This really has been a long, delightful fall. Twice already we got some snow, a reminder that inevitably winter will settle it. While there isn’t much we can do to shorten the winterseason, fortunately we can brighten it up a bit. Several species of bulbs hailing from southern Africa may be just the touch of color and sometimes fragrance needed to get you past the winter doldrums.

Most popular is the amaryllis. These large bulbs produce glorious, huge, trumpet-shaped flowers on tall, sturdy stems. Due to intensive hybridization, colors range from pure white and pale pink to salmon, scarlet, deep pink and orange. Many interesting bicolors and picotees can be purchased along with doubles and miniatures.


Red amaryllis by dmp.

Plant amaryllis bulbs in a pot about two inches wider than the bulb. Since these plants are top-heavy when in bloom, a sturdy clay or ceramic container is advisable. Position the bulb so the top one-quarter of it is exposed above the potting soil. Some folks like to use regular potting soil as opposed to a soilless media for planting these bulbs because of the extra weight. I find either works well as long as the container is sturdy. Mix in one tablespoon of 10-10-10 or a similar granular fertilizer per gallon of potting soil before planting.


Amaryllis flower bud emerging from bulb by dmp.

Pack soil firmly but gently around the bulb and give it a good watering. After the initial watering, keep the soil on the dry side until you see signs of growth and then regular watering can commence. Place in a bright, warm location and the flower bud should appear in 6 to 8 weeks. After flowering, water and fertilize regularly until the leaves begin to yellow, usually late summer. Of if left outside for the summer, dig up before a hard frost and in either case, let the bulbs undergo dormancy in a dry, warm place (60 degrees F) for 2 to 3 months, then repot for late winter’s blooms.


Amaryllis with paperwhites and hyacinths by dmp.

Freesias and ixias are fragrant, winter flowering bulbs that thrive in cool (50-55 degrees F) temperatures. They both produce flowers in a wide array of colors and also slender, grass-like leaves. Six bulbs are generally planted in a 5-inch pot and the bulbs are completely covered with potting media. Freesias can be placed in a cool, bright location directly after potting while ixias need to be left in a cooler (45 degrees F), dark area for about eight weeks to establish roots before moving into brighter light to initiate growth. Older houses typically offer these environments more frequently than newer, more energy efficient homes but perhaps the garage or shed can be used if the temperature is monitored.


Freesias by dmp

Fill several pots at 2 to 3 week intervals for a prolonged period of enjoyment. Both will need some support so set 3 or 4 thin stakes in the pot and loop the stakes with green string or yarn at staggered intervals. Keep the potting media moist and fertilize with a water soluble product when plants begin active growth. After the foliage begins to fade, after bloom, let the pots dry out, remove the corms and store in a dark, slightly humid spot until next fall. Or, if this sounds like too much work, purchase more bulbs next year.


Freesias grown at Tri-County Greenhouse by dmp.

Veltheimia bracteata is a South African bulb, sometimes called the Cape hyacinth, and it prefers warmer (60-70 degrees F) temperatures. From a basal rosette of soft green, strap-like leaves arises a two-foot flower spike – soft pink blossoms tinged with yellow are similar in form to the red hot poker plant. Water newly potted bulbs sparingly until new growth is evident. This plant performs best when crowded so don’t repot unless absolutely necessary. Like the other South African natives, it too needs a dry, dormant period when yellowing leaves signal the cessation of growth.


Veltheimia bracteata by C. Morse, EEB Greenhouse.Used with permission.


Veltheimia bracteata by Matt Mattus. Used with permission.

Except for amaryllis, I will say that these other bulbs are not as readily available at local garden centers as they used to be when local venders liked to appeal more to budding horticulturists. Typically the bulbs are not a problem to mail order and they can be potted up any time in the next few weeks.

For years, I nursed along my freesias (after getting severely addicted to their fragrance when they were grown each winter at Old Sturbridge Village where I was previously employed). Each year at OSV, forced freesias were delivered to the visitor’s center and various departments and very much appreciated for their winter fragrance, color and interest. More recently, I discovered that Tri-County Greenhouse on Route 44 in Storrs-Mansfield sells their own locally grown freesias and now I spend time visiting them in February and purchasing heavenly scented pastel freesia blooms instead of trying to find that perfect 55 degrees F spot in my basement.

