Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday morning Sheba and/or Nina picture

Sheba got to go to the vet again this week, for various vaccinations and a heartworm test (negative, naturally). She did not like having to wear a muzzle, or having things stuck in her ears, but that was true last time as well, and at least she's not getting worse about it, and she doesn't do anything worse than growl a lot and try to get away.

Having blood drawn (for the heartworm test) was also not fun for anyone in the room. She didn't even appear to notice the injections, though.

Sheba's also holding steady at about 50 pounds / 23 kg since the visit in August. (She was 45 lb. / 20 kg on the paperwork from the shelter a year ago, but she'd been a stray for an unknown length of time before that, so a gain of 5 lb. didn't upset anybody.)

So all of that is good.

She also got to ride in the front of a U-Haul on Wednesday (long story: maybe later), which I think actually freaked her out -- she was panting hard and trembling for the whole trip. She was fine afterward, so I think she was maybe just unsettled by the noise and the jostling.

Meanwhile, Nina's special UV-generating light bulb went out this week, which I wouldn't mind so much except it's a compact fluorescent and aren't those supposed to last for, like, a billion years or something? I've only had it for three, I think.

Which I suppose is still good for a light bulb that's on every day, fifteen hours a day, 365 days a year, but it was also like a $20 light bulb. I kind of expected more.

For now, until we can get back to the pet store to buy a replacement, Nina has a lower-wattage regular compact fluorescent, which makes everything in the terrarium look annoyingly orange and dim. Like John Boehner.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Random plant event: Nematanthus Pollination Achievement Unlocked!

Or at least I'm pretty sure that's what's happened here; the base of the flower (or where the flower used to be; I'm a little unclear on the official botanical terminology for this one) is turning orange (otherwise they're the same green as the stems), and it looks like a "live" color, not a "dead" one.

The female parent is an orange-flowering, large-leafed variety I've never had a name for, and the male parent is 'Tropicana.' I have no idea how long to expect this to take, or what to do with the seeds once I have them, but I expect there's still time to do the research on that. Several of the flowers are doing this, and hopefully I accomplished the reverse cross (female 'Tropicana,' male orange) as of yesterday, so I should have no shortage of seeds to experiment with, knock wood.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

In Which I Lose All Respect for the Burgess Seed and Plant Co. of Bloomington, IL

The husband gets some outdoor gardening catalogs, which is a long story.

The two we've gotten so far (Gurney's and Burgess) each have a single page devoted to house plants, which in Gurney's case seems to mean mostly citrus and bananas. The Burgess catalog, though, is a little more experimental, and includes (in addition to the citrus and bananas) a few weirder things, like a yellow Schlumbergera, a Stapelia, and a Billbergia. And then we have this:

There are many, many things wrong with this ad, but I suppose one has to begin the critique with the observation that the plant in the illustration is not a prayer plant. I see a vague resemblance to Aphelandra squarrosa, or perhaps tobacco. I might even believe Aglaonema. But there's nothing called "prayer plant" that looks anything like this picture.

Unlike the descriptions of the Schlumbergera, Stapelia, and Billbergia, there's no botanical name included in the description, but the most likely plant being offered, if they're calling it a "prayer plant," would be a Maranta leuconeura: there are several varieties of those, and it's a little obnoxious that they don't tell you which one you're getting, but that's probably at least the species. It's not the only possibility, though: other plants in the Marantaceae also raise and lower their leaves, and a couple Calatheas were also called "prayer plants" in the database. (Also, the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica, folds up its leaves at night and is therefore a remote possibility, though I've never seen it called a prayer plant.)

"Large, variegated, and several lovely shades of green" is about as useless of a description as I could imagine:

  • That the greens are "lovely" tells you exactly jack and shit.
  • "Large" isn't quantified, though if you were going by the illustration, I suppose you'd deduce that the leaves are about the size of a child's head, which is what, like, ten inches (25 cm) long? Give or take?
  • "Variegated" means at least two colors, so "variegated" plus "several shades of green" is redundant and uninformative.
There's no way a person could deduce from the description and illustration that a Maranta is what's being offered, unless one knew about Marantas first.

