Saturday, May 29, 2010

Saturday morning Sheba and/or Nina picture

It's getting harder and harder to think of angles for taking pictures of Nina that I haven't used already. Also, as the Stromanthe continues its takeover of the left two-thirds of the tank, it's getting increasingly difficult to come up with an angle for taking pictures of Nina that isn't blocked by a leaf.

Though pleased that the first test of her transporter was successful, Sheba realized almost immediately that the z coordinate was off by about eight to ten inches.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Pretty pictures: Paeonia cvv.

Peonies have always struck me as a little too -- too froofy, too big, too campy. Like a falling-down-drunk drag queen with half a watermelon on her head, trying to do a Carmen Miranda impersonation and angrily insisting that everybody watch. Not just excessive, but somehow embarrassingly excessive.

And the ant thing doesn't help, either.

But as with most things, they become interesting if you look at them closely enough. And this first one, frankly, knocks my socks off. Not saying I'm ready to buy one for the yard, but I can see why somebody would, now.1

I was also not previously aware that there existed yellow-flowering peonies. This seems . . . wrong. Though if it's not screaming hot pink, I suppose I could be okay with it. I still haven't seen any yellow peonies actually planted in someone's yard -- this one is from a garden center in Iowa City a few weeks ago.

This is more what I think of when I think "peony." Ostrich-feather fans, Vegas showgirls, those new kinds of fireworks that seem to explode for a minute and a half, blue-dyed chrysanthemums2 the size of a baby's head. It's not terrible, viewed on its own terms, but I don't think I could handle having one of these in the yard.

This last one is of a tree peony, which are a lot less common around here. In fact, I think there may only be one in the entire town. It's a monster -- probably eight feet across and four feet tall, loaded with blooms -- and maybe that's part of why more people don't plant them. I tried taking photos of the whole thing, and they didn't turn out well (still learning the new camera3), so you don't get to see, but it was impressive. And the blooms, individually, aren't terrible either.


1 And by the way -- do fern-leaf peonies only bloom for like three days and then that's it? I tried to get a halfway decent picture when they all bloomed here a few weeks ago, and failed, but didn't figure it was a big deal, because they're peonies, they'll bloom again. But they haven't bloomed again. Any of them. The foliage is interesting, and the flowers are okay when present, but considering how expensive they are, I'm sort of shocked that the show isn't any longer than this.
2 Chrysanthemums -- at least the bigger spider-mum types -- elicit the same feelings in me as peonies. Maybe worse. When I was in high school, while we were living in South Texas, it was apparently the fashion for boys to give their girlfriends these enormous corsage-like things at Homecoming time, which usually had one or more spider mums, plus like a mile of ribbons in the school colors, and glitter, possibly sequins (?), photographs, this whole gigantic production. (I swear to you: I remember one girl's Homecoming thingie very vividly because there was a cowbell included. A cowbell!) With the ribbons and everything, they usually stretched down to the floor, or almost to the floor, the girls wore them all day, and I never really understood the purpose. Unless the purpose was just to let everybody know that they had boyfriends. They weren't even single-day things, necessarily; I don't remember whether people wore them every day for a week, or if it just seemed like that because different girls were wearing them on different days for a week. It was one of those bits of culture shock I never understood or even asked about.
I assume (hope?) it was just a South Texas thing. It might have even been a South-Texas-in-the-late-80s thing. I mean, this was also the period when all the girls were trying to get their bangs to look like a wave cresting a foot above their heads, and a lot of them wore dresses and skirts from time to time with two-foot wide decorative bows sewed on the back.
Somehow only the Homecoming flowers seemed strange to me at the time. Tall hair and bows the size of bald eagles didn't strike me as peculiar until after I'd been out of school for a while. Fashion, I suppose.
3 Mainly the problem is that with the previous camera, I had a much smaller range of options. Basically I could shoot super close-up, kinda close-up, or far away, and I could do it with or without a flash. I mean, there were other options, but they rarely worked, so I didn't bother. The new camera, though, will let me darken or lighten the whole picture, and has a separate thing for sun, clouds, incandescent light, three different kinds of fluorescent light, plus the really-close, close, or far option. I can change the pictures after uploading them, somewhat, to adjust the color for occasions like when I have it set to sunny and it actually should have been set to fluorescent #2, but -- this is tedious to do when it works, and it doesn't always work. And red or purple things in super-bright sun always turn out badly and non-fixably no matter what the settings.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

List: Easy, Attractive Houseplants for Beginners

The New York Times semi-recently solicited houseplant-related questions for Tibor Fuchs (the President of the Metropolitan New York Chapter of the Indoor Gardening Society of America1) to answer, which he subsequently did, in three parts (the first of which is here). I happened to see the list of questions he was working from during the brief period when they were being solicited, and was struck by how many of them were basically, please suggest a houseplant for me that's easy to care for.

