15 Not-So-Easy Houseplants

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This peace lily (Spathiphyllum) is suffering from chronic underwatering: a typical problem with this species. It’s not as easy to grow as many people claim. Source: http://www.gardeningknowhow.com

In preparing yesterday’s article, 15 Easy Houseplants for Beginners, I, of course, took a look at other websites to see what they suggested. (No, that’s not plagiarism: it’s called “research!”) But I must admit I was surprised by some of their suggestions, sometimes even horrified!

After all, the purpose of writing such a piece is to showcase indoor plants that are particularly easy to grow, ones that even the most fledgling gardener could grow without difficulty. But these other lists included plants that I would never have thought to include among easy-to-grow plants, plants whose flaws rather make them a challenge to keep alive unless special precautions are taken. In fact, plants I would normally warn people about.

Let’s take a look and see.

Why Do These Not-So-Easy Plants Fail?

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Good light is very rare in most homes, leading plants to suffer from etiolation, like this unfortunate Aloe vera. Source: laidbackgardener.com

Sometimes the problem is simply that the plant needs really good light. I would never recommend such a plant as an easy-to-grow houseplant, not considering the horrible indoor lighting conditions most people have. Even fairly experienced indoors gardeners tend to overestimate the quality of light they have available to them. Imagine beginners!

The average dwelling is not a greenhouse, with light from above and on all sides. In most rooms, it only comes from one side, through a vertical window. And most readers of this blog live in temperate climates, where sun may be fairly abundant indoors in the summer, but miserably lacking in winter, what with short days and weeks of cloudy conditions. So even right in front of your largest window, there is often not enough light for many plants, especially if it’s on the north side of our home (in the Northern Hemisphere, that is). Imagine what conditions are like in the back of the room! That’s why, in my opinion, only plants that can tolerate low light can be considered easy-to-grow houseplants.

And they must also be not only capable of putting up with low light, but of doing for long periods. This belief that some many commercial nurseries seem to have—that 8 weeks is an acceptable lifespan for a houseplant (see The Life Expectancy of Houseplants) and therefore that a plant that can last 8 weeks in near darkness can be classified as a low-light plant—is just nonsense! According to my way of thinking, to be shade-tolerant, it always has to be able to grow and even thrive in shade, not just for a few weeks, but years.

In other cases, not-so-easy houseplants are too sensitive to dry air for the average home, too subject to insects or diseases, naturally short-lived or have special requirements that go beyond regular maintenance and thus complicate their care. If you can’t just resume a plant’s care by saying “put it in your living room and water it when its soil dries out,” it’s not an easy-to-grow houseplant.

15 Not-So-Easy Houseplants

Here are 15 indoor plants that appear on other people’s list of easy houseplants. In general, no, they aren’t extremely difficult to grow, at least not for a gardener with experience, but, for one reason or another, you just can’t expect a beginning gardener to succeed with them.

1. Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’ and other cultivars)

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Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata cv). Source: http://www.amazon.com

This fern tolerates dry air better than most other ferns, which is great, but is far less tolerant of shade. In fact, it really only does well when put in a pretty sunny location … and that’s not what most people do.

The Boston fern used to be a far easier houseplant before the middle of the last century, one our grandparents often grew to astounding sizes. What changed? Our indoor environment! We heat our homes more, yet this plant likes a cool winter. As a result, it often gets smaller and thinner over time instead of plumping up like a happy houseplant should do.

2. Bromeliads (Aechmea, Guzmania, Tillandsia, Vriesea, etc.)

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Various bromeliads. Source: www.orchardnursery.com

These plants are totally charming and can last for months in a typical house. But usually, they’re sold in bloom … and that’s a problem, because they die after flowering! And it’s just plain unfair to hoist a soon-to-die plant off on a rank beginner.

True enough, with rare exceptions, bromeliads will produce at least one “pup” (offset) before they go, a pup that will flower in its turn … a few years down the road! Understanding that is a lot to ask of a novice gardener. They’re more likely to become discouraged when they see the mother plant deteriorating bit by bit.