The word "mystifying," in this context, gives me a sharp, stabbing pain behind my left eye. Or at least it did until I read the definition of "mystify," which is:
1. to perplex (a person) by playing upon the person's credulity; bewilder purposely. 2. to involve in mystery or obscurity.
These are, of course, exactly the things being done by the catalog.

(It's not a mystery, by the way. We know what's going on. As mentioned in the profile for Maranta leuconeura, the raising and lowering of the leaves are accomplished by the plant pumping water into, then out of, specialized structures at the base of the petioles, in response to changes in the amount or color of the light. I mean, there's no shame in being mystified when you first hear about it, but if you let it stop there. . . .)

"In the solitude of evening" is also problematic, if you try to figure out what it means. The plant will only raise its leaves if there are no people nearby? Evenings are solitary? I suppose that's technically true, in the sense that you never have more than one evening happening simultaneously -- there are no gangs of evenings roaming the streets of Los Angeles or anything -- but "solitude" is meaningless in this context. Which I could forgive if it were evocative or poetic, but it's the sort of cliche that belongs in angsty 14-year-olds' poetry and Nine Inch Nails lyrics (But I repeat myself!), not in gardening catalogs.

"Thrives anywhere" is of course not true for any plant, which sort of calls into question "you'll receive strong, well-established plants" as well.

And then there's the weirdness of the little girl praying to the plant. I mean, I know that it's not supposed to be the girl praying to the plant. It's supposed to be a rebus. Prayer + plant = Prayer plant. But still. It's a little girl praying to a plant.

"Screw your 'Jesus,' mother! This Ficus is my god now!"

All of which, taken together, raises the question: why? It's not like it's hard to get a picture of a plant, in these days of digital photography. I could see it, maybe, if this were a case where the original illustration's just getting copied over from year to year, but you would think that at some point, someone would have pointed out that this isn't a very accurate picture of the product, and that better illustrations would be easily and cheaply available. Like, maybe a customer might have said something about expecting a plant with child-head-sized leaves and not getting one. It just seems dumb, to misrepresent your product like this. Hell, it's not even an attractive picture of the plant in question. It'd be understandable (if not forgivable) if it were an unrealistic illustration that made the plant look better than it is. But, y'know, this is a Maranta:

Tell me that isn't a better-looking plant than Burgess' green-brown Aphelandra-tobacco thing.

This picture makes me even more wary of ordering anything from Burgess than I would have been anyway. Sure, the blue spruce looks blue (practically cobalt, actually -- subtlety, thy name is not Burgess Seed and Plant Co.), but how do I know what color it really is, if they're going to pull crap like this with the prayer plant?

And then I saw their "3-in-1 angel trumpet," which looked . . . troubling, in a way I couldn't quite pin down. All I could tell was, some amateurish photo manipulation had happened, but it wasn't clear exactly what. So I took pictures of the catalog, uploaded one to the computer to use for this blog post, and was cropping and adjusting the color and all that when I figured out how I knew it was photoshopped.

Not only is it really unrealistic that a plant like this could produce three different colors of blooms, evenly distributed, all over the plant (it's surely got to be grafted, right? So there's a white branch, and a yellow branch, and a peach branch, but not white, yellow, and peach flowers arising from any one particular branch. Either that or the flowers change color with age, which is probably a much less dramatic color change than peach to yellow to white), and not only are the flowers never overlapped by leaves, yet often obscured by one another, but many of the flowers are exact copies of one other.

You'll probably have to open this in a separate window to see that they're duplicated. I've helpfully circled some sets of copies. In the gray-circled and pink-circled sets, they've tried to disguise the copying by making some of them mirror images.

Deception is bad enough, but this is incredibly lazy deception.

So, in conclusion: not if you were the last plant-related business on earth, Burgess. Not if you were the last plant-related business on earth.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Unfinished business: Aeschynanthus NOID true flowers

The first true flowers on the recently-purchased NOID Aeschynanthus have appeared. Worth the wait.

Sadly, there are no other blooming Aeschynanthus at the moment, so there's no chance of crossing the plant, but the A. longicaulis is budding now, so maybe later.

