Saturday, June 5, 2010

Saturday morning Sheba and/or Nina picture

Not a particularly interesting week for Sheba or Nina. Nina never has interesting weeks, as far as I can tell (though it's not like she has especially boring ones, either: I imagine Nina's inner emotional life is very, you know, zen), and the most notable event to happen to Sheba involved her slipping backwards out of her harness while I was taking pictures of weeds along the side of the street, which got exciting mainly because a van happened to be coming down the street at the same time.

She didn't actually go anywhere, and the driver stopped anyway so she wouldn't have been hit even if she had, but I didn't know, while it was all happening, that she wasn't going to get hurt. Also, in the process of trying to get her under control, the camera slipped out of my hand, also into the path of the oncoming van, and for a few seconds there I was just positive that either Sheba would be killed, the camera would be ruined, or both. In the end, though, Sheba was fine, the camera wasn't run over or even detectably scratched by the fall, and the plant turned out not to have been a weed at all, but instead some NOID garden escapee. Oh well. It's pretty regardless:

(The one on the side of the road)

(Close-up of same)

(A bunch of them that I, a couple days later, discovered planted along someone's house)

(Close-up of above)

(UPDATE: Thank-you to Don, for identifying the plant as Campanula glomerata, in the comments.)

But you're here for the Sheba picture, right? Okay. This is probably the best Sheba picture to date, because she's actually in focus, not blurry with motion, and looking more or less at the camera.

It was taken maybe six weeks ago, give or take, when she and I were sitting in the back of the car after she'd gotten a bath. (It was a coldish day, and I was hoping the heat of the back of the car would dry her off faster. Didn't really work, but it was still fun -- for me, anyway.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pretty picture: Vanessa atalanta

We went to Iowa City on Wednesday, and I took lots and lots of pictures of various things, which is cool, because it means I won't have to worry about possible things to blog about for a really long time, but it also means that I won't have time to write about those things because I will be so busy sorting pictures. (Seriously. The present estimate is that I have a backlog of ~1700 photos to select, color-adjust, crop, and resize right now. Many of those are duplicates of one another, but that's still a solid 300-400 rounds of photo-sorting before I'm caught up.)

Anyway. So I managed to get a picture of this happy little guy,1 on a NOID Buddleia where I used to work, which is notable for me mostly because it's unusual for a butterfly to stick around long enough for me to get out the camera and fumble through the settings and take a picture. But also it's pretty. The species is Vanessa atalanta, or "red admiral," something I know because I looked it up in a book.2 Which was actually kind of a weird experience.3


1 Or maybe not. I mean, how would you be able to tell if a butterfly were depressed? Or female, for that matter? (Yes, I know the answer to the second question would be sexual dimorphism, but as far as I can determine, red admiral males and females have the same shape and coloration, so that doesn't help us here.)
2 The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies; I have a collection of about 15-20 of the Audobon Society guides, dating from when I was a kid and would save up my money to buy them, or ask for them for my birthday, or whatever. (I don't know how much they actually were, then, nor do I know how much they are now. But to my seven-year-old self they were extremely valuable and precious, as it was a considerable sacrifice to get one on my own.)
3 "Books" are sort of like, um, imagine that you printed out a bunch of pages from the internet, and then had somebody bind them together inside of a hard, durable covering of some kind. A page can then be physically turned over with your fingers when you're finished reading one, to read the next one, instead of clicking on "Next Page" at the bottom of the screen. Compared to the internet, books use less power, function without batteries or recharging, still work during power outages, and pose a much smaller risk of identity theft, but: the information in them is never updated, they're more difficult to search, and you can't "tweet," "friend," "digg," or "like" the information in them.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Unfinished business: Hoya bella flowers

As noted a couple weeks ago, my Hoya bella has decided, after a couple years, to give me some flowers. When I first noticed this, I saw two sets of buds; now there are at least four, which is pretty cool. The first set of flowers opened a couple days ago, and, well, they're pretty Hoya-ish --

-- which is okay, but I'd thought maybe there'd be a weirder shape or color or something. The rumors that the flowers would smell like candy have, alas, turned out to be false. They do have a smell, but it's very faint, so I can't really describe it aside from saying that it's sort of generically floral and didn't remind me of anything in particular. Thomas's idea (from the comments in the previous post) of putting the blooms into glass globes to concentrate the scent sounds like a good one, but I don't think it's going to be practical for me at the moment, given that the plant still, after two years, doesn't have much of a root system. I really don't like moving it around, even to water; one of the stems swings around in a way that makes me think it may still not have any roots at all, after two years. But still, hey, there are flowers. I'm not complaining.

