To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently, I asked a top landscaper in Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without cutting off next year’s flowers?” I asked.
“Never,” she replied with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”
It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, identifying what kind of shrubs you own. And it all starts with determining whether they flower on old or new wood. Continue reading →
Even bad boys can have a good side; and so it goes with an unwanted inhabitant of many a garden, poison ivy. The native plant sure knows how to take over a room. For humans, its ornamental qualities are less than desirable. That being said, poison ivy does have its uses. See below.
WHAT IT IS
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poison ivy is one of the most common poisonous plant species found throughout the continental United States. A native of North America, it grows mostly in the eastern and midwestern states where it tends to inhabit forests, fields, and shorelines. More worrisomely, it’s also come to love urban/suburban environments such as road sides and parks. This in turn has led to it taking up residence in many of our backyards.
Poison ivy is a member of the sumac family, Anacardiaceae, which comprises over 860 known species. Along with poison sumac and poison oak, it is part of the genus toxicodendron, whose toxic properties produce contact dermatitis in affected individuals.
A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP
So what makes toxicodendron so toxic? The culprit is urushiol, an oily resin with allergenic properties. Urushiol is found in every part of toxicodendron, including dead or dormant plants. When poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac are bumped, damaged or even burned, they release urushiol as a means of protection.
In fact, research shows that only a small amount of exposure can cause an allergic rash. And by small amount, that means just 1 nanogram or one billionth of a gram. There is even evidence that urushiol can remain on a surface for up to five years. The take-away? I’d say avoid these plants altogether.
On a good note, apparently about 10 to 15 percent of the human population is immune to poison ivy and its cousins, and therefore will never experience the rash. And poison ivy is less common outside the U.S., although it can still be found here and there around the globe.
HOW TO IDENTIFY POISON IVY
A common adage says ‘Leaves of three, let it be’, while another counsels ‘Leaves of three, run and flee’. I prefer the latter, having suffered from major breakouts throughout my lifetime in the garden. That being said, poison ivy is a chameleon when it comes to appearance. it can be downright hard to identify. Compare the photo below to the two above. You’ll see what I mean.
The truth is poison ivy has so many variations it can baffle even the most seasoned horticulturalist. Take for instance its make-up. It can be a creeping groundcover, or a woody vine (referred to as a liane) which, once it scales a tree, can put on 20 feet of growth in just one season. And full sun can cause it to take on a shrub form.
And while most of us know to look out for a plant with three leaves, from that point on, things can get murky. Poison ivy has a compound leaf, which means that what presents as a single leaf is actually three. Additionally, its leaves can be shiny or dull, and their size and shape can vary greatly. Some leaves are toothed, while others are deeply lobed. And in some rare instances, poison ivy can have five leaves instead of three.
Poison ivy taking on fall color
Look for bright green leaves during the growing season and bright red ones in the fall.
HERE’S THE RUB
The good news is that, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), poison ivy rashes are not contagious and therefore cannot be spread from person to person. However, it is possible to pick up the rash from toxins stuck to clothing, tools or other items including pets (see below.) And contrary to common thought, the rash occurs only where the oil has touched the skin. So rubbing or scratching won’t spread it. What may seem like a spreading rash is actually the toxin’s effects appearing gradually over time.
Always wash your skin and clothes after coming into contact with poison ivy. This is essential to removing all traces of urushiol. And use cold water, not hot. Hot water thins the oil and helps it dissipate more quickly.
CAN ANIMALS GET POISON IVY?
According to the Pet Poison Helpline, the answer is rarely. Usually, their long protective coats prevent the plant oils from ever reaching their skin. However, animals can carry the toxin on top of their fur, so don’t let your pet rub against you if you think he or she’s been in contact. Try bathing yours with a colloidal oatmeal shampoo while wearing gloves to eliminate the urushiol.
My cat, Squeaky
IT’S GOOD FOR SOMETHING
Before you decide to remove that patch on your slope, you might want to think again. Like kudzu, poison ivy is great at erosion control, especially on coastlines where it acts as a stabilizer for sandy soil. (It’s a big player along the Eastern coastline.) Moreover, it provides valuable food for many species of wildlife, who eat its fruit, stems and leaves. And it also functions as a protective shelter for small mammals.
