Saturday, November 24, 2007

Random plant event: Hibiscus acetosella 'Brown Sugar' flower

The random plant events are almost happening faster than I can keep up with. By the time some of these posts get put up, the event will no longer even be happening.

This particular post is a follow-up to a previous post, where I noted that this plant had buds. A week later, we have the thrilling conclusion.

The above flower was going on Friday (23 Nov) when I left for work (about 7:45 AM), and had already deflated and shriveled by the time I came home for lunch (about 1:15 PM). So I literally only got one chance to see it. In my memory, the flower was more of a wine color -- darker than this, and with more purple, which may or may not have been the real situation.

There was a repeat performance today (Saturday 24 Nov):

The color in this second picture is a little closer to my perceptions of the flower yesterday. It remains to be seen how long this second one is going to last.

UPDATE: Not long at all, it turns out. The second flower opened around 6 or 7 AM, and it had closed up again by 10:30 AM. The first one fell off the stem in the same time frame, crushing hopes that it might re-open.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sacrificial Virgin (Dionaea muscipula)

When we were placing the big mid-October plant order from Florida this year, I, the boss, and WCW1 were scrolling through the list of offered plants on an Excel spreadsheet, and we got to a listing for venus flytraps. And I remember there was some kind of discussion of whether we needed to buy more, with WCW and I saying that we didn't because we couldn't keep them alive anyway and what was the point.

You can guess how this turned out:

The boss claimed that whenever kids enter the greenhouse, they always want one of these, and that may be true, but 1) just because they want one doesn't necessarily mean that they go so far as to ask their parents for one, 2) just because they might ask for one doesn't mean their parents are actually going to buy one, and 3) they invariably stand there torturing the plants for some period,2 regardless of whether they ask or buy or any of that, which is not good for the plants and doesn't really do us any favors either. So it looks like we've bought them to throw them away.

Even if they weren't being tortured to death by small children3, we would have trouble keeping them: they need very bright sun when they're actively growing, which we only sort of have in the greenhouse (the roof reflects a lot away, and when it's too hot, we pull shade cloths over most of the house). The mineral content in tap water is a problem too. And then there's the dormancy, when they need to be just above freezing all winter, which we're not going to manage in the greenhouse, though there are other options. Point being that we're not really set up to be able to care for them, and so it's a little aggravating to have to try.

They're not actually impossible plants, though: if you're interested in keeping one, there are plenty of sites out there, notably this post at Mr Brown Thumb, that will tell you how to do it. (Then see this thread at the Garden Web carnivorous plants forum.)

Since I'm letting Mr. Brown Thumb deal with the rest of the care information, I'm free to talk about other things. Dionaea muscipula is one of very few houseplants native to North America (The other one I can think of is Tolmiea menziesii, the "piggyback plant," though no doubt there are several cultivated cactus and succulent species native to the Desert Southwest. None of these are especially common houseplants, but still.), hailing from southeastern North Carolina and the South Carolina coast,4 though it has been introduced to, and somewhat established in, Florida and New Jersey. It's not technically "endangered," but it is on North Carolina's "special concern" list, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which according to Wikipedia is the world's main authority on endangered species, classifies Dionaea muscipula as "vulnerable," which is defined as "a species which is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve." To put this in context, the various classifications, in ascending order of seriousness, go:

Domesticated: are widespread due to deliberate human cultivation and, while they may be genetically distinct from wild members of the species (which may or may not be extinct in the wild), are in no danger of population extinction.
Least Concern: we're worried enough to have assessed the status of the population, but the species is not considered at risk of population reduction.
Near Threatened: have been reduced in numbers or range enough that the species could conceivably qualify for Threatened status in the near future.
Conservation Dependent (no longer officially assigned): would become threatened within five years, were it not for conservation efforts directed at maintaining the numbers of that species.
Threatened: could possibly become extinct in the near future.
Vulnerable: likely to become endangered unless threatening circumstances (loss of habitat, competition from invasives, etc.) improve.
Endangered: at risk of becoming extinct.
Critically Endangered: are at extremely high risk of becoming extinct (more or less, expected to go extinct, though nobody actually phrases it that way).
Extinct in the Wild: no members of the species are alive anywhere on the planet except in captivity.
Extinct: no members of the species are alive anywhere on the planet.

Because of the precarious position of the wild plant, plants for sale are usually derived from tissue culture (generally they will say something to this effect on the tag or packaging; it's probably a good idea to pass up any plants that don't make this explicit) and are likely still pretty young when sold.5 So the virgin in "Sacrificial Virgin" is not just poetic and anthropomorphic: not only have plants in stores probably never flowered, neither did the plant they came from.

