Between now and spring, nurseries, garden centers and online plant dealers will attempt to entice you with promises of filling your home with beautiful blooming plants to tide you over until the real gardening season begins. They know we plant junkies and gardening addicts are desperate for a growing fix. As a former garden center plant buyer it was my job to find those beauties you just couldn’t resist and convince you they would flower and flourish inside with you until the weather breaks.
Anything that would naturally or could be forced to flower in winter was in play—primroses, daffodils, roses, geraniums, cyclamen, African violets, orchids, begonias, kalanchoe and so many, many more, often dresed in something party pretty--a colorful wrap or adorable novelty pot to make them even more irresistible. So enticing........... but will they actually last?
Well, that's open to interpretation. Some of them are certainly fine houseplants that have the capacity to rebloom for you without a lot of extra care. Some of them will bloom for a few weeks and give you the opportunity to summer them on the patio or plant in the garden to enjoy in the future. And sadly, truth be told, some are bound for the compost pile after blooming is finished, unless you have a merciful gardening friend with lots of extra time and space (who will be sensible enough to toss it but not tell you about it).
The puffy blooms of the pocketbook plant, the cheerful primrose flowers, the precious miniature roses, the sweetly scented lavender—yes, they can easily charm you into letting them move in, even though you've just met. But like any relationship, "success" depends on your expectations and your level of commitment.
If you’re just in it for some fun and excitement while it lasts, then your choices are wide open. If you're able to move on but would prefer to stay friends there's still a nice array of possibilities. But if you just can't bear breaking up and you want a permanent blooming indoor companion, you’ll need to choose very carefully, and be sure you can provide the right conditions to keep your partner happy. Note that if you have a sunroom or greenhouse window your experience may be different--we're talking about the majority of us that probably don't have a vacation home for our plants.
Here’s our guide to the one-night plant stands, the good botanical buddies, and the keepers with which you can build a long-lasting love.
Just a fling:
The tip-off here is the temperature of the room in which they're displayed. If you're in a garden center greenhouse in winter and you're not dying to take off your coat, chances are the room is cool not only to save heating costs, but also because the plants in it benefit from those barely warm temperatures--anywhere from 45 degrees to 60 degrees is common. Flowers that last weeks in this environment may last days in your warm, cozy house.
- Calceolaria (Pocketbook Plant): Ever the curiosity with its puffy speckled red, orange, or yellow blossoms, you're bound to be attracted. A fun novelty plant, but don't get too attached. Give it bright light, moist (never wet) soil and keep as cool as possible or your time together will be seriously curtailed. Aphids love it, too, so don't let them come between you. Once flowering is finished, give it the heave-ho.
- Cineraria: So charming, but so fleeting. What we said for Calceolaria? Ditto for this one, plus letting it dry out too much will cause not only wilt but collapse. Don't waste time with the break-up speech--it's not you, it's them. Enjoy the blooms while they last then dump it guilt-free. Note that there are cineraria relatives now available called Pericallis, or sometimes Senetti. These are tender perennial plants that will bloom as long as the temperatures are very cool--they prefer 35 to 45 degrees, but cannot tolerate frost. Once summer arrives cut them back, keep them fertilized and in partial shade--they should rebloom once cool weather returns at which time they can be given more sun. So the story here is if you meet a nice cineraria, play it cool and ask if they have a cousin to which you might be introduced.
- Cyclamen (Florist): Fussy, but gorgeous. Enjoy them while they last—the foliage will be attractive for a while after the flowers fade. Never pull the stems to remove yellowed leaves or flowers—this can damage the corm and lead to rot. Try not to water directly on top of the corm, either—water around the edges, and don’t let it dry out or sit in water (so get rid of that little foil pot cover or plan on dumping it out after every watering). After a dormant period they may rebloom, but there's no guarantee. Note that there are hardy cyclamen that are fine planted outside in the proper zone--these have much smaller flowers and are more often sold as corms. The potted cyclamen you find at Christmas and throughout cooler seasons are almost always Florist Cyclamen.
