Potted

In central London, in the RHS Lindley Library there is a small exhibition called ‘Potted’. To quote the blurb

“In celebration of the humble houseplant, this exhibition at the RHS Lindley Library presents a series of designs by students from Central Saint Martins college. In a collaborative project with the library, the students have investigated a variety of well-known and well-loved houseplants and created made to measure pots to suit their individual needs.”

Now I think I heard or read something about this (which is why I went) to the effect that the students knew virtually nothing about the plants in question before they started. Which makes for a challenging project; I am not sure how I would go about designing a living environment for an armadillo. Clearly they had advice and did research, but I still think they made a fair stab at it.

I haven’t shown all of them, my phone didn’t take the best of pictures indoors and some of the pots were less interesting to me than others. It is open till next Friday (19th May) and is free to all. It is definitely worth 30 minutes of your time if you are in central London.

I know nothing about pottery or sculpture, so my comments are from the perspective of a houseplant lover. It may be that some of the aspects I dislike have relevance, or make reference to artists or works I am ignorant of.

The first one shown here is to hold lithops, and I found this pot frustrating. Had the plant been angled in the pot so that it was flush with the top rather than revealing the unglazed interior, it would have been brilliant. It must surely have been the intention of the artist for the surfaces of pot and plant to flow into each other?  Planting at an angle in a pot is more difficult that you expect it to be!

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Otherwise I felt it was quite original. The surface mimicked the size and shape of the leaves and the overall shape was intriguingly out of proportion to the plant, almost a lithops volcano. It reminded me in tone of a lot of the more severe type of 70s decor.

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A more politically-influenced  vessel with the holder representing the slashing and burning that man has inflicted  upon the rainforest. But within the damage, there is still space for a plant habitat. The colours and textures were particularly eye-catching, and it seemed a good place for a bromeliad (Guzmania).

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The third container I have featured was inspired by the trees, rocks and stones that would occur in the native habitat of the plant (Scindapsus). The flowing shapes and varied textures were fascinating. Occupying the tricky ground between ugly and beautiful, the container was big enough to actually house the plant for quite a while.

A failing (for me) of many ornamental containers is that they fit the plant at that moment in time, not allowing for growth. But growth and change is an essential component of why we bring plants into our homes, so needs to be catered for.

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scin

Another lithops pot, and while I didn’t like the whiteness of the slashes down the sides, I enjoyed the solidity of the shape and the perforations. The form of the pot mimics the form of the plant, and the markings on the surface of the leaves. If only they had been able to dispense with the plastic plant pot inside…but life is not perfect.

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lithops

 

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Air plants in the winter

January is a time of activity for my air plants, so I felt that it would be interesting to take some (rather badly lit) pictures of them.

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This is the Tillandsia caput-medusae that flowered in the summer. You can see that the offset is growing quite strongly, and that the flower stalk remains. I am guessing by the green colouring that it is photosynthesising and thus paying its keep.

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This is the T. brachycaulos that flowered and you can see that its offset is catching up in size with the parent plant. It is also more vigorous as you can see by its stronger green colour.

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Some of the others are coming into bud – this is Tillandsia fuchsii var. gracilis and it seems to have produced this flower spike in the last 7 days.

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This plant is the large T. fasciculata that was hanging from the pine tree in the garden during the summer, and I noticed that it had changed shape. Tillandsias seem to look just a bit lopsided before they come up to flower and show fresh growth in the middle of the plant. So I had a look in the centre:

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and there is the beginning of the flower spike.

This plant:

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T. seleriana was its companion on the pine tree, and is also a large plant (a double handful), and I suspect it is considering flowering, but I am not sure.

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One of the first to flower last year, has finally produced an offset:

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Though as you can see it took some finding.

