Great Balls Of…. Green?


Marimo balls are the “pocket pets” of the plant world.

Also known as Moss Balls or Lake Balls, these cute, fuzzy little green balls could fall in the category of novelty plants.

They are perfect for low-light rooms, an office desktop, or for decorating a table.  Plus, they are great attention getters from co-workers, friends, and guests.

I saw pictures of them while cruising eBay one day, and did a little research.  The more I read about them, the more fascinated I became.  (Yeah, I ended up buying them on eBay.)

As with any plant, they have their aficionados and collectors.  Certainly I could be one, if I let myself get carried away with them.

They are actually a species of algae, but don’t let that turn you off.  They look like velvet, and feel like velvet too.  They’re pretty darn cool!

Whenever I have guests, I fish one of my Marimo’s out of their jar and drop them into my visitors hand.

That visitor is always impressed.  They love the feel and they can’t believe the balls are real, live, photosynthesizing plants.

Some websites will try to tell you that algae is not a plant…  sorry guys, but Marimo’s are scientifically classed as belonging to the Plantae kingdom (Taxonomy discussions on algae become mostly semantics anyway).


One of the coolest things about Marimo’s are the ways you can stage them.  As you can tell from the photo’s, I just keep mine in a plain, glass cookie jar… nothing fancy… but Marimo’s can be dressed up much the same as the ever popular lucky bamboo pots, with colorful glass beads, ribbons, and beautiful vases.

In addition, given a little extra room, Marimo’s have a habit of sinking and rising to the water surface, much like the wax inside a Lava Lamp does.  Take a beautiful glass container, put some glass beads in the bottom, add tap water and the Marimo’s, and you have a real conversation starter.

Marimo balls are popular additions to aquariums as well, but if you’re interested in using them in that fashion it would be a good idea to do a little research and look up how other aquarium owners use them.

As far as caring for them in a vase goes, plain tap water works just fine, with a little care:

Every 7 to 10 days take your Marimo’s out of the vase and rinse them off in clean tap water, squeezing them just a tiny bit to remove any impurities.  Wash out the vase and fill it with new tap water (room temp), then put the Marimo’s back in.  That’s it!

If you want to start new Marimo’s you can tease a little bit off one of the balls and put that in the vase alongside the others.  The little ball will eventually grow into a big ball.

Marimo’s grow somewhat slowly.  I have read websites where it says it takes 7 years for a ball to grow to the size of my palm, but my experience has been that my Marimo’s grow much faster than that.  Still, they are not like my potted plants, they do increase gradually, not with leaps and bounds.

Also, if you find they are losing their nice spherical shape, it means that not all sides of your Marimo are getting enough light to photosynthesize, and is thus growing more on one side than another.  The solution is simple, just twist the vase around occasionally so the balls tumble around and are exposed to the light much more evenly.

If you see little bubbles surrounding your moss balls, this is a good thing.  It’s called pearling, and is a sign that the plants are photosynthesizing well.  It’s quite lovely to see – makes the water look like champagne.

Orchids – Sexy flowers with surprising tricks.

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Hubby and I went to the orchid show at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  More than 10,000 orchids filled the exhibition hall and three huge greenhouses, the first ever orchid exhibition that CBG has done.

I have to say, I never used to like orchids.  In fact, I had a distinct dislike for them.  I always thought the way the blooms arose out of the foliage on their long, bare stems looked very odd.  The flowers were colorful, but stuck on the ends of those stems like some kind of a brightly spotted cleaning tool.

What really bothered me, though, was the way the flowers had an indecent quality to them.  I’ve given botany lectures before… I know all about the birds, the bees, and that every plant wants to have sex and make other little “planties”.  But somehow, orchids flaunted that process in a way that I found distasteful.  Orchids aren’t just having sex.  They look like they’re having sex.  It took a long time for me to get past that and appreciate them (or accept them) as they are.

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It was those botany lectures that turned me around.  I don’t know if I taught my audience anything, but I did end up teaching myself.  In the case of orchids, I came to be so fascinated with how overtly ingenious they are at finding ways to propagate, that I was able to overlook my own puritanical sensibilities.  Once I was able to put that aside, the barrier was breached and orchids began to wind their spindly little stems around my heart.

Plant reproduction can be done in more than one way and it can be a complicated process.  But in general, here’s a brief (very incomplete) description that fits a majority of plants:

Male parts of a flower:  anther, pollen

Female part of a flower:  stigma, ovule

The anther contains a yellow or reddish substance, which is pollen.  Pollen is the sperm-cell of the plant.  The stigma has a sweet, sticky end that lures insects (birds, etc.), who slide their tongues (or whatever!) inside to sip nectar.

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Pollination process:  the insect brushes up against the anthers while sipping nectar.  Pollen from the anthers clings to the insects body and they carry (transfer) it to the next stigma they visit.  The pollen (sperm) travels down the style (tube) to the ovary, where hundreds of egg-cells (ovules) await fertilization.  If an egg-cell is successfully fertilized, the ovule will develop into a mature seed.  Seeds are the end product of the sexual cycle.  The embryo will be inside of the seed.  If you could split the seed open that is.  In the case of orchids, the seeds are so tiny they are like dust.

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The really interesting part is how the plant goes about attracting those pollinators in the first place.  Especially since some orchids don’t produce nectar.

These plants will actually produce a sweet, nectar-like scent or make their flowers look like they produce nectar, to draw in unsuspecting insects that haven’t got a clue.  Imagine the disappointment that bug is in for!  Too late, the insect’s already covered in orchid sperm and on his way to the next trick.

