Plant of the Month: Zamioculcas zamiifolia

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Zamioculcas zamiifolia or ZZ plant as most of us know it, is the sole species of the genus Zamioculcas. It is a tropical plant native to eastern Africa (from Kenya to South Africa) commonly found growing in rocky areas and sometimes even in stone. They can grow upwards of two and a half feet tall, with glossy dark evergreen leaflets covering their thick, succulent stalks. Although ZZs live in areas that experience a dry season and are drought tolerant, they are not desert plants and therefore do not thrive in extended periods of dryness. The secret to their ability to handle drought can be found in their succulent leaves, which have an unusually high water content of over 91%. This ability, combined with being able to withstand low light, has made them one of the most popular houseplants of the last twenty years. ZZs are also one of the top plants that NASA suggests using for air purification in the home.

ZZs have a somewhat unusual growth pattern. Their stem is actually an underground, tuberous rhizome, capable of storing plenty of water during the dry season. What appears to be the stem is actually the entire leaf, with each “leaf” being a leaflet. During times of stress and extended dry periods ZZs tend to become deciduous, dropping their leaflets and becoming bare. As a survival method fallen leaflets can then root, essentially cloning the plant and ensuring future generations. ZZs are aroids and therefore do not produce a single flower, but rather an inflorescence made up of a spathe and spadix consisting of many tiny flowers (think of the flower on a peace lily). The spadix is made up of female flowers along the bottom portion and male flowers along the top with a section of sterile flowers in the center to help reduce the chances of self-pollination. Although no one knows for sure, it’s assumed that the ZZ is pollinated by a single species of insect.

ZZs are very easy to care for and incredibly resilient, which is one reason why they’ve become so popular as houseplants over the past 20 years. Although they’ve developed a reputation for being drought and low-light tolerant plants, it’s not advised to keep them in these conditions for extended periods of time. Your ZZ will thrive in a warm room (60-75 degrees) with bright, indirect light and regular waterings throughout the growing season (spring-fall). Allow the top few inches of soil to dry between waterings. Even though they’re tropical, a well-draining soil heavily amended with sand and perlite is best. This will allow enough air to get to the roots and prevent the plant from drowning. Being tropical, give your ZZ a mist as often as you can and wipe off its leaves to remove any dust that may build up. To fertilize, dilute a balanced liquid fertilizer to ¼-⅛ strength and add to your water. ZZs propagate very easily from their leaves, but may take several months to develop a small plant at the base. When repotting, try to keep the new pot around 1” larger than the current pot. ZZs prefer to be fairly pot bound and some growers will even wait until their pot has cracked before repotting.

RECAP

LIGHT - moderately bright, indirect but tolerant of low light

TEMP - warm, 60-75

FERTILIZER - balanced liquid fertilizer diluted to ¼-⅛ strength during warmest months

WATER - thoroughly water and allow top few inches to dry between. Water less in winter

SOIL - well draining, amend with sand and perlite

REPOT - when plant becomes extremely rootbound, every few years

Plant of the Month: Sansevieria

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Sansevieria trifasciata, also known as the snake plant, has become one of the most popular house plants in recent years due to its easy care, beauty, and varieties of cultivars coming in many shapes, sizes and colors. The genus Sansevieria includes around 70 species which are native to Africa, Madagascar, and southern Asia. Swedish botanist, Carl Peter Thunberg named the genus after Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero.

The snake plant is a stemless, evergreen perennial that spreads through its creeping rhizome (similar to bamboo), which grows in the tropics of Nigeria, east through the Congo where they can grow to over 5 feet tall, but typically remain around 2-3 feet tall when kept indoors. Known for its beautiful striped and banded foliage, the snake plant also produces fragrant, small greenish-white flowers on a long stalk which become red berries once pollinated. Not just an ornamental, S. trifasciata provides fibers which are incredibly strong and have been used for many generations to make bowstrings. Although they prefer and thrive in bright light, they’re incredibly tolerant of low light conditions, making them a perfect indoor plant for almost any space. In addition, they’re able to withstand irregular watering which is great for the inexperienced plant parent. Many people look for plants that are helpful in removing toxins from the air and snake plants are one of the best at this. The NASA Clean Air Study was conducted by NASA in 1989 and their study proved Sansevieria removed most toxins that were tested. These included benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene. It was also one of the few plants studied that will remove carbon dioxide at night.

