Green Up your Winter Abode with Houseplants -Winter 2014

by: Hilary Newell

When it’s time to put my garden to bed each year, there are decisions to be made. The thrifty Yankee in me wants to bring in plants and fill the house. The practical me says, “Whoa” and my husband says, “Why bother?”

So we strike a happy medium. There are ups and downs to having plants in the house, but in my book the ups outweigh the downs. On the upside there’s color, air detoxification and sometimes there’s glorious scent, or even some fruit. On the downside, there can be leaves or flowers that drop on the floor and there might be insects.

When you bring Mother Nature inside, you have to take it all, the good and the not so good.
When it comes right down to it, the citrus plants are the only ones that I bring inside. They love being outside on my deck all through the good weather (who doesn’t?) and because of their age and slow growth, they are not easily replaced. Meyer lemons (Citrus x meyeri) are very reliable and often produce fruit all winter. A cross between a true lemon and either a mandarin or a common orange, this plant was introduced to the United States in 1908. These lemons were popularized by chef Alice Waters in the 1990s and can be readily found in garden centers. The scent of the blossoms will fill your house, and when the lemons are ready to use, you will find the flavor to be sweeter and less acidic than grocery-store varieties.

Watch for the fruit to take on a very slight orange-ish tint and you will know that it’s time to pick, but you can pick and use them as soon as they are fully yellow. For the most delicious vinaigrette, use two parts really good olive oil, one part apple-cider vinegar, one part freshly-squeezed Meyer lemon juice and a touch of sugar. Add the zest of one of the lemons and whisk well. This is very light and is great on greens and any sort of fruity salad.

Meyer lemons seem to have taken over the “most popular” position previously occupied by Calamondin oranges. Calamondins are commonly found in tropical landscapes, as they have a very long bloom time. Add the tiny oranges and the scent of the continual blossoms and you have a real winner. If you are lucky enough to find one, keep it as a houseplant and enjoy the great scent and the bright orange fruit. Popthoselittleorangesinthe freezer when they become ripe and when you have enough, turn them into marmalade.

I bought a diminutive specimen of a Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) plant last year. I fretted a little about keeping it growing, as it just sat there for some time. I watered and fed it and it did nothing. Then I put it outside in June and after a few of the leaves sunburned, it began to grow. It’s now about two feet wide and about 18 inches tall, having put on a growth spurt after every summer rain. Also known as wild lime or Thai lime, the fruits and leaves of these plants are used heavily in Thai cooking, with the citrusy leaves imparting a unique flavor that is associated with that cuisine.

The green fruits are knobby and pungent and not very juicy, but the zest is powerfully flavored and is used to enhance chili dishes and fragrant foods. It is used sparingly as it can easily overpower less-subtle flavors. The larger leaves can be sliced finely to add to soups like Tom Ka or hot and sour. I am told you can find a Kaffir lime tree in the yard of nearly every home in Thailand, as the fruit is also used for shampoo and for making household cleaners. The fruit and leaves can be frozen whole until they are ready to be used.

Rounding out my citrus collection is a key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) also known as bartender’s lime or Mexican lime. Daintier than store-bought limes, key limes are very aromatic and very juicy. If you get enough of them, you can make an amazing key-lime pie. Use a graham-cracker crust and whipped cream (or meringue if you prefer) for the bottom and the top, and for the filling, simply combine 1 cup of key-lime juice with two cans of sweetened condensed milk. There’s no need for egg yolks or other fillers. The acid in the key lime reacts with the sweetened condensed milk and it becomes thick all on its own. If your lime produces sporadically, squeeze and freeze the juice until you have enough to make the pie.

Most citrus plants prefer full sun, either a southern or western exposure in your house. The nighttime temperature should stay above 60 degrees in order to keep healthy growth on the plant. At temperatures below 60, these plants will survive, but the results will not be satisfying. Humidity should stay above 50 percent if possible. Pruning after harvesting is essential in keeping their size in check, remembering to freeze the Kaffir lime leaves for later use. Or you can just crush them in your hand and enjoy the great scent. When you notice that you are watering your citrus every day, it’s probably time to repot it. You can safely increase the diameter of the pot by about two inches as most citrus prefers to be a little pot-bound.

Citrus are not highly susceptible to insects, but if you have other infected plants in the house, those bugs will probably migrate onto the citrus. It’s important to use the most natural methods of insect eradication possible if you are planning on using that lemon in your iced tea, making marmalade with those oranges or serving key-lime pie to your friends. Ask the experts at your local garden center for suggestions for safely ridding your plants of insects. There’s plenty of information online, too. Reputable sources include Logee’s Greenhouse and university extension services.

Another garden plant that I try to bring into the house is any type of Rex begonia. These plants achieve their best look at summer’s end and are happy to come inside for the winter. With fabulous foliage in a wide range of colors, shapes and textures, these are available from garden centers in the spring. Grow them outside in shade gardens or containers. Some will flower with insignificant blossoms, but the real story is in the leaves. With spirals and veins in gray, silver, green and red with puckered, jagged or smooth foliage, these plants are just fascinating to look at.

