Holy Hydroponic Houseplants, Batman!: Can you grow houseplants without soil? Yes!

Just when you thought you got the hang of growing houseplants in potting soil (or if you’re a doting plant parent, a special homemade mix someone on the internet told you to use) comes a new trend – hydroponic houseplants!  Or, “semi-hydroponic” to use the more technical term that is used when describing the trend.  How do you grow houseplants semi-hydroponically?  Do they grow this way?  But first, maybe we should ask the question – why? 

Why grow semi-hydroponically? 

I think for most casual houseplant growers, this method is attractive because it is a challenge.  Something new to try after you’ve mastered growing houseplants the old-fashioned way. And quite possibly a pandemic project to provide a distraction after being cooped up in the house for months on end.   But are there benefits to growing houseplants this way?  Turns out, there are some.    

Many articles you find on the subject state that semi-hydroponic houseplant growth can be beneficial for those who struggle with chronic over- or under- watering.  The media used for semi-hydroponics is a big, porous puffed clay stone called hydroton or LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate, of course we have to have an acronym!).  It is used in some hydroponic vegetable (and other plant) production systems.  The large pore spaces it creates and the wicking action it does in the container helps keep a balance of air and water for the roots. The #1 leading cause of death among houseplants is overwatering – it creates a lack of air in the potting media, the roots lack oxygen (called hypoxia), and are either damaged or die.  This can also make it easier for fungal infections to cause root rots.  But how can you stop from overwatering plants if you’re growing them in water?  We’ll talk about that in a bit when we talk about the “how to”. 

There are some houseplants, like epiphytes, that might also benefit from having a media that isn’t like soil.  Plants that are used to growing on tree bark, or in rocky environments in their native habitat that might actually perform better in a media that is a large, rough pebble that does kind of resemble the texture or tree bark or stones.  There are lots of tropical houseplants that also grow in areas with high levels of large particulate organic matter like chunks of wood and bark.  Plants from boggy environments that have high water requirements or grow in a more “mossy” type soil might also benefit. 

One other application of this method is for propagation of cuttings.  Many houseplant growers like to propagate cuttings in water, but this often isn’t the best practice because the water can be depleted of oxygen (causing hypoxia and rot) or become spoiled or soured (and cause infections).  Most horticulturalists will recommend propagation in a light media like seed starting mix, perlite, or sand.  But keeping water consistent without overwatering is difficult in this situation, and media can also be a vector for disease.  The air space and wicking action of the LECA media used for semi-hydroponics can help keep cuttings hydrated without the issues of water propagation.  This method is commonly done in clear class containers, so there’s the added benefit of being able to see root growth to monitor progress. 

How do you grow semi-hydroponically?

Of course, in this short article we won’t be able to cover every detail, so if this is something you’re interested in trying, I’d suggest some self-study.  I’ll be covering some of the basics, but there’s a lot more to learn. 

The Kratky Method - Grow Food The Passive Hydroponic Way (Step by Step  Guide) | Trees.com
Kratky hydroponic method Photo: UpstartFarmers

First, this method somewhat resembles one of the simplest forms of hydroponic production that lots of home hydroponic gardeners use, called the Kratky method.  In this passive hydroponic method, a plant is suspended above a water-based nutrient solution.  At first planting, the nutrient solution is right below the plant, close enough for a few inches of the roots to touch the solution.  As the plant grows, the roots elongate and the nutrient solution level is reduced to keep just a few inches of the roots submerged.  This allows the roots to take up solution, but the space between the plant and the solution allows a majority of the roots to be surrounded by air to avoid the issues of hypoxia. 

In semi-hydroponic houseplant growing, a container (usually clear glass, at least for beginners) is filled with the LECA media and the plant’s roots are distributed through the media.  (The media should be washed and soaked in water first, to remove dust and allow it to hydrate.)  It is easier if it is a young plant or recent propagation so you don’t have too many roots to deal with (you may need to root prune larger plants).  Smaller plants will also withstand the shock of going to this system, especially if they’re moving from a potting soil media.  (Note: Clear glass container + nutrient solution + light = algae. Be prepared to clean up the algae from time to time.)

A (dilute) nutrient solution is added to the container.  The roots should not be submerged in the solution, but rather it should be added to a level where it will wick up through the media to surround the roots.  The basic rule of thumb is to fill the container about 1/3 of solution, but if the container is exceptionally large or the roots are very small, you may need to fill it higher to make sure the media around the roots stays hydrated. 

This nutrient solution is one of the trickier parts.  You can use a general all-purpose hydroponic nutrient mix, available in lots of garden centers now or online.  You can also try some of the general houseplant fertilizers or ones specific to whatever houseplant you’re trying to grow.  You’ll want one with micronutrients as well as the macronutrients like N-P-K – since we’re growing without soil or an organic matter based media you’re going to have to supply all of the plant’s nutritional needs.  You’ll want to mix the solution between ¼ – ½ the recommended strength – you’ll need to see what works for you and your plant.  And then you’ll want to pH balance the water to create the right environment for the plant and make sure that nutrients are available for uptake.  The pH range for most plants is between 6.0 and 7.0 (aim for 6.5), unless you have one with specific needs.  For this you’ll either need pH test strips or a meter (which you can now get for less than $20 online) and some acidic and basic solutions to adjust pH (you can use some household items like vinegar to do this, but your best bet would be solutions specifically prepared for adjusting hydroponic or aquarium pH levels commonly referred to as “pH up” and “pH down”).  This pH adjustment is a lot easier (and maybe unnecessary) if you start with distilled or reverse osmosis water (or if you have a really good water filter that removes dissolved solids).  The pH levels and dissolved solids in some tap water makes it hard to adjust (my water here in Nebraska is very basic because it is very heavy due to high calcium levels, which also throws off the nutrient balance). Rainwater or melted snow can also work (though may not be pH balanced). 

