Succulents for Shade by Russell Stafford


Succulents are not just for sun. In fact, some of the most fascinating of these arid-habitat plants thrive in shade.

One shade-loving succulent that is familiar to anyone who has dabbled in houseplants is the western African native Sansevieria trifasciata, commonly known as snake plant. Especially well known is the variety ‘Laurentii’, with strap-shaped, 2- to 3-foot-tall leaves edged in gold. This and most of the other 60-plus cultivated varieties of Sansevieria trifasciata also feature striking horizontal banding on their thick leathery leaves, typically in alternating stripes of silver and dark green. Silver markings are strongest on varieties grown in a bit of sun, with plants becoming more uniformly green as shade levels increase.

The variety ‘Futura Superba’ much resembles ‘Laurentii’ in its coloration, but with shorter, broader leaves. Numerous other snake plant varieties come in the ‘Laurentii’ shape, including the pure silver-leaved ‘Moonshine’.

Shorter still are so-called birds-nest varieties of snake plant. These form tight low rosettes of tongue-shaped leaves, typically with silver banding (as in the popular ‘Hahnii’). The variety ‘Golden Hahnii’ adds pale-yellow leaf margins to the color scheme, while in ‘Silver Hahnii’ the leaves are nearly pure silvery gray. Other birds-nest varieties such as ‘Black Jade’ have gone to the dark side, with hues of deep green dominating their foliage. As with just about all forms of the species, birds-nest snake plants produce offspring via underground rhizomes, so there are always pups to share with friends.

Interestingly, most shade-loving succulent houseplants come from southern portions of Africa. One such species is another all-time favorite, jade plant (Crassula ovata). It slowly forms a loosely branched, rubbery-stemmed shrub, set with fleshy oval leaves that develop red-tinged margins in sun. Sunlight also often coaxes plants into bloom, with little white starry flowers clustering along the branches in winter, spring, or sometimes other seasons. However, this durable, long-lived species will also do just fine with no direct sunlight, succeeding (albeit rather gauntly) even in rather deep shade.

Jade plant is available in numerous forms, including dwarf cultivars such as ‘Baby Jade’. The Tolkien Group of jades comprises several varieties whose leaves are curled lengthwise into tubes, with cupped tips in the case of ‘Gollum’. The cultivar ‘ET’s Fingers’ is similar to ‘Gollum’, but with red-tinged leaf tips.

Native mostly to crevices and slopes of South Africa and Namibia, the 25 or so species in the genus Gasteria resemble miniature aloes, with low rosettes of small swollen triangular or tongue-shaped leaves arrayed in opposite pairs or in symmetrical whorls. The leaves typically are dotted with white waxy protuberances, and often tipped with a short spine. Plants may produce spikes of small, tubby or tubular, often brightly colored flowers, usually in winter or spring. Hybrids between Gasteria and Aloe sometimes occur in cultivation, including ‘Tarantula’, whose leaves are covered with small, white, almost hair-like spines.

Closely related to Gasteria is the larger and more diverse Haworthia, encompassing some 60 species from far-southern Africa. Their architecturally rosetted leaves come in a variety of shapes. Some such as Haworthia attenuata have narrowly triangular, white-dotted, gasteria-like foliage. Others (e.g., Haworthia retusa) bear remarkably mineral-like clusters of geometrical, crystal-shaped leaves. Another sub-group produces tight lines of flat-topped, abruptly truncated leaves that have a sawed-off appearance (these include the aptly named Haworthia truncata). Starfish-like and spherical leaf configurations also occur, as do tiered multilevel rosettes.

Haworthias are interesting rather than showy in bloom, with spikes of small white funneled flowers on relatively tall lanky stems in summer or sometimes winter.

The South African native silver squill (Ledebouria socialis) is yet another excellent subject for shaded niches. To call it a “succulent” is a bit of a stretch, but with its leathery, lance-shaped, near-evergreen leaves and drought-tolerance, it works well as an honorary member of the succulent tribe. The rosettes of erect, silvery, dark-green-dappled leaves emerge atop conical, red-skinned bulbs that are ornamental in their own right. Small-cupped pale-lilac flowers cluster atop short stems from winter into spring. Silver squill likes to grow with its bulbs mostly exposed above soil level, which adds to its unique charm.

You may have shade, but you can still have succulents! Plant the above succulents in two parts Fafard® Professional Potting Mix to one part perlite or grit. Use terracotta and do not overpot. Water only when the soil is dry, about every week or two. In addition, enjoy!


About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

Holiday Euphorbias

The often spiny, often tropical genus Euphorbia has given us two of our most familiar holiday houseplants.

Although it’s spineless, the ubiquitous holiday centerpiece commonly known as poinsettia is, in fact, a Euphorbia, botanically speaking. The name Poinsettia was retired many years ago, when taxonomists moved the entire genus to its present nomenclatural location. (As an interesting side note, several species in the former genus Poinsettia are native to rather chilly regions of North America, including parts of the United States.)

But the common name poinsettia lives on.  It commemorates one Joel Poinsett, a Carolinian aristocrat of the early eighteenth century. Myth has it that Poinsett introduced the species to the U.S. from its native Mexico while he was envoy there.

Under whatever name, Euphorbia pulcherrima received little horticulture notice for the first 100 years after its introduction to cultivation in the late 1820s. It was too scraggly and lanky (not to mention cold-tender) for most gardens, and as a cut flower it was too short-lived.

Its potential as a holiday plant was considerable, however. Euphorbia pulcherrima naturally blooms around the turn of the year, and the blossoms (which are actually leaf-like bracts surrounding a small cluster of yellow flowers) can be quite showy. All the species needed was a bit of tweaking to accentuate its showiness and reduce its ranginess.

Enter Paul Ecke, his son, Paul Ecke, Jr., and the rest of the Ecke tribe. At their ranch in Encinitas, California, they developed an exclusive technique for propagating compact Euphorbia pulcherrima plants that bear full heads of bloom and fit easily on a table. The family also had a knack for marketing. By the 1960s, they had successfully established poinsettias as THE Christmas flower, and had captured the bulk of the poinsettia trade, grown at their Encinitas ranch. Many varieties of poinsettia are still developed at Ecke Ranch, although the plants are grown for market elsewhere.

Poinsettia varieties now number in the hundreds, in hues of pink to red to white to yellow, sometimes in combination. Dwarf varieties are also available.


