Yes, the season of suck-ass has begun here in the Midwest. If it weren't for holiday lights, Chicago would look like The Swamps of Sadness. You know what I'm talking about.
Thank god for our beloved tropical and/or evergreen plants! If you can't get any place equatorial, then its time to hit your local greenhouses, conservatories, or any closed ecological system to get a good humanizing dose of plant life. I don't know about you, but when I see lush greenery and smell warm, humid dirt, I feel totally renewed.
New pink bracts on an Anthurium
New growth on Leptinella squalida 'Platt's Black'
New leaves on Monstera deliciosa
And then there are, of course, terrariums. What could be better than a whiff from your own miniature biosphere? Unless of course you're growing a lush crop of botyritis, which doesn't have the greatest smell, as I have discovered. But I digress. Look, gametophytes!
And moss! The arrow on your left indicates some unidentified volunteer spikemoss (selaginella), and the arrow on the right points to new growth from cultivated Kyoto moss. The rest is algae, which is doing terrifically well considering that I am making every effort to kill it. Don't worry, algae, as soon as I get my hands on some Physan, it will be your turn for a dose of delicious murder.
Title: The Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents: The definitive practical guide to cultivation, propagation, and display
Author: Terry Hewitt
Published: 1993, Dorling Kindersley Limited
Format: Lightly laminated and GODDAMN GIANT, this book does not mess around when it comes to cactus know-how. The cacti and succulents that the book covers (there are approximately 1000 A.S.* of said specimens) are not organized into little tidbits of repetitive categorical rhetoric; instead they are each discussed in their own paragraph. Informational organization is sacrificed for just a few precious nuggets of highly specific advice, and in addition to the plant profiles, there are many chapters dedicated to the history and biology of cacti and succulents.
Pictures: THEY RULE. If there are any categorical errors in this book, then 1) whatev because Terry Hewitt knows a lot more about this stuff than do I, and 2) I don’t care because even if they’re wrong, the pictures still FUCKING RULE.
Nominal organization: Like I said… randomly arranged. It is alphabetical by Latin name, thank Jesus.
Plant background info: Sweet! There’s random inclusion about the history and geographical origin of any particular plant. The radical part is the segment titled “Anatomy and Discovery,” which spans pages 10-25.
Plant care info: Like I SAID.
Display/decoration info: Just right.
OVERALL GRADE: A
Notes: Could be better organized and give more information on each plant ; pictures are spectacular and format has great appeal. Get it! It will be an awesome book to peruse in many, many situations.
I'm going to review some of the houseplant books I've come across. Criteria such as format, organization, and ability to withstand a potting-bench accident will be considered.
Title: The Easy-Care Guide to Houseplants
Author: Jack Kramer
Published: 1999, Creative Homeowner Press
Format: Lightly bound and lightly laminated, this text is not universally durable enough for the greenhouse/lab. Also, the giant format means that it doesn't look quite as stately in the bookshelf as, say, your clothbound collected works of Shakespeare. Basically, it's ugly and has that ultra-90's look.
Pictures: It may not be a pretty book, but at least the pictures are of good quality. Carefully staged, the plant identification photos and the how-to photos are helpful and attractive. I must add that it seems funny to see a hand-model with a perfect old-school french manicure demonstrating the propagative method of "division." How does she keep her hands so clean?!?!
Nominal organization: OH MY GOD IT'S ATROCIOUS. Be forewarned that here is no way to un-see the taxonomical horrors you will see in this book. Plants are grouped by "Family Common Names," "Family Scientific Names," and the subdivided in non-alphabetical order by common name... and that's just the beginning of the goat-roap. Scindapsus argyraeus is listed under the Begonia family as "Watermelon Begonia." Curious as to what happened to the original S. argyraeus, I flipped to the section on Aroids and found a picture of Peperomia argyreia listed with the Epipremnums under the name "Satin Pothos." The ferns are a goddamn mess. After reading the orchid IDs, I wanted to find everyone associated with this book, slap them with a glove, and challenge them to a duel. Meanwhile, I know relatively nothing about orchids and this Kramer fellow is supposedly an expert. Finally, as you could have guessed, the common names which they use to categorize the plants are an entropic maelstrom of self-contradiction. I could go on about the tomfuckery, but why?
