Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday morning Nina picture

I make no promises, but the Nina pictures may show an improvement in quality now that I've cleaned the sides of her terrarium. This one, for example, turned out pretty well, except for the fact that it looks too dark here. (It didn't look this dark before I uploaded it. It may be easier to appreciate if opened in its own window.)

I don't know how long I expect this improvement to last, since I, or she, will dirty the walls up again sooner or later, but even so, I feel pleased with myself for having gotten the walls clean momentarily. Maybe I should be taking a couple months' worth of pictures now just in case.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Random plant event: Spathiphyllum 'Golden Glow?' sprouting

I've had this plant for about two and a half years, since February 2007, and in that time, its stems have gotten longer, but the base of the plant never really filled in or anything. So as it's aged, it's also gotten less and less full-looking. This is the first sign I've gotten that maybe this isn't going to stay that way indefinitely:

The plants you buy in stores, that are full to the point of bursting with sprouts, have very likely been treated with a chemical called benzyladenine to induce offsetting (just as they are treated with gibberellic acid to induce blooming). Bushier, fuller plants sell better. I'd gotten to the point where I had given up on seeing my own plants sucker at all, not having any benzyladenine to spray them with, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Of course, the existence of sprouts doesn't mean they're necessarily going to develop and grow, much as I might like them to. But this is still more progress than I've seen on any of the three other Spathiphyllums in the house, so I'm hopeful.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Unfinished business: funeral

For those who wondered: Mom called this morning while I was still asleep and apologized for having said she'd get back to me and then not getting back to me. The funeral is/was today; by the time I tried to call back, there was no answer, so presumably the family had already left. Kind of an anticlimax, but I'm not going to complain about it.

Book review: Flora Mirabilis, by Catherine Herbert Howell

You know what can really screw me up sometimes? When people tell me that an unknown product (book, movie, TV show, etc.) is like some other product I already know and like. I get all excited, because of the promise that there's more! of whatever I already loved, but then I forget to take the new thing on its own terms, and instead compare it to the idealized old thing in my head, and invariably come away disappointed.

So it was really not helpful of Garden Rant to tell me, a few weeks ago, that Flora Mirabilis, the new book from Catherine Herbert Howell, in association with the National Geographic Society and the Missouri Botanical Garden, was like The Botany of Desire [Michael Pollan] on steroids. It was even more misleading of Garden Rant to include Howell's list of "ten plants that changed the world." Between the two of these, I was picturing a book that, like The Botany of Desire, went into detail about the specific stories surrounding these ten plants, their introduction to European civilization, and the particular quirks of the plants that make them of interest to humans in the first place.

Flora Mirabilis is not that book. It's not close to that book, even.1 The way I know this is because, after adding a comment to the Garden Rant thread in hopes of winning this book that sounded like it was going to be The Botany of Desire, and not winning, multiple e-mails ensued, and long story short, I wound up with a computer copy to review. (My first actual blogging perk! I think!)

Which was of course great, and I'm indebted to Susan Harris of Garden Rant for working that out. But the story doesn't end there, because there was suddenly another obstacle, in the form of me not being able to read the copy I got. The problem was that the file format, though a perfectly ordinary format, in order to fit my computer screen, had to shrink the pages down so small that the (already kinda-tiny) text was unreadable. Or at least readable only with lots of scrolling up and down and left and right.

I mention this all as a way of explaining why I'm reviewing only a single chapter of the book. It's not that I wouldn't like to read the whole thing; it's that if I had to do much more up-and-down scrolling I was going to end up throwing my monitor into a wall, and then where would we be?

So I made the decision to review only one chapter. But which one? My first impulse was to read and review Chapter 4, Enlightenment (1770-1840), because who doesn't like the Enlightenment? Right? And then I noticed Chapter 6, Science (1900-present),2 and thought well, I should probably do that, considering how often I make reference to science on the blog and how it's sort of my thing. Or one of my things. But that seemed so . . . predictable. So, bucking expectations, I went for the time period in between the two, Empire (1840-1900). Just because I can. So here's what I think of Chapter 5, plus a few random pages of other chapters and the bibliography.

The first thing you notice -- indeed, you're practically clubbed over the head with it -- is that this is a really pretty book, and I mean that in the best possible way. About half of every pair of pages is taken up with pictures, and they're not mere photographs: they're really high-quality hand-drawn (hand-painted?) images in the style of old botanical illustrations. Some of them actually are old botanical illustrations. Apparently because they are all historical illustrations. (Thanks to Susan Tyler Hitchcock in the comments.) A few historical drawings of botanically-relevant buildings and people are also scattered around throughout the book.3

This is already pretty different from Botany, which was mostly text, but there are other differences too: you don't come away from Flora feeling like you know Howell any better than when you started, at least as far as I can tell from the one chapter. Her prose is very fluid, clear, and grammatical, but Howell herself is never the point of the book,4 in the way that Pollan sometimes is the subject of his. Which is hard to object to, but it's different.