You want to keep the solution topped off so that the media stays sufficiently moist. As with hydroponic production, plants pull nutrients out of the solution at different rates, so you can get build-up of some nutrient salts over time that could result in poor growth and even toxicity.  To avoid this, every few weeks (or more often if your plant is a heavy drinker) you might need to perform a flush, where you drain off the nutrient solution, give a quick rinse with tap water, and start over with fresh nutrient solution. 

More experienced growers might graduate to using this method in containers other than clear glass.  This adds a level of challenge, since you can’t automatically assess the level of nutrient solution by visual inspection.  The use of self-watering pots that have net pot or hole-y insert pots are commonly used for this.  Or you can buy net pot or orchid pot plastic inserts to use in any non-porous container you desire.  Growing in net pots can make the flushing process easier, since you can just pop it out of the container and run tap water through it.  Otherwise, you’ll have to find a way to pour the tap water out of the container or

completely remove the plant and wash the media. 

What can I grow semi-hydroponically?

Well, you can try with a lot of different plants.  I don’t know that there’s a list of plants out there for do’s and don’ts, but there are a few good candidates to try. Most tropical houseplants are good candidates. I’ve seen lots of articles on orchids, and I just recently put a rescue phalaenopsis in semi-hydroponics.  Other epiphytes like holiday cacti and bromeliads are also good candidates – think of things that like to grow on trees/treebark. Hoya, which are all the rage in houseplant circles, are also candidates due to their mostly epiphytic habits.  Lots of tropicals like Monstera, Philodendron, and Pothos also do well in this system.

Things that probably won’t do the best in this system are ones that don’t like to have “wet feet” – I’m thinking mostly desert cacti and succulents. But some of the LECA lovers that I talked to said that some succulents, like “string of pearls” and other strings of things (hearts, dolphins, turtles, etc) do grow well. But if we take a look at their natural habitat, where they grow over rocky outcroppings, it makes sense.

There isn’t really an exhaustive list, so you might want to experiment if you’re wanting to try it out. As long as it isn’t an expensive plant (and there are lots of expensive houseplants out there), a little experimentation can help you find the plants that would work best for you and your situation. 

In conclusion…..

Growing houseplants semi-hydroponically isn’t for everyone.  Getting everything just right can have a learning curve, especially if you weren’t great in chemistry class.  But, it can be a fun way to challenge yourself and may also benefit your plants in the right situations.  It is becoming so common that the materials are getting easier to find – many garden centers now carry the LECA and hydroponic supplies, you can always order them online, and you can even find small bags of the LECA/hydroton in the ever expanding houseplant section at IKEA (of all places, if you’re lucky to have one).  So if you’re up for a challenge, give it a try!  You might find a fun new way to grow houseplants….or a new way to kill houseplants!  But the fun will be in the trying. 

Special thanks to:

  • Anni Moira
  • Sydney Tillotson Sehi
  • Suzi Sellner
  • Tiffany Caldwell
  • Shelbi Sorrell
  • Maggie Pope

Sources:

Houseplant Hubub: The rage about variegation

It is no secret that houseplants are hot right now.  Interest was growing before the pandemic, especially with millennials and younger folks.  Then the pandemic hit.  Houseplant interest skyrocketed since people were stuck at home and wanted to bring a little bit of nature indoors to make their spaces a little more cozy for 24/7 habitation. 

This has caused the demand, and price, of many houseplants to increase, especially if they are on the rarer side.  One thing that increases the price of many plants is when a variegated version of a standard plant has been developed. 

My reading nook/houseplant oasis

Just as an example, after posting a photo of my “reading nook/houseplant oasis” in my home office I was informed that variegated form of a Monstera deliciosa vine that I had was the highly sought M. deliciosa “Albo-Variegata” cultivar, usually referred to as a Monstera albo, or just Albo.  Folks were reaching out to buy cuttings right and left.  I ended up selling 5 single leaf/node cuttings over one weekend and made $675 in the process.  That’s right, $675!  The most variegated of the leaves sold for $200, and that was actually a bargain price.  The garden writer for the local paper, the Omaha World Herald, even picked up the story and shared it as a focus on the four new houseplant shops that have popped up in the city over the last few months.

Had my plant not had the variegation that made it an albo, each of those cutting would have been worth a few dollars apiece.  So what makes some plants variegated and others not?  Sometimes the variegation is the standard form found “in nature” and sometimes it is a cultivar or variety that has been bred or discovered by chance.  Let’s take a look at all the ways that a plant can get that variegation, whether it is standard or rare. 

Chimeric variegation

My Monstera albo that caused the hubub

This is a common form of variegation and the one responsible for the variegation of my Monstera.  In this form, a genetic mutation in some cells changes that cell’s ability to produce chlorophyll.  It may reduce chlorophyll production, resulting in yellowish or silver coloration, or eliminate chlorophyll altogether, resulting in white coloration. 

The name chimeric or chimeral is based on the fact that the plant displays two (or more) chromosomal patterns on one plant.  In Greek mythology, a Chimera is a frightening fire-breathing female monster with the head of a lion, body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. 

Image result for chimera
An ancient chimera statue

This variegation can be stable, where the pattern persists throughout the plant.  Or it may be unstable, where it is random on certain leaves and parts of the plant can revert back to the standard green form.  These plants can also produce leaves that are almost totally white, which usually results in a leaf that will die since it can’t photosynthesize. 

This type of variegation also means that cutting or propagations may or may not be “true” to the pattern.  It can be random.  For my Monstera, the presence of white striping in or around the node that will become the new plant is the important marker for whether the new plant will be variegated or not. 

One common chimeric houseplant is the plant formerly known as Sanseveria, now a Dracena (Snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue). Many of the different color patterns on some of the cultivars are due to cuttings taken from different parts of the “original” natural type that display different colors on them.

