Houseplants: Green Souvenirs

In the world of today, when distances are being continually shortened by modern means of travel, a trip to the tropics no longer represents an adventure of several months’ duration accompanied by guides, bearers, horses and supplies. Nowadays we simply board an aeroplane, sleep awhile and disembark at an airport which greets us with a breath of hot humid air. The following day we can already be hundreds of kilometres from the city in a wilderness where we have come by hired car and where we can devote ourselves to our hobby.

First of all, however, while we are still at home, we must find out what regulations the country we are planning to visit has concerning the export of plants. The flora in many countries is protected by law and the export of plants may be either totally, or at least partially, prohibited. We should not be surprised by such restrictions for in this world, with its pollution, fertilizers, pesticides, expanding agriculture and increased felling of forests, some 20,000 species of higher plants are in immediate danger of extinction. If we find that rigid prohibition is the rule then we should equip ourselves with only a camera and a notebook. This should also be our approach if collecting a certain plant is not prohibited, but we ourselves see that it is rare in the given locality and that even collecting its seeds might endanger its future existence. A person who loves plants is also one who loves nature and is concerned about its conservation, and that must apply not only to his immediate home environment. It is likewise necessary to know the regulations concerning the import of plants. Most countries wish to prevent the possibility of any pests or diseases being introduced inside their borders and have various regulations concerning this.

Let us assume that we have met with no obstacles or complications, that we have filled in the necessary forms and that we are setting out on our trip into the wilderness. What should we take with us? The equipment we will need is quite simple. Large plastic bags, a great number of paper envelopes or bags, pencils, rubberbands, a good strong garden trowel, secateurs, a garden knife and a small bottle of water. It is also a good idea to have a spare box or carton in the car and a supply of old newspapers in case cacti or other succulents are collected.

Let us presume that we shall be staying several weeks in the tropical or subtropical country to which we have journeyed and that we shall be collecting plants from the very beginning, which is a wise thing to do, for it may happen that a species which was plentiful when we started out is suddenly not to be seen as its season is over, and then it is too late for reproaches. How, then, should we care for the plants so that they will survive till we return home?

The simplest method is to collect ripe fruits and seeds. If the seeds are ripe the fruit can be crumbled and they can simply be poured into a paper envelope, the same as when collecting the seeds of annuals in the garden. If the fruit is not dry then it must be dried. In the tropics, particularly in a humid and warm environment, there is always the danger that the fruit will rot or go mouldy and that the seeds will thus be destroyed. Such fruits should be put in a cloth or paper bag, hung on the air conditioner in the hotel room and dried by the current of air. Fruits the size of a rose hip will dry in this way in a single night. The dried fruits should then be put in a clean bag on which we should always remember to write all the relevant information about the plant and the locality where it was found. This should include the name of the species, name of the locality, its aspect, altitude above sea level, the soil in which the plant was growing (in the case of an epiphyte, the plant on which it was growing), the moisture conditions and the date. Do not rely on your memory, which will be deluged by impressions after a two-week trip. The spores of ferns are handled in the same way; the spore-bearing fronds, however, will dry well in the open air in partial shade without the aid of air-conditioning equipment, for they generally do not rot.

One more important thing should be remembered: only collect the fruits of plants that you know well, do not touch unknown herbs and shrubs with bare hands, and never taste anything you know nothing about. When blisters appear on the hands after touching a plant or the mouth is filled with an odious taste, then it is too late for regrets. Sometimes a mere trace of a plant poison or irritating substance carried to the mouth by a cigarette handled by unwashed hands is enough to make life very unpleasant.

Preserving cacti, succulent spurges, plants of the genera Echeveria, Cotyledon, Sedum, Senecio, Stapelia, Caralluma and other fleshy-leaved plants is fairly simple. After removing them from the ground, always taking care not to damage the roots, let them dry in partial shade for several days. Then wrap them in newspapers and pack them loosely in a carton. They must not get wet for then they would be irretrievably damaged.The period of drying out should be continued for several more weeks after the return home. Then put the dry plants in dry gritty compost and do not water them for one or two weeks.