Another difference between Flora and Botany is, Flora is rarely interested in the plants. In the Empire chapter, at least, what Flora Mirabilis actually appears to be about is the process of plants coming into contact with European civilization, the specific people responsible for this, and the infrastructure built to accommodate them. So the topics are nurseries and conservatories, the foundation of botany as a science unto itself, British plantations being established in India for cultivation of tropical plants, and, unsuprisingly, a longish stretch about the establishment of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Additionally, Howell describes cultural phenomena like the brief but intense fashion for fern-collecting in Victorian England and the complex language of flowers through which a suitor could send specific messages to his/r intended.5

There are brief plant profiles, which each take up two pages, though one page is always a large illustration. In the Empire chapter, these profiles are for cannabis, rubber, potato, opium poppy, and orchids (that's right, the entire orchid family, all eight hundred kerjillion species, gets one page). They're still often not really about the plants, though: instead they tend to be about what people have historically made from the plants (e.g. hemp, rubber, morphine). I don't mind this so much; I'm a very tough audience for plant trivia, because I spend completely unreasonable amounts of time seeking it out, so it may or may not be meaningful that the information presented in these profiles was stuff I knew already. One thing I did mind, very much, however, was the way these were inserted into the text.6

So at this point, the reader is probably thinking okay, so . . . you hated it, then? Is that what you're saying?

Not at all, actually. I'm just saying that contrary to what you may have heard, this book is not The Botany of Desire on steroids,7 Ativan, Boniva, or any other kind of prescription medication. The tone is different, the subject matter is mostly different,8 the text-to-picture ratio is way the hell off, and it's not as long as Botany, even.

Possibly it could be The Botany of Desire on Latisse. I guess. Whatever that would be.

What Flora Mirabilis actually is, is . . . well, it's sort of exactly what it would have to be, considering where it comes from and who it's intended for. It's a handsomely-illustrated (really, I cannot hit that point hard enough), historically-oriented book that covers a wide range of topics in relatively easy-to-read prose.9 It is precisely the kind of book I would have read over and over again at Evil Grandma's10 house when I was a kid; it's also precisely the kind of book Evil Grandma would have owned.

So for whom is Flora Mirabilis a good choice? I think it's a good book for people who really just want something pretty to sit on their coffee table.11 It's also a good book for people who are interested in human history first, and horticultural history second, or for people who are contemplating a hobby of plant nerdery and are interested in what kinds of topics such a hobby would involve. (The bibliography was unexpectedly intriguing, which is probably the first time I've ever said that about any bibliography. And it may be the last time, too.) It wasn't exactly my thing, though I already operate on such a transcendent plane of plant nerdiness that I can't imagine a plant book that would satisfy me,12 plus it's impossible for me to tell how much of my reaction came from disappointment that it wasn't a The Botany of Desire knock-off.

So. The reader is specifically and pointedly encouraged to ignore whether or not I found it satisfying and focus on whether or not the contents of the book sound like the sort of thing s/he is interested in and how much value s/he places on illustrations. The answers to those questions are what's going to determine whether it's worth the money to you or not, not my particular experience with the book. I realize this is a lot of stuff to have to read just to be told to make up your own mind, but hey, how many other book reviews have you read lately that included a Latisse joke? Hm?

That's what I thought.

Flora Mirabilis is available on-line from the National Geographic website for $35.00 U.S., in regular bookstores, (If you only have irregular bookstores, I suppose you're on your own.) or wherever else you're accustomed to buying books.

Disclaimer: I was provided with an .pdf review copy of this book by the publisher with the understanding that the decision to review the book, and the contents of that review, were solely my own. This review encompasses my own opinions of the book, all fifteen or sixteen of them, but was heavily influenced by the fact that the publisher provided a copy for review, in the sense that I kept second-guessing myself about whether or not I was being too hard or too easy on the book because I'd gotten a free copy or because I was trying to overcompensate for feeling indebted over having received a free copy, with the final result being, I think, basically an honest assessment of the book's content and merits. I might look at this review again later and think damn, I was way too hard/easy on Flora Mirabilis, I should probably correct that, but by that point it will be way too late for anybody to do anything about the situation.

