Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday morning Sheba and/or Nina picture

I was taking the picture for the weed (prickly lettuce / Lactuca serriola? Sonchus asper?), but Sheba jumped in there as I was doing so. It's not a particularly good picture of either one of them, but she had a nice facial expression, I thought.

Friday, October 29, 2010

New plant: Polyscias fruticosa 'Snowflake'

This particular October has just not been my month at all, and we're mildly stressed at the moment, here in the Subjunctive Botanical Gardens, so today all you get is a picture of one of the recent new plants, a Polyscias fruticosa 'Snowflake.' It's not new new, but it's from October, at least.

In case you're worried: this is a good stress. It could lead to nice stuff later on. Nobody's sick; nothing in particular has changed. But expect posts like this at least through Sunday. I don't have time for anything else.

Also: it's not like I'm trying to tease. I'll tell you when I can tell you.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pretty picture: Laeliocattleya Fire Dance 'Patricia'

I really like this one. Possibly it's the color. Most of the photos from Google show flowers that are more orange and less red than this, but it wouldn't be the first time a particular orchid specimen was different from the way the variety normally looks, due to differences in care or whatever. And the lighting was, as I've noted before, bad that day.

I had this identified as Rhynchosophrocattleya Firedance 'Patricia' originally, and that's still what the file name says, but looking around for information on it, I got hits for Lc. Fire Dance 'Patricia' instead. A lot of the orchids at the show were mislabeled in subtle ways (letters transposed, things spelled as two words instead of one or vice-versa, obsolete names), so this is presumably an example of that, but I don't know which name is wrong in this case. Doesn't really matter, though. It's a pretty flower. Makes me happy to look at it. That's good enough.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Funeral Plants, part II (for the recipients)

So you've lost a loved one recently, and everything for the past couple weeks has been kind of a blur, and you're only just now cluing in to the fact that you've got a plant in your home that wasn't there before, and you're wondering what you're supposed to be doing to take care of it.

We'll get to that, but first let me just say I am genuinely sorry. Not that I know you, not that I knew them, but still. Everybody pretty much agrees that death is confusing and painful and hard. The universe is often appallingly stupid that way. I can't do much about this except sympathize, which I do, and help you deal with the plant, which I will. So.

Often, florists place plants in plastic-lined baskets, or wrap the pot in colored foil. The purpose is to make the plant more attractive by hiding the plain plastic pot the plants are grown in, and catch any water that drains out of the plant when it is watered, so it doesn't wet carpet or tabletops or whatever. However, this is a very bad thing for the long-term health of the plant. If your plant is in foil, remove the foil and throw it away. Plastic plant saucers are available to protect carpet or furniture, if you need them, or you can use a plate or a plastic lid or whatever. (I use plant saucers at home.)

If your plant is in a plastic-lined basket, you can either remove the basket (my preference) or place something (like a brick) in the bottom of the basket to raise the pot up, so that when you water the plant, it won't have to stand in the water that drains out. The latter is probably a temporary solution: usually the plastic is pretty flimsy, and tears sooner or later, and then the water leaks out anyway.

The reason this is important is, although all plants need water, the roots also need oxygen. The soil of a plant that stands in water will be waterlogged, which prevents air from reaching the roots. If the roots die because they're too wet, then they can't take up water for the rest of the plant, which means that the rest of the plant also dies, sooner or later. (Worse: when the roots die back and the plant is unable to take up more water, the plant often wilts, which a lot of people think means that the plant is too dry, so then they dump more water in.)

Gift plants may also be planted in decorative pots lacking drainage holes; if you receive such a plant, you need to repot it into a pot that can drain. (There are plenty of attractive options with drainage holes out there.) It's technically possible to grow plants successfully in pots that lack drainage holes, but it's much harder to know how much water you're adding and how much is there already, so it's very easy to overwater and end up with a waterlogged plant.

For anything after this, it becomes important to know what plant(s) you have. Florists tend to use the same things over and over as condolence plants, leaning heavily on those of a certain size, usually with rounded leaves (sharp, pointy, jagged shapes are apparently considered unsettling), and a shape that isn't too unusual or dramatic. Normally, it's a single kind of plant, but occasionally dish gardens, with multiple plant species potted together, may be sent. Since there's such heavy reliance on the same plants over and over again, there's a pretty good chance that I can guess what you have without having to see it. Here are the usual suspects.

Peace lily (Spathiphyllum cv.)

Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum cvv.) are the king of condolence plants, I suspect mainly because of their common name. Plants vary in size and color but always have white flowers, held above the tops of the leaves. Read about how to take care of peace lilies at the Spathiphyllum cvv. profile.

