Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Planty Resolutions

At this time of the year, everyone is making resolutions.  So I guess I will talk about what I plan to do for this next year.  More than resolutions, these are my goals.  The first four goals apply to this blog directly and the last five apply to me and my plants.

  1. Continue posting at the rate of 2-3 times per week.  I started this blog a year and a half ago, but only began posting at regular (frequent) intervals a couple of months ago.  So far I have not had trouble coming up with at least 2 posts a week.  I hope to keep that trend throughout the year.

  2. Review about 1 plant book a month.  Even if I don't read one new plant book each month, I have a backlog that should last me the full year - all I need to do is write the review.

  3. Write a "trip report" about once a month.  This will be a little trickier, as I don't know off the top of my head 12 different places to visit and write about.  But I will give it a shot.  More than likely this will become more of a quarterly post, or just as they occur.  I won't hold myself to the month interval, since my vacations tend to be distributed more heavily towards Spring and Summer.

  4. Write a "project" post once a month.  I have written three posts that I tagged and categorized as "projects."  I foresee more of these in the future, as I plan to write about my successes and failures of making hypertufa pots and terrariums.  We'll see what else I get my hands into.

  5. Start a collection of Asarums (Wild Ginger).  I have had just one species of Asarums in the past, but I've been saving up some money so that I can order 2 or 3 varieties from Asiatica Nursery and begin a real collection.  [I'm not sure if I want to start the collection in the Spring or wait until the Fall, since they will thrive in my cool, dark house overwinter.]  I received a collector's book on Asarums for Christmas that I will be posting about soon - stay tuned!

  6. Grow some of my own food.  During the summer of 2008, we grew about 5 tomatoes (maybe less) and 3 limes.  For the summer of 2009 I have some ambitious plans to grow: tomatoes, potatoes, kiwi (will not have fruit this year), and broccoli.  Last year I tried broccoli, but the plants kept getting eaten by some caterpillars.  I don't have a lot of room for gardening in the sun, but I am going to try growing the tomatoes and broccoli in pots this year, so that I can move them into the appropriate full sun locations and save my ground space for potatoes and kiwi.  The kiwi will take a couple of years before fruiting, but I want to get them in the ground this year.  The potatoes (my favorite vegetable) will also be a new venture for me.  Wish me luck!

  7. Vigorously plant front figure 8 bed.  We have a wonderful front flowerbed in the shape of a figure 8 that is filled with red and white tulips in the Spring.  The rest of the growing season it gets invaded by grass.  We have tried putting down tarp and covering with mulch after the tulips are finished, but that's just not very pretty.  Last year we planted potato vine, which was great.  The only problem is that we didn't plant enough.  This year I want to plant sooner (while the tulips are just finishing their blooming) and plant about twice as much.  If I stay on top of watering them at first, they should really fill out the bed nicely and keep the grass out.

  8. Fertilize. I have never fertilized any of my own plants before.  Some of my plants have not bloomed for me - ever.  Are these two items coincidental?  I think not.  I was very happy not fertilizing my plants, but I have committed to fertilizing regularly starting this spring.  Maybe I will get my Walking Iris, Shell Ginger and Bougainvillea to bloom this year!

  9. Recreate the corner garden.  Two years ago we started a beautiful little corner garden in our backyard.  At the time it was a shade garden.  After the ice storm in December 2007, it became a full/part sun garden, since the trees hanging over the garden were destroyed.  To make matters worse, the small cherry tree we had planted in front of the garden has since died, so we can't hope for it to one day shade the garden.  And I can't count on my tiny Japanese Maple to provide shade anytime soon.  This last summer the garden suffered because I had planted it with shade perennials (hostas and coral bells, mostly).  Now I need to either rethink the garden or plant a new shade tree so that this garden can return to form.  I've been thinking about planting a ginkgo tree ever since I saw one last fall that was a beautiful solid shade of yellow.  What do you think?

Well, that does it for now.  Those all seem like doable goals.  And each one of them will probably result in a couple of posts.  I'll keep you updated.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Trip Report: Myriad Gardens continued

Last week I posted a new photo album containing over 200 pictures of the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City.  I posted the album in pre-Christmas haste, without labeling any of them.  But now I have labeled the majority of the pictures.  So, if you haven't seen them yet, or you already looked and want to know an ID of one of the plants, you can check them out here.

Last week in my Myriad Gardens post I just wrote about a couple of the highlights.  I wanted to give a little more information about the Gardens today.

The Myriad Botanical Gardens is a 17 acre colorfully landscaped plot in downtown Oklahoma City.  In the center is the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory, which is a big tropical rainforest inside a cylindrical greenhouse on it's side.  The big greenhouse hovers over a pond, giving it the name "The Crystal Bridge."

The outdoor gardens are nice, but the real action is inside.  About 2/3 of the inside space is dedicated to a tropical rainforest collection, while the remaining 1/3 is dedicated to a dry tropical zone.  There is no physical boundary between the two collections, so I am partly surprised they coexist so well, sharing the same humid air with one another.  The dry zone is watered less frequently the entire year and is watered sparsely if at all during a certain dormant period of the year.

While many of the plants at the Myriad Gardens are those you would expect to see in a rain forest recreation, the Myriad Gardens has focused on a couple of specific plant groups.

Aroids

This is not one of the collections noted on the official website, but being an Aroid collector, I couldn't help but notice how many plants were present from this family.  Maybe the website needs a little update.