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Air plants (various species of Tillandsia) need such different care from other houseplants, they need to be treated separately. Source: cdn.shopify.com

As for air plants (Tillandsia spp.), a subgroup of bromeliads, their situation is somewhat different. First, they are rarely sold in bloom, but rather as unrooted plants you’re supposed to hang from the ceiling or deposit on or glue to an indoor arrangement of some sort. The fact that they need totally different treatment from any other houseplant automatically makes them complicated. They have to be watered, not by humidifying the soil they grow in (because they don’t grow in soil!), but by soaking them in water or spraying them regularly. Of course, they also need bright light and air movement. I wouldn’t say air plants are necessarily difficult to grow, but they aren’t easy either. If you want to know more about growing air plants (Tillandsia), read How to Make Your Air Plants Thrive.

3. Butterfly Palm or Areca Palm (Dypsis lutescens, syn. Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)

 

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Butterfly Palm (Dypsis lutescens). Source: http://www.ikea.com

This plant’s susceptibility to spider mites makes it a challenge to grow. It often breezes through summer in fine shape, then, with the arrival of fall and drier indoor air, spider mites show up and soon start to take over. You never seem to be able to get rid of them entirely!

The butterfly palm is not the only palm with this problem, by the way. As a result, few are good choices for beginners.

4. Cacti and Succulents

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Cactus and succulents: great choices if you have full sun, but most aren’t given nearly enough light and go downhill slowly once you bring them home. Source: thesucculentsource.com

There are hundreds of houseplants in this category and most are not at all hard to grow … if you have a lot of light. Indeed, most even prefer full sun (there’s not much of that in the average home)! Sadly, our homes are simply much more shaded than most people imagine. As a result, I see cactus and succulents in various states of decline wherever I go. Yes, they may be still alive, but barely.

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This is not a happy cactus (Opuntia). It’s severely etiolated due to insufficient light. Move it to a sunny window, fast! Source: pistilsnursery.com

Of course, among the wide variety of succulents, there are some that tolerate some shade and are therefore better choices for beginners, such as aloes (Aloe spp., including A. vera), haworthias (Haworthia spp.), gasterias (Gasteria spp.), succulent euphorbias (Euphorbia spp.) and, of course, the oh-so-popular jade plant (Crassula ovata) … but they still need a location that receives at least 5 hours of indirect light per day, therefore a location very close to a window. You have no idea of how many very sad, floppy jade plants I see, alive but struggling, in people’s homes. Their weeping stems seem to say, “Please put me out of my misery!”

Also, many beginner gardeners lose their succulents over the winter because they water too much. When you grow succulents, it is very important to let the soil dry out before watering again. Doubly so when light is low, as is the case in winter. Often, at that season, cacti and succulents only need to be watered once a month, yet the average indoor gardener tends to water everything they grow once a week. You can just feel the rot settling in!

5. Calathea (Calathea spp.)

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Calathea zebrina. Source: http://www.planten-kopen.com

This is a prime example of a plant that “holds” for several months, especially when you buy it in the spring or summer, but ends up going rapidly downhill in the winter. It’s supersensitive to dry air (a common problem indoors in winter) and really has a hard time dealing with the lower light winter brings. The result is a great plant that soon goes bad.

6. Croton (Codiaeum variegatum)

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Most crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) drop their leaves one after the other when you move them into your home and soon come to look like this. How could anyone possibly call them easy to grow? Source: garden.org

Recommending crotons to beginning gardeners is out and out horrific. This plant has a terrible reputation among gardeners for its ability to quickly go to pieces when you bring it home. The problem is that it simply doesn’t tolerate changes in its growing conditions, so when it goes from the full sun and high humidity of Florida or Costa Rica to a dingy apartment where the air is drier than the Sahara, it starts losing leaves. And more and more fall off as time goes on. Now, if you know how to properly acclimatize it, you can get it to adapt perfectly well to average indoor conditions, but it’s hardly a plant you’d want to entrust to a beginning gardener! Shame on anyone who promotes the croton as an easy-to-grow plant!

