Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Charlatan (Sansevieria cylindrica)

Marketers! Are they able to feel shame?

This is something I truly wonder, sometimes, not a mere humorous overstatement. I figure probably they feel a twinge of something, from time to time -- weltschmerz,1 maybe, or indigestion -- but it seem to me that if they could feel what I feel when I feel shame, they'd have to find another job. The question then becomes: if they're not feeling what I'd feel, then what the hell are they feeling?

And I'm not saying that everybody who's ever had a marketing job is evil and inhuman.2 I'm also not saying I'm Mother Theresa here.3 I'm just saying that lying (or misrepresenting the truth) for the sake of taking someone's money is bad, and I have the capacity to feel bad when I manipulate people into doing stuff that's not in their interest. This should not be a high ethical bar to clear.

And yet --

The tag reads: "In earlier times the horns were thought to capture wisdom. As your own wisdom expands, more horns grow."

This appears to be the work of one particular marketing firm, BDK Marketing Inc., and it's a pretty transparent attempt to capitalize on the existing markets for "lucky bamboo" (Dracaena sanderiana) and "money tree" (Pachira aquatica). In this particular case, I think they may have miscalculated, though. Everybody wants to be lucky, and rich always sounds like a good time, but wisdom's a tougher sell: it implies thinking, and as we all know, thinking is hard.

I would have gone with something more like True Love Vine (Philodendron hederaceum), Happy Grass (Chlorophytum comosum),4 or Sexy Violet (Episcia? Saintpaulia?).5 Maybe Erection Cane (Dieffenbachia?) if one really wanted to get people's attention.6

I can think of one other problem with "wisdom horns" as a marketing strategy.

I assume that most of the "lucky bamboo" and "money trees" out there are given as gifts, rather than something a person buys for him/rself. And as gifts, I don't object as much to the marketing: it's fine to wish someone good luck. In a lot of situations, there isn't anything else you can do. Wishing someone good luck in a more tangible way, by giving them a plant, doesn't bother me. On the other hand, buying a plant for yourself, with the expectation that it's going to be magical and turn your whole life around, is asking the plant to do things it's not capable of.

But this is a slightly different case. It's all well and good to give a gift plant as an expression of "good luck" or "hope your new business makes lots of money,"7 but a gift plant that says, "hope you stop being stupid" is awfully backhanded, don't you think?8

There's also the matter of the bald-faced lie in the ad copy here. Nobody has eeeeeevvvvvvvveeeeeeerrrrrr thought that this plant captured wisdom (whatever the fuck "capturing wisdom" would even look like, or accomplish) until BDK came up with this particular marketing campaign. There is no wise Buddhist monk meditating on a Japanese mountain who believes this. There are no African tribes that have passed this idea down through the generations.9 There is no Biblical story of King Solomon, famed throughout the world10 for his wisdom, involving a Sansevieria cylindrica. This is a marketer knowingly lying to you, in order to get you to buy a plant s/he thinks you would not otherwise buy, and so you'll pay twice as much as the plant is worth.11

As good as my S. cylindrica photos get: it's not what you'd call a hugely photogenic plant.

Which is all very sad, because Sansevieria cylindrica isn't a bad plant. I mean, it's not a great plant, either, but no plant deserves to be saddled with all this nonsense.12 "Charlatan"13 is therefore unfair of me -- the plant itself hasn't done anything wrong -- but I couldn't think of a word that more closely paralleled the Sansevieria-BDK relationship.14

I've had my personal specimen since June 2008. It was more or less a work rescue: when I started in the garden center in August 2007, they had a bunch of S. cylindricas in 6 in (15 cm) pots. By June 2008, not one of these had sold, and we had decided that they weren't going to, so I divided a couple into several small pots, and combined others into two huge pots. My plant was one of the divisions, and was judged too small to sell, not worth the space it would take on the table, so I got it.

It's never lost a leaf, or had any bugs, but it's an amazingly slow grower, for me: it had two leaves when I bought it. It has two leaves now. They're the same leaves.

My own personal plant.

