Holiday Cactus?


This may look like the same photo from Wednesday. It is the same plant. But I took the photo so that the tag was visible and readable in the photo. It says “Holiday Cheer Christmas Cactus.”

Hmm. I am not sure about you, but with the exception of our Canadian friends who celebrated their Thanksgiving on Monday, I am not quite ready for holiday cheer. And I am sure not ready for winter!

So what’s happened to my zygocactus? Nothing, really. Sadly, they’re not terribly good at flowering for any particular holiday. They tend to flower on their own schedule and their own time. In fact, an article that I just wrote about using plants for holiday entertaining suggests that one doesn’t try to use these particular plants if one needs them in bloom for a party–they can be terribly unpredictable.

What I did differently this year was I put them outside for the summer (or what passes for summer here in the frozen north:they were outside from about mid-June until just past Labor Day). After that, they came directly into the house.

The one that’s in flower is in a northeast window. But lest you think that this is an anomaly, here are two that are in a northwest window. As you can see, they are not far behind the first.

Still, I am not planning to use them for any holiday parties and I have numerous plants, some of which show no signs of budding. I am hopeful that this means a long bloom season for these plants!

The “Trouble” With Succulents

You may wonder why, in the middle of July, (the month I claim is the only “summer” that we have here in Connecticut), I am writing about what are mostly house plants for me and not about the glories of the garden.

Well, when you have as many house plants as I do, sometimes they need attention even in the summer. In fact, I find that they pretty much need attention year round. So this is the motto I have tried to adopt about gardening:

Do what has to be done,
When it has to be done,
The way it ought to be done,
Whether you feel like it or not.

Those last 2 lines have been a challenge the last few years because of the “unfortunate incidences,” but I still do what I can when I can.

Now, as for the succulents. I love them, particularly when they look like this.


The trouble is, after awhile, they always get leggy and scraggly and look like this.


This, of course, is the solution.


And these clippings, properly trimmed, can often be made into new plants. But that’s what had me messing with succulents on a mid-July day instead of weeding, or something else.

Right “Plant”, Right Place

It’s the season for holiday parties. I’ve attended two already this past week and I am not a social butterfly. In the language of gardeners, I  am a wallflower. I get to a party, I stay at my table, I talk to those I am seated near, or those I came with, and that’s that, usually.

But, as gardeners, we are blessed if we find ourselves with other gardeners in our midst. I have had the most delightful time at weddings or at the Spoiler’s college reunions when I unexpectedly found myself seated near a gardener. Suddenly, I have something in common with others in the room (besides perhaps a spouse, an address or a friendship with the bride or groom).

And the language of gardening is rarely controversial enough to cause upset. At one of the parties this past weekend, a tablemate was engaging in heated political discussion that was very inappropriate.

It’s hard to conceive of a situation where a similar offense could be given or perceived while discussing gardening (maybe folks might not want to hear about manure tea, but otherwise?)

I suppose it’s possible to offend (correction: it’s always possible to offend somehow) when discussing organic versus conventional gardening methods. But so long as everyone remembers that most people truly believe that what they are doing is okay and no one wants to truly harm the place where they live (at least not backyard gardeners!), it should all turn out fine.

(Mind you, as an organic gardener for over two decades, I have been lecturing for 16 years to “mixed” crowds. I am thrilled that the more I talk about organic gardening, the more I see people embracing it. But not everyone still does. And you get no where by offending those who don’t.)

So if you are a gardener, and somewhat quiet, or shy, or introverted (or whatever the new word is for the wallflowers like me who don’t like to shine in large groups), just try to find the gardener in the group. You’ll have a great time. And when the end of the evening comes, you’ll say, “Oh? Already?”

Why Herbs?

For the rest of April, I’m going to devote my posts to herbs. Why herbs? Well, a couple of reasons. For one thing, I think that if folks are trying to incorporate some edibles into their gardens, herbs are a good way to start. They might be more forgiving than some of the other edibles, at least in terms of space and watering.

