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From the last week of November through the first of the New Year, many of us are surrounded by colorful seasonal decorations. But then January arrives and all that glitters is gone. To stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder, or at least help tide you over until the first crocuses push up through the cold earth, invest in house plants that bloom naturally during the winter months. Clivia miniata, occasionally called “Natal lily” or “fire lily”, but most often known as just plain “clivia”, is one of the best.
With bold orange or yellow clusters of trumpet flowers blooming atop tall (18-24”) stalks and strappy green leaves, clivia is reminiscent of other well-loved Amaryllis family members, like Nerine and Crinum. It is a perennial but is only winter hardy in USDA Zones 9-11. The upward-facing clivia trumpets are somewhat smaller than those of another relative, the showy amaryllis (Hippeastrum app.), but each cluster contains more flowers. Clivia colors are dramatic—bright orange is the most common—but it is not hard to find pale or bright yellow varieties.
Clivia is winter hardy in USDA Zones 9-11, but it is also a popular house plant.
The genus was named in honor of an Englishwoman, Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive, wife of an early nineteenth century Duke of Northumberland. Clivia is native to coastal areas in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, where the orange-flowered form was discovered by English plant hunters in the early 1820s. The first plants to bloom in England did so in 1827 in a greenhouse at Syon House, one of the Northumberland’ residences. Much later, in 1888, a rarer, yellow-flowered clivia was discovered, also in the Natal.
The colorful flowers were a hit and clivia became a “must have” for wealthy Victorian plant collectors. As the nineteenth century progressed, the cheerful orange blooms made frequent appearances in conservatories and greenhouses. Fast forward nearly 100 years, to the second half of the twentieth century, and breeders in the United States, Australia and elsewhere were hard at work enlarging the number of forms and colors, especially in the yellow range. Hybridization has also resulted in peach, pink and red-flowered forms, though they are quite expensive. While clivia hybridizing is not difficult, it takes many plant generations to produce strong, reliable new strains that come true from seed.
These days, orange and yellow clivia are available at reasonable prices from many traditional and online outlets. For instant color, buy blooming specimens, which are the most expensive. However, if you are willing to be patient and play the long game, you can get a smaller plant for relatively little and nurture it to blooming size. Remember that the pictures you see online or in catalogs are probably photos of mature plants. Your clivia may not have as many blooms, especially in its first year or two of flowering.
This deepest orange-red clivia is a real show stopper.
Whether your clivia is mature or somewhat smaller, pot it up using a high-quality potting mixture, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix. The size of the decorative pot should only be a little larger than the nursery pot. Clivia is fond of close quarters.
The care regimen is reasonably easy. If yours is already in bloom, position the pot where you can see the flowers best, water when the top of the soil feels dry, and enjoy the show for up to a month. Afterward, place in a sunny window and continue to water and feed once a month with a balanced fertilizer diluted according to package directions. If you can do so, let your clivia have a summer vacation outside in a lightly shaded location that is protected from wind and other weather-related disturbances. If you live in a cold-winter area, bring the plant indoors before the first frost. To stimulate winter bloom, stop watering around October 1, and put the clivia in a cool place, ideally with a temperature between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, for at least five weeks and preferably a bit longer. When the dormancy period is over, bring the plant back into the warmth and light and begin watering again. Flower stalks should appear after a few weeks. Keep up this routine for a few years, and you will most likely see more flowers every year. When repotting, which should only happen after several years, do not increase the pot size dramatically or flowering may be affected.
Unlike some other decorative plants, clivia is an excellent long-term investment. It is well worth it to see some floral light at the end of the mid-winter tunnel.
Cast iron plant is one of the toughest house plants available.
The best house plants add a lot to life without adding extra hours to the day because they require as little fuss as possible. Their benefits are most notable in winter when the need for green, living things is the greatest. Only plastic plants are completely un-killable, but the following “hard-to-kill eight” need little, give a lot and thrive under normal household conditions.
Aloe vera is tough and grows best in full sun.
A cut Aloe vera leaf exudes a substance that soothes minor burns, a quality that has made this succulent plant a longtime kitchen staple. Its other virtues include an attractive clump of erect, grey-green leaves with serrated margins that are complemented in summer by tall spikes of tubular yellow flowers. Aloes increase freely by offsets or “pups”, creating new plants that can be separated from the mother plants and given away to friends and family. Best of all, the plants accomplish all that on a minimum of water and care.
Place your aloe in bright, direct sunlight (at least 6-hours a day) and water only when the soil surface is dry. Plants can withstand partial sun, but they will perform poorly in shade. When moving aloes outdoors in summer, slowly acclimate them to full sun conditions to avoid leaf scald.
Spider plant is reliably beautiful and can take a beating.
A favorite since Victorian times, spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) works well on tall plant stands or in hanging baskets that allow the perky “spiders” (offshoots of plantlets) to cascade over the sides. The long, slender leaves, which also help purify indoor air, may be all green or striped with white or yellow and arch gracefully outward. Tiny white summer flowers are a nice bonus, as are the stems of young spider-like plantlets that form at the flowering nodes.
Detach and pot separately when the plantlets reach about 2-inches across or keep them tethered to the parent plant and place each “spider” atop a small pot filled with a soil-free mix. It will root readily. Spider plants thrive in bright, indirect light. Water regularly but do not allow their soil to become too wet.