Small animals like rabbits like to feed on poison ivy
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
As with most unwanted plants, the best way to eliminate them is to get to know their seedlings and start early. As poison ivy matures, however, it may require years of patient digging to totally eliminate its root structure. You can apply an herbicide like glyphosate to the plant’s roots, leaves or vines. However, be sure to wear eye protection and gloves when chopping down vines. And never use a chain saw, which can spread the toxins by air.
Years ago, I was living in Paris when there was a knock on the door followed by the sound of running footsteps. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. Little did I know, I had just received a gift of lilies of the valley, a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May.
In France, lily of the valley (or muguet in French) has been given as a gift for centuries. Legend has it that the custom began on May 1, 1561 when King Charles IX received a sprig of the tiny flower as a token of good luck.
The King liked the idea so much that he decided to start a tradition. From that day forward on the first of May, he presented a bouquet of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court. And thus began the Fête du Muguet, otherwise known as May Day in France.
Portrait of King Charles IX
MAY’S MOST CELEBRATED FLOWER
Over the centuries, lily of the valley has since become one of May’s most celebrated flowers. And for good reason – it typically blossoms in April and stays in bloom for most of May. Averaging just around six inches, each plant is composed of a pair of leaves and a single stalk of bell-shaped flowers with a sweet, jasmine-like scent.
Still, for what it lacks in size, lily of the valley rapidly makes up for in numbers. When given ample shade, plants will form low, thick masses of bright green color, making them the perfect complement to other shade-loving perennials.
THE STORY OF LILY OF THE VALLEY AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Legend tells that the very first lily of the valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night, the nightingale would come to her garden to sing. However, the lily of the valley was shy and hid herself from the bird. So eventually he grew lonely and flew away.
Alone in the garden, the lily of the valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return. Eventually, she grew so sad that she stopped blooming. She started flowering again only after the nightingale reappeared (in May) and her happiness was restored.
SYMBOL OF LOVE
In early 20th century France, men often gave bouquets of lilies of the valley as tokens of affection. They presented their gifts, in accordance with tradition, on the first of May. In their absence, they sent romantic postcards featuring pictures of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. French people still practice the card-sending ritual today.
A vintage Fête du Muguet card
A NATIONAL HOLIDAY IN FRANCE
In modern-day France, the first of May coincides with National Labor Day. As a result, the Fête du Muguet is a public holiday. In the days leading up to the event, lilies of the valley are sold from roadside stands that pop up all over the country. And while it’s normally forbidden to sell flowers on public streets, the ban is lifted on May 1 in honor of this long-standing tradition.
HOW TO GROW LILY OF THE VALLEY
Easy-to-grow lilies of the valley are indigenous to temperate climates. Spreading by tiny rhizomes underground, they naturalize easily and can quickly become invasive. Unless you’re up for continually digging them out to control them, it’s best to plant the flowers in their native woodland or in a contained area in the yard.
And like most shade-loving plants, lilies of the valley prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil. Never plant them in full sun. If you do, their bright green leaves will lose their color and turn ugly shades of brown.
DON’T EAT THEM
Finally, you may be surprised to learn that all parts of the lily of the valley are toxic if eaten. So when handling the flowers, it’s best to wear gloves to prevent any residue from being transmitted to food. Symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning include stomachache and blurred vision.
When it comes to stunning, early-flowering trees, it’s hard to beat the star magnolia. Every spring, it bursts onto the landscape in a flash of bright white. For what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in stature. I love how the blossoms hang like fallen stars from the tree’s smooth, bare branches.
THE SMALL GARDEN’S MAGNOLIA
Now, even small gardens can have a magnolia! What’s more, a star magnolia is slow-growing, so it won’t overwhelm your landscape. Topping out at a manageable 10 to 15 feet, it makes an excellent specimen tree while also providing a great backdrop to any mixed shrub border.
And who can resist those early-spring blossoms? Typically flowering in early March, star magnolia is heavy with blooms when most other trees are scarcely beginning to bud. Moreover, the flowers are long-lasting and fragrant; each composed of more than a dozen ribbon-like petals, with some varieties boasting as many as 30.
White flowers not your thing? There are also a number of pink varieties. All are magnets for pollinators, which gives your other plants an early start on the season.