Slowly but surely, I'm coming to understand how people become obsessive about Hoyas.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

List: Houseplants for Beginners to Avoid

This is the flip side of the list I posted on May 27, which was about easy plants I recommended for beginning growers of houseplants. These are the ones that are fairly easy to get (usually a little less common than the easy ones; it depends where you shop), but are not good prospects for growing year-round indoors.

There are a number of reasons why this could be the case. Some of the plants on the list are very prone to bug problems. Some of them are easy enough to keep alive, but are unlikely to ever again look as good as they do when you first see them in the store. Some have completely unreasonable care requirements, or are slow to recover from damage and consequently just sit there looking like crap forever if you forget to water once. That sort of thing.

I either know, or have at least heard of, people who have been successful with each of these plants. I have no doubt that there will be people reading the list who will say but I have a [name of plant] and it was the first one I ever bought and it's been awesome for me for fifteen years; I think you're nuts. And to those people, I say congratulations. (Also I say that whether or not I'm nuts is not the issue.) I know of many more people, however, including some people with a lot of indoor plant experience, who have tried some of these and failed multiple times.

The unfortunate thing is that these are still being sold, a lot, because they're really damned attractive. The stores don't actually care what happens to your plant once you purchase it, and in fact would probably rather you killed them, everything else being equal (people with dead plants are people who will buy replacements), so they'll keep getting them in. But give some easier stuff a try before handing over your money for these, is basically what I'm saying.

Alocasia amazonica 'Polly.' (African mask plant)

Why you would want one: they have big, dramatic leaves with striking shape and coloration.
Why you shouldn't get it: spider mites love them, they're fussy about humidity and temperature, and occasionally they will decide to go dormant, which if you don't know that they do this will make you think you killed it.
What to buy instead: Anthurium andraeanum (some cultivars have similar leaf size and shape, plus flowers), Ficus elastica 'Burgundy' (similar leaf color, size, and texture), Philodendron 'Congo Red' or 'Imperial Red' (similar leaf size and color), Syngonium wendlandii (vining plant with velvety, dark green, arrowhead-shaped leaves and a contrasting lighter center).
If you've already bought one: watch carefully for spider mites (they will show up as light webbing on the underside of the leaves and a dusty, tan, washed-out look on the tops of the leaves). Keep humidity and temperature high (not below 60F/16C). Provide good light (filtered sun or very bright indirect or artificial light). Hope for the best.

Begonia rex-cultorum 'Harmony's Red Robin' (shown) and other Begonia rex-cultorum cvv. (rex begonia)

Why you would want one: iridescent-metallic, multicolored leaves in green, gray, red, black, pink, purple, or silver, on a low, trailing plant.
Why you shouldn't get it: unreasonable environmental requirements, plus prone to mildew and other fungal diseases, unforgiving of lapses in care.
What to buy instead: Saxifraga stolonifera is a very easy, low-growing plant with silver-veined green leaves which are red underneath. Tradescantia zebrina is a trailing plant which usually has purple leaves striped in silver. Pilea involucrata 'Norfolk' trails, and has red, brown, gray, and silver leaves depending on the amount of light it is receiving; it's not a particularly good beginner plant, but I'd consider it an improvement on rex Begonias. Some of the cane Begonias, particularly the angel-wing or trout-wing types, may be slightly easier to get along with than the rexes, and have coloration which is similar, though their habit is very different. Some rhizomatous Begonias (Don suggests 'River Nile' in the comments) are also less fussy, and the patterns are frequently just as interesting even if the color range is narrower.
If you've already bought one: provide bright indirect light or filtered sun to maintain color. Keep humidity high around the plant, but try to avoid splashing water directly on the leaves. Do not allow the plant to dry out completely.

Calathea roseo-picta 'Medallion' (shown?) and other Calathea spp. (peacock plant, rattlesnake plant, zebra plant, pin-stripe plant, etc.)

Why you would want one: large oval leaves with delicate, fancy-schmancy streaks and blotches of color.
Why you shouldn't get it: drought-intolerant, sensitive to fluoridated water, prone to spider mites, unreasonable expectations for humidity.
What to buy instead: some Aglaonema and Dieffenbachia cvv. have similarly intricate color patterns and oval leaves, if not an equally broad color palette. Peperomia obtusifolia has some cultivars with feathery green-and-yellow variegation (for example 'Golden Gate'), and though it's a much smaller plant, it's also much easier. Variegated Epipremnum aureum cultivars like 'Marble Queen' have fairly intricate, swirly patterns, though the colors tend to disappear if the plant is grown in low light.
If you've already bought one: as for Alocasia, above.