Christmas cactus is tough but requires good care for flowering.
The familiar Christmas or holiday cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) is sometimes also called “crab cactus” for its spreading growth habit. An epiphytic (tree-dwelling plant) cactus with arching, segmented leaves, it produces claw-like flowers of vivid red, pink, orange, cream, or purple at the ends of the stems in late fall to midwinter. These are true cacti, though they lack sharp spines.
Holiday cactus will flourish as long as they receive bright light and their yearly watering schedule is met. After flowering, plants should be watered very minimally for a period of three months. Then from mid-spring to summer, water them regularly when the soil feels dry down to 2-inches depth; in this time they will put on a new flush of foliage. In early fall, place them in a cool place and reduce watering once more, until you see flower buds develop on the plants. Then keep them regularly irrigated again until flowering ceases.
When snake plants become too root bound, divide them.
You may call it “snake plant” or even “mother-in-law’s tongue”, but whatever the common name, Sansevieria trifasciata is an indoor standby. Its bold, lance-shaped foliage stands erect, generally reaching about 2-feet tall in sunny indoor situations. If your snake plant summers outdoors, place the container in full sun to light shade. The leaf markings that inspired the “snake” nickname are gray-green against a lighter green background. Though it rarely happens indoors, sansevieria produces greenish-white flowers in spring, followed by orange berries later. The plants appreciate regular watering from spring to fall but reduce watering significantly in winter.
Variegated forms of English ivy are extra pretty and just as tough.
Outdoors, English ivy (Hedera helix) can be lovely, but virtually uncontrollable. Grown indoors in containers, it has better manners. Numerous cultivars, including many with interesting variegation and smaller leaves, are available from garden centers. Because of its expansive nature, ivy works well as a filler for large containers or in hanging baskets. As with many other houseplants, it prefers bright indirect light. Watering should be regular and the potting mixture should not be allowed to dry out. When the ivy becomes too unruly, simply trim it to shape. Vines need to grow to a great height to flower and fruit, so indoor specimens never flower.
Jade plants perform best in full to partial sun.
The jade plant (Crassula ovata), sometimes called “jade tree” because of its gray trunk-like stems, is actually a branching, succulent shrub from southern Africa. The plump, glossy, oval-shaped leaves are its chief glory and sometimes have a slight reddish tinge. Indoor jades will occasionally produce small, starry, pinkish-white flowers as well. Container grown specimens may reach up to 30 inches tall and prefer bright light indoors and partial shade outside. Water when the soil feels dry down to a finger-length depth.
Vining golden pothos is very hard to kill.
Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is a striking foliage plant with big, heart-shaped leaves, marbled in golden-green. In the wild, it is a vigorous climbing vine, but as a civilized houseplant, it grows no more than 6- to 8-feet tall. If you want it even smaller, it can also be kept in check by periodic trimming. Because of its good looks and vining nature, the big-leafed plant is useful for hanging baskets, plant stands, and large containers. Bright indirect light, evenly moist soil, and occasional stem pinching will keep it full and healthy.
Cast Iron Plant
True to its tough nickname, cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) can survive shade, neglect, and climate conditions that would send many other plants into fatal swoons. Like spider plant, it was beloved by Victorians and is still a hit today. With green or variegated lance-shaped leaves that sprout on long petioles or leaf stems, mature aspidistra may grow to 2 t0 3 feet tall and wide. The plants grow slowly and flower infrequently indoors. If flowers appear, they are purple and lurk near the plant’s base. Aspidistras grow best with regular watering but will survive with little moisture.
Care and Feeding
Hard-to-kill houseplants need little help to look great if you start with good care. Average house plants require a high-quality mix like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, to ensure good growth and success. Established plants should be fed intermittently with diluted all-purpose fertilizer. More succulent house plants, like aloe, snake plant, jade, and Christmas cactus require mix with excellent drainage, so lighten consider lightening the potting mix with equal amounts of perlite or bark. Succulents are accustomed to lean rations and need little additional fertilizer.
Dwarf calamondins are super tropical fruits for indoor growing.
Growing tropical fruits in Toledo (or Toronto or Trenton) may seem like the stuff of fantasy. It’s perfectly doable, though, thanks to the numerous dwarf tropical fruit trees that take well to containers and flower and fruit at a young age. A warm sunny outdoor location in summer, an equally sunny indoor niche in winter, a suitable watering and fertilizing regime, and a well-drained growing medium (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix) will keep them happy and fruitful.
The genus Citrus is particularly well endowed with container-friendly plants. Kumquats (Citrus japonica, aka Fortunella) are a stellar example. Visit your local supermarket during the winter holiday season, and you’re likely to find the orange-yellow, tart, bite-sized fruits of the popular kumquat variety ‘Nagami’. A number of other, lesser-known kumquats are well worth eating (and growing). The cultivar ‘Meiwa’ bears round, orange, 1¼ -inch fruits that are comparatively sweet and seed-free. Large, thin-skinned, orange kumquats deck the branches of another relatively sweet-flavored variety, ‘Fukushu’. In contrast, ‘Hong Kong’ produces numerous showy, scarlet, ¾-inch fruits with large seeds and scanty pulp. They’re great for ornament but not as good for eating.
