Articles of Interest to Indoor Gardeners

Paper White Narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus)

Paper White NarcissusNarcissus paperwhites frreshly planted and already growing. Photo by Randall Prue

The freshly and powerfully intoxicating scent of paperwhites is one of the most refreshing escapes from our tedious northern winter. Here, a month ahead of the solstice, we see a pot of freshly planted paperwhites and the box from which they eagerly escaped. Each of five boxes that I picked up late November contained five firm bulbs (bulbs should always be firm when we buy them), each with a growing tip bursting to get going.

But wait! Why was that so easy? Why no weeks of chilling? Why no wait? Why no fridge, cold room, root cellar? Because these narcissi hail from the Mediterannean region where they enjoy a mild winter.

It really is that easy to enjoy scent, bloom, and leaf during the bleak northern winter. Inside the package shown, which cost me about $6.00 (these days, $6.00 buys one small rooted cutting in a pot).

If you want to enjoy these bulbs again, you need only respect its growth cycle and allow it to enjoy the important feeding and rest phases. After flowering, and like most flowering bulbs (e.g., tulips, garlic), the plant continues through a period of growth. During this period, the foliage (the leaves) continues and is feeding the bulb for the next season's blossom. This is the best time to feed (fertilize) the plant. For more on the topic of feeding plants, see the topic "Feeding", beginning on page 21 of Keeping Them Alive


Many gardeners report that they have cut down a bulb's leaves after flowering ends. If you do cut down the leaves on narcissus or any other bulb, you might as well dig it up and toss it into the compost. Without the feeding and nutrient storage that takes place during this feeding phase, the bulb will not likely bloom again. Typically, if leaf removal is repeated, the plant slowly deteriorates and dies. 

The next phase of the growth cycle of a bulb is rest and relaxation (this applies to all tulips, hippeastrum, garlic, perennial onions, etc.). After the leaves die back, the bulb rests. How long it rests may vary from species to species, but typically the rest period is the length of winter in its native habitat. During the rest cycle, the bulb wants only just enough moisture to prevent it from drying up. The firm bulb contains everything it needs for the next season of growth and flowering. It is not feeding, so any attempt at feeding is pointless. Like hippeastrum (what we call amaryllis), I leave paperwhites in soil in pots, tucked under a table in the sun room, and have enjoyed repeated bloom for several years with many of them.  

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) from India, Africa

Bird's Nest Sansevieria in Decorative ContainerConsidered to be "plain", the use of a colorful pot has made this bird's nest (Sansevieria 'Hahnii') highly decorative. Photo by Randall Prue.Also known as mother-in-law's tongue, and also available in a compact rosette form (shown here) commonly known as bird's nest!

This article is based on the topic (Sansevieria) in Keeping Them Alive, but contains additional "bonus" material not available in 1982. The photo at left is a bird's nest (Hahnii) sansevieria that I have grown for many years (it was once a tiny thing with only a few leaves in a single rosette). Recently I decided to put the multi-colored decorative cache-pot to use, and the sansevieria happened to fit. I find that they go very well together.

Succulent Sansevieria is one of the most common house plants, one that you would have seen decades ago at a time when only a handful of green plants were found in the average home (at a time when outdoor greenery was more common, and the need for indoor greenery was less important than it is today).

Many varieties are cultivated or indoor use (over 130 according to the International Sansevieria Society), largely because of their different patterns and colors, which can be very striking. ranging from white-edged to deep green (like the one shown here), passing through various pale greens and yellows. The "snake" variety (not shown here) grows straight up until it falls from its own weight (at about 1 metre, just over 3 feet). All varieties have fleshy leaves (think succulent/cactus), which allows them to stand straight and tall.


If you want a plant that you virtually cannot kill, this is it!

There is a vast difference between ideal conditions and what a snake plant will tolerate, which is almost anything this side of baking or constant watering. I have known a snake plant to survive months without water; and it can live in very low light.

One person told me that she was tired of her snake plant but could not bring herself to throw away a living plant, and so stuck it into a closet, hoping that it would die. Months later, she found it shrivelled in bone-dry soil but still alive, which prompted her to bring it back into her life.

Sansevieria Trifasciata, Photo by Martin OlssonEven though it will take as much light as you can give it, if you place it in full sun, you run the risk of the leaves paling, burning, and far less attractive. Personally, I would not put a snake plant in a hot sunny window, and if were to take one outside for summer, I would keep it in full shade (to read about how to mange the move outdoors, read "Light" on page 11 of Keeping Them Alive).

New leaves and plants grow from the soil without coaxing, often through a crack in its pot or from drainage holes. Why would its pot have a crack in it? Snake plants are good at busting out at the seams (by sending out new plants off to side, underground; they are strong enough to break the pot), indicating that it is time to repot or to split the plant into several smaller ones!

Like all plants, snake plant enjoys an all-natural diet. For more on this topic, see the topics  "Feeding" and "Fertilizers" on page 21 of Keeping Them Alive.