My understanding, from looking around on-line, and from the behavior of the plants at work, is that this is unusually slow growth, and that they're normally faster than this. Infer what you will about my wisdom,15 but it probably has more to do with how I've been taking care of my plant.

So what are you supposed to do for them?

LIGHT: The tag says low light is tolerated, which is true: mine's been in low light for some of the time I've had it, and it hasn't complained.

This is also, though, a likely explanation for why it hasn't grown much. Like with the related Sansevieria trifasciata, low light won't kill the plant, but in low light, growth is likely to be slow, weak, or nonexistent. They can take full sun just fine, too, and will grow better and faster that way, so my advice is to go with the brightest spot you have available. The plant will find a way to cope with whatever it is.

WATER: The thing I like best about Sansevieria cylindrica, as compared to the much more common S. trifasciata (snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue), is that it seems to be much harder to overwater. Not saying it can't be done, but I routinely lose S. trifasciatas in the winter (to the point where I'm not going to buy them again for a long time, maybe ever16), yet S. cylindrica has overwintered for me fine, and we never lost any at work either.

I recommend a clay pot, both because clay dries faster and because clay is heavy. (You're going to want a low center of gravity. I'll explain later.) Let the soil dry out to the point where you can't feel any moisture with a finger, as far down as you can go, then water thoroughly. During the winter, you may want to wait a few days after that, even. Never never never never never let the plant stand in water.

TEMPERATURE: Advice on-line varies; the gist seems to be that they'll survive down to freezing but won't make it through a hard freeze, and are best kept above 50F/10C if you want it to do anything. If you keep your house cool during the winter (below 60F/16C, say), cut way back on the watering. Like, maybe don't water at all in the winter.

HUMIDITY: Whatever.

Developing flower bud on a work plant.

PESTS: Also pretty close to a non-issue; there don't seem to be any pests that really love S. cylindrica. That doesn't mean you shouldn't still check for scale and mealybug before you buy one, though.

PROPAGATION: To propagate, cut through the rhizome between the parent plant and an offset with a clean sharp knife. It's probably good to let the cut dry before repotting, but I didn't at work when I divided plants, and we didn't lose any of the divisions.

Leaf cuttings also allegedly work, but I tried once: I waited a year and nothing had happened, at which point I gave up. I'm patient, but I have limits.

GROOMING: The natural form of the plant is: long, heavy, more or less unbendable leaves, in a fan shape. If the plant's dry and in a plastic pot, it has a high center of gravity. This is really inconvenient, sometimes. At work, I was forever trying to arrange the pots so that the leaves from one plant weren't knocking over five other plants. This is actually the main reason why I took home my one, pitiful little two-leaf dude: so far, both leaves are pointing more or less vertically, which is a lot easier to fit on the shelves with the other plants than a full, two-foot-diameter fan would be.

Also, occasionally plants will flower. The flowers are white, and not terribly interesting. I was never able to detect a scent from them, but if memory serves, S. trifasciata flowers don't have a particularly intense odor until about 6 PM, at which point they smell like a hundred funeral homes, experienced all at once. If/when you get flowers from S. cylindrica, then you'll have something to clean up eventually, though if cleaning takes you more than five minutes, then you're doing it wrong.

That's pretty much the only issue with these, though; they don't drop leaves all the time or need to be dusted or pruned or anything, and the center-of-gravity thing is fixable if you have a heavy pot.

FEEDING: Nobody really addressed this specifically, but I'd assume it's rarely an emergency, and not necessary in winter. Stab-in-the-dark guess: half-strength with every watering, but none in winter.

As far as available varieties, I found a few people venturing names ('Skyline,' 'Patula'), but I couldn't see any difference in the plants that were so named. One does occasionally run into plants that have had leaves braided together, which seems a little . . . I don't even know. Maybe I want to say "desperate?"

"Please buy me! I'm braided!"