Ripening in early winter, kumquat fruits typically remain on the branches until spring, providing decoration and snack possibilities well beyond the holidays. Small, starry white flowers perfume the air in late spring and early summer, and the lustrous, verdant, evergreen leaves are handsome year-round.
Calamondin (Citrus mitis) is what happened when a kumquat hybridized with a mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata). The result is a compact, repeat-blooming evergreen shrub that carries fragrant white flowers and small, chubby, tasty “oranges” throughout much of the year, with production peaking in winter. The fruits can be eaten fresh and make excellent preserves. Splashy cream-yellow markings adorn the leaves and immature fruit of the calamondin ‘Variegata’.
Meyer lemon (Citruslimon ‘Meyer’) is yet another citrus with admirable qualities. A small evergreen tree that can be easily maintained at 3 feet tall in a container, it produces several flushes of flowers and fruits throughout the year, peaking in winter and early spring. The 2- to 3-inch lemons have thin, golden-yellow rinds and relatively sweet, juicy, flavorful flesh that goes well in salads, stews, and preserves. They also make a zingy snack.
Among the other edible citrus for containers are Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia), myrtle leaf orange (Citrus myrtifolia), and Rangpur lime (Citrus limon ‘Otaheite’). The takeaway (particularly if you have lots of container-gardening space) is that you don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy a year-long harvest of lemons, oranges, and kumquats.
Citrus prefer ample sunlight, medium to high humidity, 40° to 60° F minimum temperatures, and moderate watering and feeding from spring to fall (with lower amounts in winter).
Prune off unwanted growth immediately after the fruiting season, in early spring. Common indoor pests can be a problem. Watch for mealybugs, scale, whiteflies, and other common Citrus pests, particularly on stressed or over-fertilized plants. Cleaning plants up with an insecticidal soap before bringing them back indoors in fall can help ward off these pests.
Pineapple guava flowers (Image by C T Johansson)
Guavas are another group of tropical New World evergreens renowned for their aromatic flowers and fruits, and several can be grown beautifully indoors.
Native to uplands of central South America, pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana, aka Acca sellowiana) works wonderfully as a container plant. Lustrous, leathery, silver-backed leaves clothe the upright, gray-barked stems of this handsome small tree. Sweet-scented, pale purple flowers with starbursts of maroon stamens open in late spring and early summer, followed by waxy, blue-green, egg-shaped fruits that cast an intoxicating fragrance as they mature in fall. Their pineapple-flavored fruits (with undertones of mint and apple) are at their best for only a few days after they fully ripen.
Pineapple guava plants require cool winter conditions (40° to 50° Fminimum) and at least one cross-pollenizing companion plant for maximum flowering and fruiting. As with all the guavas described here, they appreciate a monthly application of organic fertilizer in spring and summer. Plants can be kept at 4 to 6 feet by removing overgrown stems in late summer.
Common guava (Psidium guajava) also takes readily to container culture, fruiting reliably and repeatedly in warm, humid, sunny conditions (60 degrees Fahrenheit minimum). For home growing, choose the true dwarf guava (Psidium guajava var. nana). The fragrant white flowers with bottlebrush stamens recur throughout the year, giving way to pale green-skinned fruits that have delicious, musky-scented, deep pink flesh when ripe.
A vicious weed in many tropical regions outside its native Brazil, strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) is an exemplary container plant for colder latitudes, provided it’s spared from temperatures below 50° F. Small, spherical, red-skinned fruits with tangy, pale flesh appear in late summer and continue through winter in favorable locations. The fruits are preceded by fuzzy, white, sweet-scented flowers. The variety lucidum (commonly known as lemon guava) has yellow-skinned, relatively tart flavored fruits. A small tree in the wild, Psidium cattleianum grows much more compactly in containers, typically topping out at 4 or 5 feet.
There’s a lot to explore in container-friendly tropical fruit trees beyond citrus and guavas, including loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), dwarf mango ( Mangifera ‘Pickering’), star fruit (Averrhoa carambola), and the ‘Tainung’ papaya (Carica papaya ‘Tainung’ ), which will begin fruiting on 2-foot plants. Many dwarf common-fig cultivars (Ficus carica), such as the super tiny ‘Petite Negra’ that starts fruiting on 12-inch plants, also grow well in a warm winter sunroom or conservatory. There are even mangoes, such as the golden mango ‘Nam Doc Mai’, that will grow well in large indoor pots.
Another favorite that’s easy to grow is the dwarf banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’ (Musa ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’). Once they reach 3-feet high, they will produce small trusses of delicious bananas year round, if given high light, regular water, and warmth.
Banana ‘Extra Dwarf Cavendesh’
Then there are avocados (Persea americana). Many home growers will opt to start their own trees from pits, but this will result in large trees unfit for indoor growing. Instead, choose a dwarf tree such as the avocado ‘Day’. This compact selection and will produce small avocados from July to September. Bring them indoors in a brightly lit location through winter.
These fruits are best purchased as plants, but most are not readily available at your neighborhood nursery. To find them search for a specialty online plant source, such as Logee’s Plants for Home and Garden. Good online nurseries such as this offer a wide selection of compact tropical plants ideal for indoor container culture.
Potting Indoor Tropical Fruits
Most of these small trees sold in 4- to 6-inch pots, so plants are small at purchase time. Plant them in a slightly larger pot using Fafard Professional Potting Mix, and provide them with good light. Pots should have drainage holes and bottom saucers. Try to maintain even moisture and high humidity, and feed them with a tropical fruit tree fertilizer, as directed.
