A Non-Traditional Christmas Plant

Stromanthe tricolor

Yes, we are getting closer to the holidays. Thanksgiving in the United States is next week–it’s later this year–and between that and pandemic induced stress, some people have just jumped right over Thanksgiving into our biggest retail holiday, Christmas.

Of course, many will argue that “Christmas creep” gets earlier every year–but let’s keep that out of gardening. I am more interested in showing plants that will work for you that are not poinsettias.

There is nothing wrong with poinsettias, mind you. It’s just that many people choose not to grow them. Personally, I have trouble with them in my cold house. They are native to Mexico. They don’t do well in a house in New England kept at 62 degrees.

But the lovely stromanthes, above, has no trouble with my cooler home. I have read that they are finicky but this plant has proven very trouble free for me. I keep it in a western exposure indoors and take it outside to a shaded eastern exposure for the summer.

It’s only been re-potted twice probably in 10 years, so it’s a slow grower for me. It’s never had an insect issue.

And, while I am not one of those who posts videos, I will tell you that its leaves do move in relationship to light. I can hear them, and then I will look over and see them settling. So that’s just a neat aside.

This is a close-up of the leaves. They are just lovely. The back sides are solid maroon.

This plant would make a nice, untraditional holiday plant. And unlike a poinsettia, you will not mind having it around the rest of the year.

More About Holiday Cactus

Schlumbergera Coral Red

On Friday I talked about what I thought made Schlumbergera–or holiday cactus bloom.

Today I am going to talk about why it’s really not such a great idea to refer to them as cactus.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “cactus?” Sunny? Hot? Dry? All of those apply. In fact, most people either kill cactus by over-watering, or by never watering. Cactus can be a little tricky.

But these “Holiday” cactus actually aren’t in any way related to desert cactus or even to succulents, despite their somewhat fleshy leaves.

They are most closely related to orchids. Yes, they are epiphytes, which means if you were to find them in their native South America, (the Brazilian south eastern forests, to be exact) you would see them growing in trees or on rocks–and most definitely in the shade.

So that’s what makes their care a little trickier than just an ordinary house plant. They don’t want hot sun, like their “cactus” name implies. They like that “bright indirect light–filtered sunshine (think through a curtain, perhaps).

I keep mine in east and west windows and they seem to do just fine but I am at a fairly northerly latitude. If I were in Florida–or at the top of a mountain–I doubt that would work. I am in one of those places where we can’t make our own Vitamin D by going outside this time of year even without sunscreen!

And while we all know someone whose grandmother/mother/aunt had one of these for 70 years, the plants they are selling now are not those plants. Most are hybrids designed to bloom earlier and with far more blooms. I suspect we will be lucky if our plants last 70 years. I just lost my oldest at about 24 years.

How can we help get a long life from our plants? I grow mine dry and cool and I pot them in clay pots with cactus mix. So far that’s working out well for me.

“Holiday ” Cactus

“Holiday ” cactus beginning to bloom

On Wednesday, I had a photo of the first of my Christmas or Thanksgiving or Holiday or whatever else you want to call them cactus starting to bloom. Their genus is schlumbergera. Some people, including me, on occasion, call them zygocactus.

But to call them any sort of “cactus ” is really misleading. It’s about as misleading as attaching a holiday to the poor plant’s name! For example, the plant that I showed just beginning to bloom on November 11 of this year was in full bloom on the second weekend of October last year. So that would make it the “Indigenous Peoples/Veterans Day ” cactus. Hmm. I think not.

So if they’re not blooming for a specific holiday, what are they blooming in reaction to? Conventional wisdom says light and temperature but I have to believe that it’s strictly temperature. After all, the light doesn’t change from year to year. In fact, this year, to test that theory, I did exactly the same thing with these plants: putting them outside in the same spot and bringing them in at the same time and placing them back in the same windows.

And they are blooming a full month later–for the earliest among them. So I am going with temperature as the trigger. As soon as we had that very cold spell (and the snow) they set their buds.