The collection of Aroids from the genus Anthurium was astounding.  There are two types of Anthurium (in my mind): those with the very colorful blooms and ordinary foliage, and those with the really cool foliage but discrete blooms.  The Myriad Gardens had several color varieties of the first category.  I had never seen a pale purple Anthurium before and unfortunately I didn't get a very good picture of it.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]Pale purple Anthurium sp. at Myriad Gardens Pale purple Anthurium sp. at Myriad Gardens[/caption]

They also have a number of the unique foliage species of Anthuriums, including the King Anthurium (Anthurium veitchii).  Notice the size of the guard rail in comparison.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="420"]King Anthurium - Anthurium veitchii King Anthurium - Anthurium veitchii[/caption]

I also saw a cool shingler Aroid that I had never seen before.  This little climber was so appressed to the rock wall that the leaves were conforming to the contours of the rocks.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="420"]Rhaphidophora cryptantha - an Aroid shingler - at the Myriad Gardens Rhaphidophora cryptantha - an Aroid shingler - at the Myriad Gardens[/caption]

Really there were tons more Aroids that I noticed (and photographed) but I won't waste any more space here.  If you're interested, go to my photo album to see them.

Marantaceae (Prayer Plants)

This category was also not mentioned on the official website, but I noticed quite a few unique species from this family that I had never seen before, and several that I had.  Two particular varieties from the same species caught my attention.  I had seen the Stromanthe 'Triostar' before, but never this large.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]Stromanthe sanguinea Triostar at the Myriad Gardens Stromanthe sanguinea 'Triostar' at the Myriad Gardens[/caption]

I have not quite identified the other variety, but I think it is also from Stromanthe sanguinea.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]Stromanthe sanguinea? at the Myriad Gardens Stromanthe sanguinea? at the Myriad Gardens[/caption]

Of course, there were also several very large Zebra Plants (Calathea zebrina), of which I have a small one of my own at home.  It was fun to see these plants waist high or higher.

Palms

According to their website, there are supposedly 100 species of palms in the Myriad Gardens.  If I had to count, I would probably tell you there were about 10.  The only palm I could correctly identify was the Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera).  They also have the palm species which has some of the largest leaves in the world - the Bismarckia nobilis.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="360"]One of the palms in the Myriad Gardens One of the palms in the Myriad Gardens[/caption]

Cycads

The Myriad Gardens also has a nice collection of cycads scattered throughout their rainforest collection.  Cycads are pretty much the oldest plants on the planet, having shared time with dinosaurs.  They are often mistaken as palms and have similar characteristics, but are usually shorter.  I don't know that I got any good pictures of the Cycads.

Gingers

Ah, one of my favorites!  The collection of gingers may just seem large, but not very diverse, whenever the plants are out of bloom.  But when they are in bloom, it is easier to see that the Myriad Gardens has a number of different species of Gingers.  These are beautiful, tall plants with very colorful blooms.  I am still waiting for my own personal shell ginger to bloom.  Maybe next summer.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="360"]A variegated shell ginger - Alpinia zerumbet variegata A variegated shell ginger - Alpinia zerumbet 'variegata' - at the Myriad Gardens[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]An unknown ginger at the Myriad Gardens An unknown ginger at the Myriad Gardens[/caption]

One closely related plant to the family of gingers is the genus Heliconia.  Heliconias are commonly called "False Bird of Paradise" because of their resemblance to the Bird of Paradise inflorescence.  The Myriad Gardens had a couple of different Heliconias in their collection.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]False Bird of Paradise - Heliconia lankesteria False Bird of Paradise - Heliconia lankesteria[/caption]

Bromeliads

No one would call this collection of bromeliads small.  And it seems they are always in bloom.  The botanical family Bromeliaceae contains the genera Aechmea (the most common Bromeliad), Ananas (which includes the Pineapple plant), Billbergia, Bromelia, Cryptanthus, Tillandsia (commonly called "Air plant") and more than 50 others.  Many of the Bromeliads (Aechmeas, Ananas) are planted in the ground, while others (Tillandsia) are growing attached to trees or rock.  I didn't take too many pictures of the bromeliads, but there are several in my photo album.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]One of my favorite Bromeliads on the left (striped purple and green). One of my favorite Bromeliads on the left (striped purple and green).[/caption]

And here is a picture of just one of the many bromeliads in bloom.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]One of the many bromeliads in bloom One of the many bromeliads in bloom[/caption]

Orchids

The Myriad Gardens actually has a fantastic display of orchids.  At one location there is a concentrated wall of orchids.  But elsewhere in the rain forest collection you can see them attached to trees and rocks and walls.  It is simply amazing how many orchids are in bloom at any one time.  More than 1200 of the orchids in the collection were bequeathed to the Gardens in 2002 by a local collector named Fred Strothmann.  My photo album has quite a few pictures of the orchid collection.  Even though I have had some experience raising orchids, I didn't try to tackle identifying any of them.  I could tell a couple of the genera, but nothing beyond that.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]An unknown orchid at the Myriad Gardens An unknown orchid at the Myriad Gardens[/caption]

Begonias

To be honest, I only noticed 3 or 4 begonias in the Gardens, but the website states that there are over 100 species present.  I'm not denying that they were there, because I was kind of being overstimulated by the place.  If I worked there everyday it would probably take a good month before my head stopped spinning each time I walked in the Gardens.  One particular (large) begonia did catch my eye, the Begonia 'Black Taffeta.'