When the plants begin to outgrow their pots, upgrade them as needed for ample root growth. Those that are fruiting size, usually 4 to 5 feet, require relatively large pots.
Pot your tropical fruits now, and in a year or two, you will be harvesting your own home-grown tastes of the tropics.
Monstera is a bold tropical aroid that will shine indoors in low light.
The aroid family (Araceae) contains some of the most beautiful and outlandish plant species in the plant kingdom. Many make the best bold house plants for all-season color. When things turn chill and gloomy outside, a bold-leaved, evergreen aroid is a very nice thing to have inside. They clean the air and bring tropical beauty to homes.
The titan arum is the boldest aroid, but it is best suited to public greenhouses. (Magnus Manske)
Aroids may be large or small. Few houses (or greenhouses) can accommodate something on the scale of the outrageously gargantuan (and foul-scented) titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), which has flowers that can reach 8 feet high! But, many other Araceae are good fits for warm, humid, indoor locations out of direct sunlight. Give them freely draining, humus-rich potting soil (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix), regular watering, a monthly feeding, and periodic misting, and their evergreen foliage will give you a taste of the tropics even in the dead of winter. A few of them do double ornamental duty by producing colorful, showy jack-in-the-pulpit-like blossoms for much of the year.
It’s these flowers that define aroids. Each aroid blossom actually comprises numerous tiny flowers that cluster on a club-like “spadix”, nestled within a curved, leaf-like “spathe”. The spathe is often white but may also be green, yellow, or various shades of red or pink.
Alocasias are stunning foliage plants perfect for home growing.
The swollen, starchy tubers of elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) have long played a central role in tropical-region cuisines. Here in the frozen north, we grow colocasias for their broad, long-stalked, heart-shaped leaves, which come in a staggering variety of colors including chartreuse, silver, maroon, purple, and all shades of green. Some species and cultivars carry splashy contrasting colors on their stalks or leaf blades, further boosting their visual amperage.
Elephant ears also vary greatly in stature, ranging from petite (1 foot tall, in the case of Colocasia affinis) to truly elephantine (as in the 7-foot-tall ‘Jack’s Giant’). Average size is around 3 or 4 feet, with 18- to 24-inch-long leaf blades. Tubers of the more common elephant ear varieties turn up in bulb catalogs and garden center bins in spring for summer gardening. (Learn how to grow outdoor elephant ears here.) Rarer colocasias are offered year-round by a number of specialty nurseries and greenhouses.
Two other genera – Alocasia and Xanthosma – share much in common with Colocasia, including its common name. Alocasian elephant ears typically have long, pointed, arrowhead lobes, and are often etched with a mosaic of bold white veins. Species include the jewel-like Alocasiacuprea with its glossy, textured leavesand A. x amazonica, which has dark arrowhead-like leaves with pale venation. Popular varieties include the chartreuse ‘Golden Delicious’, black-purple ‘Mark Campbell’, miniature ‘Tiny Dancers’, and statuesque 6-foot-tall ‘Portodora’.
Xanthosma species and cultivars do much the same thing as alocasias and are sometimes confused with them (for example, Alocasia ‘Golden Delicious’ is also known as Xanthosma ‘Lime Zinger’). Some xanthosmas, though – such as the imposing, purple-stemmed X. violacea –are a thing unto themselves. Almost all need warm winter conditions (minimum 65 degrees F) to thrive.
Beautiful Leaves and Flowers
Peace lilies have subdued white flowers and glossy green leaves.
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.) perform beautifully indoors in low-light conditions. Plant snobs may sniff at these commoners, but it’s hard to find fault with their ease of care, verdant lance-shaped leaves, and white spring-to-fall blossoms. Furthermore, peace lilies come in quite a few relatively uncommon forms, including boldly variegated ‘Domino’, dwarf ‘Viscount’, and the giant 5-foot-tall ‘Sensation’. Most spathiphyllums grow to about 2 feet, with a greater spread if their rhizomes are allowed to roam. Less water-demanding than elephant ears, they sulk in overly damp soil.
The brilliant blooms of flamingo flower will brighten any winter home.
Flamingo flower (Anthurium spp.) comprises a diverse genus of clumpers and climbers that possess many charms beyond the fiery red blooms of the common flamingo flower (Anthurium scherzerianum). A. crystallinum and A. claverinum, for example, are prized for their handsome, white-veined leaves, rather than for their unexceptional floral display. Even those grown for their showy blossoms sometimes depart from the stereotypical flamboyance of common flamingo flower. For example, the spathes of A. andreanum ‘Album’ are large and white with a long, pale yellow spadix, while those of ‘Black Love’ are dark maroon. Almost all anthuriums appreciate an extra-coarse potting mix, amended with composted bark. Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil has added bark, making it a great mix choice for these plants.
Calla lilies are great indoor bloomers.
Calla lily (Zantedeschia spp.) are the best bloomers in the aroid tribe. Among the many alluring species and hybrids of this South African genus, only one – Zantedeschia aethiopica – takes easily to household culture. Its large, evergreen, arrow-shaped leaves grow from thick rhizomes that prosper in a moist, fertile, well-drained growing medium.