It’s easy to keep poinsettias going after they’ve reached your holiday table. Bright indirect light, warmth (55F minimum), and moderate humidity are all to their liking. Water only when the soil surface is dry and the pot is appreciably lighter due to drying.

Instead of discarding your poinsettias after the holidays, you can keep them growing until next winter, and beyond. Repot rootbound plants in spring, using a somewhat coarse potting soil such as Fafard® Professional Potting Mix. If desired, shear them to a few inches in spring and pinch their shoots in summer to promote relatively compact bushy growth. Plants can be moved to a brightly shaded position outside after the last-frost date.

Poinsettias require long nights to flower. Bring them inside and give them at least 14 hours of darkness per day starting in early fall. With luck, you’ll have a free display of blooms for holiday season 2022/23!




A second – and characteristically prickly – holiday icon from the genus Euphorbia is crown of thorns, Euphorbia milii. Inflorescences comprising paired red-orange lip-shaped bracts cluster toward the tips of this spiny, sparsely branching, 2- to 3-foot shrub. Plants that receive ample light flower almost continuously. Spoon-shaped leaves are spaced along the branches, with plants becoming bare toward their base with age.

Numerous selections and hybrids of Euphorbia milii with larger flower bracts in a wide range of colors are available from specialty growers. Arguably the splashiest of these are the so-called “Thai Giant” cultivars that originated in Southeast Asia horticultural circles late last century (including the self-descriptive ‘Pink Charm’ and ‘Red Hot’). These plants have quarter-sized flower bracts that resemble a large-flowered begonia rather than a typical crown of thorns. Among the other variations on the crown of thorns theme are dwarf and variegated cultivars. All prefer lots of light and infrequent watering (water only when the soil mix is dry).

Orange Fruited Shrubs



It’s the season of orange. Orange leaves deck the trees. Orange pumpkins haunt porches. Containers of orange chrysanthemums throng walkways.


So why not plant a few orange-fruited shrubs to bring the Halloween theme into the garden?


Poncirus trifoliata takes “orange-fruited” quite literally – so much so that botanists have moved it to the genus Citrus. Going by the entirely apropos common name of hardy orange, this 6- to 8-foot shrub produces numerous 2-inch-wide, spherical mini-citrus that ripen orange-yellow in fall. Their hyper-tart taste will make you pucker, unless of course you make them into something sweeter such as jelly or candied orange rind (numerous recipes are online). Hardy orange is much more than a one-season-Charlie, however. In early spring it covers itself with fragrant white flowers, larger than those of most citrus. Its dark green three-fingered leaves emerge shortly thereafter, looking handsome through the growing season and turning burnt-orange hues in fall. As for “hardy”, it takes that literally too, wintering into warmer pockets of USDA Zone 5 (full sun to light shade preferred). The species (and its sinuous-stemmed ‘Flying Dragons’ form) would doubtless be much less rare in Eastern and Midwest landscapes if more gardeners had a clue that a hardy citrus does actually exist.



Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) sets eastern and central U.S. wetlands ablaze in autumn with its fiery fruit. Borne in dense clusters at the branch tips, the bead-like berries are usually bright red – but sometimes they opt for shades of orange. Full-sized (8- to 10 foot) cultivars that have gone to the orange side include red-orange-fruited ‘Afterglow’ and orange-yellow ‘Winter Gold’. The recently introduced ‘Little Goblin’ bears mid-orange fruits on compact, 4-foot plants. Winterberry’s Southern cousin, possumhaw (Ilex decidua), also has orange-fruited forms including ‘Byer’s Gold’. All fruiting Ilex are female selections that won’t produce berries without a male Ilex nearby. Bloom time varies among cultivars, so you’ll need a male/female pair that flowers at the same time in spring. Lists of suitable pairings can be found online. If your garden is sandy, plants will benefit from an application of a peat-rich compost such as Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, to give them moist acidic soil they prefer. Sunny sites in hardiness zones 3 to 8 work best (zones 5 to 8 for possumhaw).

Orange-fruited varieties of American holly (Ilex opaca) and English holly (Ilex aquifolium) also occasionally occur, but none are readily available in the horticultural trade at this time.


Linden viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum) flaunts large flat clusters of blood-red berries in fall – except in the case of the newly introduced cultivar ‘Tandoori Orange’. Like most viburnums, it won’t fully fruit unless a different variety of its species is nearby. All Viburnum dilatatum cultivars grow fairly rapidly to 8 feet tall and wide or more, so plan and plant accordingly! Their bold pleated foliage contrasts effectively with finer-textured plants such as mountain ashes (Sorbus spp.) and cutleaf lilac (Syringa protolaciniata).


Tea viburnum (Viburnum setigerum) is another typically red-fruited viburnum that occasionally goes orange, as in the case of cultivar ‘Aurantiacum’. Rather lanky and narrow in habit, this 8-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide shrub is spectacular in fruit, more than compensating for its ungainliness. It’s best planted amid more compact shrubs, to cover its bare legs. All the above viburnums favor sun and hardiness zones 5 to 8.


Strawberry shrub (Euonymus americanus) makes an excellent subject for naturalistic plantings. Occurring as a somewhat scrawny, thicketing, 4- to 6-foot shrub in its native woodland haunts in the central and eastern United States, it grows more densely in lightly shaded garden niches with good soil. Most of the year it’s a relatively anonymous euonymus, with presentable oval leaves and inconspicuous spring flowers on arching to upright green-barked stems. It becomes a real attention-grabber in fall, however, brandishing warty rose-red fruit capsules that open to reveal large fleshy bright orange seeds nested inside. For more “domesticated” garden areas there’s the East Asian native Euonymus planipes, a much larger plant than strawberry shrub (10 feet or more), with considerably larger capsules and seeds to match. Some exotic euonymus such as burning bush (Euonymus alatus) European spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) have proven invasive in American landscapes; consult your local invasive species lists before taking one on board. Most euonymus are hard to zone 5.


American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) can be grown as a twining vine, or alternatively as a scrambling shrub (sunny or lightly shaded niches in zones 4 to 8 are preferred). A member of the same family as Euonymus, it bears similar fruit, although in a reverse color scheme, with orange capsules opening to red seed.  Plants are mostly male or female, with at least one of each required for a good fruit display. This meritorious U.S. native is not to be confused with the exotic invasive Asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), which is banned in most states. American bittersweet has toothed leaves and bears fruit at the branch tips; Asian bittersweet has wavy-edged, untoothed leaves and axillary fruit.

Happy planting, and Happy Halloween!


