Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saturday morning Nina picture

This particular SMNP was a little rushed, and possibly not up to the usual standard. I mean, Nina still looks her usual regal/haughty/elegant self, but I'm not particularly happy with how the photo turned out.

But I have a good reason for why the picture-taking was rushed, which I would like to present in the form of a story.

About 28 years ago, my parents taught a Sunday School class. This is less impressive than it sounds: the church was only about thirty people, a handful of whom were teenagers, and Mom and Dad, who at the time would have been in their late twenties, were the people closest in age to the teenagers, so they were the ones who had to teach the class, by process of elimination.

And the only thing I actually remember about this period, and the reason why I brought it up, is that at some point the word "fervor" came up in the reading. I'm guessing, having Googled about a bit, that the verse in question was probably Romans 12:11, which the New International Version renders as "Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord." Most other translations use "fervent" instead, but for reasons which are about to become obvious, I am pretty sure that "fervor" was the critical word here.

Anyway. The meaning is fairly clear in context, but it would not have been a familiar word to your average 16-year-old rural Iowan in the year 1982 or whenever it was. And so one of the guys was moved to comment how strange a word it was, and how it sounded like a dog's name, like "Rover" or something. ("Here Fervor! C'mere, boy! Good Fervor!") Which Mom and Dad at some point mentioned in my hearing (I think it actually became a running joke within the class for a while).

The moral of the story -- yes, there is a moral -- is to be careful what you say around eight-year-olds, 'cause they don't necessarily remember the stuff you think they ought to.

I present to the reader my and the husband's new dog, Fervor.

Yes I am serious. That's the name we're using on the forms and stuff.

I ran through a few other mumbly multi-"R"-sound name possibilities -- Rover, River, Reaver, Turgor, Rigor, Murmur, Ardor -- but decided there was no improving on Fervor. And so he was.

He's a lab / Newfoundland mix (possibly with a little Chow in there; I've heard conflicting guesses), and if everything went according to plan, we brought him home early yesterday afternoon, after meeting him a couple times at the shelter. I know some of you were hoping for a German shepherd: sorry. We started out wanting a German shepherd, but the one we actually met was younger, and a bit too high-energy for us, and anyway I liked Fervor pretty much from the moment I saw him. (We'll never know, obviously, what his first impressions of me were.) Labs as a group do nothing for me, so I don't know what the appeal was exactly.

I knew there was a good chance he would be our dog when I spent the car ride home after that first meeting coming up with reasons why it would be a terrible idea to adopt him.

And there did appear to be several. He's big: he'll need a lot of food. He's energetic: he was acting all soulful and mellow while caged up in the shelter, but the first time they took him out to let us walk him around and stuff, I nearly dislocated a shoulder. He's very heavy and strong: if he decides he wants to go somewhere . . . well, it's possible to convince him otherwise, but you have to be pretty alert. One moment of hesitation and you're skidding over the mud on your heels as if on waterskis. (Actually happened once.) The only saving grace is that he's not exactly going to go work for dog NASA, if you know what I mean, and he'll forget what he wanted to do if you can distract him for a second with something else. Lord help us should Timmy ever fall in the well.

We're not his first family; he'd been adopted previously by someone who had an older dog already, and was too much for the other dog to handle, so they brought him back to the shelter after a month. Before that, he was a stray. We'd worried a lot about adopting him -- would he need to be coaxed into the car, would he try to chew on the plants (With as many as we have, and as big as he is, there wasn't a lot we could do to get them out of his reach, though I think the ones that are low are, with one exception, neither irreplaceably expensive nor dangerously toxic. The exception is a single large Dieffenbachia, and I'm not actually sure what to do about it.), would he knock stuff over, would he try to chase every dog, cat, and squirrel we saw on walks, and so forth.

So far, though, almost everything's been good. He didn't even need to be told to get in the car, and seems to love riding around in it. He's shown almost no interest in the plants, and the interest he's shown so far was that he thought he needed to mark my Tradescantia pallida as his territory. Which is gross, but better that than trying to eat them. He seems to be fine with his crate, he was much better on the walk in town yesterday than he'd been either time we walked him at the shelter, and he's barely barked or whined since we got him home (and even when he did bark or whine, it was kind of tentative, like he didn't really want to). He's a little overeager to play, and a little insistent about being petted sometimes, but that's digging pretty deep to find flaws.

