There’s a giant squid on my right arm. He was my first tattoo. It only took me 35 years to work up the nerve, but once I did, I knew the left arm was next, and I knew I wanted something botanical. Plants have been such a big part of my life and I wanted one on me, but which plant? It only took me another five years to figure it out.
Once you start thinking about getting a botanical tattoo, you see them everywhere. The rose tattoo is so common it’s practically the default. But in San Francisco I met people with extremely specific botanical tattoos. Everything from Sarracenia to Dahlia to collections of local flora. It’s always interesting to talk to them about why they chose that particular plant. Often, it’s about connection to a place, or personal story about the plant.
So I started thinking about the plants I have a personal history with. I considered a giant Agave americana, the plant that tortured me as a kid, but it’s basically just green, and I wanted something with more colors. I seriously considered the various elephant ears I love – Alocasia and Colocasia – but they really need their largeness to impress, and I didn’t want a solid green arm. When shrunk to be small enough to fit on an arm, they just look like Pothos. And as much as I love orchids, they’re a pretty common tattoo and I wanted something more unique.
And then it hit me. The plant that’s been on almost every house I’ve ever lived in. The flower that’s complicated, a blend of masculine and feminine, and incredibly variable. The vine that’s tough enough to kill a tree. The plant that, like me, is not from here, but thrives in San Francisco. My botanical tattoo would be a Passiflora.
And six sessions later, there was a Passion flower taking over my left arm. It’s no Passiflora in particular. It’s realistic, but to absolve myself of responsibility to any true botanical experts, I’ve made up a name for the particular plant growing on my arm: Passiflora idealii – my personal idealized Passion flower.
People without tattoos often ask how I could choose something, anything, to have on my body forever. It’s a good, serious question, and one that kept me from getting a tattoo for so many years.
But if it’s one thing gardeners should know, it’s that nothing lasts forever. Every plant we’ve ever nurtured, obsessed over, and tended with love will someday be gone. Maybe in a century, maybe in a decade, maybe in a year. That doesn’t make our connection to them any less meaningful. Perhaps it makes it more important.
My Passiflora tattoo will not last forever – it will last exactly as long as I do. Just like every plant I’ve ever loved, I have an end date. I hope to make a small difference in the world in the time I have, and I might as well surround myself with the things I love while I’m here.
I love tomatoes. And I love San Francisco. But where I live and the veggies I love don’t always get along.
Every spring since I moved to my current home in the geographical center of the city, I have tried to grow tomatoes. And every year it’s been an utter failure. Sometimes the plants just died. Sometimes they made flowers that promptly fell off. Sometimes the plants fruited, but the fruit fell off before ripening. Sometimes, very occasionally, I got edible fruit, but only a few.
Like I said, failure.
And every year I say, “This is the year that I’m not going to try again. I’m going to just admit that my climate isn’t right for tomatoes.” And then every year, at the last minute, I try one more time.
This is this year’s try.
A couple weeks ago Heather and I were visiting Santa Barbara, which has a climate very similar to San Francisco: cool and coastal. We drove by fields of grape vines that were covered by plastic or vinyl covers. Not exactly greenhouses, more temporary ceilings. My guess is that the cool ocean air was too hard on the grapes. They needed more heat and less cold wind.
And that made me think of my own yard, where, if you picked just the right spot, there was enough sun for tomatoes, but we just don’t have the summer heat that tomatoes want. In fact, in my yard, the sunniest spot is also the most windy, and that wind is cold even in the summer. We live on a hill, there’s always wind.
So an idea was born: If I could cover the tomatoes in some sort of plastic contraption, it would raise the temperature enough to make tomatoes happy, with the added benefit of keeping the squirrels off them. (Aside to the squirrels: You’re welcome for the strawberries. I hope you enjoyed them.)
I purchased the “Mini Greenhouse” on Amazon. It’s just a set of shelves that comes with a clear plastic cover. I set it up outside, in the sunny spot, close to the house, and put a temperature gauge inside for a few days. Low and behold, it was much warmer inside than out.