One of my minor personal goals is to keep the Venus flytraps at work healthy enough that we won't have to throw them out. To this end, I've talked to the boss about maybe getting them a winter dormancy, and she's agreed that this is something we can try, eventually. (Possibly they'll even get distilled water!) If I manage to pull it off, I'll be very happy with myself: sparing the lives of the current crop when nobody else has bothered to before would feel like a real accomplishment. It bugs me any time I have to throw plants out. Of course, I'm not going to count on being able to keep them going, either.

UPDATE: Found a time-lapse movie of Dionaea muscipula growing; my post about it is here.


Photo credit: plant with finger - annia316 at
all others: me (map: edited and hand-colored from an original at, using data from

1 (=wonderful co-worker)
2 Though it's totally understandable that you'd want to see it, standing there poking at the traps until you get one to close can easily damage the trap, and even if it doesn't physically damage the plant, it still uses a lot of energy that would otherwise be used for growth, stunting the plant. One of the nursery guys dealt with this by getting one and gathering a small crowd around him before triggering a trap or two, so everybody could see it without each person having to do it for themselves, which is smart.
3 (Which is not anybody's preferred way to go, please note.)
4 Approximate natural range:

5 Tissue culture is cloning using small chunks of plant tissue in a sterile medium. Plants are cleaned, sterilized pieces of the plant are removed and divided, and then the groups of cells are placed in a nutrient medium containing hormones which induce the cells to reorganize and form a plant. If this sounds freaky to you, and you're alarmed about biotech scientists playing God by cloning in this way, consider: cloning is also what you're doing if you take a cutting and root it in water, so calm down already.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

John Q. Public (Epipremnum aureum)

Is there anything that can be said about Epipremnum aureum that hasn't been said already? I have my doubts. I spent a long time on-line doing search after search after search, trying to uncover something odd, or interesting, or even just new about it, and I got nothing.

What they usually look like. Viney, eh?
It's so ordinary, in fact, that a large percentage of the posts about it at Garden Web are just people asking for identifications on it – it gets mistaken for a Philodendron a lot, but that's not unexpected, since they're related. It's also had more than its share of names, both scientific and common,1 which makes for confusion. By and large, though, you know it when you see it, because you see it all the time. It's very tolerant of all kinds of indoor conditions: humidity is no big deal, low light is peachy, and it can go for a long time without water and then bounce right back when it gets it again. It still can get pests, though this doesn't seem to happen real easily or often.2 The only real worry is overwatering: they do not like it, and it will kill them. All of this taken together means that the odds are very good that there is a pothos somewhere within 50 feet of you as you read this, and if you asked, it would probably tell you that it's doing "fine."
The species itself.
Somewhat less widely known is the fact that indoor plants are almost always juveniles; as with Dizygotheca elegantissima,3 Syngonium podophyllum, Hedera helix, and (sometimes) Monstera deliciosa, plants sold as houseplants have a different leaf shape, or growth habit, or both, than fully-grown adult plants. In the case of Epipremnum aureum, plants allowed to climb a pole or tree in good light and humidity will eventually develop Monstera-like perforations and splits in the leaves, though this often won't happen until a good amount of height has been attained first, and isn't easy to achieve indoors. Mature leaves can be as big as 30 inches (75 cm) across. Only adult plants flower, and not very often, though it can be done in cultivation. Epipremnum aureum is available in at least a few different cultivars. Besides the species, which is variegated in yellow and white, there is 'Marble Queen,' which has finer variegation in a sort of cream-white color, and 'Neon,' which has solid yellow-green leaves with no variegation. There are, according to some references, also at least three (kinda-redundant) all-green versions,4 and at least one more yellow+white cultivar,5 though I think I've personally only ever seen four ('Marble Queen,' species itself, 'Neon,' all-green).
'Neon,' my favorite.
By far, my most serious problem with pothos has been a root disease called Pythium splendens, which causes infected stems to shrivel and go black from base to tip. This has happened not only to a number of plants from work, which is bad enough, but it happened to a plant at home that I was actually kind of attached to, a 'Neon' in a 4-inch pot that had been doing so well for me that I decided to up-pot it. Almost immediately after the up-potting, it started dying, which was very depressing. I took cuttings, and we'll see whether anything is salvageable. Pythium mostly attacks plants that are too wet (I told you overwatering was bad.), and spreads via splashes of water between plants, or by hands or tools that have just touched infected soil or plants. My reference book says it can be fought off with antifungals, but it rarely seems worth bothering to treat it, since anything I bought to get rid of the fungus would likely cost more than a new 4-inch plant would. Or just propagating a new plant, which with pothos is incredibly easy. I personally favor water-rooting, because my success rate with water is very nearly 100%, and with soil, I only get about 60% success because Pythium, or something else, gets them before they establish roots. Water may not be the best thing for the plant once it's transplanted to soil, but they do at least all survive that way. But that's about the extent of it. The vines, even when they're not climbing, can get pretty long: I've seen vines that were easily five feet long growing along the top of a cabinet in someone's office. For some people, this is the supposedly easy plant that they can't grow,6 which I think likely means that they try to overwater it. But otherwise . . . Aha! I've come up with something new to say about Epipremnum aureum that I'm pretty sure nobody else has ever reported: it's an anagram for "a pure, premium menu."7 There. Not really relevant, or interesting, but by God it's new. So there you go.
'Marble Queen.'
- Photo credits: plant in basket – anonymous Garden Webber. foliage close-ups – me.