And even if folks don’t feel confident of their abilities to grow full blown vegetables (maybe I’ll devote next month to why you don’t need the back 40 to do that), most anyone can keep a pot of thyme alive on a deck or windowsill.

And best of all, while vegetables have a distinct season, herbs can be grown most of the year (with the right light, some can be grown year round) and can be used to flavor almost every kind of food.

So why herbs? Because they are the easiest, most forgiving kind of edibles to grow. Some will even take a good deal of shade. Many are quite forgiving of watering lapses. Most have some alleged kind of health benefit (although wait a minute–that too may change and next year they’ll all be horrible for us!)

Best of all, fresh herbs make whatever it is we’re cooking–even store bought food straight from the box or can–taste better. So what’s not to like?

And while we can all disagree on what our favorite herbs are, we have to agree that they’re readily available–even supermarkets sell pots of organic herbs.

So don’t be timid about trying some of these–they really are easier to grow than you think!

Merry Christmas 2 (Christmas Evergreens)

Last Friday I discussed legends (variations on a theme, really) associated with our most popular Christmas blooming plants, the poinsettia, the Christmas rose and the Christmas Cactus (for more on care of these, look Here for poinsettia and here for Christmas Cactus.)

Today I’ll discuss some of the evergreens and how they became traditions in decorating. These are actually the more interesting stories because they come down to us from all regions and traditions.

One of my favorites is the mistletoe.  Although I wouldn’t dream of having “real” mistletoe in my home because its berries could be toxic to my pets, I do hang a cut paper version and a lovely glass ornament version every year.  I guess I like the idea that it can be “protective.”

The legend comes down to us from Norse mythology.  It tells of the goddess Frigga who had a beloved son.  Despite her best efforts at protecting him, the god Loki intervenes and her son was killed.  Winter came to the earth as a result and darkness and drear covered the land for 3 days until the son was revived with the help of mistletoe. Its berries supposedly turned white from her tears of gratitude and from that time on, anyone under it would not be harmed and would receive a kiss (hence our modern tradition) as a token of love.  I adapted this tale from the much longer version shown at World of Christmas.

Holly, especially, and ivy to a lesser extent, play a role in our holiday celebrations as well.  Holly has a religious role as well in one of its legends, supposedly sprouting leaves out of season in Bethlehem to hide the Holy Family.  Holly legends and facts can be found at this Suite101 site.

Ivy bears a less well-known role, and perhaps used only because of its association with the song “The Holly and The Ivy.” Some legends of both holly and ivy are found in the song lyrics.  Other legends associate ivy with ancient Druids, Celts and Greeks who decorated with greenery, much as we do, to dispel winter’s gloom.  There is also some thought that “holly’ was perceived as “masculine” and “ivy” as “feminine and the old song–and indeed the plants–discuss that relationship.  More about that here, as well as the song lyrics, from

Finally of course, there are the conifers or needled evergreens we decorate with in all manner of shapes and forms: wreaths, swags, garlands, centerpieces and of course the tree. Some of this again goes back to ancients of all nationalities who brought the greenery into their homes to dispel winter’s gloom (and who blames them?).  EWTN has an interesting variation on the idea that the Germans first brought Christmas trees into use with its tale of St. Boniface cutting down the oak sacred to the Druids and decreeing that a small fir that had somehow escaped nearby when the oak was taken down be brought into homes instead.  You can read all the details of that legend here.

But of course other legends are associated with our evergreens, including the wreath.  Wreaths have of course been used for centuries, most notably by the Romans and the Greeks, who used them as symbols of victory ( tradition still found in the modern Olympics).  The older legends date back again to germanic tribes who put evergreen wreaths on their homes. It continues today both in secular Christmas decorating and in the Advent wreath.  Read more here from the site History of Christmas.