The procedure is more or less the same for other xerophytes including the popular bromeliads of the genus Tillandsia. Spread them out in partial shade in a dry place. Curling of the leaves into balls or dying-down of the leaf rosettes is nothing to worry about, it is quite natural and will not affect the future growth of the plant in any way. It is recommended to gather these plants together with a piece of the bark or branch on which they grow so as not to damage their roots. Replanting can then be put off until after the tillandsia is fully acclimatized.

Bromeliads from moist locations, soft-leaved plants such as the genera Vriesea, Guzmania and Catopsis and most orchids require somewhat different treatment. They should be kept dry and the water in the leaf funnels should be poured out. The plant should be spread in the coolest possible place in the light, but not in full sun, and syringed with water once every three days. The water must not trickle down and form puddles under the plants, for then they would quickly rot. It you plan to return home within ten to fourteen days then it is better to 13 keep the plants dry (better too dry than too wet). Before shipping let them dry out completely, wrap in newspaper and pack them loosely in a carton. Loose packing goes a long way towards a guarantee of success. Orchids are treated in the same way. The rule that dry conditions will not harm them applies to orchids, too, both to epiphytic species and ones growing on rocks.

Species growing in the ground often have real tubers (genus Bletia) or at least fleshy roots (genera Habenaria, Spiranthes and Sobralia) instead of pseudobulbs at the base of the leaves. The underground parts of these must not be allowed to dry out. When lifting these plants do so very carefully, gently remove any remaining bits of soil from the roots or tubers, shorten broken roots by cutting them straight across with a sharp knife, and then dust the cut surface with charcoal powder or, if you have nothing else, cigarette ash. The entire underground part may be dusted with one of the several preparations available for preventing the growth of moulds. Then put the plants on a layer of moss in a plastic bag and cover them with another layer of moss; this will keep them moderately moist during transportation.

Often, we come across plants which we like, but which would be difficult to move in their entirety, such as philoden-drons, monsteras, syngonias, peppers and members of the grape family which reach heights of many metres in the wild. These, however, can be readily propagated from cuttings, as can plants of the genera Ixora, Jasminum, Ficus, Columnea and Aeschynanthus. If we decide to take cuttings instead of whole plants, how should these be handled so that they will remain in good condition for as long as several weeks?

The first and most important prerequisite is a fairly large plastic bag. Rinse the bag out with water, then pour all the water out, the purpose being merely to moisten the inside. Always take larger cuttings than will be necessary for propagation. In the case of large-leaved species such as monstera and philodendron, remove the leaf blades to help reduce transpiration. If you are out in the field the whole day it is recommended to suck the air out of the bag after putting the cuttings in so that the sides stick together, at least in part, and close the opening tightly with a rubber band. The bag should always be placed in the baggage compartment or on the floor of the car so that it is protected from the sun.

In the evening, when you have returned to your hotel, spread out the cuttings as well as the whole plants (small ferns and begonias) you have gathered during the day and spray them with lukewarm water for at least an hour. This will not only remove all remaining bits of soil from the roots but will allow the plants to absorb water. Then put them in clean plastic bags, which have likewise been rinsed out with water beforehand, place them in a light but shaded spot on a cool surface and smooth the bags lightly with the hand for better retention of moisture. The open ends may be tucked under but should not be closed completely. Ensuing care consists of rinsing out the plastic bags every evening and putting the cuttings and plants back the way they were. Spray them thoroughly once a week and remove any leaves and roots that are showing signs of rotting. In the damp tropics cuttings and small plants can be kept in good condition by this means for a period of four to five weeks. Whereas epiphytic bromeliads and orchids are shipped ‘dry’, epiphytic ferns of the genera Platycerium, Drynaria, Pyrrosia, the rare genus Utricularia and epiphytic lycopodiums are shipped in the same way as cuttings, that is in moist packets. Easiest of all to ship are bulbous and tuberous plants. Let them dry, then remove the top parts, clean the bulbs and put them in paper or cloth bags.

When you return home from your trip, wire orchids and bromeliads to a tree branch or log and put them in a light place but out of direct sun. Water them regularly from the start but only by syringing them lightly for the first few weeks until they become adapted to their new environment. Water may be applied more liberally only after orchids start putting out new shoots and bromeliads stand up straight. Cuttings often root directly in the bags. If not, then make a fresh cut and put them, along with those that have rooted, in a warm and moist propagator, shaded to keep out direct sunlight.

15. November 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles | Comments Off on Houseplants: Green Souvenirs

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