At different latitudes, and in places without as much temperature fluctuation, your experience may be different. But that’s part of the joy of growing–and getting to know your plants.

Amaryllis Are Not All Created Equal

Amaryllis Bulb

It’s the time of year when amaryllis and paperwhite kits are showing up in all the stores. You can get them at the grocery store, the hardware store, a big box store and just about any place else you go. Or you can go to a garden center or order them from a bulb grower and pay maybe twice as much. Why would you do that?

There’s a bunch of reasons, actually. You might want a particular color. (Remember me, wanting the white amaryllis last year, so I bought it at a garden center and it turned out to be that amazing funky red? Lesson learned. I ordered white this year from 2 separate bulb growers).

But despite my experience last year, I am not sorry about supporting an independent garden center and never will be! We have to do all we can to keep them in business or there will be no garden centers left to shop!

Both bulb growers and garden centers offer far more numerous choices, colors, varieties and selection of amaryllis than anywhere else. Garden centers may even have some already planted if you want to give one as a gift. Something pre-planted and already growing makes a nicer gift than just a bulb.

Finally, there’s the size of the bulb. When I received this bulb, I was advised to plant it in an 8″ pot. Those kits come with 6″ pots–or smaller. That tells you that the bulbs are smaller–and they have to be to get the bulb, soil disk and inner and outer pot all into the box.

So while initially it seems that this bulb is more expensive, it’s going to yield more flowers–and produce more over a lifetime, if you’re interested in that.

Since I save my amaryllis from year to year, I am interested in lifetime productivity. These, as well as others you don’t see, will bloom for me again next year.

So with amaryllis it pays to start off large. Don’t skimp on the bulbs.

A Challenging Winter House Plant

Clivia miniata

Yes, these two house plants are still on my glassed in porch. They are supposed to be chilling down to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Nature isn’t cooperating with me this year, although we will get there eventually. I just hope that I remember to bring the plants in at that point.

Clivia miniata are tough, long-lived house plants. They bloom in flower spikes of orange or yellow in late winter if you can get them to bloom. Otherwise, they might bloom naturally for you in summer–or maybe not at all. That’s why I called them “challenging ” in my title.

To get them to bloom in late winter, the trick is to stop watering in October. Keep them cold. Let them get as cold as 40 degrees.

In mid-January, warm them up a bit (to the mid 60s) and begin watering. If they are going to bloom for you, a bloom spike should form shortly. If it doesn’t happen, continue to water until summer–or whenever you can set them safely outside. That’s the second opportunity for them to bloom.

Clivia like to be tightly potted so don’t repot until they are almost breaking out of the pot.

And if these plants take a year–or two–vacation from bloom, enjoy the lovely foliage!

Cold Weather Makes Me Think of Bulbs

Bulbs and Forcing Jars

As soon as the weather turns, I immediately think about bulbs. When I was younger, I used to plant bulbs outdoors. Now I “cheat” and force them inside instead. Not only is it a lot easier on the body (no kneeling in cold wet clay soil–and worse yet, no digging in it!), but the gratification comes earlier in the spring as well.

The only downside is that bulbs forced in water have to be composted so it’s not the most sustainable practice. But then again, planting bulbs in clay soil wasn’t always so sustainable either. They were very susceptible to rotting and after all my efforts, I might have nothing to show for it in the spring.

You can tell that I have been doing this for some time by the collection of forcing jars that I have acquired. What’s nice about this is that I start some now and as they finish, I start new bulbs. Since the bulbs have been kept cool, as winter goes along, each successive forcing takes less time.

The bulbs that I start this week may bloom after New Year’s. The next set may bloom in 6 weeks or so. Then after that, it’s very fast–2 weeks or so per forcing. I have the constant joy of bulbs all over the house!

If you have never tried forcing your own bulbs, try it. You can grow them in soil too. I mostly grow hyacinths because I love the scent. But just about everything forces. Think of a flower show if you have ever been to one. They always have masses of forced bulbs there.

There are great books–and of course the internet–to tell you specifically about the timing of each bulb. But bulbs should be on sale now. Pick up a package and try something new!