January 7, 2011

Hooray for Cyclamen!

Outside my window this afternoon is a world of white – a product of the Boxing Day Blizzard - punctuated by a dismal oak tree that for reasons outside of my understanding, hangs onto its limp, brown leaves.

Fortunately, indoors, I have a cacophony of never-ending color. Thank goodness for cyclamen.

Cyclamen, along with orchids and a few other tropicals, are the bright spots of a cold winter. If I may allowed a moment of anthropomorphism, they’re perky little plants that cheer me on as winter hunkers down and gets entrenched in New England.

The cyclamen that greet me each morning
If you don’t know cyclamen, head to your nearest garden center and get acquainted. They’re a European import that is more than welcome in any home. They produce prolific white, pink and purple flowers all winter long; seldom seem bothered by disease, and thrive indoors with little more than watering. Their leaves are a marvel of plant biology: a veritable roadmap on each one etched in green, black and white. We keep a clutch of cyclamen in our master bathroom where they greet us each morning. There are other groupings around the house, where ever there is a splash of sunlight and a welcome need for color.

They’re also durable. By April, their energy is spent (but by then, the first spring bulbs are up) and we consign our dozen or so cyclamen to the basement for six weeks of rest. Then, in mid-May, we un-pot them and plant them in out-of-the-way, shady spots in the garden. There, the bulbs (technically speaking, corms) gather strength and produce a few leaves. Before the first frost, we gently dig them up, re-pot them with a loose potting mix, and find them a window with good, filtered light. By the time Thanksgiving has passed, they’re back in flower. In case you think this migration is hard on the plants, we have one cyclamen that has made the pot-to-earth transition for considerably longer than a decade and is going strong.

Orchids are another winter pleaser. They’ve come a very long way in the past decade. Once orchids were rare, temperamental and outlandishly expensive. Today, tissue culture technology has made them readily available, especially phalaenopsis and dendrobium which adapt well to growing in homes. Ours occupy a tray in our upstairs hallway where a southeast-facing set of windows provide all-day light. We provide the moisture they need by resting the orchid pots on trays filled with a thin layer of pea gravel and water.

Orchids require more care than cyclamen. They need a reasonable amount of air circulation and higher humidity than most homes can provide in winter. They’re prone to spider mites, scale and aphids and so need to be watched (a little alcohol or soapy water is the best medicine). But the payoff is worth the effort: months of spectacular flowers on spikes and, miracle of miracles, re-blooms on plants that have been allowed to rest and gather energy.

The croton with its own skylight
My other, personal favorite winter plant is the croton. Its colorful, glossy tropical foliage can only be called gaudy when you see it in summer. In the winter, with all that miserable snow outside, it’s a bit of heavenly eye candy. I grew up in Florida with masses of crotons outside my bedroom window and I never appreciated them because “they didn’t bloom”. Well, I’ve learned my lesson. There are two in our home, both several feet high and I cherish their cacophony of color. All that’s missing is a mynah bird cawing in the distance.

Crotons want even moisture and lots of light. Ours have a skylight all to themselves and they reward us with a bountiful display of leaves. Yes, just leaves; but they’re red and yellow and dark green and gold and no two are alike. They make winter a little more bearable.

And, isn’t that what houseplants are for?

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