Calatheas

Calatheas are fast growing foliage plants that clean the air by absorbing formaldehyde, trichloroethylene substances as well as auto exhaust pollution. One or two one foot plants can clean as much as 90% of the toxins from the air in an average size room.

Purple on the back sides of plant leaves tells you this plant will happily tolerate low light. These are prettier than most other foliage plants.

Each leave grows on its own stem forming a bush like plant, rosette style.

Calatheas prefer an east or north window. If you have a bright south or west window place them back from the window a few feet at least. They want bright light, but not direct light. In direct light the leaves are clear rather than green. In too little light they bend dramatically towards the light.

They like to stay moist, and like high humidity.

They also prefer to be warm all the time. Keep them away from drafts or draft windows. A nice humid not too sunny bathroom is probably your best location in the house for these plants.

Plant them in a humus rich potting mix for best results.

These make great office plants.

Cactus and succulents

One of the things that makes cactus and succulents great house plants is that they don’t mind the dry air in homes and offices. If you can get them enough light you’ll find they are some of the easiest house or office plants to grow.

Cactus and succulents differ only slightly. All cactus are succulents, not all succulents are cactus. Cactus store water in their stem, succulents store water in the leaves, stem or both. All cactus originated only in North and South America, succulents are found worldwide.

The temperature indoors is usually fine for all succulents and cactus. Some may need a cooler, winter of sorts to promote blooming. Others bloom after a flood. If you are having trouble getting your indoor succulent to bloom: first try more light, then try leaving it out at night for a month or two when it is chilly but not too cold for your particular plant. If neither of those works, let it dry more than usual for a few weeks, then give it a good soaking. Just don’t let it sit in water, be sure to drain it well.

As a general rule the spinier a cactus is, the more sunlight it will need. They are leaves that have evolved to shade the cactus with out giving up much needed water like regular leaves.

Cactus spines are like leaves and can be removed with out hurting the plant. You’ll see a tuft of tiny spines or hair at the bottom of each spine.

Succulent spines do not have tufts at the bottom and are connected to the stem tissue. Removing them will harm your plant.

To successfully grow succulents indoors, use a well drained soil. Sand or potting soil mixed with larger pebbles works well.

Cactuses need lots of sun. A bright, southern facing window at the very least. When the soil is dry several inches down, give them a good soaking and let them go dry before the next watering. Don’t fertilize cactus.

Christmas Cactus or Easter Cactus is one of the few cactus that needs water when the soil is only dry down an inch or so. It will not mind if you let it go a bit longer. Flowering in the winter around Christmas (or Easter ) it will brighten up the house in the winter. It does well in a hanging basket having vine like rather than upright growth. To propagate it just trim off a few leaves and put them in a moist soil and they will root in a month or so.

Be very careful not to overwater cactus and succulent plants especially in the winter when they are not getting much light. Black or brown spots on the cactus or succulent are a sign of over watering.

If you have black or brown areas that are mushy, that is bacterial soft rot. Remove those sections with a clean, sterile knife. Let those sections air dry.

Sometimes brown scab like things will form on your cactus. We really don’t know why this happens. it is possibly related to spider mite damage or too high of a humidity for cactus plants.

Mealy bugs can also bother cactus.

Carnivorous plants

All of the carnivorous plants I have grown love moist soil. Which is true of wild carnivorous plants in the wild. None have yet been found in arid areas. The flytraps, pitcher plants and sundews are all bog plants. Those I grow pots of clay with peat moss and soil. I put the clay pots in a saucer of water that I keep filled.

Do not fertilize carnivorous plants. In the wild they grow in bogs with poor dirt. The nutrients they need they get from the bugs they catch. When I have rain water available I use that to water them, otherwise I use tap water. Bottled water can be anything from anywhere, it’s just basically someone else’s tap water. Distilled water is totally lacking in anything.

My newest collections of carnivorous plants are planted in clear glass containers with tops. They are planted in sphagnum moss instead of dirt. They are thriving. Being bog or rain forest plants these plants all love humidity.

