Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Specialists and Generalists

Two things have happened lately that have gotten me thinking about the plant collection and which plants are and are not valuable to me. One, I've been doing a lot of complaining about how much time it takes to water everything, so someone finally did the obvious thing and asked me, straight-up, whether all the plants were in fact necessary, whether I even enjoyed having them around. Two, I'm preparing to propagate some stuff for selling/trading season,1 and since in the past, I've rarely sold out of any plants I offered (last year, I think the only one I sold out of was Ledebouria socialis), I'm doing the propagation this year with an eye towards which plants I have that I might actually want to have extras of at the end of the summer. No point in having thirty pots of a plant I don't even like sitting around when October arrives, after all.

What this has done for me, then, is it's made me focus pretty hard on which plants I like and don't like, which plants are and aren't working for me. Hence Monday's anti-orchid outburst, and my new realization that I never want to own another African violet, which I hadn't told you about until now.2

I've always been fairly indiscriminate in my plant purchases: there are a few plants that have just never appealed to me,3 but of the 128 options in the Rumble Among the Jungle list, I've attempted all but 19 at one time or another, and I've never felt like specializing in any particular family, genus, or species. But I'm starting to see how that could happen. Orchids and African violets are off the table today. Maybe I decide I've had enough of ferns (which have also been having a rough year here) next week. In a couple months, I finally accept that I don't have adequate light for desert cacti. In the fall, I decide no more Hoyas because of their tendency to suddenly disintegrate for no obvious reason.4 And so on.

The question is: is this process of gradually shrinking the field of possibilities how specialists come to specialize, or do most plant specialists only ever care about one thing to begin with? And how often does it go the other direction, where a narrowly-focused African violet person dabbles in a few Episcias and Streptocarpuses, then a Pilea or two, and eventually becomes a generalist? I'm guessing generalist --> specialist is more common than specialist --> generalist, but I don't actually know.

So I submit the question to the group for anecdata. Are you a specialist or a generalist? (If a specialist: what family / genus / species?) Which direction have you been moving, over time? Could you see yourself moving from specialist to generalist, or vice-versa?5 Is specialization more common among outdoor gardeners? Etc.


1 (Look for an announcement around mid-April.)
2 Because I know there are fans of orchids and African violets reading: it's not the plants themselves, not exactly. Obviously I've found them interesting enough to buy them over and over in the past. But I cannot keep them alive here, in my current situation, and after a certain point, buying more and more of a plant you can't grow stops being admirable perseverance and becomes stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality. Also, it's tough to like a plant when all you get to do is watch one specimen after the next slowly run downhill and die, so even if my situation changed, I wouldn't try growing them again. I'm over them. (Orchids are so 2008.)
Should maybe also note that I still have three orchids and two African violets, and I don't intend to get rid of any of them unless / until it becomes obvious that they're not going to work for me either. I have a very, very difficult time discarding healthy plants, even when I don't like them. They don't even have to be that healthy.
3 Examples: Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, Opuntia spp., Lithops spp./cvv., Nephrolepis exaltata, Rhododendron cvv.
4 Which has happened again in the last couple months, this time with H. polyneura.
5I'm not likely to get a very narrow focus on any particular group of plants anytime soon; there are too many plants already here that I like and that do well for me, but if I were going to specialize, I suspect I'd focus on the genus Anthurium. For the past nine months or so, I've been crossing plants and starting seeds every time I get an opportunity to do so, to the point where the basement now holds six plastic containers of seedlings. I don't have a particularly good sense of how many individuals are actually down there right now, but I'd ballpark it at around 150.

One of the containers. This particular batch was started in November 2011, and have 'Gemini' (medium-sized red-pink spathe with yellow spadix) as the female parent. Don't know for sure who the father was, but 'Pandola' (large medium-pink spathe with medium-pink spadix) is the one I'd guess.

Odds are that all of these Anthurium mongrels are commercially worthless, but I won't know until they get old enough to bloom, around 2016. I'm going to continue to cross them and start seeds anyway, because doing so amuses me, so the possibility is there that randomly-crossed Anthuriums will make up a larger and larger proportion of my plant collection as time goes by. At the same time, I can't imagine being without Aglaonema, Dracaena, Synadenium, Schlumbergera, and half a dozen other things. (In fact, I'd probably lean more toward Aglaonema instead of Anthurium, if only they were easier to flower, cross, and germinate indoors.)

