Easiest Houseplant of All?!

What with the frigid temperatures and snow-blanketed ground outside, at least here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley, I turn my attention indoors to a houseplant. To anyone claiming a non-green thumb, this is a houseplant even you can grow. 

Most common problems in growing houseplants (garden plants also) come from improper watering. Too many houseplants suffer short lives, either withering in soil allowed to go bone dry between waterings, or gasping for air in constantly waterlogged soil. Also bad off yet are those plants forced to alternately suffer from both extremes.King Tut cyperus

The plant I have in mind is umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius); it requires no skill at all in watering. Because it’s native to shallow waters, you never need to decide whether or not to water. Water is always needed! The way to grow this plant is by standing its pot in a deep saucer which is always kept filled with a couple of inches of water. What could be simpler?

One caution, though. The top edge of the saucer does have to be below the rim of the pot. Umbrella plants like their roots constantly bathed in water, but not their stems.

Lest you think that umbrella plant sacrifices good looks for ease of care, it doesn’t. Picture a graceful clump of bare, slender stems, each stem capped with a whorl of leaves that radiate out like the ribs of a denuded umbrella.

cyperus plant

The stems are two to four feet tall, each leaf four to eight inches long. A dwarf form of the plant, botanically C. albostriatus, grows only a foot or so high, and has grassy leaves growing in amongst the stems at the base of the plant. There’s also a variegated form of umbrella plant, and a wispy one with especially thin leaves and stems. Cyperus  flowers

Umbrella plants aren’t finicky about care other than watering. They grow best in sunny windows, but get along in any bright room. As far as potting soil, your regular homemade or packaged mix will suffice. Umbrella plants like a near-neutral pH, as do most other houseplants.

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As the clump of stems ages and expands, they eventually get overcrowded in the pot, calling out to be repotted. You could move it to a yet larger pot, or make new plants by pulling apart, cutting if necessary, the large clumps to make smaller clumps and potting each of them separately. 

One way wild umbrella plants propagate is by taking root where their leaves touch ground when the stems arch over. You can mimic this habit indoors if you want to increase your umbrella plant holdings without dividing the clump. Fold the leaves down around the stem with a rubber band, as if you were closing the umbrella. Cut the stem a few inches below the whorl of leaves and poke the umbrella, leaves pointing upward, into some potting soil — kept constantly moist, of course.

An Almondy Relative

Though you may be unfamiliar with umbrella plant, you probably have come across its near-relatives either in the garden or in literature. One relative is yellow nutsedge (C. esculentum), a plant usually considered a weed and inhabiting wet soils from Maine down to the tropics. 

The edible nutsedge, also C, esculentum, usually called chufa or earth almond, is not invasive, at least in what I’ve read from many sources, and in my experiences growing the plants. It’s a perennial that has been cultivated since prehistoric times and was an important food in ancient Egypt.

But esculentum in the botanical name means “edible,” and refers to the sweet, nut-like tubers the plant produces below ground. I grow this plant, and now consider it quite esculentum, with a taste and texture not unlike fresh coconut. Chufa tubersThe main challenge with this plant is clearing and separating the almond-sized tubers from soil and small stones.

Storage improves their flavor, but they must be dried for storage, at which point they become almost rock hard. Give them an overnight soaking and they’re ready to eat as a snack or incorporate into other edibles or drinkables.

Paper Plant

Umbrella plant’s other famous relative is papyrus (C. papyrus), a plant that once grew wild along the Nile River. In ancient times, papyrus was used not only to make paper, but also to build boats and as food. Papyrus looks much like umbrella plant, and being subtropical, also would make a good houseplant. But with stems that may soar to fifteen feet in height, except for the diminutive variety King Tut, this species is too tall for most living rooms.

The Egyptians never recorded their method for making papyrus into paper but the Romans learned the process from the Egyptians and Pliny the Elder, a Roman, wrote about it in the first century B.C.

Genuine, Egyptian papyrus

Genuine, Egyptian papyrus

Here’s how: You  put on your toga and sandals (the latter also once made from papyrus), and prune down a few umbrella plant stalks. Cut the stalks into strips and, after soaking them in water for a day, lay them side by side in two perpendicular layers. Make a sandwich of the woven mat surrounded on either side by cloth, to absorb moisture, surrounded on either side with pieces of wood, then press.

