Holiday Plant Safety for Pets and Small Children


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pointsettia_colors.2048Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants in the house but it’s during the winter as we spend more time inside that we really come to appreciate them. My cat, Sam Spade, likes to sit on my drafting table and look at the bird feeder in the tree outside the window. Next to the table is a houseplant that I never gave a second thought to until he started nibbling on it recently.

The plant is a Tricolor dracaena marginata and I should have checked for toxicity when I first got it. Thankfully, he didn’t become nauseous or developed any other symptoms. Now I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree. I have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs and have Christmas cactus in several locations. How safe are these plants for Sam?

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. I pointsettia_closeup.1920used to live in Pismo Beach where this plant grows tall in the mild winter weather. In Hawaii where my sister used to live they are used as hedges. Unfortunately, it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night.

The poinsettia is native to Mexico. In the 1820’s President Andrew Jackson appointed Joel Roberts Poinsettia as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red “flowers” growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Because the leaves turn bright red around Christmas time they have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.

Poinsettia hold up well inside either as a cut flower or a living plant. They need a bright spot in the house and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly but not completely between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch, sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

cyclamen_red_white.2048There are other pets in my household including another cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. . Keep in mind that pets and people differ in which plants are toxic and to what agree. According to Dr. Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont, it’s the corm or tuber of the cyclamen that contains triterpenoid saponins and it is unlikely that humans (including children) would eat the thickened roots and be affected.amaryllis_white

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but it’s the bulb which is toxic. Amaryllis contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason wild animals like deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t like with other holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.



Blooming Gifts for Gardeners


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Echeveria_LaceIt’s as fun for me to give a little something during the holidays to those I care about as it is to receive a present. I admit I look forward to what might be under the tree but half the fun of the holidays is putting together an inexpensive gift that is just right for each person on my list. With so many gardeners on that list, the choices are endless. Here are some ideas that you might find just right for those you love.

Succulents are easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants with variations in watering and light conditions. Seems I’m always coming across someone who has a story about how long they have had a particular specimen and where it came from. “You see that hens and chicks over there?”, they say. “Well my aunt gave me a little slip way back in… and it blooms every year.”echeverria_ruffled

I’m particularly drawn to the many frilly and ruffled echeveria that are available now. There are 180 different species of this succulent and hundreds of hybrids to choose from. Many of them are blooming at this time of year making them a showy gift that’s sure to get you a lot of thanks. With names like Afterglow, Easter Bonnet, Red Edge, Coral Glow, Perle Von Nurnberg, Morning Light, Blue Surprise or Fire and Ice you can pretty much pick the shade of scarlet, tangerine, purple, opalescent blue or nearly black, often with a combination of colors.

These rosette shaped succulents are native to Mexico. The brilliant colors of the leaves never fade and the waxy flowers last a very long time. They make ideal potted plants and are easy to propagate. The perfect gift in my book.

Another simple, inexpensive gift for the gardener on your list is the tillandsia. Sometimes called air plants, these relatives of Spanish moss and pineapple have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just an occasional spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs.

Tillandsia prefer the light frtillandsiaom a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain. Wire one on a branch or piece of driftwood or place in a shell where they will live happily for years growing pups at the base that replace the mother plant.hyacinth_jars.1600

It’s not too late to start a couple of hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator to give as gifts. Part of the fun is watching the bulbs put out roots well before the fragrant blooms. Choose a hyacinth jar or other narrow necked jar that will support the bulb just above the water and keep in the frig until roots start to fill the jar. Take the bulb out of the dark and give it a bit more light each day for a week until acclimated to bright light. The house will fill with the sweet scent of spring even though it may only be January.

They say that we often give a gift that we ourselves would like to receive. Simple is sometimes the best but they all say “love”.



What to Do in the Garden in Wintry Weather


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toyon-berriesTwas the weekend after Thanksgiving and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a gardener. I should probably do something productive, but what? Should I be good and do a little light weeding? Maybe I can muster up the energy to plant a few more bulbs. Come spring I’ll be happy I did. Then again I could make notes of my gardening successes and not so great horticultural decisions. “I know”, I say to myself, “this weekend I’ll revel in what I don’t have to do in the garden”.