Rubber tree (Ficus elastica 'Burgundy')

The other very common condolence plant in my personal experience is the rubber tree, Ficus elastica, particularly the variety 'Burgundy,' which is actually nearly black. Read about how to take care of rubber trees at the Ficus elastica profile.

Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema 'Peacock')

Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema cvv.) have fairly large leaves, patterned in varying shades of gray, silver, and green. There are many varieties, which differ in size, color, or patterning. A few new varieties are being introduced which have pink, red, orange, or yellow in the leaves as well, though the green/gray varieties are still much more common. Read about how to take care of Chinese evergreens at the Aglaonema cvv. profile.

Dumb cane (Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Marianne')

Dumb canes, or dieffenbachias (Dieffenbachia spp.) are similar to Chinese evergreens, but tend to be white or yellow where a Chinese evergreen would be gray or silver. They are also poisonous, and are not a good choice if you have pets or children who might chew on the leaves by accident. Read about how to take care of dieffenbachias at Part II of the Dieffenbachia cvv. profile, and learn about their toxicity and history in Part I.

Croton (Codiaeum variegatum 'Petra?'

Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) are very diverse. Leaves can be nearly any color (red, orange, yellow, green, dark purple, white) and shape ("leaf-shaped," long and skinny, nearly round, threadlike), with spots and streaks all over. They can be kept as long-term houseplants, but they're more demanding than the others on the list. Read about how to take care of crotons at the Codiaeum variegatum profile.

Pothos (Epipremnum aureum 'N'Joy')

Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is an atypical funeral plant; florists usually stay away from trailing plants for these situations, because of the possibility that the vines will be stepped on. One sometimes sees specimens that have been trained to climb a post in the center of the pot, though, and it's a common addition to group plantings. Pothos is a very robust indoor plant that does well for most people. Several varieties are available, with white, gray, or yellow variegation. Read about how to take care of pothos at the Epipremnum aureum profile.

Small specimens of the above plants are also frequently used in mixed containers. Some other common small plants for dish gardens are below.

English ivy (Hedera helix)

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a trailing plant that I haven't written about much yet. I don't have a lot of experience with this plant, because what experience I have is pretty uniformly bad. Does best in a cool, humid spot with bright light but no direct sun. They're sensitive to dry soil, so don't let them get overly dry. English ivy is also very prone to spider mite infestations.

Heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum)

Heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum) is another trailer. It looks a lot like pothos, but they really are different. I have written a post about how to tell the difference between heart-leaf philodendron and pothos here, and the profile for Philodendron hederaceum is here.

Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)

Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans) is another plant I haven't written about very much, due to bad experiences with them. Care is basically the same as for English ivy, but unlike English ivy, they prefer warmer temperatures.

Arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum)

Arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum) will eventually trail, but the plants used in dish gardens are usually small juvenile plants, which have an upright habit. The Syngonium podophyllum profile is here.

Baby rubber plant (Peperomia obtusifolia 'Gold Coast')

Baby rubber plant (Peperomia obtusifolia) is a plant I actually like, but haven't written about yet. They do best with some direct sun, but will survive fine in bright indirect light (the variegation may not be as intense, though). Let them get fairly dry between thorough waterings. Plants will suffer if exposed to extreme temperatures (above 90F/32C or below 60F/16C). Despite the name, they are a different species from rubber trees, and aren't actually "baby" anything: that's a full-grown, if young, plant in the picture.

Madagascar dragon tree (Dracaena marginata 'Tarzan')

Madagascar dragon tree (Dracaena marginata) is a very common dish garden plant, which I talk about in its profile.

Ribbon dracaena (Dracaena sanderiana)

Ribbon dracaena (Dracaena sanderiana) is the same species as "lucky bamboo," but the variety used in dish gardens is almost always variegated. I find them hard to kill, and also hard to make interesting or attractive, as a separate plant. The profile for Dracaena sanderiana is here.

Nerve plant (Fittonia albivenis)

Nerve plant (Fittonia albivenis) is a small, attractive plant with veins that can be white, pink, or red. They shouldn't be allowed to dry out (they'll wilt dramatically, but will revive if watered -- most of the time), and prefer high humidity. Some sun is okay, but they're happy with bright indirect light too. Temperatures should always be at or above 60F/16C. Fittonias are easiest to grow in terrariums. The profile for Fittonia albivenis is here.

