Sunday, November 25, 2012

List: Missing From Retail, Part 1 of 5

I've mentioned this phenomenon before, in the profile for Pandanus spp. The reason it's on my mind again is, I bought a used houseplant book at a consignment store a few weeks ago, and it's got a lot of plants in there I'd never even heard of, which reminded me that I'd wanted to talk about this.

Since these are all plants I've never or rarely seen before, I don't have photos for a lot of them. When I have one, I've used my own photo; otherwise, I've resorted to Wikimedia Commons or just gone without.

I am especially interested in speculation about why I don't see them for sale as houseplants, so if you see one on this list that you've grown and think you might have insight, leave a comment. (Some possible explanations: small window of attractiveness, poorly adapted to indoor conditions, low tolerance for shipping, prohibitively expensive to produce because of slow growth, replaced by a better plant with similar qualities.)

The five books I'm using are:

Crockett, James Underwood. Crockett's Indoor Garden. Little, Brown and Co., Boston MA / Toronto ON, 1978.
Kramer, Jack. The Illustrated Guide to Flowering Houseplants. Peerage Books, London, 1985.
Powell, Charles C. and Donald M. Vining. Ortho's Complete Guide to Successful Houseplants. Chevron Chemical Co., San Francisco CA, 1984.
Stuckey, Maggie. The Houseplant Encyclopedia. Doubleday Direct, Inc., Garden City NY, 1993.
Griffith, Lynn P., Jr. Tropical Foliage Plants: A Grower's Guide. Ball Publishing, Batavia IL, 1998.

This will be a five-part post, eventually. (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5)

Achimenes erecta. Photo by Andel Früh, from Wikimedia Commons.

I know there are gesneriad enthusiasts out there who grow Achimenes cvv. (Cupid's bower, hot water plant) indoors, but it appears that you can't grow them until you've grown several other gesneriads first. It seems obvious enough that people would buy them in stores if they saw them for sale, so the issue has to be one of production (not cost-effective to propagate), distribution (don't ship well), or long-term prospects (don't remain attractive long enough in stores for retailers to make any money off of them). No idea which, but I bet there are readers who'll have a guess.

Allamanda cathartica 'Williamsii.' (My picture.)

Allamanda cathartica (golden trumpet) is mentioned in a few of the books, and I've seen them for sale intermittently at the ex-job, but I'm not aware of anyone actually growing one indoors, nor have I ever tried it myself. My guess, based on the behavior of the ones at the ex-job, is that they are probably too fussy and demanding to do well outside of a greenhouse.

Anguloa clowesii. Photo by Orchi, from Wikimedia Commons.

I had never even heard of Anguloa spp. (tulip orchid) before I bought the Kramer book, but they sound fucking perfect, as orchids go. Large green leaves, fragrant blooms (not sure about A. clowesii above, but wikiposedly some or most Anguloa species have cinnamon-scented flowers), "easy to bring into bloom indoors,"1 etc. And the hybrids are, if anything, even more awesome (check the photo of Anguloa x ruckeri, here). So something must be horribly wrong with them. But what? What could be that terrible? We may never know.

Aspidistra elatior. (My photo.)

I totally get why Aspidistra elatior (cast-iron plant) isn't more widely available: I haven't been happy with mine. All the books go on and on about what an easy plant Aspidistra is, and how if you absolutely can't grow anything else at all, you can grow a cast-iron plant, but: mine has had spider mites a few times, the leaf tips have burnt back pretty severely in the last year or so (in the worst cases, about 1/3 of the leaf is dead), now it has scale, and it doesn't seem to be growing at all. Seriously, I don't know when the last time it produced a new leaf was, but it's been at least a year. And of course when I check the books to see what I've done wrong, all they do is reassure me that it's the world's easiest plant and there's no possible way it could go wrong, which is UNHELPFUL. Add to that the fact that even in good conditions, they're apparently still pretty slow, and neither the leaves nor the flowers are especially flashy, and it's clear why a tropical plant grower might not want to invest in producing them.

That said, they're nevertheless available around here, very occasionally. We had them once or twice at the ex-job, and I've seen them at a couple other places in the area, though only once for each place. We eventually stopped bringing them in at the ex-job, because they always got spider mites right away, plus they were a lot more expensive than similarly-sized plants of other genera, because of the slow growth. So it was one of those deals where it was either going to sell in the first fifteen minutes off the truck, or it was going to get spider mites and find itself shoved under a table until somebody decided it was ugly enough to discard.