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="420"]Begonia Black Taffeta and my beautiful wife Begonia 'Black Taffeta' and my beautiful wife[/caption]

Euphorbias

Euphorbias are a bit of mystery to me.  Why?  Well, because the most common Euphorbia I know is Euphorbia pulcherrima - The Poinsettia.  Most of the other Euphorbias with which I am familiar all have spines and are what I would call in a very general sense - cacti.  Now I know that technically Euphorbias are not cacti, and I'm okay with that.  But what I don't understand is what is the Poinsettia doing in the same genus as Euphorbia lactea?

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"]Euphorbia lactea Cristata Euphorbia lactea 'Cristata'[/caption]

The Myriad Gardens collection of Euphorbias resides in the dry tropical zone.  Do you know the difference between a cactus and a Euphorbia?  Euphorbias grow in the Eastern Hemisphere while cacti grown in the Western Hemisphere.  Both plant groupings are filled with succulent plants with thick stems that store a milky sap and require very little moisture in their natural environments.  The Myriad Gardens collection of Euphorbias contains 40 species and if I had to guess, I would have told you it contained more than that.  There are quite a few pictures of Euphorbias in my photo album.

My favorite Euphorbia in the building was probably Euphorbia punicea - The Jamaican Poinsettia tree.  Here is one picture and there are a couple more pictures in my photo album.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="377"]Euphorbia punicea - The Jamaican Poinsettia Tree Euphorbia punicea - The Jamaican Poinsettia Tree[/caption]




The Myriad Gardens are a really great place to visit, with a small admission for the time that you can spend inside (if you're a plant lover).  If you haven't yet clicked on any of the dozens of links I provided to my photo album, I suggest you do so now.  You can get a better feel for the wonderful collection on hand.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Trip Report: Myriad Gardens of OKC

I recently visited the Myriad Botanical Gardens of Oklahoma City with my family for the holidays.  I have been there a couple of times before, but not since I became a plant nut.

I was really excited about going to the Myriad Gardens, only having vague memories of the place.  The Gardens far exceeded my expectations.  I saw so many different plants, I can't begin to name them.  And the identifying placards were about 1 for every 15 plants, so there were many I had not seen before and still don't know what they are.  Currently the gardens are strung up in Christmas lights, which were lit and visible for about the last 30 minutes that we were there.

I took over 200 pictures - probably about half of the plants present - and put together a photo album here.  I will go through this photo album and add names as I identify them all, but for now it's just the pictures.  I'm sure I will dedicate several future posts to plants I saw there, as well.  The pictures are nothing special and a number of them are out of focus.  But for the most part you can tell what I was trying to take a picture of.

Here is a quick list of some of the highlights (all should be pictured in the photo album):

  • pale purple Anthurium in bloom

  • HUGE Philodendron bloom

  • unknown Aroid shingler (possibly Rhaphidophora cryptantha) climbing rocks - most appressed plant I've ever seen

  • Jamaican poinsettia tree (Euphorbia punicea) in bloom

  • many different varieties of Heliconia (False Bird of Paradise) in bloom

  • Yellow Neomarica (Walking Iris/Apostle Plant) in bloom

  • TONS of orchids (Phaelenopsis, Dendrobium, Oncidium and others I can't name)

  • lots of bromeliads, lots of ginger, lots of palm trees

  • couple of large staghorn ferns


Enjoy the photo album!  (and check back for picture captions)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why "The Variegated Thumb?"

This post really should have been my first post on this blog.  But it wasn't, and that's probably for the best.  There are actually a couple of people who read my blog now. :)

You may have (although probably not) wondered why I named my blog "The Variegated Thumb."  If you have wondered this, I wonder what you decided.  Did you decide that I am simply a lover of variegated plants?  Or maybe that my green thumb is not full photosynthesizing - implying that my skill with raising plants is sometimes lacking?  Pretty much anyone who knows a thing or two about plants (and by a thing or two, I mean things like "plants have leaves" and "plants can grow from seeds"), knows the common "green thumb" moniker applies to those who have an uncanny ability to grow any and every plant they toss in a pot or pile of dirt - or dark closet for that matter.

Well, I guess I took that oh-so-common moniker and modified it for a couple of reasons.  First, although some might confuse me for a green thumb because my house is filled with plants and I spend a lot of my free time tending to them, I don't consider myself a green thumb.  Maybe I'm trying to be modest, but I think it's more likely honesty.  I have more than once found myself killing a plant that I thought would be easy to care for - and I didn't even shove the plants in a dark closet! Now don't go thinking that I have a brown, black or dead thumb.  I have never killed a silk flower.  And I have grown a number of plants quite successfully, some of them considered difficult.

A variegated leaf, while having many cells that do photosynthesize, contains a variable number of cells which do not photosythesize and are usually white.  I feel that explains my success with plants rather well.  I just don't quite consider myself attaining the title of Green Thumb -- yet.  I'll consider it a future goal of mine.

Now, if you were one of those people thinking I named this blog after my love of variegated plants, don't let your heart be crushed.  (whispering) I'll let you in on a little secret... That was part of the reason, too. Actually, it was a big part of the reason.  The Variegated Thumb just matched me so well because of the abstract discussion above, as well as the fact that I tend to look for the not-so-ordinary in plants.  I know, variegated plants are a dime a dozen these days.  But you have to admit, they are more rare than non-variegated plants.  Most of my favorite plants fall in to the variegated category - from the Aglaonema genus to Scindapsus pictus.  If they aren't variegated, there is usually some other not-so-ordinary attribute for which I have picked the plant.  I really like to find the unusual, rare, exotic and quirky plants to put in my collection.