There is a minor point of scientific interest: S. cylindrica is notable because its leaves are truly cylindrical, in a botanical sense. Botanists say that leaves, even more or less cylindrical leaves like Peperomia ferreyrae's,17 are usually "dorsoventrally differentiated," which means that the leaf has a top side and a bottom side, and the cells are different depending on which it is. In S. cylindrica, this differentiation doesn't happen: there's no top or bottom of the leaf as far as the cells are concerned, just a base and a top. It's not really a big deal; it doesn't have any real-world consequences as far as I know, and you don't have to be impressed, but it's unusual.

Anyway. I don't think this is ever going to be a big, popular houseplant in the U.S., despite BDK's efforts. It's not lush and leafy, and it doesn't make pretty-colored flowers or pretend to be pebbles or something. It's boringly odd. So I sympathize with their desire to dress it up a little, try to make it more interesting. (Even when people try to praise the plant, it comes out sounding kind of pitiful. Jon VanZile damned S. cylindrica with faint praise at About.com by saying ". . . the Sansevieria cylindrical [sic]18 has all the ease and durability of the popular snake plant and the appeal of lucky bamboo." Well holy crap, it's more durable and appealing than that, Jon. Jeez.) It's a shame that they couldn't come up with any ideas that were, you know, honest.

But, you know how it is. Birds gotta fly. Fish gotta swim.


Photo credits: all my own.

1 The greatest word I've learned in my thirties. (Turns out it describes a lot of my twenties. I'd read it well before the last couple years, but it didn't stick in my brain until recently.) Wikipedia defines it thusly:
Weltschmerz (from the German, meaning world-pain or world-weariness) is a term coined by the German author Jean Paul and denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind. . . . It is also used to denote the feeling of sadness when thinking about the evils of the world—compare empathy, theodicy.

The modern meaning of Weltschmerz in the German language is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone's own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances. Weltschmerz in this meaning can cause depression, resignation and escapism, and can become a mental problem (compare to Hikikomori).

2 Of course they're not inhuman. Most places won't even read your application, unless you're a human.
3 Though Mother Theresa wasn't exactly Mother Theresa either, it turns out.
4 Though one could argue that "happy grass," as a concept, was taken decades ago.
7 Though "hope you get enough money to pay for that operation / bail your son out of jail / keep your home from being foreclosed" is not okay with me. If they need money that badly, you should skip the plant and just give them the money you would have spent buying it.
8 One of the first-page Google hits for "wisdom horns" mentions the plant in connection with National Boss's Day, which I find adorably backhanded:

It's almost enough to make me wish I had a boss.
9 Though Africans would be slightly more believable, at least. According to GRIN, S. cylindrica is native to Angola, in Southwest Africa.
10 (Or at least the tiny portion of the world the ancient Israelites were aware of at the time. Not their fault: they didn't know.)
11 I'm estimating. The plant in the first photo above was priced at $20, which is maybe approximately fair considering the cost of the decorative pot and pebbles and stuff, but of course if you want the plant to grow well, you're going to have to take it out of the pot and chip away the (glued-together) decorative pebbles, put it in good soil, and so forth. The plant itself is certainly nice, but without the lies, pot, glue, and pebbles, it'd sell for maybe $7-10.
12 Well, maybe poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima). But poinsettias already suffer the humiliation of glitter and spray paint, so any reasonable person would agree they've clearly been punished enough.
13 Wikipedia again: "A charlatan (also called swindler or mountebank) is a person practicing quackery or some similar confidence trick in order to obtain money, fame or other advantages via some form of pretense or deception." Which I think is basically what we're talking about.
14 That's technically not true, that I couldn't think of a better parallel. Arguably "Ho" would have worked, making BDK the "Pimp," but I'm uncomfortable with the sex worker stuff. I've been feeling bad for years now about using "Hooker With a Heart of Gold" for the Anthurium andraeanum profile, and if I'd had more time, I would have rewritten it long ago. As it is, I just feel mildly guilty every time I link to it.
15 For what it's worth, the plant is growing; the newer of the two leaves is still getting taller, even after growing for two years, so the plant hasn't bothered to start a third leaf yet.
16 The problem is that my usual method of watering is no good for a snake plant in winter. Normally, when it's time to water, I soak the soil well, let the excess water drain away, then wait for the soil to dry out again. Sansevieria trifasciata in winter would be better off getting watered more like most people do, a little bit at a time, just until water starts coming out of the drainage hole.
The reader might reasonably wonder why I don't water this particular plant more like most people do, then, if I know that that's the problem. Well, I'm trying to get better about it, I am, but I have this whole system set up, and giving certain plants different treatment complicates the system. If I stop losing them for a few winters, I may resume buying them: if nothing else, I'd really like a nice S. trifasciata 'Black Gold' again.
17 Peperomia ferreyrae's leaves are more cigar-shaped, I suppose, but I'm trying to make a point here so please let that slide.
18 Auto-correct is a horrible thing for those of us who write with scientific names a lot.