There are a number of other South African bulbs that can be grown inside homes during the winter months. It is likely you can find some in bloom this winter at the UConn EEB Greenhouse. Do visit, especially on those chilling January and February days when a stroll through the tropics seems so desirable but a bit out of reach financially. Enjoy one of the most diverse plant collections in northeastern United States. Admission is free (see website for exceptions). Go to for directions and hours.


As we decorate our homes for the holidays with cheery plants, evergreen boughs and berries, it is important to take into account which plants and materials might be toxic to young children and pets. Many plants can pose serious threats to the curious two year old or inquisitive dog, cat or bird.

According to Botanic Gardens Conservation International, there are approximately 400,000 known species of plants inhabiting the earth. Of these, only about 700 species found in this hemisphere are know to cause loss of life or serious illness in man or animals. The toxicity of many new, exotic houseplants and garden plants is not as of yet known. Also be aware that even ‘safe’ plants may cause problems as the plant or soil may be contaminated with pesticides and/or growth regulators. If your household contains young children or curious pets, you may want to consider purchasing plants from an organic grower or placing them out of reach.

Not all plants listed on poisonous plant lists are fatal. Plants are labeled as poisonous if they cause any kind of problem to humans, farm animals or pets. Some are extremely toxic. For example, two oleander leaves will prove fatal to an adult. Other plants may just cause minor skin irritations.Most toxic plants are bitter to the taste or irritate the mouth so generally the animal or person stops eating or chewing on it long before enough is consumed to cause any toxic effects.

Let us look at some common holiday plant materials and their toxicity. First, let me dismiss the rumor concerning poinsettias. They are not the deadly plants they have been made out to be. However, they do contain a white, latex-like sap. Some people are allergic to this sap and a contact dermatitis may result. If eaten, they may cause injury to the digestive track.

Christmas Confetti Poinsettia bred by Bob Shabot, UConn

Christmas Confetti Poinsettia bred by Bob Shabot, UConn

Holiday cacti and Norfolk Island pines are nontoxic. Ornamental pepper plants with their tiny, bright colored fruits are not poisonous but, wow, are they hot!

Christmas cactus at UConn Floriculture Greenhouse

Christmas cactus at UConn Floriculture Greenhouse

Some of the more toxic plants include amaryllis with its gorgeous, trumpet-shaped blooms, azaleas and Jerusalem cherries. The bright orange fruits of the Jerusalem cherry are especially alluring to small children. The English ivy (Hedera helix) used sometimes in indoor arrangements and topiaries contains saponins. These produce a burning sensation in the throat and may cause severe abdominal pain.

Lovely trumpet blooms of amaryllis

Lovely trumpet blooms of amaryllis

Evergreens are also often used in arrangements, for wreaths and swags, and as roping. Branches from yews, laurel, holly and boxwood are extremely toxic. (Why yews don’t at least give the deer feeding on them a stomach ache remains a mystery to me.) The Delaware Indians used laurel leaves in preparing a suicide tea. The shiny holly berries may prove attractive and sicken children. Mistletoe is also extremely poisonous and should not be used where children or pets may access it.

Mistletoe from

Mistletoe from

If you have a question about whether a plant is poisonous or not, call the UCONN Home and Garden Education Center at (860) 486-6271, visit us on the web at, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Office. Information about the toxicity of plants as well as other substances is available by calling the National Poison Hotline at (800) 222-1222 which is open 24/7. Here’s to a safe and healthy holiday season!

Dawn P.

A former acquaintance once remarked, rather gleefully, that there were no pets or indoor plants in his family’s home. I suppose single people living in apartments often find themselves petless and plantless for a variety of reasons. No one else in my social circles with a spouse, house and kids, however, can lay claim to the same. In fact, many of my friends have way too many plants and in some instances, pets, sharing their abodes.