Viral Variegation

Image result for tulip mania
Viral variegation that was all the rage in Tulip Mania

While beautiful, this variegation will often reduce the productivity of plants if not kill them outright.  There aren’t a lot of houseplants that have this variegation, but some Hosta cultivars do.  Probably the most famous case of viral variegation is the Tulip Mania during the Dutch Golden Age (in the 1600s).  Prices of tulips skyrocketed and people were buying them as investments (maybe like the current houseplant craze, or GameStop stocks, or bitcoins).  Unfortunately, as the virus reproduced plants kept getting weaker and weaker.  Eventually the tulip market collapsed and lots of people went broke.  Let’s hope that doesn’t happen with the houseplant market….at least with my fancy Monstera. 

Natural Variegation

Natural variegation on Tradescantia

This type of variation occurs when the patterns or colors of the variegation are written into the DNA of the whole plant.  It will occur regularly throughout the entire plant, not randomly on some parts as in chimeric or viral variegation.  This variegation is passed through cuttings and usually through sexual reproduction from seeds as well, though different variations may pop up that cause a more desirable or rare cultivar. 

Common houseplants such as Tradescantia, Maranta (prayer plant), and many more common plants have this type of variegation. 

Blister, bubble, or Reflective Variegation

Reflective variegation on Phildodendron ‘Birkin’ following veins in the leaf

This type of variegation occurs when there is an air pocket or bubble between the lower layer of tissue and epidermis, or skin, of the leaf.  The lower level typically has green pigmentation from chlorophyll and the epidermis does not, resulting in a pattern that is usually white, silver, or yellowish though other colors could appear.  This pattern can be blotchy or splotchy like in some types of Pothos and Pepperomia.  It can also occur along the veins of some plants, resulting in white or silver veins on green leaves, as in some Alocacia, Anthurium, and Philodendron varieties. 

In conclusion…..

Even if you don’t have an expensive plant hiding in the corner, houseplants can add lots of fun and color to your living spaces.  And sometimes, your houseplant obsession can even pay for itself.  Online swap and sale groups have houseplant afficionados swapping and selling cuttings and plants all over the place.  So enjoy your plants….and maybe you’ll find a cash cow hiding in the corner.  Don’t mind me….I’m just over here propagating more Albos to fill up my “mad money” jar. 

Sources

Variegation mutants and mechanisms of chloroplast biogenesis

Variegated Indoor Plants: The Science Behind The Latest Houseplant Trend

Chimeras and Variegation: Patterns of Deceit

Smashing Pumpkin Myths: Bleaching to extend shelf (and porch) life

Peeps & Creeps - Home | Facebook

Scrolling through social media in September and October and you may see those basic signs of the season: scarves, pumpkin spice lattes, sweaters, and Halloween ideas galore.  One of those Halloween ideas is to extend the life of your pumpkins, carved or otherwise, by giving them a treatment with household bleach.  Keep scrolling and you might see another post decrying the use of bleach as inhumane and poisoning for wildlife.  So which is it?  Is bleach safe to use as a sanitizer on your jack-o’-lantern or are you poisoning the neighborhood squirrels?  Let’s use our gourd to explore the science.

The bleach acts as a sanitizer, neutralizing fungi and bacteria on the surfaces of the pumpkin that will cause decomposition and rot.  Even un-carved pumpkins will eventually succumb to degradation under the right conditions.  But if bleach kills fungi and bacteria, will it kill wildlife? The answer is – not if it is used correctly.  Bleach, and sodium hypochlorite (the active chemical in bleach) are toxic if consumed directly in concentrated amounts, however, dilute solutions break down quickly in the environment.  Products containing sodium hypochlorite, including plain household bleach, are actually approved and labeled for use as a sanitizer by produce farmers to reduce both human pathogens and decomposition microorganisms and extend the shelf life of produce that finds its way to the grocery store, farmers market, and any other avenue from the farmer to the consumer.  These wash water sanitizers are used more for reducing cross contamination of from pathogens introduced to the water from dirty produce, but it can reduce the microorganism load on produce items. If used correctly to sanitize the surface of the pumpkins, bleach DOES NOT pose an increased risk to wildlife (or human) health.

What is the proper way to use bleach in sanitizing that pumpkin so that it doesn’t face an early demise?

  1) Make sure the pumpkin is clean by washing with plain water or a mild detergent to remove any soil or debris.  Sanitizers like bleach are quickly neutralized (used up) on dirty surfaces (this is a good lesson for home cleaning, too – you cannot sanitize a dirty surface). 

2) Prepare a DILUTE solution of plain household bleach (unscented, and not “splashless”). The recommended concentration is 200ppm sodium hypochlorite, which you can achieve with 1 Tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water.

3) Apply the solution to the pumpkin using a spray bottle.  Alternatively, you can prepare enough solution to dunk the pumpkin(s) and immerse them in the solution.  If you are sanitizing a carved pumpkin, I would opt for the spray method – dunking may result in infiltration of the solution in to the exposed flesh. It will still break down since it is a dilute solution, but it will slow down the process since it protects the bleach atoms from air and sun exposure.

4) Allow the pumpkin to air dry.  Sanitation is not immediate (keep that in mind for sanitizing surfaces in the home, as well) and wiping can cause cross contamination

If I can do this with a pumpkin, should I be doing this with my other produce?

The short answer is NO.  It is not recommended that home grown or purchased produce be washed with any sort of detergent or chemical in the water.  Fresh cold water and friction should be sufficient for removing soil and pathogens on the surface.  Proper protocols, equipment, and training are needed to make sure sanitation is done properly. Knowing which produce items can and cannot be washed with a sanitizer is important. However, if you are harvesting produce like pumpkins or winter squash for long-term storage you may want to consider sanitation using the above methods.

I don’t want to use bleach, can I use something like vinegar?