(I'm not counting on that, though, because I've been trying fairly diligently to cross the Saintpaulias lately, and so far it doesn't seem to be working: I get pollen on the stigma, time passes, the flowers die, the flower stalks wither, and that is that. I don't know what I'm doing wrong.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Black Sheep (Dracaena surculosa)

Dracaena surculosa -- often still referred to by the now-obsolete name D. godseffiana1 -- is not my favorite plant. I have one, though, since January 2007. During that period of time, my specimen has been kind of trashy-looking and lacking in redeeming qualities, as have most of the others I've seen. Plus, they're everywhere: grocery stores, garden centers, big box stores. Inescapable.

The only "person" I could come up with who ticked all the relevant boxes -- trashy, ubiquitous, without redeeming qualities -- was Ke$ha,2 but after a little research, I decided that whatever the plant had done to me, it didn't deserve being compared to Ke$ha.3 So instead, "Black Sheep." This is a reference to the un-Dracaena-like growth habit: instead of a strong central stem with a dense fountain of attached leaves at the top, as is typical for the genus, D. surculosa has long stretches of bare stem, punctuated at intervals by whorls of two to five short, leaf-shaped leaves.4 The leaves are covered in yellow dots, which turn white with age, giving the plant its common name, the "gold-dust plant" or "gold-dust dracaena."

A more or less typical whorl of leaves -- IN 3-D! (To see in 3-D, you have to sort of let your eyes cross so the images overlap. Like one of those "Magic Eye" pictures that were so popular however long ago that was.) Not that it's especially worth seeing in 3-D, but, you know. I'm just trying to make the experience special.

We always had some of these in the garden center when I worked there, and not once was it because we actually wanted them. Whenever we ordered an assortment of foliage plants, we got some D. surculosa in the mix (usually along with D. sanderiana, which we never wanted either). This was irritating because I don't think I ever saw a customer buy one.5 Once, I tried to combine multiple 3-inch pots to create really dense 6-inch (15 cm) pots, on the theory that perhaps the small pots weren't selling because they looked too sparse and weird. Nobody bought the 6-inch pots either, though.

Why did customers shun this plant? My suspicion is that most of them thought it was the same thing as the gold-dust croton, Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold Dust,' which likewise has lots of yellow dots on leaf-shaped6 green leaves. PATSP readers probably wouldn't make that mistake, because we pay attention to these sorts of things, but if you were a regular non-obsessive grower of house plants, and you saw these two side by side, you'd probably assume that the Codiaeum was the better plant. The color of the dots is uniform on the croton, the leaves are evenly-distributed up and down the height of the plant instead of clumping in whorls of leaves, and there are likely more leaves overall.

Top: Dracaena surculosa. Bottom: Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold-Dust.' Yes, I know that both pictures suck. But you can tell me again if you really need to.

So even among the larger houseplant community, Dracaena surculosa is something of a ne'er-do-well. But it does have a few things going for it.

The emergence of a new D. surculosa shoot.

As sparse as a new plant may be, it will fill in. The species name "surculosa" means "suckering." New shoots will appear from beneath the soil. Plants grown outdoors,7 where they are sometimes called "Japanese bamboo," can sucker to the point of becoming a solid clump of stems several inches in diameter.

A fully-grown D. surculosa 'Punctulata.' Photo credit: Jayjayc. Used with permission.

Also, some of the cultivars aren't that bad looking. Here's 'Milky Way,' for example:

D. surculosa 'Milky Way.' Photo credit: public domain photo by Mokkie, at Wikimedia Commons.

Of the other cultivars, 'Florida Beauty' (the most prevalent cultivar in the trade, from what I've seen) has very dense yellow dots that fade with age to white. The dots can be dense enough that the center of the leaves is entirely yellow/white, though there's no clear line of demarcation like on 'Milky Way,' and light intensity influences how dense the dots are. 'Juanita' resembles 'Milky Way' but has a narrower center stripe, which is dotted in green. 'Punctulata' appears to be the type usually grown outdoors; it has both rings and dots of light green. I've never seen 'Punctulata' for sale as a houseplant.