And out of interest I thought it would be useful to compare the air plants to their bigger cousin Billbergia nutans, also a bromeliad, which flowers and produces offsets in the same manner, as you can see:

bill-nut-fl

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Finally, just a reminder about making sure that your air plants are dry after watering. I did manage to lose one, just after Christmas, to rot. If you are in doubt, hang them upside down to make sure that the water runs out from the leaf axils (where the leaves join the centre of the plant).

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‘Tis the season…

…to bring the last of your houseplants indoors if they have been holidaying outside.

Here in the far south east of England the temperatures have dropped to about 3c overnight, which means that even the mediterranean-type plants (those hardy to just above or brief periods below 0c) will need protection.

If you are faced with squeezing the last of your plants into an overcrowded living environment you are not alone, this is what I have learned from years of trying.

Coming in from the cold

You will need to tidy up your plants before you bring them in – remove weed seedlings, dead`and damaged leaves and check under the pot. This is where the slugs and snails hide. If you have bare compost you can top with grit or gravel, this makes the plant easier to water and also discourages sciarid flies (often known as bin flies or compost gnats) that live around compost. Check to see how damp the compost is, so that you are able to bring them into synchrony with your watering routine. If it has rained recently and they are soaked through,  you may not need to water for a couple of weeks, but this is very dependant on where you site them (sun/shade) and how warm your home is.

During the summer your plants will have become accustomed to a lot more light than they will receive in your home (unless they are to move into a conservatory or similar). They will also have grown a bit tougher and stronger through dealing with wind and rain. They will need good daylight, and also a period of adjustment to the change in conditions. Depending on the number of plants you have, you may need to prioritise the light levels; south and west facing windowsills for cacti and succulents, north facing for dark-leaved foliage plants etc. You will also need to find them saucers or pot-covers so that they don’t drip onto your surfaces.

Containers and pot-covers

In my experience the use of pot-covers and containers is the main reason that people overwater their plants. The plant can sit for weeks or months in a puddle of water without it being obvious until it is too late. If you know that you are an nurturer and overwater your plants, use attractive pots with drainage and either matching saucers or transparent plastic ones. Alternatively you can use a layer of 1cm or so of gravel at the bottom of your pot to give yourself a safety margin. Or get into the routine of emptying out your pot-covers an hour after each watering.

Space creation

I never have enough space as I have a tendency to buy plants over the summer when I have a comparatively empty indoor space, and then quail in horror each autumn when I realise I have to house all of them. This is what I do to get past this problem.windowsill

You can expand your windowsill space using shelving (or if you are in a rental, a piece of driftwood balanced on pots). This enables you to make use of as much light as possible and gives you an attractive display.You will note that i am using a range of saucers and containers, partly because I err towards the neglectful, so I can get away with some undrained containers. There is a terracotta saucer being used in addition to the plastic tray for one pot, this because unglazed terracotta is porous and will damage surfaces that it sits upon; it will (as a friend can testify) turn carpet mouldy underneath and raise paint and varnish.

asp

Put plants on top of other plants – if you have larger plants like this Ficus lyrata you will have a whole extra surface to keep things on. When you are doing it, bear in mind how much light will make it down to the understorey of your houseplant forest. As you can see by the graininess of this photo, it isn’t very light here, but Aspidistra ‘Milky Way’ is quite tolerant of low light levels.

philo

Another example here, a Philodendron bipinnatifidum (in a cat bed that the cat disapproves of) supporting a Tradescantia and a Ledebouria. The philodendron spent the whole summer outside, and is stretching (etiolating) in the comparatively low light indoors, the leaves stay the same size but the stalks extend to get closer to the light.

You can also use mirrors (one here propped up on the floor with a spider plant) to reflect the light you have to make the most of it. If like me, you also have a lot of air plants, they are very happy pinned to chicken wire screens (mine is hung from the curtain hooks) over a window. And at the bottom, many of my cacti and succulents together, taking advantage of their similar cultural requirements to make my life easier.

