Gardening

The world is filled with interesting houseplants. On your travels outside Alaska, keep an eye out for new additions.

I used to bring houseplants home to Alaska whenever I visited the Lower 48. This was long before the COVID-19-induced, houseplant craze, which, judging by the number of indoor plant shops I see when lecturing, is still going strong. Actually, it is defying the odds with its duration, not that I am complaining.

Anyhow, the plants I brought home were cuttings taken from parents or a relative who didn’t mind my taking a healthy size cutting (or, being a Lowenfels, actually had some rooted cuttings for me). These were usually not very exotic like the plants being featured these days. Still, they were things I couldn’t buy this far north. I still enjoy several of those plants. I have even made cuttings for others to take.

My parents are gone, and mostly my relatives visit Alaska these days and not the other way around, so now I visit Outside plant stores whenever I travel. I like to see if there is anything “new” that might be a worthy addition to an Alaskan’s collection. Given the cutthroat nature of retail, there usually are several plants that pique my interest.

So for example, the other day I wandered into a store and saw a strange plant labeled as a relative of African violets, Ramonda myconi, aka the Pyrenean-violet. It is also known as the “hardy African violet” as it is member of the Gesneriaceae, the family that includes African violets. Since I knew nothing about the plant, nor did the store employee, I did some research to see if it was worth buying.

Lowenfels Ramonda myconi, the Pyrenean-violet or rosette mullein - Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich or Botanischer Garten der Universitaet Zuerich stock file photo

Come to find out Ramonda myconi is a rock garden plant in warmer areas, though one reliable source says if you can grow primulas, you can handle Ramonda myconi. However, these plants do best in areas that are zone 6, and we are not there yet. It can serve as an unusual house plant in cooler climes like ours.

The leaves are 3 inches across, hairy, dark green and form rosettes. The 1-inch flowers are purple with yellow “centers” (actually anthers) and grow above the leaves in typical African violet style. The plant grows about 4 inches tall and can spread to around 8 inches.

[Houseplants are Alaska’s way of gardening through winter. Make your collection something special.]

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The interesting thing about this plant is that it is “poikilohydric,” meaning it has evolved to not only withstand cold, but severe drought, two conditions often faced by Alaskan houseplants. This is one of a handful of so-called “resurrection plants,” because it can lose up to 95% of its water, look completely dead, yet completely revive when exposed to moisture.

I am sure some of you can already see the utility in a resurrection plant; leave home for a long vacation and upon return, revive what would otherwise be dead plants. Have a cabin or a second home someplace? This is for you. (Note to self and reader: Need to do a resurrection plant column or two.)

And, look at this: Since it may be hard to find a local source or to have a few plants shipped in the winter, it is good to know this is a plant that you can grow from seed. All you need is the seed (check the internet), light (which you already own), seed starting mix and patience, as they can take a month or so to germinate.

Another astonishing thing about Ramonda myconi is these plants’ longevity. Amazingly, they can live 250 years. Yup, you read that correctly. Wow! You might have to include a section in your will to ensure someone takes care of it after you can’t.

Hmm. What am I waiting for? The store in which I saw the Ramonda myconi plants is charging $26 for a plant in a 3-inch pot. I was spoiled because my relatives never charged me for plants, but I have come to recognize that if we want to keep the houseplant craze alive, we need to pay the going fare.

So, back I go. I hope they have one or two left. My point is not necessarily to get you to buy a Ramonda myconi, but rather to convince you to check out Outside plant stores. They have lots of neat things, and most are small enough to fit into a carry-on. In fact, I wonder what else they have that might be of interest?

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

Alaska Botanical Garden Brighter Winter Nights: Wow! Bring your sunglasses! Tuesday through Jan. 21, enjoy botanical themed light displays, luminaries, fire pits and more! Reservations and tickets are available at https://www.alaskabg.org/brighter-winter-nights.

Poinsettias: They are back. No drafts, keep slightly moist, and they are not poisonous.

Jeff Lowenfels | Alaska gardening and growing

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," is available on Amazon. Reach him at jefflowenfels@gmail.com.

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