Friday, February 4, 2011

House Plant Fridays–Easy Plants for Beginners - The Humble and Venerable Jade Plant

Have you been accused of having a brown thumb?  Well first I’m here to help and second, you’re not alone. No one is born with a green thumb and just because past houseplants have gone to that great compost heap in the sky, don’t feel discouraged.  Finding the right house plant is a little like finding true love—sometimes it takes a while to find the right “one”. 

Today, I’m going to suggest a plant you might like to get to know a little better in your quest for true “ green” love.  It’s a plant that was once very popular but is under-appreciated today because  just like pets, and most other things,  house plants tend to fall into and out of fashion over time.

It’s also the first house plant that I can remember being aware of as a child.  It’s the humble Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) or money tree.  C.ovata is native to South Africa where it grows on dry rocky hillsides.  Being a succulent, it has green fleshy leaves that help it retain moisture on windswept hillsides. The smooth rounded jade green leaves are about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long and sometimes are tinged with red along the edge.  The brittle green stems are thick and turn brown as they mature. 

jade plant 2

My grandmother grew jade plants in almost every room of her large victorian house.  She used to tell me that they were good luck and I begged her for one till she relented and gave me a small plant which  I promptly killed with love.  I unknowingly made the most common mistake  that people make with any house plant—overwatering it. 

Jade plants should only be watered sparingly in winter when they’re not actively growing—once a month and slightly more often in spring and summer (every 2 or 3 weeks) is enough This is why they’re a great house plant if you’re a busy mom or lady (aren’t we all), travel for work a lot  or want to take a lengthy vacation and don’t have any reliable plant sitters.  They’re also a great pick for an older child’s first house plant.  Kids seem to love the fat plump leaves and their plastic toy-like look.  Just make sure you supervise the watering, lol

Jade plants don’t need to be fertilized more than two or three times a year.  It’s OK to use a general fertilizer but dilute it to 50% and apply it AFTER you have watered so that it won’t burn the roots.

jade plant 5

Jade plants like well drained soil so when you repot yours, use a potting soil that’s heavy in perlite and light on peat moss or add extra grit like aquarium gravel or parakeet gravel to your usual potting mix.  Like Christmas cactus, they do best in partial or indirect sunlight but need about 4 hours a day of very good light.  Outside in summer they don’t like extreme heat and will scorch if they’re left on a hot deck in full sun.

My grandmother grew her jade plants in heavy clay pots because that was all that was available to her and because they were so top heavy they need the weight of the heavy pots to keep them from toppling over.  I still think a clay pot works better than plastic—they drain better and provide more stability.  Jade plants have brittle stems that break off easily so it’s also a good idea to do a little “trimming” to keep them compact, in the spring before they get into active growing mode.  Trimming a little at a time as new growth develops will look better than doing a drastic  buzz cut all at once like the picture below.jade plant trimming

Jade plants are fairly pest free but they can get infested with mealy bugs in the store or greenhouse before you bring them home.  Mealy bugs look like tiny white cotton balls and hang out in the junction between the stems and leaves.  A Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol will end their short nasty little lives but don’t use chemical sprays. Jade plants are very sensitive to insecticides, even organic ones, and they shouldn’t be sprayed with anything except warm water.  mealy bugs

To get  your jade plant to bloom (the bloom time is around Christmas) you can treat them the same as a Christmas cactus—hold back water in early fall and expose them to short days and cool nights till buds form.   The flowers are very small and come jade plant 4in either white or tinged with pink.  They resemble the “autumn joy sedum” that we grow outside in our gardens.  The jade plant’s flowers form in large clusters.  My grandmother’s plants never bloomed so the first time I saw a jade plant with flowers, I didn’t recognize it as a jade plant.

If you’re interested in learning how to grow bonsai, a jade plant is  good to start with.  Besides being a lot less expensive than other plants and trees used for bonsai, they don’t need as much watering and you can have a pretty nice looking bonsai in a lot less time.

bonsai jade plant

Along with all its other qualities as a houseplant, jade plants are easy to share.  Stem cuttings can be placed in a glass of water (my grandmother had these everywhere) and leaves can be pushed partially into damp soil.  They’ll root in 3 to 4 weeks giving you many chances to turn your thumb green and share their good luck with others. 

Join me next week for another House Plant Friday!



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