One possible remaining problem, and it's a biggie: I may be allergic. I've gotten itchy arms a time or two after being with him, but that's also happened when I wasn't around him -- so far, all allergy-type symptoms have happened under ambiguous circumstances (e.g. for itchy-arm stuff, I'd also been around cats, to which I am definitely allergic, and for asthma-type stuff, that's only happened after taking him on a long walk in fairly cool weather, which cold and exercise have both set asthma off with no dog present). I'm inclined to think that if there were serious allergies, things would be more obvious, dramatic, and clear-cut than this, but I have been both completely convinced that I am not allergic to Fervor, and completely convinced that I am, in the last 24 hours. I guess we'll be finding out.

Other than that -- which may or may not be a problem -- things have gone better than I'd thought they would.

Very nearly perfect, in fact.

So probably I am allergic.

I expect to continue posting pictures of Nina, 'cause it's not like she's suddenly no longer interesting just because we have a dog. However, the Saturday blogging will probably evolve into "Saturday morning Nina and/or Fervor picture" posts, according to who's being more photogenic that week. The other alternative is to get even further away from plants and become more of a pet blog, which I'd just as soon not do. I mean, I like and read other people's pet posts, but I figure most of you are here for the plants, and I'd actually prefer to talk about the plants. If I think the world has a burning need to hear about what Fervor's up to, in theory I can always start another blog, right?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Pretty pictures: Viola cvv.

The inevitable future snowfalls aside, spring is pretty well accomplished here. The weather forecast involves multiple consecutive days of above-freezing temperatures at night, and 50s during the day. Most of the snow has melted, sunset is happening later and later, and the whole world is starting to get that wet-dog smell.

And there are Violas showing up at my ex-work, which is as sure a sign of spring as any.

Meanwhile, at the Subjunctive Botanical Gardens of Eastern Iowa, things are changing pretty quickly too. I need to start some seeds. We were hoping to start growing some lettuce under the lights in the basement (where, in theory, it's cool enough that we ought to be able to grow them year-round, though I'm sure there's some hidden problem with that theory), and I've got some other stuff I should probably start indoors before putting it outside (tomatoes, Gazanias). It's sort of an open question whether that's how it's going to work, though.

It's an open question because a lot of stuff is going to be changing around here. I have one biggish announcement that should appear here tomorrow, and another one coming on March 24, after I return from the quarterly hiatus. They're not big announcements on the level of last year's job-quitting / moving / marrying hat trick, but they both have the potential to be substantial life changes.

Also, Nina most likely arrived in Iowa on March 6, 2009, and first came home with me on March 28, so somewhere in March would be a good time to have some kind of Nina Appreciation Day post. Anybody who has any good recipes for cricket cake (the insect, not the sport) should speak up.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Geneticist (Phalaenopsis cvv.), Part I

The main problem with trying to write a Phalaenopsis profile is that there's so much information available, it's easy to get bogged down and lose track of what's interesting and what isn't. Not that everybody's going to agree on what's interesting in the first place, of course. But you know what I mean. Much to sort through. I started this off with really good intentions, but quickly wound up on weird tangents, and then some of the tangents had tangents, and then at some point I looked up and saw that I'd written 2000 words without ever getting to how you're supposed to take care of them. So if you're here to find out how to actually grow Phalaenopsis, you'll want to skip on ahead to Part II (which will post next Wednesday). Otherwise, read on. They're kind of messed up.

As you can guess from the title, there will be some genetics involved. I'll try to make it as clear as I can, but some vocabulary is unavoidable. So brace yourself.

Phalaenopsis NOID.

Popular science writing likes to use the image of, if all the DNA in a single one of your cells were fully extended into one long strand, that strand would be . . . however long that turns out to be.1 It may be useful to present the idea of DNA in this way -- it does, at least, give the suggestion of a very long and skinny molecule, which DNA is -- but it's also a bit misleading, in that the DNA in a human cell is not present as a single very long molecule, but instead as forty-six of them, of varying lengths, plus assorted proteins on which the DNA is wound. Each of these forty-six chunks of DNA are called chromosomes.

In humans, most of the chromosomes in a cell are referred to by either a number (for example, "chromosome 5") "X," or "Y." Most human cells will contain two copies of each of the numbered chromosomes (1-22), a single X, and then either a Y or a second X.2 With me so far?