About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University

Shade-Loving Daisies


The cheerful blooms of members of the daisy family (known botanically as the Asteraceae) assume starring roles in perennial and wildflower borders as fall approaches – and arrives. Sun-loving Asteraceae – including New England asters, hardy chrysanthemums, and showy coneflowers – are long-time fall garden favorites (with pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies also expressing their approval). Less well-known to gardeners, however, are the many fall-blooming Asteraceae that favor shade rather than sun. If you’re looking to establish a wildflower planting or informal perennial border in shade, the following members of the daisy tribe should rank high on your list of possible candidates.


White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

Chances are that this durable and adaptable eastern/central U.S. native is already in your neighborhood as a “volunteer”. Fleecy clusters of white flowers top its 3-foot stems in late summer and fall, often resulting in spontaneous seedlings. If it does pop up in your garden, consider leaving it rather than editing it out. It fits well in naturalistic borders, attracting pollinators in the process. White snakeroot is best known in the form of the cultivar ‘Chocolate’, named for the dark hue of its leaves.



White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata)

A surprising number of ornamental species in what was formerly the genus Aster make their homes in shade. Arguably the most familiar of the lot, white wood aster carries swarms of diminutive white daisies, on branching stalks that typically reach 30 inches or so. The variety ‘Eastern Star’ features a more compact habit (18 to 24 inches) and black-purple stems. Native to woodlands of eastern North America, white wood aster does well in a wide range of habitats.


Bigleaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla)

Even before its sprays of pale blue flowers open in late summer, this eastern U.S. native provides ornamental value with its clump-forming rosettes of bold broad leaves, which contrast splendidly with finer-leaved shade plants such as sedges and ferns. The hybrid between bigleaf aster and the rhizomatous Eurybia spectabilis (known as Eurybia x herveyi) makes an effective ground cover for sun and shade, spreading into large 2-foot-tall colonies topped with lavender-blue flowers. It’s best known in the form of cultivar ‘Twilight’. Eurybia spectablis is also an effective ornamental plant on its own, especially where it has room to ramble. All of the above are not fussy as to soil.


Short’s aster (Symphyotrichum shortii)

Named for a botanist and not for its stature, Short’s aster deploys a profusion of relatively large pale blue flowers on 3-foot-tall clumps during the usual asterian late-summer-to-fall blooming season. Perhaps the showiest of the woodland asters, it’s excellent juxtaposed with pink-flowered Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’. It’s an excellent candidate for wildflower borders within its Midwest to Southeast range, where it naturally occurs in dry habitats.

Wreath goldenrod (Soldiago caesia)

Closely related to the asters, goldenrods form one of the largest groups of Asteraceae. Several – including Solidago caesia – are woodland plants, echoing the yellows of sun-loving daisy family members such as sunflowers and coreopsis. Native throughout much of eastern and central North America, wreath goldenrod features arching, blue-washed, sparsely leaved stems that branch into flaring clusters of sunny flowers which begin opening in August. A clumper rather than a “runner”, it tends to stay below 2 feet tall because of its arching habit.


Zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)

The leafy, spreading habit of this native of eastern and central North America differs markedly from that of wreath goldenrod. It’s thus perhaps best used in ground-covering masses, rather than as individual plants. Tufts of bright yellow flowers occur along the stems, showing effectively against the broad dark-green leaves.  Like Solidago caesia, it blooms for many weeks beginning in late summer, and prospers in good, not overly dry soil – but it also accepts much less. Both would be more than happy with an application of Fafard Organic Compost.

Silverrod (Solidago bicolor)

Upright wands of small, white, yellow-dotted flowers continue from midsummer into fall on this earliest and whitest of Eastern U.S. goldenrods. It’s a charming novelty that will do well in just about any partly shaded to sunny garden niche.


About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University

Summer Apples

Some apple varieties offer a foretaste of fall by ripening their fruits in summer. The following outstanding early apples are ready for eating in late July or August in most areas of the Northeast and Midwest. Several of them (including Ginger Gold, Jersey Mac, and Paula Red) are commonly available at orchards and farm stands. Others you will probably have to grow yourself. You’ll need at least two varieties for cross pollination and fruit set (most apples are not self-fruitful)


Dwarf (8- to 12-feet tall) and semi-dwarf (12 to 16 feet) apple trees make the best fit for most yards, as opposed to a 20-foot-plus full-sizer. Apple trees of whatever variety or size thrive in full sun and deep, well-drained, humus-rich soil (apply a half-inch mulch of Fafard Organic Compost in spring to make your trees extra-happy). Most varieties also need several hundred hours of sub-45-degree temperatures to produce a good crop.



Bright red, medium-sized apples with tart-sweet, firm, juicy flesh ripen in late August or so. This circa 1950 Japanese hybrid is as good for cooking as it is for eating out of hand. Trees grow vigorously and bear heavily and precociously.


Early McIntosh

Two classic heirloom apples – Yellow Transparent and McIntosh – teamed to produce this aptly named hybrid. The sweet, slightly tart, crispy, white-fleshed fruit is close to that of its namesake, but ripens several weeks earlier. Early McIntosh tends to be a biennial cropper, bearing abundant fruit every other year.

Ginger Gold

This chance seedling of Golden Delicious possesses a zestier, spicier flavor than its parent, as well as a much earlier ripening season. The medium to large, yellow-skinned, juicy, white-fleshed fruits hold for several weeks in storage, in contrast to most early apples. If you grow your own, expect to harvest your first apples within 3 years of planting.


Jersey Mac

Although McIntosh is not in the lineage of this Rutgers Agricultural Station introduction, its dark red skin and sweet-tart, juicy, greenish-white flesh give a good impression of its famous namesake. An excellent multi-purpose variety, it’s great for eating, cooking, or pressing into cider. It produces a reliable annual harvest, with fruits ripening over several weeks from August to September.


Paula Red

Sometimes referred to as Early Mac (not to be confused with Early McIntosh), this chance seedling from Michigan produces medium-sized, solid-red apples that ripen over several weeks. Sweet with a bit of tartness, it makes an excellent eating, cooking, or cider apple. Thin fruits in late spring and early summer to encourage annual cropping.


Researchers at Purdue University made several crosses between apples and crabapples in the 1970s, resulting in several outstanding new early-bearing varieties. Pristine is prized for its zesty, medium-sized, pale yellowish green fruits that are ready for eating as early as late July. Spicy and tart when freshly harvested, the crispy, juicy fruits sweeten with age. Thin fruits to prevent overly heavy bi-yearly cropping.