7. English ivy (Hedera helix)

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English ivy (Hedera helix). Source: http://www.amazon.com

Typically, this plant is easy to grow in spring and summer, then fall comes and it falls apart. The problem is that when the air gets drier, as it almost always does during the heating season, spider mites appear out of nowhere and quickly kill it. Few plants can be covered with spider mites as quickly as English ivy.

8. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)

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Like most peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) sold these days, this one is severely underpotted and will quickly go into decline unless it receives very good care. Source: amazon.com

Sure, this plant is easy enough in general, but it quickly takes on a wilted lettuce look when it runs out of water and each time it does, the next recovery is less and less successful. It always seems to be drastically underpotted when it reaches your local garden center, which, of course, compounds the problem. Quite often, it must be watered more than once a week just to survive! Repotting it into a bigger pot as soon as you get it home will help, but if you’re one of those people who tend to forget to water every now and then, the peace lily is definitely not a wise choice for you!

9. Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)

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Severely overcrowded, this pot of Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla) won’t likely live very long. Source: amazon.com

Few Norfolk Island pines survive more than a few months in the average house. Their need for fresh, humid air while our homes are hot and dry in the winter ends up killing them. Plus, the trend these days is for nurseries to stick a half a dozen or so young plants in the same pot so it will look fuller … and that only means there are more roots competing for the water you apply, with fatal results. Under good conditions, and when reduced to one or two plants per pot, this indoor conifer can live for decades. Still, I wouldn’t offer it to a rank beginner!

10. Peperomia (Peperomia spp.)

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One of many types of peperomia. Here, Peperomia caperata ‘Emerald Ripple’. Lazaregagnidze, Wikimedia Commons

There are too many species (over 1500!) of peperomias for me to make more than a vague generalization about them, but even so, many of the commercially available varieties are prone to rot if overwatered … and who doesn’t apply just a bit too much moisture every now and then? Typically, peperomias grow well at first and its owner is very pleased with the result, then, months later, they suddenly keel over and die. It can be quite a shock to see them go from healthy and happy to dead and rotting in just a few days.

11. Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura)

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Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura erythroneura). Source: carlosbato-arte.blogspot.ca

Yet another plant that gives encouraging results at first, especially if you buy in spring or summer, when there is more light in our homes and the air is generally humid, but the low light and dry air of winter cause it to die back gradually. By spring, it’s often only the shadow if its former self, if indeed it’s still alive.

12. Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)

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Rubber plant (Ficus elastica ‘Burgundy’). Source: www.homedepot.com

It’s unfortunate that nurseries continue to insist that the rubber plant is a low-light plant when, on the contrary, it requires a lot of light, even full sun. True enough, it “holds” quite well in shady spots, sometimes for six months or more, but once it’s used up its energy reserves, leaves start to drop one by one until death ensues.

13. Schefflera or Umbrella Tree (Schefflera actinophylla, syn. Brassaia actinophylla)

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Schefflera (Schefflera actinophylla). Source: www.homedepot.com

This is the larger of the two common scheffleras, the one with big, shiny, umbrella-like leaves, not the dwarf schefflera (S. arboricola), a much, much easier plant to grow. Like English ivy and the golden cane palm, its susceptibility to spider mites makes it difficult to maintain in good shape for very long.

14. Spineless Yucca (Yucca gigantea, Y. elephantipes and Y. guatemalensis)

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Spineless Yucca (Yucca gigantea). Source: www.waitrosegarden.com

Generally sold as a small tree with a brown, woody looking trunk with tip cut off and two to four tufts of lanceolate leaves at the top, the spineless yucca is a superb plant, but it shares the rubber plant’s bad habit. That is, it “holds” well, for months at a time, even in shady spots, then, when it has spent all its stored energy, it launches into a long decline. It can sometimes survive (one can hardly say “live”) for two or three years under a typical home conditions, but, unless it’s right in front of a sunny window, becomes more and more etiolated and less and less beautiful over time, with yellowing leaves galore!

15. Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

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Unless it is properly acclimatized, the weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) starts losing leaves and is soon in decline. Source: goodtogrow.files.wordpress.com

Okay, this plant can tolerate the shade and dry air of our homes and can even live decades under such conditions, but, as was the case with the croton, this is only true if you acclimatize it well beforehand. Otherwise, the leaves begin to fall almost as soon as you bring it home and it soon looks dreadful. Many more people manage to kill their weeping fig than succeed in keeping it healthy and happy. Read Stop Your Weeping Fig From Losing Its Leaves to learn how to acclimatize it.


There you go! 15 plants that may be interesting for gardeners who have a bit of experience, but which I would certainly not to offer a wet-behind-the-ears gardener. Definitely not “easy-to-grow houseplants,” in spite of what some websites claim!20180127A Spathiphylium www.gardeningknowhow.com

Christmas Plants Around the World

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Christmas plants differ according to region. Source; laidbackgardener.blog

The most popular Christmas plant in North America is certainly the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is scarcely a store that doesn’t sell them or a home that isn’t decorated with one. But there are other Christmas plants, including Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.), Christmas kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), Christmas pepper (Capsicum annuum), Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), frosted fern (Selaginella martensii ‘Frosty’), Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and, more recently, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Christmas trees are popular all over North America, too. Fir trees (Abies spp.) are the biggest sellers, but Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spruces (Picea spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.) are widely used.

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Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Source: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was once commonly used in Christmas wreathes, garlands and centerpieces in Eastern North America, as it has evergreen fronds that last all winter and are thus available at Christmastime, but its star has waned considerably. It’s just too easy to find longer-lasting artificial or preserved foliage for such use these days. The Christmas fern still makes a great garden plant for shady spots and is hardy to zone 3.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata Berry Poppins®). Source: Proven Winners

The branches of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) have fared better over time and are still widely used. This deciduous holly, native to eastern North America, is leafless at Christmas, but its branches are covered with bright red berries that create great swaths of color in Christmas arrangements. You can grow them yourself (the shrub is hardy to zone 3 and you will need to include at least one male plant in your planting to pollinate the berry-bearing females), but you can also buy branches in florist shops … including fake ones, unfortunately.

That covers most of the plants associated with Christmas in North America, but Christmas plants differ around the world. Let’s take a look at what’s going on elsewhere.

Europe

In general, the plants featured in the first paragraph—poinsettias, Christmas cactus, Christmas kalanchoe, etc.—are also popular in Europe, although the poinsettia, even though it is not rare per se, is not as popular as on this side of the Atlantic. But there are other plants associated with Christmas (and New Year’s Day) that are more specific to Europe.

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Holly (Ilex aquifolium): more popular in Europe than in North America. Source: AnemoneProjectors, Wikiimedia Commons

For example, holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a European shrub or tree with spiny-edged, shiny, leathery, evergreen leaves and red berries and is grown in many Old World gardens. True enough, holly is available on a limited basis in North America too (although are mostly seem either on Christmas cards or as sprigs of plastic leaves), but nothing to the extent to which it is used in Europe, where, in some countries, sprigs of holly are found on nearly every window ledge and doorway. This tradition has come to be seen as a sign of welcome, but is in fact based a centuries-old belief that putting holly on all possible entranceways would prevent evil spirits from invading the home.

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Mistletoe is no longer as common as it once was. Source: mistletoematters.wordpress.com

Kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season is a very old European tradition and can be traced back to the time of the Druids, who laid down arms and exchanged greetings under the mistletoe, considered to be a very sacred plant. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on tree branches, counting on sap it absorbs from its host for its survival. European mistletoe (Viscum album)—with its translucent round white berries—is the original variety to kiss under.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was brought over to the New World and thrived for awhile, but now appears to be dying out. Certainly mistletoe is now only available very locally in North America: I haven’t seen a sprig of it in years! It’s still widely used in Europe during the holiday season.

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English ivy (Hedera helix) used in a wreath. Source: bcinvasives.ca

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a traditional Christmas plant in Europe, widely used in holiday garlands and wreaths. Think of the carol The Holly and the Ivy, for example. And why not, since this evergreen climber grows abundantly everywhere on that continent and so is readily available! The tradition of using ivy as a Christmas decoration never caught on in North America, probably because ivy is neither native nor widely grown, though it has escaped from culture to become abundant in a few areas. Harvesting ivy for Christmas decorations is something that could be encouraged as a control measure in areas (mostly on the US West Coast) where ivy is proving to be a pernicious weed.