In contrast to most other aroidal houseplants, Z. aethiopica prefers partial to full sun and cool winter conditions (a large east-facing windowsill is perfect). Where happy, it produces iconic, cupped, ivory-white spathes on 2- to 4-foot stalks in spring or early summer. Cultivars include ‘Green Goddess’, with green-stained spathes; dwarf ‘Childsiana’; and the aptly named ‘White Giant’. Zantedeschia aethiopica cultivars are available from bulb sellers as bareroot rhizomes in spring, and from specialty growers as containerized plants year-round.
More Aroid House Plants
Philodendron of all kinds grow in the toughest indoor conditions.
Quite a few other evergreen aroids make familiar, handsome house plants, including long-time favorites such as Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.), Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), and the many species and varieties of Philodendron.
Many a home has been beautified by the tough and trailing heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens), which looks best grown from a hanging basket or trained along a north-facing window. These hard-to-kill house plants are easily found in almost any greenhouse specializing in house plants.
Make your winter home a tropical jungle with one or more of these outstanding aroid house plants for year-round indoor color. In late spring, bring them outdoors to light up a sheltered patio and to encourage summer growth.
The holiday razzle-dazzle is over, and it’s back to real life. Nothing symbolizes the banality of January more than the Holiday Houseplant Hangover, a unique form of misery that comes from dealing with the remains of once-gorgeous amaryllis, paperwhites, Christmas cactus, and poinsettias.
Some people cure the condition with tough love, depositing the declining plants on the compost pile or in the trash, and speeding to the nearest garden center for a few fresh-faced African violets or moth orchids. Then there are those die-hards who consider it a moral failing to discard a desiccated poinsettia. They devote themselves to the fading botanical belles, taking all the pains necessary to ensure eventual rebloom.
If you are one of those two types, you already know what to do, but what if you are a fence-sitter, unable to decide if your flowerless Christmas cactus is worth lifting a weakened, post-holiday finger? The cure for your case of Holiday Houseplant Hangover depends on the type of plant and your level of commitment. Before making your decision, weigh the options below.
Paperwhites can be revived in the garden with a little coaxing. (Image by Ceasol)
For most people, paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta varieties) are one-shot wonders. Many varieties, like the popular ‘Ziva’, are marginally hardy (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10) outdoors in cold winter climates, though others are considerably hardier. If you live where they won’t survive, make a guilt-free trip to the compost bin.
Those basking in environs with warmer winters can plant the paperwhite bulbs outside in the ground in spring, where they may prosper in years to come. Store them in a cool, dark place after they bloom indoors before planting then 6-inches down in the cool spring soil. Forced bulbs often take a year off before reblooming.
Specialty poinsettias may offer more reason to care for the plants all season. (Image care of Jessie Keith)
Is a poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) that you bought at a big-box store for $4.50 really worth many months of aftercare? If you think it is, it’s possible to keep it going. After the blooms fade, move it to a uniformly brightly lit spot, where the temperature hovers between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Water thoroughly when the top of the soil feels dry, but don’t let water pool in the plant saucer. Apply a soluble houseplant fertilizer once a month, according to manufacturers’ directions.
Lop the old flowering stems back to about 4-6 inches in early March, making sure a few leaves remain on each stem. This is also a good time to repot, if necessary, using a high-quality potting soil mixture, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix.
In spring, when night temperatures consistently hover above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, place the plant in a lightly shaded outdoor location. Prune the shoots back again in mid to late July to encourage branching. Around Labor Day, bring the poinsettia inside and place in a sunny spot.
To get it to bloom, keep the plant in total darkness from 5:00 pm to 8:00 am every day, before returning it to its lighted position. You can either cover it with an opaque black cloth or place it in a dark room. Reduce water and fertilizer applications during this time. Continue this routine from October 1st to December 1st, by which time you should see the festive colored bracts we all associate with the holidays. The plant should be ready for its second turn in the spotlight.
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrids) often flourish in the long-term.
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrids) often flourish in the long-term, though they may produce fewer blooms the second year, without good care. Clip off dead flowers, but don’t remove stalks until they begin to turn yellow. As the bulb sprouts new leaves, water when the top of the soil feels dry and fertilize every two weeks.
Like poinsettias, amaryllis appreciates a summer vacation outdoors but are happiest in a sunny location. Bring them inside at Labor Day. If well cared for and allowed to remain evergreen, the plant will eventually rebloom in its own time. To control the timing, stop watering and let the plant languish in the dark for eight to 12 weeks, returning it to a brightly lit place when new growth appears. Resume watering and fertilizing.
Post-bloom, keep your cactus in a bright, sunny space for the remainder of the fall and winter.
Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera bridgesii, respectively) often enjoy a healthy afterlife. Thankfully, the plants are relatively unfussy. Post-bloom, keep your cactus in a bright, sunny space for the remainder of the fall and winter.
Like poinsettia, holiday cactus can vacation outdoors in semi-shaded comfort. Pinching back stems in June will result in more flowers later on. When it comes to flowering, these holiday favorites share poinsettia’s proclivity for long, dark spells. To control bloom time, the plants should spend six weeks on a regimen of fourteen hours a day in continuous darkness and ten hours of bright light, at an ideal temperature of about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Water holiday cactus when the soil surface is dry, except in the fall, after the plant has set buds, at which time the soil should be kept uniformly moist. Fertilize monthly from late winter through summer’s end with soluble fertilizer diluted to half strength. Every few years, repot in spring, using a mixture of six parts high-quality potting mix, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix.