Supplementary lighting

I have not found supplementary lighting much use in a domestic environment for houseplants. The majority of lighting that is suitable for plants (in terms of wavelength, strength and heat transmission) has to be placed very close to them to be of any benefit, and therefore tends not to be either practical or aesthetically pleasing. However, with LEDs becoming much more common in these field I am hoping that eventually gains in this area will carry over from commercial and er.. underground horticulture to create something usable in the average home.

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Remember to give your plants time to adjust, and keep an eye out for sneaky pests like tortrix moth caterpillar (see above on begonia), and sudden changes in growth habit (can be a sign of overwatering).

# Urban Jungle Bloggers Desert Still Life

The October challenge from Urban Jungle Bloggers is a Desert Still Life. This worried me a bit, because being picky I initially wanted to make sure that the plants were all at least from the same continent, rather than just randomly selected xerophytes. But I gave up on this as being just a touch too challenging to manage without using it as an excuse to go and buy plants.

So we have a desk-desert: p1010640

Complete with rat corpse, fossil and er bricks.

With Basil the rat (all rats are called Basil) below, there is a probably-Turbinicarpus, an Aloe melanacantha some Faucaria and a cuddly cactus.

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Below is probably a Gymnocalycium (please do correct my id’s in the comments, all my cacti are rather old and lost their labels years ago).

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And this is Haworthia truncataone of those succulents designed to spend dry times almost completed underground with just the transparent parts of the leaf protruding, so as to reduce water-loss whilst still allowing photosynthesis. I saw this plant in the Princess of Wales house at Kew years ago and spent ages looking for one. It isn’t difficult to keep alive, but it took a while to move to a home where I could offer it the conditions it wanted to be able to grow.

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This is Leuchtenbergia principis, a cactus that looks like a succulent (but note the areoles at the tips); this plant is at least 25 years old. It used to belong to my mother, and she has been dead for 20 years…

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A better view of the Faucaria, also a succulent from South Africa, like the Aloe.

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The backdrop is a beautiful book Wild Cactus by George Huey and Rose Houk.

#urbanjungle #plantselfie

 

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Urban Jungle is a global community of plant lovers started by Igor and Judith. As part of the Urban Jungle blog topic for September this is my #plantselfie. Go and check out the other blogs in the series – if you think indoor plants are dull or stuck in the 70s, they will change your mind.

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Lower shelf in the porch

As I am not terribly keen on pictures of myself on the blog, here is Mercy among her plants. This is my rather rickety front porch, full of succulents and cacti. I love nearly* all plants, but have a long-standing obsession with houseplants and pelargoniums. At the last count I had 112 plants indoors, in a 1.5 bedroom flat. As it is summer (just) still there are quite a few of them outside still.  My first love was a swiss-cheese plant and my current obsession is tillandsias.

austin leaf
Monstera deliciosa (a leaf without spots of emulsion paint)

 

Below is one of my tillandsias (T. seleriana)holidaying outside on a pine tree, and a begonia that is also out for the summer.

I have worked in horticulture for nearly 20 years, and I have just finished a Masters in Ethnobotany, for which my final dissertation addressed the question of why people grow houseplants. I am currently working as a Research Assistant and have a small Etsy shop selling airplants and houseplants. I started the shop as a distraction and an outlet for my fidgeting while I was studying and I will be widening the range soon.

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One of the aspects that interests me is trying to stretch people’s imagination about what they can grow where. We tend to feel that windowsills are the be-all-and-end-all of houseplant habitat. They can be grown in so many more positions, and are so undemanding ( I spend less than an hour a week looking after mine).

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This hanging bowl is a potential solution for those who want to have plants at eye level but are worried about leaks and drips. I am interested to see what the roots do, whether they are affected by the light or not, and how difficult it is to water. I have used very easy to care for plants to start with (Asparagus densiflorus Sprengeri  Group and Plectranthus verticillatus).