Dionaea muscipula. (venus flytrap)

Why you would want one: dude! They move, and kill insects and shit!
Why you shouldn't get it: need special water because they're mineral-sensitive, very strong light year-round, and inhumanly cool temperatures during winter (when they go dormant). Plus they rot at the drop of a hat.
What to buy instead: not many good options. The sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica, also moves in response to touch and is perhaps a little more manageable, though it also needs very bright light and is not, in my opinion, a very pretty plant most of the time. I've heard nice things from certain quarters about Drosera (sundews), Pinguiculas (butterworts), and Nepenthes (pitcher plants), but my experience with Nepenthes is that they're not easy at all, and I'd be surprised if the others were either. I would recommend that a beginner either wait for a long time to attempt carnivorous plants in general, or else commit to growing nothing but carnivorous plants, because their needs are very different from the plants people normally keep indoors, and very little of your experience with one group will transfer to the other.
If you've already bought one: they need lots of light (full sun), distilled or reverse-osmosis water, and a winter dormancy; read the Dionaea muscipula profile for more specific information. You might also consider getting a terrarium for it.

Euphorbia pulcherrima. (poinsettia)

Why you would want one: 'cause they're so fucking Christmasy and festive.
Why you shouldn't get it: they're just very badly-suited for indoor cultivation all around. They need tons of light, even during the winter when you're least likely to have lots of light; they need a lot of warmth; they're a pain to rebloom; they're usually potted in crappy potting mix because the growers don't expect them to survive past New Year's so there's no point springing for the good potting mix; they're usually artificially dwarfed using hormones, so even if you did manage to keep it until the next year, you'd have a leggy monstrosity; they tend to be stressed from being forced to grow fast and bloom fast; if you're in a cold climate, they've probably been shipped in cold and are stressed from that when you see them; they're prone to fungus, whitefly, and everything else; the lower leaves fall off at the drop of a hat, even if it's the next-door neighbor's hat; they bring untold misery and despair to garden center and greenhouse workers the world over; and I say not to.
What to buy instead: oh my god anything. An. Y. Thing. Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla) can be very nice long-term plants if you have a bright, cool spot for one. Schlumbergera cvv. ("Christmas cactus") are very easy, though plants purchased late are prone to drop flower buds once you get them home, so try to buy them out of season or else as early as you can. Those are probably the two I'd most recommend. But if you don't like those, English ivy (Hedera helix) is common in stores around Christmas: it's a terrible, terrible idea to start your houseplant career with Hedera, but better that than poinsettias. Forced bulbs like Hippeastrum ("amaryllis") can be saved and made into long-term, reblooming plants. Even Cyclamen persicum or Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, absolutely anything at all, just not a poinsettia.
If you've already bought one: enjoy it while it lasts.

Gardenia jasminoides. (gardenia)

Why you would want one: the flowers smell amazing.
Why you shouldn't get it: they have unreasonable expectations.
What to buy instead: there are no great Gardenia substitutes, because nothing else smells like a Gardenia. But Hoya lacunosa flowers are pleasant, and the plant is easy to grow. Quite a few of the other Hoyas have pleasant-smelling flowers, too, though ease of care and ease of flowering vary from one species to the next. Murraya paniculata is considerably easier than Gardenia though not easy, and blooms readily year-round if given enough light and water. Finally, Callisia fragrans, which looks and smells nothing like Gardenia, is still relatively easy to bring into bloom, and the blooms smell good enough. All three of the above substitutes also have going for them that they'll continue to bloom for a good long while, once they've started, if care is consistent.
If you've already bought one: Gardenias like cool nights for setting buds, so aim for low temperatures in the 50s F (10-15C). Do anything you can to keep the plant out of hot, dry air, as well, as this will stress the plant and encourage spider mites. Don't let plants dry out completely, either. Plants will also usually benefit from spending the summer outdoors, if you have a semi-protected spot you can keep the plant in where it won't sit in the sun cooking to death. See also the Gardenia jasminoides profile.

Juniperus sp. bonsai, other bonsai (juniper, fukien tea, elm, Japanese maple, box, etc.)