Red Astrachan

An eighteenth century heirloom variety from Russia, Red Astrachan is still one of the earliest and best summer apples. The medium-sized, soft-fleshed fruits begin to ripen bright red in July, continuing over several weeks. White and reddish-stained inside, with a piquant, tart flavor, they are good for cooking when slightly under ripe, and for eating or cider when mature. Bi-yearly crops are the norm.



A Canadian hybrid involving Golden Delicious and McIntosh, Sunrise inherited its oblong shape, yellow-green undertones, and hints of strawberry-like sweetness from the former, and its bright red marbling and refreshing tartness from the latter. The fruits do not keep well and are best kept in the fridge. An excellent variety for home-growers, it produces reliably from an early age.


William’s Pride

Like Pristine, ‘William’s Pride’ is a disease-resistant, flavorful early eating apple bred at Purdue University from an apple/crabapple cross. Heavily streaked with dark red against a green background, the medium to large apples are crisp and spicy-sweet, with a bit of tartness. They are prolifically borne on vigorous trees that tend to crop in alternate years. Not the best keeper, William’s Pride is best for home orchards.



The University of Minnesota bred and selected this recent introduction for its cold-hardiness, early ripening, and (of course) flavor. Sweet-tart with sugary undertones, the red- and green-skinned apples have crispy white sweet-tart flesh with sugary undertones. They store well for several weeks.

About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.








Garden Perennials that Gently Self Sow

Butterfly weed is a lovely native that will sow itself very gently and weave into the garden.

Some perennials persist in the garden not only as over-wintering plants, but also via self-sown seedlings. With their penchant for popping up spontaneously here and there, they’re a great fit for cottage gardens, wildflower borders, and other informal plantings. Additionally, they obviate the need for deadheading!

Unwelcome Self Sowers

Admittedly, a few perennials can take self-sowing too far. For example, a lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) that is allowed to go to seed will soon produce a population bomb, spawning gazillions of offspring. Although the plants profiled below typically self-sow in moderation, they can be more prolific in favorable situations. Keep an eye out and a hoe at hand just in case!

You’ll also want to discourage self-sowing by named varieties of perennial species whose seedlings are not true to type. Allow your pristine Phlox paniculata ‘David’ to self-sow, and you’ll likely soon have a flock of muddy-purple wild-type offspring. The same goes for many other groups of perennials, including columbines (Aquilegia spp.), and just about anything from the aster/daisy family, though on occasion their offspring can be quite pretty.

Aquilegia hybrids gently self-sow, but their seedlings yield various unexpected surprises.

Finally, avoid heavy applications of mulch in areas where you want to encourage self-sowing. Most perennial seeds will not germinate while are buried under a 3-inch stratum of shredded bark. A much more satisfactory method of controlling weeds is to allow desirable plants to seed themselves densely into any garden gaps and to keep the gaps weeded while the new seedlings develop. A light early-spring scattering of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost is all the mulch you’ll need in an established, densely populated border.

Welcome Self Sowers

Black cohosh, bugbane (Actaea racemosa)

The white flower spikes and ferny foliage of black cohosh are both attractive.

Native to moist fertile woodlands over much of the eastern U.S. from zones 4-8, this imposing perennial produces moderate numbers of seedlings in similar garden habitats. Mature plants form ferny-leaved, 3-to 4-foot clumps, surmounted in summer by white bottlebrush flower spikes. Several other U.S. native bugbanes are also well worth growing, most notably the relatively compact, bold-leaved, late-summer-blooming Actaea rubifolia.

Blue-star (Amsonia spp.)

The pale flowers of Arkansas blue-star mingle with tall Allium.

Most members of this mostly North American genus will self-sow obligingly (but not invasively) in sunny to lightly shaded garden niches. Almost all amsonias are large, upright, long-lived clump-formers with handsome, lance-shaped, disease-resistant foliage and starry, light blue, late-spring flowers. Arkansas blue-star (Amsonia hubrichtii, Zones 5-9) is especially handsome, thanks to its extremely narrow leaves that lend its 3-foot clumps a hazy, dreamy look. It’s also one of the most reliable self-sowers of the lot.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Both butterflies and bees are attracted to the bright flowers of butterfly weed.

A durable eastern U.S. native for hot dry sunny niches, butterfly weed summons early-summer pollinators with its brilliant flat-headed clusters of orange to yellow flowers on 2-foot stems. The ensuing seed pods split open to release downy seeds that float away on the summer breeze – and germinate the following spring. Volunteer seedlings can be sparse to abundant, depending on wind patterns and other vagaries. Grow it in zones 3-9.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.)

Fringed bleeding heart is an exceptional native for pollinators.

Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia, Zones 3-9) would be worth growing for its lacy, finely divided, blue-green foliage alone. For most gardeners (and hummingbirds), though, it’s the flowers (which resemble fanciful pink flasks rather than hearts) that are the primary feature of this lovely eastern U.S. woodlander. Bloom repeats sporadically from spring through fall, spawning the occasional seedling. Hybrids (such as ‘Luxuriant’) between Dicentra eximia and its western U.S. cousin Dicentra formosa (Zones 4-8) are sterile and seedless. At around a foot tall, Dicentra eximia and its hybrids are miniatures compared to the species whose cordate flowers inspired the common name “bleeding heart”. The purple-pink hearts of Dicentra spectabilis (recently re-dubbed Lamprocapnos spectabilis, Zones 3-9) open in mid-spring on arching stems that ascend to 3 feet or more. There’s also a beguiling white-flowered variant. All manifestations of the species self-sow modestly and true to form.

Gas plant (Dictamnus albus)

Gas plant blooms have a sweet citrusy scent.

Slow from seed and in growth, gas plant is one of a multitude of splendid perennials that are rarely offered because they are a poor fit for mass-market plant production. Give it a few years, and it will mature into a 3-foot hummock of lustrous, dark-green foliage decked in late spring with spikes of fragrant, showy purple or white, hummingbird-seducing flowers. One of the best strategies for propagating this long-lived Eurasian native is to wait for volunteer seedlings, which occur sporadically. Gas plant has only one liability as an ornamental: in rare instances, the volatile oils that inspired its name can cause blistering and other symptoms of acute dermatitis. These volatile compounds are also responsible for a time-honored garden ritual. Hold a match near the plant on a calm warm evening and its “gases” will briefly flare into flame. Grow in zones 3-9.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Here purple and white coneflower variants mingle in a naturalistic garden.