1To wit: pothos, Epipremnum aureum, Epipremnum pinnatum 'Aureum', Scindapsus aureus, centipede tongavine, taro vine, hunter's robe, ivy arum, devil's ivy, Pothos aureus, Scindapsus pinnatum, Philodendron nechodomii, etc. Plus, plants are frequently referred to only by cultivar name, e.g. 'Marble Queen,' so those probably count too. It's unclear whether the current correct botanical name is Epipremnum aureum or E. pinnatum, but I had to pick one, so I went with the one that was more familiar to me. I'm also more than a little puzzled about whether E. pinnatum and E. aureum are the same plant or not – some sites say yes, some sites say no, many sites only acknowledge one or the other and don't mention that there's even a question. 2 Super-duper plant reference book says that they're often spider-mite magnets, but I don't think I've ever seen this personally, and it's not something that comes up often at Garden Web either (it does once in a while, but if you wait long enough, anything will come up once in a while at GW. Remember that guy who had penguins on his Polyscias fruticosa?). No reason not to check a plant over carefully if you're going to buy, but I think Mr. Griffith exaggerates. 3 Now, technically Schefflera elegantissima, but Dizygotheca sounds so much better in my head that I hate to let go of it. 4 'Green Gold,' 'Jade,' and 'Tropic Green.' I do not know in what way these are different from one another. At least one of them is probably a version of 'Marble Queen' that went all-green from low light, which 'Marble Queen' in particular is prone to do. I think that a stem that's reverted to solid green stays that way, even if it subsequently gets good light again, though I'm not positive on that. 5 'Hawaiian.' 6 I am very nearly convinced that everybody has one "difficult" plant that they find really easy to grow, and one "easy" plant that they can't grow at all. My "easy" plant that I can't grow changes from month to month but often seems to be something in the Philodendron family. 7 Also "immune urea pumper," but I liked the other one better.

Monday, November 19, 2007


1) I do not know why the site was inaccessible for part of the day on Monday the 19th.
2) I do not know why all other blogs using Blogger (now Google?) were also inaccessible.
3) I do not know whether this might happen again, how soon, or for what period of time.
4) It does seem to be over for the time being, though.

This has been an episode of "Useless Answers to Perfectly Reasonable Questions." See you next time.

Random plant event: new purchase needing ID

Bought this plant from work yesterday; I thought when I got it that it was a
Gasteria, but the only Gasteria gallery I could find made me think that it couldn't be, because its leaves really are arranged as a rosette, not stacked up in two opposite orientations like almost every Gasteria I've ever seen.

The leaves are smooth, with two exceptions: the tip of each leaf comes to a sharp point, and the outside ends of some of the leaves are bumpy, with light gray markings. Every leaf has the sharp point, but only a few have bumpies.

If anybody knows what I've got, or could point me to a gallery that might help me narrow it down, please let me know, either in the comments here or at Garden Web here, on the cactus and succulents forum.

UPDATE: I believe we have a winner: Gasteria x 'pseudonigricans,' as best as I could determine from poking around on photo sites and from "rjm710" at Garden Web. What did people do in the days before the hive mind of the internet? Look stuff up in books or something? Sounds terribly inefficient.

Random plant event: Peperomia caperata sprouts

I broke some leaves off of a Peperomia caperata at work maybe a couple months ago, by accident. I figured I could try to salvage something by planting them, since Peperomia, like Begonia and Saintpaulia (African violet), are supposed to have the ability to generate new plants from single leaves, though I'd never tried it before and was kind of skeptical about whether it would work. (So many things we try at work, propagation-wise, don't work out that well, so anymore I just assume everything is doomed when I start it.) In fact, the leaf in the picture here nearly got thrown away a time or two, because it wasn't moving fast enough to suit me, but last week I was looking around in the cuttings table, and lo and behold -- sprouting!