Asplenium bulbiferum. Photo by Daderot, from Wikimedia Commons, and is in public domain.

Asplenium bulbiferum (hen and chicken fern, mother spleenwort) seems to have lost a lot of popularity in recent decades. I don't know anything about what it's like to grow A. bulbiferum specifically (I have a vague memory of being told once by somebody that it was difficult), but if it's anything like the other Aspleniums I've attempted,2 that's just as well.

I've never seen one for sale. A likely explanation is that it was probably never that commercially viable: plants that self-propagate easily tend to get passed from person to person through informal sales or trades, instead of being bought and sold, and A. bulbiferum produces tiny rootable plantlets at the tips of the fronds.

Aucuba japonica. Photo credit: Digigalos at Wikimedia Commons. Size-adjusted.

Aucuba japonica (gold-dust plant) is the biggest mystery on this list. Four out of the five books mention it, but I have never seen one in person, for sale or not. Nor have I seen any indication that it's an especially problematic plant, either. It's possible that it's just been made redundant by plants like Dracaena surculosa and Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold Dust,' though if that's the case, I'm actually more interested in growing it myself, because I haven't been especially happy with either of those.

Unknown bamboo species. Photo by Tom at The Midwestern Jungle; used by permission. Original photo here.

Real bamboos3 (Bambusa, Chimonobambusa, Phyllostachys, Pleioblastus, Sasaella, and others) get mentioned occasionally in books, and I know at least one blogger who has had a terrifyingly tall real bamboo in his home. That said, I've only ever actually seen one for sale, Pogonantherum paniceum, which was an unsatisfactory experience for me and the plant both. The main obstacle seems to be that they're difficult: this site says that as a group, they need high light, high humidity, and perfectly-timed water. (Certain individual species may vary from the above.) I also understand they're inclined to spider mites, though my Pogonantherum never got old enough to catch spider mites.

Billbergia nutans. (My photo.)

Billbergias seem to be showing up around here a lot more often in the last couple years. We could go to the ex-job and pick me up a Billbergia 'Hallelujah' or 'Borracho' right this second, if necessary. This is still a pretty recent development, though, and as far as I can recall, those are the only two I've seen being sold.

Billbergia nutans (queen's tears) is a great plant, as far as I'm concerned -- it grows fast, propagates easily, is difficult to kill, and produces short-lived but really interesting flowers in the late fall and winter. Unfortunately, all of those characteristics also make it a non-starter, pretty much, in retail. Growing fast and propagating easily means that anybody who has one can have as many as they want (not a particularly collectible plant, from a retail perspective); being difficult to kill means that once you have one, you're likely to continue having one (can't sell replacement plants), and the short-lived flowers means that they're only really appealing to consumers for like twenty minutes out of every year and the rest of the time they just look like a strange big coarse grass.

The other Billbergias are similar, in that they seem to be easy to grow and propagate, though they're colorful enough that we might see them more often as foliage plants in the future. If you do see one for sale: highly recommended.

Brunfelsia pauciflora. Photo by Carl E. Lewis at Wikimedia Commons. Cropped, color adjustment.

Brunfelsia pauciflora (yesterday, today, and tomorrow) is another that's constantly mentioned in the books but that I've never seen for sale. (Or, possibly, I've seen it for sale but not recognized it as such.) They do apparently get kind of big, and the plant doesn't seem especially interesting outside of the flowers, so I could see favoring production of other plants, but the flowering period is apparently long, and obviously people found them worth growing indoors at some point, if all the books keep including them. I'm probably not actually interested in growing it myself, but I would like to know why I've never had the option.

Calceolaria cv. Photo ©, used in compliance with the non-commercial use guidelines on this page.

I have only seen Calceolaria cvv. (pocketbook flower) being sold at the ex-job, and then only once or twice. The page at Top Tropicals hints at some reasons why this might be the case: they're annuals, they prefer cool temperatures, they're prone to stem rot. If this is in fact the case, then the question about Calceolaria is not, "why don't growers produce them anymore?" but instead "why did houseplant books ever include something so ill-suited to indoor culture in the first place?"

This particular topic doesn't lend itself well to recommendations, but in a perfect world, Anguloa spp. would be easy to grow. (In the actual world, Billbergia are.)