Grower Jim said...

Even though I grow many exotic and beautiful plants, this is one of my favorites, simply because it takes care of itself.
I can attest that they will survive a light freeze, but temps in the mid-20s will turn many of the leaves to mush.
I have also grown these from leaf cuttings but they take forever to actually amount to anything. Divisions are definitely better.
They seem to grow equally well in sun or shade, in pots or in the ground.
This plant has qualities that both beginners and collectors can enjoy!

Nature Assassin said...

This BDK company is a bunch of assclowns. It's so sad to think of people paying money for this chicanery, only to have a bad plant experience (I'm thinking Home Depot's cemented-in bonsai soil covers, or glued-on cactus flowers). Way to call shenanigans.

Karen715 said...

Nice profile of what is actually a pretty nice plant. I've only noticed them for sale in the general marketplace (as opposed to specialty growers) in the past two years, when both the nurseries in my area and the home improvement stores started carrying them. I wonder what happened to thrust them into the spotlight all of a sudden? I haven't seen "wisdom horns" yet,(lucky me--and I don't even own a D. sanderiana) but I have seen them braided, which looks both silly and damaging.

By the way, while I was reading, clicking footnote 5 in the main text took me to footnote 15.

Jon VanZile said...


I remember I went to a trade show a few years ago (the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition here in Florida) and S. cylindrica was all the rage. It won awards. It was featured on nifty lucite tables with uplighting. It was braided and sold in bags. People talked about how it was going to be "next big thing." I ended up writing an article about it for the Tribune company. But the whole time, I'm thinking, "Am I being punked? Just a little bit?"

Now I know I was. Wisdom horns? For real? I guess it was better than Forked Devil Penis or whatever else they were kicking around.

By the way, I love, love, love your blog. And thanks for pointing out that spelling problem. You're right: I have a HORRIBLE time with spell-check and can't seem to turn the cursed thing off.

Liza said...

Yeah, tell it like it is!! Great post, mr_s!

danger garden said...

In theory I rally behind your questioning if they (the marketers) feel no shame. However as an ex-marketing professional (yuck I can't believe I just used that phrase) I must point out that not every person who goes into marketing is a scammer. Seriously. There are a few good ones out there, although since I was laid off from that job perhaps you do have a point.

danger garden said...

oh wait! RE: the plant. I love it. I have one which has added new "leaves" and bloomed. It is in bright light.

mr_subjunctive said...

Grower Jim:

Thanks for confirming about the temperature stuff; I figured it was probably true (I know Sansevieria trifasciata can go to at least 38F/3C if it's dry, because I've done that myself) but I hate to repeat information like that if I don't know the source very well.

Nature Assassin:

I know. I understand why they glue the rocks on (to keep all the growing medium from spilling out when the plants are being hurled about during shipping, and to cover up the unsightly dirt from people who like plants but don't want to think about them growing in dirt), but it seems like they could have come up with something different by now.

Not that it's really in the plant suppliers' interest to produce plants that will grow well for people, I guess.


"Wisdom horns" are in your area somewhere; I first learned about this campaign through Amanda Thomsen (Kiss My Aster, Hortmag), and she's somewhere in the Chicago area. I hadn't seen them here prior to a few months ago.

The braided ones have been around here longer than that, and obviously I know that the plain plant by itself has been around since at least 2007.