Whatever option you choose to cure Holiday Houseplant Hangover, don’t add guilt to the mix. Life is too short and houseplants too plentiful to mourn a poinsettia.
The colorful Kalanchoe blossfeldiana blooms for a long period in winter. (photo by Jessie Keith)
If the ideal house plant existed, it would be a specimen that combined eye-catching good looks with the ability to survive on a diet of almost total neglect. That kind of perfection is unattainable, but succulent house plants come close.
Native to dry climates and situations, succulents have evolved over the millennia into efficient water-storage vessels, hoarding precious moisture in fleshy leaves and stems. The sheer number of available species and varieties is enormous and includes sedum, aloe, euphorbia, sempervivum, jade plant, hens and chicks, kalanchoe, many types of desert and jungle cacti, aeonium and living stones. Shapes, sizes, and colors vary widely, from the complex rosettes of “saucer” aeonium (Aeonium tabuliforme) to the statuesque beauty of a mature jade plant (Crassula ovata). Succulents practically beg to be shown off and grow equally well in standard containers, grouped in dish gardens or mounted as living wreaths.
Some of the most interesting and colorful types are described below.
A suite of rosette-forming succulents for indoor growing. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)
Thorns and Rosettes
A relative of the common holiday poinsettia plant, crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii) is among the most popular of the many euphorbias. Evergreen, shrubby and succulent, it reaches about two feet tall as a houseplant. Crown of thorns is also true to its name, featuring intimidating thorn-covered stems. Rounded flower clusters with large, petal-like bracts in shades of red, yellow, orange, white or peach help compensate for the prickles.
If you prefer rosettes to thorns, try tree houseleek (Aeonium) or hens and chicks (Echeveria), both of which bear flower-like rosettes of fleshy leaves in colors ranging from silvery gray-green to reddish bronze. Some species, such as Mexican snowball (Echeveria elegans) are also noted for their showy, bi-colored flowers
A Cast of Many Cacti
Not all succulents are cacti, but all cacti are succulents. True cacti are members of the Cactaceae family and many of the best known are covered with the protective prickles for which the clan is famed. Handle household cacti with care and keep them away from children and pets. Prickles aside, cactus family members boast interesting shapes, colorful flowers, and undemanding natures, making them excellent houseplants. Traditional favorites include the shaggy “old man” cactus (Cephalocereus senilis), an erect, columnar plant covered with long white hairs. It has the potential to grow tall but does so very slowly.
Succulent collections such as these need to be separated and repotted after a year or so, if each plant to grow successfully.
Little Bolivian cactus (Rebutia puchella) is part of the genus sometimes known collectively as “crown cacti”. Growing only about six inches tall, it bears batches of vivid orange blooms in summer and succeeded handsomely in a small container. Another low grower with bright carmine-pink flowers is rose pincushion cactus (Mammillaria zeilmanniana), which features a rounded form and summer blooming habit. Like Bolivian cactus, it is small. A four-year-old specimen is likely to be only four inches across.
Many mammillarias, with their appealing rounded shapes, succeed as houseplants. In addition to the rose pincushion type, popular species include snowball or powder puff pincushion cactus (Mammillaria bocasana) and silver cluster cactus (Mammillaria prolifera), featuring a plethora of small, silvery globes sporting bright red blooms.
Though they are part of the cactus family, holiday cacti (Schlumbergera spp.) are rain forest natives. Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter cacti are closely related species, distinguished from each other by bloom time and leaf shape. Many commercially available varieties are hybrids. All holiday cacti all feature sprawling, succulent “leaves” that are actually flattened stems. The bright flowers produced at the stem tips run the gamut of the color spectrum, with the exception of green and blue. In the fall and winter, holiday cacti are sold in bud, ready to bloom for the celebration season. They can easily be kept and nurtured for years afterward.
Holiday cacti need somewhat less light and more frequent watering than their prickly cactus cousins. Position away from direct sunlight and promote flowering by placing pots on trays filled with pebbles and water.
Holiday cacti (Schlumbergera spp.) are some of the must colorful succulents for the holidays.
Another succulent that lends color to the winter houseplant array is kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana). The upright plants are distinguished by fleshy, scalloped leaves that set off the clusters of small, bright flowers held above them. The flower color range is roughly the same as for holiday cacti and double-flowered kalanchoe varieties are widely available. Related to the jade plant, kalanchoe is a medium-sized specimen, growing up to eighteen inches tall. Under normal home conditions, the blooms last up to six weeks.
Good succulent care begins with high-quality, free-draining potting medium, like Fafard® Cactus & Succulent Potting Mix. With the exception of holiday cacti, most succulents thrive on at least four hours of sunlight per day and relish the low humidity of the average home in winter. Indoors, position the plants in your sunniest window. The quickest way to kill succulents is by overwatering, so let the potting mix dry out thoroughly between waterings. Feed only during the active growth period—spring and summer—and use either a specialty fertilizer according to package directions or general-purpose fertilizer diluted to one-quarter strength.