No need to plant more of this beloved Midwest native: once it’s in your garden, it will almost certainly give you a scattering of volunteers. Expect to see their rose-pink, dark-coned flowers within a year after they germinate. Seedlings of the slew of recently introduced hybrids involving Echinacea purpurea (Zones 4-9) and the yellow-flowered Echinacea paradoxa (Zones 4-9) are a different story. Even if they survive the winter – a dubious proposition in USDA hardiness zones 6 and lower – they’ll produce flowers unlike those of their parent.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

The unique foliage and flowers of this prairie native add interest to native gardens. (Image by Kurt Stueber)

You might think that a perennial with yucca-like foliage (and a botanical name to match) would favor arid conditions. In fact, Eryngium yuccifolium (Zones 3-9) often occurs in moist habitats in its native range, which spans much of eastern and central North America. Give it a reasonably fertile, not too dry garden soil, and it will send up 4-foot stalks in midsummer, topped by spheres of silvery flowers. Allow it to seed, and you’ll be rewarded with progeny the following spring.

Bearfoot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

The pale chartreuse flowers of bearfoot hellebore bloom in late winter to early spring.

Most hellebores self-sow, given the opportunity. Helleborus foetidus (Zones 5-8) is perhaps the most adaptable and fecund of the lot, prospering and self-propagating in sun and shade. A member of the shrubby side of the tribe, it bears leaves and pale chartreuse flowers on upright stems that can ascend to 18 inches or more. The foliage is pleasantly pungent rather than unpleasantly fetid.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Cardinal flower spikes have blooms of the purest red imaginable.

The brilliant red spires of cardinal flower (Zones 3-9) are a common midsummer sight in wetland habitats of eastern and central North America. Quite often they’re attended by adoring hummingbirds. Relatively short-lived in the garden, they persist by sowing themselves into moist exposed soil, germinating into evergreen rosettes. Equally wonderful is blue cardinal flower (Lobelia siphilitica, Zones 4-8), another eastern North American native and midsummer hummingbird fave. It succeeds in just about any garden position except deep shade. Its white-flowered form is also compelling.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Virginia bluebells will make any spring garden look lovely.

Give this eastern U.S. native (Zones 3-9) a good moist soil in partial shade, and it will spread freely both from underground rhizomes and from self-seeding. A member of the borage family, it produces the blue flowers typical of the tribe. The blue-green, tongue-shaped leaves go dormant soon after the flowers fade in late spring.

Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)

Wooded native gardens are suited to celandine poppies.

An excellent shade-garden companion for Virginia bluebells (as well as trilliums and woodland phlox), this reliably self-sowing eastern U.S. native (Zones 4-9) bears glistening yellow mini-poppies on 18-inch plants clothed in large lobed leaves. Its East-Asian analog Stylophorum lasiocarpum blooms in summer.

Among the numerous other perennials that seed themselves are:

  • Blazing star (Liatris spp.);
  • Patrinia (Patrinia spp.);
  • Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.);
  • Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus);
  • and Yellow fumitory (Pseudofumaria lutea).

They’re living proof that going to seed is not necessarily a bad thing!

Spring Snowdrops and Snowflakes

Spring snowflakes are among the prettiest, most delicate flowers of early spring.

Ah, the first snowdrop of spring. Or is it a spring snowflake? Both are early-blooming bulbs that bear nodding, white, 6-parted flowers above clumps of strap-shaped leaves in late winter, while most of the garden is still slumbering. Both also favor similar garden habitats – namely, partial shade to sun and well-drained, humus-rich soil. It’s no surprise, then, that they’re often mistaken for one another – and that they’re also closely related.

Snowdrops versus Spring Snowflakes

It’s a bit more complicated than that, though – especially on the snowdrop side of the equation. Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) is a single species, native to meadows and woodland edges of central and eastern Europe. Snowdrops, in contrast, comprise more than 20 species scattered over much of Europe and western Asia. Most snowdrops flower early in the year, but a few bloom in fall or early winter, bringing the flowering season to a close rather than ushering it in. Many Galanthus also interbreed readily, as evidenced by the hundreds of named garden hybrids. Snowdrops aren’t an “it” – they’re a multifarious “them”. Bees or all kinds pollinate the blooms.

For all their similarities, snowdrops and spring snowflake do differ in several respects, most obviously in the form of their flowers. Spring snowflake flowers are typically lantern-shaped, with each segment being of roughly equal length and having a pointed, out-curved, green-blotched tip. In snowdrops, the inner three inner petals are small, linear, and notched at the tip, together forming a tubular structure at the flower’s center. The three outer segments are spoon-shaped and approximately twice the length of the inners. They clasp tight in bud, giving unopened flowers a teardrop shape (hence the common name). Usually, each inner segment sports a green terminal blotch, around the segment’s notched tip (or “sinus”).

Snowdrop Species and Varieties

Common snowdrops naturalize beautifully in the landscape.

A few snowdrop varieties depart significantly from the norm, with such oddballs sometimes fetching exorbitant prices. Cultivars sporting doubled inner segments, green-marked outer segments, or same-sized inner and outer segments are available from bulb merchants and snowdrop specialists. Also on offer are a few highly prized variants with yellow – rather than green – markings, a rare mutation that occurs in summer snowflakes as well.

Snowdrops were formerly collected from the wild for the horticultural trade, a practice that posed a survival threat to several Galanthus species. The genus is now protected under international law, reducing pressure on wild populations. Still, be wary of sources that offer quantities of snowdrops at bargain-basement prices.

The yellow-marked ‘Sandersii’ common snowdrop is rare and choice.

As befits its vernacular name, the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) has been a popular garden plant since Renaissance times and is still by far the best-known member of the tribe. A rather diminutive thing, it produces half-inch-long “drops” on 4- to 6-inch stems framed by narrow, almost grassy leaves. Varieties include ‘Flore Pleno’, whose fully double inner segments form a white, green-fringed pompon at the flower’s center; ‘Viridapice’, with green-stained outer segments; and yellow-marked selections ‘Sandersii’ and ‘Blonde Inge’. Given its relatively small size, Galanthus nivalis is best planted in groups, to maximize its impact. It’s hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Crimean snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus) is a more substantial species, with its handsome, broad, dark green leaves and large flowers. (Image by Сергій Криниця (Haidamac))

Crimean snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus) is a more substantial species, making a bold statement in the garden via its handsome, broad, dark green leaves and its inch-long, rounded flowers on 6- to 8-inch scapes. It’s thus well suited as a specimen plant – which is just as well, given its relative priciness. Pricier still are Crimean snowdrop cultivars such as ‘Diggory’, remarkable for its expanded, Japanese-lantern-shaped buds; and the self-explanatory ‘Colossus’. Galanthus plicatus also comes in yellow-blotched forms, most notably ‘Wendy’s Gold’. Most forms of the species are quite hardy, to Zone 5.