Jon VanZile:

Thanks for coming by.

I think the real issue the growers should be addressing is that the plant's natural form is pretty sparse. I mean, they don't stick a Sansevieria trifasciata that's only got three leaves into a pot and try to sell it; it's odd that they seem to think it'll work to do that with S. cylindrica.

The question I'm left with after your comment, though, is: why this plant? Why now? It seems odd to do a big marketing push all at once for a plant whose appeal is limited or unknown. Is this sort of thing normal at TPIE, that they'll heavily promote a plant all of a sudden out of nowhere for no obvious reason?


Well it makes me mad. I had to say something.

Grower Jim said...

Interesting side note: I first saw this plant in 1977, growing in a greenhouse at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, IA so they've been in cultivation in your area for a long time!

mr_subjunctive said...

danger garden:

See? And I bet they didn't even feel bad about laying you off.

No, I know that not every marketer is necessarily a lying scumbag. I imagine the proportions of lying scumbags to everybody else are pretty similar no matter what profession you're talking about, at least at entry level. However, it makes sense that lying scumbags would naturally be drawn to, and successful in, professions where telling people things they want to hear in exchange for money, fame, or power is a central job skill.

I'm thinking e.g. marketers/advertisers, politicians, used car salesmen, investment bankers, CEOs, religious leaders, etc. Doesn't mean every person in those professions are necessarily bad, or that they couldn't provide good advice, but I couldn't trust one to give me all the relevant information about a decision, so long as they have a financial interest in what it is.

Whatever we decide to think about marketers in general, I think we're all in agreement here that BDK is being sleazy. I mean, they aren't even trying to sound honest. "In earlier times the horns were thought to. . . ?" There are like three fishy things in just those eight words.[1]

Grower Jim:

There's a good chance we know someone in common, then. Not sure about which years, but one of my co-workers at the ex-job used to teach there. 1977 could have been around the right time.


[1] (Which earlier times?
Who thought?
They're leaves, not horns.)

Jon VanZile said...

Mr. Subjunctive,

Yeah, TPIE is always a little bit like that, with everybody trying to push their new and awesome cultivar, even if it's not exactly that new or different. Most of the time, though, it's various Anthurium (you'd love it, if you've never been ... Anthuriums from wall to wall) and loads of bromeliads. Plus all the tissue-culture companies are there, so there's always something cool.

That particular year, with the S. cylindrica, I think it was the result of an import company's aggressive (and successful) push. I believe it was a Thai company that had partnered with an American distributor and was preparing to ship tens of thousands of these things, with the idea of replacing D. sanderiana as "the" desktop plant.

Pat said...

I saw this one a few days ago in a minimalist display in an art gallery window. Glued down white pebbles.

If they were thinking of horns why not go for the classic? Unicorn Plant, turns brown at the touch of anyone who isn't a virgin. Test the purity of all your friends!

I thought of the plant as Oliver to the marketing company's Fagin.

How about marketing Lithops optica as Dream Window? People love those anyway. I saw a wicked purple-tinted variety this year.

Perhaps illuminated by a blue and a red LED on a timer that alternates then has them together purple like those colour-changing plastic ducks. It might help them stay alive a little longer as well.

Tom said...

I'm amazed that you couldn't sell these. At the store I used to work at we couldn't keep them in stock. We'd order in 6 cases and they'd be spoken for within a day. It was the craziest thing...turns out a local immigrant group considered them sacred (or was it medicinal?). Either way they were a total cash cow for us.

mr_subjunctive said...


Yeah, I'd heard that from . . . somebody. I thought someone left a comment to that effect on PATSP a long time ago, but it wasn't under the post I'd thought it was under, so now I'm thinking maybe it was somewhere else, maybe Cactus Jungle's blog.

There were a few plants like that, where I thought they were, if perhaps not amazing, at least unusual enough to get a few people interested, but that we could never sell. Chamaedorea metallica was one like that: I don't think a single customer ever bought one, not counting staff, for over a year after we got them in.

Lee said...