I don’t need to prune trees and shrubs at this time of year. Other than clipping a few OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwell placed branches to use in a holiday wreath, I’m off the hook for this task right now. Deciduous trees are still in the process of losing their leaves and are not fully dormant. Evergreens shrubs and conifers can be trimmed lightly but most shaping is done when they start growing in late winter or very early spring.

The season is pretty much over for me except to enjoy what’s left of fall color and the ornamental grasses waving their seed heads in the wind. A lot of perennials are dying back but I’m not in a hurry to neaten things up. The seed heads left in the garden supply food for birds and other creatures while the foliage provides shelter for the plant in the cold and frost. Remove anything that has turned slimy or just plain unattractive but leave berries and seed heads for food and winter interest.

hakonechloa_winter2At this time of year my garden is visited mostly by chickadees, nuthatches and goldfinches. They will spend the winter here and I’m doing them a big favor by not cutting back brown foliage containing nutrient-rich seed heads. Some of the reliable seed producers that I won’t have to clean up this weekend include artemisia, aster, coreopsis, penstemon, sedum, lupine, salvia, black-eye Susan, coneflower, phlomis, monarda, agapanthus and grasses.

Chickadees gather hundreds of seeds in fall and early winter and store them in hiding places to ensure themselves a food supply later in the season. They are a remarkable bird that we take for granted being so common. I read in Audubon magazine a couple years ago that a chickadee weighs about as much as a dozen paperclips but their body is large for their weight. This means they have to ramp up the number of hours they devote to feeding. At night chickadees cram themselves into tiny cavities and shiver, burning the day’s fuel to keep from freezing.

Hummingbirds still need a nectar source at this time of year. Anna’s hummingbirds live in this area all year long. So In addition to the plants in my garden that supply nectar I keep my feeders up year-round and keep them clean.
They need your nectar even more in the winter when very little is in bloom. In addition to nectar rich natives like mahonia, my abutilons are a winter favorite for them.

Other tasks I can put off at least for this weekend include planting wildflower seeds. I see California poppies coming up all over the place. Nature knows when the time is right. Well, maybe I’ll broadcast a few working them into the soil very lightly. I need to hoe off some early weeds that would compete with them. How many calories aren’t burned in light gardening? I might just reconsider not being a total couch potato this weekend.



A Thanksgiving Poem


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Thanksgiving-table-arrangementA Thanksgiving Poem

by Jan Nelson, The Mountain Gardener

Once upon a time when our area was under water
there were no parks or trails or trees or gardens.
I’m thankful that our mountains rose from an ancient ocean
so we could enjoy this beautiful place we call home.

I’m thankful for the Bigleaf maples
that shower me with leaves as big as saucers
as I walk in Henry Cowell along the River Trail
and for the giant redwoods that sprouted long ago
at the time of the Mayan civilization.

I’m thankful for the Five-fingered ferns that grow lush along Fall Creek
on the way to the old lime kilns
and for the canyons, hiking trails and small waterfalls
that feed the year-round creeks.

I’m thankful for the sweet music of the violist
who practices inside the Felton Covered Bridge
and for the sound of children laughing as they play in the park.

I’m thankful for the pond and western turtles who live at Quail Hollow
and for the unique sandhills, grasslands and redwoods, too,
and for the plants and other small creatures that live only there.

I’m thankful for the dog park and soccer field at Skypark
where little kids and dogs both big and small have a place of their own
and for the picnic area and Fourth of July fireworks,
and for the Art and Wine festival and Music in the Park on summer nights.

I’m thankful for Bonny Doon where I can see both the Pacific and San Lorenzo Valley
and for the Ecological Reserve which is growing back nicely after the Martin Fire,
and for the fossilized marine animals and sharks teeth
that are exposed in the mountain made of sand.

I’m thankful for California’s oldest state park. Big Basin, with its waterfalls and lush canyons
and slopes covered with redwoods sorrel, violets, fragrant azaleas, mountain iris
and for the salamanders, banana slugs, marbled murrelets
and red-legged frogs who make it their home.

I’m thankful for the whisper of the wind blowing across the water at Loch Lomond
and for the gentle whir of fishing reels most years at the edge
of thick tanoaks, redwoods and madrone.

And finally, I’m thankful for friends and family and neighbors who share all this with me.
I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

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