Galanthus woronowii has large, strappy leaves and elegant blooms. (Image by Peter Coxhead)

Galanthus woronowii is another snowdrop distinguished by broad, attractive leaves – glossy bright green in this case. The flowers – while not quite as large or rounded as those of Crimean snowdrop – are more than presentable, with dapper olive-green sinus marks and elegantly modeled outer segments. Native to mountainous regions of NE Turkey and SW Russia, it’s hardy into Zone 5.

Giant snowdrop is indeed one of the goliaths of the genus.

Yet another species worth growing for its foliage as well as its flowers is giant snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii. It is indeed one of the goliaths of the genus, with 1- to 1.5-inch-long flowers borne on 6- to 10-inch stems, above erect clumps of lance-shaped, gray-green leaves. The inner flower segments of some forms of this highly diverse species have green markings at the base as well as at their tips. Flowering time also varies widely, with a few forms flowering in fall, and still others delaying bloom until mid-spring. Native from SW Europe through much of Turkey, Galanthus elwesii is somewhat less hardy than the other snowdrops described here, wintering into milder regions of Zone 5. Many cultivars are available from snowdrop specialists, including the exceptionally large-flowered ‘Comet’.

Antique Snowdrops

The vigorous cultivar ‘Atkinsii’ is still treasured for its elegant pearl-drop-earring-like blooms.

Of the numerous outstanding hybrids between the above (and other) Galanthus hybrids, among the best (and most affordable) are some of the old-time favorites. Originating nearly 150 years ago, the vigorous cultivar ‘Atkinsii’ is still treasured for its elegantly modeled flowers that have been likened in shape to pearl-drop earrings. The inners bear heart-shaped sinus marks.

Also dating back to the nineteenth century is ‘S. Arnott’, valued then and today for its large white flowers with chevron-shaped, olive-green sinus marks. Or even earlier in origin is the Irish cultivar ‘Straffan’, which typically produces two flowers per stem, rather than the usual singleton. It’s also notable for its relatively late season of bloom. Another vigorous old-timer, ‘Magnet’ dangles its classic drop-shaped flowers on long gracefully arching pedicels.

‘Magnet’ dangles its classic drop-shaped flowers on long gracefully arching pedicels. (Image by Russell Stafford)

One of several outstanding double-flowered snowdrops developed in the mid-twentieth century by British galanthophile Heyrick Greatorex, ‘Ophelia’ displays a central rosebud of heavily green-stained inner segments, with two flowers often occurring per stem.

Although some specialists sell Galanthus “in the green” in spring, snowdrops are best planted as dormant bare-root bulbs in fall. To provide your snowdrops with the humus-rich, well-drained soil they prefer, be sure to dig in some Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Garden Compost before planting them. They’ll reward you by brightening your garden and your spirits next winter and spring.

Cool Season Annuals for Spring and Fall

Snapdragons are classic cool-season annuals that make glorious cut flowers.

Annuals aren’t just a summer thing.  True, many popular annuals – such as marigolds, zinnias, castor beans, portulacas, and celosias – are unabashed heat-lovers, languishing in chilly conditions and hitting full stride during the long sultry days of July and August. Among the most valuable annuals, however, are those that thrive in cool weather. They’re especially useful for filling the floral doldrums that tend to haunt gardens in late spring and fall.

Most cool-season annuals germinate reliably in relatively chilly soil (below 45 degrees F) and tolerate a goodly amount of frost. Sow them outdoors in late winter or early spring (depending on your locale), and they’ll be up and flowering well before the summer annuals get going. Or for extra-early bloom, start plants indoors and transplant them to the garden several weeks before the last frost date. Cool-season annuals take center stage again in the fall. Sow them 3 months before the first frost date for a late floral display, or plant out store-bought plants in late summer.

Great Cold-Hardy Annuals

Some especially cold-hardy annuals – including all of those described below – will even overwinter as seed or seedlings into USDA hardiness zone 6/7 (or colder, in some cases), arising in spring to bloom weeks before spring-sown plants. These can be planted in the garden in the fall as seeds or young transplants, or existing plantings can be allowed to self-sow. If you’re starting plants indoors, be sure to give them lots of light and a good potting mix such as Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

Pansies and smaller-flowered Violas are cool-season musts for the garden.

Pansies (Viola × wittrockiana) are among the most popular cool-season annuals – and for good reason. Not only do they flower continuously in fall and early spring (and beyond), but they also throw some blooms during mild winter spells in USDA zones 6 and warmer. Sold by the thousands in garden centers and other venues in fall and spring, they come in all colors, usually with a signature deep-purple “face” at the flower’s center. Violas – hybrids of Viola cornuta – are close relatives of pansies that also flower prolifically during the cool seasons, as well as in winter warm spells. Short-lived perennials typically bear smaller flowers than those of the pansy tribe, with streaking rather than “faces” at their centers. Both pansies and violas do well with either early-spring or late-summer sowing and planting. The Victorian Posy Pansy mix is an excellent choice for those who start their own flowers from seeds.

Snapdragons can make a grand statement in the spring garden.

Like pansies, snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) overwinter outdoors throughout much of the U.S., making them ideal candidates for late-season planting into USDA zone 5. Overwintered seedlings bloom early in the season, lifting their colorful spires to the sun in late spring. In USDA zones 5a and colder, start seed indoors in late winter, a few weeks before the last-frost date. Early-blooming snapdragon varieties such as those in the Potomac, Chantilly, and Costa series provide an additional head-start on the flowering season, blooming days to weeks earlier than other varieties. They flower in the full range of snapdragon colors, including white, yellow, pink, red, and purple.

Large-flowered gloriosa daisies are ideal cool-season annuals for the fall.

