Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Oh HELL no.

From the Hy-Vee (grocery store) in Iowa City:

This was basically my reaction:

[short break while I collect myself]

Perhaps I'm taking this all a little personally. You know I have feelings about Anthuriums. But even trying to look at this objectively, this is not a good idea.

Some people, I'm sure, will be able to grow Anthuriums this way. For months, even. Maybe years. This is because although outdoor climates are sort of generalizable (in terms of, for example, the USDA garden zone map: a plant that will grow in Illinois zone 5a will probably also grow in Iowa zone 5a), indoor climates are not. Everybody keeps their homes at different temperatures. Some homes are pretty air-tight, some homes are drafty. Some people are extremely conscientious about watering, other people forget about their plants for weeks at a time. Some people have thick hedges just outside their windows, other people's windows are unobstructed. Etc. So it's true that there will be somebody who buys a Just Add Ice Anthurium and sees it live, accidentally.

But for most people, in most homes, that tag is not giving good advice.

Let's leave aside that the instructions are self-contradictory. (Don't let the plant get below 55F / 13C, but water it with 32F / 0C water? How does that work?) My personal Anthuriums -- and there are, as regular readers know, many personal Anthuriums here, some of which are pictured below -- don't rebloom without pretty strong light. The ones upstairs get partial sun from an east window; the ones downstairs are situated just below fluorescent lights. So I'm not liking the instructions to keep the JAI Anthuriums out of direct sun. A big, unobstructed south-facing window might be too much, sure. But it's not true that they can't handle any sun.

I also can't get mine to bloom without some pretty heavy fertilizing, and I notice that the instructions from JAI don't mention fertilizer at all. Which is . . . alarming.

Anthurium seedling no. 282 ("Dave Trading")

Back in the days when we were getting all riled up about dye-injected plants, and how misleading it was for companies to sell them without acknowledging somewhere on the tags that they wouldn't rebloom in the same color, one of the excuses provided by company spokespersons was that most of their customers throw the plants out after the blooms are done anyway. Therefore, there was no need to address what was going to happen when they rebloomed, because no customers ever bothered to try. With Phalaenopsis, I could sort of maybe almost see that being a valid argument, even.1 And there are probably people who would throw out an Anthurium after it's finished blooming, too, I suppose. (Savage, uncivilized, heathen-type people.) But it's a bit different with Anthuriums, in that they're capable of producing blooms continuously, for a very long time.2 There's really no excuse for giving people Anthurium-growing directions that will discourage repeat blooming.

One of the excuses from JAI is likely to be that their ice-cube watering suggestion takes some of the guesswork out of watering, saves time, will keep people from overwatering, and is more convenient than trying to judge how much water is coming out of a watering can. And that's true enough, as far as it goes, though I think the harm caused to a plant by repeated cold shocks negates whatever benefit you get from providing the correct amount of water.

As far as the convenience part goes, well look: if you have the time to refill the ice cube tray from the tap, and you have time to stop and crack the tray and bring an ice cube over to the plant, then you have enough time to skip the middleman and bring the plant to the tap. There are many tricky things about watering houseplants, but figuring out how to transport the water from the tap to the plant is a solved problem.3 The instructions JAI provides also make no allowances for the fact that plants use different amounts of water at different times. It may be that in your home, six ice cubes a week is just dandy in October, way too much in February, and not nearly enough in May.

I suppose ice cubes also protect a person from having to stick their fingers into potting soil, which is a problem for some people. More on that in a bit.

Anthurium seedling no. 245 ("Sawyer Ad")

So if you have a Just Add Ice anthurium, here's what you do.
1. While chanting "No ice on tropical plants, no ice on tropical plants" aloud, take the tag off. Rip it up. Burn the pieces. Take the ashes outside and cast them to the four winds.

2. Pick up the plant. Does its container have drainage holes in the bottom for water to run out? If yes, set the plant down on a saucer. If no, transplant the plant into a pot the same size, that does have drainage holes, and then set it on a saucer.

3. Just Add Ice is basically correct about air temperature. Locate a spot that a) is large enough for the plant to sit in, b) gets bright light for most of the day -- brief morning or afternoon sun is okay -- c) is away from cold drafts and doesn't leave the plant touching cold windows, and d) isn't directly in the path of a heater or air conditioner. Then put the saucer and plant there. If you do not have such a spot, do the best you can, I guess, and don't get your hopes up.