The bright, bold blooms of Amaryllis add to the holiday festivities. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)
Amaryllis are emblems of the winter holiday season, their bold, flamboyant flowers decorating everything from greeting cards to wrapping paper to the holiday table itself. Known botanically as Hippeastrum, they trace their origin to a number of Hippeastrum species that inhabit the anything-but-wintry forests and slopes of tropical South America. Plant hybridizers have interbred these species over the past 250 years, ultimately producing the showy-flowered, large-bulbed amaryllis hybrids that populate garden centers and bulb catalogs in fall.
Amaryllis, and other bulbs for forcing, can be found pre-forced or boxed for winter forcing.
Purchased amaryllis bulbs put on a lavish display with ridiculous ease. Most come from overseas growers, who have conditioned the bulbs to provide immediate gratification upon planting. Take an amaryllis bulb, half-bury it in a free-draining potting mix (such as Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil with Resilience™), add water, and – voila – it happens. Plump, spear-shaped buds arise on thick fleshy stems, achieving spectacular full bloom within a few weeks after planting.
Many amaryllis are sold pre-installed in a plastic pot. More satisfactory, however, is a deep clay pot, which provides ballast to counterbalance the weight of the huge blooms. Plant the bulb with its top half exposed, to give the roots maximum growing space. Bright light and relatively cool temperatures (60 to 65 degrees F) result in stockier growth, which also discourages toppling. An east-facing windowsill is ideal.
Bringing Amaryllis to Bloom
Bringing purchased amaryllis to bloom is a cinch. Coaxing it to repeat the performance is a trickier proposition. To rebloom, the bulb needs a period of dry rest, approximating what its ancestors experience in the wild. In their native habitats in eastern Brazil and in the foothills of the Andes, most Hippeastrum species produce flowers and foliage during the spring and summer rainy season, becoming quiescent when the weather turns drier in fall and winter.
Amaryllis hybrids in cultivation require a similar wet/dry treatment. Regular watering and feeding after bloom, followed by withdrawal of water in summer, will typically trigger a new round of flowering when watering is gradually resumed in late fall. Many amaryllis fanciers move their plants to a partly shaded outdoor location after the last frost date, bringing them back inside for their dry rest period. Plants generally do best if left in their containers and repotted only when absolutely necessary (once every 4 or 5 years should do).
Amaryllis ‘Dancing Queen’ is a pretty double form. (photo by Pam Beck)
Hybrid amaryllis bloom in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes. Best known are the large-flowered Dutch hybrids, with immense, wide-flaring, six-petaled blooms that owe much of their form and coloration to the red-flowered Bolivian native Hippeastrum leopoldii. Old-time favorites from this group include ‘Red Lion’ (introduced in 1958), pink-striped ‘Apple Blossom’ (1954), and white, crimson-edged ‘Picotee’ (1958). More recent introductions – such as velvety burgundy-maroon ‘Red Pearl’ and tangerine ‘Naranja’ – are gradually supplanting some of the old standbys. Also relatively new to the scene are a race of Dutch Hybrids that bloom in 4 to 6 weeks from planting, rather than the typical 8 to 10. These “Christmas-Flowering” amaryllis come in the customary range of whites, pinks, and reds.
Double Dutch Amaryllis
Other hybrid groups include double-flowered Dutch Hybrids (such as purple-red-striped ‘Double Record’ and pure white ‘Ice Queen’) and miniature amaryllis. The latter have the appearance of scaled-down Dutch Hybrids, bearing 3- to 4-inch (rather than 8- to 10-inch) blooms on somewhat shorter stems (10 to 16 rather than 18 to 24 inches).
Hippeastrum aficionados have many more groups of hybrids to explore, as well as the species themselves. Selections and hybrids of the butterfly amaryllis, Hippeastrum papilio, offer several takes on its curious green and maroon, asymmetrical flowers (look for ‘Grafitti’ and ‘Papilio Improved’). Hippeastrum cybister has lent its narrow-petaled, spidery form to a growing number of hybrids including ‘Chico, ‘La Paz’, and ‘Emerald’. And trumpet-flowered amaryllis such as raspberry-striped ‘Santiago’ and candy-pink ‘Estella’ – with elongated, funnel-shaped blooms – are becoming increasingly available from bulb sellers.
Amaryllis bulbs at different stages of forcing. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)
Gardeners in USDA zones 7 and warmer can even try amaryllis in the garden. Hardiest of all is St. Joseph’s lily, Hippeastrum x johnsonii, whose trumpet-shaped, crimson, white-starred flowers (on 2-foot stems) have ornamented Southeast U.S. gardens since the mid-nineteenth century. So, too, have the dazzling crimson blooms of oxblood lily, Rhodophiala bifida, which look for all the world like dwarf amaryllis (indeed, the species was formerly included among the Hippeastrum). Both make wonderful subjects for gardens from the Mid-Atlantic southward, the trumpets of oxblood lily providing a late-summer echo of St. Joseph’s lily’s spring display. Dutch Hybrids (and many other Hippeastrum hybrids and species) are candidates for gardens in the lower South, where they’ll winter over with minimal protection.
Whatever their season or place of bloom, few bulbs bring greater cheer than the members of the Hippeastrum tribe.
Tropical begonias, like Begonia ‘Irene Nuss’, are wonderful, blooming plants to consider for the home.