There are many sanitizers approved for use by produce growers for sanitation, so bleach is not the only option.  For home consumers there aren’t so many options.  Vinegar is often mentioned as a wash for produce.  I found no direct mention in produce handling guides of using vinegar on pumpkin, but most produce wash solutions use vinegar at a much higher concentration because it is much less effective at sanitation.  I found rates ranging from 1/3 c vinegar to 1 c water to 100% undiluted household vinegar for use as a produce wash.

Sources:

Sanitizers Labeled for Use on Produce (Produce Safety Alliance)

Produce Wash Water Sanitizers (UMN)

Guidelines for the use of chlorine bleach as a sanitizer in food processing operations (OSU)

Flowers for Barbara: Cultivating Hope in a Pandemic

Ever since humans started gardening and farming, the practice has had central importance in our lives. As we processed out of the agrarian age, some of us humans may have lost the connection to the importance of growing plants to our everyday lives. We rely on the growing of plants to feed us, to produce medicine, clothing, and shelter. We use plants to provide beauty in our landscapes and our homes. And perhaps one of the positives of the current pandemic is that many people are turning to plants as a way to assuage their fears. Being one of those extension people whose mission is to teach people gardening I’ve seen some of this first hand. But a phone call I received this week really drilled into my soul how important plants are not only for the food they provide, but also the way they effect our mental well-being.

Victory garden - Wikipedia
Victory Gardens Poster
Source: WikimediaCommons

As the last few weeks have unfolded, we’ve seen seed companies struggle to keep up with orders, garden center shelves empty of vegetable seeds and plants, and a general movement that what the National Garden Bureau is calling Victory Gardens 2.0. Many are saying that vegetable seeds are the new toilet paper. There are a few reasons that people are turning to gardening in a time of crisis. Gardening is seen by many as a grassroots way of ensuring food access. In addition, the ability to grow one’s own food not only produces said food but also provides a feeling of self-sufficiency for the gardener. The mere act of knowing that you have some sort of control over your access to food, because you can grow your own, provides a sense of calm. It helps ease some of the uncertainty of wondering if there will be produce at the grocery store or if you will have the financial stability to afford it. During the economic crisis of 2009, the National Gardening Association estimated that home food gardening (vegetables and fruit) increased by 19%. It might be too early to tell, but I suspect those numbers will be higher this year.


But lets get back to the phone call….
Gardening and plants also have a positive effect on mental-well being in a general sense. The act of gardening can produce a meditative like practice (unless you’re cursing at weeds or violently ripping out diseases plants – but those acts may provide catharsis). But research also shows us that just seeing nature can have a calming effect on our minds.

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Insult to injury: 6+ inches of snow after the frigid temperatures
Source: Scott Evans, UNL

This was so apparent in my recent call. I had received a voicemail from an elderly gentleman that asked for a call back as soon as possible so that I could talk to his wife (we’ll call her Barbara). I had time between back to back Zoom meetings, so I called. The gentleman answered and after I introduced myself he told me that Barbara had a question about flowers. After a few seconds, a frail, halting voice asked me if all the tulips and daffodils were dead. Over the previous few nights temps had dipped below the normal lows and many plants had seen some damage, including flowers of many early season bloomers.


I answered briefly that some of them were likely damaged, that the blooms would be killed but the plants would be OK. What happened next….I didn’t expect. Full on, gut-wrenching crying. The kind of sorrow that you can feel throughout your being. After a few seconds, between the gasping sobs, she uttered the words “I don’t think I can take it anymore. First we can’t see people. Now the flowers are gone.”


After the initial jolt, I tried to respond as I’ve been trained to do (we have luckily received training in mental health first aid to help clients who are in distress) – calm reassuring words, asking if she was OK, and providing positive affirmation that once the temperature warmed up there would be blooms again. Though she was so overwhelmed that she just said goodbye and hung up.


I was shocked. It took a few minutes for me to compose myself. I don’t often deal with clients where there is such an emotional response (hats off to my entomology colleagues who have to deal with telling people that they have bedbugs or that they might be suffering from delusory parasitosis). After I gathered my thoughts, I felt that I needed to call back – the emotional response was so strong that I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be issues of self-harm or other effects.


In my return call, Barbara and I discussed that there would be more flowers once the weather warmed back up. We discussed our mutual love of plants and how they make us feel. She sees the flowers in the neighborhood when they leave their small apartment for errands and it makes her feel better. And even though there were still tears, both of us were in a much better place. Out of the blue, I asked if it was OK if I brought her flowers to enjoy until the weather warmed up. At first she was hesitant – she didn’t want to cause trouble. But after I assured her that making sure she had flowers would do me just as much good as it would her, she and her husband agreed. I told them that after I got done with my work for the day, I would find some flowers and drop them off on their doorstep.


I needed to make a (now infrequent) run to the store for necessities any way, so while I was shopping I picked up a potted plant at the grocery store (the one I thought would be easiest to care for). I went home and wrote a note, wrote down some simple directions, and delivered the flowers. As I walked away, I heard Barbara’s husband open the door and tell her that there was a surprise for her.


I have to say that I can totally understand this reaction that may seem excessive to some. Many people are dealing with the stress of the pandemic, some better than others. Here was one thing that was giving this lady enjoyment – seeing the flowers blooming when she is able to get out of the house. And that one enjoyment had been taken away by a late freeze. It drove home to me the fact that gardening and plants are essential for many. For the food that they can provide, both for nourishing our bodies and for nourishing our spirits. Plants are providing us hope for the future and calm for the present.

While I may never hear back from Barbara and her husband again, I can tell you that making that one connection through plants was definitely a boost for me. My wish is that those flowers give her hope for the future. A sense of calm knowing that one day things will return to normal, and the knowledge that one day soon the flowers will indeed bloom again.