Many of the questions then went on to request more specific plants that would survive with no light, bloom spectacularly, year-round, with enormous, brilliantly-colored, scented flowers, and be non-toxic to pets and children, which I assume is why Fuchs didn't bother trying to answer those questions, but the basic request was just, over and over, tell me the name of a plant I won't kill. Therefore, this list. In fact, I suspect I could do nothing but answer this question, every single day, and get more blog hits than I do from writing about other stuff.

There have to be some disclaimers, first.

"Easy" depends on what you think you're supposed to do, and I can't know, sitting here in my office and probably never having met you, what you think you're supposed to do. I also can't be certain you're going to acquire your plant from a reputable source that will sell you a healthy plant. But these are still your better bets, I think.

"Attractive" is also a problem. I don't know what you like. I tried to pick a set of plants that were diverse and colorful, but you might hate them all. I really think that's more your problem than mine, though.

Aglaonema cvv. ("Chinese evergreen") This is 'Peacock,' but there are many, many other varieties which are also good. I recommend any of them, but particularly 'Emerald Bay,' 'Golden Bay,' 'Maria,' 'Diamond Bay,' 'Jewel of India,' and 'Brilliant.'
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it too cold.

Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash.' ("Fire Flash," "Mandarin Plant," "Green Orange")
If you killed it anyway: you probably either had it too hot or in too much direct sun.

Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime' or 'Goldstar' (shown) or other cvv. ('Art,' 'Dorado,' 'Janet Craig,' 'Janet Craig Compacta,' 'Jumbo,' 'Ulises,' 'Warneckei,' etc.)
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it cold.

Epipremnum aureum 'Neon' (shown) or other cvv. ("pothos") Includes the white, gray and green 'N'Joy,' the white-marbled 'Marble Queen,' and the yellow and green species.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it cold.

Euphorbia tirucalli and cvv. ("pencil cactus," "firesticks")
***This plant's sap is dangerous if it contacts the skin or (especially!) eyes. Though a very tolerant houseplant, I do not recommend it for homes with pets or children, or advise putting it in an area where it's likely to be knocked over or brushed up against a lot. Get it in the house, and then don't fiddle with it.***
If you killed it anyway: you probably didn't have it in enough light or overwatered.

Haworthia attenuata (shown) and other Haworthia spp. ("zebra plant," "fairy washboard")
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or had it in insufficient light.

Peperomia obtusifolia cvv. ("baby rubber plant") This is the variety 'Gold Coast;' other varieties are solid green or yellowish-green with darker speckles.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it too cold.

Plectranthus verticillatus. ("Swedish ivy") A variegated version exists, but it tends to revert to solid green pretty quickly.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or had it in insufficient light.

Saxifraga stolonifera. ("strawberry begonia") A variegated version exists but is slower-growing and a little more delicate, I hear. (Haven't grown it myself.)
If you killed it anyway: you probably underwatered.

Yucca guatemalensis. ("spineless yucca") This is a variety with gray stripes no the leaves; a solid-green type is the most common. There is also a variety with yellow stripes along the leaf edges.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or had it in insufficient light.

Anybody who's grown a significant number of houseplants would come up with a different list of plant recommendations, which wouldn't necessarily overlap much with the above. Generally speaking, I think beginners would do well with any plant that has a PATSP difficulty level below about 2.5 (see the sidebar for a list of plants with difficulty levels), though there are a few which are quirky in ways that wouldn't be well-suited for someone new to houseplants.

Of the above set, the three I would most recommend to someone new to houseplants would be Plectranthus verticillatus, Yucca guatemalensis, and Aglaonema cvv. This is because:

Plectranthus verticillatus is especially good for beginners because it grows very quickly: it's not quite instant feedback, but it's pretty close, and since it's an easy plant, most of the feedback will be positive, so it's a good confidence-booster. It's also very tolerant of dry air, temperature fluctuations, and fluctuations in moisture level. It does need fairly bright light, but it'll give you feedback on that, too -- in bright enough light, the stems will turn reddish-purple; in too much light, the leaves will bleach out slightly to a lighter, yellowish green. Finally, the last reason it's a good plant for beginners is that it's not terribly common in stores. It's very easy to start new plants from cuttings, so it tends to be one of those plants that gets passed from person to person. This means that if you manage to get a plant, you probably also already know someone who's a decent indoor gardener, from whom you can learn.