So, The Variegated Thumb is much more than a catchy name for my blog.  It describes me and my experiences with the great Kingdom Plantae.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas cacti in bloom

This blog post marks my first update on a particular plant.  Last year I posted some information on seasonal plants and some pictures of my seasonals in bloom, including my Amaryllis and "Christmas Cactus."  Once again, it is that time of year and my cactus is covered in tiny buds.

christmas_buds
My Christmas cactus buds
As you can see, my cactus doesn't look too good this year.  I sat it outside a little early in the Spring and I think it actually froze one night, but was able to hang on.

About a year ago, a friend of mine left for Ireland to live for a year or two.  She left her plants behind with me (which is fun) and her big, healthy Christmas Cactus is also blooming.  Hers looks much better than mine:

christmas_blooms
My friend's Christmas cactus in bloom
Identification

I would be remiss if I didn't talk a little about  this plant and its correct identification here.  The Christmas/Thanksgiving/Easter/Holiday Cactus has been called lots of names.  And there are actually about four or five different species from the genus Schlumbergera that are labeled with this common name.  Two other genera are commonly called Name-Your-Holiday Cactus - Hatiora and Rhipsalis, both of which are less common.  Both of my plants are from the genus Schlumbergera, although I have not tried too hard to identify which species.  I wouldn't be surprised if they are two different species, but they might be the same one.

General Care

They are very easy to care for and very easy to bring to bloom.  Last year, my wife read some information about bringing them to bloom - putting the plant in a cold room (our garage), allowing it about 12 hours sunlight, 12 hours dark, and putting a glass of water next to it to increase the humidity slightly.  It worked great.  This year I think both plants beat us to the punch, putting out buds before I remembered to put them in the garage.

During the summer I leave them both on my back porch, which receives dappled sunlight most of the day and water them infrequently - about once a week or less.

They are also very easy to propagate.  Simply pinch off a section of plant and put it in dirt.  Viola - You have a new plant!

christmas_start
A Christmas cactus I started

Monday, December 15, 2008

Great piece of bark - what should I do with it?

I was driving home from work a couple weeks ago when I noticed a huge piece of bark on the side of the road.  It had fallen off the side of a large tree that had been cut down.  The tree had been chopped off at the height of the fence (about 6') and the bark slid off the tree several years later

Like a football scout (it is that season), I looked at it and all I could see was potential.  I came back that evening and loaded it up in my wife's SUV.  Now it's sitting on my back porch waiting to be put to good use.  The bark measures about 6 feet x 2.5 feet.  You should be able to see from the picture how big it is.  It also has really good character.

bark
Me holding up the prized piece of bark. Look how big!
The only problem is deciding what to do with it.  I have a couple of ideas, but haven't acted on anything yet.  Mainly my ideas focus on climbing plants.

1. I could construct a sort of stand and mount the bark on it, holding it upright.  Then I could start to train some of my climbers to attach to it.  I have a lot of good plant candidates (mostly Aroids) for this.  I have just begun to train a couple of my Aroids to climb up some stakes I made.  These are Philodendron microstictum and Scindapsus pictus (one of my favorite plants).

staked
Clippings of Scindapsus pictus that I have staked for climbing.
2. One of the most common uses for bark among "planty" people is for mounting orchids.  However, I am kind of out of my orchid swing right now.  I have had as many as 5 orchids in the past, but I only have one right now and it has moved to my mother-in-law's house because it wasn't doing very well under my care.  This huge piece of bark would look amazing covered in orchids, but if I decide to use it in that manner I'll be putting it on hold for now.  I'm also not sure if this bark would be most appropriate for mounting orchids.  I suppose it couldn't hurt.  But orchid-mounting bark usually is more porous and can be soaked in water.  This piece of bark would not be a good fit for that kind of use due to its size, as well as its texture.

Do you have any ideas about how this great piece of bark could be used?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Virtual Trip: Mystery seeds from the Caribbean

Recently I sat down and brainstormed about all of the things I could write about on The Variegated Thumb.  One of the topics that came to mind was a sort of "field trip report."  I have a list of places that I want to visit - be it a local nursery, botanical garden in a neighboring state, or something even more far-fetched.  I thought a report about my trip with some pictures and information would make a very appropriate blog post.  So I have plans to release a trip report about once a month.  [Other recurring topics I have planned are book reviews, plant finds, genera profiles, aquatic posts, and projects.]

My first trip report is unfortunately not from a trip I took myself, hence the word "virtual" in the title.  I'm going to have to live through pictures and some seeds that were brought back to me.  My parents just returned from a week-long cruise to the Caribbean.  They left from Fort Lauderdale, Florida and landed in Grand Turks, Tortola, St. Marten, and Half Moon Cay (Bahamas).

At one point on the trip my mom noticed some seeds hanging off of a plant and commented about it to my dad.  My dad, wearing cargo shorts, decided to carry a couple home in his pocket.  The seeds of two other mystery plants caught their attention on the trip and so now I have seeds from three unknown plants.