Flowers for “Barbara”

A Cactus by Any Other Name: A Case of Mistaken Holiday Cactus Identity

Believe it or not, a cactus, of all things, is one of those plants that have come to represent the holidays and feature in the regular rotation of holiday houseplants. Then again, maybe it isn’t so strange amongst its peers that feature a flashy bulb-grown plant named for a horse’s head (the Latin name of amaryllis is Hippeastrum, literally meaning horse flower), a plant that has ugly flowers but brightly colored leaf bracts and leaks sticky and irritating latex when damaged, or some daffodil-like flowers that have musky odor so strong it makes some people nauseous.  But…..I digress. 

Back to the cactus.  However you see it though, the cacti that make their debut at the holidays are suffering under a case of mistaken identity.  What you typically buy as a Christmas cactus is not a Christmas cactus at all. It is actually a Thanksgiving cactus.  Now this wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that there is such a thing as a “Christmas cactus” — but you won’t find one on store shelves. Nay, it is hard to even find one in garden catalogs.  And this is sad, because the Christmas cactus is, I think, even more beautiful than the Thanksgiving cactus. 

How did we end up ignoring the beautiful Christmas cactus in favor of its holiday cousin?  It all comes down to timing and how we buy things for the holidays.  It seems that, as the shopping and holiday seasons creep ever upward on the calendar, retailers have little love for a cactus that is actually programmed to bloom at Christmas. They need something that blooms earlier so that it can be on the store shelves as early as possible. (At this pace, breeders will need to develop and Independence Day cactus for the Christmas shopping season.)

Therefore, the Thanksgiving cactus has been rebranded as a impostor stand-in for the true Christmas cactus. We won’t even talk about the Easter cactus, which just totally feels left out of the family (and yes, there is such a thing and it is beautiful).

These cacti were in cultivation in Europe by 1818 and various different species were being hybridized, probably most notably by W. Buckley.  The most notable hybrid, bred now named Schlumbergera ‘Buckleyi’ is considered to be the first actual “Christmas cactus” and associated S. x buckleyi hybrids are still grown as Christmas cacti.  Cultivars and crosses of S. truncata are the Thanksgiving cacti that have been rebranded as Christmas cacti.  They can be identified by their flattened stems (or cladodes or cladophylls) that have spiky, toothed edges and zygomorphic (now that’s a fancy word — it means that they have a two-sided, or bilateral, symmetry) flowers.  Most of the Thanksgiving cacti that have these characteristics.

W. Fitch (drew), Swan (engraved) – Bot. Mag. 66. 3717, as Epiphyllum russellianum Source: Wikimedia commons

You’ll most commonly find them in pink colors, but you can now find them in yellowish colors. The flower shape often leads to its nickname: “Zygo cactus.”

S. x buckleyi are the true Christmas cacti and form what is called the Buckleyi group.  Most of these have characteristics that come from the species S. russelliana, which was used in the early Buckley crosses. They can be identified by their rounded, less pointy cladodes and round, radially symmetrical flowers. They do have a similar growing form, but those in the know can tell the difference.

And for those following along at home, the Easter (or spring) cactus used to be considered part of the Schlumbergera genus (S. gaertneri) and then the Rhipsalidopsis genus, but now is classified as Hatiora gaertneri has radially symmetrical flowers but the cladodes are three dimensional rather than flat, elongated, and scalloped.  They have a wide range of colors, such as red, pink, and even orange.

Holiday cactus care

It’s a cactus, so it should be easy to care for – I just water it sparingly and keep it dry, right?  WRONG!

Whether you have a Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus (or an Easter one, for that matter), you take care of them the same way. Keys to their care come from their native habitat, which is not a desert but the cloud forests of costal south-east Brazil.  The high-altitude costal areas where they’re from are cool, shaded, and relatively humid with the mists and moisture rich air. They are epiphytic or lithophytic – meaning that they grow on trees and in crevices with decaying plant material rather than in the soil.  And while you don’t need to know this to grow them, the morphology of the flowers have developed to support the feeding of hummingbirds which act as their main pollinator.

Since we don’t grow them epiphytically, when we pot them we need to make sure that we provide a light substrate for them to grow and to get plenty of oxygen to the roots. Potting mixes should have a high ratio of peat or coir and even some bark or other coarse woody material.  As for watering, you’ll want to keep the soil fairly moist, rather than dry.  You’ll also want to let them dry slightly between watering, but don’t think that they like to live the life of dehydration — you do need to keep them watered.

One of the reasons that they bloom at very specific time of year has to do with light and, to a lesser extent, temperature.  They are short-day (or rather  long-night) plants, so they flower as days grow shorter (or longer, in the case of the Easter cactus) and nights grow longer.  The Thanksgiving cactus will bloom with just a little shorter dark period than the Christmas cactus, which is why it blooms in late fall as opposed to the Christmas cactus that blooms closer to when days are the shortest around the solstice.  They will also bloom better and longer if they have cooler temperatures, so keeping them in a cool area of the house is ideal.  In high light situations the cladodes will turn red.  Keeping them too dark, however, will limit growth and keep them from thriving.

Since they are short-day plants, the plants need a period of several weeks where the period of darkness at night is 12 hours or longer for their flowers to begin forming.  This occurs naturally about mid-October, but you can delay flowering by using grow lights to lengthen the day (or keep in mind that bright indoor lights can also limit or reduce blooming).  Also, don’t be alarmed if they bloom at odd times through the year.  Since daylight coming into your windows can be altered by window treatments or films, the light levels can technically be “just right” for flowering at multiple times per year.  In my old office the tint on the windows created the right conditions at least once or twice per year – one year I had a Halloween cactus and the next it was a Memorial Day cactus. 

If your cactus does not flower, you need to move it to a spot where it gets at least 12 hours of relative darkness to initiate blooms (keep away from indoor light sources or windows near outdoor lights). Hopefully, you’ll have lots of colorful blooms for Christmas…..or whichever holiday your cactus celebrates. 