So I am now a believer. This also makes me like the Peperomia genus a little better, too: I was not previously a fan, owing to some bad experiences many years ago.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dancer (Cereus peruvianus)

To be honest, I find the whole cactus family to be one big confusing blur. I know a lot of the names – Mammilaria, Ferocactus, Opuntia, Rebutia, Cephalocereus, Echinocereus, Parodia, Myrtilocactus and so forth – but telling them apart from one another is often more than I can manage. It doesn't help that the names change sometimes, further mixing up any small bits I've been able to pin down.

So for me, the cactus table at work is sort of like a huge family reunion for someone else's family – it's a big blur of individuals who all kind of look the same, more or less; at the same time, I can also tell that some of them are more closely related to each other than others. There are far too many of them to be able to meet them all, so I just greet everybody with a hearty cry of, "Heyyyy . . . uh, you. Guy," and hope that's good enough.

The exceptions are relatively few and far, but Cereus peruvianus is one. If that is, in fact, its real name (something I'm also confused about), and if I've identified it correctly (if I got it wrong, it's not for lack of trying; I've looked at so many pictures of bluish, columnar cacti with reddish spines that were all identified differently that I eventually despaired of ever getting a species ID and instead just wanted to get the right genus. Which I think I did.).

I bought these two guys in late February of 2004. They were, at that time, 17 inches (43 cm) tall, and that includes the height of the gallon pots they came in. They are now tall enough that they can look me in the eye: I think the last time I measured, they were five feet five inches (1.65 m), and that's been long enough ago that I know they've grown some since.

I liked them so well that I bought more, almost exactly a year ago:

These were at K-Mart, three to a pot, and I bought them and separated them and then spent many months trying to get the mealybugs off of them. 1 I'm not sure whether this has been successful or not; so far, every time I think I've gotten them all, I've wound up finding more soon after. Though it has been a couple months, now.

They've been doing reasonably well so far, even though (as you'll notice) the smaller ones are in plastic pots. Clay would be better, but I'm not going to worry about it until they need to be repotted: they're doing fine where they are, and they've been fine there for over a year, so I'll move them to clay when they tell me they want to be moved.

They will flower, though none of mine ever have. A recent customer of mine told me that she had one at home that was getting close to eight feet tall (!), that produced flowers. She was in the store because she wanted to cut it back and needed advice, though: apparently her plant is not only getting too tall for her, it's leaning badly, and when it produces flowers, the buds form next to the window it's leaning on, causing them to become deformed and never open properly. Which is a little bit tragic, for those of us who haven't been able to see it for ourselves.

The flowers are lovely, what pictures I've seen of them (I was unable to locate a public domain photo of one before this post; however, you can see some excellent pictures of unknown legal status here and here.), and it would, of course, be extraordinarily cool if one or both of mine did sometime, but I don't actually mind if they don't.

As Christmas approaches, they often like to pretend to be the Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes. I have no idea why.

I've been surprised by customers' ideas about watering cacti. People want to know why their cactus died, and when I ask how much water they were giving it, they almost always say almost nothing at all, honest – I watered it maybe twice a year at most, or something similar. People. You do have to water cacti. Kinda regularly, even. They'll die if they get too much, but that doesn't mean you should never give them any, or that you should only water them when it rains in Tucson (unless you've accurately reproduced the Tucson climate in your living room, which I kinda doubt), or that you should only give them a teaspoon at a time.

Also. Something about cacti seems to make people want to be mean to them, generally in a way that involves glue. They glue fake flowers to them, or cartoony googly eyes, or they top off their soil with pebbles and then glue the pebbles together so that you actually can't water or repot them (which is an ongoing frustration for me personally). I understand all these practices in some way or another – gluing the pebbles together makes them easier to ship, gluing flowers and eyes makes them more attractive to impulse buyers – but, again, you're selling the plant, right? So why wouldn't you want the plant to be good quality, likely to survive, and all that? Apparently not.

Snapshot taken during the All-Cactus Revue's Annual Tribute to Busby Berkeley.