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The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a stunning early bloomer… but only blooms at Christmas in mild climates. Source: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is not a rose (Rosa spp.) at all, of course, but a perennial. It’s a traditional Christmas plant in southeastern Europe, notably in areas where Orthodox Church is the common religion. Orthodox Christmas takes place about two weeks later than in Western rites, around January 7. And this very early perennial is usually in bloom by then. Although mainly used in flower beds or naturalized in woodlands, it’s also sold as a gift plant at that season.

Elsewhere in Europe and pretty much everywhere in North America, this plant flowers too late to be a Christmas plant. Where I live, it isn’t even in bloom at Easter … it’s more like a Mother’s Day plant!

In Europe, the tradition of Christmas trees is well established and often spruce or pine, or even a juniper or other conifer, are used, depending on what is available locally.

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The Yule log tradition has trouble surviving in modern homes, as so many no longer have a functioning fireplace. Source: maeclair.net

The tradition of the Yule log has largely died out in Britain and Central Europe as it has in North America, but in many parts of Europe, notably in Scandanavia and Eastern Europe, it remains deeply entrenched. A Yule log is a very large hardwood log, the idea being to light it on Christmas Eve and have it burn through the night and Christmas Day. In the Balkans, the Yule log is called a badnjak (or budnik, according to the local language) and it is usually an oak, a symbol of longevity. Those who do not have a fireplace to burn a log in often decorate their apartment with twigs of oak.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland, the Yule log (bûche de Noël) has morphed into a log-shaped cake, traditionally served at Christmas … you don’t need a fireplace for that!

Mediterranean and Middle East

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A wreath decorated with pomegranates (Punica granatum). Source: www.clubbotanic.com

The main Christmas plant in this region is the pomegranate (Punica granatum): a perfect choice, as it matures at just the right time of year. Doors, fireplaces, tables, etc. are decorated with pomegranate fruits, both fresh and artificial.

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Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). Source: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, Wikimedia Commons

Two other plants often used in Christmas decorations are the shrubs butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), both bearing evergreen foliage and red berries.

In Israel, olive branches (Olea europaea) are offered at Christmas to friends as a symbol of peace.

Mexico

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Flower market full of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in Mexico just before Christmas. Source: casita-colibri.blog

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico and is popular in there, where it’s known as flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower). Butcher’s broom and firethorn, brought over from Spain, are also popular, as well as are several local plants that bloom at Christmas.

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Traditional Mexican Christmas punch with floating manzanitas (Crataegus mexicana). Source: http://www.goya.com

Manzanita, also called tejocote or manzanilla (Crataegus mexicana), a large-berried hawthorn, is another plant traditionally used as a Christmas decoration in many parts of Mexico and Central America. The orange fruits may be threaded onto a garland and are also used to make Christmas punch.

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Display of radishes on the Noche de Los Rábanos. Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia, Wikimedia Commons

One of Mexico’s most curious Christmas traditions, however, is the Night of the Radishes (Noche de Los Rábanos), celebrated in the region of Oaxaca on December 23rd. In it, radishes are carved and arranged into some very impressive displays.

South America

Since most of this continent lies south of the equator, the seasons are inverted and Christmas takes place in summer, not winter. That means traditional Christmas plants of the Northern Hemisphere bloom six months too late for Christmas. As a result, the poinsettia is called “Easter flower” (flor de pascua) in many South American countries, because it blooms at Easter, while our Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is called “flor de maio” (May flower) in its country of origin, Brazil. Yet there is a Christmas cactus in these countries. The plant we call Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) in the North is the “cactus de Navidad” and blooms at Christmas in much of South America.

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Colored berries of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Source: Javier Alejandro, flickr.