Finally there’s the yule log, a purely pagan tradition that still survives today in HD on some cable channels, which will stream a live feed of a burning fireplace! It may sound corny but growing up we didn’t have a fireplace and did watch the local (decidedly non-HD) version on TV.  I’ve heard there are DVDs available as well today for those who want to re-create that effect.

The Yule log dates back to the Vikings, who brought logs into their home for prosperity and to chase away the evil spirits.  The log had to burn from the solstice on.  If it for some reason went out, that was considered a very bad sign.  You can read more from a post I did in 2010 on the yule log here.

With all of that said, for those that celebrate the holiday, I wish you a “Merry Christmas.”


Merry Christmas (Christmas blooming plants)

First, for all who do not celebrate the holiday, you may want to ignore this post.  It will be a discussion of the plants associated with the holiday.

For those who do celebrate the holiday, I thought I’d update some of the legends and traditions associated with Christmas.  After all, there are a lot of plants, and cut greenery associated with Christmas.  We might as well discuss them on a garden blog, of all places.  The discussion is going to be a 2-part one because the list of plants is so long.  I’ll cover the blooming plants today, and then cover the “greenery” on Monday.

First of all the houseplants, or tropicals, that we associate with the holiday.  There are many, and for many, these plants must be grown as potted plants. For those in the warmest climates, some, like the poinsettia, can be grown outdoors as a small shrub. One is even perennial in the colder regions–the Christmas rose, a hellebore (helleborus niger).  For those of us in the colder climates, however, it rarely, if ever blooms at Christmas!

In addition to being the #1 selling houseplant, few plants say “Christmas” like the poinsettia.  Even places that try to be ecumenical about the holiday will decorate with this plant–they have just become a December decorating staple.

There is a religious reason we do use this plant at Christmas, however, and the story comes to us from Mexico.  In a “little drummer girl” type variation, the story goes that a young girl was too poor to provide a gift for the baby Jesus on Christmas eve.  As she walked sadly to the Christmas eve service at her church, an angel told her to pick some roadside weeds to present as the gift.  She did so, and as she laid them at the foot of the manger scene, they burst into red blooms (technically bracts, but who am I to quibble with this lovely story?) The church goers were sure they had witnessed a miracle and poinsettias are known as Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.  I took this legend’s retelling from the Paul Ecke Ranch web site.  Ecke is the primary grower of poinsettias.

The legend of the Christmas rose is almost identical to the above legend, but it is said to date to the time of the baby’s birth. In that story, the girl without a gift was a shepherdess (seems a little fanciful to me, but whatever.

Wikipedia says the name can also be applied to white hydrangeas in bloom at this time, or to a plant commonly used in bonsai, serrisa foetida, also known as the snow rose or winter rose.

The legend of the Christmas Cactus takes a different twist.  It tells the story of a missionary priest who was trying to evangelize in what might be present day Bolivia.  He felt that his efforts were being met with little success, and on Christmas eve, he was alone, praying in his small church in despair.  Suddenly he heard singing, and the villagers he was trying to convert came streaming into the church bearing flowering branches of what we know as the Christmas cactus (various genuses and crosses of a plant known as schlumbergera).  This lovely story is told on a web site called “Santalives” and can be read in its entirety here.

That about covers the “blooming plants” category.  On Monday I’ll cover the evergreens.

Poinsettia Myths and Lore


Picking up where I left off on Monday, I wanted first to dispel a very common myth: poinsettias are NOT–repeat not–poisonous.  You need not worry about children in any respect.

Pets are a different matter–dogs, and to a greater extent, cats, can be bothered and made ill from this plant–if they bother it to eat it, that is. You know your own pets and their inclinations.  If you have a cat–or a dog, for that matter–that likes to eat plants, best to skip this one.

While it is admirable to want to keep children and pets safe, chances are the homeowner already has poisonous plants in the home and isn’t aware of it–so many house plants are toxic even at small doses.