Also ideal for fall planting are gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta), which are exceptionally winter-hardy (to USDA zone 3). Overwintered plants open their bright yellow to burgundy “black-eyed Susan” flowers in late spring or early summer, repeating until frost. Varieties include ‘Indian Summer’, with classic bright yellow “black-eyed Susan” flowers on 3-foot stems; ‘Cherokee Sunset’, whose double blooms on 30-inch stems come in various tones and combinations of yellow, bronze, and maroon; and the green-coned, tawny-eyed ‘Prairie Sun’. If seedlings don’t survive winter in your area, try sowing seed in the garden in fall, for early germination next spring. Plants will readily self-sow if you don’t deadhead them. Of course, late winter or early spring sowing works too, either indoors or out.

Classic blue cornflowers can be sown in the fall for spring.

Other classic candidates for fall planting or sowing for spring are Larkspurs (Consolida ajacis) and cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus). They bring an abundance of blue to the late spring garden, in two different forms. Larkspurs produce quantities of dainty butterfly-shaped blooms on 30- to 50-inch spikes. Cornflowers, in contrast, bear frilly pompons atop wiry 3- to 4-foot stalks. In addition to classic blue varieties such as ‘Blue Spire’, larkspurs come in an assortment of other colors including white, pink, lavender, and combinations thereof. Cornflowers, too, are available in a wide color range, from blue (e.g., ‘Blue Diadem’) to pink to red to maroon.

Lesser-Known Cool-Season Annuals

The ranks of cool-season annuals that do well with spring or fall planting or sowing include a number of relatively little-known but highly ornamental species that deserve much wider use:

Blue woodruff is rarely grown and deserves more garden attention. Expect some self-sowing.

 Blue woodruff (Asperula orientalis) throws airy sprays of little sky-blue flowers on low, typically lax stems. It’s especially lovely in containers, making a lacy understudy for bigger, bolder leaved annuals such as flowering tobaccos and amaranths.

Also flowering in blue is Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile). The clusters of rounded, bright blue blooms do indeed recall those of standard forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.), but they occur on much more durable plants that blossom in late spring and repeat in summer and fall. The pink-flowered variety ‘Mystery Rose’ is equally ornamental.

Toadflax just grows in the cool season, but it is so delicate and pretty.

A perky little thing with spikes of bright blooms that resemble snapdragons, Moroccan toadflax (Linaria maroccana) is perfect for massing in garden beds and containers, in forms such as the pastel assortment ‘Fairy Bouquet’ or bright purple ‘Licilia Violet’.

The poppy tribe contains several cool-season treasures, none better than Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), with its numerous pastel (such as ‘Mother of Pearl’ and the Falling in Love mix) and red (e.g., ‘American Legion’) forms; and Spanish poppy (Papaver rupifragum), a cheerful orange-flowered thing that’s especially winning in its double-flowered form, ‘Flore Pleno’ or ‘Tangerine Gem’.

‘Tangerine Gem’ is a very easy Spanish poppy to grow.

Although not quite as cold-hardy as most of the above, Green-gold (Bupleurum griffithii) weathers winters to USDA Zone 7, and is amenable to late winter and early spring planting in colder zones. Its large flat-headed clusters of chartreuse blooms on 3-foot stems make splendid accents for cut flower arrangements.

Gesneriads for Bountiful Indoor Blooms

Streptocarpus ‘Polka Dot Purple’ is one of many colorful cultivars available.

Showy, funnel-shaped flowers; attractive, rounded, or lance-shaped leaves; and an overall velvety to fuzzy texture characterize members of the family Gesneriaceae, home to many popular flowering house plants including gloxinias (Sinningia speciosa), African violets (Saintpaulia spp.), and others. Collectively known as gesneriads, they have a dubious reputation for being fussy in cultivation. In fact, many are quite easy to grow, provided conditions are not too dry, wet, or cold.

In almost all cases, gesneriads prefer a well-drained, organic-rich, moderately moist growing medium (allow the surface to dry between waterings). Peat-based potting mixes with lots of perlite or grit usually work well, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix. Moderate fertility is also best (apply a balanced gesneriad or African violet fertilizer every couple of months or so). Most favor a bright but not overly sunny exposure, such as dappled shade or an east- or west-facing window.

Haberlea rhodopensis is a rare, hardy gesneriad that grows well in rock gardens. (Image by Jessie Keith)

For some gesneriads, such as members of the genera Ramonda and Haberlea, anything above minus 15 degrees F or so is not “too cold”. These hardy gesneriads make good subjects for rock gardens and other well-drained, partly shaded garden sites into USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Most members of the family, however, are native to much milder, sub-tropical to tropical regions.

African Violets (Saintpaulia)

African violets come in all shades and colors. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The approximately half-dozen species of Saintpaulia hail from mountainous areas of equatorial East Africa (i.e., Kenya and Tanzania). By far the most familiar member of the genus is Saintpaulia ionantha, parent of most of the hundreds of hybrids collectively known as African violets. These come in a wide range of floral colors and sizes, from miniatures (2 to 6 inches wide) to “standards” (10 to 24 inches wide) to “trailing” varieties that creep and cascade to even greater lengths. Flowering continues sporadically year-round. A number of cultivars sport variegated leaves or double or striped flowers – or all of the above.

Real enthusiasts might want to explore species other than Saintpaulia ionantha (e.g. S. brevipilosa and S. confusa), which are available from a handful of specialist growers. Also available are wild-type forms of Saintpaulia ionantha itself, which is an utterly charming, abundantly blooming thing with periwinkle-blue flowers (or white, in cultivar ‘Alba’).

All members of the genus – and just about all tropical gesneriads – are happiest with moderate temperatures (60 to 80 degrees F) and relatively high humidity. African violets in particular resent cold water, especially on their leaves, which causes spots. Saintpaulia aficionados typically use room-temperature water, applied from below by immersing the container’s base.

Gloxinias (Sinningia spp.)

Florist gloxinia hybrids have very large blooms, and many different varieties are available.

So-called gloxinias (which actually belong to the genus Sinningia) have similar preferences. Most gardeners know them by the familiar large-flowered hybrids of the tuberous-rooted Sinningia speciosa. These “florist gloxinias” produce flushes of velvety, funnel-shaped flowers in shades of red, purple, white, or combinations of the same. Plants may stop blooming and even die back temporarily if things get too cool or dry, but they can usually be easily coaxed back into growth.

Lesser known – but in some cases even more satisfactory as house plants – are the 60-plus other species of Sinningia and their hundreds of hybrids, which come in numerous forms, sizes, and colors. Outstanding hybrids include ‘Tante’, a cascading plant with lax stems loaded with pale mauve trumpets, and ‘Prudence Risley’, which bears a constant succession of deep rose-red trumpet-flowers on 10-inch stems. Miniature, “teacup” Sinningia hybrids such as the salmon-orange-flowered ‘High Voltage’ are a great fit for terrariums or other small niches.

Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus spp.)

Cape primroses have tubular blooms in many bright colors.

Arguably the most floriferous gesneriads are the many hybrids of Cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.), whose narrow-throated blooms with violet-shaped lobes are borne continuously, conditions permitting. The flowers are held on wiry, 3- to 8-inch stems above rosettes of tongue-shaped leaves that superficially resemble primrose foliage. Flower color range spans most of the spectrum, in a wide variety of patterns from solid to striped to speckled to picotee-edged. Streptocarpus typically mature at around 10 to 12 inches wide, but miniatures such as ‘Little Red’ are half that size or less.

Other Popular Gesneriads

Lipstick plant has fleshy leaves and lovely red, tubular flowers.

Hot water plant (Achimenes spp.)

The colorful trumpet-shaped flowers of these winter-dormant perennials are borne on leafy creeping stems that sprout from scaly rhizomes in the spring. Achimenes function well as house plants or in seasonal garden plantings.

Lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus spp.)

Clusters of beak-shaped red or orange flowers protrude from contrasting clasping sepals, on cascading stems lined with paired fleshy leaves. Lipstick plants – as well as the next three plant groups – are ideal subjects for hanging baskets in bright partly shaded locations such as an east window.

Goldfish plant (Columnea spp.)

Columnea hirta is one of many attractive goldfish plants for home gardeners to try. (Image by Guerin Nicolas)

The common name refers not to the color of the flowers (typically red), but to their arching shape, with fin-like petals protruding from their undersides. Like lipstick plants, they’re mostly of trailing habit, doing and looking well in hanging baskets in bright partial shade.

Guppy plant (Nematanthus spp.)

Yellow flowers with prominent paunches peek from the axils of the narrow, glossy, leathery leaves, giving the appearance of little fish sheltering in the greenery.

Flame violet (Episcia spp.)

Rosettes of colorful fuzzy leaves – often netted with flamboyantly contrasting veins – are the main attraction of this diverse genus. That said, some Episcia hybrids are grown mostly for their red, orange, pink, or yellow flowers, which are showy in their own right.

Lesser-known Gesneriads

Kohleria is a spectacularly beautiful lesser-known gesneriad.

Lots of other wonderful (and easy) members of the Gesneriaceae are there for the exploring, including:


Close relatives of Nematanthus, these easy-to-grow gesneriads from uplands of eastern Brazil feature a compact, pendant habit, fleshy leaves, and small white or yellow flowers that repeat through much of the year.


Felted bugles line the relatively tall stems of this diverse tropical New World genus, which encompasses more than 20 species and scores of hybrids. Most flower in red, pink, orange, or purple, with contrasting flecking on their lips.


These Central American natives send up compact spires of red, orange, yellow, purple, pink, or white flowers from stout compact rhizomes in spring and beyond. Plants go dormant for the winter. Smithiantha and Achimenes have combined to produce numerous beautiful intergeneric hybrids (known as ×Achimenantha).

Upon seeing all of the diverse and gorgeous gesneriads there are to grow, most plant collectors get hooked fast. Try a few to brighten your indoors this winter.

How To Force Spring Bulbs In Water

Flower bulbs, water, and a vase (or two) are all you need to bring a splash of spring to your windowsill this winter. It’s as simple as plant-growing gets. The water provides moisture for the bulbs’ roots. The vase provides a container for the water and support for the bulbs’ stems and leaves. And the bulbs take it from there. Everything’s inside these miraculous little plants-in-a-package: the buds, the roots, and the stored food that fuels roots and top growth. Give them the proper stimulus, and they’re off and blooming – no soil required, in many cases.

The author grows paperwhites in water each year around the holidays. (Image by Russell Stafford)


Simplest of all are paperwhite narcissus, which require nothing more in the way of stimulus than a hit of water. Place several of them at the bottom of a bubble vase (illustrated) or a tall cylindrical glass vase (6 inches wide by 10 inches deep is an ideal size). Add around an inch of water (don’t worry – they’ll be fine). Move the vase to a cool dimly lit location. Finally, bring the vase out into cool full light when the bulbs begin to push roots. Re-water when necessary. In 3 to 5 weeks, you’ll have paperwhite blooms, their stems neatly propped by the sides of the vase. To further counteract flopping, amend the water with a touch of alcohol, which promotes compact growth.

Paperwhites set lush roots in water and bloom beautifully without chilling.

Most other bulbs are generally not as fine with sitting in an inch of water. Fortunately, you can buy forcing jars made just to address this challenge. The bulb nestles in a bowl-shaped receptacle at the top of the jar, which is filled with water just to the bulb’s base. Add water as needed to keep the developing roots immersed.


Amaryllis are very easy to force in water/

Bulb-jars purpose-made for amaryllis (botanically known as Hippeastrum) are available from several suppliers. Some are vase-like bulb supports, while others provide space for pebbles to be placed at the base for root support. As with paperwhites, newly bought amaryllis can be forced directly with no pretreatment necessary. Within weeks, you’ll reap the reward of a spectacular display of huge, richly hued, trumpet-shaped blooms. (Click here to learn more about growing Amaryllis.)

Hyacinths, Crocus, and More

Crocus require a chilling period before they can be forced.

You’ll also find bulb-jars designed specifically for hardy bulbs such as hyacinths, crocuses, or whatever else will fit (scillas, grape hyacinths, trumpet daffodils, and early tulips are among the other bulbs that force well). Hardy bulbs present a special pretreatment challenge, though: many of them won’t send up flowers until they’ve experienced a few weeks of cold and have started rooting. One easy solution is to put the jarred bulb in a refrigerator or other chilly, dark place for several weeks, and move it into the light and warmth once roots extend and plump buds appear. Some hardy bulbs, such as Tazetta narcissus (including ‘Geranium’ and ‘Cragford’) and double hyacinths, need only cold; no rooting required. A few weeks in the refrigerator in a paper bag and they’re ready to head for their jars and get growing.

Forced crocus provide winter with a bit of cheerful spring color.

Or you can make your own “bulb jar”. Place pebbles in a narrow cylindrical vase, leaving a few inches of space at the top. Place the bulb (or bulbs) on the pebbles, and add water to the bulb’s base. Proceed as above. In a couple months, you’ll have spring in winter