Disclaimer for the Disclaimer: substantial chunks of the wording of the above disclaimer, especially the first third, were lifted directly from Colleen Vanderlinden's review of a different book, because it seemed to hit all the relevant points a disclaimer would need to hit, plus I was too lazy to come up with a new one from scratch.

Disclaimer for the Disclaimer's Disclaimer:13 Except that then I tweaked Colleen's so much that I pretty much wound up writing a new one from scratch anyway, so I guess I'm not all that lazy.


Photo credits: Book cover provided by National Geographic; Phalaenopsis pictures are my own, recycled from earlier posts, for decorative purposes.

1 I honestly kind of wonder whether anybody from Garden Rant read the book before writing about it. It makes me a little bit angry, though I'll forgive Garden Rant in a couple sentences.
2 That's right. Science was invented in 1900. I was just as surprised as you are, I assure you.
3 This is not especially surprising: one of the things National Geographic is known for is high-quality illustrations. Which I realize sounds ass-kissy, but it's also true, so sue me.
4 One does occasionally catch a glimpse of a very dry sense of humor: one sentence from the chapter reads "[Thoreau's] copious botanical notes were assembled into the volume Wild Fruits, which was published very much posthumously in 1999."
5 (No sexting then, so they made do.)
6 The two-page profiles are dropped into the text at regular intervals, but the profiles take up a whole page and facing page, and usually the main text has not finished its final sentence before one of these appears. So you either skip over the profile and then go back to it after you've read all of the main text, or you read the profile in sequence and then have to try to remember what the main-text sentence was saying before it was interrupted. Some of my irritation with this was probably actually irritation with the file format: I'm much more accustomed to flipping pages of a physical book than I am to scrolling up and down on a computer screen. But still. There had to have been a better way of doing that.
7 I really have no clue what the "on steroids" part was supposed to signify. It seems like a very strange claim to make for a book which is actually shorter than the book it's being compared to (Flora has 255 pages, about half of which are pictures; Botany has 269, which are almost entirely text. What's steroidal about it, exactly?)
8 The apple chapter of Botany is probably the closest direct comparison between the two, though Howell would never spend that much time talking about Johnny Appleseed, or any other specific topic. She jumps around quite a bit. In fact, if I have a single complaint about Flora Mirabilis, it is that it never goes deep enough into the interesting topics to satisfy me. (It doesn't get that deep into the boring topics either, though I mind that a lot less.)
9 I don't mean easy to read in the "See Jane walk. Walk, Jane, walk." sense, just that the information presented is not hugely technical, and the style is your basic Newsweek English. Or probably a little bit better than Newsweek. You know what I'm saying. It reads like a book written for grown-ups. Which it is.
10 As I alluded to a couple days ago, I had a Good Grandma (paternal) and an Evil Grandma (maternal). Both are dead now, and of course Evil Grandma outlived Good Grandma by several years. There is essentially unanimous agreement that of the four grandparents, Evil Grandma is the one I am most like in temperament. I've had trouble settling on an emotional response to this.
Neither of the Grandpas were particularly good or evil; it was more like Indifferent Grandpa (maternal, still alive) and Grandpa Who Occasionally Flew Into Spectacular But Brief Obscenity-Laden Rages Over Nothing In Particular (paternal).
11 (Which is not in any way to disparage coffee table books! Anybody who's ever been stuck in someone else's home looking desperately for something interesting to do -- which I think is most of us -- ought to be able to appreciate a good solid coffee table book.)
12 Technically not true: I can imagine such a book easily enough. It's 90,000 pages long, costs roughly $7000, and would require special equipment to deliver to a person's home.
13 Once you say the word "disclaimer" enough times, it stops sounding like a real word. Try it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

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

Nothing much to talk about today, though I'm hopeful that the book review I've been working on for a very long time might actually be ready to post tomorrow. (That's where most of my non-watering time has been going lately.) I don't know what makes people consider a book review a good book review, but there's at least one line in there that I find really funny, which is my standard for a good review, if I have one. Fingers crossed that the line I like remains in the finished product.

Meanwhile, it seems like we're due for some transmitted light photos.

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

Philodendron 'Imperial Green.' I've only recently figured out what this plant is called; 'Imperial Green' and 'Imperial Red' have both been confusing to me for ages.

Tolmiea menziesii. I no longer remember why I didn't go with a less-damaged leaf, but odds are good that there wasn't one available. My Tolmiea had sort of a rough life when it first got here. The imperfections give it character or something anyway, I'm sure.

Pandanus veitchii, variegated. This is actually the BDSP ("Big Damn Screw Pine").