4. A couple times a week, use your fingers and touch the soil. Does it feel moist, damp, spongy, or cold? Then it is wet, and you don't need to water it. Does it feel dry and crunchy? Even when you stick your fingers an inch or two deep? Then it is dry, and you should water it. You should be checking the soil on some kind of regular schedule, but don't water on a schedule. Water according to when the soil is dry.
I know it's icky and traumatizing to have to touch potting soil, but there really is no substitute for doing so when you're trying to determine how often to water.4 Maybe wash your hands / take a Xanax / see a therapist / call your sister afterward, if it's going to be that big of a problem for you. Or just don't try to grow live plants.

5. When you water, use water which is neither extremely cold nor extremely hot.5 Don't tease it with just a little water; run a lot of water through. You want the water to reach the whole rootball. Let the plant drain in a sink or bathtub or whatever for about ten minutes (longer than that is fine), then move the plant back to its saucer. Never make an Anthurium stand in its drainage water.
I wind up watering my Anthuriums every two weeks, on average. You may have to water yours more often or less often, depending on your home's conditions.
You're not watering often enough if: the plant wilts, developing leaves crack or have holes, or leaf edges develop dead patches.6
You're watering too much if: the lowest leaves are continually turning bright yellow and then falling off,7 or if you're seeing lots of fungus gnats around the plant. This doesn't mean you should stop watering entirely, just that you need to recalibrate your finger to let the plant get a little drier between waterings.

6. Buy a general-purpose houseplant fertilizer containing micronutrients,8 and use it according to the label directions. Doesn't matter if it's powder you have to mix up yourself, or sticks you push into the soil, a pre-mixed liquid, organic, whatever. Just do what the directions tell you to do and you'll be fine.9

7. It's usually best not to move Anthuriums to containers larger than 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. Their root systems do require some air, and too much wet soil sitting around the roots cuts off this air and causes the roots to die and rot. If you feel you must use a large pot, at least try to go with one made of a porous material (like clay), and mix some unchopped sphagnum moss in with your regular potting soil. Larger pots will hold water in the center of the rootball a lot longer than smaller pots will, so you should wind up watering a lot less often.

8. Vow to yourself that you will never buy another "just add ice" anything, and that if you ever see another person considering purchasing one, you will (politely!) advise them not to.
That all probably looks pretty complicated (eight steps!), but it's really not that bad. Two of the steps are semi-jokes (1, 8), one will almost never apply (7), and two are decisions you'll only need to make once (2, 3). Anthuriums can be forgiving plants, and can be very rewarding if treated decently. Save your money for a business that respects you enough to give you good care instructions, though.

Anthurium seedling no. 271 ("Wanda Reulthemal")


Photo credits:
Actual Anthuriums, Just Add Ice tag -- me
"Do not want" macros -- the first page of the Google results for "do not want;" I'm hoping that the original photographers and macro creators are collectively okay with me reusing them like this.

