When Houseplants Are Unwilling to Branch

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An avocado plant will grow straight for the ceiling: it’s very reluctant to branch. Source: www.reddit.com

Have you ever noticed that certain houseplants branch abundantly, all on their own, growing nice and full, while others just grow straight upwards, without a branch to be seen? The latter are often cutest in their youth, when they’re still fairly squat or have lower leaves covering the upright stem, but then become lanky as they mature.

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A cane dieffenbachia (Dieffenbachia seguine, syn. D. amoena) will head right to the ceiling without producing a single branch if you let it! Source:  www.flowershopnetwork.com.

Often these species—such plants as the avocado (Persea americana), false aralia (Dizygotheca elegantissima, now Pierandra elegantissima), schefflera (Schefflera actinophylla), rubber tree (Ficus elastica) and money tree (Pachira aquatica)—grow as forest trees in the wild: they’re genetically programmed to stretch upwards until they make it through the shady forest understory into the sun, then they start to branch. They don’t seem to realize that, in your home, the best light is in the lower to middle reaches and they’ll only find disappointment (and the ceiling!) if they continue to grow upwards.

Then there are other houseplants that, without necessarily being forest trees, only begin to branch after they bloom for the first time … which, since indoor conditions are rarely equal to what they would have received in the wild, can be years away. That’s the case with such plants as the mother-of-thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) and the Madgascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei). (The latter, I hasten to point out, is not a true palm, but in the dogbane family (Apocynaceae).

Others, though, just seem to be naturally branchless, even at maturity. The Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.) and the cane dieffenbachia (Dieffenbachia seguine) fall into that category.

What to do with such reluctant branchers?

Look for Self-Branching Cultivars

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Todays’s coleus tend to stay short and rounded without pinching, a far cry from the ungainly bare-stemmed coleuses of fifty years ago. Source: www.jparkers.co.uk

Sometimes plant hybridizers have helped home gardeners by developing self-branching varieties. The old-fashioned coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides, syn. Solenostemon scutellarooides and Coleus blumei) used to be a very reluctant brancher, but most modern varieties ramify abundantly. The same goes for the zonal geranium (Pelargonium x hortorum): most modern varieties produce lots of branches. There are even basal branching varieties of the old “straight-to-the-ceiling” dieffenbachia (Dieffenbachia spp.) if you look a bit and even a branching form of the Madgascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei ramosum).

Off With Their Heads!

Normally, though, if you want to stimulate branching, a bit of pinching or pruning will be necessary.

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By cutting the top off this avocado plant, you’ll help encourage it to branch. Source: syntk.wordpress.com

Once you cut off the top of a plant, either only its terminal bud (by pinching) or a few inches of stem (with pruning shears), this will inhibit apical dominance, a hormonal control that tells the plant not to branch, freeing dormant buds lower down on the stem to begin to develop. Sometimes this only results in a single new stem being formed (the avocado, for example, is very reluctant to branch), but if you repeat it, you can often get a second stem at least. And, as new branches develop, you’ll probably need to “clip their tip” after a year or so to force them to branch as well.

Don’t be afraid to try! You can chop the top off just about any houseplant that has an upright stem … except palms. True palms simply don’t branch (except under very rare circumstances, not likely to occur in your home), although some do produce offsets at their base. So, leave palms alone and feel free to cut back everything (and I do mean everything) else.

You can, by the way, root the tops of plants you cut off. Yep, just grow them like any other cutting! Or you can try air layering: slower but often even more effective.

The More, The Merrier

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By planting several non-branching plants (here, Aglaonema ‘Silver Bay’) in the same pott, you can create an attractive, fuller look. Source: bloomscape.com

For a quicker fix, try planting several reluctant branchers together in the same pot. This will give them a naturally fuller look that can last for years. Nurseries regularly do this with such plants as Chinese evergreens, false aralias and dracaenas (Dracaena spp.). When these plants in shared pots do begin to look ungainly, just cut the top off all of the stems and they’ll all resprout from lower down, re-establishing the dense look.


Yes, you can prune or repot most houseplants to get them to put on the dense growth you want … or you can just let them grow in their usual awkward beanpole way until the ceiling interferes. You choose!

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The Trendiest Fruit: The Seedless Avocado!

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These are avocados … but where are the pits?  Source: 2.bp.blogspot.com

They are already in Marks & Spencer stores throughout Britain: seedless avocados. And they’re oh so trendy! They’re calling them cocktail avocados. Eventually, these baby avocados will almost certainly show up at a supermarket closer to your home.

In the meantime, what is the seedless avocado and where does it come from?