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I see a lot of succulent arrangements which look impractical to me because they have little or no drainage. So I decided to make one to see if the plants rotted over the winter, if it works I may put some sort of variation in the shop.

p1010438This little spider plant has survived three months so far in its tin can planter (again, no drainage hole) in full sun. p1010442

This hanging arrangement of spider plants in a piece of burnt terracotta found on the beach is the result of a mad hour of fidgeting. The compost and plants are anchored in chicken wire and have been in-situ for a couple of months. Not as hard to water as you might think, but it is quite heavy and needs to hang from something sturdy.

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More fiddling, this time a Tillandsia juncea (or juncifolia).

*I am not overly keen on Symphoricarpos  and might wince very politely upon receipt of a poinsettia.

Tillandsia caput-medusae

This year I developed a ‘thing’ about air plants. It started with buying just one, meaning to attach it to an object to make a present for someone. Almost in the same way that you would stick on a sequin I guess. But of course, as soon as I actually touched it, I remembered that it was a life-form, not a bit of plastic.

So I got a couple more, and started trying to understand how they work. The easiest to observe in a short period of time (air plants live in slow time) is Tillandsia caput-medusae.

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Tillandsia, named for Mr Tillandz (1640-1693) a Finnish botanist, by Linnaeus (many thanks Wikipedia) is a big genus, part of the Bromeliaceae family. They tend to originate in South and Central America, though not exclusively. Tillandsia caput-medusae invites comparison between the structure of the plant and the snake-hair of the Medusa’s head (lit. caput medusae). There are 4 specimens above, and you can see how they do (or don’t) fit the picture below. They tend to coil slightly more tightly when they are in need of watering.

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Tillandsias are popularly known as air plants, which probably leads to the death of thousands in the home. The ‘air’ in air plant refers to their epiphytic nature: they live in air (on other plants, rocks, trees, phone wires, etc) rather than in soil. They don’t live on air, particularly not in centrally-heated domestic homes.

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In the absence of roots, tillandsias absorb both water and nutrients through silvery trichomes on the surface of their leaves – seen in the above photo. These trichomes have three functions for the plant: their silvery colour reflects bright sunlight, they allow water to be absorbed from rain and atmospheric humidity, and they protect that water from evaporating once it has been captured. If you have an airplant, it is important that you bear this in mind when you are caring for it. It needs access to water regularly or it will die of dehydration, but it is in danger of rotting if the water is allowed to gather and rest in the spaces between the leaves.

Watering should therefore be done once or twice a week, depending on the conditions the plant is living it (sunny window in warm conditions – twice; no sun, chillier conditions – once). All it needs is to be run under the tap, or popped in a bowl of water for a bit. If your plant gets dehydrated leave it in a bowl of water overnight. As with all houseplants, it really helps to understand how your plant feels when it is healthy. You won’t damage it if you handle it regularly, as long as you are careful. A healthy plant will feel slightly cooler than ambient, and it will feel gently springy rather than crispy in your hand. This will vary between species of tillandsia, but for caput-medusae firm and gently springy is good.

Then drain it (on a teatowel or whatever comes to hand) for an hour or two, upside down so that the water can drain out from between the leaves. If your plant is growing upside down anyway, so much the better.

One of my caput-medusae caught me out by flowering long before I had expected it to. I am told that one way to encourage them to flower is to feed (weekly-weakly) with very dilute plant food, I use about 1/10th the recommended rate for my plants.  As you can see on the photo above the flower-stem comes from the centre of the plant in this case, and starts off green with pink tinges.

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The inflorescence takes quite a while to develop, but once the purple flowers appear they last a very short time, slightly less than a day per flower with this plant. That said, the flowers are produced one at a time, so the display is quite long-lasting, and immensely attractive.

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And once the flowers fade, the plant should move on to producing an offset  (a clone plant that remains attached to the parent until it is of sufficient size to live independently). You can just see the offset nestling in an older leaf at the bottom of the plant here.