FOR STAR MAGNOLIAS, THE SHOW NEVER STOPS
But, for those who think star magnolias are all about spring, think again. The little trees offer fall and winter interest as well. In autumn, the foliage turns yellow and then bronze, beautifully complementing other fall colors.
And in winter, the tree’s shiny brown branches contrast beautifully with a gray trunk that turns silver with age. By late winter, masses of fat, fuzzy buds appear.
TOP STAR MAGNOLIA VARIETIES TO TRY
Ready to give star magnolia a try? Below are some the most popular varieties that offer reliable, low-maintenance early-spring color. Deciduous magnolias are best planted when dormant, typically in late fall.
‘Centennial’produces fragrant, waterlily-shaped blossoms in early to mid spring. The large white flowers often have a pink tinge at the base of the petals.
Magnolia stellata ‘Centennial’
‘Jane Platt’ produces double, scented, pale pink flowers with long, narrow petals in early to mid spring.
Magnolia stellata ‘Jane Platt’
‘Royal Star’ has pale pink buds that open in early spring to pure white flowers. In particular, this cultivar is known for its almost 5-inch (12 cm) wide flowers with up to 30 petals. ‘Royal Star’ blooms later than the species.
Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’
‘Rosea’ is a pink-flowered variety. It has a rounded shape and dense bushy habit. This cultivar flowers a month later than the species, or in late April.
Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’
HOW AND WHERE TO PLANT
Star magnolia flowers are vulnerable to damage by late spring frosts, so it’s best to plant the trees in a sheltered spot. While they’ll do fine in full sun, they’ll perform best in morning sun with filtered shade in the afternoon. Generally, the more exposed the location, the earlier the flowers open. Like most plants, star magnolias prefer moist, well-drained soil.
Magnolia stellata really shines when viewed against a dark background. Site it in front of a stand of deep green arborvitae, a yew hedge or even a dark brick house and watch its flowers ‘pop.’ Daffodils with cream or white petals and yellow cups make excellent early-spring companions. Check out Narcissus ‘Sovereign’, ‘Golden Echo’ or the orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’ for a dramatic effect.
Now that temperatures are dropping and we’re spending more time indoors, almost nothing beats a cup of hot tea. And aside from the warm and cozy feeling a steaming mug evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many ‘true’ and herbal teas contain powerful antioxidants and other substances that are great for human health. So before opening the medicine cabinet, why not explore the benefits of medicinal tea? Continue reading →
These days, we could all use a little extra luck in our lives. And happily, a money tree can set the ball rolling. According to Feng Shui principles, the plant could ensure a prosperous year ahead. Continue reading →
From my perspective, one of the highlights of December is when all the cyclamen arrive at the store. Juxtaposed with the customary reds and greens, their colorful petals lend a bright hue to the holiday season. That said, there’s just one drawback. Over time, the flowers often start to droop and the leaves may even turn yellow.
Still, caring for cyclamen doesn’t have to be stressful. All it takes is an understanding of where the plants come from, and why temperature is key to their success indoors. Continue reading →
Decorating a home can be expensive. That said, flowering houseplants can offer an affordable alternative. I love how they instantly brighten a space with a fresh pop of color. Changed your mind? You can switch them around or swap them out completely. And houseplants last a whole lot longer than cut flowers.
I know… for some, the thought of growing plants in their home can be intimidating. But, in truth, it’s easy. All you need to do is follow the three steps below.
1. GIVE YOUR FLOWERING HOUSEPLANTS SOME SUN
Sun is the main source of energy for almost every living thing. And flowering houseplants need at least some hours of bright to direct sunlight in order to produce blooms. The key is to place your plant in the right location.
Plants need at least some sunlight to flower
To understand what a plant needs, look to the label. Read it carefully to determine how much sunlight it prefers. Remember, no flower will bloom in a dark corner.
2. STICK TO A WATERING SCHEDULE
Consistent watering makes stronger plants. And flowering houseplants prefer a regular watering schedule. The watering cycle you choose will depend on the kind of plants you have and the level of humidity and amount of light you have in your home.
Plants need water
Some flowering houseplants prefer to have a good soak, then dry out slightly between waterings. This allows them to properly absorb both water and nutrients. Conversely, others like to be kept consistently moist. It may take some experimenting to determine what works best in your home. Either way, good drainage is key.
