When you see a new plant you would like to have, do you have a good place for it to survive and grow? In general there are about six groups, each having its own special needs.
SUCCULENTS are one of the most popular and so easy to take care of. Most of them have branched, shallow roots near the surface to be able to use any water that appears. Coming from hot, dry areas, they have a number of characteristics to survive. Many have a layer of hairs or fibers to avoid too much evaporation of water. The leaves are often thick and leathery or seem to be filled with water they have stored. Do not use too much water – they will get root rot easily so plant them in loose, good drainage soil with a high proportion of sand. They are not used to a humid atmosphere. This group has interesting, different type of leaves and flowers. Easy! Don’t drown them.
My favorite is ALOE VERA – a big, clumsy plant that stabs you when you move it. Many people keep it for the leaves, whose tips can be broken off to get the ooze that can be put directly on burns, sores, and bruises. Mine lives in summer on the west side of the brick garage – a place few other plants can stand, but this plant likes full sun. It grows quite fast and produces many suckers that are easy to grow. Its stalk may be 3 feet long. This plant is used in many “healing lotions” and grows as a major crop. Some of the ads have pills or “drinks” for medicinal purposes made with it.
Another group, sometimes listed with the Succulents, is the CACTUS, who need even less water and more sun, are slow growing, and do not like humidity. Many require a rest period of no fertilizer and no water. There are special soil mixes for Cactus in garden centers/nurseries. Notice that it seems like gravel. There are two different kinds – desert and jungle. DESERT CACTUS have tiny leaves or no leaves. Their stems preserve water and do not photosynthesize. JUNGLE CACTUS grow in trees and rocks, often dry so they store water in their stems.
My favorite Jungle Cactus is the Schlumbergera group (Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) who like shade and humidity, which would destroy Desert Cactus. Most are hybrids now as plant people have worked with them a great deal. Three months before you want them to bloom, decrease watering and give them a cool area. When buds show, go back to watering and fertilizing. For this cool period I like to leave them outside until freezing occurs. Using this procedure, Christmas and Thanksgiving may bloom at the same time.
Desert Cacti come in all sizes, from ones that barely show in the soil like the LIVING ROCKS (Lithops). They consist of two flat leaves, fused together, with only a slit between them. At maturity, Daisy-like yellow flowers appear from the slit, usually larger than the leaves. When the flowers dry, the “stones” shrivel and a new set appears from the slit. It takes patience to wait for this and you can kill them with too much water. The other Cactus extreme is the SAGUARO, which may grow 50 feet tall. Birds and animals may find a good nesting place by digging out their stem. They are prized by landscapers and the states where they grow have a police system to protect them. It may take 30 years for them to grow the first 3 feet.
You can buy mixed CACTUS SEED and place them on top of sandy soil. The variety will be a surprise as they respond to rain in the desert. Slow growth in a shallow dish is what we usually have in Nebraska. If you can have only one plant, a Cactus is the easiest. They take full sun, little water, and little fertilizer. My favorite is the “Old Man” with long, furry hair hanging among the spines on the side. My encyclopedia says they can get 40 feet tall and 8 feet wide, although I haven’t been able to get one very big. All my plants go outside in the summer and we get too much rain for “Old Man,” and the greenhouse has too much humidity.
FERNS, ORCHIDS, BROMELIADS, and PALMS make up the other groups, all of which make excellent houseplants in the right spot. The ones I see the least of are the PALMS. Our grandmothers had Palms quite often as they are tolerant of various conditions. Occasionally you will see a COCOANUT split and a new Palm emerging, but it is hard to grow. It takes six months in moist peat with bottom heat to germinate. They get 100 feet at maturity. An ARECA PALM usually will not bloom in the house. I have not had one for several years as it can grow to 6 to 7 feet tall. Sometimes called the BUTTERFLY PALM, it must have a temperature over 65 degrees. Sometimes one gets an offset that can be dug up to replace the too tall one. Keep water in its saucer, with no direct sun. The PARLOUR PALM or the PYGMY DATE PALM are the two you will find and usually do not get over 3 feet tall. The only growing part is the tip of the front, so if you cut or break it off it will die. Parlour Palms were likely what your grandmother had as they can survive in a lower light system. Do not pot until you have to as they resent transplanting. The other groups are the BROMELIADS, FERNS, and ORCHIDS, all of which are popular houseplants. Each has its own requirements that I will discuss in part #2 in a couple of weeks.