The holidays are upon us, and one of the things we enjoy about this time of year is all the sparkle and color that go with the season. So why not extend that joy into the cold and dreary days ahead?
Giving yourself or your friends a beautiful plant is a great idea. These gifts will keep bringing pleasure for months, even years ahead. Ironically, some of the best flowering plants and gifting plants for this time of year are tropical. In our coldest and greyest time of year, these non-natives are happy to grow and flower.
In addition to cheering you up, house plants also help clean the air inside your home. During the months when the house is generally closed up and little fresh air is encouraged, many plants will convert the carbon dioxide we exhale into fresh oxygen and also remove many toxins from the air we breathe.
First studied by NASA as a way to keep the air fresh for space travelers, research has shown that any indoor plants in your environment will help.
Although it might seem natural to grow tropical plants in our ever-warming climate, tropical doesn’t mean the plants love full sun and high heat. When we think of tropical plants, we often only remember that they don’t like the cold, but the fact is they really don’t like our relentless sun and drought.
Tropicals prefer a slightly shaded spot because tropical areas are often natural jungles that provide many layers to filter the direct sunlight. Indoors in the winter is the perfect place to grow our tropical plants and the perfect time for us to enjoy a burst of color and exotic bloom.
Poinsettias and Christmas cactuses are probably the most common indoor bloomers at this time of year, and they both like the conditions preferred by tropicals. They will freeze if left out, and they prefer protection from the sun. Both will live outdoors in Central Texas most of the year, but when winter comes, they need to move inside. Christmas cactuses bloom during the holiday season, and poinsettias are forced into color for the holidays.
But if you are weary with these standards, consider some other readily available plants that will enhance your indoor spaces. One of my favorites is brugmansia, commonly called angel trumpets. While these beauties grow as shrubs and small trees in tropical and semi-tropical areas, they are happy to grow in containers in Central Texas. They prefer partial shade or seasons of cooler sun, and they want a constant source of moisture. Compost or another natural source of fertility like fish emulsion and seaweed will encourage them to bloom regularly. Mine bloom most freely in spring and fall, finding the summer just too hot. The flowers can be white, yellow, coral, pink, orange or red. Keep your trumpets outdoors during the warm seasons but bring in indoors to enjoy the flowers. But don’t eat them: All parts are poisonous.
Norfolk pine is a pretty little plant that is sometimes given as a holiday hostess gift. You can decorate it as a mini Christmas tree, but all by itself it is a lovely punch of green for the home. While they look like the big trees you might see in the forest, these pines are sensitive to cold and are, in fact, not pine trees at all. They are more like gardenias or orchids than pine trees.
Like other tropical plants, Norfolk pines want high humidity. You can do that by regularly misting the tree or by setting a tray of pebbles with water under the pot where it is growing. The plants need bright light and can be moved outdoors during the summer, just not in direct sun. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch, and use a water-soluble natural fertilizer in the spring and summer.
Cyclamen plants are widely available in Austin in the winter. Their vibrant flowers come in many colors and are cheerful additions to any space. In nature, cyclamen grow in a cool, humid environment. If you keep your home very warm, they will suffer. Be sure the soil you plant then in drains well. They like to be moist but not soggy. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. Enjoy the flowers, which are very long-lasting, then you can let the plant go dormant and wait a couple of months for it to come back to life. In our climate, these tropicals are grown more often for their burst of flowers, then either planted in the group or consigned to the compost heap.
One of the easiest tropics to grow indoors in the peace lily (spathiphyllum), also known as the closet plant. The reason this plant is so popular is that it looks good, has a lovely long-lasting bloom and does exceptionally well indoors. Preferring light to moderate shade, some varieties can take more light than others, but all prefer low light, making them more adapted to various corners of our homes. They like warmth, so don’t worry about the heat inside your house. They like rich, loose potting soil and moisture, so they are easy to care for once they get off to a good start.
The exotic white bloom appears in late winter or early spring and lasts a long time. Otherwise, the glossy green leaves are lovely in themselves. These plants will enhance your home for years with minimal care.
Judy Barrett is the author of several gardening books; the most recent "When Good Gardens Go Bad." She can be found on Facebook at Judy Barrett's Homegrown.