When your body produces egg cells, or sperm cells, the chromosomes which are in pairs split up. Human egg cells contain a single copy of each chromosome from 1 to 22, and an X. Human sperm cells contain a single copy of each chromosome from 1 to 22, and either an X or a Y. At least, this is how it's supposed to work. Sometimes the cells fuck up, and you get a sperm with an extra chromosome 5, or an egg has one more X than it's supposed to.

Phalaenopsis NOID. This pink-purple is a much more typical color for modern Phalaenopsis varieties.

Now. Human beings are, for reasons I don't really understand and am not quite sure anybody really knows, put together in such a way that having any extra chromosomes, beyond that 2(1 to 22) + X + (X or Y), really fucks us up, developmentally. Most of the time, having even one single extra chromosome from one parent or the other causes everything to go off-kilter, and the fetus eventually reaches the point where it can't develop any further, and it dies. An extra chromosome 2, for example, is hopeless. Winding up with three copies of every chromosome is no good either: it's not just that you have to have the same numbers of each of the numbered chromosomes, but the number also pretty much has to be two. Two copies, for everything, all the way down the line, except for the X and Y.3

The situation with plants is similar up to a point. Phalaenopsis have nineteen paired chromosomes, for a total of thirty-eight per cell. Reproductive cells are formed the same way as in humans: one chromosome of each pair goes one way, and the other goes the other way, and you wind up with a reproductive cell containing nineteen chromosomes. When two such cells from different plants come together, the new embryo develops with thirty-eight chromosomes in each cell.

Also like people, plants usually won't develop normally if they have a single extra copy of a single chromosome. However, unlike people, they don't seem to mind if they get a whole extra set of chromosomes.

How all this relates to Phalaenopsis is . . .

Phalaenopsis Sogo Manager.

Once, long ago, I was talking to a Phalaenopsis grower in Florida about the yellow-flowered varieties. I forget how the subject came up, but I remember him saying something to the effect that the yellow ones all had fucked-up chromosomes4 and were consequently hard to produce in large number.

Which I remembered, because I was hoping to understand why this was the case at some point in the future.

Well. Welcome to the future! Sorta. There are no flying cars,5 but I understand what's up with the yellow phals now.6

Phalaenopsis ordinarily have nineteen pairs of chromosomes in each cell, so thirty-eight chromosomes total. The botanical word for having pairs of each chromosome is diploid. However, occasionally a tetraploid plant appears, which has four of each chromosome (so a total of 76 individual chromosomes all packed into the cell). This can be done on purpose, by breeders and researchers (tetraploids are often "better" than the parent plants in certain important ways),7 or it may happen naturally. Either way.

Phalaenopsis without bloom.

As you can imagine, tetraploid plants must be very useful to people who are trying to develop new varieties of Phalaenopsis, then, because there's kind of an obvious market for a plant with bigger, more abundant flowers. Tetraploids can breed with one another more or less normally, too: instead of dividing nineteen pairs of chromosomes into nineteen individual chromosomes, like a diploid plant does, a tetraploid instead divides its thirty-eight pairs of chromosomes into thirty-eight individual chromosomes. So when you cross a tetraploid plant with another tetraploid, you wind up with: a tetraploid.

However -- and this is the part where the explanation about yellow phals starts to happen, so pay attention -- you can also cross a diploid with a tetraploid. Everything works the same way: the diploid parent supplies half of its chromosomes, or one set of nineteen, and the tetraploid parent supplies one half of its chromosomes, or one set of thirty-eight, and you get an offspring with three sets of chromosomes. This situation is called triploidy, and plants constructed this way are called triploids. Triploids are also usually a little bigger, a little faster/larger/prettier/whatever, than your regular diploids, and they're not uncommon in the world of Phalaenopsis breeding. In fact, a lot of the best yellow Phalaenopsis varieties happen to be triploids.

But, there is a huge catch. Suppose you have a beautiful yellow Phalaenopsis that happens to be a triploid, and you want to breed it with another triploid.

You are completely boned. The problem is that, with three copies of each individual chromosome, there's no way to divide up the number of copies evenly. For some chromosomes, the gametes might wind up with two copies; other chromosomes will have to make do with only one copy, and the uneven numbers of everything will basically lead to a trainwreck. If the gamete being formed is even able to develop far enough to encounter another gamete (usually they can't), they'll wind up in a situation where there are two, three, or four copies of various chromosomes, the new baby plant will fall to pieces, and all the effort will have been for nothing. And obviously it doesn't help to try pairing a triploid with a diploid, or triploid with a tetraploid, because the triploid's chromosomes are not going to divide evenly, no matter what you pair them with as the other parent. So triploids are dead ends, genetically, for all intents and purposes.8 - It's long, so you might want to go to the bathroom first.

