'Brass band' of plants to brighten winter

Jeff Lowenfels
The Gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa) is a beautiful holiday-blooming plant that has large, cuplike flowers.

Back in the early days of this column, I would hop around from subject to subject, a luxury I am allowed when writing columns during the busiest seasons. This time of year, however, it is much harder to get away with. Columns need to have a theme and cover one subject.

So, this week, now that we have finally had a real snowfall and it is time to really move indoors, the subject is plants that could be in a brass band (bear with me. This one-subject rule isn't always that easy to follow!).

Let's start with a plant called Streptocarpus, sometimes "Cape primrose" and always compared to its cousins, the African violet. Frankly, I don't see it. The flowers of Streptocarpus are better looking, trombone-shaped (see the connections?) with various colors and distinct markings in the throat. And, while there are miniature Streps, there are those with large flowers, two inches or longer. The plants have narrow leaves that can be much larger as well, up to 18 inches.

Streptocarpus are also easier to grow than African violets. They make a great winter houseplant, especially in the winter in Alaska. This is because they require cooler night temperatures (as far down as 45 degrees, but no lower) than day time, something most Alaskan dwellings can easily manage. They make great "table garden" plants grown under lights, but they don't need as much as an African violet does and will flower in natural light, just not in the dead of winter.

These are not fussy plants when it comes to water, either. The soil doesn't need to be constantly moist. It can dry out somewhat, and your plants will probably only need a good soaking once or twice a week.

Streptocarpus are quick to bloom and the trombone-shaped flowers keep on coming as long as you pick off the spent ones as soon as they start to fade. They come in reds, pinks, purples, blue and white and, as noted, there are often interesting patterns in the throat of the blossoms.

Next, how about trying some gloxinias? Once extremely popular, interest in growing these tuberous plants has faded over the years. They do well in Alaska for the opposite reason Streptocarpus do; they don't like it too cool and so need a place where the temperatures never drop below 60, again a requirement every Alaskan home can provide.

While gloxinias need light, a good (always warm) south-facing window will suffice. Of course, every Alaska gardener has at least a set of T5 lights or a fixture of those NASA inspired LEDs and gloxinias, are just the plant to grow under them.

The reason I suggest these plants is not because they are so easy to grow once given the right conditions, but because they have lovely, fuzzy leaves on compact plants and produce big, 4-inch wide, tuba-shaped flowers in red, pink, purple and blue and sometimes with great "speckling." There is a reason these were so popular. One is the ease of care required and the other is the gorgeous flowers that get folks through winters.

Finally, try a Columnea. These are trailing plants with small, pearly, shiny leaves. They produce the most vibrant yellow, red and orange trumpet-shaped flowers. One, perhaps familiar, is known as the gold-fish plant for obvious reasons. OK, not all Columnea have trumpet-shaped flowers. They are still magnificent.

One of the neat things about Columnea for Alaska homes is that it takes a month of cool temperatures to trigger flowering. Who doesn't have room where they can be kept for a month and where the temperature doesn't get above 60 degrees? And, once you have one, you can keep it outdoors and the natural August-September temps will do the trick. Keep yours on the wet side, easy to do at low temperatures, and remove spent blooms to keep them coming.

I have seen all of these plants for sale in Anchorage. I am sure you can find them as well, though you might have to shop around a bit and keep your eyes open for them. I can't think of a better thing to do on a wet, snowy day. Go to it. Get your brass band up and running.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.