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Over time, the plants will produce a mass of many plants. Pictures of plants in the wild here, and here.

Update photos of offset: 8-10-16. (The wire is not for the purpose of restraint but suspension).

What is a plant?

This is Sid. Sid is a pelargonium. He represents many aspects of planthood as Sid the individual plant and as Pelargonium sidoides.

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A taxonomic unit

Pelargonium sidoides DC, is a single taxonomic unit in Kingdom Plantae. Pelargoniums are part of the Geraniales order which includes other families such as Melianthaceae and Francoaceae. They are in the Geraniaceae family with close relatives Geranium, Erodium, Monsonia and possibly California. They are typically aromatic and tender, preferring dry to arid regions, most but not all originate from South Africa. Pelargonium as a species has undergone several taxonomic revisions, the most recent of which I can’t access (even with a university library account), so while I can tell you that it was in Section Reniformia, I suspect that Pelargonium Section Reniformia no longer exists.

A botanical artefact
Pelargonium sidoides was first described by de Candolle in 1824, but collected by Thunberg in 1772 (as Pelargonium sidifolium), and Ecklo and Zeyher as Cortusina sidifolia; their  specimen from 1829 can be viewed here. There is also some material in the Museum of Economic Botany at Kew (though it may indeed by the P. reniforme it purports to be)  . It has over the years often been confused with P. reniforme, of which it has sometimes been identified as a subspecies.

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An urban myth

You can buy P. sidoides in health food shops in the form of pills for respiratory problems. The active ingredient, Umckaloabo® is also known as EPs7630 (registered to Schwabe Pharmaceuticals); both the name and the usage date from the 1800s.

In 1897 a gentleman called Charles Stevens travelled to South Africa/Lesotho on the recommendation of his doctor to either alleviate the symptoms of, or obtain treatment for his tuberculosis. When there he was treated by a local doctor with Umckaloabo root among other ingredients. He recovered from his tuberculosis, returned to England for a while, then back to South Africa where he marketed his ‘cure’. He returned, bankrupt, to England in 1907 with a supply of material to sell, which he did for many decades.

 Stevens’ Consumption Cure‘ was a patent medicine and there were many competing financial interests involved in the sale of patent medicines at this time; newspapers made a significant amount advertising them, tax was payable on their sales but they were clearly not popular with doctors or the BMA as they were direct competition.

It took until 1974 for the ingredient referred to as Umckaloabo in ‘Stevens’ Cure’ to be identified as Pelargonium sidoides (or P. reniforme). Interestingly this is not (and there is no record of it having been) a word used in any of the numerous languages of South Africa and Lesotho. The sole origin for the word is Stevens’ and all references eventually point back to his usage. The plant also has no history of use as a treatment for respiratory problems in humans. P. sidoides is used for dysentery (pdf) (in both animals and humans) and colic in infants. In Lesotho P. sidoides is used for colic, gonorrhoea, diarrhoea, and dysentery.

So it appears that both the name and the usage, while sounding authentic may be the product of an entrepreneurially inclined Englishman. It is classified as a herbal medicine for human use by the EU.

A bundle of chemicals

As you can see, some of the active compounds in Pelargonium sidoides are named after its dubious other name.

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(click for source)

A name or a misnomer

Over the years the scientific name given to this plant has changed

Anisopetala purpurascentia Walp.,
Cortusina sidifolia (Thunb.) Eckl. & Zeyh.,
Geraniospermum sidifolium (Thunb.) Kuntze,
Pelargonium purpurascens Van Eeden ex Hoffmgg.,
Pelargonium rigidum Wendl. ex Hoffmgg.,
Pelargonium sidifolium (Thunb.) Knuth, P
elargonium sidifolium
(Thunb.) Willd.,
Pelargonium spectabile Hort. ex Link,
Pelargonium spectabile Sweet

In addition, many of the plants sold as P. sidoides in the UK are in fact a hybrid between P. sidoides and another plant, and are sometimes known as P Burgundy Group. This is true of Sid, who is likely to be the hybrid, as his leaves are only barely aromatic, and not particularly silvery.

