Ann Lewin-Benham Photo
Large Christmas cactus in full bloom

This page is a work in progress. From time to time I’ll discuss some of my non-educational interests, although the case could be made that everything is educational.  Like plants.

I like houseplants. A lot. At times I tend over 100. I lose count. My husband, Robert, wants only one gift each year for Christmas – the right to throw away any 3 plants of his choosing. I’ve never given him this gift.  I have a great problem where plants are concerned. I can’t throw one away. If there is the slightest hint of life, I hope. . . I’ve kept wilted, leafless plants for months, waiting for a sign of new life. If a stem inadvertently breaks off, I put it in water. If someone outgrows her pot, I separate her and start two more pots, or three.

Over the years I’ve learned what works for me. I never buy prayer plants, can’t make many ivies grow, and lose aurelias leaf by graceful leaf until only the stalk remains – which has never come back to life! But, talk to me about Donkey’s Tail. I’ve had the mother plant 20 years, have given many cuttings away, and it forms a trailing veil from the top of my top kitchen plant shelf. Or Hindu Coil (sometimes called Indian Rope Plant). Mine blooms. The first time I saw it, I thought someone had played a trick and attached a plastic flower; the bloom is a semi-sphere about 2” - 3" in diameter, a waxy cluster of tightly-packed, pink, star-shaped floret’s with deep maroon centers, each floret perfectly formed.  Its perfection defies reality.

I’ve learned that the right kind of light is every bit as important as the right amount of water. So, if a plant fails to thrive, I move it, east to west, south to north, dramatic change, nothing incremental. The most difficult houses for growing plants have no sunlight. Then only shade plants survive - palm, peace lilies, pothos vine, sansivarious - easy plants, the ones to try if you don’t like plastic imposters but want the softening effect of a plant in an empty corner or interesting shape and texture. If you’ve killed every plant you’ve owned, these iron-man shade plants will probably make it.

It’s great when someone visits who knows the name, habits, or predilections of one of your plants. Guests have taught me to use a probe to determine whether a plant needs water (costs about $4 at a big box store, no batteries needed). They’ve advised that broken pieces of angel wing begonias root rapidly in water, and that impatients survive the winter if you dig them up and stick them at the base of a plant in a big pot. They’ve advised top dressing – layering fresh soil on top of a pot if the soil is depleted, and asserted that whatever it costs, it pays to buy the best quality soil. This is especially important for me because I underfeed, maybe once or twice a year.

20-year-old Christmas cactus
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