You can plant your carnivorous plants in sphagnum moss, peat moss, or a sand/dirt/peat mixture. Just be sure to avoid any potting soil at the nursery that has fertilizer as most of them now do.

I put the larger hanging Nepenthes outside in the summer under heavy shade and in the bathroom in the winter. It will not tolerate temperatures under 60’F. Most of the bog growing ones don’t mind an occasional frost or two.

The largest source of problems with carnivorous plants are caused by a lack of sufficient light. These plants love the sunshine and just can’t seem to get enough. If your plants are not doing well, try more light first.

The earliest known mention of carnivorous plants is in herb books of Europe in the late middle ages. Roger Bacon has several drawings of sundews in his yet to be deciphered ‘Voynic Code’ of the mid 1200s. At the time these plants were not known to be carnivorous.

The flytrap was the first plant discovered to be carnivorous by John Ellis. John Ellis named the fly trap ‘Dionaea muscipula’ ( Dionaea for the goddess Diana and muscipula means mousetrap ). The botanical world was amazed and a detailed paper by Ellis was sent far and wide throughout the community. Linnaeus, the father of biology, would not accept that a plant could be carnivorous, referring to Ellis’ work as ‘an offense against God’. So there the studies ended until Darwin’s time.

Darwin’s work with carnivorous plants began with sundews. Soon Joseph Hooker, then director of Kew Botanical Gardens, joined Darwin’s studies and they expanded them to cover other carnivorous plants. Darwin’s 400 page report in 1875 is still considered one of the main works on carnivorous plants. (Project Gutenberg has Darwin’s report available for free download )

Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon’s wife Josephine were both avid collectors of carnivorous plants.

Carnivorous plants attract prey, trap prey, and eat the prey by releasing enzymes that dissolve the prey. They then take the nutrients back up for use.

There are many plants that attract and trap the prey but only eat it with the help of a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. These are considered pre-carnivorous plants. Two bromeliads Brocchinia reducta and Catopsis bertermoniana in in this group. Even though they trap insects neither releases enzymes to dissolve the prey. Instead bacteria does that work for them. Also one of the tillandosioideaes, Catopsis Grisebach is considered to be pre-carnivorous. This plant grows on trees to which it attaches itself with roots. The leaves form an upright funnel in which it traps insects. Like the bromeliads it lacks its own enzymes to dissolve the insects.

Some plants, like Giant Dutchman’s Pipe, trap prey and release the prey after they have used the insect to spread pollen.

The plants attract prey by looking like flowers using colors including many ultra violet wavelengths which many insects can see. Some use scent often in the form of a sticky liquid.

Most of the carnivorous plants trap prey by letting the insect into the eating area but not out. A few like flytraps and sundews move and surround the insects. Some just use adhesives.

The enzymes used to breakdown the prey into dinner by the plants most commonly includes: Aamylase, chitinase, esterase, lipase, peroxidase, phosphatase, protease, and ribonuclease. Not all plants use all of the enzymes.

More Info:
Energetics and the evolution of carnivorous plants
International Carnivorous Plant Society
Carnivorous Plants, from Wayne’s World

If you want to see some truly amazing home grown carnivorous plants be sure to check out Varun’s photostream on flickr

Windmill Palms (Trachycarpus fortunei )

2007
2010
2018, haven’t had a chance to trim off the branches from last winter yet

Windmill Palms are moderate growing, reaching full height in about 10 years. They will reach a height of 20′. This particular one is about 3 years old.

They will deal with full sun, part shade is preferred.

They will tolerate droughts once well established. Plant in March & April.  That said it loves and does especially well in wet areas.

As the palms grown dead fronds will lay down against the stalk. Some people leave them some remove them. Bats love to make homes in the dead fronds. So leave them if you like bats. If you remove them also watch out for bees that sometimes build hives under the leaves.

Not one of these came down during Ike in our neighborhood, they fared much better than the more traditional trees.

The cold winter of 2009-2010 did much damage to the local palm trees. Most of the local ones have had their all of leaves removed. But all of them put out new leaves at the top in March so I expect they will all do just fine.