- Kalanchoe blossfeldiana (Florist Kalanchoe): There's a theme here--anytime you see "Florist" in the name of a plant it should tip you off that you're not meant to be together forever. However, the Florist Kalanchoe is a very long-blooming houseplant--buy it with one or two flowers open and you'll enjoy it for many weeks, especially if the room is on the cooler side. Don't purchase in full bloom unless you need it for an imminent event. Outdoor hardy in zones 10-12, these are succulent plants that need to dry down a bit between waterings. Inside over winter they will need full sun or very bright light, but outside they should be given partial shade. New buds are only initiated after a six week period of long nights (like poinsettias) AND proper day/night temperature variance, so if the green leaves become boring you can toss it without regret.
- Reiger Begonia (Begonia x hiemalis, Elatior Begonia): Ok, here's the thing--supposedly some of these can rebloom easily, but it depends on the variety. In general though, the ones that are sold as indoor plants are cool weather bloomers and are NOT going to be those varieties--they're just not what growers use for this purpose. A few cultivars, like Dragone and Solenia, for example, will usually be found as annuals in the spring--these are more heat tolerant and can bloom all summer. The "normal" Reiger begonias offered are often grown in Canada where cooler greenhouse conditions exist year round. To extend the flowering period indoors, place in bright light and keep as cool as possible, preferably below 70 degrees during the day. They cannot tolerate wet roots so let them dry out slightly between waterings, and keep water droplets off the leaves to prevent fungal disease. Once blooming is finished you can say goodbye or give reblooming a try. Cut them back to an inch or two above the soil line and place in medium light or outside in the shade for the summer, and cut watering to a minimum during this rest period. Once new growth appears you can repot one size up and place in brighter light and increase watering. Cool nights and shorter days in fall are needed to initiate flowering, but don't leave outside below 50 degrees. Once buds have formed reacclimate to indoor conditions before bringing back inside. Or just buy another one--I won't tell.
- White/Pink Jasmine (J. polyanthum): This is not the Confederate jasmine grown in the south, nor one of the bushy tropical jasmines. This is a subtropical vine with delicate foliage similar to (a small) wisteria and long star-shaped tubular blossoms resembling a large cluster of pinwheels on sticks, or an exploding firework. The narrow elongated pink buds are just as showy as the pristine white flowers, and the fragrance is simply sublime. It will bloom for weeks if placed in a cool room with very bright light and given consistent moisture. If you're in zones 8-11, you can plant it outside permanently in bright shade. In zones above that it can be summered outside, with the cooler fall temperatures hopefully inducing bloom before it needs to return inside. Without a 6 week period of night temperatures between 40 and 60 it won't set buds, so it's very possible that it may not rebloom for you. But even if it does turn out to be just a fling, the bountiful flowers and sweet perfume will leave you with wonderful memories.
- Zebra Plant (Aphelandra): I feel bad for relegating this plant to this section, as the variegated foliage is attractive even without the flowers. The colorful yellow bracts can last for months, which is better than a lot of the plants listed above. But ultimately I fear that it will disappoint, as it is unlikely to rebloom for you, requiring very high humidity and careful attention to watering. Over the years I've tried cutting them back, necessary for reblooming, and they just always look so lost and sad and never really recover from that. Relationships are all about expectations, and I think yours will be higher than what this cute little plant can deliver.
Can only move in permanently if they can camp outside in your zone:
These are perennials or shrubs. Most will want to be kept bright and cool (as low as 50 and no more than 70) and relatively dry for most of their winter visit. Any plant moving from an indoor site to an outdoor site or vice versa must be properly acclimated--see tips here)
- Hellebore (Lenten Rose): Plant marketers struck a gold mine when they started selling these as holiday plants about 10 years ago. Varieties in the "Gold Collection" are quite common, as these hybrids offer outward facing flowers as opposed to the usual somewhat drooping blossoms. The large flowers are lovely, and the leathery evergreen foliage is attractive. But it's not a houseplant. These perennials, hardy in zones 5-9, prefer partial shade, good drainage, and enriched soil outside, and naturally bloom between November and April, depending on the variety. That should be a clue that your 75 degree living room isn't going to make them happy for long. Keep them on a covered porch or in the coolest spot you can with bright light and bring them in just for the party if you want them to last. Water sparingly but don't let them go completely dry. And that foil wrapping has got to go--never a good idea. If you like the decorative touch then poke a hole in the bottom of the foil and set the plant in a saucer--that way at least it can drain properly. Remember that although these plants are hardy where the ground freezes, if you're buying them where they have been kept inside then they are unlikely to be hardened off and will not be ready to go out until all danger of freeze has passed. A little frost will be ok in the spring as long as they have been acclimated. Planting outside may be unsuccessful if they have been overwatered during winter, as they will not have a proper root system to support the transition. If they don't bloom the first winter they should reset themselves the following year.