I have never seen a parasitic insect on a snake plant.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera, Central and S. America)

Magenta Christmas CactusUsing my simple methods, this Christmas cactus blooms year after year. Photo by Randall Prue.

where night are cool (17°-18° C, about 65° F.). There are several types of Schlumbergera and at least one type of Zygocactus. They are called Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter cactus. The name given to one of these plants may be its correct name, or may the name of the next holiday.

You may have one that always blooms at the same time of year. I have known this plant to change its mind and bloom at irregular intervals. Many growers control the plant's environment to trigger blooming when it best suits their marketing needs.

Christmas cactus is a succulent from the Cactus family. It required much more water than a desert cactus. In fact, the soil (PHILODENDRON SOIL (see "Potting Soils" on page 25 of Keeping Them Alive)), can be kept moist at all times. Allowing the soil to dry will not harm the plant, but it may have to be left sitting in water to remoisten the soil.


Ideal conditions are: warm days and cool nights; and bright light (away from full sun). The plant will grow in less light, but is not likely to bloom.

High humidity is not critical, but will make for nicer foliage and easier flowering. Misting is good for the plant and helps to keep leaves clean.

This plant normally grows through spring and summer, goes into dormancy in the fall, and then begins to flower.

Encouraging a Christmas cactus to produce its white, pink, red or purple flowers is the concern of a great number of people. In autumn, the plant should be entering its dormant period. New leaves are not likely at this time. When this happens, ease up on the water. Allow the plant to dry between light waterings.

It should have at least 12 hours of darkness, with light in the daytime. Stop all feeding. Night temperatures should be below 18° C. or 65° F. Daytime temperature should be cooler than during the plant's growing season. If a long night is not something that you can provide, a night temperature between 5°-10° C. (40°-50° F.) can compensate for it.

When buds form, increase watering and begin a light feeding program. If buds form but fail to open, the plant may need more water or higher humidity.

Put the plant on a normal feeding schedule while it is growing (or during its active growing season to encourage it to grow) and once the first buds have opened.

A leaf cutting with several segments (at least 2) will root.

Watch for mealybugs.

Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria excelsa)

Norfolk Island Pine in Native Habitat. Photo by KahuroaThis is a pine tree and it does come from Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, off the coast of Australia. Imagine—a pine tree that you can keep indoors.

They grow naturally to 60 metres or taller. The size of pot you grow it in will determine how tall yours may grow, but never repot to a pot more than 2" larger at a time. Use STANDARD POTTING SOIL (see "Potting Soil" on page 25 of Keeping Them Alive.). I have seen them in PHILODENDRON SOIL and they didn't seem to mind it.

This is not the easiest plant to keep indoors. It is very important o keep the soil moist at all times. Just before it dries completely, water enough to moisten the soil without soaking it. They definitely do not like to be dry. As soon as a Norfolk Pine dries, the branches will start to brown and dry. As with any pine, these branches are irreplaceable. Branches will fall off from the bottom off and there is not way to have the plant grow more to replace them.




Humidity should be kept above 30%. Norfolk Pines enjoy being misted.

Bright light is best—neither full sun nor too dark, although partial shade is OK. They prefer a cool spot.

New plants can be had from seed or from a tip that has been rooted (use the main stem tip. Side shoots do not produce well-shaped plants).

Paling foliage is an indication of mites, which are very hard to find and treat on a pine tree. You may find mealybugs more easily, although they aren't much easier to treat because of the many small needles and crevices.

Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura)

Rabbit-Track Prayer Plant, Maranta leuconeura kerchoveana. Photo by Kurt StueberPrayer Plant, Maranta leuconeura kerchoveana. Photo by Kurt StueberMaranta leuconeura kerchoveana (rabbit-track plant) and Maranta leuconeura massangeana (fishbone plant)
are both from tropical America. Rabbit-track has red spots which resemble rabbit paw marks, and fishbone has a definite pattern of fish bones.

As if these were not enough to make the plant unusual, it folds its leaves at night, resembling hands in prayer.

It grows under other plants in its natural habitat in moist rich soil and is therefore best kept in warm moist air (18 - 24 degrees Celsius [around 72 degrees Fahrenheit]), in moist soil and in partial shade. Bright light will produce very nice growth, but full sun will burn its leaves.


This is an excellent plant for a terrarium, because it remains small and likes a close atmosphere. Outside a terrarium it is prone to dry brown leaf tips. I use Prayer plants in arrangements and on low tables where their colourful foliage is most visible. They grow very slowly and never become tall. After some time, a Prayer plant will spread and hang. New plants spring up from the roots, making the pot fuller.

Repotting into PHILODENDRON SOIL in a larger pot will give it room to continue producing more plants. It can be divided and stem cuttings can be rooted. A Prayer plant can be cut back to soil level if it has become leggy or unattractive. It will produce new growth from its roots. I once discarded a Prayer plant that had died. I emptied the pot into a plastic bag to add to a compost pile the following spring. I found it months later, growing. The growth was white, resembling an onion shot. I had forgotten what it was, but potted it to see what it would do. A few weeks later I was surprised by a nice little Prayer plant.

Frequent misting is very good for Prayer plants which are not in terrariums. Before the soil is dry it should be watered. Experts recommend that in winter (November to February) a Prayer plant should be allowed to dry a little more. They are susceptible to mites, mealybugs and scale.