Sources

Is it a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter Cactus? https://www.extension.iastate.edu/linn/news/it-thanksgiving-christmas-or-easter-cactus

McMillan, A. J. S.; Horobin, J. F. (1995), Christmas Cacti: The Genus Schlumbergera and Its Hybrids (p/b ed.), Sherbourne, Dorset, UK: David Hunt

The Myth, the Legend, the Parasite: Romance, Lore, and Science beneath the Mistletoe

As we hurdle ever closer to the holidays and the end of the year, there’s lots of plants we could talk about – amaryllis, poinsettias (and the abuse thereof with glitter and paint), whether or not your cactus celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or is agnostic, and on and on.  Each of these plants have an interesting history and connection to the holidays, but today we’re going to be a little more naughty…but nice.  We’re going to talk about mistletoe.

Now, mistletoe is one of those holiday plants that you don’t really want growing in your own garden. That’s because, even though it is a symbol of love and even peace, it truly is a parasite … and poisonous. It has been celebrated and even worshipped for centuries, and still has a “naughty but nice” place in holiday celebrations.

Burl Ives, as the loveable, banjo-playing, umbrella-toting and story-narrating snowman in the classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” claymation cartoon tells us that one of the secrets to a “Holly Jolly Christmas” is the “mistletoe hung where you can see.” But where does this tradition of giving someone an innocent (or not-so-innocent) peck on the cheek whenever you find yourselves beneath the mistletoe come from? And just what is mistletoe anyway?

While mistletoe specialists need mistletoe, the reverse does not hold—mistletoe in many regions is dispersed solely by dietary generalists.
Distribution of mistletoe (and mistletoe specialist birds). Source: Mistletoe Seed Dispersal. Watson, D.M.

There are around 1500 species of mistletoe around the world, mainly in tropical and warmer climates, distributed on every continent except Antarctica.  In North America, the majority of mistletoe grows in the warmer southern states and Mexico, but some species can be found in the northern US and Canada.  A wide variety of birds feed on the berries of mistletoe and thus disperse seeds.  These birds include generalists who opportunistically feed on mistletoe, and specialists who rely on the berries as a major food source.

Mistletoe Haustoria from from Julius Sachs’ 1887 Lectures on Plant Physiology. Source: The Mistletoe Pages

First, we’ll cover the not-so-romantic bits of this little plant.  Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows in a variety of tree species by sinking root-like structures called haustoria into the branches of its host trees to obtain nutrients and nourishment. It provides nothing in return to the tree, which is why it is considered a parasite.

 

A heavy mistletoe infestation.                        Source: Pixabay

Mistletoe grows and spreads relatively slowly, so it typically does not pose an immediate risk to most trees.  While a few small colonies of mistletoe may not cause problems, trees with heavy infestations of mistletoe could have reduced vigor, stunting, or susceptibility to other issues like disease, drought, and heat. So be on the lookout for mistletoe in your trees and monitor it’s progression.

This little plant does have a long and storied history — from Norse mythology, to the Druids, and then finally European Christmas celebrations. Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the plant is the name. While there are varying sources for the name, the most generally accepted (and funniest) origin is German “mist” (dung) and “tang” (branch). A rough translation, then, would be “poop on a stick,” which comes from the fact that the plants are spread from tree to tree through seeds in bird droppings.

“Baldur’s Death” by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1817)

In Norse mythology, the goddess Frigga (or Fricka for fans of Wagner’s operas) was an overprotective mother who made every object on Earth promise not to hurt her son, Baldr. She, of course, overlooked mistletoe because it was too small and young to do any harm. Finding this out, the trickster god Loki made a spear from mistletoe and gave it to Baldr’s blind brother Hod and tricked him into throwing it at Baldr (it was apparently a pastime to bounce objects off of Baldr, since he couldn’t be hurt).

Baldr, of course, died and Frigga was devastated. The white berries of the mistletoe are said to represent her tears, and as a memorial to her son she declared that the plant should represent love and that no harm should befall anyone standing beneath its branches.

The ancient Druids also held mistletoe in high esteem, so high that it could almost be called worship. During winter solstice celebrations, the Druids would harvest mistletoe from oak trees (which is rare — oak is not a common tree to see mistletoe in) using a golden sickle. The sprigs of mistletoe, which were not allowed to touch the ground, would then be distributed for people to hang above their doorways to ward off evil spirits.

While the collecting and displaying of mistletoe was likely incorporated into celebrations when Christmas became widespread in Europe in the third century, we don’t really see mention of it used specifically as a Christmas decoration until the 17th century. Custom dictates that mistletoe be hung in the home on Christmas Eve to protect the home, where it can stay until the next Christmas Eve or be removed on Candlemas (which is Feb. 2). The custom of kissing beneath the parasitic plant isn’t seen as part of the celebration until a century later.

Washington Irving, who more or less reinvigorated the celebration of Christmas in the United States in his day and whose writings still define the idyllic American Christmas celebration, reminisced quite humorously about mistletoe and Christmas from his travels to England. He wrote:

“Here were kept up the old games … [and] the Yule log and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”

Whether or not your housemaids will be in peril, the hanging of the mistletoe can be a fun Christmas tradition. Look for it at garden centers and Christmas tree lots this season.  Or maybe you can find some growing wild and harvest it for your own decor. However, I would recommend not getting it out of the trees the “old Southern way” — shooting it out with a shotgun.