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Two normal avocados and one cucumber avocado on the same avocado tree (Persea americana) Source: nsaum75, Wikimedia Commons

First, seedless avocados are nothing new. Typically, avocado trees produce a certain percentage of seedless fruit, especially popular cultivars like ‘Fuerte’, ‘Arad’ and ‘Mexicola’. The number of seedless fruits rises when unusual weather means growing conditions are not conducive to perfect ripening. Avocado farmers call them cukes, cucumber avocados or avocaditos and until recently simply rejected them.

But why compost something you can sell? So, seedless avocados have been pulled out of mothballs and given the much more sophisticated name of “cocktail avocados.” If the results in England are any sign of future interest, they seem promised to a brilliant future!

The new Marks & Spencer avocados were grown Spain, but in fact, seedless avocados have been sold for many years in South America and are well known in many areas there.

Not GMOs

By the way, no, these seedless avocados are not GMOs. There is no need to carry out complicated and expensive gene transfers to create seedless avocados when they occur spontaneously! In fact, humans have been growing seedless fruits (grapes, bananas and oranges, for example) for generations, long before the beginnings of genetic engineering. People terrorized by GMOs can therefore rest easy. There are, in fact, no GMO avocados on the market, seedless or not … but do beware of mangos!

Why do seedless avocados occur? It happens when the flower is pollinated normally, but seed production aborts at a very early stage. The fruit then continues to grow, but without a pit in the center. This phenomenon is called stenospermocarpy: it’s the same thing that produces seedless grapes.

So far, growers are simply harvesting the naturally seedless avocados that appear in varying numbers on their trees, but if ever they need to up their production, there are ways to increase the percentage.

A New and Growing Market

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One normal avocado with many cucumber avocados. Source: Kathy Campbell, Pinterest

Cucumber avocados have always been available in countries where avocados are grown. What is new is that they are now being distributed in other areas … and that the distributors are actively promoting them as something new and worthwhile.

Marks & Spencer is advertising these little avocados as being “safer” than regular avocados. This surprised me, as I had never thought of the avocado as a dangerous fruit, but apparently, hundreds of people cut themselves each year removing the pit from avocados in England. In fact, there is even a term for the injury: avocado hand. Perhaps the English are particularly clumsy? Certainly I don’t see avocados as any more dangerous than carrots and onions, for which I’m managed to slice off a few fingertips in the past. (I wonder if there is a medical condition called “carrot finger” or “onion finger?”)

The Fruit Is Small, Very Small

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Cocktail avocados are about the size of a medium gherkin. Source: http://www.rootsimple.com

The most surprising thing with cocktail avocados is their small size. They only measure about 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) in length and 1 inch (1.25 cm) in diameter. Growers were right: they actually do look like cucumbers!

Their skin is much thinner than normal and the suggestion is that means we should eat the entire fruit. That’s where the name “cocktail avocado” comes it: it subtly suggests that it can be served whole as an hors d’oeuvre. Now, I’ve tasted a cucumber avocado in Costa Rica before and, to be quite honest, I found the skin sufficiently bitter to rather ruin the experience. Maybe it’s just me (I’m the first to confess don’t like bitter foods), but still, I’d probably still prefer to cut open the fruit and spoon out its flesh in the old way.

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You can peel and eat a cocktail avocado much like a banana. Source: www.aujardin.org

What would I do if confronted with a cocktail avocado on an hors d’oeuvre tray at a reception? I’d delicately peel back the skin and eat it the flesh like I would a banana, starting at one end and working my way down. I’ll bet I could do it most elegantly!

Pricey … or Not?

Despite their small size, cocktail avocados sell for about the same price as regular avocados. Visually, or if you’re hefting both fruits, the cocktail avocado is so much smaller and lighter it would seem to be the more expensive of the two, but it would be interesting to experiment by extracting the flesh from both and weighing to compare them. After all, once the pit is removed from a regular avocado, it loses a lot of its mass! They’re perhaps closer in total “flesh” than you’d think!

Media Frenzy

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Media all over the world jumped on the story of the “safer avocado”. Source: laidbackgardener.blog

In England, where seedless avocados have been on the market since the early December 2017, the media has jumped on the story in a big way, especially excited, apparently, by the safety feature of the new fruit. Pretty much every newspaper and news show did a feature on it and the word “avocado hand” has passed into everyday language.

The result is that in the 149 British Marks & Spencer stores, the only store that sells them in Great Britain, the fruits disappear as quickly as they can be put on display.

North American and international medias have picked up on this trendy fruit as well, even if the fruit is not yet available in their country. I suspect if growers can increase the production if this “new fruit,” they’ll find they have a ready market worldwide.

The End of a Tradition?