Another shot of the same container of seedlings.


Joseph said...

I am SOOOOO excited that you are breeding anthuriums! You've got such an eye for detail you'll be a genius breeder. And actually breeding house plants in a house is SO cool. All commercial breeding happens in the tropics or in greenhouses -- great for growing lovely plants, not so great for selecting for varieties that will actually thrive indoors. This thrills my socks off!

orchideya said...

Interesting topic. I think I am a specialist because I usually focus on one genus at the time until I get bored with it.
From african violets and gloxinias I moved to sprouting palm seeds, then realized how much space they take, went to adeniums, again growing from seeds. Adeniums are cool with caudexes but not much variations in blooms - just color and some are doubles - boooring. Now I am at the orchids stage and I like it. Orchids provide enough varieties to keep you interested for long time exploring new generas, trying species vs. hybrids etc.
Orchids family is so large that one can find some things to grow for any conditions, just have to experiment and not be easily discouraged.

Tom said...

I go through phases that end up making me a generalist. Right now I'm really feeling variegated leaf plants and will only buy something with flashy leaves, but before that I was super into gesneriads and BEFORE THAT it was caudiciforms (though I still love those, I just don't have the money for a nice fat caudiciform right now), and I've had other phases like bromeliads, tropical fruits, desert cacti, epiphytic cacti, and orchids. I'm beginning to feel an attraction to aroids forming and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Long Haired Lady Rider said...

At first I just had a few generic houseplants. I didn't really care much about them, I would forget to water, etc.

Then one day I bought 3 African Violets from a grocery store, despite believing that they were hard to grow. And I VERY quickly developed a specialty in gesneriads. I joined clubs and grew for show and so on (still do!).

Then I sort of somehow added 'plants with bulbs and tubers' as a second specialty, although never with the same single-mindedness that I grow gesneriads.

And where I live now has so much good growing space (large sunroom and 8 skylights) that I have 300 plants, so many of which are not gesneriads or bulbous/tuberous that I am dangerously tending towards generalization.

Last summer I completely lost my mind for a few weeks and ordered 40 succulent cuttings. I don't think that specialty is going anywhere, though. There are too many of them, they need too much space, and I love gessies too much to give up that much square footage.

What I want more than anything is to get back to gesneriads and bulbous/tuberous. But it can be tough... Somehow I usually give a friend cuttings instead of the whole plant. Which really doesn't get me anywhere so far as cutting back, ya know?

Paul said...

I would probably have to consider myself a generalist ... albeit one with a strong penchant for orchids. Orchids easily make up over half of my plant population which, while not as abundant as yours, is still quite sizable. I love the colors and diverse forms and many of them have proven far more durable than most other "houseplants". But in addition to orchids I do have succulents, cacti, AV, cps, ferns, Epipremnum, Dracaena, and broms.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting topic, and it's glad to see someone else worry and get a bit confused about this.. issue.
At first, like most people I believe, I just loved all plants, and had many species and different types of plants. When I moved from the familial nest to my appartment, I had a gather-every-thing-green period, where I bought every single plant I liked for some reason. I ended up after some years with many varied plants and some doing very well, others ok and lost some along the way. At one point, I could tell which type of plant I prefered and had easy with, based on the amount of time I gathered information about it, the amount of time spent caring for it and the psychological investment I put in for it's perfect growth. At that point, I assumed I could narrow it down to a few genuses, and slowly my collection diminished. I was specializing, in Hibiscus and African Violets, but I still have orchids and some ferns and whatnot. The way I now see my collection of plants; I have plants I have specific project for, the firsts on my list; hibiscus and saintpaulia, I love them most, joined related societies and hybridize them. I have plants I simply appreciate for their architectural beauty; ferns. And they are easy enough such that I don't spend much time worring/caring about them and I'm fine with that. Finally, I have a category of plants I like very much for the challenge they provide me; Orchids. I try my best to have them flower and thrive, some do but most don't and I'm okay with that because I get most plant-keeping-satisfaction from my "Project-intended" plants which grow with ease, and achieve goals with.
Thus, yes, in my case generalist->specialist.
My closest plant-loving friend shares this view and we both see it as: our project-intended plants in which we specialize, and all others. Because space is limited, we make our choices based on this. Now I very rarely buy plants that do not figure on the project-intended list.