South Americans tend to use native plants as cut flowers or holiday plants at the Christmas season. Branches of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius) and its cousin, Peruvian peppertree (S. mollis), known in the north for the pink peppercorns they produce, are often used to decorate churches and houses during the holiday season, as they are loaded with small red berries at that time of year.

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Venezuelan Christmas orchid (Cattleya percivaliana). Source: QuazDelaCruz, Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela has its own Christmas orchid that blooms for the holidays: Cattleya perciviliana. Elsewhere in South America, the usual “orquídea de navidad” is Angraecum sesquipedale, actually native to Madagascar, but widely grown for its large white star-shaped flowers. It’s also called estrella of Belén (star of Bethlehem), but then, so are many other white, star-shaped flowers, including bulbs of the genus Ornithogalum.

In Paraguay, house and Christmas displays are often decorated with “flores de coco,” the long, fragrant inflorescences of a local palm tree, the coyol (Acrocomia aculeata). This pre-Christian tradition comes from the indigenous Guarani people.

Asia

In general, the concept of Christmas is relatively new to this continent and the celebration is mostly a commercial one of American inspiration, so there are often no traditional plants associated with the holiday, at least not long-standing ones. Most are the same Christmas plants seen in North America (poinsettias, Christmas cacti, etc.). Christmas trees, almost nonexistent only 30 years ago, for example, are now seen everywhere, although more often in shopping centers than in private homes. Usually artificial trees are used.

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Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Source: http://www.mailordertrees.co.uk

The Christian population in Japan is more firmly established than most in Asia and has solidly adopted the tradition of the Christmas tree, usually a real fir or spruce tree. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, which is not a bamboo at all, but a shrub, is the second-best-known Christmas plant, with its scarlet fruits and red winter leaves. Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium), popular in all seasons in Japan, are widely used at Christmas too.

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Apples stamped with seasonal messages are common Christmas Eve gifts in China. Source: gbtimes.com

In China, an apple wrapped in colored paper or stamped with an appropriate seasonal message is often offered as a gift on Christmas Eve because the word “Christmas Eve,” translated as “night of peace” (Ping’an Ye) in Mandarin, sounds like the word apple (píngguǒ).

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Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii). Source: palmpedia.ne

In the tropical regions of Asia, the Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii), better known by its old name, Veitchia merrillii, is widely grown. With its stocky trunk and relatively short fronds, it looks like a dwarf royal palm … and bears bright red fruit at Christmas. Originally from the Philippines and Malaysia, this palm is now grown throughout the tropics.

Finally, in India, the golden Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) is growing in popularity as a Christmas tree, but otherwise, Christmas is little celebrated in India.

Africa

The traditions of using Christmas plants are more firmly established in South Africa than in the center and north of the continent, brought to this region by European settlers (notably the Dutch and English).

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To Northeners, hortensias (Hydrangea macrophylla) just don’t say Christmas, but it warms the cockles of the heart of South Africans. Source: pxhere

Again, though, with the seasons being inverted, the South African Christmas plants are very different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. Notably, the hortensia (Hydrangea macrophylla), well-known in the North for its summer bloom, is called “Christmas flower” and is by far the most popular Christmas plant!

On the other hand, poinsettias are catching on as well. They have to be specially prepared in order to bloom at Christmas rather than in May, which is when they’d bloom if left on their own. Local nurserymen manage to do this by covering their production greenhouses with black cloth after 4 pm to ensure the short days necessary to stimulate bloom.

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Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) are bulbs native to South Africa. Source: http://www.alanjolliffe.com

Various native plants also serve as Christmas plants, such as Christmas bush (Pavetta spp.), Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) and Christmas berry (Chironia baccifera). Several plants imported from Australia, which has a similar climate, are also appreciated for their winter bloom. You’ll read more about those below. Africans also celebrate Christmas with many plants that are for us just typical summer flowers, like daisies, roses and zinnias.

Christmas trees are very popular in South Africa, but they use as subjects conifers adapted to local conditions, such as cypress (Cupressus spp., including C. macrocarpa), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and various pines (Pinus spp., including P. radiata).

