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With a knife in my pocket…

February 12, 2010

… I went to visit my old workplace. Which sounds ominous, especially considering I rather dislike several of my old colleagues and was nicknamed “Murderer” at vocational school.

I didn’t use the knife on any people, though. That knife is not meant for people – it’s my old work knife, to be used to take cuttings (or, occasionally, cut string or open bags of potting mix) – and taking cuttings is what I used it for.  I wandered around the greenhouses (which look disquietingly neat – I’m used to the houseplants forming a messy jungle on their tables), peeking in all the corners and into the propagation frames, greedily circling some plants while talking to my favourite ex-colleague. And out came the knife, was flipped open, and *snip*, another cutting joined the growing collection in the in the lunch boxes I’d brought.

I didn’t quite want to look into my bag when I came home. It’s not like I don’t have quite enough plants already.  And no space to put them.

Of course, I emptied the bag after all…

clockwise, from top left: Tetrastigma voinierianum, Plectranthus (Solenostemon) scutellarioides ‘Inky Fingers’, Begonia serratipetala, Chlorophytum comosum ‘Bonnie’, Schlumbergera Cultivar, Chlorophytum orchidastrum, Plectranthus (Solenostemon) scutellarioides ‘Kiwi Fern’, Pelargonium zonale. Middle: more Plectranthus (Solenostemon) scutellarioides ‘Wizard Scarlet’ (?)

I’d not meant to get so many coleus cuttings.  I’m not even all that fond of the plant. It doesn’t get big, it has to be pinched back all the time, and then it just dies despite all you do for it.

And the name. It was my first source of frustration when I was just starting my apprenticeship. There I’d just managed to remember Coleus blumei, and then one of the other apprentices came back from school and said, “You know, it’s actually been renamed to Solenostemon scutellarioides.”

I gnashed my teeth, but I memorized the name, and even learned to say it really fast. Great for impressing people.  In fact, I began to love the name.

And then I bought the newest edition of the “Zander dictionary of plant names”, and found they’d renamed it again. To Plectranthus scutellarioides, which is just as complicated, but not nearly as much fun to say.

But whatever their name was, those plants, boring and fussy as they were, still were tempting in their variety. Even though we didn’t have any truly droolworthy ones, a couple of plants and cuttings followed me home. I got kind of worried, though, when I talked to a seventy-something retired horticulturist a while ago, who mentioned having collected coleus in his youth. Dozens, hundreds of them filling my windowsills? Better stop before it goes that far!

Winter helped with ending that budding obsession, killing off all but one measly ‘Inky Fingers’ cutting – some by cold,  some by lack of light, some by mysterious rot.

But now they’re back.  ‘Kiwi Fern’, which I had before and lost during the winter, more ‘Inky Fingers’, because my little plant isn’t looking too great, and the plants at work were full of great cuttings, and what I assume is ‘Wizard Scarlet’. I wasn’t going to take any of them, as they’re not really interesting, but how can I resist when the cuttings are just waiting to be taken?

I don’t generally do water-rooting, but right now I don’t have the space or the pots to put the cuttings in coco peat as I would usually have done, so I dug around for some empty jars and stuck them in water after all.

Next up was the Begonia serratipetala. I brought home cuttings of those on three separate occasions last year when I was still working in that nursery. The first two batches rotted because I’d forgotten we always propagated them by stem cuttings, not tip cuttings. The third batch survived for a while, even rooted… and then was killed by winter darkness. So we’ll see how these will do – I planted most of them in  pots, and stuck a couple into one of the coleus jars.

Pelargonium is easy. They should even root in ordinary potting compost, but I put them in coco peat anyway and put them under the ragged piece of horticultural fleece that covers my propagation table (which is pretty much what we did at work, except that we had whole tables covered in fleece tents).

Generally, I dislike Zonal Pelargoniums even more than Coleus. Boring, boring, boring oldfashioned balcony plants. But I like this particular variety, both for the colour (the picture below is the only one I have, and it doesn’t quite do the colour justice – it’s the kind of colour that makes my eyes hurt) and for the name. No-one at work knew what the variety was actually called, so it got named after the guy who’d brought in the first plant: “Heating Joseph”.

When all the cuttings were taken, the mother plants were allowed to run wild while we were busy elsewhere. I loved the colour combination of the Thunbergia and the ‘Heating Joseph’ Pelargonium.

The Chlorophytum went into the cup of water along with the plantlets I’d plucked off my own plants a while ago until I find a pot for them. (Pots! Pots! That’s the other thing I wanted to get while I was there!) I’m not incredibly interested in ‘Bonnie’, but if those plantlets are there just begging to be taken, what am I to do?