The Seeds of Mystery

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="480" caption="Mystery seeds from the Caribbean"]Mystery seeds from the Caribbean[/caption]

The first seed is like a large nut.  It seems to have the most distinct appearance of the three seeds, so I  hoped someone would know what this one is.

The second seed is the pit of a small fruit.  The fruit was not much larger than the pit and was shriveled and brown when I first saw it.  I peeled it away easily and washed the seed by hand.  My mom remembers seeing a lot of Fiddle leaf fig trees (Ficus pandurata) on their trip and I suspect that the fruit that I removed from this pit might have been a fig.

The third seed was also inside of a fruit, but the fruit layer around the seed was much thinner in this case.  My mom remarked about how much this one looks like a large lemon seed.  I agree.

Identifying the Mystery Seeds

The only clues I had for determining the plants from which these seeds came is the appearance, their departure port location and the four cruise stops.

I posted the picture above to one of my favorite forums on the internet - the Name that Plant forum on GardenWeb.  That forum is sort of my Watson, if you will.  Within 20 minutes(!) I had already received a positive identification on the first seed.  The first seed seems to have come from a Christmas Palm (Veitchia merrillii).  I looked around and found some other pictures of these seeds, as well some important information - they are commonly planted in southern Florida.  The good news continues - apparently they are fairly easy to grow from seed and make decent container plants!

One down, two to go...

If you have any information on the remaining two seeds or think you might know what one of them is, please let me know.  I can try to germinate them, but I'm not sure how much luck I will have without knowing what they are.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: Botany of Desire - A Plant's Eye View of the World

For some reason I want to say this is my first plant book review of a Fiction book.  However, Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World is not fiction.  I guess it's just that it's the first non-reference book I've reviewed on my blog.


Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan is more of an historical account of nature's interaction with plants - and specifically human kind's interaction with plants.  It chronicles the influences of man on "natural" selection.  It also conjectures about the influence of plants on humans! No, that wasn't a typo. :)

Plants have natural variations in their offspring.  Some of those offspring are more successful than others.  The variations that succeed are more likely to reproduce than those that fail.  This is natural selection, of course.  Well, you might have heard someone say that since humans are so all-powerful, we have begun to trump nature's selection by choosing ourselves what species we want to live, etc.  For instance, it might be that the prettiest rose survives, rather than the rose most immune to certain diseases.

We know that plants have generated natural variations that take advantage of other living beings to profit themselves.  For instance, many plants produce beautiful flowers that appeal to pollinators (bees and birds).  Why do the plants do this?  They do it for their own benefit - so that the plant gets pollinated and reproduces.

The premise of The Botany of Desire is this:
Maybe plants have been using us humans just like they do bees and birds.  Maybe plants have been specifically creating variations that appeal to humans in order to sustain their own populations.


It sounds kind of science fictiony and far-fetched, but on the most basic level you almost have to agree that it is true.  In many cases, the variations of plants that have been promoted by humans have not been for the betterment of the plant.  For instance, the apples we buy in the grocery store today are thickly coated with insecticides (more than ever before in history) for one specific reason.  Because we found an apple that we liked and have been spreading it forward by grafting (rather than allowing natural variation through seedlings), the apple tree has not adapted to the insects that feed on it.  If mankind were to have left the apple alone, it would have adapted to it's natural predators.  Therefore, it only makes sense that some plants would begin to make the best of a bad situation and start to produce variations that are appealing to humans, who have begun to more or less control the spread of plant life.

In the end, the premise is not so much that plants are using us, but that there is a reciprocal relationship.  Plants have merely begun to notice that we have desires and that by meeting our desires, they can benefit, as well.

Michael Pollan elegantly weaves his story, following four separate plant species which have appealed to different human desires:  the apple (sweetness), the rose (beauty), marijuana (intoxicant), and the potato (control).  The story is well-written, following Johnny Appleseed on his journey across the frontier, and recounting the quest for the perfect black tulip in Amsterdam.  Pollan also talks about his own experiences of growing marijuana and the genetic engineering that has been performed on the potato in recent decades.  The four plants are selected well in terms of highlighting four different desires, as well as progressing his story forward in time.  This is an entertaining and insightful book that I would recommend to any gardener.

Monday, December 8, 2008

My "onion" plants

Let me start with a caveat: This post has nothing to do with onions - at least nothing to do with edible onions (plants of the Allium genus, most notably Allium cepa).  However, this post has everything to do with plants that look like onions.  Coming from someone who is usually kind of picky about using the binomial (genus and species) taxonomy as much as possible and ignoring the confusing common names, I'll admit this is an odd classification.  But hopefully you'll see the same striking similarities between these plants that made me combine them in one post.  As it turns out, the plants I describe below do fall within the same family - Hyacinthaceae.  So I guess if I were a botanist who classified plants as a career, I would have at least gotten these two guys right by placing them in the same family. :)

Pregnant Onion (Ornithogalum longibracteatum)

Beyond the very familiar tulip bulb, there are a number of plants that have distinctly onion-like appearances.  Some of them show off their onion appearance above ground.  Many of these plants have been given common names which pay tribute to the onion similarity.  It is easy to see where Ornithogalum longibracteatum gets it's common name - the pregnant onion.  This is a really fun houseplant to keep:

pregnant_onion
My pregnant onion (Ornithogalum longibracteatum)
New plant bulbs are produced under a skin on the "mother" bulb and they fall off as they grow large enough.  These little bulbs are self-maintained, not requiring support from the mother plant, once they become detached.  Sometimes the "babies" sit on the soil surface for months before sprouting from the top and subsequently growing roots.  That unique behavior alone is reason enough to keep these little plants, in my opinion.  The root system seems almost to be an afterthought for this plant.

pregnant_closeup
Pregnant onion. Notice the "babies" at various stages of growth - some just beginning to bulge under the skin of the "mother."
My plant has not bloomed, but the inflorescence of this plant is a long bloom stalk containing up to 100 tiny star shaped blooms, similar in appearance to the blooms of the plant below.

