Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

November 9, 2017
For a splash of green in your home, try the umbrella plant

The rush is on, and you know what I mean.

It’s time to bring in all the warm weather potted plants, garden decorations and furniture. There’s lots of leaves to be raked up and used as either leaf litter in beds or added to the compost pile. The sprinkler system and yard faucets also need to be turned off and drained to avoid freeze damage.

If you still have potted nursery stock, it’s time to either get them planted and watered in, or dug into the ground in their pots and mulched to avoid freezing the root ball. Veggie growing beds need to be cleaned out to reduce pest infestation next spring. For us, fall is just as busy as spring.

We’ve moved in potted plants from the front porch and given them a sunny spot in our south-facing dining room window. Our collection includes a pelargonium (commonly called a geranium), a colorful mandevilla, “elephant ear,” various succulents, basil, and of course, umbrella plants.

Our umbrella plants have a history. We have three or four of them throughout the house. We’ve also raised several and given them away over the years. They are all descendants from a single plant our daughter gave to us about 20 years ago.

Since then, we’ve learned how to care for, propagate, and manage the size of this interesting plant. While the common name is umbrella plant or tree, the botanical name is Schefflera. It’s a tropical plant with multi-leaved bracts. Ours is a deep shade of green. Many different varieties are available, including variegated types with the leaves a combo of green and light green or yellow. They grow to different sizes, and have various leaf shapes and sizes. It’s the plant’s leaves and growth habit that make it interesting, and blooming is rare.

If it does bloom, it will be due to moderate temperatures and plenty of sun exposure. The bloom is attractive, and can be red, pink or white. The bloom is actually a flower spike. This is called an inflorescence, and has many small flowers emerging along its length. These spikes cluster at the end of branches. In some varieties, these clusters have been said to look like the tentacles of an upside-down octopus, hence, another of the plant’s common names — “octopus-tree.”

In all the years we’ve had these plants, we’ve never had bloom. That’s fine with us. We think they are enjoyable to look at without the benefit of flowers. If they are given adequate water and indirect sunlight, they will flourish. I’ve rarely fertilized them, and if I did, I would do so with a diluted solution at about 25 percent strength, and just once a year.

The plant is found natively in South China (Taiwan), the Northern Territory of Australia, New Guinea and Java. While we prize it as a home or office plant, in its natural setting, it’s an understory plant, commonly found under the tree canopy on the forest floor. This plant is epiphytic, as it derives moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, water or from debris accumulating around it. On the forest floor there are plenty of decaying leaves releasing nutrients, and a host of microorganisms producing byproducts that are readily used by the plants.

Schefflera can’t be grown outside here. The plant is not dependably hardy below zones 10 and 11. With a local hardiness range of four to six, the plants can be grown indoors during cold weather and then moved outside when it is in the 60s and above. Just remember the plant will not tolerate direct sunlight. Indirect or filtered shade works fine. Too much light, and the leaves will burn or yellow and drop off.

While the plant is not ultra-finicky, it is sensitive to over-watering. It’s best to saturate the root ball, then let the soil dry before watering again. If it is over-watered, the leaves will yellow, the plant will become “leggy” and you’ll end up with a lot of upper leaves, but bare branches below.

We haven’t had any significant issues with these plants, although some have complained that it can get scale or spider mites. If that occurs, they can be addressed with a washing of mildly soapy water. However, you would only be addressing the symptom. Such infestations are likely the result of over or under watering, which produces a plant that is susceptible to pests. Correct those conditions, and the infestation will likely go away.

Remember that the soil needs to dry out between waterings. If the soil is kept too moist, the plant can easily develop root rot, which endangers the survival of the plant. So go easy on the water. Many other houseplants benefit as well from a drying period to allow oxygen to reach the roots, as well as deter the laying and hatching of fungus gnats and fruit flies.

We have found the umbrella plant extremely easy to propagate. Because it can become fairly sizable, we keep them pruned so they don’t take up too much space. Pruning also stimulates new stem and leaf production; it’s almost like the plant likes the “haircut.” When we do prune, there are plenty of branches that are good candidates for a new start. We look for good form, with stems branching off at pleasing and various angles to give a good start to a new plant.

To begin propagation, we use a nice looking cutting that is 12- to 16-inches tall. The lower leaves and stems are stripped off and the surface of the stem scarred at the bottom for two inches. We then place the branch in a clear glass vase or large drinking glass. New water is added from time to time as it’s consumed. Be patient. In a month or two, you’ll see root tissue form at the bottom of the cutting. Once you have several bumps of root material and some actual roots protruding, it’s time to give your plant a new home.

At this point, carefully plant the cutting in a medium-sized pot in potting soil, taking care not to break off the roots. We use either bagged potting mix or mature compost. Next, water in the plant to remove air pockets (as evidenced by bubbles of air coming to the surface during the first watering). Add more potting mix if needed, and let the mix dry out before watering again. Place the plant in filtered light and watch the magic begin.

The plants are especially endearing when they are young. After seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Maggie nicknamed the umbrella plant in our bedroom “Groot” after the tree creature in the movie. That was several months back, and I’m pleased to report that Groot is now a healthy teenager. Since then, there’s been another start rooted from the parent plant and potted in the last several days. The latest addition just might show up at a plant exchange next season. But it won’t be Groot. He’s family now and he’s here to stay.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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