Tag Archives: houseplants

Featured Plant: Justicia brandegeeana

Here is the “Shrimp Plant”, Justicia brandegeeana, blooming in the Conservatory. I’ve never seen it looking so good!Justicia brandegeeanaThis Justicia is native to Mexico. It likes soil with lots of organic matter, lots of moisture, and partial shade. It tends to be leggy and brittle but responds very well to pruning to keep it in shape.  As an added bonus, the pruned cuttings are easy to root.

Justicia brandegeeanaThe flowers are the thin white petals with maroon speckles which you can see hanging from the very showy bracts.  (Clearly the bracts are what gives it the name Shrimp Plant!) The Shrimp Plant will bloom on and off all year round. It is not hardy here in Rhode Island but  makes a good houseplant since it does not need full sun and tolerates a bit of neglect. It will also grow well outside in a large container, where it will attract hummingbirds.

Justicia brandegeeanaThe Shrimp Plant is in the Acanthaceae family. The genus Justicia is named for James Justice, an 18th Century Scottish horticulturist. The species honors the American botanist Townsend Brandegee, who lived from 1843 to 1925.


Field Trip

logee's greenhouseLast week we took a field trip to Logee’s Greenhouse in Danielson, Connecticut.  If you are a plant lover who lives in southern New England, Logee’s is probably a familiar name and well worth the trip! They sell fruiting, rare, tropical, and house plants. Oh, and succulents too. There are many unusual varieties and it is hard to describe how absolutely jam-packed the greenhouses are.

august 21 2013 003The family owned business has been in Danielson since 1892.  The display greenhouses are old cedar or cypress framed glasshouses. The atmosphere is warm and humid with the wonderful fragrance of jasmine filling the air. One greenhouse leads to another in a maze of dirt floors, filtered sunlight, and old stone foundations.

logees greenhouseWe managed to restrain our purchases to only a few plants but it wasn’t easy! I would love to go back in the dead of winter when the green-ness of it would be such an antidote to the grey sleeping garden. To read more about the history of the greenhouses and see their amazing plant selection (also available through mail order) the website is:  www.logees.com

logee's greenhouselogee's greenhouse

Featured Plant: Poinsettia

poinsettia display(So many questions about poinsettias at this time of year! Here’s a “Featured Plant” post about these lovely holiday plants, from 2012. See you in 2015!)

December 12th is officially Poinsettia Day! These beautiful plants that we associate with the Christmas season have a fascinating history. They are native to the warm climate of Southern Mexico. They are found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico from Sinaloa to Chiapas and into Guatemala. They are also found in the interior of Mexico in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Guerrero and Oxaca. Although they are Euphorbias (Spurge Family), and were originally named Euphorbia pulcherrima, they were renamed Poinsettia pulcherrima to honor Joel Roberts Poinsett.

joel-roberts-poinsettPoinsett was the first American ambassador to Mexico, and was very interested in botany. He often wandered the countryside looking for new and interesting plants. In 1828, as he was traveling through the Taxco region of the new Republic of Mexico, he saw a beautiful shrub with large red flowers and took cuttings, which he brought back to the greenhouse at his South Carolina home.

The modern American Poinsettia “industry” was created almost single-handedly by the Ecke family of California at the turn of the last century. This is a great American immigrant success story! From the website Poinsettiaday.com:

“Originally from Germany, Albert Ecke emigrated to the U.S, in 1906 and settled in the Hollywood area. The family lived off the land growing fruits and vegetables but were also, by 1909, selling cut Poinsettias at a stand on Sunset Boulevard. Poinsettias grew wild in the area and son Paul Ecke (Paul Sr.) had the idea that the ruby flowers would sell well around Christmas. This turned out to be so successful that in 1915 Albert Ecke bought five acres in nearby El Monte to grow poinsettias. By 1917 the Eckes were shipping plants to customers in New York and Chicago. When Albert died in 1919, Paul Sr. took over the flower business and though the family prospered, by 1923 the pressures of a rapidly urbanizing Hollywood led Paul Sr. to move the operation to 40 acres in Encinitas.