Diana said...

I am definitely a generalist, both inside and outside. It comes with being addicted to plants - especially new and different plants. I just can't settle for one type of plant when there is so much out there to experience!

So many plants. So little space.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed plants since being a kid and initially was almost entirely committed to outdoor plants. I started growing orchids and now that's what I focus on almost exclusively (although I would consider myself a generalist within the family). I have started to branch out into other indoor plants recently and still love plants generally (especially grasses). So, generalist to specialist to generalist?

Loona said...

for me it's specialist ----> generalist, or at least in a way. maybe "less specialist" is more adequate. I don't see myself becoming a real generalist as an option, but I did become less specialist throughout the years.
in the beginning I started with cacti, the first plant I bought for myself was a cactus, and for years all the plants I had were cacti.
the widening started when I brought my first Haworthia home (acquired semi-accidentally: I won it on a (sort of) lottery during a visit to a botanical garden. I say semi because there were more plants to choose from - no cacti though - so I did get the chance to choose the one I liked the most from a particular group, not just a random plant), and it soon "had a baby" - by hindsight too soon, so I doubt it was because of the care I gave it, still this event qualifies as the first real positive plant-related event I encountered.
still being a cactus fan I begun to visit cacti-related events and thus couldn't avoid encountering other succulents. I always had a soft spot for the Sempervivum genus (and I should say everything else that looks similar), but by these times I always thought they were all outdoor plants (and unfortunately I never had a garden) - and there came Echeveria and Aeonium, and I found myself, again, widened, now a fan of the Crassulaceae too. Euphorbias, frequently looking like cacti, were easy to fall in love with as well.
now I love all succulents, and even though there are some genera (Haworthia and Aloe for instance) I tend to like more I don't think I would ever specialise in just one of them, so I somehow became a generalist compared to the starting phase, but stuck at being succulent-specialised.
...which is not so true either, because last year I bought my first two saintpaulias, and I plan to get some more too (I would like to have one that has white flowers and also some that have multicoloured petals). but that's all, I don't plan to become a collector (even though people usually don't plan such things, it just happens, I don't think it's a real threat to me, because the thing I like the most about them are the hairy leaves, and that's not so interesting a thing after the 10th pot :) let alone i can't really give them the care I need, as it happens quite often that I don't come home for days, which is fine for the succulents but not that comfy for saintpaulias).
so I would say I am a succulent-specialist with a few swings towards other plants, in a way that is more plant than genus-specific (basically related to what my mind finds 'cute', lol :) ).

Ivynettle said...

Are you reading my mind? I have some half-written posts about which plants I'd keep, if I had to make that choice, and which I'd not buy again.
Anyway, I'm definitely a generalist. What I like about having a lot of houseplants is the "jungle" look, so lots of different stuff grouped together. I do have a few small collections (holiday cacti and hippeastrums, and tradescantias because they're easy to propagate and sell well), but I can't see myself becoming a specialist at all.
I wish I could give you my Anthurium 'Tricolore'. I'm apparently incapable of getting it to bloom again, and now I wish I hadn't bought it.

Jean Campbell said...

Generalist here.

Liza said...

mr_s, your progression seems very natural to me. As your relationships with the plants grow, favorites will inevitably emerge, and there will be perennial disappointers, too. You only have to buy so many Ivy plants infected with spider mites until you learn you don't like Ivies anymore.

Anthuriums are handsome plants. I have Ags at one client's office that bloom all the time. But I think the flowers are ugly so I clip the buds as soon as I see them. Lemme know if you decide you want to up your Ag collection, I'll send you some plants. Silver queens mostly.

Peter said...

I'm a specialist and I don't even like plants! Now what!?!

houseplantguru said...

Since I have 100's of plants, I would say I'm a generalist. But, I really love African violets (sorry) and ferns, and cactus and succulents. I especially like sansevieria, hoya, haworthia, gasteria, and euphorbia. Footed ferns, aspleniums, and nephrolepsis.
Okay, let's just say generalist with a little specialist thrown in.

