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.

Want More?

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.

Plants I Like

From Ancient Egypt

King Tut is alive and well, very well in fact. I’ll cut to the chase: This particular King Tut is a variety of papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) that I planted a year ago in spring. Papyrus doesn’t tolerate temperatures down to freezing, so this far north King Tut is billed as an annual. But rather than let the King die in winter, I was so smitten by him that in autumn I moved him in his pot indoors to a sunny window. There he clung to life and, with warm, sunny weather, got growing again this past spring.

In contrast to regular papyrus, which grows 5 to 9 feet tall, King Tut’s claim to fame is that he’s a dwarf, billed as rising 4 to 6 feet high. My King Tut only gets about 3 feet high. King Tut papyrusAll papyrus have a very distinctive and attractive appearance. The base of the plant is a clump of grassy leaves from which rise tall, leafless stalks which are capped by grassy-leaved mopheads looking something like the ribs of an umbrella. A houseplant relative of papyrus, Cyperus alternifolius, is commonly called umbrella plant.

Many, if not most, problems with plants in general can be attributed to too much or too little water. King Tut (and umbrella plant) are very easy to grow because they love water up around their ankles. All the plant needs is a deep saucer in which the pot can sit, with the saucer kept full of water. Not that King Tut demands water around his ankles. It’s just that consistently moist soil is needed, which means close attention to watering or standing in a water-filled saucer.

King Tut grows very rapidly, so this spring I divided the one King Tut plant into two and potted each one up separately. I also cut back all the old stalks. Although I tossed them in the compost pile, I could have made them into sandals, a boat, paper, or any one of the other papyrus products of ancient Egypt.

A Nice Weed

A few weeds garner my respect and my affection. Over the past few weeks, spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculate) has become one such weed. Spotted spurge has mouse-ear sized leaves, each with a reddish blotch along part of its main vein, and the leaves line up in a very orderly manner along the stems. Euphorbia maculate, spotted spurge2The definitive identifier for this weed is the way the stems spread out, flat, on top of the ground. In sun, no part of the plant rises more than a half an inch above ground level.

Mostly, I see spotted spurge growing in the wood-chip mulched paths in my vegetable garden. The amazing thing about this plant is the way it keeps sprouting in the paths. Even during the dry weeks of last June, spotted spurge kept sprouting. Not that it doesn’t also turn up following recent rains and in the irrigated, planted beds. I can’t help but respect a plant that can keep showing up under such adverse conditions.

Whenever I see the flattened stems, I reach down and pull it out, roots and all. My affection for this plant comes from the ease with which it is removed. The stems don’t form roots where they touch ground, as many other plants do, so grabbing the center of the clump gets rid of a square foot of weeds in one fell swoop. How satisfying.

Removing the plants is important. Spotted spurge is a summer annual that thrives in heat. Left alone, tiny flowers in each leaf axil give rise to tiny seeds that germinate through summer or, when weather warms, next year. It’s important not to dawdle in removing the plants because only a couple of weeks of growth are needed before young plants are old enough to flower and make seeds.

From Cosmos

I’m not usually a big fan of flower breeders’ new and wondrous creations, such as blue roses or tulips that look like peonies or peonies that look like tulips. That said, I’m quite enthralled with some cosmos I planted this spring that have been bred to look not very cosmo-ish.

What I’ve always liked about cosmos is their lack of pretension. The flowers are simple and sit singly atop tall stalks of sparse but feathery leaves. So along comes cosmos Rose Bon Bon. Cosmos, Rose Bon BonAs a cosmos fan, I figured I’d try Rose Bon Bon in spite of the fact that the flowers are double, which means they have multiple rows of petals. More complex and, hence, less cosmo-ish.

Rose Bon Bon flowers, all of them soft pink, are beautiful. They’re still cheery, just like regular cosmos, frilly and cheery in this case. The name Rose Bon Bon notwithstanding, they do NOT look like roses.