Cordyline fruticosa. Wow but this one turned out nice. Green ti plants aren't, you know, the flashiest-looking ti plants, but they have their nice points.

Spathiphyllum 'Sensation,' or 'Mauna Loa,' or whatever cultivar my big Spathiphyllum is. Sort of a surprising resemblance to an earlier transmitted-light picture of a Hosta.

Dracaena surculosa. Very difficult to get. My camera kept refusing to focus. I've had similar problems with other Dracaena spp. before, so perhaps my camera is missing the optional Dracaena attachment or something.

Pilea 'Moon Valley.' I knew if I kept trying, sooner or later I would get a good picture of this one. Consequently, this is my favorite picture from this batch.

Aglaonema 'Red Gold.' The plant photographed here really needs to be cut back and re-started, but I've had fairly bad luck getting Aglaonema cuttings to root in a long-term sort of way, so I've been putting off doing it.

Synadenium grantii. This particular one made me happy. No reason in particular; I just like it when they turn out well.

Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Snow.' Good old Dieffenbachia.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Random plant event: Pelargonium x Hortorum 'Vancouver Centennial' flower bud, plus Personal-ish: funerals

Plant-related stuff first. My 'Vancouver Centennial' Pelargonium moped for quite a while in the plant room before circumstances intervened to bring it into my office instead, where it's been sitting about four inches beneath a pair of shop lights (so four four-foot bulbs). The new growth since then has been coming in reddish, like the leaves are supposed to look, while all the old growth has been turning odd colors and falling off. I assume this is normal.

And then for the first time in the nine months I've had it, suddenly it's decided to bloom as well.

I don't like Pelargonium blooms particularly. Nothing against the blooms themselves, but one of the major ongoing tasks at work every spring was going around the tables and picking off the spent blooms, and if you don't get them at exactly the right time, they dry out and shatter all over the table, which leads to eventual grossness. So I have bad associations.

With 'Vancouver Centennial,' the flowers aren't even the point. The foliage is why one grows the plant. So the flowers are probably best removed, in order to keep the plant from putting lots of energy into building flowers instead of leaves.

I'm not going to, though. At least not on this first round. I'm curious about what they look like.

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Personalish rantings about funerals and family below; do not proceed if you think this might be upsetting or offensive to you. It really could be, 'cause this whole post was written really fast, so it didn't go through as many layers of proofreading as usual. But not so fast that I didn't include jokes. Which is probably kind of disrespectful, now that I think about it. But I didn't mean it that way.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In other, personalish news, a young (early 20s) cousin of mine died over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn't really know him: I think our last meaningful conversation happened when he was three years old, and I've only seen him once since then, as far as I remember (which was, as it happens, at a funeral). I probably wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a lineup. So this is not devastating for me in the way it is for other members of the extended family, but still: I like some of the more-affected members of the extended family, and feel bad for them. Really and truly. To a distracting degree, actually.

This event doesn't have that much to do with the blog: I'm not devastated, there's not anything I could do about it one way or the other even if I were devastated, I expect posts to go up more or less according to the usual schedule and to be about more or less the usual things. But the husband can only listen to me talk just so long, and I apparently have a lot of things I want to say about this. So.

I do not want to go to another funeral. I hate funerals. And I don't mean that I hate occasions where everybody is depressed or sad about something. I'm all right with those. (Those are practically my fucking element!) But funerals, Christ. They do not do any of the things that everybody says they're supposed to do. I don't find them comforting at all. I don't enjoy seeing the extended family all together (I don't like seeing them all individually, either, though.). Funerals don't help me to understand that this was all part of God's plan or in any way motivate me to sing about how cool God is. They don't provide any closure. They're just a bunch of awkwardness where people who aren't sad try to pretend like they are and people who are sad try to pretend like they're less so, and a preacher who may have met the deceased but probably never actually talked to him/r quickly hits the family-provided bullet points of the deceased's personality. (There are exceptions. I've been to one, and heard of others. But the majority of the ones I've been to are startlingly impersonal.)

The husband has already been instructed that in the event: I prefer to be cremated (UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES IS THERE TO BE AN OPEN CASKET! I WILL COME BACK TO HAUNT SHIT IF THIS RULE IS NOT FOLLOWED! AND IT WON'T BE THE FUN KIND OF PATRICK SWAYZE / POTTERY WHEEL HAUNTING EITHER!), I want no preacher of any kind, and I insist that alcohol be provided (or at least BYOB is strongly encouraged). Not that alcohol is always a good idea, but nobody in the extended family, on either side, ever has alcohol present, and so many of these weddings and funerals would be so improved if I'd experienced them slightly drunk.