1 Though it doesn't let them off the hook for not mentioning the color change. If all your customers throw them out and don't care about reblooming, then you won't lose any sales for informing them about the rebloom color, right? And if you know that some of your customers do care about reblooming, then not mentioning the rebloom color or the dye-injection is basically lying to those customers, right? So doesn't it follow that the only reason you'd ever not mention it is because you're hoping to deceive people?
To their (miniscule) credit, the dye-injected phal people did eventually acknowledge this, after an absurd amount of foot-dragging and excuse-making.
2 My personal record is two years, with a NOID pink variety, though this isn't something I keep track of ordinarily; it's quite possible that a different plant has since broken that record.
My 'Florida' Anthurium still has the two flowers I blogged about on 1 August 2013, though they've changed colors (from orange to red), and is in the process of producing a new bud as of last week. Two years isn't that impressive if a single flower can last seven months. The smaller-blooming cultivars have shorter-lived blooms, but are quicker to replace them, also, so it all kinda works out.
Phalaenopsis fans will be annoyed that I haven't mentioned yet that Phalaenopsis can also bloom for a long time, with new buds forming on the flower spikes as old flowers drop off. So I'm mentioning it. I do think it's a different thing, though, because once a Phalaenopsis is done, it's really done for a while, and even the best of care is not going to produce another bloom spike for a few months. Both Anthurium and Phalaenopsis have long-lasting flowers, but only Anthurium is really capable of blooming continuously. As long as I'm on a Phalaenopsis tangent, I might as well mention that phals can handle lower temperatures than Anthuriums too, and consequently might be less damaged by being watered with ice. Though I still wouldn't recommend it.
3 Another of the excuses is likely to be Why are you being such a snob about this??!? How do you know it doesn't work if you haven't tried it??!? My answer: pretty much the same way that I know not to water plants with boiling water, liquid nitrogen, Cherry Pepsi, or bleach. A plant might be resilient or lucky enough to survive those treatments, but that doesn't make them good ideas. Wild Anthuriums don't get their water from ice, so domesticated Anthuriums probably shouldn't either.
4 (You do not want to get me started on moisture meters.)
5 If it's too cold to hold a finger in comfortably for 30 seconds, don't use it on the plant. If it feels any hotter than lukewarm, don't use it on the plant. (I have accidentally watered my plants with hot water before. It takes a long time for adjustments to the water temperature at my watering station to result in adjustments to the water that's actually coming out, and sometimes I overcorrect. A few seconds of hot or cold water doesn't seem to do anything bad to them one way or the other, as long as I run a lot of water of the correct temperature through as soon as I notice.)
6 Mechanical damage -- like if something falls on the plant, or there are insects feeding on it, or if it's in a location where it gets bumped a lot by people or animals passing by -- can also cause new leaves to develop rips, holes, or distorted areas. Developing foliage is very sensitive and easy to damage, so if you see this sort of thing, rule out mechanical damage before deciding that your problem is underwatering.
7 Some dropping of the lowest leaves is normal, and will happen occasionally even if you're doing everything perfectly. Don't freak out over one or two yellow leaves. It's when you find yourself picking off yellow leaves constantly that you should start to wonder if maybe you're doing something wrong.
8 It's not a guarantee, but generally speaking, if the label says that it contains copper, then it's probably got the other micronutrients as well.
Ideally, you're going to buy from an independent local garden center, which has knowledgeable employees who can guide you to the fertilizer you need. (Big box store employees may also be knowledgeable, of course. It's just not as big of a part of their job to know stuff, so taking advice from them is more of a gamble.)
It is cheating to go to the independent store to ask for advice and then going to the big box store to buy the actual product. When I worked at the garden center, this was one of maybe three things that customers could do that got me really angry with them. Don't be one of those people.
9 With most houseplants, it's better to use less fertilizer than the package directions indicate, but more often. So if the directions tell you to add 1 tsp. to a gallon of water and feed once every three months, your plants are probably better off if you mix 1/4 tsp. in a gallon of water and use that at every watering. There are exceptions to this general rule, though, and Anthuriums are one of them.
If you are watering thoroughly and giving the soil a good flushing-out when you water, you can give Anthuriums a lot more fertilizer than package directions state. My Anthuriums get fertilizer that's about double strength, and they get it with every watering, but I also run a lot of plain water through before I pour the fertilizer in, so the old fertilizer doesn't build up in the soil, and the new fertilizer is somewhat diluted by the plain water that went in before it.
For your purposes, though, just do what the label tells you to do at first, and you can start experimenting with more fertilizer once you feel like you've gotten the hang of watering, temperature, light, etc.


Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

Hahaha...loved this post! Humour and practical advise in one perfect article.

I have not seen this in the stores (thank goodness), but I wonder if it will be making its way up here. I'm with the 'hell no' club on this one. Just when I think I've seen it all with houseplants, something else comes along.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Truthfully I would like to see you get started re footnote #4.

Texas Anon

Julie said...

You are killing me with this post!!! LOLOL. Great advice! I feel they are too picky for me in general, so would not have one. Good luck to those who wish to try a hand at it! Thanks for posting this! Awesome!

Paul said...

Orchids have been tortured with the ice cube treatment for years ... it was only a matter of time before other plants were to be subjected to such cruelty.

And yes there will be people who will succeed using icecubes on their anthuriums ... just are there are those folks here and there who have had success using it on their phals.

Ivynettle said...

What I always do to check how wet a plant is, is just lift the pot. Quicker and less messy than sticking in a finger (and "messy" refers to crumbs of potting mix on my floor, and not to my finger. I don't care about dirt on my finger.) Although in the first few weeks after getting a plant, sticking in a finger is still necessary, until you develop a feeling for, "this weight means the plant is this dry."

mr_subjunctive said...

Texas Anon:

I exaggerated. Basically I don't think moisture meters are useful, and that's as far as the rant goes. They don't measure moisture directly (they measure electrical conductivity, which will drift over time as minerals build up in the soil), they only tell you the conditions in one small part of the pot (fine for small pots, potentially a problem for large ones), they give people a false sense of precision ("But I couldn't have overwatered, 'cause I always water when the needle's at this angle."), and they're really, really unnecessary. There's nothing a moisture meter can do for you that you can't do for yourself with a finger or a pencil.


You're right, it was only a matter of time. Honestly, I'm surprised it's taken this long.