Happy, healthy house plants do more to improve a home’s air quality, while also offering the obvious reward of green, living beauty. Plants in the home perform better with good care, from leaves to roots. Cleaning accumulated dirt and dust from leaves, feeding, trimming, proper watering, and repotting are a few small efforts that can result in big rewards. Maintenance to reduce pests and pathogens is also essential to master if healthy indoor greenspace is a goal.
House Plant Cleaning and Pest Control
House plants get dusty and dirty and often perform better if their leaves are gently cleaned. (photo by Pam Beck)
Leaves quickly accumulate dirt and dust, which dulls appearance while also reducing a plant’s ability to photosynthesize and breathe. A quick foliage wipe down or wash in the sink or bathtub can make a big difference if looks and performance.
For leaf cleaning, make a very weak soap solution by adding a drop of gentle dishwashing detergent to 1 liter of warm water. Wet a soft cloth in the solution and wring until damp. Wipe the leaves down, top and bottom, while being sure not to tear or damage the tissue. Once the leaves are clean, rinse them by either repeating the process using a damp cloth dipped in just warm water or by rinsing the leaves under a sink or handheld shower head.
Broad-leaved tropical plants may also benefit from the use of commercially available leaf-shining products, which give leaves a pretty, glossy look while not clogging stomata (leaf breathing holes).
Once your leaves have been properly washed, be sure to dust them from time-to-time with a clean dust cloth. If pests, such as aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, or whiteflies, appear, the best rule of thumb is to treat them with a safe insecticidal soap while removing and disposing of the most damaged leaves and stems. Common soil-borne pests, such as shore flies and fungus gnats, can be managed by keeping the topmost soil layer dry and watering plants from the bottom rather than the top.
Feeding and Watering House Plants
Succulents should be watered minimally, especially in winter. (Agave victoriae-reginae ‘Variegata’ shown)
Knowing an indoor plant’s seasonal water and feeding needs can really make or break growing success. Many house plants are tropical or semi-tropical, which often means they require less food and water in the winter months (when they are growing slowly) and more in summer (when they are actively growing). Succulent indoor plants, like cacti and agave, are even more extreme in their seasonal needs because too much food and water can kill them so quickly, especially in winter.
A safe method for watering non-succulent plants is to keep soil lightly moist, never wet. Always plant in containers with efficient drainage holes, choose a well-draining potting medium, and water only as needed. If a plant’s potting soil is moist to a knuckle’s depth below the surface, don’t water. House plants also grow better if you water them from the roots rather than the tops—this is of particular concern for African violets and their relatives which dislike water on their leaves.
Many opt to take indoor plants outdoors during the warm growing months. This can really improve the growth and appearance of “house plants” for the winter months. Just be sure to give them extra care outdoors. Outdoor potted plants always require more water—often daily watering until water runs from the bottom of the pot—as well as regular feeding.
Pruning and Trimming House Plants
Good potting mix will ensure that your newly transplanted house plants will shine.
There are three reasons your house plants would require trimming and/or foliage removal: 1) There are dead or dying stems or leaves, 2) the plant needs to be reshaped for improved appearance, or 3) the plant is overgrown and needs to be pruned for rejuvenation.
Dead or dying stems and leaves can be a result of poor light, poor fertilization or a sign of pest and/or disease problems. If growing points show poor color and growth, improved light and fertilization with a quality fertilizer may be in order, rather than removal. Dead or dying leaves should always be removed for better health and appearance.
Plants that have become overgrown or have developed undesirable growth habits can always be pruned back to adjust for size and appearance. Just be sure to take pruned stems back to a clear node or central stem. This will ensure that new growth will return
Dividing and Repotting House Plants
It’s easy to tell when a plant has outgrown its container. It will require more water, the plant may appear too large for the pot, and the root system will become dense along the bottom holes, pot edges, and topmost soil layer. Sometimes the easiest way to check is by feeling along the pots edge for roots or checking the bottom of the pot creeping roots.
Crowded plants must be divided and repotted for good health.
Dividing and repotting plants is easy. Start by clearing an area in preparation for a messy job, have your new, appropriately sized pots on hand for transfer, and buy plenty of quality potting mix for your plant. For general growing, Fafard Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix are both great options. Succulent house plants would do better to be planted in Fafard Cactus and Succulent Potting Mix. And, African violets and their relatives always require specialty soil for best results, such as Fafard African Violet Potting Mix.
Division is appropriate for any plant that spreads laterally in the pot. During the division process, it pays to wear good, protective gloves. Start by removing the plant from the pot, doing as little damage to the root system and top as possible. Then, using a planting knife or durable serrated knife, begin cutting the rootball in half or in quarters, depending on the plant’s size, being sure that each piece has a healthy supply of roots and shoots.
Once your plant is divided, gently tease apart any roots that are densely tangled. Then begin preparing your pot. Choose an attractive container that will easily accommodate your plant. Be sure to allow a layer of 2 to 3 inches of soil on the sides and bottom to support your new plant. Gently work the soil in around the roots, and pat it down at the top, allowing two inches of space for easy watering.
These care instructions apply to most common house plants, such as easy, air-filtering tropicals like Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum), croton (Croton spp.), dumbcane (Dieffenbachia spp.), mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’), and rubber plant (Ficus elastica). Follow them and you and your plants will reap the rewards.
Colorful croton are one of the many easy-care tropical house plants to consider.
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