- Hydrangea: You'll find these at Christmas, usually sold with the trade name of Shooting Star hydrangea, and again around Easter and Mother's Day in blue, pink, and white. These are H. macrophylla, or "mophead" varieties, so if you live where winter temperatures stay pretty much above 10 degrees they should perform well planted outside (please wait until all danger of frost has passed) in a spot with morning sun or partial shade. Like any hydrangea, they are not drought tolerant so water freely in hot summers; letting them dry out will cause brown edging to form on the leaves and possibly the flowers, even if they recover from wilt. You may experience reduced flowering if cold winter temperatures kill the flower buds--these aren't like the "endless" blooming types popular today. These form their buds in late August, so excessive cold (or untimely pruning) will result in poor bloom, so be sure to choose a site protected from cold winter winds. Color may also change as these are soil ph dependent--blue in acidic soil and pink in alkaline, no matter which color they were at they store (white will still be white, though). To give your plant the best chance possible, you may want to cut back some of the stems at planting if the root ball is small in comparison to the top growth, as these are not grown with longevity in mind.
- Miniature Rose: Well, it’s a rose, after all—subject to all the same requirements and issues your basic hybrid tea roses have only you’ll have to do it inside. Full sun (full sun means 6 hours outside, but more like 12 to 14 if using fluorescent lights), good air circulation, water regularly but keep the foliage dry to avoid fungal disease, fertilize during the growing season and deadhead and prune it properly. Bought when one or two of the flowers are just opening and with plenty of buds and it should be showy for about a month. Mistreat it during that time and the leaves will yellow and start to fall within two weeks or less and the buds won’t open—just a warning. Once there’s no danger of frost plant it outside in a well-drained spot with full sun. You’ll rarely be informed of the actual variety of rose on the tag in that little pot, but these usually grow to no more than 24 x 24 inches when planted outside and tend to be a little cold hardier than regular hybrid teas—on average zones 5-9. I’ve seen them do quite well, blooming through the summer and into the fall—just watch for mildew, black spot, and insects. If you plant in a pot outside, protect the roots over winter--I line my pots with big bubble wrap before I install any plants.
- Bulb plants--Hyacinths, Daffodils, & Tulips, Easter Lilies and Callas: Keep these in as cool a spot as possible and buy them budded if you want to make them last as long as possible. Like any bulb, if you want them to rebloom next year you'll need to leave all the foliage to die down naturally in its own time. You can plant them green in the spring, or let them go dormant and plant them at the proper time. The spring blooming bulbs are generally hardy in zone 3 to 8, but many times forced bulbs just don't rebloom well. Many tulip varieties, forced or not, split into daughter bulbs that may take years to reach blooming size. Easter lilies have a better shot. In zones 4-8, plant them outside in sun to part sun and well-drained soil once temperatures stay above 40 degrees in spring. They should bloom at their proper time in summer the following year--don't expect another Easter display. Most callas are hardy only in zones 8-10, but may make the transition if mulched well over winter in zone 7. In zones 7 and up you can also keep them in the pots after they go dormant, store the pots in a cool, dry place, and set the pot outside the following spring after all danger of frost has passed. You might get lucky, you might not, so don't feel bad about breaking up once any of these are past their prime.
- Other perennial plants that may perform similarly if hardy in your zone: Ornamental Oregano (Kent Beauty), Hebe, Erica (heather), Lavender, Rosemary, spreading Campanula portenschlagiana (often listed as "Get Mee"), common primrose (keep primrose adequately moist but not wet). And just let me say this about that, "Rosemary is NOT a houseplant." No matter how many times you see the cute little trees in the cute little pots that some garden center buyer wants you to put on your kitchen table or widowsill, just remember, NOT A HOUSEPLANT. It's not that it doesn't want to be with you--it's just not made to endure indoors. It's only staying with you so it won't freeze to death, so once it's safe you must let it go.......outside.
