Habits of Tropical Plants

Let’s face it: unless you live in the southern hemisphere, we are going into some dark, cold and dry times for our house plants. And what are house plants? They are mostly tropical plants that live somewhere else in their “other” lives (IRL if we were texting).

Many of the plants that do well in our homes actually are what we would call “understory” plants. If we are outdoor gardeners, we would probably call these “shade” plants but in the tropical forest, it might be a little more complicated than that.

Some of the plants have actually adopted cool features to help them in this “understory.” Some of the plants we grow in hanging baskets like philodendrons might actually grow on the trunks of trees.

Have you ever noticed that philodendrons have large, aerial roots? Those adaptations are to help them grow on trees “in the wild”–almost in the same way that orchids do. They also have terrestrial roots–on the same plant–to anchor them, either to the ground or in our case, in the pots!

But of course those aerial roots are completely wasted in our homes unless we are growing philodendron as a climbing plant–and most of us don’t do that.

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There are a few varieties that stay low for awhile and then shoot up dramatically–this is one of them–you can see that it doesn’t quite know what to do with itself and I don’t quite know what to do with it!

This is philodendron neon. It stays quite low for a year or two–and then it shoots into the sky, like so. Don’t be fooled by the cute little images you see of it in 4 inch pots.

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If you prefer a better behaved version, try its bronze cousin, “Prince of Orange,” which stays lower but needs bright light to maintain its nice coppery color. Since our bright light is gone now until spring, it is a little faded. That’s why the new leaf also looks stunted–they tend to do that if they’re not getting the light they need.

Come March, everything will resolve–the bright colors will return and the leaves will look much better too!

While We’re On The Subject of Misunderstood Plants….

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Okay, this isn’t the most glorious looking poinsettia you’ve ever seen but what if I told you this is its third year blooming–and it’s blooming here in July?

So what does that say about these plants? First, that you don’t have to put them in dark closets or under a box to get them to bloom–you can see that this one is sitting on a file cabinet in my office.

Next, that they are so much more than the finicky plants that we buy at the holidays and then discard. They actually grow into shrubs in tropical countries like Mexico and central America (so, no putting them in closets or putting boxes over them there, clearly).

So that’s myth number one–that poinsettias need to be kept in artificial darkness to rebloom.

The next myth gets us toxicity–a subject I touched on with respect to children and pets on Monday. While it’s just never a good idea to eat any plant unless you’re sure of its consumability (there are a few truly toxic plants out there–I even own some!) poinsettias are not toxic. They may give you a stomach ache–but they won’t kill you.

And despite all sorts of articles all over the web from completely reputable sources (here ite all sorts of articles all over the web from completely repurable sources (here ite all sorts of articles all over the web from completely repurable sources (here is one from the Poison Control Center, for example) this myth persists.

In fact, I would have to say that it is second only to hydrangea questions for me. Again, if I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “Oh, I can’t have a poinsettia, because I have a dog/cat/child,” I wouldn’t be posting about this, I would own a place on a warm sunny island where I would no longer worry about poinsettias or winter!

If fact, if you don’t want to believe the poison control center, perhaps you’d prefer what doctors at the Mayo Clinic have to say about poinsettias. Again, they can cause mild irritation, some stomach upset, a skin rash–but then again, so can any plant in the euphorbia family.

And as we know, lots of plants, such as the dreaded poison ivy, can do far worse to those susceptible to its oils.

So please, people, let us stop the craziness. And if you like these plants, please buy them and enjoy.

Gentle House Plant Reminders

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For me, it’s that time of year. There will be no more outdoor gardening. We have had our first hard freeze so the only thing left to do outside is to manage the remaining leaves–and eventually shovel snow.

But of course, my own house plants–as well as lectures I have been giving on them and a few articles I have seen lately–led to this post.

One of the most common questions I get is about repotting and when, specifically to repot a plant. Normally, unless I drop a pot and break it, I save all my repotting until spring.

Yes, I know spring is a very busy time for gardening but I generally begin my repotting as soon as the sun really begins to get stronger–early to mid-March for me. That’s much too early for me to work outside so it all works out well.

I don’t repot in the fall because plants are going into a bit of dormancy. The chances of killing a plant will over-watering after repotting in the winter are far higher because its roots are not going to be actively growing to fill that pot until spring.

That’s also why we don’t feed plants in winter.

And over the weekend I saw an article about “ooh, try some of those trendy marimo moss balls,” with no discussion of over-harvesting. I hate that. I also hate to see that 5 “trendy” plants were listed with no discussion of how to grow them. Why not just buy them and put them directly in the trash, as a couple were quite difficult?

Finally that same article did mention plants and toxicity to pets (I am not even sure if it mentioned toxic plants and children!)

Of course if you have cats in particular, who can be very prone to nibble plants, or puppies, you know it can be difficult to have plants and you will want to be sure to take care. The ASPCA has a very good list. Plants that are toxic to cats are not necessarily toxic to dogs, for example.

With children, it’s a little more complicated because there isn’t one site for that. (Perhaps that’s why most folks avoid the topic altogether). Some internet research should help, but get 2 or 3 definitive responses. Don’t rely just on one source.

Since I know I will be seeing more articles about house plants that will make me crazy, maybe this will become a regular feature.

Polar Vortex Ahead?

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If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that I am quite the believer in using squirrels nests to predict the severity of the winter.

This may sound silly or strange to some, but it’s just a different version of those old farmer’s tales. This is how it works.

Supposedly the higher up in a tree a squirrel builds its nest, the colder the winter will be. You have to know, of course, that squirrels always build at least halfway up the tree or higher–so it helps to know a little bit about squirrels to start.

So a nest at about the mid-point of the tree–or even slightly higher–would mean a very mild winter.

Conversely, a nest very near the top means a cold winter.

I will weigh in here with the objective observation that I have never completely understood why this is true. It would seem to me that if I were a gray furry mammal and I thought it was going to be cold, I would like to be nearer to the ground than way up in the air.

But my nearly decade long survey of squirrels and their nesting habits has shown that they seem to know what the heck they are doing. It just proves that I would never survive in the wild!

So based on past predictions, my squirrels are calling for the polar vortex. Don’t say they didn’t warn you!