In Egyptian sunlight, you could figure on the paper being dry and ready for use after about three weeks. Cut it to size to fit your printer.

Somethings Old, Somethings New, Nothing Blue

Rare and/or Perennial

I usually draw a blank when someone asks me “So what’s new in your garden for this year?” Now, with the pressure off and nobody asking, I’m able to tell.

Of course, I often try new varieties of run of the mill vegetables and fruits. More interesting perhaps, would be something like the Noir de Pardailhan turnip. Turnip Noir de PardailhanThis ancient variety, elongated and with a black skin, has been grown almost exclusively near the Pardailhan region of France. Why am I growing it? The flavor is allegedly sweeter than most turnips, reminiscent of hazelnut or chestnut.

I planted Noir de Pardailhan this spring but was unimpressed with the flavor. Those mountains near Pardailhan are said to provide the terroir needed to bring out the best in this variety. (Eye roll by me. Why? See last chapter in my book The Ever Curious Gardener for the skinny on terroir.) I’ll give Noir de Pardailhan another chance with a late summer planting.

Also interesting is Nebur Der sorghum. This seeds of this variety, from South Sudan, are for popping, for boiling, and for roasting. What sorghum has going for it is that it’s a tough plant, very drought resistant and cosmopolitan about its soil. With my previous attempt with sorghum, with a different variety, the seed didn’t have time to ripen. Nate Kleinman, of the Experimental Farm Network, where I got Nebur Der seed, believes this variety may ripen this far north.

Nate also suggested some perennial vegetables to try — that’s right, vegetables you plant just once and then harvest year after year. I planted Caucasian mountain spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides), a relative of true spinach, and, as predicted, growth is slow this, its first, year. Hablitzia, Caucasian mountain spinachNext year I can expect a vine growing 6 to 9 feet high and which is both decorative and tolerates some shade. What’s not to like? (I’ll report back with the flavor.)

Andy’s Green Multiplier Onion (Allium cepa var. aggregatum), also from the Experimental Farm Network, will, I hope, fill that early spring gap here when some onion flavor can liven salads. Multiplier onionLater in the season, cluster of bulbs form, similar to shallots, although forming larger bulbs. They can overwinter and make new onion greens and bulbs the following years.

And finally, again from Nate, the New Zealand strain of perennial multiplying leek (Allium ampeloprasum). This seems to be a variable species, with some members yielding large bulbs know as elephant garlic. The flavor might vary from that of leek to that of garlic.

One more perennial plant (this one for the greenhouse so not really perennial here), is jicama (Pachyrhizus erosus), a climbing vine in the pea family. The flavor and texture of the large, turnip-shaped root is something like water chestnut. The flavor of the other parts of the plant are . . .  not to be tried. All other parts are poisonous! The greenhouse is so hot in summer that I figured this is one of the few plants, besides figs and ginger, that would thrive there.

Probably not. I should have researched before planting: Jicama roots are poor quality unless the plant experiences a long period of warmth with short days. But when short days come around, my greenhouse is starting to fill with lettuce, mâche, spinach, and other fresh greenery for winter salads.

Could Be Frightening, But Not

At least one more newish crop made it into my garden this year, one that I hope is not perennial. The plant is sometimes called yellow nutsedge, sometimes chufa, and sometimes tiger nut or earth almond. When I lived in southern Delaware, “yellow nutsedge “would strike terror in the hearts of local farmers; it’s been billed as “one of the world’s worst weeds.”

But there are two botanical varieties of yellow nutsedge. That weedy one is Cyperus esculentus var. esculentus. The one that I am growing is C. esculentus var. sativus. The latter is not weedy; it rarely flowers or sets seed, and doesn’t live through the winter. Both varieties, being sedges, enjoy soils that are wet but also enjoy those that are well-drained.Chufa plants growing

The edible part of chufa are the dime-sized tubers, which are sweet and have flavor likened to almonds. I did grow the plant once and thought the tubers tasted more like coconut. Chufa tubersThe problem was separating the small tubers from soil and small stones. I have a plan this time around — more about this at harvest time.