Whatever your watering schedule, always add just enough water to the pot to allow a small amount to run out from the bottom. This will ensure the roots of your flowering houseplant are well saturated. In addition, it will help wash away salts and fertilizers that may have built up in the soil.
Good drainage is key
Most importantly, never leave your plants sitting in water. This will lead to root rot and ultimately the death of your houseplant. Yellow leaves are an indicator that this may be occurring.
3. FEED REGULARLY
Unlike plants grown in soil, indoor plants are confined to the pot. That means it’s up to you to provide all their water and nutrients. Feeding your flowering houseplants not only helps them produce more blooms, but it also wards of indoor pests and diseases. I use a balanced liquid fertilizer mixed with tap water every other week during the growing season.
Plants need food to flower
Certain species such as African violets, orchids and dwarf citrus trees, though, prefer their own special food. It’s best to check with your local plant store to see which products best meet your needs.
Following are 12 top flowering houseplants for easy-care blooms indoors.
Adaptable to just about every environment, African violets are one of the easiest flowering houseplants to grow. Moreover, there are hundreds of varieties to choose from. The fuzzy-leaved plant performs best in evenly moist soil and indirect sunlight.
The key is to keep those fuzzy leaves dry. Water your African violet at the soil surface, or allow the plant to wick up water from a saucer. However, never allow your plant to remain standing in water or the roots may be damaged. African violets grow best in smaller pots.
This beautiful succulent with orange, yellow and red flowers has long lasting flowers and attractive, oval-shaped fleshy foliage. The plant blooms naturally indoors during winter and early spring.
Kalanchoes prefer bright light, but beware – they’ll burn in full sun. Again, proper drainage is key. Use a loose potting soil containing peat moss, perlite and sand and place pebbles at the bottom of the pot to guard against standing water. And never place a kalanchoe near a draft or cold window.
Jasminum polyanthum, also known as pink jasmine or white jasmine, is the most common variety of jasmine grown indoors. A fragrant plant with showy white blooms, it grows best near a south-facing window. Cool temperatures are essential to encouraging this flowering houseplant’s buds to form. Jasmine typically flowers indoors in February.
Grow jasmine in evenly moist soil and prune regularly to keep it in bounds. Repot it in the spring, trimming the roots before replenishing with fresh soil.
OXALIS (Purple Clover)
Often called shamrock due to the clover-like shape of its leaves, oxalis is a small-sized flowering houseplant that grows to a height of around six inches. The delicate white or soft pink flowers bloom off and on during fall, winter and spring. The leaves fold up at night and open again in the morning.
Oxalis grows from tiny bulbs that can be divided at any time. Water your plant when the potting soil is dry to the touch or if you observe the stems starting to droop. Look for exotic varieties for best indoor performance.
CHRISTMAS CACTUS, THE HOLIDAY HOUSEPLANT
This beautiful flowering houseplant loves holidays. There are Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter varieties, some of which can be encouraged to re-bloom. Buds start forming a month before blooms and darken as they swell. And the flowers come in a wide variety of colors including, red, pink, orange, purple, orange and cream.
Christmas Cactus likes bright, indirect light and cool temperatures. But, keep it away from drafts and heat sources that can stunt growth and burn leaves. Unlike desert cacti, these tropical cacti cannot tolerate dry soil. Keep the potting soil evenly moist for best growth. And water only when the top inch of the soil feels dry.
ANTHURIUM (Flamingo Flower)
The heart-shaped ‘flower’ of anthurium is actually a modified leaf that grows from the base of a fleshy spike of flowers. The most common houseplant variety is Painter’s Palette, which features long-lasting blooms (usually red) and glossy green, arrow-shaped leaves.
Anthuriums grow best in medium to bright light (avoid direct sunlight, however.) Keep the potting soil constantly moist and for best results, use tepid water. A consistently warm temperature is key to achieving good growth.
Often tossed after they quit flowering, gloxinias can become great houseplants with proper care. Best known for their large bell-shaped blooms, the dramatic plants come in a wide variety of colors, including white stripes and speckles. The plants’ soft gray-green, fuzzy leaves contrast beautifully with the flowers.