Pat said...

I specialise in things you can eat or that smell really nice, always have done. Though my blood orange hasn't flowered yet it does keep me in toothpicks.

Anonymous said...

I'm a generalist with some special interests. Mostly outdoor plants, but with a growing interest in houseplants. I've noticed that my interest in houseplants is replaying the pattern I notice in my interest in garden plants: As my experience grows, my tastes grow more pronounced. I discover new taxa that I like, and if they perform well I want to test out relations. And if a taxon doesn't perform, I lose interest.

If you're interest in breeding Anthuriums, I'd urge you to add Anthurium 'Oaxaca' to your collection. If you're looking for breeding goals, it might be nice to breed something that's similarly undemanding but not as large.


Anonymous said...

Needs moar Nina!

mr_subjunctive said...


Not until you answer the questions.

Derek said...

I'm a generalist - I could never rule out trying a new plant - but I do have tendencies. I love jungle plants - Anthurium, Philodendron, and yes orchids - basically anything that grows where it's wet all the time. This is probably because I grew up in the desert chaparral of Southern California, so all those dry scrubby things are "normal" to me. The plants I didn't grow up with are the ones that fascinate me.

archnemesis_goldenhair said...

I started out as a generalists, mainly because my mother was one. Anything that grew, she could take care of it. I, on the other hand, have a thumb so black it has Ortho tattooed on it. I've tried growing just about everything. Eventually I stumbled onto cacti, then succulents. These are the only things I can keep alive, and a few of them even thrive! Bonus, my hubby is allergic to pollen, and since most of my cacti/succulents propagate via cloning, its not a problem.

Emily said...

I tend to go through periods of interest while maintaining previous interest types and general easy houseplants. So I started with cacti/succulents, went to general houseplants, had a fern period, back to cacti/succulents and tried out some palms and cycads, and am now testing the waters of aroids and calathea. And within categories I tend to specialize and then find a new specialty, too. With cacti/succulents, it started with mammillaria and opuntia (then I learned about glochids and now hate opuntia) then onto haworthia and aloes, then rhipsalis and euphorbia, etc...

Tigerdawn said...

Well, it started with a few general plants, then the Hoyas happened..., then more general plants, then more hoyas. I think I'm a specialist at heart, hoyas being my first love, and then some aeroids as well, but if it jumps in my shopping cart I can't be blamed for bringing it home!

I may be leaning toward a Sans. phase. I found a local nursery that sells S. cylindrica but I'm being good and waiting to see if you'll have any this summer.

Oh and I also love Hippeastrum.

mr_subjunctive said...


My Sansevieria cylindrica still only has two leaves, the same as it's had for the last three and a half years. (I regret not going with "Stick in the Mud" for the profile "person.") I'm not going to be propagating it anytime soon.

Lauren said...

I've only just started, but I'd say I'm going to be a generalist. I do have a soft spot for colorful succulents but I don't see myself closing my plant world to just them.

orchideya said...

I had no idea anthurium has so many species. Got used to seing just usual red flowered one from Home Depot.
Great source of different species of anthuriums is Ecuagenera from Ecuador. I order orchids from them. They travel to many North American orchid shows and bring pre-ordered plants with them so you don't have to worry about import papers.
They have tropical plants department nad whole section for anthuriums:

Anonymous said...

All right you got me on this one. I just have to chime in. I love all plants (except peace lilies and crotons-anything "whiny"), but have an interesting living situation for them: when I'm home, I fuss with them and tend to keep them on the moister side. Then I leave for months at a time, during which my mother is in charge of them. I am thankful for her time, but she does not love plants. They must survive long periods of drought and meager waterings, along with a total lack of general upkeep such as grooming and cleaning. If they survive this bi-polar care, then they're in! That means that, for now, I am limited to very hearty and drought-tolerant varieties such as hoya, sans (which I got a little obsessed with because of how well they perform for us, and now have 6 varieties...so far), various kalanchoes, holiday cacti, African violets, peperomia, aloe,hippeastrum, chlorophytum, crassula, etc. So I am mostly a generalist, but, like most, have developed my favorite groups based on how they perform under my growing circumstances.

Some day I will be able to branch out and try some ferns and other more demanding plants! There are so many to try!