poinsettias in the field

Workers at the Ecke Ranch, Encinitas, California,1939

In 1955 Paul Ecke Jr. returned with a degree in floriculture from Ohio State with ideas of his own about how to move forward with the family business. It took some doing but eventually he as able to convince Paul Sr. to move the growing out of the fields and into greenhouses. Paul Jr and the Ecke family had a secret technique that caused every seedling to branch, resulting in a fuller plant. Paul Jr. also took a very active role in marketing poinsettias, making them visible on television programs such as The Tonight Show, the Dinah Shore Show, and  Bob Hope’s Christmas Special. He also had them displayed in women’s magazines like The Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens. By the time of his death in 2002, poinsettias were the number one selling potted plant in America, in part to his tireless promotional efforts.

poinsettias in greenhouse

poinsettia mix

Here are a few more Poinsettia facts:

  • The Aztecs called them “Cuitlaxochitl”. Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor, had them brought by carts to adorn his city (what is now Mexico City).
  • What look like the petals of flowers on the Poinsettia are actually bracts (modified leaves) and the flowers are only the small yellow centers.
  • Poinsettias are NOT poisonous!
  • Poinsettias are the best selling potted plant in the United States and Canada and contribute over $250 million to the US economy at the retail level.

On a long-ago trip to San Francisco at New Years, I remember wandering through the back streets of that beautiful city and seeing Poinsettias growing as huge shrubs in tiny urban yards and gardens. It was the first time I had ever seen a tropical plant growing in an outdoor environment.

poinsettia growing outside

If you are interested in keeping your holiday poinsettia as a year round house plant and having it bloom again, the University of Illinois has a great website giving details of Poinsettia culture: The Poinsettia Pages.

Creatures from the Black Lagoon

dionaea muscipula, the venus flytrap

Dionaea muscipula, the Venus Fly Trap

Not the Gill-Man, but almost as strange: Carnivorous Plants.

The Horridge Conservatory features a Bog Garden with a unique collection of carnivorous plants. These plants have the specialized ability to trap and digest invertebrates of various kinds, mostly insects ( although some large tropical specimens are said to be capable of digesting frogs, mice, rats, and bats….) These insect-eating beauties evolved in  environments where nutrient concentrations are low but water and sunshine are seasonally abundant, such as bogs and swamps.

Sarracenia purpurea, the Pitcher Plant


There are different mechanisms for insect-trapping if you’re a plant. One, used by  the Pitcher Plants, is to have a chamber full of enticing liquid for the poor bug to drown in and then be digested.  Another is to have glandular hairs on stalks with very sticky droplets on them. The Sundews use this method to capture their prey, which is then digested when the glands produce digestive enzymes. A third method is used by Venus Fly Traps, which is possibly most like the Creature: Near the crease where the two leaf  “jaws”  join there is a series of tiny hairs. If an  insect walks across these hairs, touching two or more of them in succession, the leaf will close quickly enough to prevent its escape. The  insect is then slowly digested and absorbed by the leaf.

cape sundew

Drosera capensis, the Cape Sundew

The Bog Garden has both native and exotic carnivorous plants. There are Sarracenias, Pitcher Plants that are native to the Southeastern US, along with many beautiful hybrid Sarracenias, in different colors and sizes. There are also Nepenthes, the tropical Pitcher Plants. Some of these are on loan from a student  here at URI — thanks, CJ! There are Butterworts (Pinguicula species), which trap insects with sticky hairs along the leaves and s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y roll the leaf around the insect and digest it. The Venus Fly Trap, Dionaea muscipula, is the only species of its genus and native to the Southeastern US. It continually flowers and re-seeds in the Bog.

nepenthes, tropical pitcher plant

Nepenthes hybrid 'Judith Finn', the Tropical Pitcher Plant

Some of the carnivorous plants are easy to grow and make interesting houseplants! Yes, you can feed them insects, but it is better not to trigger trapping mechanisms, unless you actually have food for them. Otherwise, they are expending a huge amount of physiological energy for no gain, and that will weaken them.