Not pictured:

  • Acalypha wilkesiana (copperleaf): sometimes available here as an outdoor annual.
  • Acorus spp. (sweet flag): sometimes available as an outdoor annual.
  • Aerides spp./cvv. (cat's tail orchid): have never seen.
  • Angraecum spp./cvv. (comet orchid): have never seen.
  • Astrophytum myriostigma (bishop's cap): seen occasionally, but when I've actually wanted to buy one, they're nowhere to be found.
  • Begonia masoniana (iron cross begonia): have seen once.
  • Buxus spp. (boxwood): I have a dim recollection of seeing these sold for outdoor use, but I've never seen one sold as a houseplant. Nor, frankly, do I know why anybody would want one as a houseplant: they're pretty plain-looking. They're in all the books anyway, though.

Are any of these widely available where you live? Can you shed any light on why I don't see them in the stores? Are there plants I chatter about at PATSP all the time that you've never seen for sale? Which ones? Etc.


1 Sure, this is almost certainly a lie, because orchids are evil and stupid.a But still, that's the claim.
aOh yeah. I went there.
2 (A. nidus and A. antiquum)
3 (The "lucky bamboo" in stores is Dracaena sanderiana, and is neither lucky nor bamboo.)


Diana said...

My mother had an Aucuba japonica all during my childhood. The difference? It was planted outside, as a shrub! I have seen them for sale in temperate climates as a garden plant and have seen them in many different gardens.

My mom's shrub actually got to be about 4 foot tall - that may be why it's not common in the houseplant trade.

Ivynettle said...

There are several on your list that I've also read about a lot but never seen for sale (Achimenes, Allamanda, Brunfelsia, Acorus).

Anguloa I've only seen once, and not for sale (at the botanical garden in... Munich, I think).

Aspidistra supposedly did better before central heating, since they prefer cooler temperatures. I just checked mine, and of course it has spider mites now. Don't think I've seen them for sale, though (my plant came from dividing a customer's plant). We had them at my old job, but since we grew plants for the municipal buildings and parks, they were't actually for sale.

Asplenium bulbiferum, I didn't know at all. Looks nice, but it's a fern. I only have one any more, an Asplenium 'Osaka', but I'm just waiting for a reason to throw it out.

Aucuba japonica, seen plenty, but never as a houseplant. We had lots of big ones at the old job to decorate halls with when there was some celebration. Can't imagine they'd do well indoors year-round, since we kept them in a cool greenhouse the rest of the time, and I've seen some growing outdoors.

Bamboo: no experience. There was one guy at the old job who wanted bamboo for his office, and everyone told me it was a bad idea, but I don't know how it went.

Bilbergia: seen precisely one plant in my life, at my old job (we had a couple of one-of-a-kind plants in our greenhouses, which had no real purpose, never getting propagated or used to decorate someone's office.)

Calceolaria: we grew them a couple of times, for the botanical gardens, and I think I have seen the for sale, too. I don't think they're meant to last long - just as a short-lived spring flower, like daffodils and primroses (which far too many people buy as houseplants. *eyeroll*)

Achimenes: only ever seen as outdoor plant.

Aerides, Angraecum: never heard of.

Astrophytum: read about, but I don't pay attention to cacti.

Begonia masoniana: Had them at the old job, propagated them, even, but I've never seen them anywhere else. Not sure I've read about them, either.

Buxus: WHY would anyone want to grow that as a houseplant? OK, I don't even know why anyone would want to grow it in the garden. Never heard of it as a houseplant before.

(Oh dear, this turned into a monster comment! But if I've written it already, I might as well post it!)

Tom said...

You know what's sad? I've tried every single one of the pictured plants and all the unpictured except Angraecum sp. and Aerides. I had great luck with the bamboo, which is Bambusa ventricosa, until this fall when I decided to leave it outside to let the new canes harden off before bringing it in only to have it get hit by frost and die. The Bilbergia is doing obnoxiously great (ok so it's not THAT Bilbergia but it's still a Bilbergia!) and the rest failed miserably. Achimenes goes dormant for the winter which makes them generally an undesirable houseplant, as did the one Anguloa I had (until it got scale and I decided I was done with it). A few catalogs sell the rhizomes which are easy to start and make a nice summer hanging basket plant. The Brunfelsia and Allamanda were giant flops (as soon as the heat came on every single leaf fell off), Aspidistra was boring, Calceolaria dies after flowering, Acuba kind of sucks unless you have an unheated breezeway or a really cold room that would allow the plant to go into a semi-dormancy (they're hardy up into zone 6b-7a so they can take quite a bit of cold) so it never really did well in my home. Ferns in general die at the mere mention of my name so the Asplenium didn't make it too long. Bishop caps are highly collectable so they're around, you just have to know where to look! Ok this commment was sort of long winded... I apologize. Also if you ever make it up to the Twin Cities, check out Linder's Greenhouses in St. Paul. That's where I got all these plants, they have one of the best houseplant selections I've ever seen (at least in the winter).