Plant background info: There is some, but it's basically shortened for purposes of coffee table reading or bathroom reading. This isn't the Kew Garden's Definitive Guide to Whatever, it's a light read published by the Creative Homeowner Press. They probably do a similar volume on decoupage. I'll let it go.
Plant care info: Good. The sections on pests/disease, propagation, and maintenance are pretty comprehensive (how many houseplant books cover things like beneficial syrphid flies? Brownie points for obscure info). They even have a great tutorial on building your own growing stand for shop lights... pictures of the manicured hand-model goin' at it with a handsaw are sadly absent.
Display/decoration info: Too much. If I wanted to know how to use houseplants to turn my living room into a fake-ass Reconstruction-era parlor, I'd buy a book on interior design.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
Problems happen with our houseplants. You know, it, I know it. This time of year, when we're dealing with issues of humidity, temperature, pests, etc., we have to think about optimizing our conditions, getting creative with our solutions, and cutting our losses. Got any maidenhair ferns? Got central heat? Then I've got news... your fern is as good as dead. Don't freak out! Maybe you can find a cloche or a suitable terrarium. Maybe you can give them away. Or, if you're me, maybe you can throw those fuckers out and find a fern that is more compatible with your indoor habitat. When a threat, sickness, or general weakness is detected, it pays to consider The Greater Good. Here's a few of my current problem plants.
Epipremnum aureum "Marble Queen," suffering shock from change of temperature and light. If you keep pothos outside during the summer, like I do, you can expect to see some leaf shed as they re-adjust to indoor conditions. It's normal. Yellow leaves will not recover and also invite pests; trim them. THE GREATER GOOD!
Phototropism in a N. exaltata "Emina." This results from low light levels or single-direction light. Moving the plant closer to a window or simply rotating the pot every week should solve this problem.
Musa acuminata "Novak." Dead lower growth likely due to cold draught exposure and dry air.
Citrus meyeri suffering from underwatering. Well, not so much "suffering from" as "dead from." I've already thrown them away. THE GREATER GOOD!
Defolation in Adenium obesum due to cold exposure and transplant shock; A. obesums occasionally go dormant in the winter when conditions fluctuate. Don't panic if you lose all your leaves... hold back on the watering and wait for spring.
One of the other great things about visiting a garden conservatory is that you have the opportunity to see older or larger specimens of some of your own plants, or plants you may have considered buying. Think of my excitement, for example, when the Garfield Conservatory desert house yielded mature specimens of three plants I recently brought home.
Agave funkiana (here labeled A. lopantha poselgeri)
And these are my new plants. In the back is the Agave funkiana, which I now know will get bigger, but not nearly as big as A. americana. Which is fine.... I don't have much room for giant spiny plants, and I'm glad to see that A. funkianas retain their beautiful blue hue into maturity.
On the left is my Crassula "Babies Necklace." This variety won't get as tall as the C. perforata at the conservatory, but at least I have a better idea of what to expect. In fact, I think I'm happier, because a dwarf variety like mine should retain the lovely colors, but stay more densely clothed with leaves. Compact plants are usually more attractive than leggy ones.
Finally, the Aeonium arboreum atropurpurea on the right is teeny-weeny compared to the specimen at the conservatory, which really puts the "arbor" in "arboreum." I can't wait for mine to get that big... although it will certainly require some waiting. These guys aren't exactly sprinters when it comes to growth indoors.
Other comparison photos...
My C. tomentosa at home. So I guess that I can expect C. tomentosa to get taller and leggier with time, eventually becoming a shrubby clump. Not the prettiest thing for indoor display, but it could be worse. Take, for example, Kalanchoe tomentosa...
Yuck! I knew there was a reason why I always pass these up. Yes, they're furry and soft, and like many succulents they are adorable in their young age. But give them time and care, and they will reward you by turning into a bunch of ragged sticks! This also applies to Chamaedorea metallica...
I keep almost buying on of these palms (come on, it has "Metallica" right there in the name) but then I hesitate. Now, after visiting the Garfield Conservatory, I'm glad I waited. Pretty though the foliage may be, the passage of time does not improve the attractiveness of the growth habit. It looks... sort of boring and unstable. I think I'll shift my desires for a palm tree onto a variety that develops a bigger trunk.