D. surculosa 'Punctulata' close-up. Photo credit: Jayjayc. Used with permission.

In good outdoor conditions, D. surculosa can get to be about six feet (1.8 m) tall. says 'Punctulata' can reach 11.5 feet / 3.5 m outdoors, though that's apparently specific to the variety, not a general feature of the species. Indoors, you're more likely to top out at three feet (0.9 m). I have seen photos of alleged indoor-only plants which were five feet (1.5 m) tall, though, so it may just be a matter of good care and sufficient patience.

They'll also flower indoors, occasionally. This happened to me once, shortly after I got my plant.

They're not actually this yellow; in person they were basically white. There's been a photography learning curve. Also, I feel like calling your attention to the similarity between this and the flowers of the semi-related plant Sansevieria trifasciata.

The fragrance is strong, mainly nocturnal, and in my opinion not-unpleasant, though some would disagree. Glasshouse Works said at one time that the flowers smell like [model] airplane glue, which I didn't get that at all: to me it smelled like a generic perfumey floral smell.8 In any case, plants will flower more freely outdoors. Mine hasn't tried to rebloom. If the flowers are pollinated, reddish-orange berries will result.

There don't appear to be a lot of practical applications of D. surculosa, though I did find one scientific paper testing compounds isolated from the plant against human leukemia cells. Were the Journal of Natural Products not charging $35 to read the paper,9 I could even report to you about whether or not it seemed promising, but they do, so I can't.

As with most Dracaenas, surculosas are pretty easy houseplants, though there are still a few non-negotiable points to remember.

LIGHT: D. surculosa will put up with moderate indirect light but would really prefer bright indirect, or even some filtered sun. (Outdoors, I read that they can handle a few hours of direct sun, even.) Insufficient light will reduce the number and color-contrast of the spots. My personal plant has been under bright artificial light since we moved in June 2009, and accepts that as sufficient.

WATER: D. surculosa seems to prefer to be slightly wetter than other Dracaenas, but they also need a good, well-draining soil mix that permits air to reach the roots. With my personal plant, not only have I occasionally been neglectful and let the soil dry out too much between waterings (which leads to leaf drop), I also should have changed its soil some time ago. I think the delayed repotting is responsible for the chlorosis10 I've been seeing.

This, I'm aware, is also a crappy picture. The reddish/yellowish color of the leaves toward the top of the photo is mostly a side effect of the lighting, not the actual color of the plant, though some of the upper leaves do have worse chlorosis than the lower ones.

TEMPERATURE: Well, again, they're supposed to be hardy to USDA zone 9, which means a minimum winter temperature of 20F / -7C. I wouldn't bet on this indoors, though, since the other Dracaena species, which mostly come from the same part of Africa, start to show cold damage at around 55F / 13C. I wouldn't go any colder than 55F/13C.

HUMIDITY: More is nice, but dry air is well-tolerated. Extremely dry air may encourage spider mites, and one should keep all houseplants out of the path of air conditioning or heating vents, but humidity is otherwise not normally an issue.

PESTS: No pests stand out as being particular enemies of D. surculosa, but anyone growing houseplants indoors should be familiar with the signs and treatments for spider mites, scale, and mealybugs, at least.

PROPAGATION: I've never done it, personally, because my problem has historically been too many D. surculosas, but it's supposedly possible to cut off a stem, stick it in damp soil, and have it root. Mass production involves stem cuttings stuck in soil/coir or coir/sand, enclosed in plastic, out of direct sun; they're supposed to root in about 3-4 weeks. I accidentally broke a stem off of my plant in the course of writing this post, and I stuck it in damp soil but didn't cover the plant with plastic: I'll let you know what happens.

Stems are also said to root in water. Large plants may be divided or air-layered.

GROOMING: This isn't a particularly messy plant, but leaves will fall from time to time. Sometimes individual stems will die, at which point they can be broken off.

It's a slow grower, too, which may or may not be an undesirable feature for you.

FEEDING: I didn't see much in the way of specific advice about D. surculosa feeding anywhere, so I assume that using a basic houseplant fertilizer at quarter-strength with every watering should be fine. That's more than I usually suggest for Dracaenas (I feed D. deremensis or D. fragrans very lightly and infrequently: they get by fine without, and leaf tips and margins burn when the soil is too salty.11), but normal for houseplants in general.