Phalaenopsis NOID.

Which means you can't use them for breeding new varieties. So you can come up with a pretty nice yellow, and tissue culture as much of them as you need,9 but you can't cross it with much to make an even better yellow, so it doesn't do you much good.

Now, not all yellow Phalaenopsis are triploids, and not all triploids are yellow. Breeders do have some usable yellows to work with. But the situation could be better. Some of the non-triploids are even more messed up, and are what are called aneuploids, which have extra individual chromosomes, or missing chromosomes, or chromosomes where part of the DNA is gone, or whatever. Aneuploids, obviously, have an even tougher time reproducing than triploids, and it's kind of amazing that they can get it together to grow and bloom at all.

The relative absence of a good yellow stud Phalaenopsis also affects the attempts to produce good true-red flowers: without any yellow pigment, Phalaenopsis flowers tend to be pinkish-purple. With a little yellow underneath, the color gets closer to a true red.10 So we can expect to see the appearance of some nice true-red flowers at about the time we see some nice blinding-yellow ones.

One last semi-related bit before we move on to Part II:

Phalaenopsis, like other orchid genera, can cross-breed with a number of other orchids. The most common crosses are Doritaenopsis, which involve Phalaenopsis crossed with Doritis. I've never seen a straight Doritis, but I'm told they looks so much like phals, and cross so easily with phals, that most11 taxonomists think they are phals, and don't count Doritis as a separate genus. I have seen a Doritaenopsis (Dtps.) before --

Doritaenopsis Taida Salu 'M-P0247.' Clearly named by a gentle, poetic soul.

Close-up of Doritaenopsis Taida Salu 'M-P0247' flower.

-- and now so have you. I don't really see a difference, personally. I'd be happy to call them all Phalaenopsis.

Phalaenopsis will also cross with several other genera to form intergeneric hybrids with tongue-twister names like Stamiariaara, Nakagawaara, and Meechaiara. I've never seen any of the intergenerics, nor heard of any of their names before I went looking, so I would be surprised if they were commercially important.

If you like, you may now move on to Part II, in which I tackle the question of how to actually care for one of these genetic freaks.

References: (highly recommended, very readable history of phal production) (1) (Somewhat less readable, about breeding yellow phals) (2) (ditto) (chromosome problems with red and yellow phals, red in particular) (using the species P. venosa in breeding; includes a reference to a successful cross with a triploid) (includes photos of the flowers of some species of Phalaenopsis)


Photo credits: All my own.