Of course, if you are curious about how your plants will look when they mature, there are easier ways. Google is expedient (if often wrong) and Dave's Garden has a pretty comprehensive database of facts and pictures. But actually standing in the presence of an old, vigorous specimen... well it's kind of like standing in front of a painting that you've only ever seen in photographs, isn't it? There's a kind of mesmerizing quality to being thrown into the shade of a towering Bird of Paradise or Coconut palm and realizing that this is what your houseplants were born to do. When I come home, it makes me pat my little plants reassuringly and say, "that'll do, palm."
But not you, Kalanchoe tomentosa. You got NO kinda potential.
A sister facility to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, the Garfield Conservatory is a free institute located on the southwest side of Chicago. They have some truly amazing plants, and their brilliant interiorscaping turns a simple meandering walk into an escape to tropical heaven! They even have some rare Cuban specimens that were brought over before the embargo. Of course, I'd skip their most valuable palm to take home just one of their crazy little staghorn ferns. The children's room was a nice touch, and their special exhibit on the production of glucose had a spread of tiny homegrown bananas to sample! The bananas were delicious, and vaguely floral compared to the standard grocery store variety. Aside from a noticeable outbreak of whitefly in the fern room, this collection is immaculately maintained and contains quite a bit of history. I look forward to going again.
Fearful symmetry on a Calathea lancifolia
An incredible Stapelia gigantea flower
Crosiers across a pond
Beautiful mosses and Adantiums in the fern room
A very provocative Cycad organ
I'm really on a kick with "fronds" punned into popular songs, aren't I? Well, at least I haven't used any "Seabiscuit" metaphors lately. I mean, it is a bitchin' movie, but anyway.
Some random updates: "Mystery Red Fern" is still putting out new fronds, despite the fact that my relative humidity in the plant room recently dropped from 73% down to 40% percent in the last 3 days. The new growth on this fern is always the prettiest part.
This is the beginning of a bloom on Tillandsia (noid)! How exciting. I've been watering via submersion up until this point, as per the great tips I got at this page on Web Indexes. Now I'll obviously have to try something else.
It's getting to be winter, folks, and that is an inevitable fact. For those of us in northern climes, the heat's kicking on and the humidity is plummeting, which makes our beloved indoor plants very sad. They will slow down new growth, shed old growth, and stop flowering. Ferns will start to look crappy and ficus trees will weep. Previously unseen pest populations can explode. Some plants will go dormant in order to adjust, and others will simply limp along until spring. But this doesn't mean your plant habit must also go dormant; there are plenty of fantastic things to do indoors in this season. Here's a few ideas.
Buy winter-flowering plants. If you need your monthly fix of inflorescence, there are options. Cyclamen, schlumbergera, and many other commonly available houseplants can be purchased in flower, or will naturally flower during winter months.
Force some bulbs. "Forcing" is the term for getting a bulb to flower in an off-season. I prefer to think of this process as "encouraging" rather than "forcing," because if I have learned anything about plants it's that they can't be forced to do anything. Rather, we can only create the conditions that plants prefer, and hope that they flourish. Many bulbs such as freesia, hyacinth and amaryllis will flower indoors, but creating these appropriate conditions can take weeks of chilling and storage in darkness. If you have less time and inclination, buy pre-started bulbs or simply go with the easiest of all bulbs, Narcissus papyraceus. Also known as Paperwhites, these bulbs are both common and classic, with no special preparation needed. They can be obtained without great expense at any garden store, and will root in water and most decorative mediums (pebbles, glass beads, etc.)
I know it's a lump right now, but soon it will be awesome
Adopt flowerless orchids. Big box stores and many greenhouses have a consistent supply of orchids which have been forced into flower. However, when the first or second flush of orchid blooms fade, these plants lose the bulk of their retail value. Because it takes time and space (which equals money) to encourage an orchid to re-bloom, growers often throw their flowerless orchids away to make room for more valuable stock. So much the better for us! Armed with the know-how to encourage another flowering, we can now have those pricey orchids we might otherwise pass up. If you have a good local greenhouse, ask them if they have any flowerless orchids on sale. In this exact fashion, a friend and I recently acquired some phalaenopsis orchids from a local greenhouse for almost 90% off the ticket price. The waiting can be the best part... the leaves may indicate which type of orchid you're getting, but until you can convince it to re-bloom, the color of your orchid will be a delightful mystery.
Pick up some cacti. When it comes to the dry warmth of heated indoor spaces, few plants will be happier than cacti and succulents. See upcoming posts for more on these delightful little freaks.
