Monday, February 3, 2014

Musings on Once-blooming Houseplants By Irene Shonle

My Amaryllis is just about to bloom (maybe a little late for the holidays, but perhaps just in time for Valentine's day).   I try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts (moving it down into the cooler downstairs to prolong the show), but it is always fleeting.

Amaryllis in full bloom
This got me thinking about all the room I give to plants that bloom but once a year. I water them, feed them, make sure they have their happy amount of light, watch for insects, and in general, worry about them for the entire year.   They spend most of the year as just greenery, and then shine for a just a few short weeks.  Other plants in this category are my Epiphyllum ‘cactus’, my night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), and some of my orchids.

Are they worth the space they take up and the care I lavish on them?  What about my more quotidian plants like my faithful geraniums, which are almost never out of bloom, or my heliotrope, which blooms in regular cycles? Or even my Amazonian lily (Eucharis amazonica) and Chinese perfume plant (Aglaia odorata), which bloom more sporadically, but usually at least twice a year?  Should these plants not be even more appreciated, because they are always providing me cheer, even in the depths of winter?  
Orange Amaryllis and Pelargoniums (Geraniums)

There are other reliable houseplants that are sporadic bloomers or even everbloomers (crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) some Hoyas, Lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus radicans) that I don’t grow, which also qualify as the workhorses of the houseplant world.  Also in the long-blooming category is the heavenly-scented Osmanthus fragrans, which I grew and dearly loved for years, until it suddenly crashed and died.  Still not sure why.  The flowers were not conspicuous, but they carry one of my favorite scents ever.  And for people with the right conditions (and perhaps a green thumb), African violets, jasmines, and gardenias can all do well.  Not for me --  they are happiest in high humidity, but others might have better luck.  I do grow Bougainvillea, but they only bloom well for me in the springtime, but I think if I had better sun, they would be a longer bloomer.  

But back to my once bloomers.  I think perhaps they’re wonderful simply because you have to appreciate them now.  I love the sense of anticipation as the big stem of the Amaryllis pushes up from the pot, and the buds slowly unfurl into splendor.  If I don’t take the time to slow down and admire, I’ll miss it.  And have to wait a whole year!

 As my Epiphyllum “Unforgettable” comes into bud in the spring, I greedily count the buds, waiting impatiently for the show. And what a show – each flower lasts no more than a day or two, but they are so improbably Dr. Seuss-like and brilliant, and there are so many in succession, that it truly is “unforgettable.”  I have even been known to take guests up to my sunroom to admire it in full bloom.

Epiphyllum 'Unforgettable"
And I wait all year for the heavy, sweet scent of the night blooming jasmine to fill my bedroom – it always seems to be triggered into blooming when I bring it into the house after a summer outside.
Night blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)

Yep, I guess those once-bloomers are worth it, after all.  But I won’t be giving up my workhorses, either.


  1. I'm so glad to hear that someone else loves the sweet olive (Osmanthus fragans). They are landscape plants on the Gulf Coast, and the smell of the winter holidays. I've got one going here in Colorado, and hope I can keep it going through the winters indoors. It's a bit testy inside.

  2. Great blog, Irene! I am such a fan of my holiday cactus, because their blooms are fantastic. Every time my mom comes to visit, she tells me to throw them out because they are ugly (I should water more), but she's never seen them in all their glory. I also have several hoyas and their creamy waxy flower is one of my favorites.