Pot Shots: Bird’s Nest Fern

A young bird’s nest fern, Asplenium nidus, in a vase by potter Denis Orton.

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The bird’s nest fern takes its name from it rosette structure, with new fronds arising from its center.  In its native African or Asian jungle homes, these ferns most commonly grow high up in the canopy, anchored to trees or onto other large plants.  They enjoy high humidity and diffused, indirect light.  They catch rainwater in their central basin, or nest.

Most varieties will grow a bit larger with each passing year, with each frond of a mature plant unrolling to 2′ or more long.  Bird’s nest ferns may be grown in pots or may be mounted on a wooden base, with their roots wrapped in moist sphagnum moss, as you would mount a staghorn fern.

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These ferns may fool you at first sight, and may not even be recognized as a fern.  Their fronds are usually undivided, wide and shiny, often with ripped edges.  Many beautiful varieties may be found where houseplants are sold.

Bird’s nest ferns thrive in the warm, low light conditions most homes offer.  They naturally grow in tropical jungles, and so require minimum temperatures over 50F.  They like humidity and evenly moist soil.  They can take occasionally dry soil, however, especially if the surrounding air is humid and if they get water accumulating in their center from time to time.

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This bird’s nest fern is several years old and has been re-potted at least once.

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Bird’s nest ferns  look like a living sculpture.  They  add a naturally beautiful touch to most any room that gets some natural light.  But they also help maintain cleaner, healthier indoor air for their gardener.  You won’t see it, but tiny holes in each leaf draw air in from their environment, purify it, and then exhale cleansed, oxygenated air.  Each frond can filter and trap many pollutants, making the air you breathe indoors much cleaner and fresher.  All houseplants serve this function, even as they release water vapor back into the air each day.

If you have a loved one in your life heading off to a dorm room or apartment this fall, a small potted bird’s nest fern makes a great housewarming gift.  Small potted ferns like this are also good office plants, making a work space healthier and more beautiful, while taking up little space.  You might give a tiny mister with the fern along with instructions to mist the fern a few times each day.

I honestly rarely pause long enough to mist a fern.  But I do check on them every day or so and offer small sips of water.

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Water collects in the well at the center of a bird’s nest fern.  All new fronds arise from this central point.

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A bird’s nest or staghorn fern will grow happily in a closed container, without drainage holes, so long as you keep the soil at a moist but not soggy ‘sweet spot.’  Growing in the jungle canopy, these ferns evolved to get sporadic watering in a very humid environment.  Their roots are fairly small relative to the size of their leaves, and in nature burrow into bark or organic matter caught in the branches of trees.

You can grow these ferns in a mix blended for orchids, or in a more traditional peat based potting mix with perlite mixed in to retain moister.  If you’re growing your fern in a closed container with no drainage hole, put an inch or so of perlite or aquarium gravel in the bottom of the container to serve as a water reservoir.  Excess water will drain down to the reservoir when you water.  Perlite will absorb and hold that water, slowly releasing it back into the soil as the soil begins to dry.

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This fern has fronds similar to a bird’s nest fern, but each frond arises from a furry rhizome which creeps along the surface of the soil. These can be grown with roots wrapped in sphagnum moss, mounted with fishing twine to a board or a piece of driftwood.  I like them best in a hanging basket, where the rhizomes grow along the outside of the basket.

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Perlite is a naturally occurring volcanic rock.  The perlite you buy at the hardware store or nursery has been superheated at over 1500F until it expands.  (Think about popcorn, and how it expands when heated.)  Once processed, it looks like little Styrofoam pellets, and can absorb a great deal of water.  Perlite is used in potting soil to improve drainage, to keep it from compacting and to absorb and release water as needed.

You may be able to find a good source for ferns in little 1″-2″ pots, where they are grown in nearly pure peat.  Simply take the root ball out of its nursery pot, and tuck it into a prepared container that is at least a little larger than the original pot.  Give a tiny drink of water to settle the plant and to hydrate the potting mix, and then mulch with fine gravel.

If you are potting up a little fern for a gift, you will probably find some fun but inexpensive containers at a thrift store.  Think about little Asian bowls or other little ceramic containers.  You can also pot into a plastic cup or bowl, and then tuck that into a pretty basket or other container made of wood.

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Vase with prismatic  glaze by Denis Orton

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I was inspired to use this pretty little vase, crafted by our potter friend Denis Orton.  Denis is a chemist who is always working to create beautiful new glazes.  His prismatic glazes on porcelain fascinate me, and I’m always keen to collect a new piece or two when he exhibits in our area.

You may need to pot up a fern like this to a larger pot every few years.  But since the fern’s roots remain small, any re-potting will probably be to keep the container in scale with the expanding leaves.

Fertilize the fern with half strength liquid fertilizer a few times between April and September.  This improves leaf color and keeps the plant growing steadily.  Too much fertilizer may cause brown spots on the fronds.  Direct sun may also cause browning of the fronds.  Keep a bird’s nest fern where it will get natural light, but not direct mid-day sunlight, through your window.  The more light it receives, the faster it will grow and the more water it will require.