Peter said...

We sell 4 of the plants you list, including having 3 of them right now. Plus we do sell bamboo for indoor, but we warn people away from it - the biggest problem is getting the watering right.

nycguy said...

Nobody has an unheated sunporch any more. In the old days, when houses had porches, you put screens on them in the summer, to keep put the bugs, and glass on them in winter to keep in the heat from the sun. You can get the damnedest things to grow in that environment.

The nature of garden writing is such that the books continued to recommend the unheated-sunporch plants like gardenias and allamandas long after the unheated sunporch disappeared from the American scene.

A/C and central heat did it in.

Anonymous said...

Cast Iron plants and Asplenium bulbiferum are very common in nurseries in my area. I've tried the fern, but it got an incurable case of spider mites almost immediately. I've seen others grow it successfully, and it grows very well outdoors in my climate (I live on the CA coast).

Pat said...

You did not mention the possibility that several of those books were influenced by Europeans. I have seen Achimenes, Calceolaria, Brunfelsia, Acorus and Allamanda sold in big, non-specialist nurseries.

My last flatmate had an Aspidistra but no central heating or double-glazing. Very like the Victorian houses where it was favoured. To say the flowers are not flashy is understatement worthy of an Englishman. The last I saw in flower was in a public library and it was dull, mottled and at ground-level. I confirmed that it does have a rather nasty smell, not exactly halitosis as the books say but not nice. No snails in there to pollinate it, unfortunately.

I have not seen Acalypha for a while, I don't think it was very popular, I haven't known anyone who grew it at home.

Lisa Eldred Steinkopf said...

I have had the asplenium. It does well until it dries out, just like the other aspleniums. I have seen some of the others, but it is interesting that some of the old houseplant books mention plants that really do not do well at all in our homes now. I think the lower temps. might be the answer. We keep our houses too warm and we don't drop the temps. enough at night. Houseplants like the night temps. colder than day. I do love the old houseplant books, though. I think I have EVERY one. My husband thinks so, too (the ceiling is going to fall in some day from all the books) blah, blah, blah.....

Melody said...

The Anguola orchids I haven't seen much of, sometimes at online orchids nurseries that carry species more than hybrids. I think those aren't too popular because the flowers aren't that pretty looking or that interesting looking, which is what the majority of orchid growers favor, (one or the other.) With Lycaste being it's very pretty cousin, it kind of gets out-shined there too.

Aerides and Angraecum orchids are very, very, popular with people who grow orchids, but I have never seen them for sale at a retail nursery that doesn't cater specifically to orchids. They do well for most people in normal room temperatures and have pretty, fragrant flowers. To be fair, the vast majority of orchids aren't for sale at retail nurseries that don't cater to orchids though, (with the exception of Phalaenopsis, Dendrobium, or other commonly found hybrids that the large Taiwanese growers produce for mass market.)

Astrophytum myriostigma I see seasonally here at garden centers. I could pick another one up right now if I wanted. Great little cactus that blooms well with huge yellow flowers. It doesn't rot easily either, which is always a plus for cacti.

Other than that I have seen probably 80% of plants you've written about,(maybe not the exact cultivar, or a different species or hybrid in the same genus,) in local garden centers at one time or another. I'm sure this is due to large tissue culture companies like Agri-starts that ship nationally to wholesalers. Who knows how many of us grow the exact same clone of a particular plant due to tissue culturing the majority of popular houseplants. The differences might be environmentally related, plants that do well for people in that growing zone. For example I walk into a Home Depot here in NY and find Better-Gro Cattleya orchids, but walk into one in Florida and they sell Vandas. I've never seen a Vanda in a Home Depot in NY, ever. They just don't do well for most people this far north, even indoors.

mr_subjunctive said...


"[Astrophytum myriostigma] doesn't rot easily either, which is always a plus for cacti."