Another bizarre thing people do to sell this species of cactus in particular is to claim that it's especially effective at reducing the radiation (or, in some cases, the static electricity) from cathode ray tubes. One site claimed that Cereus peruvianus is a natural negative-ion generator (read through the comments to see the specific claims). Another said that it can absorb radiation in general. A third claimed that just an extract of Cereus peruvianus would give a person "great protection" from "emission and other negative powers." This is a load of hooey, of course, on multiple levels. 2 There's actually so much accumulated hooey in these claims that it would take a whole separate post just to dismantle them, but I'll stick the short version in a (long!) footnote instead and you can read, or not read, as you like. 3

Anyway. Cacti need to be watered in general, and Cereus peruvianus in particular seems to do well if I give it a good, thorough drenching in my shower4 when the soil has gotten pretty dry, or completely dry: in practice, with the 5 ½-foot plants in the first picture, this means about every week and a half to two weeks, and for the smaller ones it's closer to every two or three weeks – I'm more conservative about them because they're in plastic, and their soil mix is also (accidentally) heavier, so I'll let them dry out, and then make them sit for another week or so before I water, just to be sure. In the winter, this slows down in both cases, due to all sorts of things (less light, colder temperatures, semi-dormancy), so it might be twice as long between waterings, but even then, they still get water from time to time, and I don't tease them with little sips.

The other necessary cactus care item is light. Indoor cacti need as much direct sun as they can get, generally speaking, but you can't actually move them out into full sun as soon as the weather warms up. They're not expecting that intensity of light, and it will bleach, scar, disfigure, or kill them to experience it all at once. Seriously. Indoor light and outdoor light are entirely different ballgames. Not even ballgames. I think one of them may be hockey.

Cereus peruvianus at work, photographed during a pirouette.

That said, if you have enough light for them, they're not terribly difficult. Given proper care, they're also quick-growing, which is a plus for me, though it wouldn't be for everybody.

I also appreciate that they're not spiny in every direction: when I'm taking the tall ones to the shower, I kind of have to hold on to the plant itself, somewhere, lest the plant start to tip and then smash itself into a wall. With some cacti, that's not really possible, but Cereus peruvianus has relatively minor spines, in fairly avoidable spots: I can grab either side of one of the ribs between thumb and forefinger and off to the shower we go. Easy care, relatively painless, quick-growing, and - you should see these babies dance.


Photo credits: all me.

1 A lot of cactus species naturally have white, slightly fuzzy spots near the areoles (the spots where the spines emerge), which makes it really easy to miss the presence of mealybugs, especially if you've been searching for the plant in question and are all adrenalized over having finally found one. As mealybugs and cactus go together like toast and . . . something that goes really, really well with toast, it's important to check these things.
2 Actually more like a hooey split: three scoops of hooey, on top of a flim-flam cut in half, served covered in snake oil and sprinkled with bullshit.
3 The central argument here seems to be the three-part claim that: 1) Cereus peruvianus specifically, 2) absorbs radiation emitted from cathode ray tubes (the newer liquid crystal displays, and other new types of displays, don't really emit anything dangerous and are therefore irrelevant), 3) which would otherwise reach you and cause you harm.
2) is true, but it's equally true of anything else: a piece of tissue paper, a coffee mug, a can of creamed corn, a corpse – all of these also absorb radiation. 3) is debatable, but plausibly true: cathode ray tubes, especially older ones, are capable of emitting some x-rays along with light, heat, and other kinds of radiation. Whether these are produced in large enough amounts to be worth worrying about, I'm not sure (I doubt it), but the most damaging, high-energy rays aren't going to be stopped by anything short of a few inches of lead, and putting a few inches of lead between yourself and your computer monitor sort of defeats the purpose of having a monitor. 1) is plausible, but I couldn't find any actual evidence that anyone has tried to test this, and the one sort-of reference I found just said that it had been found ineffective. It's plausible because, in theory, a plant that accumulated heavy elements (lead, thallium, mercury, gold, bismuth) from the environment would be capable of blocking radiation better than nothing at all, heavy elements being, generally, better blockers of radiation right up until you get to the really heavy elements, like thorium and uranium and plutonium, which are radioactive and therefore sources of radiation. Again, though, with our hypothetical bismuth-concentrating cactus, we have the problem of trying to read your monitor through a plant.
The claim is typically that placing the cactus next to your monitor will reduce radiation, but any radiation going out the side of your monitor was never going to affect you in the first place, and anyway if you're worrying about all radiation in every direction, your best bet would be to quit screwing around and encase your monitor in concrete already. At the very least you should surround it with lots of Chinese-made toys.
4 Like I do with all of my plants except one Cordyline: it's huge on its own, and in a massive clay pot, which is huger, the combination of which makes it more or less unliftable except for extremely special occasions.