Two more tiny pots  for the Christmas Cacti, and let’s hope I don’t get them mixed up with my own ordinary pink ones.  I hadn’t expected to take any Schlumbergera cuttings at the ex-work. The only ones that had ever been there were some half-drowned, plain and boring pink ones, much like what I already had. But now there were two nice big plants, still blooming, with gorgeous two-toned, beautifully-shaped flowers.

The Chlorophytum orchidastrum ( or C. ‘Fire Flash’ or ‘Green Orange’ or whatever it is called) was already in a nice small pot, so off it went onto the windowsill, with a quiet cackle on my part since my elaborate plan had worked.

There was one big plant at work, which frequently self-seeded into its own pot. During my last months there, I finally suggested pricking the seedlings and adding that plant to our product range. The true intention being that I wanted one of them myself.

And then, finally, I filled a last, larger pot for the cuttings I’d had most doubts about: Tetrastigma voinierianum.  A plant I’ve admired pretty much since I first saw it, when we removed one from an office in the Town Hall to nurse it back to health in the greenhouse.  Such a pretty plant – but so large! For the first two years or so, I just went on admiring the few plants at work, taking extra care with watering and feeding them when I was given responsibility for the tropicals, and feeling proud when I saw them grow.

But during the last year of my apprenticeship, the admiration began to be mixed with greed. Such a gorgeous plant… such a rare plant, apparently (so far, I’ve seen one plant in a store, and that was far too large for me to even think about buying). But I had no room, right? No, I had no room. I was living in a single room, filled with 30, then 40, then 50 plants. No way I could add a Tetrastigma.

But I wanted one, and I made sure people knew I wanted one.

“When we get them to grow again,” I told my colleagues, pointing to the huge clump of yellowish, dusty foliage in the corner of the neglected greenhouse**, “you have to take cuttings for me.” It was clear by then that I would be gone from that place before there was material for cuttings again.

“Look at it, just look at it,” I told my mother, shoving a book under her nose. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”*

“If you say so,” my mother said. “Maybe… maybe we could put one in the bathroom…”


But then I left the job,  went into hibernation, and didn’t want to see my old colleagues again.

Just as I was slowly waking, Mr Subjunctive posted this. I was, quite appropriately, green with envy.

So Tetrastigma was definitely on my mind when I went to the ex-work, but I didn’t really expect them to have remembered my request for cuttings. So I was pleasantly surprised when I peeked into the propagation frame –  “But you made Tetrastigma!” I squeed.

“You don’t have room, you know that,” whispered the reasonable part of my mind. “You should wait until you’ve found a flat. Besides, these surely aren’t rooted yet. And probably expensive, too.”

I went away to prowl around the large plant across the aisle – the one we brought back from that office 3.5 years ago, which by now is sprawling all over the table and getting tangled in the neighbouring plants.

So I prowled. And stared. So pretty. So big.

And then there was this branch. With relatively small leaves, easy to transport and to find space for in my propagation area. With buds. With no  soft, unfit-for-cuttings new growth on the end.

What was I to do? Out with the knife, snip, snip, snip, and at home into a pot, into one of my improvised propagation “frames” and fingers crossed.

My propagation table, all covered up

Propagation table without fleece and plastic foil

Not much space left in there. None at all, in fact, and the box on the floor shouldn’t even be there.

Not an ideal set-up, I know, but it’s the best I could do with my very limited budget.


* Which, I realize, makes me sound rather like Hermione Granger, talking about Crookshanks. But then, I sound like her awfully often anyway.

** Result of me being away quite often and long, complicated and depressing arguments about watering. I’ll spare you the details (and myself – I’d rather not remember that time).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2010 22:11

    Thanks so much for visiting my site. This is my first time to yours and I love it. You strike me as fascinating, and not just because you love houseplants as much as I do. I added you to my google reader, so I’ll definitely be checking back with you.

    • February 13, 2010 11:30

      Thanks! I hope I’ll be able to keep up with this blog now there’s a chance of employment again.
      I’m keeping an eye on your blog, too.

  2. September 26, 2012 18:46

    Really enjoyed reading this and drooling over the pic of your haul of cuttings. Well-written, interesting and informative. I encountered it looking for info on the latest Coleus rename. I share your frustrations with this!

    Saving Coleus cuttings over winter in bottles of water is extremely easy and very addicting, takes a lot less space than potted plants that, as you’ve discovered, tend to die over winter even if you bring them inside so they don’t freeze. Always love to encounter and read about another propagation junkie and fan of foliage. Do you feel a Begonia addiction coming over you? I have that, too.

    • September 26, 2012 19:02

      I have mostly given up growing coleus – I still love them, but I don’t have any good place to grow them, even outside (what little outside space I have is chock-full of veggies). I’m not even sure if I’ll overwinter my ‘Inky Fingers’ again.

      I would love to have more cane begonias, but they’re hard to find, and again, so little space!


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