Gloxinias prefer warm temperatures, evenly moist soil and high humidity (supplement humidity with a humidifier or tray with pebbles and water). As with African violets, it’s important to keep water off of the foliage to avoid brown spot.
Unlike African violets, gloxinias require a period of rest in order to bloom again. Once flowers fade, reduce watering to about half and resume regular watering when new growth appears.
There are hundreds of varieties of this beautiful plant to choose from, most of which will produce indoor blooms all year long. Foliage varies among green, silver, variegated or maroon. And flowers come in a variety of colors, including red, pink, white and yellow.
All begonias prefer medium to bright light and evenly moist soil. However, they can become leggy fast without proper care. To prevent this from happening, keep your plants in shape by following these simple pruning techniques.
Angel-Wing begonia is so-named for the shape of its leaves that resemble wings. Numerous cultivars exist in different sizes with different leaf colors and red, pink or white blossoms. Angel-Wing begonias are some of the easiest flowering houseplants to grow. Pinch back tall stems to keep the plant bushy.
Rieger begonia is a winter-blooming variety with clusters of camellia-like blossoms in fiery colors of red, yellow and orange atop glossy green leaves.
The popular (outdoor) bedding plant, waxbegonia, can also make a great houseplant. Varieties feature red, pink or white flowers atop waxy green foliage. The plant needs good air circulation to thrive.
Arguably the most recognizable of all the orchid varieties, the easy-to-grow Phalaenopsis produces flowers that can sometimes last up to three months. The long sprays of large blooms flourish indoors under normal light and prefer the same temperatures that humans do.
Place the plant in indirect sunlight and water once a week, making sure the soil remains moist just under the soil surface. Be careful not to overwater or the flowers will wilt and fall off. Good drainage is essential to guard against root rot. After the last flower finishes blooming, cut the stalk in half and wait to see if the plant re-blooms.
SILVER VASE PLANT (Urn Plant)
Silver vase plant is a type of bromeliad that is grown both indoors and outdoors depending on the climate. The common name comes from the structure of the plant, the center of which resembles an urn or vase. The plant produces a large pink spiky-shape flower above stiff, silver and green foliage. It lasts for months and grows to around six inches.
Low-maintenance, silver vase plant makes a great flowering houseplant. Its minimal requirements include bright light and periodic watering (every 2-3 weeks). Watering involves filling the “vase” (and not the potting soil) with water.
KAFFIR LILY (Orange Clivia Miniata)
A member of the amaryllis family, the Kaffir lily can be forced into bloom in winter or early spring indoors. It bears clusters of up to 20 reddish-orange tubular flowers with yellow centers above glossy green leaves. The plant is also available in red, peach, yellow and white varieties.
Kaffir lilies need cool and dry temperatures for 6 to 8 weeks in fall in order to bloom. Water sparingly until the bloom appears (keeping the soil on the dry side), then increase watering midwinter. Place in bright light, but keep away from direct sun.
CALAMONDIN ORANGE (For experts only)
The Calamondin Orange is actually a hybrid between a mandarin orange and kumquat. The dwarf citrus tree has woody stems covered with oval, glossy green leaves that give off a citrusy aroma. In late winter or early spring, fragrant white blossoms appear followed by fruits that may stay on the plant for many weeks. Once ripe, the fruits can be harvested and used like lemons.
For best performance indoors, plant calamondin in a small container. Plants won’t re-bloom if they are potted in a container that is too large. Make sure there are good drainage holes in the bottom of the container to protect against root rot. Place the tree in bright light, with at least four hours of direct sunlight a day. Rotate the plant a quarter turn each week to promote even growth. Fertilize with a good organic fruit tree fertilizer.
Looking for more? To see photos of my garden designs, including plant lists, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through fall.
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
I like to think of fall from an Alice In Wonderland perspective. That is, autumn is a time when we shrink in proportion to our gardens while the leaves ‘bloom’ above us. And every year nature charts new territory, unveiling color schemes so daring they leave little doubt as to her ability to create designs far superior to our own. Continue reading →
If you’re a fan of early bloomers, then the crocus is the plant for you. For what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in impression. Resilient and tough, these diminutive flowers will bloom for weeks, even in the harshest of weather. They’re the perfect way to brighten the last gloomy days of winter. Continue reading →