Red and Green for Winter

A Mexican Native Adapts to Pot

A recent snowfall draped the landscape in magic. The white blanket settled softly on every horizontal surface to create a harmony in white.

Still, I miss green. Even better than seeing some green plants would be to liven up that green with, from the opposite side of the color wheel, red. And even better still would be to have this red-and-greenery close at hand — indoors.

Three plants fill this bill well, and are easy-care houseplants.

The most obvious and common member of this clan is poinsettia. Poinsettia plantBreeding, manipulation of their greenhouse environment, and plant growth regulators have transformed this sporadically blooming native of Mexico into a compact plant bursting into large blossoms for Christmas in foil wrapped pots.

(Actually, the “blossoms” are not blossoms, but colored bracts, which are modified leaves. Peer into the whorl of bracts and you’ll see small, round, yellow cups, called cyanthiums in which inconspicuously reside the true blossoms.)

Poinsettia need not be a throwaway plant when the holiday season ends. The plant is easy to grow and, with just slightly more trouble, can be brought into bloom again this time next year. The plant is photoperiodic, meaning it blossoms after a period of exposure to short days. For poinsettia, that’s about a month of 12 hour, or less, days. That photoperiod begins about mid-September around here, so the plants could be left outdoors for the period as long as they’re not exposed to freezing temperatures. Or a plant could be moved in and out of a closet.

Although the photoperiod is spoken of in terms of length of day, length of darkness is what really matters. So each day’s dark period must be uninterrupted; no car headlights, table lamps, or even a flashlight.

If all this seems like too much trouble, just treat a poinsettia like any other houseplant. Photoperiod doesn’t stand alone in prompting flowers. Given good growing conditions, a poinsettia will still blossom — just not at Christmas.

Worth Having Even If It Does Come Late, or Early

Christmas cactus also offers red-and-greenery in winter, and is also photoperiodic. But not always. In a cool room, below 60°F., the plant will flower no matter how long each day’s light stretches. Even if it’s exposed, artificially of course, to continuous light!

Christmas cactusAbove 60°F, temperature steps in to play a role. At room temperatures, or thereabouts, a Christmas cactus needs about the same day length as does poinsettia, except that it might not need the weeks and weeks of short days before it decides to bloom. Then again, it might wait a few weeks, to throw in another wrinkle, depending on the variety of Christmas cactus.

My tack has been to give my plant reasonably good growing conditions, with bright light in winter and a little shade in summer and a well-drained potting mix rich in peat or other organic material,  and let it blossom according to its whim. In which case “holiday cactus” might be a better name for these plants than “Christmas cactus” because blossoms might unfold during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, or anytime in between.

“Butterflies” in Winter

The last plant of this triad is my favorite: cyclamen. In bloom, it looks like delicate, red (or pink or white) butterflies fluttering above the mottled green, heart-shaped leaves.

Cyclamen’s native habitat — the Mediterranean, with its cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers — offers hints of the plant’s ongoing care and flowering needs. Potted cyclamen plantThis time of year, late fall going into winter, is when the plant is flowering and wants to be kept cool (preferably no higher than about 65°F.), moist (but not waterlogged), and in indirect light (which casts no more than a fuzzy shadow). Under these conditions, those butterflies can hover over the plant for weeks and weeks.

As spring comes — that is, “spring” indoors — leaves start to yellow and flowers fade. The plant is going dormant. At this point, the plant needs less water, the amount commensurate with the vibrancy of its leaves. Come fall, leafstalks start to appear again atop the bulb (botanically a corm, which is a short, swollen underground plant stem that is a storage organ), and the cycle begins again.

My favorite cyclamen species is Cyclamen hederifolium (ivy-leaved cyclamen).Hardy cyclamen in pot

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

It’s a very much scaled down version of the potted cyclamen you see for sale this time of year. It’s cute. Besides that, it’s also cold-hardy outdoors here. Some self-seeded “volunteers” even have established themselves to brighten up cracks between the flagstones of my terrace, blossoming each year in early fall.


