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!

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.

Putting the Container Plants to Bed

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Remember my post about fall container planting? It’s already time to bring those plants inside or to compost them.

Certainly I could have left this lovely grass outside longer. But with containers this time of year, it’s a question of annoyance: do I want to listen to the Spoiler whining about having to blow leaves around them or do I just want to compost a week or two early and not deal with it?

After many years, I just compost early. I have tried other compromises–I would sweep around the containers for example (honestly, the use of a broom in autumn is vastly under-rated. It’s quiet, and environmentally friendly and you get a gentle workout.) But this year, I have too many lectures and articles at the same time. So no time to listen to whining.

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So here are the plants that I saved. I was able to save half of them, so that’s something. The potted ones will go onto my porch, although I think the cordyline has to come in for the winter. Everything else can winter there.

The oregano is going into my edibles garden and the coral bells is going into a container on my stairs with others like it. They do winter over in containers outdoors for me.

And that container is large enough that at least I don’t have to listen to whining from the Spoiler about blowing leaves!

Be Ever Vigitant….

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Remember this lovely euphorbia from Wednesday? It’s relatively new to me. I acquired it when I was getting the plants for my container lecture.

I have never been particularly attracted to this type of plant but the coloring was so pretty on this one that I succumbed. This is euphorbia trigona rubra.

About a week ago I was getting dressed and I happened to glance over to the window where this is. The sun was coming in just right. And I thought that I saw something odd on the “thorns.” So I resolved to check it out when I watered later that day.

I am a huge believer in trying to water and tend to your house plants in as much natural light as you can. Here in the northern hemisphere, that’s getting harder to do as we approach the winter solstice. I try to pick a weekend day, mid-afternoon, when the light is good. I discover a lot of things that way.

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In this case, I discovered these: whitefly eggs and larvae. So the plant is now isolated and I will have to treat it with something organic to remove the eggs.

And the quote at the top of this post? It’s one of my favorites from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Dogberry, the ineffective sheriff, is the one who speaks it, about trying to catch miscreants.

The whole thing is “be ever vigitant, I beseech you.” Of course he means vigilant. And if we are to outsmart house plant pests, that’s what we will need to be!

Succulents Care versus Cacti Care

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For those of you lucky enough to live where you can grow these outdoors in the ground, just skip this post altogether. This is for those of us who resort to growing these little plants (which quite naturally would grow in arid and semi arid parts of the world) in little dishes, pots and trays.

What took me aback the other day was when a frequent commenter on my blog remarked on the fact that my “house plants” actually do live in the house for 9 months of the year.

I have remarked here before that the Spoiler has told me that I live in the wrong climate. He usually says this after we have taken a trip to somewhere much more temperate than our own “frozen north” climate (as I uncharitably refer to Connecticut, which is actually quite mild by comparison to say, Buffalo, New York, or any part of Minnesota). While on that trip I will have undoubtedly pointed to any number of plants and remarked “oh we have this” and “we have that,” and when he asks where, I will tell him which particular window of our house it’s residing in–in other words, all those plants are not in our garden, but are house plants! So I really need to live in a climate where I can grow more of what I love outside!

But I digress. You see my little bowl of succulents, above. All of the plants in that bowl are succulents. What, exactly is a succulent? It is a plant with fleshy leaves  for  water storage.

Therefore, because these leaves store water, you don’t need to water the plants as often as you might a plant with “regular” leaves that just lose moisture through transpiration. You’ll also want to ensure that these plants are planted in a potting mix that is drains quickly–often cacti and succulent mix is specifically sold for this type of plant.

So that’s what a succulent is. What is a cactus?

At first, you might be confused because the definition sounds remarkably similar to a succulent. A cactus is usually defined as a plant with succulent stems or branches with sharp spines or points and single flowers. Basically the difference between succulents and cacti are the absence (or presence) or spines and the type of flowering.

I’ve included photos of some of my cacti, above, so you can see the “spines versus just just fleshy leaves” difference. Sometimes photos make all the difference in explaining these ideas.

It can be more complicated than that, of course. Succulents and cacti grow in different regions of the world, often; they do belong to different genuses; and some succulents will have single flowers as well (but not the sharp spines of the cactus so that you won’t be confused).

But the most important difference is in care. Because cacti are from an arid region, they will generally want water less often than a succulent (although be careful about this–I have been known to kill cacti from too little water! Most people over-water their cacti. I am probably one of the few that starve them for water!)

While cacti love full sun, they can sunburn next to a window if they get too dry.

And they too want very fast draining potting mix.

So with these basic (and they are basic!) definitions in mind, perhaps you’ll be able to better care for your succulents and cacti.