Worse yet, landscape plants are highly toxic and some of the most common like rhododendrons, azalea, yew and holly (we’ll get back to that in a minute) are highly toxic even in minute amounts.  But no one thinks to tell homeowners with children and dogs not to plant those or to keep the children and pets away from those–except perhaps at this time of year.

But back to the poinsettia.  I don’t quite know how this myth got started except for the fact that poinsettias are members of the euphorbia family and that family has irritating sap.  So if you are allergic to the sap–or chew enough leaves–there can be some irritation of the mouth or some contact dermatitis on your skin.

I can tell you I have the most sensitive skin known to humankind–and the sap has never bothered me–so it must be like poison ivy–you have to have a lot of exposure to it to be irritated or something.

But please–don’t take my word for the “poinsettias are not poisonous” idea.  Read more about it here from Snopes, the urban legends reference pages.  They also have some great reference material from leading university agricultural departments there as well and some of the lore as well (in more detail than I have here.)

As for other holiday plants to avoid, however, if you have children and pets, you will want to avoid the aforementioned holly.  All parts are highly poisonous and the berries are particularly attractive to them.

While we’re on song titles, avoid the ivy that goes with the holly as well.  It too can be toxic.

And not to be a drag, but don’t hang any mistletoe–at least not the real kind. Its berries can be fatal if swallowed.  I’ve found some lovely glass ornaments that I’ve subbed in for the real, and even a cut paper variety.  They also make some realistic looking silk ones. Don’t take a chance on the real stuff–it’s not worth it.

So deck the halls with poinsettia all you like–just avoid some of the more  innocuous other toxic holiday plants!

As for lore, there is actually a day dedicated to poinsettias.  It is December 12, the birthday of the US Ambassador, Poinsett, who brought the flowers back and introducted them the US.

There’s also a Mexican legend about an impoverished child who had nothing to offer the Christ child on Christmas.  I’ll let you read more about both these stories here.

Seasonal Scares

No, this is not a Halloween post.  Those that know me know that I’m not really a huge fan of Halloween.  I’m not really a party-pooper–by all means, do let the younger set have some fun, if they can do it in a safe manner.  But I do have to ask, on what other day of the year would you open your door–willingly–to masked strangers?  It’s craziness.

No, what I’m posting about here are two different things: the irrational fear everyone seems to have this year about the possibility of a bad winter, and the marketing bandwagon that even the plant companies have jumped on when it comes to the holidays!

Now I know, we’re less than 10 weeks from Christmas, Kwaanza, Festivus and whatever anyone might celebrate near the end of December and just over 7 weeks from Hanukkah.  But the early shoppers (and you know who you are) are not going to be able to buy plants early (unless perhaps you’re buying amaryllis or paperwhite bulbs).

On Friday, I re-tweeted a link to a Prides’s Corner YouTube video where Santa makes an appearance showing all the holiday plants Pride’s Corner would have for the upcoming season.  Don’t ask me what they are–I didn’t watch.  It’s much too early for me to think about anything except maybe amaryllis. (For those of you that missed it, here that link:

An intro to the video shows a snowy covered landscape and some lovely evergreens–but Santa or the Pride’s employee was clearly holding a “Christmas Cactus.”  That’s where I stopped.  Enough is enough.  It’s enough to check my own specimens for buds right about now.  I don’t want to think about buying new holiday plants.

And on an even weirder unrelated note, I have to turn in my next magazine article in early November for the January issue–the one that will talk about “Well, now that the holidays are over, how will the gardener get through winter?”  Argh!  But that’s my issue, not yours!

But seeing that snowy landscape, as lovely as it looked, and walking down my wet, rain and leaf-slicked driveway recently made me think of the coming winter.  It seems no matter who I speak to, everyone wants to know about the coming winter, and whether it will be bad or not.