 Appreciated but not Touched

   “Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you here, root and all, in my hand, Little flower . . . “ Whoa! Hold on there Lord Tennyson! Relax, little flower. I’m not doing any plucking.
    I had hardly a hand in some of my best plantings, and that little flower is one of them.
    There’s a small, moss-covered ledge at the base of the brick wall next to my front door, an east-facing spot that enjoys some morning sun in summer but shade from the nearby north wall the rest of the year. In short, it’s a perfect place for a summer vacation for my orchids, bonsai, and cyclamen.

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

Cyclamen flower in a crannied wall

    The cyclamen is Cyclamen hederifolium, sometimes commonly called Persian violet (though a violet it is not; hence the need for botanical names). Although the flowers and leaves resemble those of the better known florist’s cyclamen (C. persicum), the two cyclamen species part company in some ways. Both the flowers and the leaves of Persian violet are much smaller than those of florist’s cyclamen, and the leaves of this diminutive species have decorative patterning. They resemble those of English ivy; hence the specific epithet “hederifolium.” Hedera is the botanical genus of English ivy. Flowers hover a few inches above the leaves on thin stalks, much like small, pink butterflies.
    Best of all, Persian violet is cold-hardy where winter lows plummet as low as minus 20° F. Florist’s cyclamen must be grown as a houseplant.
    Decades ago, I purchased seeds of Persian violet, and managed to raise a small stable of plants. They are ideal for naturalizing in partially shaded areas. While naturalizing the cyclamens seemed like a good idea, the dainty cyclamens would be gobbled up by the exuberant growth coaxed in the rich soil here. So my carefully nurtured cyclamens remained in their pots, wintering in a very cold spot in my basement and summering on that ledge near my front door.
    Lo and behold, this year I’ve noticed two little plants that have seeded themselves in the bit of soil where the flagstone terrace butts up again the ledge. The effect is subtle, to say the least, but the flowers are all the more charming for their shyness. I can appreciate the second half of Lord Tennyson’s poem — “Little flower—but if I could understand, What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is” — but feel no need to, an aversion, in fact, to plucking the flower from its crannied wall.

Slow Cyclamen

    Years ago, I learned three things about growing cyclamen from seed. Fresh seed is best. Keep the growing medium consistently cool and moist. Be patient; germination could take many weeks, and keep plants growing well for at least two years to allow the tuber to develop.
    After that, plants can begin their spring dormancy, flowering and sprouting new leaves in late summer, the latter lasting well into winter, depending on temperatures.

Slow Ramps

    Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are all the rage; here also, and my plan is to expand my ramp planting of two potted plants into a passel of ramps by growing them from seed. My experience in growing cyclamen from seed might come in handy here.
    Although both plants enjoy similar growing condition, at least as far as the need for part shade in spring, the life cycle of ramps is different from cyclamens. Ramps sprout leaves in spring, send up a flower stalk, and then the leaves fade away as the plant goes dormant. The flowers talk remains, developing a head full of seeds — which I collected last week.
 Ramp seedlings    I planted the small seeds in potting soil in a flower pot. The journey begins. Those seeds could take anywhere from 6 to 18 months to sprout. When just ripe, ramp seeds have an under-developed embryo, a situation that inhibits germination. Keeping the seed warm and moist permits development of the embryo and, eventually, root growth.
    Once root dormancy has been broken, there’s still shoot dormancy to contend with. Shoots won’t grow until the seeds, with their root sprouts, have experienced a period of cool, moist conditions — that is, they recognize that winter is over and it’s safe to send a green shoot aboveground.
    If root dormancy isn’t completed before winter sets in, it has to finish the following year, with shoot dormancy needing fulfilling after that: 18 months after sowing. Fulfilling root dormancy before winter allows shoot growth the following spring: 6 months after sowing.  I’m making sure of root dormancy being fulfilled before cold weather sets in by keeping the pot of seeds moist and in the greenhouse. Temperatures are cool in the greenhouse in winter, so I’m expecting — hoping — for sprouts to appear by late winter.
    Growing ramps and cyclamen from seed is similar in that a prime ingredient for success is patience. In the case of ramps, if everything goes right, I could be harvesting my first home grown ramps in 5 to 7 years.