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Unique houseplants add interest to the indoors

A crown of thorns continues to bloom during the winter months. (John Zvirovski / The Sun)

The winter season is a good time to attend to all those houseplants that seem to get neglected during the summer months. So often we are all too busy in the summer to remember the living things indoors. Once the cold air moves in and the outside chores are through, we begin to tend to those houseplants that long for the attention.

I, for one, am terrible at making houseplants thrive. I find myself struggling just to keep most of them alive. Most of it I write off as not having enough sunlight in the house for them to grow, but often times it is just because I forget about them and they dry up. It is a sad situation, but very true.

I have realized that some of the plants that enjoy this environment are my three or four cactus-like plants. The barrel cactus, the Christmas cactus, the jade plant and the crown of thorns. These seem to be more forgiving when I forget to water them. I know they all hang on until the day they can return outside when the summer months return.

Since I enjoy things that are more on the unique side, I think it is the crown of thorns that I enjoy the best. They do not take a great deal of care and continue to grow whether it is summer or winter. They do slow their growth rate down quite a bit when the winter season arrives.

A native of Madagascar, the crown of thorns has many characteristics. It looks like a cactus, but is actually a variety of euphorbia, similar to the poinsettia. It can grow from 2 to 3 feet in height and be just as wide. Some cultivars can reach 12 feet in height. Their stems are thick and covered in thorns that reach up to an inch in length. When the stem is broken, the interior emits a milky sap that can cause blisters in sensitive skin and if it comes in contact with an open cut or sore it feels very painful. It is considered highly toxic, and one should wear gloves when handling this plant.

Crown of thorns enjoys bright light and can even thrive in direct sunlight. The plants do not enjoy heavy soils which remain wet for any period of time as this can cause fungus and rot in the roots and stems. They prefer a sandier soil, which has good aeration within and around the rooting structures. They are very drought tolerant and reserve their moisture by shedding their leaves. The thorns shade the stems to keep them from heating up and perspiring.

Leaves form on the ends of the stems and are more prevalent during the growing season of summer. Flowers also form near the ends on 1- to 1 1/2-half inch stems, which produce anywhere from six to 12 flowers per stem. The half- to 1-inch flowers open with two opposing petals and a small yellow center. Typically they bloom in shades of red, ink and white; however, newer varieties are gaining popularity in other colors, such as salmon, green and bi-colors.

In Thai folklore, the belief is that the number of flowers the crown of thorns plant has at any given time indicates the amount of luck you have in life. If you are a believer in luck, choose the varieties which produce the most blooms!

The plants can be kept in a dense form if the ends are cut back to promote additional stems to fill in the gaps. If you are looking to make new plants through propagation, begin by cutting 4- to 5-inch stems. Dip the ends into hot water to stop the flow of sap from the stems and spray water on the plant where the cuttings were taken to halt the flow of sap from the plant. Acquire a container that is about 4 to 6 inches deep and fill it with a non-soil potting mixture and push a finger in the center about 2 inches down. Add a little rooting powder to the hole and dip each cutting in the rooting powder also to aid in root formation. Place the cutting into the 2-inch hole and press the soil firmly around it. Lightly water to moisten the soil and remove any excess water that comes through into the tray below. Only water lightly when the soil dries out. Roots will form in approximately six weeks, forming a new plant.

Many different varieties are available such as “American Beauty” with its scarlet red flowers that are quite stunning and showy. “Short and Sweet” is a dwarf red-flowering selection. Some of these will also bloom in shades of pink, white and cream.

Some of the newer varieties have large flowers that measure 1 to 2 inches across such as “Pink Profusion” with its pink and cream coloring. “Confetti” has pink flowers with splashes of red and green or “Red Jillian” with its red and green flowers. “Paradise Lady” has a swirl to its flowers in colors of pink and white. “Yellow Delight” is a unique and new variety with creamy yellow flowers that are splashed with specks of orange and green for a stunning new look.

If unique and hardy is a plant you are looking for, this selection may be just the plant for you to try. With many stunning features, it is a plant that will amaze you for many different reasons. Just beware of the thorns along the stems as they are very unforgiving when touched!