Consider a little fern like this a ‘green pet.’  Give it a little daily attention, and it will grow happily in your home or office for many years.

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Woodland Gnome 2018


 

 

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Winter Houseguests: The Begonias

 

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Our Begonias move inside sometime in late October.  And we entertain them for the wintery half of the year, until they can go back out to the fresh air and sunshine in late April.  We add a few new cultivars every year, and every year it seems the collection grows from cuttings, too.

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They show appreciation with fresh flowers and new growth, glowing in the rare winter sunshine.

Begonias reward their grower with gorgeous foliage whether in bloom, or not.  Their leaves may be plain or spotted, round, curlique, angel wing, shiny or dull.  Some are gargantuan; others remain quite small. You’ll find Begonias with any color leaves from apple green to purply black.

Like Heucheras, some cultivars’ leaves are even orange!

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Although most of our Begonias spend winter camping out in the garage, a few make the cut to live in the house with the cat and the gardeners.  They drop many of their summer leaves in our arid heated home,  but new ones will take their place by early summer.

Begonias prefer to dry out a little between waterings.  Even so, I try to check them and top them off several times a week.  I offer well-diluted Orchid food a few times a month to those in the house, to keep them growing and encourage them to bloom.

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This Begonia blooms almost continually. A tall Angel Wing type, its stems will grow to 6" or more if you don't prune them back.

This Begonia blooms almost continually in bright light. A tall Angel Wing type, its stems will grow to 6″ or more if you don’t prune them back.

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Late winter is a great time to find B. Rex, and other small Begonia cuttings growing in tiny pots.  I picked up two new cultivars last weekend at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.  Neither was named, but one was sold as a ‘dwarf Begonia‘ and has the tiniest leaves I’ve found on a Begonia, yet.  I am looking forward to learning what this one does over time.

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The 'dwarf' Begonia I found at the Great Big Greenhouse last weekend. These are the tiniest Begonia leaves I've ever seen!

The ‘dwarf’ Begonia I found at the Great Big Greenhouse last weekend. These are the tiniest Begonia leaves I’ve ever seen!

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The other is an Angel Wing type, and likely will make a good hanging basket plant.  Small and inexpensive now, I can find a little place  for  these grow indoors over the next few months.  Each new Begonia will grow  large enough to look good in a pot or hanging basket basket by the time it is warm enough to move them out for the summer.

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Although a tiny rooted cutting now, this will likely grow into a standard sized Begonia by early summer.

Although a tiny rooted cutting now, this will likely grow into a standard sized Begonia by early summer.

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If your gardener’s fingers are itching to grow, but it is still too cold to work outside, please consider adopting a Begonia.

It will prove a rewarding companion so long as you can provide bright, indirect light and temperatures of 50F or above.  These beautiful plants want to live.  Even if you make a mistake or two along the way, most will recover and come back strong.

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When you need to prune them back, the cuttings will root well in water.   In just a few weeks, your rooted cutting will be ready for a pot of its own.   A few rooted cuttings planted in a basket in April will grow into a gorgeous  display by July.

 

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This is a second rooted cutting I picked up last weekend of the same Begonia cultivar. This two piece pot has a reservoir to keep the soil evenly moist. How cute!

This is a second rooted cutting I picked up last weekend of the same Begonia cultivar. This two piece pot has a reservoir to keep the soil evenly moist. How cute!

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 Long lived and companionable, Begonias make agreeable winter house guests, freshening the air and filling one’s home with beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Begonias: The Ultimate House Plant

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Whether choosing a pet or a house plant, most of us have criteria.

We think about shedding and noise, ease of care, how much space we have, and the general appearance of our new companion.

Long hair or short?  Leggy or compact?  And how much will I need to feed it?

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Many of us treat our indoor plants a little like pets.  We offer fresh water and food.  We groom them, probably talk to them; and we clean up behind them.

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Having kept everything from ferns to Ficus trees over the years, I have developed some preferences and prejudices.

I like interesting foliage, first of all.  I want something eye-catching and unusual.  And I want to see growth and change.

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I grew up in the era when my mother kept ‘dish gardens’ in the living room.  These florist made concoctions were uniformly boring and rarely grew at all.

Nearly all included a ‘Mother in Law’s Tongue,’ otherwise known as ‘Snakeplant.’  They thrive on total neglect.

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For my money, rhizomatous Begonias remain the best ‘house plants’ of all.

Their leaves unfold like colorful mosaics or textured silk.  Even though they produce flowers from time to time, the flowers are almost an afterthought; and nearly always tiny.

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The leaves, streaked and mottled in shades of silver, green, black, red, pink, brown, white and purple, are more colorful and interesting than any flower, with the possible exception of orchids.

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You probably know rhizomatous Begonias as ‘Rex’ Begonias.  ‘Rex’ of course is Latin for ‘king.’  All Rex Begonias are rhizomatous, but all rhizomatous Begonias are not classed as ‘Rex.’