Australia

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The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is Australia’s favorite Christmas tree, AlfredSin, flickr

In Australia, the traditional Christmas tree is the native Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Grown in mostly as a houseplant in the northern hemisphere, where it rarely exceeds 5 feet (1.5 m) in height, in Australia, it can eventually reach up to 250 feet (65 m) in height, about 20 floors! Other mild-climate conifers from various parts of the world are also used as Christmas trees, including various pines.

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The Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda). Source:  JarrahTree, Wikimedia Commons

And Australians have their own Ozzie Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda … but it’s not a conifer, but rather a broad-leaved tree. Moreover, it’s a parasitic tree (or rather hemiparasitic tree, since it does carry out its own photosynthesis) that steals most of its water and minerals from nearby plants! The Australian Christmas tree produces frothy spikes of orange-yellow flowers just in time for the holidays.

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One of many Christmas bushes in Australia: Ceratopetalum gummiferum. Source: gdaymateowyagoin, flickr

To add to this, each Australian state seems to have its own “Christmas bush,” always a shrub that produces masses of either flowers or colorful fruits at the right season, including Correa spp., Chromolaena odorata, Ceratopetalum gummiferum and Prosanthera laisanthos. Also, there are many bulbs that bloom at Christmas, including various species of Blandfordia, called “Christmas bells.” And Australia also has its own Christmas orchid: Calanthe triplicata, native to the north of the country

New Zealand

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New Zealand Christmas tree (Meterosideros excelsa). Source: Ed323, Wikimedia Commons

Mention Christmas tree to any New Zealander and they’ll immediately think of Meterosideros excelsa, a rounded broadleaf tree with feathery red flowers at Christmas. It’s called the New Zealand Christmas tree or pōhutukawa. And an introduced bulb from South America (Alstroemeria psittacina), with green-tipped red tubular flowers, has “gone native” and is well-known by locals as New Zealand Christmas bells.


So, wherever you travel around the world, there are always interesting Christmas plants to discover!

If you know of other Christmas plants, do not hesitate to let me know about them at laidbackgardener@gmail.com.20171224A HC.jpg

One Living Christmas Tree That Really Thrives Indoors

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The Norfolk Island pine is one of the rare conifers that thrives indoors.

Most of the “living Christmas trees” sold today really don’t do well indoors. (For more information on that subject, read Christmas Plants Too Good to be True.) Fortunately, there is at least one exception: the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Unlike a real pine or fir, it does very well in our homes. As long as you offer your little Norfolk Island pine some basic care, it can decorate your home for a decade or more.

Neither Pine nor Fir

This plant is not a pine (Pinus) and actually, to my mind, looks nothing like one. It could, however, be mistaken for a spruce (Picea) or a fir (Abies), given its very symmetrical habit, its branches that whorl around the trunk like the rays of a wheel, and its very short needles. Even so, it is none of the above, but instead belongs to an entirely different genus, Araucaria.

Its Origin

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The Norfolk Island pine becomes a large tree when grown outdoors.

The genus Araucaria used to grow all over the world during the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras, sharing its space with the dinosaurs, but disappeared from the northern hemisphere about 65 million years ago, precisely at the same time as the dinosaurs did. Today, the genus survives in the wild only in the southern hemisphere. The remaining 19 species are found in South America, Australia, and, especially, the South Pacific islands.

Our species, A. heterophylla, is native to Norfolk Island, off the coast of Australia, and to two neighboring islands. In fact, one of the main industries of Norfolk island is harvesting seeds of Norfolk Island pine for export!

The vast majority of young Norfolk Island pines sold today are produced in Florida, then shipped around the world from there. It’s a popular houseplant in the North and also commonly planted outdoors as a large tree in subtropical climates where few other conifers succeed.

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The Norfolk Island pine’s huge cones are only seen on mature trees growing outdoors.

Although Northerners generally think of the Norfolk Island pine as a modestly sized houseplant, it’s actually a slow-growing giant. In the wild, it can reach 210 feet (65 meters) in height, the equivalent of a 20-story building! Given its upright habit and symmetrical growth, it was once considered for use as a ship’s mast, but its turns out that its wood is not strong enough for such a use. At maturity outdoors, it produces huge erect pineapplelike cones, but never indoors.