If you treat them right, these could be a match made in heaven:
- African Violet: Ok, so this might not be the most exciting date you've ever had, but it's a steady date, and you can have more than one! They're inexpensive, readily available, and offer you pink, blue, purple, white, picotee, speckled, single, double, flat & frilled flowers, as well as variegated leaves to spice things up. It's easiest to water these from below, sitting them in a saucer of room temperature water for no more than 30 minutes. You want the soil to stay just moist and not wet, so check before you water to be sure they need it. Place them in bright indirect light, or if using fluorescents keep the light 18-20 inches above the plants. Don't leave lights on for more than 16 hours, as African violets need 8 hours of darkness each night to bloom. You can judge if your plant is getting enough light by the placement of the leaves. Properly grown, they will form a relatively flat wheel of foliage. If leaves are raised up that is likely a sign that they need more light. Use a fertilizer specifically formulated for African violets, (14-12-14 with no urea) per the package instructions. Heavily chlorinated water (some city water) can be a problem, so you may want to let your water sit for 24 hours first or use distilled water. Usually average home conditions will be fine, but they can benefit from added humidity.
- Amaryllis: Easy to care for with a spectacular blooming display that gets bigger and better every year. Once blooms have faded remove the flowering stems (but not the leaves) an inch or two above the top of the bulb. After that, the basic idea is the same for any bulb—grow the foliage as much as you can to feed the bulb for the next blooming season, and after a fall dormancy it will bloom again—usually bigger and better every year. It's fine to put them outside for the summer. Keep them relatively tight in the pot—this also helps to keep them from falling over as they will be top-heavy when they bloom. For this reason a heavy ceramic or terracotta pot is better than plastic. Remember to keep the top 1/3 of the bulb above the soil level. Come late summer, stop watering, put in a cool, dark spot and just ignore it for 2-3 months. The foliage will die back, this is normal. About 8 weeks before you want it to bloom, bring back into bright indirect light and start watering very lightly at first, then increase once new growth appears. If the stems elongate too much you likely need more light or less water. Turning it frequently will keep the stems growing straight.
- Anthurium: These have become more commonplace recently, showing up even in grocery stores, brought to you by the water-me-with-ice orchid folks. Which makes sense, as many anthurium are epiphytes as are the orchids. My favorite presentation is by a Hawaiian grower, with the anthurium attached to a lava rock, so in bloom it resembles an exploding volcano--cute, huh? If potted, these should always be in a very well-draining mix or orchid mix, allowing the surface to dry between waterings--roughly once a week inside on average. Excessive dryness may show up as brown leaf tips. Bright indirect light and high humidity encourages reblooming; medium light is tolerated. Red is the typical color, but pink, white, purple and orange can be found. The waxy spathes last up to 6 weeks and can bloom several times a year if conditions are favorable.
- Bromeliads: While you may not consider their spiky bracts flowers, there is no doubt that they are showy and colorful. Green leaved Guzmanias, bearing tall columnar spikes, are the most common at retail shops, but Vriseas, displaying flattened oval spikes, may occasionally be found. Silver vase, or Aechmea, is a larger growing bromeliad boasting striking light green and silver striped foliage topped with spires of pink bracts surrounding small bright blue flowers. Epiphytic in nature, these therefore require a very well-drained potting mix such as is used for orchids and should be allowed to dry somewhat between waterings. By the way, you may have heard something about keeping water in the "cup", or inside the central spike of these plants. I have never done that, as it has to be emptied once a week and that's too easy not to do, and will just make it worse if you tend to overwater. Perhaps if your room is very warm and bright this might be advantageous for you--just so long as you know it's not a requirement. While they can tolerate medium light for periods of time, bright indirect light is required for blooming. Bromeliads with thicker, spiny leaves such as Aechmea will want some direct sun. These do bloom only once, so why do I put in this category? Well, maybe I shouldn't have, but they ask so little in return for months of brilliant color that I feel they deserve it. Plus, they will form new plants at the base that you can pot on and bring back into flower. After flowering the parent plant will eventually die, but not usually before one or more "pups" has been formed. Once of sufficient size you can place the potted plants in a bag with a piece of apple for a week to 10 days. The apple will release ethylene gas which will help to induce blooming--this is just a natural version of what greenhouse growers do. So all in all, even though they're eventually going to leave you, you'll be able to watch the kids and perhaps grandkids grow up--you'll be richer for the experience!