The pregnant onion is a very easy plant to keep.  I water mine whenever the soil is thoroughly dry.  The bulbs store a lot of energy and the plant can survive on little water.  The pregnant onion thrives in bright, indirect light, but will survive in lower light conditions.  With time, the bulb can grow to be quite large, but in the two years I've had mine, the bulb has only grown to a little less than the size of my fist.

Silver Squill (Ledebouria socialis)

Another "onion-like" plant that I have is called Silver Squill.  I have two plants that can go by this common name, and I have not been able to determine yet whether they are in fact the same species, or not.  I purchased the first plant for it's unique foliage, but it has the same onion-shaped above ground bulb as the pregnant onion.  The beautiful variegated foliage is dappled in a dark green and a lighter silvery green.  The undersides of the leaves have a purple tint.

dark_squill
Silver Squill, Leopard Lily - Ledebouria/Scilla socialis
I originally thought this plant was Ledebouria socialis.  However, I discovered that my plant actually might be from the genus Scilla, when I came across this smaller-leaved variety below:

silver_squill
My other Silver Squill, Leopard Lily - Ledebouria/Scilla socialis?
This smaller plant is tagged as Scilla socialis 'Violacea' and looks very similar to my first Silver Squill.  However, the leaves are shorter, lighter in color and have a little bit different looking variegation.

squill_foliage
Foliage of my other Silver Squill
Just like the pregnant onion, these plants propagate by producing "baby" bulblets underneath the skin, which fall off and grow separately once matured.  You can see the bulblets in the picture below.

squill_babies
Silver squill babies
As I understand, there are many varieties and cultivars available of this plant and the inflorescence is one of the best identifying traits.  I believe that my two plants are different varieties (maybe both are cultivars).  My first Silver Squill had just finished flowering when I bought it and has not flowered since.  But I have seen my smaller Squill flower once.  The flowers are not showy, but mainly because they are so small.

squill_blooms
Silver squill inflorescence
A close-up photograph reveals a lot of character.  I didn't get a good close-up myself, but here is one that I found for Scilla socialis 'Violacea' which matches my own plant.

Scilla socialis Violacea inflorescence
Scilla socialis 'Violacea' inflorescence
Hopefully I will get to see my larger Silver Squill flower in the next year and will be able to identify it more specifically.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Lipstick plant 'Black Pagoda' in bloom

I have had my Lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus longicaulis) for at least a year and a half now.  Over the long holiday weekend I was picking out some of the dead leaves that had collected in the dense stems arching out of its hanging basket when I noticed a couple of small buds.


small_bud
New buds on Aeschynanthus longicaulis (lipstick plant) 'Black Pagoda'.  Also, notice the foliage on top and bottom of leaves.
I was pretty excited, not having seen my plant flower before.  I knew that some species of Lipstick plant have bright red blooms (see some here), hence the common name.  My particular species of Aeschynanthus is A. longicaulis 'Black Pagoda.'  It has beautiful foliage - dark and light green stripes on the top of the leaves and purply-red and green on the undersides.

I searched the plant for more of the inconspicuous buds and found that the plant is covered in them.  Looking around on the Dave's Garden website, I discovered a variety of lipstick plant that looks much like mine with a nice orange inflorescence.  You can see it here.  There are over 185 species of Aeschynanthus in the wild.  I read a comment by someone else saying that their 'Black Pagoda' has green blooms.

large_bud
Large buds on Aeschynanthus longicaulis (lipstick plant) 'Black Pagoda'.
When I did a google image search for "Aeschynanthus longicaulis" all of the inflorescence pictures were green.  With my largest buds about to open and still no sign of color, I resigned myself to the fact that my blooms would stay green, not the colorful red or orange I had seen from some other species of Aeschynanthus.  I believe the lipstick plant with orange blooms is actually Aeschynanthus parasiticus.

open_bloom
Open inflorescence on Aeschynanthus longicaulis (lipstick plant) 'Black Pagoda'.  Notice the stamens extruding from the tubular calyx on the lower bloom.
Even if the blooms are not very colorful on my plant, you just can't beat the mottled foliage of this species.

full_foliage
Aeschynanthus longicaulis 'Black Pagoda' (lipstick plant)
Maybe it will win me a prize in the houseplant picture contest from the Life on the Balcony blog!  :)  We'll see.

My plant has sent out a runner from one of the drainage holes on the bottom of the hanging pot.  I hope that I will be able to repot this plant in the spring and pull the runner back through the hole and pot it separately.  I might just have to do the repotting soon though, to avoid damaging the plant or having to cut into the pot.

runner
Aeschynanthus longicaulis runner from pot drainage hole
More Information

The Aeschynanthus genus contains about 150 species, most of which are considered epiphytes.  Some are actually considered lithophytic, though.  There is more information and some good pictures of the Aeschynanthus genus here and here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

AGA Aquatic Plants Layout Contest 2008

I posted just recently on "aquascaping" (like landscaping for planted aquariums) with one of my new ideas.  Last week I got my new issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist, including the top 10 winners of the Aquatic Plants Layout Contest of 2008.  The layouts are simply amazing.