Sources:

  • Tainter, F.H. (2002). What Does Mistletoe Have To Do With Christmas?  APSnet Features. Online. doi: 10.1094/APSnetFeature-2002-1202
  • Briggs, J. (2000). What is Mistletoe? The Mistletoe Pages – Biology. Online. http://mistletoe.org.uk/homewp/
  • Watson, DM. (n.d.) (accessed). Mistletoe Seed Disperal [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://ecosystemunraveller.com/connectivity/ecology-of-parasitic-plants/mistletoe-seed-dispersal/
  • Norse Mythology for Smart People. (nd) The Death of Baldur. Retrieved from https://norse-mythology.org/tales/the-death-of-baldur/

 

Thanksgiving: A celebration of the native plants and indigenous crops that grace the table

Native vs. non-native – that a subject that is brought up frequently on our forums and one we have to discuss at length.  However, I thought I’d take it from a different direction this week, a little diversion if you will, seeing as we are just a week away from our American celebration of Thanksgiving that centers around food – much of it native to the United States.

It is a holiday that is quintessentially American (or North American, since our Canadian friends also have their own Thanksgiving). A commemoration of not only the arrival and survival of the pilgrims in Plymouth in 1621, but of our thankfulness for what we have. It is a time for us to gather with family or friends and reflect upon our blessings.

While, much to my chagrin (and that of many others), Thanksgiving seems to have been swallowed up by the Christmas “season” and you can even go shopping for more stuff (an abomination, for sure) on a day when we are supposed to be thankful for what we have, it is still a day celebrated by many.

Turkey, dressing, potatoes, fresh bread rolls and pumpkin pie are the traditional fare for the celebration these days, but they are a far cry from what the original feast shared by the pilgrims and American Indians would have featured.

Historians agree that, while the feast was probably meat-heavy, turkey was probably not on the menu. It just wasn’t as popular a food item as it is today. Most agree that the original feast featured venison, with some waterfowl (goose or duck) and seafood (shellfish like oysters are a definite, maybe even eels or other shellfish).

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I like the side dishes better than I like the actual turkey. There’s the dressing (or stuffing, depending on your preparation or colloquial terminology), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and my aunt’s seven-layer salad that’s usually more mayo and bacon bits than vegetation.

The produce dishes at the first Thanksgiving would have been vastly different than the modern day smörgåsbord that we prepare. Experts agree that the majority of dishes would have been from native plants and indigenous crops grown by the local tribes, with a few ingredients showing up from the pilgrims’ gardens.

First off, the absence of wheat flour, sweetener and flour would mean the lack of the classic dessert…pumpkin pie. It is hard to imagine a lack of pumpkin while we live in a time in which we are surrounded by pumpkin spice everything (though mostly artificially flavored).

Sugar would have been too expensive to purchase for the voyage, and other sweeteners would have been limited to maple or other tree syrups. (Colonists had not yet brought over the honey bee, which is a European immigrant itself).

This is not to say that there wasn’t squash. There were squashes, including pumpkins, as part of the native diet at the time having spread from their origins in Mexico and Central America  . They were likely included in the feast, but either boiled or roasted, and unsweetened.

Beans would have probably been one of the dishes, as well. The Natives Americans ate beans both in dry and green form, but at a fall feast, the beans were likely the dried variety and cooked into a soup or stew. Corn was also a feature of the first Thanksgiving, but not sweet corn (which didn’t make an appearance until much later). The corn would have been a flint type (similar to popcorn) that would have been cooked into porridge or used as a bread.

Native tree nuts, such as walnuts, chestnuts and beech nuts could have also been used in the preparation of dishes. There isn’t any written record of the native cranberry or blueberry being used, either, but they would have been abundant in the area. They likely wouldn’t have caught on in popularity until sweeteners such as sugar from Europe or honey was available to dull their acidic bite, but the dried fruits could have been used in preparations of some of the meat. If there was a salad, watercress could have been used if an early frost hadn’t wiped it out.

The pilgrims had brought with them from Europe various seeds, including herbs and onions, that could have been used to flavor some of the dishes. They may have also brought things like turnips and carrots that could have been available for the first feast (though there isn’t any direct written proof).

One native food that would have most likely been on the first Thanksgiving table is the sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus), or Jerusalem artichoke. Fallen out of favor for some time, the sunchoke is making its return to many gardens.

Image result for jerusalem artichoke
Jerusalem artichoke/sunchoke flower Wikimedia Commons

A true native food source, the sunchoke is the tuberous root of a species of sunflower (you may even see them growing on roadsides in the fall). The rhizome is roasted or boiled and has a nutty, starchy, potato-like texture and flavor. If you want to grow it, just remember that it is a perennial that will readily spread in the garden. These would have been the closest things to a potato dish the first celebrants would have eaten — we were still a long way away from bringing the potato from South America and the sweet potato from the Caribbean. (Botanist’s note: What we eat are sweet potatoes [Ipomea batatas], not yams [Dioscorea sp.], despite the insistence of canning companies. They aren’t even in the same family.)

So as you sit down for your Thanksgiving feast, be thankful for the blessings in your life and for the leaps and bounds our food options have improved over the past 400 years. Also be thankful for butter, flour, and sugar so you can have your pumpkin pie.

Bot-strosities

Those of you who are Stephen King fans will remember the Lobstrosities from the Dark Tower series: bizarre creatures that were part lobster and part scorpion and with the nastiest parts of each on either end.

Deadly but delicious

Botstrosities are bizarre plants that aren’t deadly but still assault the senses of those who are unfortunate enough to find them. Here’s my collection – maybe you have others to add?

First up are a classic favorite  – the GMOs (Glue Modified Organisms). Why bother with years of hybridizing when you’ve got a glue gun?

Strawflower cacti

Not exactly subtle hybridization

Everyone knows Cosmic Crisp apples. Now we’ve got Kosmik Kactus! Never mind they aren’t cacti. What I can’t wait for is these aloes to develop “glistening white” or “golden yellow” spines.

Definitely some alien species we could do without

A rainbow from hell

Continuing the unfortunate trend of spraypainting plants, here are some for your favorite football fan (assuming their team is the Seahawks). Question: do other regions have spraypainted heaths in their team colors?

Now this Calluna vulgaris is truly vulgar

And do look forward to metallic jades for the winter holidays!