Part One: Last night, an interesting topic came up in conversation: the World's Ugliest Dog competition. Most of you will likely be familiar with the competition because of Sam, the legendary paragon of ugly and competitive dogs. I myself am partial to runner-up Munchkin, however, because Munchkin proves that you can be unanimously voted as ugly and still have faith in humanity. Look at her face; that is the face of a repugnant cur, but a super happy one. She obviously feels as if she's very pretty, so more power to her. Go Munchkin!
Part Two: On Saturday, my friend Julia and I took a voyage out to visit Ted's Greenhouse once again, and came across a cactus called Opuntia articulata, the Paper Spine cactus. It is, without a doubt, the ugliest plant I have ever seen. It's an ugly gray lump, and the spines are soft and pathetic. This plant is not ill or malformed in any way - in fact it is in perfect health. Just as it is, by the grace of nature, it looks the way it does. If I were this cactus, I would call up Nature and say, "Hey, Nature. Thanks for giving me the Super-Ugly gene, bee-otch. Peace out."
However, as you may be able to tell from the first part of this story, I can appreciate something that is fuck-ugly as long as it is confidently so. So, O. articulatus had to come home with me. I think it's interesting and hilarious, and it has the perfect color for winter. Imagine it sitting alongside the jarrahdale pumpkins with me this fall. Hooray Opuntia!
So, do you have a houseplant that could compete with Opuntia articulata?
This weekend I acquired my first Schefflera. In it's previous life as a bonsai, it was performing poorly and headed for disposal when my friend Julia came upon it. It was graciously donated to me.
As you can see, this bonsai habit is what we technically call "jacked up." And it's no wonder... the roots are cemented into the pot by a top-layer of gravel and glue, as big box stores often do with bonsai for some inexplicable reason. Nonetheless, it is perfect for one thing: pyrotechnics.
What? Pyrotechnics? No, just kidding. What I really meant was Air Layering.
Air layering is a propagation method. Air-layering requires some labor and patience, but it's a great way to revive a plant that has become tall, top-heavy, or bare along the trunk. It works with specifically non-herbaceous or woody plants. The process allows new subterranean roots to grow in the air along the stem. This is achieved by partially severing the main stem/trunk and then tricking it into thinking it's underground. When the new roots have grown sufficiently, you can sever the trunk, and ta-da! New plant, ready for potting. Here's how.
Assemble your Air-Layering tools:
A small, sharp, sterilized knife*
A clean paintbrush*
Rooting hormone powder
Long-fiber sphagnum moss (one handful)
Tape or twist-ties
*Always use clean tools. This is modern amateur plant surgery, not Civil War whack-a-limb. Have you been feeding whiskey to your schefflera-patient as well? For shame.
Okay. Step one. Using your knife, take an angular incision along the stem of the plant at the desired height. Make sure there is a leaf node (or adventitious root protrusion, if applicable) above the cut. Remove any intermediate leaves, leaving a bundle of the topmost growth. Angle the cut upward so that you have separated (but not removed) a small flap of stem tissue. What you are cutting is called a "tongue," so that may give you an idea of what it should look like. Also, the cut should be shallow- less than halfway through the stem, or the upper portion will die.
Step two. Brush the cut with rooting hormone powder.
Step three. Get your sphagnum, and moisten it with clean water. Squeeze out the excess. Wrap the wad of sphagnum around the cut as if you were dressing a wound with a bandage.
Step four. Take your plastic, and wrap it around the sphagnum bandage. Secure it in place with your tape. All done! Give your plant a little pat-pat, and resume regular watering in a few days.
Holy crap! That was so easy and enjoyable. Now just keep the dressing evenly moist, and you should expect to see roots forming after a few months. Water from the top of the dressing, with a dropper or something similar, rather than opening the dressing and inviting bacteria. Wait until you see roots through the plastic before you remove it. Then you can sever the stem just below the roots (don't leave too much extra; it will rot) and plant in the smallest suitable container.
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song;
a medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
and I am Marie of Romania.
a medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
and I am Marie of Romania.
-Dorothy Parker, 1925
I was reminded of this poem today, when I discovered two things. First, my Euphorbia tirucalli cutting showed its first signs of new growth!
And in a glorious cycle of song, my cat cleanly removed all the new growth from my Aloe parvula "Jacobsonii."
How karmic. One more pertinent Parker quote; asked to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence, Parker immediately replied, "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think." Next time, I will think before I move my plants.