Growing Your Own Indoor Christmas Tree

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This plant is distinctly overcrowded and should be thinned out.

The Norfolk Island pine is, unfortunately, often sold with 4 to 10 young plants, barely more than seedlings, crammed together in the same pot. That gives a denser effect more likely to appeal to potential buyers, but the resulting overcrowding is harmful to the plants themselves. Imagine, so many plantlets competing for the same resources, especially water and minerals! In fact, the main reason people fail with this plant is due to overcrowding! The best thing to do is therefore to either divide and repot the young plants individually or to cut off all but one at the base. For a fuller look, you could let 2 or 3 plants grow together for a while, but even so, after 7 to 8 years, the competition will become too intense and you ought to consider removing the extra plants, growing your Norfolk Island pine on its own, the way it does in the wild.

Other than that, the Norfolk Island pine is an easy-to-grow houseplant, that is, as long if you can provide it with a humid atmosphere during the winter. When the air is too dry, the stem tips tend to curl under, segments drop off and eventually entire lower branches fall away, leaving a very ungainly-looking plant. No amount of coddling will stimulate the plant to regrow new branches from its base (like most conifers, araucarias won’t produce new growth from mature wood) and you then have little choice but to replace the plant. For information on how to improve air humidity, read High Humidity = Happy Houseplants.

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If you give your plant decent humidity, moderate light, regular waterings and don’t overcrowd it, it should thrive.

Once you’ve solved the humidity problem, you will find this little conifer remarkably easy to grow. It adapts readily to most medium to intense light situations and will even tolerate low light for months. As for watering, just follow the “golden rule of watering”: water thoroughly when the soil is dry to the touch.

This plant is not a heavy feeder: you can fertilize it at a quarter or one-eighth of the recommended rate using any fertilizer you have on hand. It’s best not to fertilize during the winter months.

The Norfolk Island pine prefers a relatively warm summer and a somewhat cooler winter, so would appreciate it if you lowered the thermostat at night during that season. It absolutely adores spending the summer outdoors in a spot protected from high winds.

Your Norfolk Island pine will grow slowly, putting out one new whorl of branches per year, and will eventually outgrow its pot. You’ll probably find it necessary to repot every 2 to 3 years, using ordinary potting soil.

When your Norfolk Island pine becomes too tall, which can take 10 to 20 years, you can keep it at a more reasonable height by pruning off the tip, which will force the plant to produce a new leader. By doing this regularly, you can pretty much keep in indefinitely at about the same height.

Multiplication

Forget it. This is one plant you’ll want to buy already started! It is generally grown from seed, but the seed doesn’t store well, as it must be fresh in order to germinate, and is therefore rarely available. It is theoretically possible multiply the Norfolk Island pine by cuttings, but secondary branches will not form a leader, but instead will continue to grow horizontally, creating a sort of unidirectional shrub. Only tip cuttings will give upright plants… and they’re not easy to root.

Pests and diseases

Under good conditions, the Norfolk Island pine is quite resistant to insects and disease. In dry air, though, red spider mites are a threat. They seem to come out of nowhere and cover the needles with their webs, sucking the sap out of its needles and causing yellowing and branch loss. Treat them by giving the plant a thorough shower.

For a Bit of Holiday Spirit

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Feel free to decorate your Norfolk Island pine for the holidays.

Yes, you can decorate your Norfolk Island pine for the holidays. Light-weight ornaments and garlands are fine, just avoid anything too heavy: the branches are not as sturdy as those of more typical Christmas trees like firs and may tear off if you overdo it.

You can light your tree as well, as long as you stick with modern bulbs, either LED or incandescent, as they give off too little heat to damage the plant. Avoid older types of incandescent bulbs, though, because the heat they give off can dry out the plant’s needles. If the bulb to the touch, it’s too hot to put on a living tree.

There you go: all you need to know to grow one of the few conifers that really does make a good houseplant. Let a Norfolk Island pine brighten your home not only this Christmas, but for many Christmases to come!