The flower of the Christmas season is the poinsettia, a tropical plant from Mexico that changes its leaf color when the daylength changes. Poinsettias were originally noticed for their bright red color and are now available in many colors, shapes and sizes, thanks to decades of work by plant breeders. As much as we love them, caring for poinsettias during and after the holiday can be a challenge. Here are a few tips to extend the bloom for a longer period and encourage it to grow for the months to come!
Provide plenty of sunlight. A sunny window facing south is ideal. Be careful to not let the leaves touch the glass. Keep temperatures around 55-60F at night and 65-70F during the day.
Keep soil slightly moist on the surface. Wait until the surface feels dry before watering, then add just enough to soak in. If water collects below the pot, pour it out. Those decorative wrappers make it hard to tell, so be sure to check. However, don’t wait for wilting before watering as that is too dry. Both overwatering and underwatering can lead to wilting and excessive leaf drop. Check the soil each day.
Don’t fertilize while “blooming”. While the colored parts of poinsettias are actually modified leaves called bracts and the true flowers are the tiny yellow centers, we often refer to the entire non-green portion as a bloom. The plant can maintain its nutritional needs throughout the flowering time without additional fertilizer.
In the spring, cut the plant back, fertilize and move outside. Remember, poinsettias require temperatures to always stay above 60F. If we receive any cool nights, bring it in for the night. Let the rootball become quite dry throughout April. You may have to move it under a cover if the April showers are occurring every few days.
If you want to try your luck at re-blooming, re-pot it in a slightly larger container and cut it back to about 4” high in mid-May. Keep it in nearly full sun. A little shading in the heat of the day is helpful. Water consistently and fertilize every two weeks with a water-soluble, complete fertilizer. As it grows, you will need to pinch the plant back every six weeks or so until October, I usually remove about half of the stem that has grown out. To get coloration in time for Christmas, find something dark to cover the plant or move it to a dark location each day. The poinsettia must be in complete darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. until the leaves start to turn color, usually 10 weeks. That means moving or covering and uncovering at the same time every day. Any deviation will delay the color change. Once you see a complete set of leaves coloring, the plant can be exposed to regular daylengths. If this sounds like too much work, spent poinsettias do make good compost and garden centers will be happy to sell you a new one!
Remember, poinsettia sap does contain a latex-like chemical that can cause allergic reactions. Small animals, young children, and adults with allergies should not handle poinsettias. If eaten, get medical attention immediately.
October is the premier wildflower month in the Panhandle. Nighttime temperatures drop, days shorten, pollinators emerge, and many native plants explode into flower. Of all the native fall-flowering Panhandle wildflowers, maybe the most striking is currently in full bloom, the Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)!
Mistflower is a low growing, spreading native perennial (1-2’ in height) found in sunny, moist areas of meadows and near rivers, ponds, and creeks throughout much of the United States from New York to Florida and even west as far as Texas and Nebraska. This common native wildflower is conspicuously one of the few native plants in our area that has blue flowers, making Mistflower easy to spot in a sea of yellow, orange, purple, pink, and white wildflowers. The flowers appear as little puffs of purply-blue due to the lack of ray florets (think the outer yellow “petals” of sunflowers), possessing only disk florets (think the inner part of sunflower heads) with long blue, fuzzy-appearing stamens. Mistflower is attractive to more than just wildflower watchers as well, it’s a magnet for nectar-seeking butterflies as well; Eastern Swallowtails, Great Purple and Juniper Hairstreaks, and others are often found feeding on the flowers.
As lovely as Mistflower is in the wild, it’s probably best left for folks enjoy there, especially those who prefer an orderly yard. Mistflower will indeed grow great in moist areas of pollinator gardens and landscapes, requiring only ample sunlight and rainfall, but it is very aggressive. Its spreading nature via its rhizomatous root system and prolific seed production often lead to it becoming a weedy nuisance in more manicured landscapes. But, if chaos and fall bursts of blue erupting at random throughout your garden don’t bother you, by all means, seek out Mistflower for purchase through seed catalogs and local native nurseries. For more information on Mistflower and other fall-blooming native wildflowers, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension office! Happy Gardening.
Turfgrass remains a popular groundcover for most home landscapes. Perennial peanut offers potential as a turfgrass companion in North Florida. Learn the pros and cons of using perennial peanut with existing turfgrass with UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
Gardeners delight in finding a versatile and resilient landscape plant, especially one that is easily shared. Unfortunately, when a plant checks off those characteristics, it usually finds itself on the invasive species list (see IFAS Assessment). Well, in the case of yarrow (Achillea millefolium), we get a tough plant that is easily propagated, has attractive blooms and foliage, attracts butterflies, and is considered native! As I’ll discuss below, it doesn’t come totally flawless.
Yarrow, in the Asteraceae family, is a great addition to the landscape.
Yarrow is considered a cosmopolitan species. It is found across the entire northern hemisphere and there has been a lot of mixing of native and introduced plants, causing much confusion amongst botanists. It is currently considered a single, though complicated, species. Much of the mixing is due to its history with man, being carried along all sorts of expeditions, even the mythical character Achilles, where the plants genus name comes from. The species name comes from the finely divided leaves – like a thousand leaves. It is in the daisy and sunflower family, called the Asteraceae, or composite family, due to the flower heads being composed of many individual flowers.