I'm not sure how to wrap up this profile. It's easier to do a conclusion when the plants are really wonderful, or when they're really awful: something I have strong feelings about. I did learn the origin of the term "black sheep," in the course of writing this, but it doesn't really apply: black wool was worth less than white, back in 18th and 19th century England, because it couldn't be dyed. Black wool is also a recessive trait, which would pop up occasionally in flocks of otherwise white sheep. Hence, "black sheep" for a strange or shameful member of a family.

"Shameful," obviously, is a little extreme, but I can believe that the other Dracaenas might think surculosa is a little weird. And it's sort of an oddball in the retail world too, because of how it's not really, you know, good at anything except not-dying and making leaves with spots on them. I suppose the cliche that applies here is "takes all kinds."


References (some may also be linked in text): page for D. surculosa page for cv. 'Florida Beauty' page for cv. 'Juanita' page about Dracaenas in general
Photo of cv. 'Friedmannii' page about D. surculosa, including native range map page about D. surculosa, primarily as an outdoor plant
BAR Digest page about mass production of D. surculosa in the Philippines

Photo credits: My own, except as otherwise noted in the captions. The original map in footnote 7 came from and is based on information from

1 (Godseffiana is probably still more commonly used in the horticultural world, actually.)
2 And then I was like, Oh! I could make a series out of it, and do plant profiles based on Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift, or something like that. I got as far as deciding on a plant for Lady Gaga (which I may still use someday, so I'm not going to tell you what it was) before realizing that I didn't want to ruin an otherwise perfectly nice plant for myself by comparing it to Katy Perry, who I hate only slightly less than I hate Ke$ha.
3 Probably no plant deserves to be compared to Ke$ha. Or at least, not unless the comparison cuts heavily in the plant's favor. Like, I think IQ comparisons would be okay.
4 At least as compared to the other Dracaenas regularly grown as houseplants, which means D. marginata, fragrans, deremensis, sanderiana, and reflexa, plus very occasionally arborea, goldieana, and thalioides.
I looked on Google to see if I could find other Dracaena species with a habit like D. surculosa -- it's always bothered me that the taxonomists put it in the Dracaena genus when no other Dracaena looks like that -- but the more obscure species either looked just like D. deremensis or D. arborea, or there were no available photos at all. This doesn't prove that there are no other Dracaena species with widely-separated whorls of leaves, but it's, you know, Google-level proof, which is at least half a step above Wikipedia proof. (Perhaps there should be a word for Google-derived evidence, to go with "wikiposedly" for Wikipedia evidence. "Googleparently?" "Googlegedly?" "Googlestensibly?" They all scan the same as "wikiposedly." I think I lean toward "googlegedly," but I'm willing to consider arguments for other words.)
5 They did still leave the store, as part of group plantings put together by the flower shop. It's a pretty common plant for dish gardens or terrariums.
6 The actual botanical term would be lanceolate, or maybe elliptic (I'm not sure where one shades into the other), but I think "leaf-shaped" covers it pretty well.
7 Supposedly they're hardy to USDA zone 9, though I have my doubts about this. They're native to the coast of West Africa, specifically the east-west line that runs from Guinea eastward through Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon:

That doesn't seem like zone 9 kind of conditions to me, but I don't know enough about Africa to be sure that it's impossible.
8 Glasshouse Works is not, as I write this, actually selling D. surculosa, but they have in the past, which is where the airplane-glue comparison was made.
10 Chlorosis is a yellowing of leaves where the primary veins stay green. The most common cause is a micronutrienta deficiency, though not always, and there are several ways nutrient deficiencies can happen, which require different sorts of treatments. Some plants are more prone to it than others.
     a Micronutrients refer to minerals that plants require in small quantities, relative to nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (the three "macronutrients"). Iron, copper, magnesium, sulfur, and boron are all micronutrients. Fertilizers do not necessarily contain micronutrients; read the label to find out whether they do or not. Usually nutrient-deficiency chlorosis means the plant can't get enough iron, magnesium, or both for its needs.
11 "Salty" in the chemistry-class sense, where the product of any reaction between an acid and base is a "salt." I don't mean table salt, sodium chloride. Table salt is a salt, but not all salts are table salt.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Pretty picture: Anthurium 'Pandola'

Today we have two recently-produced flowers from Anthurium 'Pandola.'