1 Googling suggests that the answer is about 6 feet (2 meters), give or take.
2 If an X, then you're a female. If a Y, then you're a male.
It's not actually as simple as this, of course. Brains are wired up during fetal development, in a way which usually corresponds to the X/Y system but doesn't always, so there are a minority of people whose genes say they're male but whose brains tell them they're female, or vice-versa.
This is not at all relevant to Phalaenopsis, and in fact we started out on something of a tangent, so this is a tangent of a tangent of a tangent, minimum, but I didn't want to breeze along as though there were only males and females, and genetics determine which you are, end of story, because that's not universally true.
3 The exceptions to this general rule: fetuses can develop more or less like normal if they have a third chromosome 21 (Down syndrome), if they wind up with sex chromosomes that are XXX, XXY, or XYY (XXX and XYY are usually not even distinguishable from the general population, though they may be learning disabled to some degree), and occasionally babies may be born who have extra copies of 13 or 18, though being born with an extra 13 or 18 generally means you're not going to survive very long.
Wikiposedly, 95% of fetuses with extra or missing chromosomes will miscarry, usually in the first trimester of pregnancy.
4 He did not actually say "fucked-up."
5 Why are flying cars the standard by which futureness is measured? Who would even want cars flying overhead? Imagine what happens if two of them were to collide. Over your house. And you know they'd have to collide occasionally. I mean, I don't see people being more careful drivers in flying cars than they are in the earthbound ones.
6 Phalaenopsis is frequently shortened to "phal." I don't do this a lot, ordinarily, because there's another genus of orchids called Paphiopedilum, which is shortened to "paph," and for some reason I get the two short forms mixed up in my head (they're both four-letter words, starting with "p," and have three out of four letters in common, so I think this is forgivable), so I always have to stop and think about the short form, which having to stop and think kind of defeats the purpose of even having a short form. I'll probably be using "phal" here from time to time, because I'll need the variety, it's shorter to type, and there's no danger that I might actually mean Paphiopedilum in this post. But ordinarily, I find it too confusing to use.
7 Why would you want four sets of chromosomes, when the plant can get by just fine with two? Well, among other things, plants that have more sets of chromosomes are often larger and more robust. The flowers may be more abundant, or larger, or both. The fruit may be bigger than normal, more abundant, or contain more seeds. Tetraploid plants may grow faster or be more disease-resistant. Stuff like that. (This, by the way, should make you glad that tetraploid human embryos don't survive: the last thing we need is a bunch of huge, super-healthy, super-fertile men and women with huge genitals running around making fun of the rest of us.)
Tetraploidy in plants is usually induced by soaking seeds in a solution of a chemical called colchicine, which if you're getting ready to disapprove of it because it's a chemical and chemicals are bad, catch that knee before it jerks: colchicine is perfectly natural, and is found in the bulbs of the autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale. In fact, colchicine is the reason why the autumn crocus is dangerously poisonous.
You can either get purified colchicine and soak seeds in it for whatever length of time, or you can throw a couple Colchicum bulbs in a blender, puree for a couple seconds, and then soak your seeds in that. But then you have to remember not to re-use the blender during Lab Margarita Party Night, because, you know: poison.
8 Sometimes you want an infertile triploid plant, though. Virtually all of the bananas you buy in the store are triploids, for example. Bananas naturally produce fairly large, hard seeds, all throughout the fruit. Triploid varieties, though, abort seed development so early that the seeds are so tiny as to be un-noticeable, which is why triploidy is desirable in bananas.
Wait a minute, you may be thinking, you just said triploids were infertile. How do we get new banana plants, if the parent banana plants can't produce any seeds?
The trick is that bananas also produce asexually, by offsetting. As long as you have one plant producing fruit you like, you can cut away the offsets and plant them elsewhere until you have an entire field of identical, triploid bananas. The catch is that, because they're all identical plants, they're all susceptible to the same pests and diseases.
The reason your grandfather says bananas these days suck compared to what he had when he was a kid is not because he's a bitter, broken old man who's glorifying his own past -- though he may be that too -- but because the original cultivated banana, the Gros Michel, fell victim to a fungal disease which basically wiped the variety completely out of existence by the early 1960s. (An early outbreak of Panama Disease -- this is what the fungus is called -- in Honduras and the Caribbean in the early 1920s basically eliminated the entire crop for a while, leaving banana importers no bananas to import and periods of banana shortages. Hence the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas." Seriously. That's where that song comes from.) The variety we eat today, the Cavendish, was the first reasonably good-tasting banana to come along that could resist Panama Disease, though most people who have tasted both say that the Gros Michel was larger, sweeter, and better-tasting than the Cavendish.
You, by the way, will be telling your own grandchildren someday about how much better Cavendishes were than the crappy bananas they're eating: the Cavendish is now on its way out too, because a strain of Panama Disease that can kill Cavendish plants has arisen.
Or, possibly, you'll just be boring your grandchildren with tales of this bizarre, mushy, bland, long, yellow fruit called the "banana," which they'll never have seen, edible bananas having disappeared before they were born. And they will find this incredibly boring. Maybe they'll think you're making them up. (Who, after all, would name a fruit something as silly-sounding as "banana?" I mean, come on, grandpa. This is worse than that time you said the name of George H.W. Bush's Chief of Staff was John Sununu.)
See Popular Science for more details on the bananapocalypse.
You've also probably eaten a triploid watermelon or two in your time, and for the same reason -- triploid watermelon seeds abort early, leaving "seedless" varieties. These are generated anew every year, sexually, by crossing a diploid line of watermelon with a tetraploid variety and harvesting the triploid fruits that result. Which is kinda fucked up. Fern Richardson, of Life on the Balcony, pointed out to me via Twitter that this also leaves farmers who want to grow seedless watermelons at the mercy of the seed companies who maintain the separate diploid and tetraploid lines. In fact, customers get a product most of them (I assume) probably prefer, and seed suppliers have a semi-captive audience, so everybody, in theory, benefits from the triploid seedless watermelon except the farmers who grow them. Typical.
9 Most commercial orchids are grown from tissue culture instead of from seed. You can get a lot more plants in a shorter amount of time this way, and also, so long as the stock plant is healthy and disease-free, the tissue-cultured clones will be also. The disadvantage of tissue culture is that you need highly-skilled workers and a really, really clean environment, which means it's expensive to get started. Perhaps I'll explain tissue culture in some future post, sometime.
The existence of tissue culture, by the way, makes the original comment from the grower kind of inexplicable. Yes, the yellows often have fucked-up chromosomes, but they should still be easy enough to produce in large numbers so long as they can be tissue-cultured. It's possible that he didn't have the money for tissue-culture production, and therefore was having to raise his plants from seed.
10 There are, apparently, no true red phals in nature, which raises the question of why, exactly, anybody thinks the world needs a true-red Phalaenopsis. I'm not sure. Plant breeding appears to be a matter of people trying to create plants that satisfy certain arbitrary goals, for the sake of novelty, except novelty by itself isn't enough. With Phalaenopsis breeding, for example, the first "red" I ever saw was 'Sogo Rose,' which has slightly pointed petals, instead of rounded ones.