Indeed it would be a plus, if it were true: that's how both my attempts have ended. (First one lasted 2 years; second one 3 months. There will not be a third.)

Diane said...

Hm, my new house doesn't have central heat. Never occurred to me that this might be a blessing for the plants! Of course, it's also cold as heck much of the time.

I crave that giant bamboo plant.

Jordan in Oregon said...

I've worked in a very basic nursery / garden center, so here's my input on a few:

We've had the Aucuba plant for awhile now, and they're not great sellers. I just don't think they're very popular, which is a shame because they're easy to grow, especially in a Pacific Northwest climate (did I mention we sell these as outdoor perennials?), and surprisingly hardy (I know at LEAST down to Zone7).

On the flip side, as much as I've seen Billbergia as someone's houseplant, I haven't seen it available from our regular growers, which makes me thing of another factor in availability: the limited resource. For example, our houseplants and tropicals come from Pam's Sunnyside Greenhouse, Nurserymen's Exchange (not sure what's going on with them, weren't they filing Chapter 11?), and one other. If they don't have it, we can't get it, and that's probably true for large chunks of northern areas (Southern Oregon, for example) far from a variety of growers.

Acorus is frequently offered as a marginal pond/bog plant, but have never seen it sold as a houseplant.

We actually have had a few Iron Cross begonias, along with the Non-stops and the Rexes and the rest.

Boxwoods, again only as a perenial. Have had them brought in as small tabletop pre-shaped topiaries, but we offer them more as porch plants, because too many people might be prone to putting them inside. Next to the stove. And not watering them. Ever.

So, at least in my case, a lot of it has to do with availability and what we're used to landscaping with. No one really wants to have a boxwood as a houseplant when every other street corner has them as a hedge.

Anonymous said...

Well, achimenes (and eucodonia and hybrids between those and some smithiantha crossed between them) are the bulk of my container plants. I grow them outside primarily. However, most - and some varieties specifically - aren't fond of too cool temps (or too hot but that's just too bad. That means they spend time indoors, especially on those that bloom too late in the fall. That's aggravating. Because that's when I need them to go dormant so I can pack them in a storeroom until the weather gets warm again and the cycle starts over. I think that dormancy is why they aren't common. They are relatively easy to grow if you have the time to give them attention and never let them get to dry (that starts them into dormancy at the wrong time and they do not ever recover that season). It's certainly not because they are hard to propagate. I get overrun with those that do well and can't give the overflow away. The result is that some have now made their way into hernia sized containers. An issue since mostly I grow them in coir baskets where they can grow out the sides and bottom as well as the top and dunk those in a water vat (cattle trough). They frankly love it when I'm forced to bring them indoors (but I don't), so they'd probably make a good seasonal houseplant. In my experience they tolerate a lot of light conditions. I think the foliage is nearly always attractive, especially so on the eucodonias and if the bloom well they are spectacular for the duration. Unfortunately I'm in the process of forcing dormancy on the later ones when they are at their peak bloom. I think with a greenhouse and growlights I could reset their clock and have them start earlier, but I'm not positive. It'd be nice to have them begin the dormancy in October. Some do, some just run late. They do NOT bloom all summer per the descriptions. My earliest bloomers begin in late July and I'd have another month or more of bloom if I weren't drying them out forcing the dormancy. When they do well, the bloom will do as your photo shows and then some.

Texas Anon

Anonymous said...

Guess what I think I've found growing in a flower arrangement my grandmother got? I think it's Aucuba japonica. I'm not really sure. Somebody on Garden Web identified it. It had rooted in the vase but by the time I got it planted the roots were turning kind of black. We'll see if it survives. I'm not sure what to think of it yet.

Lilith said...

As someone who happily grows orchids at home, I can help with the Anguloa mystery - they aren't actually that easy as orchids go. I belong to a European forum for orchid growing, and I think we may have more than one member growing those, but I may be wrong. I can only remember one person who got them to flower and everyone was in awe. Hope this helps clear the confusion up, if quite a bit late!

Unknown said...

Hey! I'm pretty late to the party, but I'm pretty sure that's not actually bamboo in your photo. It looks like an aroid, to me. I think it might be a rhaphidophora. It has the look of rhaphidophora decursiva, but I think I'm getting ahead of myself shooting for the species name. I'm not an expert.

Your blog is wonderful, by the way!

Anonymous said...

Actually, it could also be a parlor palm... and that's much more likely.