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Pollination and Palms: The Tale of the Sago


QUESTION: We have a 25-year-old Sago palm (Cycads revoluta). Its habit is to send forth fronds from the top and lose fronds at the bottom. Suddenly, it stopped losing fronds on the bottom and ceased developing fronds on the top. A huge, bulbous flower appeared on the top. It grew from 3 feet to about 6 feet and the plant now looks like a naked trunk half the time. What is wrong?

ANSWER: Nothing. You have a male sago palm, and that flower is just part of the natural cycle of the plant. (If there were a female sago around, the wind would blow the pollen from the flower onto the female and . . . well, you know the rest.) In any event, cut off the flower and new fronds should begin to grow from the top. Unfortunately, all Sago palms eventually grow into tall, naked trunks with tufts of fronds at the top.

Solving the Riddle of Brown Tips (Hint: H2O)

Q: Help! I'm at my wits' end to know why my house plants all have brown edges. Too much water? Not enough water? Feeding too often? Or not enough? This is a very common occurrence in most households, and we need an answer. Perhaps you can supply it.

A: At your service. Brown edges or tips on your indoor plants are almost always a sign of too little humidity. In their native habitats, or the greenhouses in which they're raised, tropical plants are used to humidity as high as 80% or 90%, and between the dry heat and air-conditioning, the humidity is rarely higher than 20% in our homes. The remedies:

* Set your plants on saucers filled with pebbles and water; as the water evaporates it sends moisture to the plants. Add water to the pebbles every other day.

* Spray your plants with a fine mist of water as often as possible.

* Group your plants if possible; as they transpire (breathe) they give off humidity to each other.

* Get a small humidifier for each room where you have lots of plants. More humidity in the air is good for plants--and for you.

Cream Poinsettia Can Flourish Indoors

Q: I have a magnificent cream poinsettia still in its original Christmas pot. It lost a good many petals, but lots of new green leaves are sprouting in petal areas and on stems. Will this keep as a houseplant? Or does it have a better chance outside?

A: To answer your last question first, all "houseplants" would have a better chance outside. Outside, of course, is their natural habitat and they'd all do better there than in a pot inside. But, good sports that they are, many plants will flourish indoors despite the difficult conditions, and lucky for you, your poinsettia is one of them.

The catch: Don't expect the plant to "bloom" again without the extraordinary hassle of bringing it in and out of a closet for two or three months in the late fall. Grow it as if it were a foliage plant. To give it a good head start, prune your poinsettia back, put it in a bright spot, keep the soil slightly damp, feed once a month with a liquid houseplant food and you should soon have a lush, bushy green plant, which, contrary to traditional wisdom, is not poisonous.

Old Onions Stashed in Fridge? Plant 'Em

Q: A red onion stored in a plastic container in my kitchen suddenly shot up so many crocus-like shoots that I planted it in a pot and it's growing like a weed! Will it flower? Could I have onion shoots year round? How?

A: Because they are bulbs, onion, garlic, shallots and the like frequently give off shoots when being stored in a cool, dry place. They will even flourish for a while if planted and kept in a bright, sunny window. If you want them to flower, however, you'll have to plant them outside. Trust me on this. I know my onions.

Keeping the Cats From Playing in the Plants

Q: We recently purchased a new home that has two large indoor planter boxes. They are both empty and we want to fill them with a nice assortment of indoor plants that can handle direct and indirect sun from our skylight. One problem: We have two cats who will enjoy eating the plants and using the planters as litter boxes. Any recommendations for discouraging our cats from using the boxes as both local diner and restroom?

A: I've answered this question before, but judging from my mail, it's still a common problem. If you can't train your cats to stay away from the plants by squirting water at them every time they trespass, try this: Get two or three similar plants in very small (2- to 3-inch) pots, sprinkle the topsoil of each with catnip and the likely result will be that the cats will adopt those plants as their own and leave your planter boxes alone. If that doesn't work, get a dog. (Just kidding, cat lovers!)

Are your palms pooping? Are your ferns flopping? Send your houseplant questions to the Indoor Gardener in care of the Real Estate section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles CA 90053. Questions cannot be answered individually.

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