Why you would want one: they look like adorable little trees, they're Asian-feeling, you have action figures that would look perfect sitting next to a miniature tree.
Why you shouldn't get it: Juniperus in particular needs much cooler winter temperatures than most houseplants, and won't survive a winter indoors with central heating. Other types of bonsai tend to be extremely touchy about heat and drought. There's also a lot of precise work involved in keeping the plant miniaturized: they want to be full-sized trees, and are only miniature because they're being deprived of root space and fertilizer, and keeping them in line is something of a job.
What to buy instead: some varieties of Ficus, especially F. benjamina 'Too Little' and F. microcarpa, are used as bonsai specimens, but are more resilient and accommodating than most species used as bonsai. 'Too Little' is genetically inclined to grow tiny, bonsai-scale leaves, even when it's not being treated like a bonsai, and consequently is easier to maintain as a miniature tree. Polyscias fruticosa and Crassula ovata maintain a treelike form as they grow, branching spontaneously and forming woody trunks (Crassula ovata is occasionally a legitimate bonsai subject.). Polyscias fruticosa also tends to develop gnarled, bonsai-like forms over time. Araucaria heterophylla doesn't do a very good pine impression, and eventually gets very large, but if you're looking for a houseplant conifer, it may be as close as you're going to get, as a beginner.
If you've already bought one: depends on the species. I recommend Googling for your particular species ("common bonsai subjects," maybe?), or else (if it was sold without an ID tag, as will usually be the case) locating a dedicated bonsai forum of some kind, where you can get advice specific to your plant.

Lithops spp. (living stones)

Why you would want one: the weirdness of a plant pretending to be a couple pebbles, or the novelty of a plant with windows in its leaves, or just the all-around freakyness of the thing.
Why you shouldn't get it: watering is tricky, and they demand a lot of light.
What to buy instead: Astrophytum species of cacti, especially A. myriostigma, sort of resemble oddly symmetrical rocks. They're a little touchy about overwatering, too, but not to the same degree. Senecio rowleyanus resembles green beads on a string, and portions of the leaves are translucent. Quite a few Haworthia species, though not all of them, have "windows" at the tips of their leaves, though the resemblance to pebbles is debatable. Pachyphytum spp. look like small piles of pebbles, to varying degrees.
If you've already bought one: give it as much light as you possibly can, and give it water only 1) when it looks like it's shriveling up, and 2) in late August. Otherwise, not even a drop, you hear me? When you do water, don't feel compelled to drench the soil, either. Less is definitely more in this case.

Ravenea rivularis. (majesty palm)

Why you would want one: you're looking for a palm, and it's big and cheap. (The one in the photo is an unusually small specimen.)
Why you shouldn't get it: they're all but impossible to grow indoors in a long-term way. The reason it's so big and cheap is that in Florida or wherever they're being produced, they grow very, very fast, so there's less time invested in a majesty palm than in most of the others, which means less fertilizer, less water, less pesticide, etc. The down side is that although they grow very well in an outdoor tropical climate, indoors they completely suck balls.
What to buy instead: kentia palms, Howea forsteriana, tend to be outrageously priced when one even manages to find one, but people rave about them being incredibly good plants. I've never had the pleasure of growing one, though, so don't know whether I agree. WCW used to talk up the spindle palm, Hyophorbe verschaffeltii, as being a very good indoor palm, but I've never tried that either, and again, they tend to be pricey. I'm personally partial to lady palms, Rhapis excelsa, though they lack the arching, finely-divided fronds of Ravenea and are slow growers and therefore expensive. If it's just the general V-shape you're into, Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' is widely available, cheap, and has a certain palminess to it, as do the various cultivars of Dracaena deremensis ('Warneckei,' 'Lemon-Lime,' 'Janet Craig,' 'Limelight,' 'Art,' and so forth), Ficus maclellandii, and Yucca guatemalensis. Strelitzia nicolai, the white bird of paradise, does a decent job of signifying tropical, and is usually not that expensive, though they're very big and need a lot of light to do well.
If you've already bought one: don't get too attached, monitor for spider mites, and give it as much light, heat, and humidity as you can manage. Ravenea would probably also benefit from spending summers outside in a semi-shady spot, though they're extremely thirsty, so make sure to keep it watered.

Selaginella kraussiana cv. (shown) and other Selaginella spp. (spikemoss, clubmoss)

Why you would want one: delicate, finely-divided foliage, sometimes with a deep red underside (S. erythropus) or iridescent blue sheen (S. uncinata).
Why you shouldn't get it: they're unforgiving of low humidity, over- and underwatering.
What to buy instead: there aren't a lot of alternatives for this one either. I like some of the Davallias (rabbit's-foot ferns) for delicate, finely-divided foliage, and at least one of mine (D. tyermanii) has a slight blue tinge to it. Crassula muscosa has a similar texture and is easier care when properly established, though a lot of the plants sold seem to be sold before they've rooted completely, which makes them somewhat difficult. Pilea depressa lacks the color and is not as fine-textured, but it's still in that same small-leaved creeping category.
If you've already bought one: get a terrarium and plant Selaginella in it. You'll both be much happier.

