The Ant Fern and Other Oddities: An Informative Rotanical Interview with Bill Barnett

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

I recently scored an interview with the most horticulturally minded person I know, Bill Barnett. Bill is the manager of Sloat Garden Center on 3rd Avenue (at Clement) in San Francisco. I first met Bill when I was his underling at the retail nursery.  Those in the know, know that this branch of Sloat Garden Center is a secret oasis of rare and thriving gems. There is no plant, odd or otherwise that Bill doesn’t know about. I’ve tried to stump him and only come close once: I found out about a new hybrid of a dianthus about a week before he did (score one for the Rotten Botanist!) Bill knows more about plants than any other human alive. Seriously. And he doesn’t hold a PhD or even a master’s in horticulture. Bill got his knowledge the old-fashioned way: immersion. He has discovered a species and trained me in the ways of the weirdest plants. He introduced me to Black Mondo Grass, for which I am forever grateful.  He is also a master diagnoser of plant diseases and a damn amazing cook.

Bill is pretty old school. I did this interview with him via mail. That’s right, MAIL. Not email. He hand wrote the answers, complete with a tiny botanical illustration of a pitcher plant he is fond of. Probably the only way he’ll read this interview is if I print it and bring it into him.

RB: What is your earliest garden or plant memory?

BB: As a toddler I can remember my mom’s houseplants. My aunts all had the same ones because they traded cuttings. They all had the Achimenes — a member of the African Violet family that goes dormant int he winter. My mom believed that you needed to water it with hot water in the spring to wake it up, but of course you don’t. Everyone just called it the hot water plant. My mom also bought houseplants that were reduced in price at the grocery store because they were fading. They rarely looked any better under her care.

RB: How long have you worked in the horticultural field?

BB: Too long. I have seen evolution occur. 34 years. And I really do believe that plants propagated from plants that “like” captivity have produced progeny that are much easier to grow, in just a few generations instead of eons. Or maybe I’m just a better grower–whatever.

RB: What is your favorite plant (indoor or otherwise)?

BB: I love the Staghorn ferns–all 18 species. There’s nothing else like them. They have the shield leaves that stack up as they grow. The inner shields become compost for the roots and they funnel falling leaves and rain to the roots for even more compost. Another type of leaf hangs into the air and look like the staghorn or antler.

RB: What plant do you despise the most? (and why?)

BB: The Fo-Ti that Pixie planted against the North wall. [Rot Bot note, Pixie is a former colleague and amazing gardener who currently works at Annie’s Annuals. Tell him we said ‘Hi!’] We’ve pulled all of it on this side but it still comes in from the neighbor’s yard. It comes through the drainage holes in the flower box. One tendril found the drainage hole of a pot sitting on a shelf and rooted into the hole. We all now hate it. It taunts us through the fence.

RB: Is there a particularly bizarre plant that you think Rotten Botanists should know about?

BB: I bought the weirdest plant from a grower from the Philippines at the orchid expo this year. It’s a fern called Lecanopteris carnosa or the Ant Fern. It is an epiphyte. The base looks like a green potato and seems to have hardly any roots. The leaves are pretty fern like. It likes to grow in the sun and get bone dry between soakings. The base grows in one direction and as it does the rear portion dies and becomes dry and black and hollow. Stinging ants move into the backroom. They’re not squatters–they work for their lodging. At any vibration from something munching on the leaves they rush out en mass and run the invader off. They groom the leaves of any aphids or scale and they fertilize the roots by dumping all of their food scraps and poop in the yard. My plant is growing well, without ants.

RB: Rumor has it you discovered a species of Sanseveria (snake plant). Can you tell us about that?

BB: It’s a cultivar actually of the normal green ‘snake plant’. Someone was buying it where I was working and I noticed a yellow colored sprout. When they left to get their car I un-potted the plant and replaced it with another green plant because I knew they hadn’t even noticed. It’s called ‘Sunrise’ because the leaves come up plain green and slowly the yellow creeps up the stem and intensifies like the sunlight coming over the horizon. it can take years for full color development. [Rot Bot note: The one Bill gave me about 9 years ago is half yellow now!]

RB: If your house was on fire and you had time to save just ONE plant, what would it be? Why?

I’ve got plants that it would be harder to find or more expensive to replace (if possible). But I love my little Australian pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis, so much. It’s a nice clump of the miniature pitchers. They all face away from the center of the group. It looks kinda like a nest of baby birds all with their mouths open for feeding. I feed them frozen baby crickets.

Bill's illustration of Cephalotus follicalaris

Bill’s illustration of Cephalotus follicalaris

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