The original species of B. Rex was found in the forests of northern India.  Since, the species has been hybridized with other rhizomatous Begonias to create the many many cultivars available around the world today.

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Rhizomatous Begonias thrive in the warm, shady environment most homes can offer.  They remain relatively small and rarely shed so much as a petal or leaf.  While these Begonias hate soggy soil, they appreciate humid air.  In areas with low humidity the will perform better when grown on a tray of moist gravel, or near other plants where humidity remains fairly high.

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Most of our Begonias spend the summer out of doors in the shade.  They love our high coastal humidity.    Once outside, the leaves become more vibrantly colored as they respond to increased levels of light.

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This is the Begonia pictured above, as it looked near the end of February.  We had purchased it from Lowes in a 2" pot about three weeks earlier.  Notice how the leaf color has changed since it has been living outside on our shady deck?

This is the same Begonia pictured 2 photos above, as it looked near the end of February. We had purchased it from Lowes in a 2″ pot about three weeks earlier. Notice how the leaf color has changed since it has been living outside on our shady deck?

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Rhizomatous Begonias send up individual leaves, on long petioles, from a special stem called a rhizome, which creeps along the surface of the soil.  This means that as these plants grow larger, they can be divided by cutting the rhizome into pieces.  Each piece should have some roots and some leaves attached so it can grow on in its new pot.

I top dress the soil with fine gravel, often aquarium gravel, to make the pot look nicer and to protect the plants’ fragile leaves.

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A division taken when we re-potted a new Begonia purchased in February.

A division taken when we re-potted a new Begonia.

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Believe it or not, many rhizomatous Begonias are sold along with other ‘tropical’ plants in big box stores like Lowes and Walmart.

I scan their tropical plant displays for the distinctively beautiful leaves of Begonias.  They often come in tiny pots, 3″ or less, for just a few dollars.

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I just purchased this little Begonia at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, an excellent source for Begonias. A little pot like this costs between $2 and $3.

I just purchased this little Begonia at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, an excellent source for Begonias. A little pot like this costs between $2 and $3.

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Once cleaned up, potted up, and fed; these little guys respond quickly.  Like a stray adopted from the pound, they respond to love and care to grow into beautiful companion plants!

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Our new B. Rex in February, after about a month of care.

Our new B. Rex in February, after about a month of care.

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But unlike a stray Lab or Tom cat, these beauties will not grow out of bounds.  They are extremely well behaved and tolerant of the ways of humans.  They will never reach for the ceiling like a cane Begonia, or drop vivid petals everywhere  as the tuberous Begonias will.

These are the most refined and polite Begonias of the genus.

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This is the same plant shown above, as it looks today, nearly four months later.  Have you noticed how its leaves are of different sizes and colors?

This is the same plant shown above, as it looks today, nearly four months later. Have you noticed how its leaves are of different sizes and colors?

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If you’ve not yet lived with one of these lovely Begonias, you might consider adopting one soon.

They will become your faithful companions for year after year if you will simply give them light, warmth, humidity, a drink when they need it (soil dry to the touch) and a light meal from time to time.

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The difficult part of the relationship is choosing a favorite from so many tempting cultivars.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

B. “Sophia” Has Bloomed!

Begonia "Sophia"

Begonia “Sophia”

“Sophia” came to our garden about this time last year in a tiny little pot, through the mail.

I was intrigued by her description at Garden Harvest Supply.  I wanted to see the dark purple, almost black leaves, covered in silvery markings; and believed this beautiful Begonia would light up a corner of the patio.

When the little start came, I potted it up with an Alocasia, and set it on the patio as soon as the weather settled.  The Begonia grew beautifully all summer, and produced strikingly beautiful foliage.  But no matter how well I cared for it, or how often I fed it, no flowers appeared all summer.

B. “Sophia” was one of the first plants we brought in this autumn to over winter, and we gave her a prominent spot in the living room.  At nearly 4′ tall now, some of her leaves are a foot long.  Other than dropping a few leaves during those first few weeks indoors, which is normal during the adjustment process, B. “Sophia” has kept right on growing.  She is in a spot where she gets morning sun.  But still no flowers .

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So, after Christmas, I decided to encourage her a little.  When watering the orchids, with a cocktail of orchid fertilizer, I decided to share a little of that magical elixer with B. “Sophia” as well.  Just a few sips from time to time were enough to stimulate her to bloom.  And how lovely her blooms are!

This Begonia is beautiful enough to grow just for her foliage, but the soft pink flowers are so worth waiting for, and encouraging. 

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I’ve begun to cut back some of the longer stems to root.  I would like for “Sophia” to branch out a bit more as she grows this coming summer.

Cane Begonias grow extremely large.  In fact, another one grew so top heavy that she turned over last week, pot and all.  I had resisted giving the needed pruning to B. “Cracklin Rosie,” and ended up with quite a few broken canes and lost leaves, now all rooting.  There is a lesson in there for those of us reluctant to cut a a plant back.

And the gifts in the lesson, are all those beautiful new Begonia plants, which will soon be ready to share.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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