I thought that the pointed petals were kind of cool when I first saw it, just because it was at least something different from all the other Phalaenopsis I'd seen, but I've come to find out that points are considered bad, and all the breeders are trying very hard to make sure that things like that get bred out of the genus, so the public will have only the huge, flat, rounded flowers that (for the most part) bore me.
This will be seen by true breeders of Phalaenopsis as evidence that I have hopelessly vulgar taste in flowers, and they will adjust the tilt of their top hats, look through their monocles, straighten their moustaches (Because in my vision of Phalaenopsis breeders, they all wear top hats, monocles, and moustaches. Even the women.) at one another and agree to pray to their respective gods that people who believe as I do are never able to influence Phalaenopsis fashion. But I'm sorry. I get so tired of seeing the same flowers over and over again.
11 (Wikiposedly.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Link of interest

A reader e-mailed me an interesting link this morning, to a site with a lot of interesting macro photos of cacti, as well as even some photos taken with the aid of a microscope, which makes me sad all over again that my plans to get a microscope last spring didn't work out. The cacti in question appear to be mainly Mammillarias.

A Close-up View of Several Members of the Cactus Family

Random plant event: Gymnocalycium scion color reversion

The ex-job got another batch of grafted cacti a little while ago. They're all Hylocereus stock with lurid mutant Gymnocalycium scions (The stock is the base, the scion is the top. I kind of knew this already, but I think I only really got the vocabulary down as of yesterday.), and mostly I'm just kind of meh, whatever about grafted plants in general, but there was one in this batch that was a little bit interesting, because the scion had remembered how to make chlorophyll again.

So it appeared, anyway.

This is probably something the producers of these monstrosities (have I mentioned I don't like grafted plants?) try very hard to avoid, because the whole point of these is to try to get people to buy something they think is a huge, vividly-colored flower, and if it's reverting then the scion on this plant is going to be plain, boring green eventually. But grafts between two green cacti are much more likely to survive for a long time than a graft between one chlorophyll-producing plant and another plant that doesn't: this guy would actually be the better long-term investment.

Additionally, the plants with purple Gymnocalycium scions (which can and do produce chlorophyll) sometimes go on to form an actual flower (photos here), while still attached to the stock. Presumably our revert here will also do so eventually. Which is another reason why this particular plant, sort of ugly though it might be, would be a better investment than one of the grafts with the screaming yellow, red or pink scions on the same table.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

New Site

Because of last Friday's list of "Houseplants You'll Want to be Growing During the Zombie Apocalypse of 2014," on track to be my most popular PATSP post ever, I am now aware that there is an entire year-old website devoted to the inevitable zombie apocalypse. It is of course called

I'm not adding it to my blogroll or anything, but I thought you should know.

Pretty picture: Oxalis regnellii flowers

I tried growing an Oxalis triangularis (very similar to O. regnellii but green instead of purple) a couple years ago, but it didn't go well; I gave up on it when it started to go dormant, 'cause I didn't know they'd come back. I know better now, but don't have that much interest in them. Maybe if they didn't have to go dormant every so often, but unfortunately they do.

I also have some concerns about why a dark purple Oxalis (family Oxalidaceae) with pointed leaflets and large pink flowers is considered an appropriate substitute for a green Trifolium (family Fabaceae) with rounded leaflets and heads of multiple tiny white flowers. One is a shamrock; the other is clearly something else. But I suppose strict historical authenticity is not the point, since it became a bigger drinking holiday than a religious / cultural one.

I concede that the Oxalis has much better decorative potential.