Summer 2011 brought 3 months of temps over 100’F and no rain. The palm is holding its own.

More information:
Floridata: Trachycarpus fortunei
Palm Doctor: The Fabulous Windmill Palm

Mosquito and Tick remedy

Last year, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Oxford, Miss., isolated compounds from a plant called American beautyberry that enable its crushed leaves to repel mosquitoes.

This work, led by chemist Charles Cantrell at the ARS Natural Products Utilization Research Unit in Oxford, was inspired by a tip another ARS scientist—botanist Charles Bryson in Stoneville, Miss.—got long ago from his grandfather: that beautyberry was used in northeastern Mississippi to protect people and farm-work animals from biting bugs.

Now ARS scientists in Beltsville, Md., have shown that two beautyberry compounds” callicarpenal and intermedeol”may effectively repel blacklegged ticks as well. [ read more USDA Research, Beautyberry ]

Indestructable house plants

According to The Texas Master Gardener Handbook, house plant section the 21 house plants that can withstand the most neglect are:

Anthurium aemulum, Climbing Anthurium
Aspidistra elatior, Iron Plant
Chamaedorea elegans ‘bellas’, Dwarf Parlor Palm
Cissus rhombifolia, Grape Ivy
Crassula arborescens, Jade Plant
Dieffenbachia amoena, Dumbcane
Dracaena fragrans Massange, Dracaena
Euphorbia mili, Crown of Thorns
Ficus elastica, Indian Rubber Tree
Ficus benjamina ‘Exotica’, Java Fig
Hemigraphis colorata, Hemigraphis
Howeia belmoreana, Kentia Palm
Pandanus veitchii, Screw Pine
Peperomia obtusifolia, Peperomia
Philodendron cordatum, Philodendron
Sansevieria trifasciata, Snakeplant
Sansevieria laurentii, Goldenstripe
Sansevieria zeylanica, Sansevieria
Scindapsus aureus, Devil’s Ivy
Syngonium podophyllum Arrowhead, Syngonium

Having grown several of these plants, I’d tend to agree.

Aloe Vera

(aloe happily thriving in parking lot in Hawaii )

As far back as Egyptian times Cleopatra used the juice in the leaves of this plant have been used to treat her skin, burns and wounds. It is a fantastic healing salve. The juice does not keep well so try to keep a fresh aloe plant in the house.

Treat this as you would any cactus. Water it only when the soil is dry about 4 inches down. Thoroughly water it when you do water it. Allow excess water drain out of the bottom of the pot.

Aloe needs quite a bit of direct sunlight. Place it in a south facing window with no blinds or curtains blocking light. If it is not getting enough light, as is often the case in winter here in New England, the leaves will get soft and may bend down and crease.

Aloes have shallow root systems and so prefer wide rather than tall pots.

Cactus do not like to be fertilized. Do not fertilize them or fertilize lightly if you must.

When the aloe vera plant is large and old enough, it will begin to grow babies which you can separate out into separate plants when they are large enough.

I found several websites mentioning aloe vera as a poisonous plant but little information. I suggest you do not eat the plant, better to look at it and use it on burns.

Dying aloe plants can usually be revived by giving them lots of sunlight and little water. Use fluorescent table lamps to bring up the light level for your plant if you are going through a long dark winter.

Happy aloe plants will bloom indoors.

The name aloe is from Greek and refers to the bitter juice in the leaves. It is originally from Africa and its use has been recorded over the last 6000 years, even making an appearance in the Bible.

It was the sap (resin), not the gel that was originally used medicinally. The sap is first boiled down into a black gel.

Problems:
Lack of sun and too much water are common causes of problems in aloes grown inside.

Leaves bent down instead of up means too little light.

Rust is a group of fungi that attack many plants. Each fungi attacks a specific plant. This occurs from too little sun and too much water.

The best fix is to give the plant more sun and drier air. That’s not so easy outside and not during the occasional cold, wet spells we get in Houston.

The next option is to use a fungicide. You can find them at any place that sells plant supplies.

As long as the wet, cold spell does not last too long, the fungus should not hurt the plant, just discolor it.