You can view all of the entrants at the AGA website here.  You can view the index of aquascapes by category:

Also, I found a blog that has posted only the pictures of the top 20 aquariums.  I encourage you to go to Aquatic Eden and check them out.  Here are the links:

My favorites are the tanks that placed 1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 13, 15 and 20.  Of course, I wouldn't mind having any one of them.  I think there were several hundred entries - maybe over a thousand.  I imagine even the last place entrant would look really nice in my living room!

Takashi Amano (the master of aquascaping) tries to recreate nature scenes with his aquatic layouts.  Several of the aquatic plant layouts resemble specific scenes from nature, such as on a beach, in a forest, or in the mountains.  I think the 15th place entrant did a great job of recreating a picture I took in the Italian Dolomites.

dolomites_aquascape
This aquascape by Peter Kirwan (copyright) took 15th place overall at the Aquatic Plants Layout Contest. It's probably my favorite.
dolomites
Picture of the Italian Dolomites from my vacation (summer 2007)
I am not quite into aquascaping in the professional or competitive sense, and I don't forsee myself ever joining the ranks of the competition, but I do enjoy planting in my aquariums.  Here are my two aquariums:

29_gallon
My 29 gallon planted tank
10_gallon_planted
My 10 gallon planted tank

Monday, December 1, 2008

Philodendron 'Xanadu'

Almost a year ago I bought a large Philodendron 'Xanadu' from Home Depot or Lowes - I don't remember which.  It was on a huge discount (less than $5 with tax) because it wasn't doing so well.  I figured that the garden people had overwatered it or it had gotten too much sun.  I figured it was a Philodendron, so it would require about the same care as my other Philos.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="My original Philodendron 'Xanadu' with brown leaves showing"]My original Philodendron Xanadu with brown leaves showing[/caption]

The problem with my Xanadu was that it had been overwatered and had probably already started to rot.  When I bought it several of the leaves had already turned brown (as you can see in the picture above) and the others were soon to follow.  Plants Are the Strangest People has a good post on Philodendron 'Xanadu' and how they react to water - by melting.  It wasn't long before all of my leaves had turned to mush at the base and fallen off.  I held out some hope that new stems would rise from the base, but after a couple of months I pitched it.

Having read a little more about Philodendron 'Xanadu' since my catastrophe, I was determined to try out another one.  It really is an attractive plant, and I am now a bit of an Aroid collector.  Last week I ventured over to Home Depot, hoping to find some tropical plants that they would be overjoyed to get off their hands now that we're having freezing temperatures overnight in Oklahoma.

I was right!  There weren't a lot of tropical plants, but the few they had, they were trying to get rid of.  They had 4 Philodendron 'Xanadu's marked at an unbelieveably low price of $3.98.  I picked out the nicest looking one - this time showing no signs of rot - and took it to the cashier.  Since the label had been saturated in water, it had started to deteriorate and would not scan.  The cashier tried to find another plant of the same value, but couldn't, so he rung it up as $2.67!  Needless to say, I walked away very happy.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="My new Philodendron 'Xanadu'"]My new Philodendron Xanadu[/caption]

Here's my new 'Xanadu.'  This time I am going to keep a close watch on my plant and be sure not to overwater this one, knowing how sensitive it can be.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Philodendron 'Xanadu' - Notice the beautiful red mid vein"]Philodendron Xanadu - Notice the red mid vein[/caption]

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My plant list and suggested reading

[2017 Update: now that my blog is moved to blogspot, I have deactivated the subpages, so the links in this post no longer work.]

I wanted to call attention to some new features on The Variegated Thumb.  On the sidebar, under "Pages" you will notice a number of links, including About, My Plant List, Photo Albums, Some Vocabulary, Suggested Links and Suggested Reading.  Most of these are new and some are in progress.

My Plant List is nearly a complete list of the plants I have at home - whether in pots in the house or planted out in the yard.  I know there are some missing items (a couple of trees, some unwanteds, and just some overlooked plants), but most all of my plants are on the list.  The list contains 137 distinct plant species/varieties/cultivars, categorized by family.  I'm not sure that categorizing by family is the best way of looking at my plants, since I only have one plant from many different families.  But, it is kind of interesting, because it shows where my interest is most invested.  I have far more Araceae (Aroids) than I do any other family.  In compiling the list, I had to look up almost every plant to see what family it is in.  So, my own collection held many surprises for me.  I was surprised to see that I had 8 plants from the family Ruscaceae.  And I guess I had forgotten that I have 4 species from the genus Ficus.

The Suggested Reading list is just a couple of plant books from different genres that I have read and enjoy - books that I would recommend to a friend.  I have only read a limited number of books on gardening and plant care, so it is certainly not a list of the best plant books on a given topic, but it does represent the best books I have read on each topic.