Pineapple dracaena (Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig Compacta')

Pineapple dracaena (Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig Compacta'), like all of the Dracaena deremensis varieties, is a tough plant that handles neglect well. Though 'Janet Craig' is a different, larger variety, most of what is said in the Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig' profile also applies to 'Janet Craig Compacta.'

Friendship plant (Pilea involucrata 'Norfolk?')

Friendship plant (Pilea involucrata) is much like Fittonia -- it would be happier in a terrarium, though if you water when the soil is moderately dry and give it decent light (bright, but not necessarily sun), and keep the temperature above 60F/16C, it's fairly easy to grow.

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura 'Marisela')

Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura cvv.) is so named because the leaves change position during the day: they're horizontal during the day and vertical at night. See the Maranta leuconeura erythroneura profile here.

Polka-dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Polka-dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) is a fast-growing, weedy plant with leaves covered in white, pink, or red polka dots, hence the name. It needs a lot of maintenance but isn't hard to keep alive. The Hypoestes phyllostachya profile is here.

Umbrella tree (Schefflera arboricola)

Umbrella tree refers to two different species in the genus Schefflera, but only S. arboricola is a common dish garden plant. Some varieties have white or yellow variegation. They do best when allowed to get almost completely dry between thorough waterings, and should be kept above 50F/10C. Scheffleras are prone to spider mites, particularly if grown in direct sun in a room with dry air; they don't mind bright indirect light, though.

If you have received a plant you are unable to identify from this list, I'll do my best to identify it and direct you to good care information if you can e-mail me a photo at (remove the three 7s from the address first; they're there to foil spambots).

You may also wish to read:
Funeral Plants, part I (for the senders)
The Ten Houseplant Commandments: covers most of the basic mistakes people make with houseplants.
Repotting Questions (With Answers!) Part I and II: covers how, when, and why to repot.
How Often Should I Water This?: about watering plants on a strict schedule, and why you shouldn't do it.
Caring For Unknown Tropical Plants: what to do with houseplants you can't identify.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Random plant event: Philodendron gloriosum sprouts

My experience with Philodendron gloriosum indoors has been extremely mixed, so far, and the main problem has been repotting.

Philodendron gloriosum.

You see, P. gloriosum doesn't want to form a neat little rosette of leaves like 'Moonlight' or find a tree to climb like P. erubescens 'Red Emerald.' It doesn't form a self-supporting trunk, either, like P. bipinnatifidum. What gloriosum wants to do is crawl along the ground. Which is fine, except that it has thick, woody stems, and when the stems crawl to the edge of the pot, they make a right-angle turn straight down, over the rim, and won't bend to accommodate a wider pot.

I repotted my plant once when I first got it, but then it stayed in the same 8-inch pot for two years because I didn't know how to deal with the stems that were going over the rim. I don't know what I hoped to accomplish by putting it off, but it didn't work -- the plant didn't magically repot itself, and it didn't take the problem away from me by dying, so I had to do something.

So on July 19, I finally bit the bullet and cut the stems back so I could move the plant into a bigger pot. The plant has responded to the repotting by growing a huge new leaf1 from one of the stems I didn't have to cut, and the cut stems are sprouting new growing tips, though very slowly. But, I also had three pieces of stem left over. I cut most of them back, leaving just 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) of stem at the end, and tried rooting those in water. They didn't die, and one actually grew something that looked like maybe the beginnings of some roots --

-- but that died before it got anywhere (the potential roots died, not the cutting), so I eventually gave up, planted the cuttings in potting soil, and we'll see how that goes. It's not looking good so far.

But none of this is the point of my post! The point of my post is that, after I cut off the pieces so I could repot the plant, and then cut off all but the tips of those pieces to try to root them in water, I had some pieces of stem left over. Which I put in moist vermiculite, because vermiculite is magic, covered the container and put it on the back of a fluorescent light (for the bottom heat). It's taken forever to do anything visible, but two of the three canes have finally produced some sprouts:

So it may be propagatable after all, which pleases me, though it's a strange plant to have indoors, all the same. The stem producing the big leaves is twisting under its own weight, the plant never looks particularly full, it's mildly prone to spider mites (though that hasn't been a problem for a long time), and you have to hack it apart to repot it. On the other hand, the leaves are very pretty (a dark velvety green that doesn't photograph well, with reddish veins in strong light and white ones in less light), it seems to tolerate indoor conditions well, and it appears to be propagatable, if very slowly. I like mine, but I'm not sure I would recommend one to everybody. Does anybody else have experience with this plant? What would you say about it?