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The flower might emit a specific smell, peculiar to a particular insect, something that only that particular bug has a yearning for.  Like scents that imitate the sexual hormone of the insect, or the smell may be reminiscent of rotting meat (to attract flies).  The release of the scent may be only during specific times, such as at night, for night-flying insects.

Or the flower may resemble a particular insect – taking on the color pattern, shape, scent, and texture of the female version, drawing the attention of the male insect (who once again is covered in sperm before he realizes he’s been duped).

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Flies love the colors red and brown (resembles “dead” things).  Bees like blue or yellow.  Butterflies prefer the “hot” oranges and reds, and moths go for white and pale pastels.

But orchids don’t just use color to attract pollinators, they also use them to repel them.  They might use red to draw the insect, then – when fertilization has taken place – the flower changes colors and becomes, say, yellow… because certain insects can’t see yellow, and so they’ll stop bothering the flower.

They create contrasting color patterns like a bulls-eye in the center (come and get it, right here!), or the bloom period coincides exactly with the period of greatest insect activity.

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The multitude of messages and tricks that plants use to attract pollinators is complex and not fully understood.  None is more interesting to observe than those in the orchid.

Most orchids grow on trees and are native to the tropics and subtropics., but there are also those that grow on rocks and in the ground.  There are more than 200 species native to North America, approx. 45 of those in Illinois.  There are species on every continent (except Antarctica), in all kinds of habitats – deserts, mountains, semi-aquatic – there is even one species in Australia that grows and blooms completely underground!

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Did you know that vanilla is actually an orchid?  The vanilla bean used to flavor your morning coffee is the dried and cured seedpod of Vanilla planifolia, an orchid native to Mexico.  The vanilla vine is also one of the most attractive vines on the planet (this is totally this author’s humble opinion).

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Unfortunately, for those of you that are interested in attending, the CBG exhibition ended March 16th.  Luckily, however, that really only means they’ve removed the orchids from the exhibition hall.  I’m sure there are still plenty of blooming orchids to see in the greenhouses, as they grow there year round.  If you haven’t gone there yet, do it soon.  They are incredible.


In the meantime, take a look at these pictures I’m sharing with you.  Imagine if you will the complexities that God and nature has created in these fascinating plants, and see if they don’t wind themselves around your heart as well.

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The Scent Of Sugar

Tea Olive

Tea Olive

Known to have one of the sweetest scents in all the plant kingdom, one small, blooming specimen of Osmanthus fragrans can perfume an entire room.  Also known as Tea Olive or Sweet Olive, I first learned of this plant when reading “The Unexpected Houseplant” by Tovah Martin.

An avid houseplant aficionado and tropical plant expert, Ms. Martin had included a photo of a potted Tea Olive, which quite frankly didn’t look like much.  It was only a few feet tall, gangly and spindly, sparsely clothed in finely toothed, linear shaped leaves.  The white flowers were so small, they were hardly noticeable, despite the lack of foliage.  And yet, the written description was so enticing that I could not wait to go online and order one for myself.

Ms. Martin assured me that, though the plant itself would not grow quickly, nor reach more than a few feet as a houseplant, it was easy to bring into bloom in January, in my zone 5 window.  The scent, she wrote, was like “sugar sprinkled on the air”. Who can resist a description such as that?  I had no idea what sugar sprinkled on the air smelled like, but I knew that if it was possible to have such a thing in the gardenless month of January, I was definitely going to give it a try.

When my plant arrived last Fall, I could see she was right.  It wasn’t much to look at!  But bloom it did.  I potted my 2 year old, bare root, 18 inch tall shrub, gave it my blessing and a prime location on my desk, under an East/South window where it would get the morning and midday light.  It started blooming in December, only two months into its new location.  Unbelievably, as I write this, it is blooming still, while just a few inches beyond the windowsill the air outside is a frigid -16 below.

At first, I didn’t even notice the tiny blooms.  So gangly and unobtrusive is my Tea Olive that I barely gave it a glance, sitting behind a host of other, more lush and colorful potted plants.  But there was no ignoring the scent.  It drew me in, eager to find the source.  Now, my day is not complete without pressing my nose to the tiny white petals, closing my eyes in pure bliss and trying to inhale as much of the sweet perfume as my breath allows.

Despite the decidedly sweet aspect of its odor, the scent is not sickeningly so, nor is it cloying or overpowering.  It is light, gentle on the brain, refreshing and pleasant.  Other descriptions I have read liken the scent to apricots or peaches, with a touch of jasmine, but I don’t find those descriptions very fitting.  They don’t it justice.  Words fail the olfactory sensation.  Ms. Martin said it best.

So, what does “sugar sprinkled on the air smell like?”  Pure heaven. PLANT SPECS:

  • Evergreen, shrub
  • Natural outdoor habitat is China, approximately 30 degrees Latitude.  In the U.S., that would put it’s cold hardiness range in Florida and the southern half of Texas, in zones 8b through 10.  Some websites, however, have suggested ranges as broad as through zone 7b.
  • Tea Olive is the subject of several romantic Lunar legends, and used extensively during the Chinese Moon Festival.  The flowers are also used in the production of perfumes and herbal remedies, and added to tea leaves to make scented tea.
  • Growth Rate:  Slow to moderate, to about 3 feet indoors.  Can be pruned to encourage more branching, as leaves grow on the branch tips and the plant will get very leggy with time.
  • Bloom Period:  Indoors, will bloom intermittently from October through early Spring.