Monday, March 8, 2010

(Really late) Counter-rant: "Green Plant" tag


As regular readers know, I am very -- indeed, almost frighteningly -- interested in trying to get plant names right. Sometimes they're wrong anyway, but this is never from laziness or disinterest. As proof, for anyone who may be unconvinced, I offer this recent post, which was all about announcing that I had taken most of a day to correct spelling and IDs on plants mentioned in the blog since the very first post, and defending myself for not changing other designations I know or suspect to be wrong.

I yield to no one in my ability to nitpick and make trivial plant-identity-related distinctions.

And the reason why I do this is not so much that I believe it matters in and of itself what a thing is called -- a rose by the name of "child-eating skunk vomit plant" would smell as sweet1 -- but because you can't talk about a plant to other people unless you're sure you're both using the same name to speak about the same plant. If I'm telling you how to care for the drought-hating, cold-sensitive, mite-prone, humidity-loving "zebra plant" Calathea zebrina --

Calathea zebrina.

-- there will be no end of confusion and plant carnage if you think I'm talking about the succulent, summer-and-winter-dormant, rot-prone "zebra plant" Haworthia attenuata:

Haworthia attenuata.

And in the world of wholesale and retail plant-selling, it's even more important that everybody's talking about the same thing, which is why botanical names tend to be specified in commercial settings. They may not be strictly taxonomically up-to-date, but they're at least usually unambiguous.

So I appreciate the frustration in buying a plant where someone took the time to stick a tag on it, only to find that the tag says "Green Plant" or "Tropical Foliage" or "Cactus/Succulent" or what have you. It's nice to know specifically what you've got. If nothing else, it makes it easier to figure out how to care for the plant and what it's likely to do in the future, or recommend the plant to someone else, or whatever.

However, I run across a lot of complaints about these tags that go beyond just being frustrated at not being given a name, with which I sympathize, and cross the line into outright prickishness, with which I sympathize not so much. One of the first examples of the latter, and probably still the most irritating one I've run into, is this post by Steve Aitken more than a year ago at, who somehow manages to complain about a semi-legitimate problem in such a way as to sound like an ignorant, douchey, entitled asshole.

And maybe Mr. Aitken actually is an ignorant, douchey, entitled asshole.

Such people exist.

He might be one of them.

We don't know.

The post, just a series of questions, begins with "Couldn't you [the person who wrote the "green plant" tag] have at least tried to come up with a name?" and gets steadily worse from there. So here, for the record, are Mr. Aitken's questions, with the answers the tag's author might give, allowed the opportunity:

The "Interview"

1. Couldn’t you have at least tried to come up with a name?

That's actually not possible. The reason why "green plant" tags exist in the first place is because retailers need a way to provide care instructions for plants they don't sell many of. (Tags are not cheap, by the way.) The same company that makes "Green Plant" tags also makes tags specific to Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, Cyclamen, poinsettia, and other high-volume plants for which care questions are likely to come up a lot. If tags are sold in batches of 100, and you sell, say, six Asplundia 'Jungle Drum' plants a year, do you really need a Asplundia tag? Most customers don't care what they have or how to keep it alive in the first place. And the retailer should be able to tell the customer an ID and provide basic care instructions if asked. I mean, many of them can't, but that's not the tag-makers' fault.

So rather than have hundreds and thousands of plant tags sitting around, for each possible variety of each possible plant,2 retailers sensibly buy tags for the plants they sell a lot of, and use generic "green plant" tags for the low-volume plants, as most tropical foliage plants want fairly similar care anyway.3 This is why "green plant" tags exist. It's not because somebody believes that "green plant" is the name of any specific plant.4

2. Couldn’t you have shouted to a co-worker, “Hey, what kind of plant is this anyway?”

See above.

3. Was the answer “A green one”?

Okay, now you're just being a dick.

4. Why don’t any of the numerous plants in the picture look like my Green Plant?

Because they're not supposed to look like your Green Plant. They're there to illustrate the general range of plantiness compatible with the care instructions on the back of the tag.

5. Some of the plants in the photo are actually green and white. Would they be considered Green Plants, too?

They sure would! Also, you're a dick.

6. If you couldn’t even bother to provide a name, how much can I trust your recommendation of “moderate light”?

You've got it backwards. Only plants that need moderate light should be wearing this tag. If a plant needed high light, it should have a different tag.

7. Isn’t “moderate light” just hedging your bet, since you don’t know what plant this is and couldn’t possibly know what it needs for light?