I've recommended that in the past, and it's still a good idea, especially for very large pots where sticking a finger in won't tell you much about the moisture level at the center of the rootball. I don't do it very often myself, though, because I have some clay pots, some plastic pots, some soil mixes with fired clay pieces in them, some soil mixes with sphagnum moss in them, some pots with pebbles in the bottom from back when I thought that was just how you do things, some pots without pebbles, etc. It's hard, as a result, for me to get a good feel for how heavy a lot of my plants ought to be. Somebody with a smaller or more uniform collection of plants would have an easier time of it.

I do still use the weight method a lot on the Schlumbergera and Anthurium seedlings, because there are a lot of them, they're in a fairly uniform soil mix and pot type, and they're small enough to be easily liftable. Usually that only happens when one of them is ambiguously dry and I'm having trouble deciding whether to water it or not: I just compare it to some of the others and then make the decision.

Liza said...

*Facepalm* Encouraging more laziness is not helpful!!!!

(Footnote #3 totally cracked me up.)

mr_subjunctive said...


Just Add Ice are known to sockpuppet (or are at least strongly suspected of sockpuppeting; I'm not sure anybody's ever proven it) in forums. For example, compare comment #33 -- on the second page -- in this thread, and comment #37, page 4, on this one. (Also see comment #38 on that second link.) And why are you being such a snob about this??!? seems to be one of their main arguments. It's maddening.

Tom said...

My favorite part of this was the douchebag tag. You're my botanical hero.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! It amazes me how someone can take the relatively simple process of watering a plant and add at least 100 steps to make it easier.

Carol in Jacksonville said...

Oh your blog is SUCH a fun read! I look forward to it like candy. This one reminds me of last summer, when my neighbor asked if she could borrow some flowers or plants for a party she was having the next day. Of course! I had just bought a brand new anthurium and carefully potted it up. It was among the plants she chose to borrow. Four days later, plants haven't returned... so I go down to her house... knock on the door and ask if I can help her bring them back. She says sure... takes me inside... there is my new anthurium, lifted from the pot and sitting in a vase full of water and pebbles as a centerpiece on her table! She had actually removed it from it's pot and potting mix! (Are you kidding me.) The leaves were already beginning to turn yellow. Oh, good gravy. I said nothing, just smiled, and helped carry the plants home. Once it was all back, I rushed it into ICU mode. It has recovered but it was a giant setback... especially for a new plant that had just been purchased in perfect condition. I guess I'm lucky my neighbor didn't also add ice. :)

mr_subjunctive said...

Carol in Jacksonville:

I suppose asking her to replace the plant is out of the question? I mean, not only did she not return it in a timely fashion, but she didn't return it in the same condition she'd borrowed it. (It'd be a dumb thing to damage a friendship over, but even so -- I would personally be furious about something like that.)

Unknown said...

I've had a lady jane for 2 weeks now, it is full of healthy leaves and seems to be doing well. the flowers on the other hand have a paperish texture (not fleshy) and only last a day, they are also brownish Burgundy (not bright red) any suggestion?
Cheap Send Flower by Online

mr_subjunctive said...

Shoaib Khan:

That's usually caused by bad karma from spamming blogs with made-up problems. Because you are a terrible human being, the Anthurium recognizes that you do not deserve to have joy or beauty, and then the flowers wither and die.

Anonymous said...

Great and amazing blog. Loved it. I had bought an Anthurium yesterday without noticing the "Just Add Ice" sticker. It did sound crazy and went on the internet immediately and found this blog. Thanks for the great advice. I think my Anthurium will stay better without ice.

Anonymous said...

I just bought one of these "just add ice" anthuriums yesterday at a Home Depot. I thought the tag had unusual instructions for caring for a tropical plant. I was thinking, "This plant doesn't get watered with ice cubes in its natural environment, so why I am I being told to water it with ice cubes?" So I looked it up, and I found your site. I am glad I did! :)

Anonymous said...

The "just add ice" tag I have states that it's "equivalent to 1/2 cup water," and I switched to that when it started looking peaky, assuming my ice cubes were too small, but it's doing its very best to die anyway... so I figured I'd go look up anthuriums, only to discover that I can water it like anything else and put it back in the window. Thanks!

Abhimanyu Veer said...

I have never read a page that told me so much about this group of plants; i have been thinking about them off and on, and was unable to decide if they were worth a gamble....

As usual, you made my decision very easy!

You must publish, Mr Subjunctive. Please believe us, you have a rare talent for writing, and a passion for plants that is as rare.