2014-01-17 / Front Page

Bold Leaves Enhance Indoor Gardens

By Cynthia Gibson

Red Delta Begonia Red Delta Begonia Given the fact that we can’t really garden outdoors this time of year, it’s good to remember that indoor gardening can give us much pleasure while making our homes more beautiful. If you have a greenhouse, you are truly blessed. But most of us who enjoy a south-facing windowsill feel just as lucky. There are so many varieties of plants to collect, and the diversity of color, texture, and height will appeal to any gardener.

It’s always fun to explore houseplants that might be new to you. Most garden centers on Aquidneck Island carry a wide selection of possibilities. The Maher Center, Chaves Garden Center, Moore Blooms, and Peckham’s in Tiverton are your best bets.

Begonias, ferns, and palms are among the indoor plants that have traditionally been grown for the unusual beauty and exotic nature of their leaves. The Victorians and Edwardians, for example, selected their plants solely on this basis. Then, as now, the begonia is among the plants of choice for unique leaves.

The spiraled leaves of the Curly Fireflush Begonia enliven indoor plant collections. The spiraled leaves of the Curly Fireflush Begonia enliven indoor plant collections. Some begonias are very colorful, others have a cross design on their leaves, and still others look as if they came out of a scary film. To the Victorians especially, the more bizarre the leaf, the better it was to add that special plant to their collections. The begonia has a long list of varieties: cane-like, shrub, rhizomatous, semperflorens, tuberous, Rex, trailing-scandent, and thick-stemmed.

The showiest breed is the Rex begonia. This colorful and exotic variety makes quite a statement in your home, either as a single plant or among a collection. Many American and English potteries made majolica leaf plates, pitchers and other tableware based on this most-admired variety. While these begonias do flower, their leaves are the showstopper.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. The nemesis of the Rex begonia is the mealybug, distinctive for its bright white color and furry scales. To rid your plant of these tiny insects, dip a cotton swab directly into a bottle of rubbing alcohol and place it against the bug, which will die instantly. Should you have a mealybug infestation, add one pint of rubbing alcohol to one quart of water in a plastic sprayer. After spraying your plant, let it dry. In two days rinse the entire plant under water, spray once again, and repeat the process until all insects are gone.

Begonias like to be watered (use only bottled water for all houseplants), but prefer to be on the dry side during the winter months. This is also the time of year to prune your plants for new springtime leaves and to prepare them for flower shows.

The familiar fern is another lovely plant with different indoor varieties that boast odd-shaped leaves. Ferns have been with us for over 300 million years. They need very little care or pruning, ask very little of their owners, and thrive in semi-sunlit rooms. The Boston fern is one of the most common and is easy to grow.

Also a favorite of the Victorians, ferns were most often displayed in a parlor or living room. Depending on the variety, their size can range from three feet wide to a dwarfsized Boston fern only a foot high. Their graceful fronds, or leaves, that grow in the shape of a fountain make this plant a special addition to your indoor collection.

The bird’s nest fern produces fronds very different from the divided leaves we typically associate with this houseplant. The fronds are solid, with edges either straight or crinkled. It has an empty center, thus the name.

The rabbit’s foot fern is truly one for the books. It has a lovely green leaf, but its rhizomes (root system) look like skinny rabbits’ feet and are covered in a very fine, soft fur. Like most ferns and indoor plants, they perform best in indirect sunlight.

Ferns like growing in a hanging pot or one on a pedestal with their fronds or rabbits’ feet cascading over the edge. They love humidity, so a weekly misting is in order. If the heat in your home is often on high, mist the leaves twice a week.

Palms are too often seen as plants to fill the corner of a room. It’s fine if that is your goal, but at least pick one that is interesting. Lady palms and fishtail palms are the first two that come to mind.

Lady palms come in many sizes and can range from a dwarf to 12 feet tall. Choose the height based on your ceiling. The palms can be variegated (green and white) or solid shades of green, but neither is like the typical plant often seen in hotel lobbies. A lady palm is a slow grower and will not dominate a room or corner unless you let it.

These houseplants can tolerate indirect sunlight put prefer southern exposures or skylights. Lady palms also enjoy humidity, so a weekly spray is much appreciated. As with all houseplants, use only distilled bottled water.

The fishtail fern is amusing and is one of my all-time favorites. Its moniker derives from its leaves, which look like tails of fancy goldfish. Fishtails can grow to be monsters outdoors, but easily take to pruning to keep them a manageable size. They like sun and humidity, so misting is necessary.

There are three basic rules for all of these exotic and beautiful indoor foliage plants: they do not like to be soggy; over-fertilizing will turn their leaves yellow; and they will only tolerate distilled water for both feeding and misting.

Treat yourself to a new hobby by cultivating these varieties that welcome a kind grower and a sunny window. Indoor houseplants can easily turn into a collection that will brighten your winter days.

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