As it turns out, numerous scientific studies carried out by renowned institutions like Rodale, Rutgers, Texas A & M, and Harvard, to name a few, have all shown that flowers and plants bring happiness, make people more productive (not sure if teenagers were included in these studies!!), reduce anxieties, and help ill people heal faster. Some hospitalized patients exhibited reduced blood pressure and required less painkillers when exposed to plants or flowers.

FS arrgmt 2

Surely all of us gardening geeks have experienced similar feelings of contentment whether digging, weeding and planting out in the yard or when spending a bit of indoor time grooming, transplanting and propagating houseplants – which what I was doing this past weekend when it triggered this odd but memorable articulation.

First order of business was to pot up amaryllis bulbs that had spent last summer and fall outdoors in the ground and were dug up right before the November 8th snowstorm. They were just set in a basket in the cellar and their foliage allowed to die down. These 4 bulbs could have been potted up any time in the last month but time was on my side today.

Pot amaryllis bulbs with their tips sticking out of the potting mix and into heavy clay or ceramic pots because they are rather top heavy. Water them well and place them in a relatively bright and cool location until you see the buds start to form. At that time, start fertilizing and watering regularly and make sure they receive adequate light. They should bloom in 6 to 8 weeks.

Interesting use of amaryllis at Flora in Winter at the Worcester, MA Art Museum

Interesting use of amaryllis at Flora in Winter at the Worcester, MA Art Museum

A few tender perennials are overwintered under my plant lights and in windows. A very lovely variegated ivy was pruned back, repotted and the cuttings placed in a vase of water to hopefully root and be used in northern exposure window boxes. I groomed a brilliant red gerbera which had been producing flowers on and off since I purchased it last spring. This past week a lovely plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ put forth a precious purple bloom. It was severely cut back before bringing it in and tending to it over the winter and the flower is worth every effort.

Plectranthus blooming in February

Plectranthus blooming in February

Maybe some can live without plants in their homes, but I am definitely not among them!

Plants Rule!



Amaryllis bulbs are a common holiday gift, that by February, are done blooming and all you are left with are multiple long strap-like leaves and a dried up flower stalk or two. With proper  care and attention these bulbs will live to produce another bloom next holiday season. The rounded flower stalk will be growing straight up and holding the remains of the past blossom. Cut this off an inch or two above the top of the bulb. Do NOT cut off the strap-like leaves. The leaves are the food factory where photosynthesis happens. The leaves take energy from the sun, converting into carbohydrates to be stored in the large bulb, making next year’s flower. Place the pot containing the bulbs and leaves in a sunny south-facing window for best light. Water when the top inch or so of soil is dry to the touch and do not let the pot sit in water as it could rot the bulb. Treat the plant with a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer monthly. Potted amaryllis can be kept inside as a houseplant or moved outside for the summer. It can also be removed from the pot and planted directly in the ground in a semi-shady to full-sun location after slowly letting it get used to the stronger light. Dig the bulb back up before the danger of the first frost sometime in September. Now is the time cut off all of the leaves and place it in a cool (40 to 50 degree F) and dark place, such as a basement closet or shelf. Leave it there for 8 to 10 weeks. No water or light during this time will put the plant into dormancy. Be sure to mark you calendar to bring it out of hiding, pot it up with new potting soil, provide it with water and sun, then wait for new growth. It can take up to two months before you see the swollen head of the flower stalk appear but the leaves sometimes appear first. Weaker bulbs that did not receive enough sun the year before may not rebloom and will need another year of full sun on their leaves to grow a larger bulb.

I did not mark my calendar and forgot to take out my amaryllis this year. Imagine my surprise at opening the basement cabinet to find a pure white stalk and leaves and bright red flower bud trying to grow out of the dark into the sliver of light where the door meets the frame! without the light the plant was unable to produce green chlorophyll resulting in only white cell growth.

-Carol Quish

Amaryllis grown in the absence of light.

Amaryllis grown in the absence of light.

It’s probably obvious by now that I really like to grow plants from bulbs. This time of year some might be content dreaming about that first snowdrop braving the chilling winds or how beautiful all the tulips will be along the front walkway or even what varieties of dahlias to order. I find myself bringing forced hyacinths up from the basement to be slowly coaxed into bloom, potting up amaryllis bulbs, and finally getting around to cleaning the gladioli corms I dug up last November.