I'd be talkier, but 1) I spent most of yesterday with a headache and 2) as long as I'm still capable of stringing words together, I should spend the energy trying to get the Dracaena surculosa profile together for tomorrow. (UPDATE: Done!)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

They Grow Up So Fast, Part 2

Every once in a while, I wind up looking through the photo archives for something or another, and happen upon an old photo of a plant I still have, and am surprised by how much different it looks now. It should be hard to forget that plants grow. This is, after all, much of the point of having them, and one is regularly having to repot or prune or whatever. At the same time, it's easy to forget that it's going on at any particular moment, especially with slow-growing plants, so it's nice to see the evidence occasionally.

Here are four of the most dramatic examples I've seen lately (though sadly the photo quality could be better, particularly on the Before shots):

Ficus benjamina 'Black Diamond,' January 2008. Pot: 4" / 10 cm.

I brought home some cuttings of 'Black Diamond' from work and rooted them in perlite three years ago. Now, after a couple repottings (to 6"/15 cm and then to 8"/20 cm), I'm actually starting to get a respectable-looking plant out of it:

Ficus benjamina 'Black Diamond,' January 2011. Pot: 8" / 30 cm.

Though the leaves are no longer as dark as they were. Needs more light, I suppose.

Or there's my Peperomia glabella, which has gone from a 5- or 6-inch pot (13-15 cm),

Peperomia glabella, December 2008. Pot: 5" or 6" (13-15 cm).

to an 8-inch (20 cm), though it's been cut back a few times and doesn't look as large in the below photo as it really is.

Peperomia glabella, January 2011. Pot: 8" / 30 cm.

Nematanthus NOID, February 2008. Pot: 3" / 8 cm along the diagonal.

The Nematanthus also was from cuttings I took at work. I had actually forgotten that it was ever as tiny as the photo above. Give it three years to grow out, though, and it's looking decent:

Nematanthus NOID, January 2011. Pot: 6" / 15 cm.

I was amazed to find out that I've had my Coffea arabica for four years already.

Coffea arabica, October 2007. Pot: 4" / 10 cm.

I may have to adjust the PATSP difficulty level. Granted, it's not as lush and green now as it was; there have been some problems with chlorosis, and a few of the leaves have burnt from something or another, but I've changed the fertilizer on it (Miracle Gro, with micronutrients, instead of Osmocote without), and the stupid thing's gotten six inches (15 cm) taller in a month. Hopefully I'll get regular-colored leaves again soon.

Coffea arabica, February 2011. Pot: 8" / 30 cm.

Of course, plants in my care don't always get bigger and better with time:

Adiantum capillus-veneris, December 2010. Pot: 4" / 10 cm.

I've only had the Adiantum two months, and it was in a terrarium the whole time, and I still let it get too dry once and all the fronds dried up and died. It's made a considerable comeback since then, though:

Adiantum capillus-veneris, February 2011. Pot: still 4" / 10 cm.

And obviously I'll be more careful with it now that I know.

Some plants, though, you just can't reach. I got my Radermachera sinica at the same time as the Adiantum --

Radermachera sinica, December 2010. Pot: 4" / 10 cm.

-- and it has been a complete asshole.

Radermachera sinica, February 2011. Pot: 5" / 13 cm.

The individual plants in the pot have been dying off one by one: tick, tick, tick. At this point, I don't even want the plant to recover, but I have trouble throwing out a live plant even if I wish it ill. It's sort of a win-win: either it will get itself together and be an okay-looking plant, or it'll continue to suck and I can throw it away. Never again a Radermachera, though. This was my second one; the first didn't last much longer or do much better. I fail to see the point in trying a third time. They're obviously not good plants for me to have.

However, Radermachera issues aside, mostly the plants improve with time. You'd think this would be something I could just assume by now, having as many plants as I do, but I actually do get so focused on acquiring new plants sometimes that I forget that the old ones do more than just sit there, and that I'm getting better at growing them as time goes by besides. These are nice things to be reminded of.