In South Africa and Lesotho it is known under the following names:
Iyseza-lezithali,
ikhubalo,
icwayiba,
kubala,
kwayiha,
kalwerbossie,
rabassam,
rabas,
rooirbas,
uvendle,
khoaare e nyenyane.
Some of these names may also refer to other pelargoniums that are used for similar purposes or have similar appearance.
It is thus sometimes easier to refer to my plant as Sid.

 

An ecosystem service

Sid creates oxygen as he photosynthesises, he also anchors his little bit of substrate in the pot, which allows it to absorb and slow the flow of rainwater over the property. This is especially helpful as the patch of ground he sits on is concrete covered with gravel, which would otherwise create run-off and add to the flooding at the bottom of my road. Being soft and resilient he absorbs a certain amount of sound, he also transpires water vapour helping to cool and humidify the garden when it is hot. One plant in a pot on a patio makes a miniscule contribution, but one of millions of minuscule contributions over the country.

A living

In Lesotho and South Africa Pelargonium sidioides harvesting (to use to make extract for Umckaloabo pills) acts as a source of income for many local and indigenous people. The plants are difficult to farm, so the material that is needed for pharmaceutical use is often collected by hand from the wild. It is unknown if the harvesting (which involves digging up the tuber) is sustainable in the long-term, but the plant is currently not under threat.

In the UK, P. sidoides is a relatively popular greenhouse and garden plant. I purchased Sid from Warrenorth Nursery in East Sussex in about 2002. Warrenorth were a specialist pelargonium and fuchsia nursery that closed a year or so later. As far as I remember they were a tiny family business, and another rather hand-to-mouth way of making money from pelargoniums. They bred a fair number of very pretty fancy-leaved cultivars that can still be found in specialist growers.

A responsibility

Sid is a living creature, most of the time needing little care. But in the winter it gets too cold to survive outside so some form of protection is needed. Watering regularly both inside and outside is required if it doesn’t rain frequently enough. Interpreting his appearance in combination with the weather conditions, so as to provide what a totally dependant organism from the other side of the world needs is my responsibility; if I fail then Sid will die.

A companion

I have owned Sid for about 15 years or so. In that time, I have moved house several times and he has moved with me. I have owned him longer than most plants and as such I have affection for his ability to survive and readiness to flower. Specifically, he was one of the very few plants in my greenhouse that survived the cold winter of 2010, where the temperature dropped below -5c in the greenhouse. All the top growth was killed, but because he was an old plant in a large pot, he regrew from the roots.

A subject

I have written about Sid a few times, because he represents many aspects of what a plant is, as well as illustrating a few interesting stories. As a photographic subject he is a nightmare, the flowers are held on long wobbly stems far from the actual plant and this makes taking a picture of the whole plant virtually impossible.

 

A living creature

Sid is an organism that can sense light and dark, gravity, wet and dry. His roots explore the substrate in which he grows; if he were in his native habitat they would be sending and receiving chemical messages and interacting with fungal mycelium in the soil. He is grown away from his home country, in an artificial environment in which it is hard, but not impossible to reproduce and where the sun is so weak his stems have to elongate to get just that bit closer to the light.  He is however protected from the grazing, uprooting, pests and diseases which might end his life at home.

For someone else, the same plant will have completely different meanings: it may be a gift, a source of guilt (never remembering to water or repot), a source of social capital (giving cuttings away to make new friends), a source of genetic capital (using the plant to breed new hybrids) or just something pretty!

Links on my posts go to interesting sources of information, they are intended to add to your enjoyment rather than form a comprehensive system of references or an endorsement of contents. All errors are mine!

©Mercy Morris 2016