Outside they prefer a shaded, humid area that has good drainage. Inside they can survive in a northern window, but their color will be better when in a window with bright morning light. Too much water is the kiss of death for most houseplants, and most begonias are no exception. A Rex begonia should never be allowed to dry completely most of the year. During prolonged dark and cold spells in the winter it’s OK to let them occasionally dry completely between waterings. The size on most of these varieties is perfect for the house. The leaf size will vary, with some reaching eight or nine inches long and four or five inches wide. Generally, Rex begonias will reach a height of 12-15 inches tall and wide. The bottom leaves will occasionally dry up and you can just pick them off to keep your plant tidy.

Nobody wants to be the person who kills Grandma’s Christmas cactus, so how do you keep it alive and more specifically, how do you get it to bloom? First it’s important to understand which cactus you have. A Christmas cactus has flat leaves with rounded edges and the Thanksgiving cactus has pointy edges. You might even have an Easter cactus that has pointy edges and some fibrous hairs in the leaf joints. Under their native conditions each of these will bloom close to the holiday in their name.

Growers can manipulate those conditions to make them bloom at other times, so it’s not unheard of to buy a blooming cactus at Christmas time and have it bloom months earlier in your home the following year. Holiday cacti are easy to care for once you stop thinking of them as cacti. They are not like the droughtloving saguaro or barrel cacti of the desert, but rather they are epiphytes that live in the rain forests of Brazil. They are rooted in the organic matter that collects in the hollow areas of jungle trees where rainfall can range from as little as three inches a month to as much as 17 inches per month.

Holiday cacti are short-day plants. This means they will bloom when the night is at least 14 hours long for six weeks. They will also begin to set buds if exposed to prolonged temperatures between 50-55 degrees. They will not set bud if the temperature is above 68 degrees, regardless of light exposure. If your holiday cactus goes outside for the summer (and that is the best place for it) be sure it is in a semi-shady spot, and leave it on a covered porch or protected area outside until it is exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees. My grandmother left them on a shady porch in summer and then placed them in an unheated spare bedroom, virtually ignoring them until they started budding.

Once those buds show up, it’s important to move them into a warmer and brighter room with a daytime temperature of at least 65. Increase watering at this point, but let it dry somewhat between waterings. A frequent complaint is that the buds fall off before they open. This is usually due to drying out too much, a sudden drop in temperature, or humidity that is too low. Remember, they are rain-forest plants, and they enjoy high humidity. When they are not blooming this isn’t as important, and they can dry out a lot. When you are done enjoying the bloom, only water your cactus when it is very dry. The only major disease that plagues these plants is stem rot and that is caused by overwatering. Fertilize with a houseplant food lightly once a month from April until October. If you need to prune, do it in June and share the cuttings with friends and relatives so that Grandma’s cactus lives on. They are really easy to root in vermiculite.

There are plenty of other flowering houseplants that are easy to find and will provide great points of color throughout your house. For less than the cost of a nice bouquet of cut flowers, you can enjoy the blooms and colorful foliage of Cyclamen, Streptocarpus, jasmine, African violets, hibiscus, Oxalis or Gloxinia for months. People often feel an overwhelming need to try to keep some plants going long after they have finished blooming. And for plants that are easy to rebloom, that’s fine. It’s difficult to kill a Streptocarpus and getting it to rebloom is not difficult either, but your plant will just be foliage for much of the year. Getting a Cyclamen to rebloom and stay looking good is more difficult, as the natural tendency is for it to go dormant after it blooms. Then you will just have a pot of soil. So enjoy that Cyclamen while it’s blooming, then toss it. It will have lasted a lot longer than a bouquet of cut flowers that cost double or triple its price. The same goes for the amaryllis that you grew. If you have a green thumb, then by all means keep that bulb. Let the foliage ripen and die back, then store the bulb in the basement (or another dry, cool spot) until October when you can pull it out and plant it again.

Thanks to plantsmen around the world, we are lucky these days to have a wide variety of plants to choose from and we can be reasonably assured that they will be successful given proper care in the home. Research has taught us that plants produce oxygen and cleanse the air, but that alone isn’t enough of a reason for having plants in my home. Winter can be long and dark, and having a splash of color or a room full of citrusy scent is just what is needed to lift the spirits. Bring in a couple of plants from your garden, enjoy a cluster of Cyclamen or a windowsill full of African violets. Try a couple citrus plants that will give you scented flowers and fruit. Ask the experts for advice, toss old plants that have stopped blooming and no longer give you any pleasure, but by all means, try not to kill your grandmother’s Christmas cactus. ///

Hilary Newell is an expert gardener, and can be found at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm, where she has worked for over 25 years.






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