I enjoy observing the carnivorous plants even when they are not dining. Their unusual forms are intriguing and make them a great subject for photos and drawings. In fact, there are some beautiful botanical drawings of Pitcher Plants in our Hallway Gallery. For more information, the New England Carnivorous Plant Society, which generously donated many plants to the Conservatory Bog, has a great informative website, http://www.necps.org, AND a Carnivorous Plant Show in the fall. Happy Hunting!

pinguicula, butterwort

Pinguicula, the Mexican Butterwort

The Passion of Flowers

lady margaret passionflower

The ‘Lady Margaret’ Passionflower blooming now is a gorgeous deep red with a white center. Passionflowers are an interesting combination of  delicate petals and filaments topped by the very architectural structure of the stamens. Or, as the Missouri Botanical Garden website says, “The hallmark of the family is the corona… filaments that extend outward like a cup. The corona…carries perfume, holds in nectar, acts as a landing platform for pollinators, and is a visual attractant. In Passiflora, the stamens are borne beneath the ovary on an elevated column”.

Passiflora is a genus of about 500 species worldwide, mostly vines. There are nine species native to North America, with a few being much cold-hardier than you would think from their tropical appearance. P. incarnata, also known as Maypop, can be grown outdoors in zone 5.  P. lutea and P. caerulea are also considered cold hardy enough to grow outdoors in southern Rhode Island.

Lady Margaret was given to me by a plant person who knows her plants, and I’m sure it is a Lady Margaret. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the species or hybrid name, and a quick internet search came up with lots of possibilities: Passiflora vitifoliaP. caerulea, Passiflora coccinea x P. incarnata, Passiflora caerulea ‘Constance Eliott’ x P. miniata, Passiflora incarnata x P. miniata, and Passiflora coccinea x P. caerulea. It will take a little more detective work to figure this one out !lady margaret passionflower

I did look into the common name Passionflower, which doesn’t refer to the Valentine’s Day  passion of love. Too bad, because I think they’re more interesting than red roses! The word passion is sometimes used to mean suffering, and  15th and 16th century Spanish Christian missionaries viewed the unique physical structures of this plant as symbols of the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion. In different parts of the world, Passionflowers have reminded people of other things, such as clocks: it’s Clock-flower in Hebrew and Clock-plant in Japanese.

Passiflora incarnata (not my Lady Margaret) has been used as a medicinal plant for centuries. The University of Maryland Medical Center (www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/passionflower-000267.htm) says a tea of the flowers, leaves, and stems was used traditionally in the Americas and later in Europe as a “calming” herb for anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and hysteria. It is still used today to treat anxiety and insomnia.




passiflora incarnata

Passiflora incarnata, Purple Passionflower

lady margaret passionflower

Passionflowers in their native habitats are an important source of food for a variety of creatures. Some are pollinated by hummingbirds, wasps, bumblebees, or bats looking for nectar. Larvae and caterpillars of a wide variety of butterflies feed on the leaves. Some Passifloras, such as P. edulis, are cultivated for their fruit by people of the Caribbean.

Cuttings are the easiest way to propagate Passionflowers. Cuttings taken in the spring and kept close to 65 F will root readily in a 50/50 mix of peat and perlite.  They’re not hard to grow, preferring well drained soil and full sun. The root systems are relatively small, so they can be grown indoors without the need for a huge pot.

In the Greenhouse

Happy New Year! It may be grayish outside, but the greenhouse is full of color. Where to begin? The Horticulture Club students decorated the Conservatory for their open house just before vacation started. Little lights and big lights, glass balls, garlands, and ribbons have made it quite festive. Tropical flowers and foliage add to the show. The Conservatory is open Monday through Friday from 8-4, so come and see, relax by the water fall, and take home a houseplant for your own bit of indoor color.

There are many tropical plants that will grow well and flower as houseplants, even during the winter. Those which grow under low light conditions in their natural setting are often easy to grow at home. I’ll be highlighting some of these over the next few months.      ( For REALLY low maintenance, we have cactus and succulents. Neglect is what they want, if only because most people kill their plants with kindness —too much water).

While you’re at the Greenhouse, peek into the hallway and check out the new drawings in the Hallway Gallery. They were done by students from Drawing I .  It’s great to see  the plants through someone elses’ eyes and the work is beautiful. I hope to expand the Gallery little by little — plant art is welcome!