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Brighten Up Indoors With Colorful Plants

February 04, 1996|JOEL RAPP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What better way to brighten your house or apartment during the winter months than with an array of beautiful, vibrant, colorful plants?

And it's easy to do, especially with the enormous selection of flowering house plants, flowering pot plants and dazzling foliage plants available to us in nurseries throughout the Southland.

Among the more familiar winter bloomers you'll see in every garden center and almost every large supermarket are African violets, gloxinias (Sinningia speciosa), miniature roses, cyclamen, azaleas, chrysanthemums, kalanchoe, hibiscus, (I saw some hibiscus plants in 6-inch pots with braided trunks and bright red flowers that were absolutely fabulous), Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) and of course, at this time of year, the ubiquitous poinsettia.

A little more energetic hunting will yield Elatior begonias with exquisite roselike blooms in red, white, pink and orange; zebra plants (Aphelandra squarrosa), bearing bright yellow spikes atop their deep green-and-white striped leaves; Persian violets (Exacum spp.) with their plethora of dainty purple flowers against a background of waxy little green leaves; brightly colored (but short-lived--about four to six weeks) cineraria, and a host of orchid species and varieties, including phalaenopsis, oncidium, dendrobium and cymbidium.

Another family of plants that produces spectacular "flowers" and colorful foliage during the winter months (and in many cases all year long) are the bromeliads, those wonderful epiphytic treasures that will live off air alone. Most of the better nurseries carry large selections of aechmeas, vriesias, guzmanias, tillandsias and cryptanthus, all of which produce spectacular spikes in colors ranging from hot pink to purple to reds and blues and yellows. Some will be growing in soil in pots and others will be mounted in interesting ways, such as in seashells or on pieces of wood. Either way, a brilliant bromeliad is a sure-fire show-stopper and will thrive during the relatively low light available to it in winter.

Also available at the occasional nursery are bromeliad trees--interestingly shaped branches or pieces of driftwood with a large variety of blooming bromeliads attached. These can be expensive (from $15 to more than $100 depending on the size and number of plants attached) but are great conversation pieces and make terrific holiday gifts.

There's no shortage of plants with brightly colored foliage to liven up your kitchen, living room or den during the dark days of winter, either.

Choose from an endless variety of multicolored crotons (Codiaeum variegatum)--like fingerprints, no two are alike--or pick a blazingly beautiful coleus or a bloodleaf plant (Iresine herbstii), whose deep red leaves will add a nice touch at holiday time. Another attractive foliage plant is the Aucuba japonica, whose light green leaves are flecked with yellow-gold; the freckle-face plant, (Hypoestes sanguinolenta), with its dark green leaves dotted with deep pink patches, is a dependable houseplant and great room brightener.

And let's not forget the exquisite Caladium, a very showy plant with large, heart-shaped, crepe-like leaves splashed with an infinite variety of greens, pinks, reds, whites, and creams.

Bulb plants with their glorious spring-like flowers abound during these winter months, growers having forced them into bloom for the holiday season.

The most common bulb plants you'll find include amaryllis (Hippeastrum vittatium), narcissus and the delicate but fabulously fragrant freesias. These plants will last up to six weeks in a cool, light spot with regular watering, but the good news is that when the flowers and foliage die back, the bulbs can be planted in the ground for regular yearly blooming or stored and forced back into bloom next fall.

Caring for flowering plants and plants with bright colored foliage is a bit more exacting than caring for the hassle-free plain green plants such as philodendron, pothos, dracaenas and the like.

All flowering plants require a great deal of light for maximum performance, although these winter bloomers require less than their spring- and summer-blooming brothers and sisters. Most prefer to be kept damp at all times, and these colorful beauties need lots of humidity, too. If possible, keep them on pebble trays filled with water and spray them daily.

What to do when your winter-flowering plant stops blooming? In the case of poinsettias, most people, including myself, either plant them outdoors or discard them rather than bring them back into bloom next year with six weeks of total darkness in the fall.

Azaleas, kalanchoe, hibiscus and miniature roses will do best if planted outdoors in the ground for regular reblooming, but all can be coaxed back into bloom indoors with lots of TLC. Zebra plants can be revived for reblooming but must be pruned back after the yellow spike is done. Chrysanthemums must go into the ground or be discarded.

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