The gladioli were mostly given to me by a fellow MA Master Gardener when she and her husband pulled up their roots, sold their house and moved to a retirement community in Connecticut. I have been growing them for almost 20 years now and each time a bright salmon colored blossom unfolds, I think of her. Gladioli also adorned my grandmother’s garden. I remember visiting her as a young child and staring up at the glorious blooms on stems reaching over my head. Glads make long-lasting, vibrant cut flowers and really are pretty easy to grow.

If you want to extend your cut flower season, plant batches of corms at two week intervals. In the Northeast I begin planting them in mid-May and finish up in mid-June although you could probably keep going into July. The corms are planted about 4 to 6 inches deep. The tall ones do require staking but to minimize work for myself, I have them growing through some wire grating which pretty much keeps them upright.

At the end of the season, usually in late October or November depending on the weather, the glads must be dug up in my region. I cut back the foliage to a few inches above the corms and then lift from the ground, shaking off loose soil and just set them in a tray. Corms are rather peculiar food storage organs. Each year the old corm dies and a new one is produced. If the plants are happy they produce lots of baby corms, called cormels, and these begin to grow around the new corm. If you wanted, you could pluck the cormels and plant them in a separate nursery bed in late spring. The ones the size of a dime or larger will be less likely to dry out and die over the winter. They could be stored in a paper bag at about 45 degrees F. It usually takes 2 or 3 growing seasons for your cormel to grow into a blooming size bulb.  

Glad corms before and after cleaning. Note the little cormels on the right.

I never seem to get around to cleaning the gladioli bulbs until about now. They have been kept in the cellar in the same tray I initially put them into. Now the old corms and cormels are separated from the new one. This is done by giving a little twist to the old corm. Any remnants of the old, dried foliage are also twisted off the top of the corm. Next, they are stored in an old grapefruit sack in the basement until May. Storage temperatures in the upper 40’s to lower 50’s seem to work well.  

Stored glad corms in an old mesh bag.

The amaryllis bulbs probably could have been planted before Christmas but I never seem to get around to potting them up until now. They spend the summer outside in a shaded area of the garden and are generally dug up around the end of October. A few light frosts don’t seem to bother them. They are also laid in trays in the cellar and the leaves will die back. For years I had heard a dry dormant period was necessary for flower bud initiation but apparently this is not true for many varieties. I have seen several pots of amaryllis that are encouraged to grow year-round and still send up abundant blossoms.  I may try this one year but for now I like the dig up and forget about the plant for a while scenario.

There also has been much emphasis on leaving the top one-quarter to one-third of the bulb above the potting mix. I found this doesn’t really matter too much either and sometimes just the top of the bulb is peaking through the potting mix and it still grows and blooms just fine. The most important part of potting up an amaryllis bulb is to put it in a relatively heavy container like clay or ceramic because the blossoms are large and weighty and the whole plant may topple over if kept in a light plastic pot.

Potting up amaryllis bulbs.

My favorite way to force hyacinths is in hyacinth glasses although occasionally, I do pot some up as well. When purchasing bulbs in September for fall planting, a few extra hyacinths are purchased and the bulbs for the glasses go into the vegetable keeper in the refrigerator. A little before New Year’s, I put them in their specially formed hyacinth glasses and fill with water until it just barely reaches the bottom of the bulb which is known as the basal plate. Then these go down into the cool, dark cellar.  After a month or so, lots of white roots form and the top shoot begins to elongate. They are brought upstairs to a bright, relatively cool location and will bloom in about 3 weeks. The key to forcing bulbs is to use a thermometer, take some notes and experiment with different regions in your house. I froze and desiccated a fair amount of bulbs before coming up with ideal locations.

Hyacinths forced in hyacinth glasses and in pot.

If you enjoy seeing bulbs forced into bloom, you might want to visit the Spring Bulb Show at the Smith College Botanic Garden in Northampton, MA. It runs for two weeks beginning the first Saturday in March. For more information, check out

 Grow good!