I'm in my third year of my Ph.D. program at Michigan State, studying restoration ecology. Or, in layman's terms, how to put nature back together. It just so happens that ecological restoration more often than not targets the plant community, which molds so many of us restoration enthusiasts into plant community ecologists. Ergo, my lab's home department, and the words on my future Ph.D. (God permitting) are "Plant Biology." The thing is, I don't know anything about plants.
Sure, I can tell a hosta from a lilac bush, Dalea purpurea from Echinacea purpurea, and a white oak from a sugar maple. And thanks to my time spent in graduate school (and especially studying for my recent comprehensive exams), I'd say I also have a pretty solid textbook understanding of plant community ecology, prairies, and restoration-- all the types of things I'll need to know in order to ask, and hopefully answer, research questions for my dissertation.
But still feel like I don't know anything about plants.
As an undergrad, my Environmental Studies major allowed me to take every biology class I wanted (my electives rounded out my university's list of offered ecology courses) while completely avoiding any physiology, taxonomy, cellular processes, or horticulture after Biology 101. This means I had to memorize the steps of photosynthesis once, in about 2007, and was able to mostly put any details about plants themselves out of mind ever since. Chlorophyll? I think that's the green stuff. I had a lot of great summer experiences as an undergrad, which introduced me to real plant-based restoration and conservation work-- and the blissful world of the "field assistant." It was here that I learned what plants to expect in what ecosystems, what plants to get excited about, and what plants I should repeatedly spray with herbicide.
But now that I'm working toward becoming a "plant biologist," I've become self-conscious about my complete lack of coursework that actually focused on plants. The first thing a stranger usually asks me after hearing I'm pursuing a plant biology degree is, "oh, you should come look at my _________ (apple tree, rosebush, tomatoes...)! I don't know why it's _____________." I used to laugh awkwardly and explain that I wasn't studying "that kind of plant biology," but the more time I spend on my degree, the more I think, wouldn't it be nice if I knew that sort of thing? I don't know anything about how to achieve my dream garden. And my house plants are all dying in different ways and I don't know why! Which, in fact, is the inspiration for this post.
My weird mish-mash of houseplants recently returned home from their long-term plant-sitter (where they lived while I was away last field season, then were mostly forgotten, and were only remembered after outside temperatures were no longer favorable for their transport). Thankfully for the plants, my plant-sitter knew not to take them outside in the dead of winter (even for a second to get to the car, he said!). I would have killed them.
I'm totally kidding, I already knew bitter winter cold killed plants instantly.
Because of the time I opened a window for a minute to let kitchen-smoke out. The window over the plant stand. And they all died. This was some time in my second year of my Plant Biology Ph.D.
Anyway, I now have a couple new/old plants. Two of them are plants I bought at Meijer last spring, an Easter Lily and a Hyacinth, in order to spruce up my kitchen table or desk or wherever. They are still in their purple-and-silver foil and could probably use real pots. Or at least a re-centering. The Easter Lily didn't exactly re-sprout in the middle of the pot...
Another is some sort of Arrowhead plant. I only know its name because it's so common it comes up in a "common houseplants" Google search. I inherited this plant when my mother was about to throw it away after it had a significant near-death experience. I saved it from the trash, thinking, at least I'll get this nice pot if the plant doesn't come back to life! Not only did this plant come back to life, but it also survived the great indoor freeze fiasco of 2013 through some combination of luck and my own laziness. After it shriveled and appeared to have completely died, I cut off all the dead leaves and stems-- just so it wouldn't be so ugly-- and just left the pot under the plant stand to deal with later (i.e. never). I didn't water it, it wasn't getting much light... but it came back to life, again!! This is probably no surprise to anyone who knows the slightest thing about houseplants (and the internet tells me this is one of the easiest to care for)...
And finally, my favorite plant, and the inspiration for today's post, my ponytail palm! I love this plant, and it requires very little care. It's in a weird little pot that has glued-together gravel across the top. I've seen some pretty huge ones, so my guess is the solid-gravel stunts it somehow... does this even make sense, biologically? Beats me! All I know is that I'd like to re-pot it and see if it gets bigger. It also has been cut off at the top (and has some weird seal on it) and only grows from the sides. That is, it's growing from its lateral meristems and not its apical. That's right, general biology. I remember you. I wonder if this keeps it short. I also wonder if I pulled off the seal if it'd start to grow up and not just out. But if it's already been cut off, will that work??
A quick internet search tells me that yes, this is a "bonzai" ponytail palm and I should re-pot it if I want it to grow taller. No mention of the trunk. I'm fairly certain that's a dumb idea so I'll leave it alone.
Note washed-out color, brown spots, and physical damage (um, my bad).
I'll leave you with this final photo of my terrarium, whose components were a very thoughtful Christmas gift from my mother. It's still relatively new, and hasn't had to stand the test of time quite yet.
Wishing you and your houseplants the best,