- Christmas/Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera): These are stunning in bloom and can grow quite large—a hanging basket may be best. Let dry slightly between waterings and give them bright light. They prefer higher humidity--these cactus are native to jungle areas rather than deserts. They are also epiphytic, growing on trees and not in soil, so take care not to overwater. To rebloom, in fall move to a place with cool night temperatures (about 50 degrees) and darkness after sundown for about 6 weeks, cutting back on the water a bit. In my zone 7 I used to just place them outside along an east or north wall sometime in September and bring them in by mid-November/first frost. Slowly resume watering once back inside.
- Clivia: This one is not a cheap date--a plant in a 6 inch pot can cost $50 or more. But it is phenomenally beautiful in bloom and can possibly be handed down to the grandchildren. Orange yellow-throated blooms are the most common, but you can also find salmon, yellow, red, and near-white flowering types, as well as ones with variegated foliage. The long, strap-shaped leaves are attractive all year. Like the amaryllis to which they are related, these bulb plants require a rest period beginning in fall or early winter if they are to rebloom. They seldom need repotting, maybe every 5 years or so, and generally dislike root disturbance. Indoors, keep them in bright light but no direct sun. They may be summered outside in a shady location. Hopefully you two will be very happy together!
- Peace Lily: Yes, the flowers aren’t very exciting, but they do possess a simple elegance. This plant needs consistent moisture—don’t ever let it dry out or be WET for too long or sitting in water. It will tolerate low light for periods of time but won’t bloom without bright indirect light. No full sun, it will blacken the leaves. Blooms best when pot bound.
- Phaleonopsis Orchid: I know it sounds scary and the roots hang out of the pot which is just weird if you’ve never orchided before. But if you want stunning flowers indoors this is really something you should try. You don’t need full sun, only bright indirect light—in fact, any direct sun will damage the leaves (as will leaving water droplets on them overnight). Most orchids don’t need soil, so it will likely be potted in either sphagnum moss or orchid mix that looks like chunks of bark. I don’t believe in those “just add ice” orchids—would you want someone throwing ice on your feet when you’re thirsty? But that does give you the idea of how much water they DON’T need. Usually for a 4 to 6 inch pot watering orchids in bark once a week should be sufficient. With sphagnum moss you may need to stick your finger in there to see how wet/dry it is—it depends on how tightly it's packed. But in general sphagnum will hold the moisture longer than the bark so it’s easier to overwater these. Run the pot under the faucet or otherwise water it well and catch the overflow in a saucer that is emptied within no more than 15 minutes. If you get the watering right that’s 90% of the battle. The rest is fertilizing regularly and perhaps increasing the light if they’re not reblooming. A happy orchid's leaves should be more yellow-green than deep green. If your plant only has one set of leaves then remove the flowering stem once the blooms have faded. If there’s at least two sets of leaves you may cut the stem back just below where the old flowers were and it should bloom on the side shoots. If you buy one of those crazy bright blue or purple (or really bright anything) dyed ones—yes, they’re dyed by injecting the dye into the stems, and no, they don’t rebloom like that. But they’ll still be pretty—by some standards maybe prettier!
- Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose): This may remind you of an African violet on steroids--the two plants are even closer related than once thought. Long, wrinkly, fuzzy leaves are topped with medium to large ruffled flowers in rainbow colors, often edged or otherwise mixed with white. The intensity of the hues can be astounding, especially the purples and reds, and even the the pastels seem vibrant. These are not large plants--a 6 inch pot is probably the largest you'll need, but they can flower profusely, on and off from spring through fall. It's best if they have a winter rest with cooler temperatures and drier conditions. They'll need bright light and a regular watering schedule that allows the top 1/3 of the mix to dry in between. Once you've gotten to know each other, these may go beyond love and become an obsession!
*The majority of houseplants will have a rest period in winter as available light naturally decreases--watering should be adjusted accordingly and no fertilizer applied during this time
Care chart for plants in this article:
Bright with sun: Southern exposure with direct sun ok
Bright: Eastern or western exposure, southern if filtered through sheer curtains or leafy trees
Bright indirect: Eastern or western exposure, no direct sun
Fertilizer: first number refers to dilution strength
Basic Growing Information for Indoor Plants: for tips on keeping proper humidity levels, watering, repotting, etc. that apply to most indoor plants