I’ll be in good company growing chufa. We humans munched on them in the Paleolithic period and they were good food to the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphic instructions detail the preparation of chufa for eating, as a sweet, for instance, ground and mixed with honey.

Even today, chufa is enjoyed in various parts of the world. The chufa harvest is anxiously awaited each year in Spain, when the dried tubers are washed and pulverized, then made into a sugar-sweetened “milk” know as “Horchata De Chufas.”


I’m often questioned, “So what are you growing that’s particularly interesting this year.” It’s a tough question to answer because following the growth of even common plants is interesting year after year, watching how they respond to the vagaries of each year’s weather and pests, changing growing techniques, and other influences. Still, a few plants always elicit a, “You’re growing what?”

Such as, for instance, three edibles: seakale, chufa, and oca. Let’s start with the seakale (Crambe maritima). This plant had been growing at the edge of one of my flower beds for many years but died last year. I never did try eating the plant but had earned a permanent place in the flower bed for its gray-green leaves and attractive sprays of 4-petalled white flowers. Those two characteristics would also rightly land the plant in the cabbage family.

Like cabbage, seakale is edible; unlike cabbage, it needs special treatment before being rendered so. That special treatment is blanching, or shielding the emerging leaves from light to make them more tender and mild-tasting. My plant always seemed too weak to endure such treatment so the plant has been enjoyed only for its good looks. This year, though, I have raised a few seedlings, two of which I planted in the rich soil of the vegetable garden and should be strong enough for a couple of weeks of blanching early next season.

Seakale shoots are too tender for transport so you’ll probably never see them for sale. They were popular in gardens of 200 years ago, though — Thomas Jefferson’s, for one. If flavor turns out to be the reason the plant fell out of favor, I’ll just continue to grow it amongst the flowers.

Chufa (Cyperus esculentus) is another edible making a return engagement to my garden. This one makes knowledgeable gardener’s raise their eyebrows because it’s very closely related to a pernicious weed, yellow nutsedge. They’re both the same genus and species. I received tubers from J. L. Hudson, Seedsman ( who claims that the particular selection that they offer does not become weedy; I confirm that claim.

Chufa’s edible portion are the below ground, almond-sized tubers that have a texture an flavor reminiscent of coconut. So you can grow your own “coconut” even where winter temperatures plunge below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Above ground, chufa (and yellow nutsedge) have a grassy appearance except that rolling one of the clumping leaves between your thumb and index finger reveals the triangular cross-section characteristic of sedges. Grass blades are flat.

The main problem in growing chufa is separating the harvested tubers from the soil. Gravel or small stones are about the same size, and a lot harder on your teeth should you accidentally bite into one in a batch of chufa. My plan is to hose down each harvested clump well and then to stir the tubers in water just enough to let anything with the density of stone settle out first. And chew carefully.

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is perhaps the most interesting new plant in my garden, among edibles, at least. It’s related to one of my worst garden weeds, creeping wood-sorrel (O. corniculata). It’s a staple food of the Andean highlands and an iffy crop, around here at least.

The limitations to growing oca are that it needs a long season and it forms tubers only when days grow short (at which time cold weather is likely to kill stems and leaves). On the other hand, the plant has been cultivated for centuries so there are many varieties. New Zealanders have been enjoying and growing oca (which there are called yams) for about 150 years and their varieties are more likely suited here.

I don’t know the provenance of the oca tuber I planted so it could just take up garden space the whole season then die back leaving nothing of value underground. My plan is to keep it warm in autumn beneath a cover of clear plastic, which would be needed even for the most adapted varieties.

And then there’s the flavor. Many varieties, many flavors, from tart to sweet. Oca is used like potatoes and also eaten raw. In the Andes, super-tart varieties are freeze-dried by being left outside on the ground on hot, sunny days and cold, freezing nights. Stamping on defrosting tubers speeds water removal. Interesting, yes?

Seakale, chufa, and oca are among perennial vegetables that, once planted, come back year after year of their own accord. Others include black salsify, groundnut, Jerusalem artichoke, ramps, skirret, Welsh onion, and, of course, asparagus. For more about perennial vegetables, see Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles by Eric Toensmeier