The cluster of flowers over the feathery leaved foliage is what makes yarrow stand out. The classic yarrow is white-flowered, but breeders have developed many cultivars in an array of colors, including red (‘Rosea’ or ‘Paprika’), pink (‘Cerise Queen’), purple (‘New Vintage Rose’), and yellow (‘Gold’ or ‘Lemon’). Yarrow is also great for its drought tolerance and has few pests or diseases that bother it. It is even reported to be deer resistant! It can be propagated by seed and is easily divided.
Yarrow ‘Paprika’ is a commonly found yarrow cultivar. Source: Timeh87, Creative Commons license.
The common yarrow shows off beautiful white blooms over the feathery foliage. Credit: Rachel Mathes, UF/IFAS.
With all these great attributes comes one potential problem – it is considered toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Yarrow contains a toxic alkaloid, called achilleine, that can poison some mammals. So, if you have an adventurous pet that likes to chew on random plants, then you may want to skip adding yarrow to your landscape. Achilleine is the same compound that has led it to be used by humans for centuries as a blood clotting agent. Achilles was said to have carried yarrow to the battlefield in Troy for his soldiers and the plant has been known as herba militaris and soldier’s woundwort. Of course, always consult a doctor for medical advice!
Looking to add something to brighten your landscape this autumn? Firespike (Odontonema strictum) is a prolific fall bloomer with red tubular flowers that are very popular with hummingbirds and butterflies. Its glossy dark green leaves make an attractive large plant that will grow quite well in dense shade to partial sunlight.
In frost-free areas firespike grows as an evergreen semi-woody shrub, spreads by underground sprouts and enlarging to form a thicket. In zones 8 and 9 it usually dies back to the ground in winter and re-sprouts in spring, producing strikingly beautiful 9-12 inch panicles of crimson flowers beginning at the end of summer and lasting into the winter each year.
Firespike is native to open, semi-forested areas of Central America. It has escaped cultivation and become established in disturbed hammocks throughout peninsular Florida, but hasn’t presented an invasive problem. Here in the panhandle, firespike will remain a tender perennial for most locations. It can be grown on a wide range of moderately fertile, sandy soils and is quite drought tolerant. Firespike may be best utilized in the landscape in a mass planting. Plants can be spaced about 2 feet apart to fill in the area quickly. It is one of only a few flowering plants that give good, red color in a partially shaded site. The lovely flowers make firespike an excellent candidate for the cutting garden and is a “must-have” for southern butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Additional plants can be propagated from firespike by division or cuttings. However, white-tailed deer love firespike too, and will eat the leaves, so be prepared to fence it off from “Bambi”.
Bulbs are my favorite class of ornamental plants. They generally are low maintenance, come back reliably year after year, and sport the showiest flowers around. While many bulbs like Daylily, Crinum and Amaryllis are very common in Panhandle landscapes, there is a lesser-known genus of bulbs that is well worth your time and garden space, the Rainlily (Zephyranthes spp.).
Rainlily, aptly named for its habit of blooming shortly after summer rainfall events and a member of the Amaryllis family of bulbs, is a perfect little plant for Panhandle yards for several reasons. The plant’s genus name, Zephyranthes – which translates to English as “flowers of the western winds”, hints at the beauty awaiting those who plant this lovely little bulb. From late spring until the frosts of fall, Rainlily rewards gardeners with flushes of trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of white, pink, and yellow, with some hybrids offering even more exotic colors. While these individual flowers typically only persist for a day or two, they are produced in “flushes” that last several days, extending the show. Though Rainlily flowers are the main event for the genus, beneath the blooms, plants also offer attractive, grass-like, evergreen foliage. These aesthetic attributes lend themselves to Rainlily being used in a variety of ways in landscapes, from massing for summer color ala Daylilies, to use around the edges of beds as a showy border like Liriope or other “border” type grassy plants.
Unknown Rainlily species blooming in a raised bed. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
Continuing along the list of Rainlily attributes, the genus doesn’t require much in the way of care from gardeners either. Most species of Rainlily, including the Florida native Z. atamasca, have no serious pests and are right at home in full sun to part shade. Once established, plants are exceedingly low-maintenance and won’t require any supplemental irrigation or fertilizer! Some Rainlily species like Z. candida even make excellent water or ditch garden plants, preferring to have their feet wet most of the year – putting them right at home in the Panhandle this year. And finally, all Zephyranthes spp. do very well in containers and raised beds also, adding versatility to their use in your landscape!
The one drawback of Rainlily is that they can be somewhat difficult to find for sale. As these bulbs are an uncommon sight in most garden centers, to source a specific Zephyranthes species or cultivar, one is probably going to need to purchase from a specialty internet or mail-order nursery. As with other passalong-type bulbs though, the absolute best and most rewarding way to obtain Rainlily is to get a dormant season bulb division from a friend or fellow gardener who grows them. There are many excellent unnamed or forgotten Zephyranthes cultivars and seedlings flourishing in gardens across the South, waiting to be passed around to the next generation of folks who will appreciate them!
Even if you must go to some lengths to get a Rainlily in your garden, I highly recommend doing so! You’ll be rewarded with years of low-maintenance summer color after the dreariest of rainy days and will be able to pass these “flowers of the western wind” on to the next gardening generation. For more information on growing, sourcing, or propagating Rainlilies, check out this EDIS publication by Dr. Gary Knox of the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) or contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office! Happy Gardening!