Yucca guatemalensis is a good plant for beginners because it handles neglect very, very well. About the only hard and fast requirement is that you provide bright light -- plants can survive without actual direct sun, but ideally you should have at least a little every day. They are, in any case, not good plants to stick in a corner and forget about. They'll grow best with regular, thorough, but infrequent waterings. The one warning about these is that you should be sure to get a plant that's solidly rooted. An awful lot of the plants we see in stores up here are thick sections of cane that were stuck in soil and shipped out as soon as they began to root and sprout some leaves. This means that their root system may not be very well-developed, and a rootless Yucca is going to be very touchy about overwatering. This is temporary, as they will grow new roots, but you should check to make certain the soil is dry (even well below the surface of the pot) before watering. If at all possible, try to get a plant that's already got a substantial root system, too, obviously. Yucca guatemalensis is kind of a sentimental favorite for me, too, because at the moment my longest-lived indoor plants (about 12 years) are Yuccas.

Aglaonema cvv. are slow-growing plants with variegated foliage in many different kinds of patterns and colors. They handle low light better than most plants, though bright indirect light is still best, and do best when allowed to dry out almost completely, then watered thoroughly. Some varieties are sensitive to cold temperatures (anything below about 60F/16C), though breeders have been working on this, and some of them can handle temperatures down to freezing (32F/0C) for short periods. There's no good way to know how cold your plant can get, short of trying it, so it's best to keep your plant above 60F/16C unless you know for sure that it can go colder. Aside from their issues with cold and overwatering, though, they're great plants, and arguably one of the prettier options from this list.

Not pictured:

Aechmea fasciata
Alworthia 'Black Gem'
Ardisia elliptica
Chamaedorea metallica
Chlorophytum comosum
Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana'
Dracaena marginata cvv.
Dracaena reflexa 'Riki'
Euphorbia trigona
Ficus maclellandii
Hoya lacunosa

Philodendron hederaceum cvv.
Rhapis excelsa
Sansevieria trifasciata
Spathiphyllum cvv.
Synadenium grantii
Tradescantia pallida
Tradescantia zebrina
Zamioculcas zamiifolia


1 The President! Even though he only has 300 or so houseplants!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

BREAKING: Fervor has been adopted!!!!

At least, according to the Iowa City Animal Shelter website, he has. Obviously we'll have to check back with the site occasionally, to make sure he doesn't come back again, but this is still very good news.

Random plant event: Gasterworthia keiki?

They probably wouldn't be called that, of course. But it seems like the same basic idea as with keiki on the bloom stalks of Phalaenopsis or other orchids. The Gasterworthia I bought a little over a month ago grew what appear to be tiny plantlets on its flower stalk --

-- which is something I hadn't heard of Gasterias or Haworthias doing before. Maybe you have. I don't know. The larger of the two (above) fell apart as I was trying to remove it from the stalk; the smaller one was successfully planted, and we'll see whether it's as successful in rooting and becoming a new plant.

Is this something everybody but me already knew about? And if so, what does one call the plantlets produced on a Gasterworthia flower stalk? "Offsets" doesn't sound quite right, but neither does "keiki." . . .

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cactus Abuse

Don't buy your cacti from places that do this:

Yeah, that's about half an inch (1 cm) of water standing in the bottom of a plastic tray that apparently has no drainage holes in it. I've seen the same trays at Home Depot before. I do not understand why anybody thinks this is a good idea. I mean, for fuck's sakes, they're cacti -- they'd need to be watered eventually, but if they have to wait two or three weeks to get it, it's not going to kill them. And not watering at all would be kinder than making them stand in water.

I expect there's a logical reason for this, but I don't care what it is. Don't buy cacti if they're standing in water at the store. It's the only way they'll learn.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pretty pictures: Pink-Purple to Pink

I've been trying for the last couple weeks or so to sort through the ever-increasing stack of pictures I have, and I have to say, it hasn't actually been going terribly well. It's really time-consuming, and of course I keep taking new pictures as I'm sorting out the old ones, so there's an element of futility to the whole thing.

But, the up side is that I have a bunch of pictures to post now. So here are some. I've decided to go with "pink" as a theme, though the pinkness of some of these is open to debate.

Osteospermum 'Summertime Hot Pink.' Kind of more purple-looking, in this picture. I don't remember exactly if it was really this color.

Clematis 'Nelly Moser?' This is growing in someone's yard in town, so there was no actual ID on it, but I think, after seeing a picture of 'Nelly Moser' at Best in Bloom Today, that's probably what this is. The colors are right, at least, and lynn'sgarden says in the post that it's a popular variety. I wish I'd fiddled with the color a little bit longer; the color here seems a little dull, compared to reality. Oh well.