I should look into what a hip flask would cost.

(Also, people should probably not send plants to any funeral of mine. More likely the husband should bring plants from the house, and the guests can take the plants away.)

But then on top of not wanting to go to a funeral because I don't like funerals on general principle, there's also the issue of the husband wouldn't be there with me, because I'm not out to the extended family, more or less in deference to my parents. When Evil Grandma died a few years ago, Dad actually asked me to take off my wedding ring (which was not at the time from an actual wedding, but only because a wedding wouldn't have been legal) for the day rather than invite questions about when I got married, and to whom, which I was willing to do then but would not be willing to do now. (It made sense at the time, but I look back at that and I'm like, what the fuck? Why did I do that?)

Also it's a moot point anyway because my knuckles have gotten larger, to the point where I couldn't get it off to save my life. And even if I could get the ring off, there is literally no small-talky question that anybody could ask that would not involve me coming out (Where are you living now? Really? Why there? And where are you working? Oh you're not working? Well then how are you paying for stuff?), except possibly weather-related inquiries. And how long can you really talk about November weather before you start repeating yourself?

So! If I were to go anyway, despite all of this, I run the risk of coming out to a large group of highly emotional and likely sleep-deprived people, some of whom are Evangelical Christians and therefore likely take a very dim view of Teh Gay, by myself, without the husband present. Which does not sound like a good time, even if this funeral were totally different from all other funerals I've been to and is free of bullshit / open caskets / awkward helpless feelings, and features copious amounts of high-quality liquor and, like, pony rides in the parking lot or something. Pony rides do not make up for being chased by drunk/angry/grief-crazed mobs. So I really hope I'm not expected to go.

Monday, November 30, 2009



Those of you who get this will, I hope, find it very funny.



(What a "stolon" is.) (Song being parodied.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

List: Houseplants With Totally or Partially Pink Leaves

As I was composing this list, I had the strong feeling that I'm leaving out something really obvious, but I couldn't figure out what. It's possible that my brain is trying to insist that flowers are leaves. It does that sometimes.

In any case, if you think of any other houseplants that aren't somewhere in this post, let me know in the comments and I'll add it.

Cordyline fruticosa 'Florica' and other cvv. (ti plant)

Cryptanthus 'Elaine' and other Cryptanthus cvv.

Dracaena marginata 'Colorama.' (Madagascar dragon tree)

Ficus elastica 'Tineke.' (rubber plant, rubber tree) (new growth)

Hoya carnosa 'Krimson Queen' and other cvv. (wax flower) (leaf edges or centers)

Hypoestes phyllostachya (polka dot plant) (species and some cvv.)

Pedilanthus tithymaloides, variegated (devil's backbone) (with temperature fluctuations)

Peperomia griseoargentea cv. (some cvv.)

Stromanthe sanguinea 'Triostar.'

Syngonium podophyllum 'Neon.' (arrowhead vine)

I'm pretty fond of Hoya carnosa (though the 'Krimson Queen' in the picture is getting a little cranky lately: I think I made it wait too long for water), and I like Pedilanthus tithymaloides so well that it feels borderline unfair to even mention it. Cryptanthus spp. are also very nice plants, though I'm a little pissed at the genus at the moment, because one I bought from the consignment store this summer turned out to have mealybugs (I checked it, though! I swear I checked!), and they spread to (at least) one of my other plants before I found out and threw them away. Still, aside from that, they've always been good plants for me, and are pretty easy.

Not Pictured:
Aglaonema cvv. (a few relatively uncommon varieties)
Aloe striata (coral aloe) (leaf edges, in very bright light)
Alternanthera ficoidea 'Partytime' (large portions of leaves)
Ananas comosus (ornamental pineapple) (some cvv.)
Begonia rex-cultorum and some other Begonia cvv. (some cvv.)
Breynia disticha (=Breynia nivosa) 'Roseo-Picta' (snowbush, snow-on-the-mountain)
Caladium cvv. (some cvv.)
Calathea ornata
Calathea roseo-picta
Echeveria cvv. (some cvv.)
Episcia cvv. (flame violet) (some cvv.)
Fittonia albivenis (nerve plant) (some cvv.)
Neoregelia cvv. (some cvv.)
Peperomia clusiifolia 'Rainbow' (leaf edges, in bright light)
Philodendron 'Pink Princess'
Saintpaulia ionantha cvv. (African violet) (some variegated cvv.)
Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Pink Chaos,' some other cvv. (coleus)
Tradescantia fluminensis (wandering Jew) (some cvv.)
variegated Tradescantia spathacea (oyster plant, Moses in the cradle)