Thursday, June 4, 2009


If eye-popping color and a tropical flair is what you’re looking for, the hibiscus has it. While there are hardy and cold tolerant varieties of hibiscus, the tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) is usually the one used as an indoor plant. It is the most vibrant and exotic of all hibiscus types.

It may at first be difficult to know whether a hibiscus is tropical or hardy, but some key characteristics of the tropical varieties are their vivid coloration and their glossy, deep green leaves. Tropical varieties also come in flashier color combinations with yellows, oranges and bright reds often all on the same flower. Tropical hibiscus flowers are usually 3 to 5 inches across.

Hibiscuses need lots of sun. In warmer climates, full sun may be too much but further from the equator full sun is best. In the winter, supplemental lighting is required if you want to keep them going strong. Fluorescent lights help but it is difficult for light to penetrate through thick canopies of dark green leaves. Expect plants to lose some leaves and have a reduction in flowering during the winter months; it’s perfectly normal. Remember to reduce watering and cut out the fertilization when the plant is “resting” like this. When spring comes again, the plant will experience a full flush of growth and regain its vigor.

Make sure that during the growing season your hibiscus gets plenty of water and fertilizer. Hibiscus flowers last about a day and are constantly pushing out more, so they need fuel to keep going. You will find that an actively growing hibiscus needs frequent watering but don’t over-do it. Let the plant dry out a bit between those waterings to protect the roots from rotting.

Keep the plant in the smallest pot you can to facilitate frequent watering. Repotting is best done in the spring when new growth begins. The plant may be repotted in the same pot or bumped up to the next size if necessary. Some root pruning is desirable to keep the plant growing in a compact form.

Humidity is a must for hibiscus. Provide a light misting daily, use a pebble tray, group with other plants or use a humidifier. Placing the plant in the bathroom when someone is showering is a great idea. If there is enough light in there for it to grow, the bathroom is a great place all around.

Bugs love hibiscus – there’s no way around it. Spider mites, aphids and whitefly are particularly fond of them. If the plant stays wet too often, fungus gnats may move in, as well. Check your plant for insects often and treat quickly to prevent them from taking over. One of the easiest ways to take care of an insect infestation is with a good dunking in a bucket. Wrap the pot in plastic wrap to keep the potting mix in and the water out, making sure to get a good seal around the base stem, if possible. Turn the whole thing upside down and dunk in a bucket of lukewarm, soapy water. If insecticidal soaps or oils are used, be sure to wear gloves. Give it several good swishes for at least a minute. This will remove about 90% of the insects on the plant each time you do it. Repeat the process weekly until the plant recovers.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Staghorn Fern

Staghorn Ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) were once a rarity, but they have seen a tremendous surge in popularity. Also known as Elkhorn Fern, the Staghorn is interesting because it has a very different appearance from other ferns. Most ferns have delicate, lacy fronds. Staghorn ferns have two types of fronds: one type is a flat, branched frond, resembling the horn of an elk, and the other type is a flat, round one that grows around the other fronds like a collar.

It’s not just appearance that makes the Staghorn different from other ferns. Most ferns grow in soil, but the Staghorn Fern is an epiphyte. Epiphytes prefer to attach themselves to some object for support, such as a tree, and catch water when it rains. Staghorn Ferns can be grown in a hanging basket but are more commonly seen mounted on slabs of cork, redwood, or some other material. Sphagnum moss and peat moss can be mixed together or used alone and placed between the flat, round fronds and the mount. The fern should be wired on to the mount by its flat, round (basal) fronds.

Mounted Staghorn Ferns require a little bit of special care for them to thrive indoors. For one thing, they need fairly high humidity and do not like to be misted. Some people do mist their Staghorns, but usually they have a fan going to help the water evaporate quickly. Water should not sit on the fronds for extended periods of time without air movement. Keep your Staghorn away from drafty windows, doors to the outside and heating vents. Sudden temperature changes can cause the plant to wilt.

To water a mounted Staghorn, place the whole slab in mild water for about 10 minutes twice a week. Adjust according to the seasons and how quickly the plant is growing. Ideally, the moss should never get completely dry all the way through, but you don’t want the moss to be wet all the time, either. You can add some dilute fertilizer to the water when you are irrigating, but these plants don’t require much in the way of nutrients. A weak fertilization once a month is sufficient.

Staghorn Ferns are pretty tolerant of a wide range of lighting conditions, but bright, filtered light is the best. If you summer your plants outdoors, remember to keep the plant protected from the sun. These plants average two feet in diameter at maturity, but are known to get much larger than that if they are cared for carefully.

If you see silvery scales lined up along the backs of the fronds, have no fear: they are spores. Ferns do not grow from seeds. They propagate themselves from the neat and orderly little dots you may see on the back of your fern. As interesting as this sounds, you will probably not be able to reproduce your plant from spores. More likely, you will be able to propagate little Staghorns from plantlets generated by the original plant. Plantlets develop at the base of the fern, and when they are big enough can be given their own slabs.

If you’ve been yearning to try a Staghorn Fern but have held back for fear of killing it, I hope that you now have the confidence to give it a go. The best way to learn to grow a new plant is to grow it. You can always start with a little one for practice, and work your way up!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chinese Evergreen

If you’re looking for an understated, easy to care for foliage plant, you’ll find that there are a lot of choices in the Aglaonema genus. Aglaonemas are often seen in malls, restaurants and offices in mixed planters. They are most commonly green with light green, white, or yellow markings although breeders have come up with some pretty reds and pinks as well.

Aglaonemas prefer moderate light. Avoid direct sun or deep shade and your plant will be quite happy. Light levels can affect the coloration of the leaves. Leaves will be deeper green in low light and variegation will become more pronounced if the plant receives higher light.

Use a potting mix that retains moisture but drains easily. Cheap potting mix isn’t worth the money you save if the plant doesn’t thrive in it. Keep the potting mix slightly moist, allowing it to dry out fairly well between waterings. If the soil is dry about an inch down, it is time to water. Fertilize Aglaonemas once a month during active growth with a complete fertilizer.

It is rare for Aglaonemas to have problems with insects. They don’t attract pests, although mealy bugs will occasionally take advantage of a neglected plant. Mealy bugs look like small fluffs of cotton and are usually found in crevices and creases of plants: where leaves are connected to the plant or where new leaves are emerging, for instance. If you check the plant over thoroughly before purchasing it is unlikely that you will have pest problems.

Aglaonemas are very easy to propagate. Cuttings can be taken and rooted in water or stuck directly in moist potting mix and covered with plastic wrap to keep the humidity up. Plants can also be divided. This is best done in the spring when the plant is beginning to actively grow and put out new roots. If the plant is already growing new roots it will take to a new pot nicely. Take special care not to over-water the new plants until they have become established.

Aglaonemas are in the Araceae plant family, alongside Elephant Ears, Philodendron and Dumb Cane. This means that they contain calcium oxalate crystals which can cause skin irritation and are extremely painful if eaten. Keep these plants away from nibbling pets and curious children to be safe. Like other Arums, Aglaonemas also flower. They have the typical spadix and spathe flower like the popular Peace Lily. Most Aglaonemas do not have an attractive flower and it can be removed if so desired.