It’s small, so I only felt comfortable putting two plants inside. So this year’s experiment rests on two really interesting hybrids (no pressure, guys): “Indigo Rose” and “Wild Stripes” from Love Apple Farms.
If things go as planned, the plants will grow up through the wire shelving, so the whole thing will become a big enclosed tomato cage. I just hope they don’t get taller than five feet.
So this is my desperate measure to grow tomatoes in San Francisco: wrap them in plastic and hope for the best. I’ll let you know how it goes.
It was a great pleasure to have this conversation with my longtime garden hero, Gayla Trail. We talk desert plants, my San Francisco cloud forest, and botanical tattoos. If that sound like fun, you’re my kinda plant nerd. Go give it a listen.
Two years ago, my plant buddy Zach sent me a bunch of Philodendron cuttings and threw in a Stapelia, too. I knew nothing about the genus, but I stuck it in a pot, set it in a sunny window, and it’s been growing slowly and happily ever since.
A couple weeks ago while I was watering, I noticed it had a new growth that looked like a flower bud. Over the next few days it just kept getting bigger. And then yesterday, pop!
Plantgasm readers know that I’ve got nothing against stinky plants, and this one isn’t as bad as some, but the smell? Not nice. Pretty much death. Still, it’s an amazing sight to behold. The flower is huge – bigger than the four-inch pot the plant is in – and it’s covered in hair. It looks like a combination of a starfish and an anus.
A Twitter friend said it looked like “the south end of a north-facing critter” and that’s no accident. The anus-like shape and the rotting meat smell is all designed to attract its pollinator – blow flies.
When the smell of my little houseplant got to be too much for me, I set it outside. Within minutes it was swarmed with an orgy of flies. One even up and died, in the center of the plant, in what I hope was an orgasmic moment of joy. As pollinator attractors go, the Stapelia knows what it’s doing.
By the next day, the flies were gone, but in their place? Maggots. Apparently the flower is so convincing, the flies lay their eggs in it, thinking it’s going to be a tasty place for their young to be born. Unlike other insect/plant deals in nature, this one is entirely one-sided. The Stapelia gets its pollen moved, but the baby flies can’t feed on the flower and die.
In my case, this plant isn’t coming back inside until I’m sure the process is entirely complete. I may love my stinky plants, but I draw the line at maggots.
In Glen Ellen, California, just an hour or two north of San Francisco, there’s a 25 acre plot of land. In the 1900s, it was mined for rock to build roads. In 1964, a fire burned it to the ground. A few years later, Jane Davenport Jansen saw something in the ruined land and bought it. And after countless seed collecting trips to Asia, it’s now the Quarryhill Botanical Garden, the one of the largest collections of Asian plants anywhere. And it’s a marvel.
Quarryhill sticks out in many ways. In the middle of wine country, you drive by miles of grape groves, tidy lines on the hillsides, before getting to this oasis of wild nature. Yet, the place is also unnatural, as all of the plants come from half a world away. Still, they thrive in the California sun. It was so bizarre to walk around the garden on a spring day so hot it felt like summer, but see none of the chaparral or succulents California is famous for.
Instead, the place is overflowing with species grown from seeds collected across Asia. Japanese maples (Acer) were clearly a favorite, and our visit coincided with them all forming their propeller-shaped seeds. Dogwoods (Cornus) were in bloom. The grooves left from the mining have turned into streams and ponds, overflowing with Lotus flowers, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my visit to Thailand. And bees were everywhere, doing their important work.
I was especially happy to spot an Asian Aroid, a rare treat to find outside in California. The flower at right is an Arisaema of some kind. Alas, I neglected to note the species name. (Any guesses, smart plant peeps?)
As Sonoma Magazine put it, Quarryhill is “a little piece of Eden.” If you’re anywhere near northern California, don’t miss it.
There’s a small room in my house where I grow tropical plants. There are lights and fans, the door stays closed, and on a good day it’s 80 degrees and moist as a jungle. The plants love it. Unfortunately, so do pests that thrive in that environment.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve had an aphid problem in that room for months. Aphids are supposedly the easiest pest to get rid of. Most sites suggest simply wiping them off. I’m here to tell you, that didn’t work. Neither did a fine selection of soaps, horticultural oils, and other sprays marketed to get rid of aphids.
