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Those Bloomin' Houseplants
by Marion Owen
by Marion Owen

email: marion@plantea.com

When not tending 20 raised beds of vegetables, herbs and flowers, Marion Owen of Kodiak, Alaska is a master gardener, professional photographer and "Fearless Weeder" (President) of PlanTea, Inc., the company that developed PlanTea, the original and patented organic plant food in convenient tea bags (available online at http://www.plantea.com).

She also co-authored the bestseller, "Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul."


October 25, 2009

As winter advances with shortened days, I find myself seeking out ways to include more color and light in my indoor environment. True, the holidays come with outdoor lights, Christmas trees, candles and wreaths, but I most appreciate my plants that bloom indoors. In fact I've grown to like indoor flowers so much that when I'm in the market for a new houseplant, one of the first questions I asked myself is, "Is this one a bloomer?"

Bloomers Vs. Leafers

Flowering plants require a little different care than plants grown primarily for their foliage. For example, flowering plants like more humidity. Light requirements also differ. As a general rule, more natural or artificial light is needed for flowering plants, usually from a southern exposure. African violets however, can perform well in an eastern exposure, as can some orchids.

Flowering plants should also be fertilized more often than foliage plants because they are growing at higher light levels. Also, nitrogen (N) should be decreased and phosphorus (P) increased as the time for flowering approaches. One way to make sure an adequate supply of phosphorus is available is to stir a tablespoon of bone meal in each quart of potting soil. Later applications can be provided by a water-soluble organic fertilizer.

Adequater ventilation is also needed for sturdy, vigorous flowering plants. Unventilated areas are low in carbon dioxide and develop excess moisture around plants. Low carbon dioxide levels restrict photosynthesis and hence growth; and too much moisture invites disease. Movement of people around plants is usually enough to stir things up, so does opening a window or two on occasiona to create a breeze.

Who Are The Bloomers?

Some of the more popular bloomers include geraniums, begonias, hoyas (wax plant), cyclamens, and coleus. But when discussing flowering houseplants, the premier bloomer has to be the African violet. Easy to propagatre, these well-known flowering plants bloom throughout the year, often in less than optimum conditions. Clusters, rosettes, ruffled, fringed or smooth, African violets (Saintpaulia) are available in many colors: white, pink, red, blue or purple with yellow stamens.

They prefer filtered moderate to bright light, no direct sun, from nearly any exposure except northern. African voilets also do well under artificial light, needing 12 to 18 hours a day, which is important to know since the plants will flower year-round if the light intensity is high enough.

To ensure success with America's favorite houseplant, you need to learn a few tips: let the soil surface dry between waterings. Use tepid water and avoid overwatering. To avoid spotting on the leaves, mist only with warm water, and never mist when the plant is in direct sun. Plants bloom best when potbound, so re-pot only when roots completely overcrowd pot space.

Christmas Cactus

My Christmas cactus is really a Thanksgiving cactus. It starts to show off in early November and blooms profusely, well, almost until Christmas. I have three plants: white, pale pink and neon-pink. The neon-pink is my favorite. I've nurtured it from several cuttings my surrogate grandmother, Hilda gave me almost 20 years ago.

These spineless, succulent cacti of the genus Schlumbergera, come in a variety of colors: white and yellow through orange, pink, red, and magenta‹thanks in part to hybridizers. Originating from the Brazillian rainforest, Christmas cactus truly are cacti, but they aren't desert plants. They don't like full sun or dry conditions. In their native Brazil, they grow high up in trees, in pockets of leaf mold and other organic matter that accumulates in cavities along branches. If you give them bright, but indirect light, evenly moist, healthy soil and mist frequently‹resembling what they'd experience in a rainforest‹they'll be happy for decades.

As houseplants, the Christmas cactus is nearly indestructible. But as Jack Ruttle, editor of National Gardening magazine says, "Surviving isn't thriving, however, and getting them to pump out the lush and delicately colored flowers that originally tempted you to bring them home takes a little special attention." But with just a little bit of care, Ruttle says, they will reward you with an abundance of color that few winter bloomers can match.

This doesn't mean that you can count on the blooming plant you brought home from the store will repeat the performance next year. Growers manipulate light and temperature to push plants forward or hold them back, depending on market conditions and weather. It may take a year before you'll know exactly when it will flower under your own conditions.

The most important thing to remember if you want a Christmas cactus to bloom, they are very light-sensitive. When it's happy in a particular location, avoid moving it too often. Also, turn it occasionally to provide even light. Water blooming plants to keep the soil evenly moist but not saturated.

After blooming, cut back on watering slightly, but don't let the leaves shrivel. The ideal location after flowering is a cool room with bright indirect light, not in a sunny window. Thought holiday cacti prefer to be potbound, repot every other year or so. When new growth appears in spring, fertilize the plants at each watering with an organic solution at one-half strength.

A Christmas cactus makes a nice gift, either as established potted plant or as cuttings. (Plants "rest" during the summer, so this is the best time to take cuttings). Come to think of it, ALL plants, whether a flowering variety or not, make great gifts. Not only do they clean the air and "soften" the square corners of a building's interior, but they provide a touch of green in an environment that is, for the most part, separated from Nature. Like caring for a pet, tending plants helps lower blood pressure, provide a sense of calm and nurtures the soul. What more could you ask for in a gift?

Thoughts to stick to the roof of your mind:

"There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again." --Elizabeth Lawrence

"Each flower is a soul opening out to nature." --Gerald De Nerval

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