The Suggested Links list includes most of the websites that I frequent concerning plants.  In fact, since I compiled that list, it's like I have a bookmarks away from home.  I can just go to The Variegated Thumb, click on Suggested Links and have all of my favorite websites at my fingertips.  It's kind of handy for me, and hopefully you can find something useful there as well.  The real trove of information is kind of hidden in the links to the GardenWeb Forums and Dave's Garden.  There is enough information on those sites (and constantly growing) to keep you busy for hundreds of human lifetimes!  I also compiled a pretty good list of some online plant stores that have plants that interest me (Aroids, aquatics, houseplants, exotics).

Feel free to look at the other links on the Pages tab.  About simply tells about my blog.  Photo Albums is a collection of links to the photo albums I have included in some of my blogs.  I will probably add a new album about once per month.  Some Vocabulary is a list of some words I may use on my blog to talk about plants.  The definitions are nothing fancy - some may sound like a dictionary, while others are obviously my own words.

Enjoy!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Garden waterfall project

During the summer of 2007 my wife and I decided to install a waterfall in our front flowerbed against our house. The flowerbed is about 8' by 20' and was filled with irises, monkey grass (Liriope muscari), a rose bush, a holly bush (tree), and 2 large hardy (dinner-plate) hibiscus.  I dug up the rose bush and gave it to my in-laws who said they could find a place for it.  I relocated most of the iris to one location and gave some of them away.  I also moved around quite a bit of the monkey grass so that it just formed an outline of the flowerbed.  There also is a large patch of dense monkey grass under the holly tree at the other end of the flowerbed.  I didn't have to disturb that end.

before
Front flowerbed before waterfall project
As far as the mechanical elements, we got a "pondless waterfall kit" at a local landscaping shop that specializes in ponds and waterfalls.  It was on sale for a really good deal.  However, the price of some necessary items not included in the kit can be costly.  The kit itself contains 2 different layers of underlayment - a very thick rubber tarp and a more thin fiber layer.  The fiber layer goes first, and then the rubber tarp next.  Also included in the kit is the water pump and housing, a long stretch of tubing (about 6-8 feet, I would guess), the top waterfall container, and all of the necessary fittings to piece it together.  Really, the construction of the mechanical pieces took just 30 minutes or so.  Attaching the tarp to the top container was a little tricky and very important to do well, since most "leaks" will occur there.  I have had to mess with it a little since I have finished the waterfall, making tweaks whenever I noticed some water was straying from the intended path and slipping underneath the tarp.

In order to "build" this waterfall, I needed to create the correct landscape.  Since I just had a flat bed, this required a bunch of dirt.  Thankfully a couple of neighbors happened to be making some changes of their own, resulting in large piles of dirt in their yards.  One neighbor down the street was taking out a large raised bed that ran half the length of the front of the house.  I'm not sure how I lucked in to this situation, but it happened.  They were appreciative of my hauling off their dirt and I was thankful for the free dirt.  I did have to haul it down the street in a wheel barrow, though.  Load by load by load by load by load...

Anyway, I was able to build a nice hill in the corner of the bed that would serve as my miraculous hillock of bubbling clear water!

waterfall_dirt
Waterfall preparation
A friend of ours has a lot of land that contains some rock that he said we were welcome to have.  Rock is one of those extra ingredients not included in the kit and it is quite expensive to buy.  I called some are landscape suppliers and priced rock - then quickly took our friend up on his offer.  We had to drive about an hour to the land and spent most of a Saturday finding rocks of varying sizes that were somewhat consistent in coloring and looked like they would create a nice waterfall.  We were very happy with our free rocks and free help that we received, as well.

tarp_layout
Laying out the underlayment to form the basin
You can see a large bud in the lower right corner of the picture and another in the center of the right side of the picture.  This is one of my dinner plate hibiscus.  The hibiscus were beautiful when they bloomed but up until that day it looked like a huge weed had grown to 3 or 4 feet tall right there in the middle of our front window on the house.  So I removed the hibiscus shortly after installing the waterfall.

After putting all of the equipment together and positioning the tarp, I filled up the bottom basin with water and plugged in the pump.  It worked!

Now it was time to start experimenting with rock layouts.  I probably spent about an hour until I had all of the rocks in a layout that pleased my eye.  Then I went and got my wife for an inspection.  She made tweaks here and there.  Then I took the bags of river pebbles that we had bought and filled in all of the areas between rocks where the underlaying tarp was exposed.  There were lots of crooks and crannies and we ended up needing more bags of pebbles than we had initially purchased.  Thankfully the bags of pebbles are pretty cheap ($3ish for a large bag).  Once the pebbles were in place the waterfall really looked good.

finished_full
Complete waterfall
Of course, the finishing touches were to get some aquatic plants and to landscape around the waterfall.

finished_pool
Waterfall color
waterfall_top
Water cascading down from the source

At the onset of spring this last year I looked out the window one morning to see a bunch of birds playing/showering in our waterfall.

waterfall_birds
Birds at play(?) in the waterfall - or maybe just bathing
I'm not much of a bird watcher, so I don't know what type of birds these are, but I really liked their markings, so I took a couple of pictures of them.

more_birds
I like the markings on these birds - anyone know what they are?  [Update: They're Cedar Waxwings.]
Though the word "natural" may not be the best word to use for the waterfall surging out of the little hillock perfectly mounded against our red brick house - the scene has an authentic look to it.  The rocks are native to our region and we landscaped around the waterfall with evergreen plants that should keep our front flowerbed beautiful year in and year out with minimal maintenance.  In fact, the front flowerbed is really pretty all through the winter, even when everything else seems brown and dead.

creators
My wife and I posing after our hard work