1 I tried to get pictures, but it was late, and the light wouldn't have been great as a result, and I didn't have a good place to set up the backdrop. I used to do this in the basement, but the basement is presently unusable for anything plant-related, because the husband has been waterproofing and insulating the walls down there since the basement flood three months ago. Also, setting up anywhere else in the house is sort of a problem because everything that got moved out of the basement wound up in the rest of the house, which means not as much room as there might be. I am assured that the basement will be usable again one day, and on my better days, I even believe this might be true.
In any case, the leaf truly is big: something on the order of 12-13 inches long (30-33 cm) by about 7-8 inches wide (18-20 cm).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Animal: Ambystoma tigrinum?

(Note: Whoops. Neglected to notice that I scheduled this post for PM, not AM, until I checked the blog this morning and found it wasn't there. Apologies.)

Took Sheba outside to play fetch with the tennis ball on Saturday morning, and this was sitting next to the garage, on the pavement:

What ensued was probably funny, if you weren't me, as I then had to simultaneously keep Sheba from noticing/bothering the poor thing, while also going inside to get the camera, and then once I got the camera, I was trying to throw the ball for Sheba to keep her occupied while taking pictures, which would have worked better had the ball not gone under the fence. (The fence on one side of the back yard has a gap at the bottom, which seems to be growing, through which a lot of tennis balls have vanished.) So there was a lot of one-handed throwing and photographing and getting confused about which I was supposed to be doing at which moment.

Anyway. I knew it was a salamander of some kind, and I knew Iowa had salamanders in theory, but this was the first one I'd seen in years, possibly decades, and so I wasn't up on my Iowa salamander species at all. Research once I got inside leads me to the conclusion that it's most likely a tiger salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum. Most of the A. tigrinum photos I've found show a lot more yellow and a lot less black, but it's still the only Iowa native salamander of the right size and color, so it's as solid of an identification as I can come up with.

I got a dozen or so pictures and then left to get a replacement ball for Sheba, and when I came back out, the salamander was crawling towards the car. I didn't want it to go under the car, so I picked it up and put it back down under the pineapple sage plants, on the theory that this would be a fairly protected spot for it to dig itself a burrow and hibernate. Subsequent reading makes me think that it probably crawled back out and continued on in the same direction after I'd left, but oh well. I tried.

Picking it up was a weirdly familiar experience. When I was a kid, Mom and Dad bought me a Creepy Crawlers Bug Maker at some point, which was roughly the boy version of the Easy-Bake Oven: it came with a number of plastic molds, an "oven" that was heated by a lightbulb, and a bunch of different colors of liquid goop. One poured the goop into the mold, heated it in the oven for the prescribed amount of time, and then pulled out a harder, but still pretty wet and flexible, animal-shaped piece of plastic. I don't remember doing very much of this, but I do remember the way the things felt when they'd cooled off: very much like a tiger salamander. (Though the salamander didn't jiggle, as the Creepy Crawlers did.) Both are slightly sticky, like paint that's almost dried but not quite, and also cool to the touch. Not slimy or anything. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling.

The weird thing is that I hadn't thought of Creepy Crawlers in many many years, but touching the salamander brought it all back immediately. I looked it up on-line in the course of writing this post, and Creepy Crawlers still exist, but according to the Amazon reviews there's no lightbulb included, and it uses a strange size and type (a 60W candelabra bulb or a 100W candelabra bulb, depending on the review); the oven is kind of cheaply made and tends to break; and the bugs smell bad while they cook. Plus they seem very expensive ($45), though that might be more a case of me not knowing what toys cost these days.

Tiger salamanders can apparently also be kept as pets, though I wonder how satisfying they could be, since the site linked above says they spend most of their time underground in burrows. (Nina may not be the world's most active and exciting pet, but at least when she moves around, she does it above ground where I can see her do it.) On the plus side, they can live to be 25 years old, which is impressive, and they can at least learn to the extent that they can get excited when they know they're about to be fed. I've had pets that gave me less.

I'm sort of especially happy to see a salamander here, because they apparently have very sensitive skin, and absorb chemicals through the skin easily. If we have salamanders here, then the environmental situation must not be too terrible. At least, not in our back yard specifically. This is encouraging.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pretty pictures: Aeschynanthus speciosus

Yet again, I had a different post planned for today, but not enough time to do the photos and graphics that would have to go with it. This is starting to become a problem.

So instead we have these lovely Aeschynanthus speciosus flower pictures, which are not especially timely (the show is pretty much over; these pictures were from early September), but they're new as far as the blog is concerned, so there you go.

This isn't the first time it's bloomed for me, but this year's display was bigger and more impressive than the previous two years'; with any luck, next year will be prettier still.