Don't start with these either:

Adiantum spp. (maidenhair fern)
Asplenium nidus / antiquum (bird's-nest fern)
Caladium spp. (angel wings)
Citrus / Fortunella / etc. (citrus, lemon, orange, lime, kumquat)
Codiaeum variegatum (croton)
Cyclamen persicum (florists' cyclamen)
Fenestraria rhopalophylla (baby toes)
Hedera helix (English ivy)
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (hibiscus)
Jasminum sambac (jasmine)
Kalanchoe blossfeldiana (flaming Katy, kalanchoe)
Maranta leuconeura cvv. (prayer plant, rabbit tracks)
Nepenthes spp. (pitcher plant)
Oxalis triangularis ("shamrock")
Rhododendron cvv. (azalea)
Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary)
Soleirolia soleirolii (baby tears)
Streptocarpus cvv. (cape primrose)
Stromanthe sanguinea cvv.
tree ferns (Blechnum, Cyathea, Dicksonia, Cibotium)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pretty pictures: Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cvv.

Today (Tuesday), I may be getting rid of some of my duplicate plants, in a semi-wholesale kind of way, but I'm writing this on Monday night and so I don't know whether it's going to happen or not. If it does happen, then I get money and space, both of which would be really pleasant things to have, but if it doesn't, then I'm stuck here being depressed and irritable and questioning my life decisions all day. I may know which it will be by about noon (my time).

(UPDATE: Turns out to be something in between. A little more money, a little more space, and I'm not complaining, though neither am I pricing gold-plated dog dishes for Sheba. I'm not rocking back and forth with my head in my hands, asking myself where it all went wrong either, so we'll call it a success.)

The Hibiscus photos don't really have anything to do with that, but I'm preoccupied and don't have a lot of creative focus available for writing, and these were available, so.

They date from our last trip to Cedar Rapids, except for the last photo:

My own personal Hibiscuses made it through the winter intact, or mostly intact, though it wasn't really a fun experience for any of us. They may be twice as pretty as anything else I have, but they're only good for about half the year. The rest of the time, they're dormant or covered in spider mites or whatever. So it's a wash. I'm not going to get rid of the two I have, but I'm not going to try to get more. I think.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Stupid Plant Tricks: Dracaena fragrans

The husband had a large Dracaena fragrans when we met, not quite eight years ago. Over time, it grew, as plants will. By last year, when we were getting ready to move to the new house, it had gotten tall enough that it was hitting the apartment ceiling, so we cut it back, and threw the top into a vase of water, to be planted later, once things were no longer quite so crazy.

Over a year later, we have a four foot (1.2 m) tall corn plant growing in a vase of water. It's not entirely happy with the situation -- there has been some chlorosis, probably because tap water doesn't have enough iron and/or magnesium to keep it going. I've recently added tiny amounts of N-P-K fertilizer, epsom salts (for magnesium and sulfur), and a trace element supplement for outdoor trees that contains iron, copper, manganese and zinc, and things seem to be getting better, but really the point is not so much whether one can grow a perfect Dracaena fragrans in water for more than a year, but that one can grow one in water at all.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened here; the previous time we moved, a Yucca guatemalensis got cut back and was also temporarily placed in water. That one got planted up within a few months, though. I'm pretty sure.

Now that I've posted about this, I'll probably give the Dracaena soil relatively soon, but I figured it was worth letting people know that Dracaena "lucky bamboo" sanderiana isn't the only Dracaena one can grow in water. I can't imagine why anyone would need to know this, but if you've wondered, well, now you know.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pretty picture: Beallara Marfitch 'Howard's Dream'

Not my favorite orchid picture, but it's one of my favorite orchids.

I don't know why people would, knowing that people are going to be photographing the orchids, set up a black and white grid as the background. No good can come of this; it's just going to mess with people's eyes as they look at the flowers. And that goes triple for a flower that's already this dark -- may as well light it with a pink strobe and have the whole display spinning around, as put it in front of a black and white grid.

*sigh* But I am not bitter.

I've seen this particular plant before, at work, and am surprised at how much darker this flower is than those were. I don't know if this is due to cultural differences, or normal variation between flowers, mislabeling, or what, but it's a pretty drastic difference. I very much prefer the work flower to the orchid-show flower, because of the spots. (And the photography was better, too, as far as that goes.)

The 'Howard's Dream' from work.

They both have nice qualities, though. The dark purple in the top photo is a nice color, and I kind of like the shape better. So, you know. Whatever.