Brightening the Dark Days of Winter

by Henry Homeyer
courtesy photo | Phalaenopsis orchids are elegant, but not easy to get to re-bloom

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – This is the darkest time of the year: not only are the days short, clouds obscure the sun much of the time. Many of us find the gloom oppressive, especially when there is neither enough snow to ski, nor ice to skate on. And for gardeners, there is little we can (or wish to) do outside. So, what do I do?

First, I go to my local grocery store or florist and buy cut flowers or potted plants. For $10 or $15 I can brighten my outlook considerably. The most economical to buy are potted plants. They will, with a minimum of care and forethought, bloom for weeks or even for months. Here are a few of my favorites:

Christmas cactus. It should be called a Thanksgiving cactus, really, because they usually bloom well before Christmas. Buy one in full bloom, or that has a mix of blossoms and buds. They need moderate light indoors, but not hot afternoon sun. Temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees are best for success. They should not be allowed to dry out completely, but neither do they want to be kept soggy. They like humidity, so place them in a saucer of small stones and add water. Never let the pot sit in water.

courtesy photo | A Christmas cactus will bloom for weeks.

Cyclamen. Another low-light plant. This one suited for even less light than Christmas cactus. If you give it any direct sunshine, an hour or two of morning sun is plenty, but indirect light is better.

courtesy photo | Cyclamen really are not fussy, and bloom for weeks

Water your cyclamen only when dry, which depends on the temperature and relative humidity. I find picking up the pot tells me a lot: if dry, it weighs very little, when moist, it is heavier. If you go too long, the flowers will flop as if to say, “Look at me, I’m dying of thirst!” But they recover quickly. Place your plant in a saucer of water and let it suck up water. But don’t let it sit in water for long.

My mother loved African violets and did well with them. I remember doing an experiment with my new Chemistry Set for Young Scientists when I was in the fourth grade. I made a solution of tannic acid and put a drop on a leaf. Overnight, it burned a perfect hole! Great experiment until my mother asked me if I had done something to her plant. 

I have not had great luck with African violets here in New Hampshire (they may have heard about my experiment, way back when). I largely heat with a wood stove, and keep the house warm, but quite cool at night. I read an article that said one should never let the temperature in the room they are in drop below 70 degrees. So, I no longer try, though I have recently read that temps down to 60 degrees are okay.

If you want to grow them, keep them consistently warm in a bright room but not in direct sunshine. They like high humidity (hence do not like woodstoves) but do not tolerate soggy roots. Water from the bottom, but water once a month from above (to flush out any fertilizer salts). Never let water get on the leaves. Pinch off spent blossoms or yellowed leaves.

My absolute favorite house plant is an orchid called Phalaenopsis or moth orchid. Buy them in bloom, and they will bloom for many weeks. Direct sunlight can scorch the leaves, but they need a bright room. These are tropical orchids so like warm temperatures. But cool nights are good, down to 55 degrees.

Moth orchids in their native environment grow in trees. So, the soil mix they come in is generally a special orchid mix made of bark chips, and perhaps a little perlite or vermiculite. This mix allows water to run right through it. Be sure that if it comes with an inner pot and an outer pot, to pour out water after watering from the outer pot, which normally has no drainage. Or just lift the inner pot and run water through in your sink. Otherwise, you will kill your orchid. Water once a week, or if exposed roots turn silvery white.

According to the experts, tree orchids such as these do best with good air circulation. Me? I find that in a room with people coming and going there is enough air movement to keep them healthy. I do grow them over a saucer of pebbles and water to increase humidity and grow them in the bathroom where steam from the shower helps.

But if you have no patience with house plants, or believe you cannot grow them, buy flowers for a vase. Most cut flowers will last a week in a vase, many will last longer. Most stems cost between $1.50 and $3. Buy an odd number of stems, three, five, seven or 11, depending on your budget.

The vase for displaying cut flowers should be about half as tall as the stems are long (or a little less). But that rule is not firm. If the arrangement looks good to your eye, it is fine. Use a clean glass or pottery vase for best results, but if you want to use Grandma’s silver vase, go ahead. Elegance is good.

Cut flowers generally come with a little packet of white powder. Use it. It helps to keep the water from getting full of bacteria or fungus that will clog the stem, keeping it from taking up water. Pull off any leaves that would otherwise go in the water. You can also use a teaspoon of Clorox in a quart of water. Never put cut flowers near a radiator or wood stove.

So, buy something in bloom. It will help to dissipate the gloom of short, dark days. Oh, and about that African violet: I confessed, and did not get punished. But I never experimented with her houseplants again.