I dreamed of building some sort of tiny killer nanobots to crawl every last leaf and destroy all those aphids one by one. Then I realized that nature already created such a thing: Ladybugs.
Ladybugs are a kind of beetle (Coccinellids) that feast on soft insects like aphids, but do not eat plants (at least not the ones that are sold as biological controls). I figured it was worth a try, so I picked up a batch of them at the local hardware store’s garden department and unleashed them in my jungle.
Here are some things I learned in the process.
Ladybugs are kept in a refrigerator in the store, which slows them down so much you think they’re dead. They’re not. Once they come to room temperature, they start zooming around.
Also, when they warm up, they really warm up. Prepare to see ladybug sex. Lots of ladybug sex.
As instructed, I misted all the plants with water before I released them, which gives them something to drink and stick to. I also released them at night (ladybugs don’t fly at night, so they stay put).
These suckers like to explore. We taped up the heating vent in the room so that they couldn’t get out, but they soon discovered that there was more than enough space to crawl under the door. We found them wandering around the house until we put a town down to block the gap.
The good news is that ladybugs are the one kind of bug people are generally delighted to see. When a houseguest pointed to the coffee table and asked, “Is that a ladybug?” I casually scooped it up, deposited it in a nearby houseplant, and said, “Yup!”
Get used to the sight of dead ladybugs. They will die. You will have to sweep them up. Try not to get too attached.
My wife is a saint for letting me release hundreds of bugs in the house on purpose. (But I knew that already.)
The ladybugs went to town on the local aphid population. It’s been a month now and there are still a few ladybugs wandering around and not an aphid to be found.
According to the packaging, all that ladybug sex I witnessed should lead to the females laying eggs after a few weeks. When the larva emerge, they look like tiny alligators, and they come out hungry. Each is said to be able to eat 200 aphids. I haven’t seen any eggs or tiny alligators yet, which is probably for the best, since I think all the aphids are already gone. There’ll be more. There’s always more.
And while ladybugs are excellent aphid eliminators, they do nothing for another pest that likes that room: spider mites. Fortunately, there’s a predatory bug for them, too.
Should you try it? Maybe. If you can put all the bug-afflicted plants in one room and seal it off for a couple weeks, or if you have a dedicated greenhouse, go for it. Worst case scenario, you wind up with a ladybug visiting you while you garden, which is sure to bring a smile. But I wouldn’t recommend you give them free roaming rights to your house. One ladybug is adorable. Hundreds of them is actually kind of terrifying.
Amorphophallus is a really cool genus of plants, though I’m realizing their downside as houseplants.
First, to get the giggles out of the way, yes, the word is derived the Greek meaning “misshapen penis,” which is a good description of their flowers. But the flowers only happen every once in a (sometimes very long) while. The rest of the time, they just make intricate, fractal-like, beautiful foliage.
That’s my Amorphophallus henryi last year. Even though it looks like lots of leaves, that’s actually just one leaf. I made this awesome timelapse of its hypnotic leaf dance as it emerged.
Amorphophallus come up from bulbs. Their schedule isn’t exactly yearly. Mine seem to come and go on their own schedule, with different bulbs of the same species breaking dormancy at different times. I find it fascinating that, somewhere in that bulb, a switch is thrown every time they break dormancy. Sometimes the spike that emerges is another treelike plant, sometimes it’s a flower. And that’s where the houseplant trouble begins.
Amorphophallus flowers are pollinated by carrion flies. As their name implies, their usual fare is dead stuff. So, to attract its pollinators, the Amorphophallus does its best to smell like rotting flesh. And over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution it’s become very good at it.
So this long, skinny flower is why I cannot currently sit comfortably in my living room. And it hasn’t even reached its peak yet.
It’s beautiful, right? Just enjoy looking at it without smelling it. Unless you’re a carrion fly, in which case this is your best day ever.
Three Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) flowers blooming at the same time. The red one on top is ‘Beauty Bells’ and the white ones on bottom are ‘Evergreen.’ One photo per minute for four days, compressed to 30 seconds.