We have 3 predictions so far, 2 of them for a snowier than normal winter.  One is from the  Farmers Almanac, which predicts snowier and colder than normal for my region, at least after the new year.  The second is from Accuweather, which predicts about the same thing (and since they are in the business of weather–i.e, they do it as a commercial venture, that seems slightly more scientific, but who really knows?  They won’t release their inside formulas any more than the Farmer’s Almanac does).

The third, from the National Weather Service, says we have “equal chances” of above or below normal precipitation and temperatures.

As a trained amateur meteorologist, I’ll tell you that the third one is probably the best “forecast”–and here’s why:

  • first, in an average year, the typical winter weather pattern doesn’t take hold until the end of November until the earliest.  That’s when the  patterns in the jet stream and the waves of weather coming from Canada tend to stabilize.
  • next, this is an “El Nino” year
  • In El Nino years, what happens with the North Atlantic Oscillation (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it one of those weather patterns I mentioned) is critical
  • If the NAO goes “negative, we have a warmer than normal winter in the northeast.
  • If the NAO goes “positive”, we have a cold and snowy winter

So, “equal” chances of a good winter or bad.

On Friday we’ll talk about what nature is saying about the weather!

The Story of Rosemary

A week ago I talked about some of the different stories associated with Christmas trees in an effort, I hope, to show, that Christmas trees had their roots in secular festivals and traditions and were only later adopted by Christianity (if, in fact, they were adopted at all).

The story of rosemary is a little different.  Of course all herbal legends are just that–legends.  But one story associated with this herb is firmly rooted in Christianity and so, this close to Christmas I offer it to you as my gift.  For those who do not celebrate, by all means, feel free to skip this entry.

I had only known of rosemary as the “herb of remembrance” for quite some time.  It plays a minor role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, the poor, mad daughter of Laertes wanders by murmuring “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…” shortly before she commits suicide.

Another legend I had been familiar with was the old English one that said where rosemary flourished, a woman ruled the roost.

But only recently did I come across the story of the Holy Family and their flight to Egypt.  Supposedly, the story goes, all rosemary bloomed white at that time.  During the flight, Mary draped her cloak over a rosemary bush, and ever since then, rosemary has bloomed blue.

It’s a charming story, but botanists will tell you that there’s still a white blooming rosemary–and a pink blooming one for that matter.

For this and other stories about holiday plants, see this fact sheet from the University of Illinois Extension Service.  And for all those who celebrate, Merry Christmas!

Are Christmas Trees Politically Correct?

Last week The Atlantic published a poll asking whether it was acceptable to have Christmas trees (holiday trees?) in the office.  80% of the respondents at that time were solidly “pre-tree” with some of the “anti-tree” respondents objecting not on religious grounds but on practical grounds–the messiness of the tree, for example (I presume they were talking about a live tree, but I don’t know that the poll presumed that the tree in the office had to be a live tree).

I work in a place where a tree is acceptable–in fact, I have a nativity scene in my office because I work for a church.  But it dawned on me that we have “Christianized” the tree.  The tree is actually a totally secular symbol that is now associated with the religious holiday of Christmas.

To go back in history (without getting too crazy about the religious stuff) ancient Egyptians actually brought date palms into their residences.

Romans, those great partiers of old, used palm branches as well to celebrate the feast of Saturnalia, one of their feasts dedicated to their god, Saturn.

It is when we get to the Druids that we discover evergreen branches being used, along with holly and mistletoe–the very same symbols that many of us associate with Christmas today–to celebrate solstice celebrations.  It is believed that Martin Luther adopted the evergreen for use in his early worship and through the German tradition the Hessian soldiers may have brought the Christmas tree to America.

So the Christmas tree as a religious symbol?  Not until the sixteen century and clearly evergreen trees of the local region where being used in celebration as far back as the early Egyptians.

But once again, I needn’t be the final authority on this very polarizing subject.  A horticultural researcher  has put together a fascinating history with more information than I have given here.  I’m just not sure I’d bring this topic up at holiday parties since it mix religion and politics–something that sounds like a recipe for disaster!