Friday, April 22, 2011

Chicken Gizzard Plant

Houseplants have scientific (botanical) names and common names, and almost every book I’ve owned and read lists both of them. The scientific name is typically more prominent but in many of my books it’s the other way around. In fact, a few of them list the common name on top, in big bold letters, and place the scientific name below, in smaller, lighter font. Of course, the scientific names are used for the alphabetical order in either case, but it’s still surprising that the common names are occasionally given the spotlight since they’re not very reliable.

There are no set rules to common names; it’s mostly regional. An indoor plant can have more than one common name, depending on where in the world it’s grown. Additionally, the same name may be shared by a number of different plants that are from entirely different families. And common names are not set in stone; they can be modified and completely changed as time passes.

In any case, a lot of people for whom houseplants is a hobby, not a profession, tend to use common names when referring to their plants. And although I agree that if you are growing plants as a hobby you should be free to call your plants whatever you damn well please, if you are selling plants to the public or supplying the public with information about them, the focus should be on scientific/botanical names. Common names can lead to misinformation, which can be misleading. For example: if your pet or child had a bad reaction after eating parts of a plant, the attending physician would need to know the scientific name, not the common name, which may refer to more than one plant, some of which may not be toxic at all. Well, you get the picture.

But despite the unreliability of common names, there are some that have been around for so long, and used by so many people in so many different areas around the world, that they may as well be set in stone. For example, most people use the term Pothos instead of Scindapsus Aureus, Epipremnum Aureum, Epipremnum Pinnatum, Scindapsus Pinnatum or any of the other 100 or so aliases that this commonly-grown plant is known by. Then there’s the phenomenally-popular Saintpaulia Ionantha that is referred to as African Violet. Even organizations about this plant use the common name, which, in my opinion, sounds better. And what about the most celebrated holiday plant, the Poinsettia? Does anyone call it Euphorbia Pulcherrima? How many are even familiar with that name? And Schlumbergera instead of Christmas Cactus? Highly unlikely.

Some plants even resemble their common names. When I brought home a Beaucarnea Recurvata, my younger daughter said “The way the plant’s leaves hang looks like a ponytail” Hence, the common name: Ponytail Palm. Some common names represent the flowers that a plant produces, like the Lipstick and Goldfish plants. There are plants with animal references in their names (Burro's Tail, Elephant Ear Philodendron, Fishtail Palm, Panda Plant, Snake Plant, Spider Plant, Squirrel's Foot Fern and Zebra Plant) and others with human references (Fingernail Plant, Mother Fern, Old Man Cactus).

Plants can have geographical/regional/cultural names: Amazon Lily, China Doll, English Ivy, German Violet, Indian Laurel Fig, Jamaica Sago, Japanese Aralia, Kentia Palm, Madagascar Palm, Mexican Fan Palm and Swedish Ivy. Even food-related names: Asparagus Fern, Beefsteak Plant, Milk Bush, Pickle Cactus, Strawberry Begonia, Swiss Cheese Plant and Watermelon Peperomia.

Common plant names can also be fun (Caricature Plant, Freckle-Face), cute (Baby Tears, Polka-dot Plant), cool (Dragon Tree, Earth Star), spiritual (Hindu Rope, Moses in the Cradle, Angel Wing Begonia), mocking (Mother-In-Law's Tongue) and, sometimes, very unimaginative (Red Ivy, Striped Dracaena).

So, as you can see, there are a variety of names used for a variety of plants, and most of them are pleasant enough, or flattering, or at the very least, respectable. Except for one. In all my plant growing years, the most unflattering common name I have run across is ‘Chicken Gizzard Plant’, which belongs to the brightly-coloured Iresine Herbstii, mainly the ‘Aureo-Reticulata’ cultivar. Personally I think it’s a terrible name for an otherwise charming plant. I can certainly understand applying a word or term that parallels the colors or structure (leaf or stem shape) of a plant, but why this one? Surely whoever gave this plant its common name could have come up with something that didn’t include gizzard (a muscular organ in the digestive system of some animals that grinds and digests food) in it, no?

Yes, the common name stinks. But the plant is very pretty and well worth learning about. So, let’s do that.


Caring For A Chicken Gizzard Plant

There are a few Iresine Herbstii cultivars, but my favourite continues to be the ‘Aureo-Reticulata’. With its apple green leaves, yellow (or white) veins and bright red (or hot pink) stalks and stems, this flamboyantly-coloured plant looks like it belongs in the psychedelic 70s. And it just may have been part of that era, because according to a couple of folks slightly older than me, the Iresine Herbstii was one of the plants grown in terrariums in the 1970s, which was a huge fad. I personally can’t recall if it is so, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me with such an ornamental, humidity-loving specimen.

Native to South America, the Chicken Gizzard plant requires plenty of light to sustain its brilliant colours, so choose a spot that provides very bright light. Ideally, this sun-loving plant should receive some direct sunlight (full to filtered), at least 3 – 5 hours a day. When grown in shade, the vibrant colours fade, the plant becomes lanky and the stems may become brittle. Depending on where you live, and what quality of light is available in your home, you may have to protect against the summer’s scorching midday sun. Watch for signs of discontentment. For example, if the light is too intense, the leaves will look washed-out and the edges will brown.

Pot up your Iresine in a well-draining, porous soil and keep it moist at all times during the active growing season. Water thoroughly whenever the soil surface feels dry. In the winter time, be more careful with the watering can; water moderately and allow the soil to dry out more. Do not allow the plant to dry out completely any time during the year.

Dry air is not something that is tolerated very well, so keep the humidity levels above average for optimal health. Place the plant on a pebble tray, keep a humidifier nearby or grow your Iresine in a terrarium, which it will flourish in. Average household temperatures are fine. Many resources recommend that you do not expose this plant – which is very sensitive to the cold – to temperatures below 10°C (50°F), but my personal suggestion is not to expose to temperatures below 15°C (59°F).

Iresines, especially if grown in areas without adequate light, will eventually become tall and leggy. You can avoid this by pinching back regularly to keep the plant bushy. In addition, trim back young plants a number of times to encourage them to branch. You can also start new plants with cuttings that root easily in soil and in water.


A Chicken Gizzard In Hydroculture

Transplanting to hydroculture is simple and rapid. Wash the roots well to remove all traces of soil and trim them back by 1/3 to encourage the development of water roots. Instead of potting up the plant in clay pellets during the conversion period, place it directly in a glass of water until new roots develop. Because the plant is so sensitive to dryness, and it roots so effortlessly and rapidly in water, symptoms of stress such as wilting, leaf loss and yellowing of leaves (possible during the conversion period) are greatly reduced by keeping the roots constantly moist. (How do I know this? I tried it. Half the stems were placed in a glass of water, the other half directly in clay pellets. The former showed very minor signs of stress while the latter struggled to get through the conversion.)


Despite its unflattering common name, this plant is undoubtedly one of the most eye-catching choices for a sunny windowsill. Fairly easy to grow, and generally trouble-free, you really can’t go wrong with an Iresine Herbstii ‘Aureo-Reticulata’ – the chicken gizzard plant.

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