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Could the arrival of seedless avocado lead to the disappearance of avocados as houseplants? Source: www.gardenista.com

If cocktail avocados take over the market like navel oranges and seedless grapes have done in their fields, that could spell the end of a long-standing tradition, that of harvesting avocado pits and growing them as houseplants. You’d be surprised at how many people have avocado plants in their home, all from pits they sowed themselves. The avocado is certainly among the most popular of all houseplants and not because people buy avocado plants, but because they grow their own.

Fortunately, I don’t think avocados with pits are in any danger of disappearing in the immediate future, so you still have plenty of time to fill your home with the avocado trees you start yourself.

That said, I suspect that when the new cocktail avocados finally do reach local markets, many people really will opt for them. It’s so hard to buck a trend!20171223A Marks & Spencer

Can Two Houseplants Share One Pot?

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Can two houseplants share one pot? Source: gallery.yopriceville.com, Clipart Library & beautifulgarden.org.uk

Question: I grow two avocado trees in huge pots. I wondered if it would be possible to plant my aloes in the same pots, at the foot of the avocados? That would save a lot of space and it seems to me that the effect would be very attractive. What do you think?

Dominique

Answer: Your question brought up an interesting thought. Why is it that we traditionally grow each houseplant in an individual pot? After all, we don’t do so outdoors. We regularly mix and match plants in flower boxes and containers, in flower beds as well. Yet with houseplants, it’s usually: one plant per pot, even though there is no logical reason we couldn’t mix houseplants together too: it’s just a question of long-standing habit.

Compatibility is the Issue

Of course, the secret to success with mixed pots is that the plants have to be compatible, with similar or identical needs.

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This mixed container is doomed to fail. The poinsettia and Norfolk Island pine could share a pot, since they have similar needs, but the selaginella (the mosslike plant) requires high soil and air humidity that others can’t handle. Source: statebystategardening.com

You’d have a hard time keeping a desert cactus, which prefers full sun and soil that dries out thoroughly between waterings, and a maidenhair fern, which prefers moderate to low light and soil that is constantly moist, happy in the same container. Nor should you try planting together strong, invasive plants with slow-growing or fragile ones, plants that need a long period of dry dormancy with plants that grow year-round, plants that require a lot of fertilizer with plants that prefer nutrient-poor soil, nor plants that differ in soil type, temperature, light needs, etc.

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Kalanchoe daigremontiana gives off products that can actually poison the plants it grows with. Source: Alina Zienowicz, Wikimedia Commons

There are even allelopathic houseplants (Kalanchoe daigremontiana, for example) that render the soil in which they grow toxic to many other plants and are therefore never good buggy buddies.

That said, there are many houseplants that actually do share many of the same requirements. So many common varieties like or at least tolerate average light, average air humidity and average watering—philodendrons, scheffleras, spathiphyllums, etc.—and therefore, unless they have some other incompatibility, could certainly share a pot.

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Succulents can usually share a pot, but if you add cacti, you’re asking for trouble! Source: The Urban Wife

Nor is there any problem growing most succulents, such as sedums, aeoniums, euphorbias, crassulas and echeverias, in the same pot, since almost all like full sun, tolerate dry air and prefer soil that dries out between waterings. But if you add a desert cactus to the mix, even if this is currently done commercially (unfortunately), it often leads to disaster, as least in the long run. That’s because most cacti really only do well with a long winter dormancy under cool, dry conditions, while “other succulents” usually don’t like things quite that cold and dry.

In other words, combining different plants in one pot is possible, but it can be complicated.

Your Combination

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Can aloes share a pot with an avocado? Source: gallery.yopriceville.com, Clipart Library & beautifulgarden.org.uk

At first glance, the combination you suggest would not seem doable. The avocado (Persea americana) is a tree native to the tropical rainforest (i.e. jungle) and prefers soil that is always at least a bit moist, plus high atmospheric humidity at all times. The medicinal aloe (Aloe vera), on the other hand, comes from an arid environment, where the air is dry and the soil receives no water for months on end. Growing them together would seem to be a really bad idea.

That said, the aloe is an extremely adaptable plant, much more so than the avocado. It’s been grown as a potted plant for almost 6,000 years and seems to have learned to live with human vagaries. Yes, it prefers sun and soil that is on the dry side, but will adapt to medium or even low light and soil that is never totally dry, although you can’t leave it soaking wet for weeks at a time. Although it was designed by nature to tolerate dry air, it doesn’t require it and it won’t react badly to the efforts you put into keeping the much more finicky avocado happy. And both do like warmth year round, so they have at least one thing totally in common.

So yes, I think you could grow both together. It’s a borderline combination, but as long as you watch your watering and let the soil nearly dry out before you water, you ought to be able to let aloes share the big pots of your avocados.