Sansevieria cylindrica was one of the most popular indoor plants in Korea few years ago. Importing companies and plant nurseries sold it as S. stuckyi and advertised that it "improves indoor air quality by emiting oxygen and anions during night and absorbs harmful electromagnetic waves". They also claimed that it "grows perfectly well in shade and part shade".
Eventually people found out that it does not grow well in shades, and now it is not as popular as before.
Unfortunately, the air purifying/electromagnetic wave absorbing abilities part of the advertisement is yet to be debunked, and many people still believes such claim.

Anonymous said...

My own experience with these is that they are slow growing. (No new leaves in I'm not sure how many months, 4 at least).

My own plant (and all our 4" at work) was grown from leaf cuttings though. There's one large single leaf sticking straight up and then a smaller fan of leaves (or two) off to the side.

Peter said...

This particular marketing aside, this plant was already considered good luck in asian communities. They have a thing about the ones with 7 leaves, since they represent 7 facets of life, or something.

Ryan said...

lol. I was utterly enchanted by these when I saw them at Hirt's Greenhouses. Then again, I didn't buy one, but I love weird things.

Allison M. said...

So, since yours has never grown any more leaves...i mean "horns"..., does that mean your wisdom is not expanding? Wisdom Horns. pfft! It would figure they are sold with the stupid glued-in stones. I'm surprised they didn't take it a step further and hot-glue some straw flowers on the poor things.

mand said...

Thanx for the best plant article I've read! I was hunting for the impossible, a plant for an ensuite bathroom that never sees the light of day, with a total of perhaps an hour's artificial light per day... I know, I know. Anyway I'm going to try one of these if I can get one, on the principle that plants can do the impossible.

I'll let you know next year. :)

In defence of the marketer ;) your wisdom (though maybe not theirs) supposedly expands with experience (for an ill-defined 'you'), so if horns grow at the same timeline as your ageing, they're not technically telling a lie. Admittedly their argument assumes a lot.

Wouldn't like to try suing them if the plant failed to capture my wisdom. And besides, how should I access my wisdom when it's catpive in corneous foliage? Do the growing instructions cover that?

olive forge said...

I see I'm the first post since 2011 but you need to know that I love you! Come get me. I have a "collection" of Sansieverias (never could spell that word) and treasure them greatly. You could be happy with me. Find me at Olive Forge Herb Farm, Olive Forge on FB.

Unknown said...

Do you recommend a certain resource for S. Cylindrica? Mine seems to be having some issues and I can't find anything on them. I know everyone says they survive on neglect, but I just got one and I don't know how well it's doing...

mr_subjunctive said...

Megan Juracek:

Nothing really leaping to mind as far as online help, but: what kinds of issues? What is it doing (or not doing)?

Unknown said...

The S. trifasciata is the only plant I have that I can keep in the house. It sits high on a shelf near a skylight and I remember to water it maybe once every 6 weeks. I’ve had the plant in the same 8” pot for 10 years. I’ve put it outside occasionally and it doesn’t mind overwatering when it’s outside. It surprised me with flowers a couple of years ago. I saw the S. Cylindrical at a garden store recently and the braided plants were a huge turn off!

Mabagain said...

I'm writing to the ether, I know. I expect your plant has amazed you with a dozen additional leaves by now, that's just how these fellows are. I ordered dear cylindrica from an established online nursery six months ago mainly to free it from it's braided bondage. Once freed the leaves toppled to reveal their rootless bottoms. What kind of a clip joint is that grower running? Yet all's well - an infant cylinder has even popped up, so there must be something going on below the peat-free compost line. I have an uncommon liking for all creatures Sansevierian (Dracaenae now, but let it go) - so many curious forms doing their crassulacean acid metabolic thing and looking, as sellers and decorators point out, structural or architectural or something. They ask little, are winningly idiosyncratic and occasionally surprise one with growth spurts or even flowers. Great stoics of the plant world, they are, keeping their heads down and soldiering on toward whatever their evolutionary mandate might be. Oh, and contrast well with the ferns I love too, possibly the anti-sansevierias of house plantery.