1. My neighbor brought me a plant she had found that she wanted to give as a present to a friend.  It was potted and arranged in a superb manner and she wanted to know what it was. It contained a “Pony Tail Palm” (Beaucarnea recurvata) that is a native of Mexican jungles.  The name is from its habit of a cluster of long slender leaves at the top of the plant that curves down over the pot, having a spurt in the spring.

          It is also called “Elephant Foot” because its trunk swells at the soil level.  This “foot” is a storage facility that keeps it alive and makes it easy to take care of.  When you neglect it, it will use its supply to stay alive as it would during a dry season.  About the only way you can kill it is to overwater. It is a slow grower and takes about ten years to mature. It does bloom in the jungle but probably not in a home setting.  A mature plant can be 30 feet tall with leaves over ten feet long and 2 inches wide with a swollen foot to 6 feet in diameter. It is not a palm in spite of its name but belongs to the lily family.

          Sometimes called a “Bottle Palm”, it will grow in a well drained mix. The foot is said to contain a year’s supply of water and food in a mature plant. If you fertilize at all use a very dilute solution.

          Many years ago I had one that was six foot tall with a huge foot and I was considering letting it freeze, but is was rescued by someone with a glassed in entrance and 12 foot ceilings. Then I had to find a small one (12 inches).  It is now about 5 years old, goes on the east side of the house in summer with very high shade. Three feet tall it is now within an inch of the edges of its pot. It will simply split the pot it is in if I don’t get it moved into a bigger pot.

          2. If you want a plant that grows high and wide without any particular shape, whose leaves (not many of them) are about 1/2 inch long but stems that go everywhere  and divide every 6 inches, then a “Pencil Plant” (Euphorbia tirucah) should keep you happy. One can break a “Pencil” off, put it in damp soil, and in less than a year have a 6 foot high collection of “Pencils” about 2 1/2  to 3 feet wide.  Nothing gorgeous about it, just another weirdo.

          Also known as milk bush, finger tree, or rubber Euphorbia, it can be 80 feet tall in the wild.  As with other Euphorbia’s, the plant drips a milky flow. The “Poinsettia” is a Euphorbia and some people may be allergic to their latex. “Pencils” like full sun in summer with just moist soil.  During winter they like a rest period of lower temperature and very little water.

          3. One of my favorites I have had for many years is the “Fairy Duster” or “Powder Puff” (Calliandra haematecephola). From its names you get the idea of a fluffy blossom in red, pink, or white. Instead of petals being the color, it is the stamens.  It belongs to the bean family and closes its leaves at night.  It is a native of Brazil .  During the summer it is on the south side of the house in full sun with its many small leaves demanding water every day.  The buds look like small Raspberries and may cover the entire plant.  The blooms only last a few days and then drop off but the plant immediately forms new buds all summer long.  In winter in a south window it may bloom several times.

          4. The “Desert Rose” (Adenium obesum) is a native of Africa and Arabia and blooms several times a year in response to the seasons.  The stem and the base store water during wet seasons. Books say it should not get below 50 degrees F. so in the fall it is the first plant I bring in. The ‘obesum’ part of its scientific name gives one an idea of what it might look like, as it has fat, semi-woody and spineless stems, going in various directions, coming from a twisted storage base. During the dry season it drops all its shiny, thick, leathery leaves.  For me this seems to be about December or January.  During this time I try not to water it very much at all for danger of root rot.  

          Sometimes this plant is called “Impala Lily”. In its native country, when the rains begin, the flowers start first.  Mine are white with a bright red rim about 3 inches long and wide in a semi-bell form, continuing for a month. They come directly off the branches so can not be picked unless you want to float them. Still another name for this plant is “Bottle Palm” but they are not Palms. Even during the dry season the form of the plant is exiting, sort of like a surprise package.

Copyright 2009




          Gourds must be fully mature in order to dry or cure successfully. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell a mature gourd from an immature one. One method is the use of your thumb nail. Push your thumb nail into the rind. If it goes in, the gourd is still immature. If you can’t push it in, it is ok to harvest or you can let it get a little bigger if the plant and stem is still green. Make sure you leave part of the stem on the gourd so the end does not have an open wound where it can rot more easily. Many gardeners harvest all gourds and toss the ones that begin to turn black and rot.

          “Curing is the gradual evaporation of water within the cells of the gourd. Since most gourds contain over 90% water, the curing process takes 4 to 5 weeks to several months, depending upon its type and size. During the curing process, the thin outer skin of the gourd dries and hardens. The fleshy, internal part of the gourd also dries during the curing process.”

          “When the seeds rattle inside, the gourd is ready for transformation into whatever you desire. Using steel wool, copper pot scrubbers, and increasingly fine sandpaper, remove the outer skin revealing a smooth glossy finish. This can then be painted, burned, carved, drilled, stained or waxed. Gourds can be treated like wood and woodcarving sets are excellent tools to use.”

(The last part of this article was taken from “Horticulture and Home Pest News”, October 13, 1995 issue, p. 141, prepared by Sherry Rindels, Department of Horticulture Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.)