with yellow flowers. Before they flowered, I thought I knew what they were (though I don't remember what my theory was), but now I'm thinking Sedum of some kind? Maybe?

At the very least, the flowers look remarkably like the flowers of the Sedum 'Lemon Coral' I posted about in May: also yellow, also five-petaled, with five long anthers (they are anthers, right? Never let it be said that I claim to have all the anthers.) situated between petals. I mean, the similarities are definitely there, though the rest of the plants don't look particularly alike.

I know you can't really see the leaves and habit all that well in these pictures, but if anybody has any more specific theories about IDs, I'd welcome hearing them. I don't know if I need twenty square feet of them, but they're interesting plants, and it'd be nice to be more certain about what they are before I start making decisions about how many I want and where I want them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pretty picture: Nicotiana NOID

(Picture is likely to be better full-size, in its own window.)

The outdoor containers I did earlier are all kind of, well, not really turning out like I had envisioned, especially the all-Osteospermum one (they're still flowering, but they've also flopped sideways -- apparently when I planted them, they were tall enough to be in their last week of upright growth already). I keep meaning to post pictures, but the first set of pictures didn't turn out great, I haven't had enough time to do a second set, and anyway I've been hoping that I could hold off doing a second set until some of them looked a little better.

Not a lot to say about the Nicotiana (which, like the Osteospermums, seems to want to lay down instead of stand up); I think the flowers on this one are a very cool shade of velvety red, which I like, and there are a lot of them. Not so nuts about having to pull them off when they're spent, but even so. We'll see how they hold up through the summer.