Catharanthus roseus 'Titan Rose.' One of the things that most pleases me about no longer working at the garden center is that I don't have to deal with the vinca (it's not Vinca, though) anymore. I had bad associations with them anyway, having been forced to plant them once in junior high, at school, for "P.E.," which is a long story and not really the point, but at work, they always had spider mites, and frequently tried to go chlorotic on us, and I just really kind of hate them.

Most everybody still calls this Dicentra spectabilis, but I have it on pretty good authority that the correct name is Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Everybody in town has like six of these, but they're cool plants regardless.

Gaura NOID (possibly G. lindheimeri 'Karalee Pink'). I like these okay, but never see any planted anywhere. I have no idea where they're all going or who they sell to.

Begonia NOID. These are sold as "nonstop begonias," but I don't know if that's an official cultivar name or not. Despite the name, if overwatered, they will stop just fine.

Brugmansia NOID. Every year since 2007, I see these, and my jaw drops and I think I must get a Brugmansia this year, and then every year, fear of spider mites keeps me from actually getting one. We saw this one, and a few others, within the last week, but this one was big and expensive, and the others were doubled varieties (purple/white and yellow). I do not like the doubled Brugmansias and find them unsettling in some difficult-to-explain way. Will this be the year I get one? Maybe. The pink ones are really beautiful.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Weeds of Interest

These aren't quite roadside flowers, in that I didn't take the pictures along the sides of roads, but the spirit is there, because they're weedy and yet also sort of pretty, or at least interesting. It's unclear whether or not there will be roadside flower pictures this summer, because until the car's air conditioning is fixed or it's an unseasonably cool day, I don't see myself going anywhere I don't absolutely need to go.

But anyway. I am like 99% sure that this first one is a Euphorbia, but I can't figure out which Euphorbia. At first I thought it was the invasive leafy spurge, E. esula, but the more I looked at pictures of E. esula on-line, the more the bracts on this plant seemed a little too rounded, and the flowers too dense. Also I saw some in someone's yard that looked like they could have been planted there deliberately (it was kind of ambiguous; they were in a couple spots around the trunk of a maple tree, which could have been deliberately placed to look natural or naturally placed in a way that happened to look planned). So then I was no longer sure. In any case, they were all blooming in April at some point, and although these particular plants have since all been mowed down, I think they're kind of neat.

The first two photos are a couple weeks before the last three, which is why they look different. I'm pretty sure they're the same plants.

I've been noticing this second plant for years, without having any idea what it was, and I'd actually taken a picture of it recently to post here at PATSP so I could find out. And then a few days ago, I was reading something on-line that was completely unrelated to Iowa weeds (a large collection of information about odors used in perfumery, particularly those from plant sources, and actual structures of the specific chemicals responsible for the various odors, which is information nobody ever includes, so I was in chem nerd heaven -- do check it out), I ran into a picture and mention of something called wild chamomile, which looked just like the plant I'd been noticing for years but had never been able to identify.

Turns out it's Matricaria discoidea.

Matricaria is unusual in a number of interesting ways: first, it's one of those plants that is "native" to North America but may not be native to North America. It has historically been found mainly in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and in Northeast Asia, but there is reason to think that it may have been brought over from Asia when humans crossed the Bering Strait and colonized the Americas, between 16,000 and 13,000 years ago, and may not actually be native to North America at all, in the long-term sense. (As we have seen, whether something is "native" to a given area or not depends to some degree on the time frame you're interested in.)

If the pre-Native Americans brought it with them, it was probably deliberate: it has been used medicinally for a number of different things (fever, postpartum anemia, infection, stomach upset), and the plant is also edible. Flowerheads have a pineapple / chamomile odor when crushed, which is responsible for the common name of "pineapple weed."

It's also noteworthy for being a successful invasive in Europe, though I don't get the impression that it's a very serious problem -- Matricaria is what is called a "ruderal" species, which means that it's one of the first species to colonize recently disturbed lands. Once other species begin to grow in the area, Matricaria is crowded out and more or less disappears. (Around here, I mostly see it growing in gravel driveways or alleys, where little else will.)

When I found out what it was, I of course had to check the smell out for myself. I can see where the "pineapple" part of the description comes from, but it's a very different type of pineapple smell than something like Salvia elegans. I'm not sure I would have come up with "pineapple" as a descriptive word if I hadn't already known it was called pineapple weed. I haven't been willing to try tasting it yet, partly because some sites warn that the flower heads can be really bitter, and partly because I have no way of knowing what's been sprayed on the plants I find around town.

I always did like the plant, but having a name for it and knowing more about where it comes from makes me like it a lot better.