See above.


8. Isn’t the information provided under “How to Care for your Green Plant” true for 90% of indoor plants?

So you're saying that you don't believe it matters, in most of the cases, what the plant's actual identity is, but you're busting my chops because the tag doesn't identify precisely what the plant is?

All the lesser dicks must just worship you.

9. Aren’t the “key tips for success” merely a restatement of the hopelessly general instructions that come first?

You'd be surprised how people often don't read things the first time.

10. Did you also want to include the following instructions: Plant in dark soil in a pot with the opening facing up. Do not bleach. Do not place in freezer. Water should be wet before applying to Green Plant.

Would you do any of these things if not specifically instructed not to? No? Then why would you assume that anybody else would?

11. Did you have a meeting to brainstorm other ways this tag could be less helpful?

No. My boss gave me a list of 100 plant names and said "I want you to write care tags for each of these 100 plants. We need them by noon tomorrow."

What's unhelpful about the tag as it now stands, anyway? What would you like to see included that isn't being addressed? Are you serious about the bleach thing?

12. Do you think people should get an “A” for effort?

No, but I don't see what that has to do with anything.

13. If so, what grade would you give yourself for this tag?

N/A, because I answered "no" for #12, but maybe a B-minus?

14. Is this a conspiracy?

[sigh] Would you like it to be? Would that make you happy?

15. Do you think you can get away with this?

I already have.

16. What do you mean “I already have.”? [punctuation sic]


17. Why do you hate me?

'Cause you're a dick.

In conclusion

Perhaps in the future, it will be possible for retailers to print out specific tags for any plant in creation. Maybe someone will start a business selling CD-ROMs and blank tags, so you can print tags as you need them (though someone would need to solve the problem of water-soluble printer ink first: plants and tags get wet sometimes). No tag wastage, pinpoint-precise plant tags, plant purists like myself could be satisfied that we had the right instructions at all times, and Mr. Aitken could focus his sarcasm more narrowly on things he understands5 instead of this embarrassing sarcasm-flailing he's doing.

It annoys me to feel compelled to defend the tag-writers: it's not like I'm normally a big fan of the instructions they provide (which usually strike me as encouraging people to keep their plants too dark and too wet). But talking to the writers as though they believe there's a plant out there called "green plant," and then mocking them for being so stupid as to believe that, is just mean-spirited, douchey idiocy.6 So I defend the tag-writers' collective honor. Such as it is.


1 (Though I bet they wouldn't sell as well.)
2 At one point, just for shiggles, I sat down at home and tried to come up with a list of every single species and cultivar of plant I could think of that we had in the tropical greenhouse right at that moment. I hit 275 before I quit, and because of my cactus blindness, I know I failed to include a lot of cactus species. Further, that was only at that particular moment, and in the particular establishment where I worked: it would be fairly easy for me to come up with a list of 500 plants that can be grown indoors.
3 It should be noted that I was never all that thrilled with the instructions on the "green plant" tags, and was occasionally moved to cross stuff out and write different instructions in for people. But that was also true of the specific plant tags. A plant's location, soil mix, pest infestations or lack thereof, etc., influence care requirements enough that you can only ever give people kind of a general idea of what to expect from a given plant.
Incidentally: if you have a plant you can't identify and need a best guess for what to do with it, I have a post about that. Though you should still try to figure out what it is as soon as you can.
4 Though the botanical name for Chlorophytum in fact does translate as "green plant," so one could argue that a Chlorophytum wearing a "green plant" tag is correctly-tagged both specifically and generally.
5 His author bio on this page actually says of Aitken, ". . . please hold the questions about houseplants, he openly admits to killing them." So maybe this is not an area of expertise in the first place, which makes the snotty attitude even more surprising.
6 I assume the defense, if anybody feels one needs to be made, will be something like geez, it was just a joke; lighten up, man. Which would be easier to believe had any of it been funny.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pretty pictures: Red

Three different takes on the idea of "red" today. I tried to come up with something to say about working in the garden center at this time of year, but even as a PG-13 blog, there are limits to how much obscene language I'm comfortable using here. So I won't. Instead, I will point out how the three red flowers in question sort of represent winter, spring, and summer, even if they do happen to be blooming all at the same time (all three pictures were taken on the same afternoon, at my former job), and we'll let that be the point of interest for this particular post.

Hippeastrum NOID.

Petunia NOID.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis NOID.