Aglaonemas

by Fred Moody

Pronounced "a glah a nema". The genus Aglaonema is part of the Araceae (aroid) family which is known for their spathe and spadix flower arrangement. The genus name is derived from the Greek aglos (1 bright) and nema (a thread) referring to the male reproductive part of the flower.There are about thirty confirmed species, with numerous cultural varieties and now many more new hybrids. For the most part, aglaonemas are soft caned herbaceous perennial plant with roundish, oblong or elongated shaped leaves. There is however also a number of species such as A. costatum which grow by means of a creeping rhizome. Aglaonemas were first reported from the island of Leyte in the Philipines in 1703 by the Jesuit priest Camillus, at which time it was described under the name of Dracanculus luzonis primus, but it was not until 1747 that the Dutch botanist Rumphius described two plants and assigned them to the genus Aglaonema in his publication Herbarium Amboinesa. It was not until 1969 that Dan Henry Nicholson of the Smithsonian Institute researched and published a full and accurate account of all known species. As late as 1998 another new species A. fleningianum was discovered in Malaysia and described by Alistair Hay of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.Members of this genus occur naturally from India to Southern China (A. modestum the Chinese evergreen) down through Thailand and the Malaysian Peninsula to Indonesia and New Guinea with some species occurring in the Philippine Islands. Incidentally, many of the new hybrids released over the past decade have originated from Thailand, India and the Philippines as a result of research carried out in Florida USA where there is a significant breeding and tissue culture industry in aglaonemas.The most common question I am often confronted with is: What is the difference between Aglaonemas and Dieffenbachia? The answer is that apart from minor differences in the flowers, the main difference is that Aglaonemas come from South East Asia whilst the Dieffenbachia comes from Central and South America (NB The Aglaonema does not have the toxic sap that is present in the Dieffenbachia and lends to its common name of the "dumb cane" plant.) Whilst Aglaonemas have been renowned internationally for their striking foliage and their ability to grow in very low light conditions (prefer 70% to 90% shade), they have also had a reputation for being difficult to grow here in Sydney due to their inability to withstand low temperatures. The plant most responsible for putting this genus on the wish list of many foliage plant collectors had been Aglaonema 'Silver Queen', a hybrid appearing in our nurseries in the mid 1960's, and although still quite commonly used by plant hire companies to fill the planter boxes in shopping centres and department stores, it is the one cultivar most difficult to grow in temperatures below 10C. (NB My personal experiences suggest that this is not so much of a problem if these plants are kept fairly dry, especially during winter).The economic importance of successfully overcoming this cold tenderness trait and also introducing new cultivars, (aglaonemas accounted for less than 1% of the USA foliage plant market in the 1960's and this has risen to 10% by the year 2002), has resulted in a team at the Mid Florida Research and Education Centre (MREC) arm of the University of Florida being led by a Dr. R.J. Henry carrying out extensive research which has resulted in new hybrids such as Algaonema 'Jewell of India", A. 'Star' and A. 'Emerald Star' which have displayed no leaf damage after being subjected to temperatures of 35F (1.6C) for 10 days, (under the same conditions A. 'Silver Queen' resulted in 68.3% of leaf damage to the trial plants.)I have successfully grown one species, A. commutatum and three hybrids successfully outside of the greenhouse through many winters. These are old hybrids named A. 'Parrot Jungle", A. 'Manila' and A. 'Silver Queen'. My largest and most spectacular cultivar. believed to be A. 'Cinderella', although still housed, has survived the Society's two shows this year.If you are tempted to try some of the new aglaonemas, Redlands nursery of South East Queensland are the Australian distributors for the 'Elite Aglaonema' range and their well grown plants have been available through selected Sydney nurseries for about three or more years; but remember my personal experience says to keep their potting mix on the dry side during winter and do not wet the leaves in the afternoon on cold days. These plants really do "thrive on neglect".

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