Tropical plants for Fall and Winter

By Clement Kent


I donít grow many house plants well. Many if not most of you reading this probably take better care of your African violets, philodendrons, and whatnot than I ever could or would. As a result I lean towards plants that thrive under benign neglect. My second criterion for house plants is that they bloom some time between late October and April.

About 20 years ago I became fascinated by the bulbs of the Amaryllidaceae, which includes the daffodils as well as the plant commonly called Amaryllis, which is actually Hippeastrum. I always have a few of these magnificent bulbs coming on in winter. They are so well known I wonít go on about them, other than to say that if you fertilize regularly after they bloom and give them some time out of doors in summer in partial shade, they can reward you by getting bigger and better each year. Mine often donít, because I too often forget the fertilizer.

Amaryllis are a South African bulb, as is Nerine. Youíve all seen Nerine flowers in floristís arrangements - little pink trumpets in clusters of 5 or 6 on a foot-long stalk. These bulbs are smaller than Amaryllis and slightly less convenient to grow. They bloom in late fall, for a long period, after which the leaves begin to grow. They need to be kept growing steadily but at coolish temperatures throughout winter, spring, and early summer. In late summer they should be deprived of food and drink and allowed to wither in their pots, ideally in a warm dry spot. This helps form the flower buds for fall. When the weather turns crisp and the days get shorter, flower stems will begin to grow. Keep them in a cool sunny spot right up to the point when the first buds begin to open, then move them to a spot of honor for a beautiful November.

Another member of the Amaryllidaceae is Agapanthus, sometimes called Lily of the Nile. Instead of a bulb, it has thick fleshy roots and this strap-shaped leaves, looking perhaps like a cross between a daffodil and an Amaryllis. The foliage is decorative when the plant is out of bloom.

The most common Agapanthus is a blue-flowered one, extremely attractive, but Iíve only ever seen it bloom in mid-summer. In winter I let it rest in a cold dark place, just above freezing, so it doesnít qualify for this article. I mention it however because there are some other hybrids with white flowers which have bloomed for me in January or March. They didnít do so last year, in part perhaps because of a very nasty mouse which took up residence inside the large pot and ate the roots from the bottom up. I was most exceeding wroth when I discovered this. It was touch and go for a while, but after a careful repotting they are doing OK in my cool greenhouse - next winter Iíll keep them in the kitchen and hope again for their large clusters of many small, pure white trumpets.

About 25 years ago I went through a phase of fascination with bromeliads. We associate this plants with the deep rainforest tropics, where they rival orchids as epiphytes on trees, but quite a few varieties actually grow in the seasonally dry forests of Central America. I got my "Angelís Tears", or Bilbergia nutans as (if memory serves me well after so long a lapse) two long tubes in a small pot. The plant multiplies easily, forgives forgetting to be watered for weeks at a time, and can be left in the same pot for many years. It is not the most forgiving close neighbor, however, due to the sharp, sawtoothed leaf margins. Donít put it too close to a walkway!

My Bilbergia goes outside in May. After a week or two shading to avoid sunburn it goes into full sun in an out-of-the-way spot. I will soak it with the hose when I remember, but summer rain gives it most of what it needs. An occasional dose of an organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion or compost tea, poured into the long goblet-leaves helps it grow.

I find its timing for bloom quite unpredictable. One year it blooms in March, the next in December. But when it blooms, what a sight! Flower stalks covered in bright red leaf scales, shape like long red rockets, peep out of the long leaf trumpets shyly at first, then with more and more showy results as they grow to 18"-2 feet long and arch over. At this point the plant likes like a deranged Christmas ornament, dark green mottled leaves with bright red bloom stalks. Then at last the stalks open to reveal a cluster of perhaps a dozen small buds. The buds start off green, then the upper half deepens to royal blue, and finally when it opens the yellow anthers poke out - gold, blue, lime green, bright red, and dark green. They only last a few days in my dry household, but in a moister environment might stay longer.

My old mother plant has perhaps two dozen leaf trumpets and this December amazed me with over 15 flower stalks. It was most agreeably gaudy just before Christmas.

Returning again to the Amaryllis family, I just finished repotting the so-called Amazon Lily, Eucharis amazonica. This plant grows from bulbs the size of small daffs and slowly multiplies in its pot. The wide, deep green leaves are ornamental year round, as the plant doesnít need a full dormancy the way daffs or Amaryllis do. However, a short period of deprivation - no fertilizer, reduced watering - prepares it to bloom when food and water reappear.

The nodding, pure white flowers are borne singly or in small clusters. They resemble a white daffodil with a very small trumpet, and have a lovely, delicately sweet smell. Eucharis can bloom several times per year if treated well. It doesnít need much light - ours is in an east window and is very happy. Let it grow crowded in its pot for better bloom. It has been entirely pest free in over 15 years of growing it.

And then, there are the orchids...but thatís the subject of another article!

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t