Caring for your snake plant is relatively simple. They prefer warm, bright areas but are also tolerant of lower light. Their soil should be well-draining and can be amended with sand to help it drain more quickly. Most Sansevieria are much more tolerant of a drought then overwatering or having soggy soil so always make sure to let their soil dry out slightly between watering. When watering, make sure to never pour water directly into the center of each rosette (group of spiraling leaves) as this can most certainly rot the plant. During the winter months, water even more sparingly. Allow your plant to become root bound before repotting. Snake plants thrive with crowded roots and it  can even help induce flowering. Once you’re ready to repot, move your snake plant into a new pot 1”-2” larger. You can repot any time of the year, but spring is always best. When fertilizing, use a general purpose fertilizer diluted to half-strength once every three to four weeks. Because of its large leaves, it’s a good idea to wipe them down when watering to remove any dust that they’ve collected. Propagating snake plants is as simple as pruning off a leaf, cutting it into 3”-4” sections and pushing them into wet soil. Propagation by division is a great way to get a head start on larger plants by cutting off an entire section of the plant, rhizome included, and planting it into a new container.

RECAP

LIGHT - bright, indirect but tolerant of low light

TEMP - warm, 65-80

FERTILIZER - summer, every three to four weeks, diluted by half

WATER - thoroughly water and allow to dry between. Water even less in winter

SOIL - well draining, amended w/sand

REPOT - in spring when root bound, up 1”-2”

Plant of the Month: Alocasia amazonica

As houseplants, Alocasia amazonica prefer an environment that mimics their ancestors’ home, the jungle. They love bright, indirect light and very high humidity, so keep near a very bright window and water often. A well aerated and well draining growing media, amended with peat, sphagnum, and perlite is best - their soil should be damp, not muddy.  Their leaves should be cleaned often to avoid dust build up and they can and should be misted very frequently. Artificial heating can severely dry them up so placing pebble trays full of water underneath is a great way to supplement humidity. Another easy trick, which all high-humidity plants will appreciate, is grouping your tropicals together. As one plant perspires, the water they give off will be absorbed by their neighbors.

From spring through the end of summer, fertilize every two weeks with a diluted all-purpose fertilizer. Keep your Alocasia nice and warm, as any time spent below 65 degrees will surely kill them or possibly send them into dormancy. Alocasia tend to go through a dormancy period during winter months when light is limited and temperatures drop in your home. If your plant goes dormant, you can dig up the corm and keep it in a dry place until you can provide enough heat and moisture to wake it up again.

Repotting is best done in spring, but keep in mind that these plants like to be in somewhat smaller containers so yearly repotting may not be necessary. When repotting, you can divide the rhizomes to propagate new plants. Break off smaller corms that have developed and place them in a new pot, with the top just above the soil line to keep the new growth from rotting.

Alocasia are toxic to cats and dogs, so always make sure to keep them out of reach from your pets and small children!

RECAP

LIGHT - bright, indirect light

TEMP - warm, 65-80

FERTILIZER - spring-fall, every two weeks, diluted by half

WATER - constantly moist, allow to dry slightly in winter

SOIL - well draining, amended w/peat moss & sphagnum

REPOT - every 1-2 years in spring

Ficus lyrata (Fiddle leaf fig)

The Fiddle leaf fig, Ficus lyrata, is a tropical plant native to the lowland rainforests of western Africa, from Cameroon to Sierra Leone. Though it can grow as a free-standing tree, F. lyrata is a banyan fig that typically begins its life as an epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant) after a bird or other animal helps by depositing a seed in the trunk of another tree. The fig’s roots will grow downward, reaching the ground where it can begin to take in nourishment from the soil. During this growing period, the roots will begin to envelop the trunk of the host tree, eventually strangling it. At its full potential a fiddle leaf fig can grow up to 40-50 feet tall, with leaves as long as 18” and 12” wide. The leathery leaves, resembling a lyre or violin, are the inspiration behind the latin name “lyrata” and its common name, fiddle leaf. Although they rarely flower as indoor houseplants, in nature they produce a small, inedible green fig about 1¼” in diameter.

In the home, the fiddle leaf is a slow grower which means it won’t outgrow its space for years to come and the broad leaves make it a sculptural plant that can help structure space in large rooms. Depending on your taste, you can grow it as a tree-shape plant or a bushier specimen. To promote bushiness, prune off the top section of your ficus and two new buds should begin to form within a few weeks. If a tree-shape fits your space better, prune bottom leaves and let the ficus naturally grow upward. Bright to moderate indirect light is best, and even fluorescent lighting is sufficient. You’ll want to water your ficus regularly, keeping its soil lightly moist at all times. Any good, well draining tropical potting soil will do and amending it with peat moss is ideal. Keeping your plant well fed is key to its overall health so fertilize three times a year (spring, midsummer, and fall) with a high-nitrogen foliage plant food. And finally, wipe your fig’s leaves to keep them clean and polished. It not only keeps the plant looking nice, but will also keep it as healthy as possible.

RECAP

LIGHT - bright to moderate indirect

TEMP - 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit

FERTILIZER - 3 times a year w/high-nitrogen foliage plant food

WATER - slightly moist at all times

SOIL - well draining potting soil amended w/peat moss

REPOT - every other year in spring, but keep plant in small pot to control size