The perfect gift for the plant lover you hate

Spray painting too obvious for you? Well, how about surgically altered orchids? If you can’t figure out how the flowers developed this garish blue mottling just look closely at the stem.

They might as well be plastic – unnaturally colored and staked upright

Yep, that’s an injection site

We certainly wouldn’t sell spraypainted birds or kittens with bows glued on their heads. Just say no to these horticultural horrors!

You, too, can be up to your pits in perennials!

(posted by Holly Scoggins)
The Perennial Plant Association (PPA) is a unique group of folks – comprised of plant breeders, educators, propagators, promoters, garden writers, growers, retailers, gardeners, and landscape designers – all under one umbrella. The PPA is probably one of the most vertically-integrated plant organizations out there. If it has anything to do with a perennial plant, there’s a good chance one of our members is involved.

The marvelous/legendary PPA Symposium has been held in all parts of the country. This year’s perennial-fest is in Raleigh NC.  This goes back to my particular roots with the organization – my first PPA experience was in 1997 symposium, also in Raleigh, while I was grad student at NC State. Helped out in a few capacities, including tour bus wrangler (on the surprisingly rowdy bus, no less).

A special feature THIS year in Raleigh will be a one-day plant-geek-fest, open to the public as a separate registration item (of course any perennial freaks are absolutely welcome to attend the entire week of symposium events as well!).

Many/most of you are not located in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region of the U.S. So why I am I touting this here? Because some of my biggest Ah-Ha! moments regarding growing and gardening have happened in places far from my comfort/hardiness zone. And the plants…oh the plants. In searching through my older GP posts, I’ve mentioned the PPA at least 9 times.

Recent examples: In 2016, the PPA symposium was in Minnesota… really opened my eyes, heart, and wallet to some lesser-known prairie species and design concepts. I probably have one of the larger Silphium collections in Southwest Virginia now. Whoops.

Last year’s symposium in Denver, Colorado brought with it awesome alpines and steppe plants – many of which I could grow here, with a bit of assistance from enhanced drainage. Of course there were also examples galore of rock gardening techniques to help make that “enhanced drainage” thing happen.  Beyond the plants and gardens, another highlight is the opportunity to meet the area’s botanical movers and shakers that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So much positive, fun energy –  helps to remind me why I do this thing!

Joseph Tychonievich experiencing Perennial Overload Syndrome at the 2017 Perennial Plant Association Symposium last year in Denver. Triage included some deep breathing and a Sprite. Plant: Dalea candida. Place: Chatfield Farms, Denver Botanic Garden. Photo: H. Scoggins.

So…trust me when I say driving for 6-8-10 hours or hopping on a plane to the handy-dandy RDU airport will be WORTH IT. Especially if you stick around for core symposium including fab tours to private and public gardens, independent garden centers, behind-the-scenes at wholesale nurseries, and (wait for it) dinner and garden wandering/shopping opportunities at Plant Delights Nursery.

Back to the “Spend the Day with Perennial Plants” opportunity on Monday, July 30 – Check out this lineup for the plant talk day – and note the geographic diversity of the speakers – again, this isn’t just a “Southeast” thing!

– Patrick McMillan is an Emmy Award-winning host, co-creator, and writer of the popular nature program, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan . He’ll highlight Carolina native perennials for the garden in a morning talk. Later that afternoon, he’ll cover Southwestern plants we can use in the Southeast to cope with drought.

– George Coombs manages the horticultural research program at the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware. This renowned botanical garden focuses on native plants, and their plant evaluations are making a big splash in the industry. Get a peek at the top-performing selections and find out what it takes to stand out in their trials.

– Christian Kress owns a specialty nursery in Austria that focuses on rare perennials from around the world. He’s traveled extensively, authored books, and introduced several beloved perennials to the market. He’ll  bring the knowledge on flocks of Phlox (!) and introduce us to the amazing selections coming out of Russia.

– Judith Jones owns Fancy Frond Nursery in Gold Bar, Washington. She’ll open the world of ferns and inspire a new appreciation for their role in the landscape. [Am hopeful that frond puns will abound.]

Other presentations include iris breeder Kevin Vaughn; John Kartesz on native plant inventory software that generates customizable maps and databases; Larry Mellichamp on the world of unusual, surprising and bizarre plants; and Lauri Lawson on medicinal plants.

ALL THIS IN ONE DAY, PEOPLE.

The whole shebang takes place at the Hilton North Raleigh/Midtown. Advanced registration is required and early bird pricing ends June 1. See the program description and get registration information on the PPA Raleigh website.  Be sure to check out the glorious e-Brochure just posted on the symposium home page. Hit me below with any questions – and would LOVE to see you there!

The Handy Dandy Dibber

A dibber, also called a dibbler (the garden tool, not the small nocturnal marsupial),  has many uses in the garden and greenhouse.  It also offers the opportunity to announce your intentions of dibbing (or dibbling). I’m a huge fan.

For example: just planted the last of my fall bulb purchases.  One of packs remaining was Allium unifolium, left over from installing our Allium field trials. (28 species and cultivars – woo! Beats doing research on soybeans or something.)  These little bulbs are about the size of nickel – even the smallest hand spade is overkill. I think I’ll just grab the dibber!

dibsandalliumHSFor the uninitiated, a dibber or dibbler is simply a very sturdy, pokey thing, with a nice ergonomic handle.  To use, simply scatter bulbs (never, ever in rows)…  scatterandpokePoke and plop. Went about 5″ to 6″ deep for these wee bulbs. Goes really fast once you’ve honed your dibbing skills.

holesAs a bulb-planting strategy, I like to leave them all uncovered until I’ve got the whole batch situated.  Then make like a squirrel and cover the bulbs!

doneVoila.  Done in 60 seconds! Though I’ll probably forget where I planted them within 60 minutes (which does make for a pleasant surprise come spring time – “Oh look! Alliums!”)