Sandy’s Garden ... Kalanchoe

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What’s in a name?

There was a time when well-known botanists … especially those who ventured into the remoter parts of the world in the time before international travel was as simple and quick as it is now … could realistically expect to find varieties of plants that they had discovered named on their honour. The same recognition was accorded to successful nurserymen who hybridised plants to breed varieties that thrived away from their native shores. So it would come as no surprise to the German nurseryman Robert Blossfeld when a variety of kalanchoe was named after him – Kalanchoe blossfeldiana. Kalanchoe … the botanical name is also its common name, so it can be rendered kalanchoe if one is using its everyday name, or Kalanchoe if the botanical name is preferred … comes originally from Madagascar; and Robert Blossfeld is the nurseryman who produced the variety of kalanchoe that we are most likely to find in our local garden centre, the variety that is most likely to thrive in our homes or in our heated conservatories.

During the dead winter months, houseplants can be used to advantage to add some colour to a dreich, grey day. So kalanchoe, with its clusters of tiny red flowers, set off by a surround of succulent, dark green leaves, is a well-established favourite, although when I write of ‘red flowers’ it is only proper to add that recent variants have come on the market with blooms of other warm colours, like yellow, orange and cream. These tiny flowers enjoy long lives and can remain perky for quite a few weeks, which is a very real advantage for a houseplant. Add the fact that kalanchoe can be persuaded … by skilled nurserymen … to flower at almost any time of the year … and another reason for its popularity emerges. It is a relatively undemanding plant; and if it is kept in a room where the temperature never drops below 10°C … say, 50°F in old money … is allowed to become almost dry between waterings and is positioned where it gets as much winter light as possible, it should be quite happy. (Do remember, if it is on a windowsill to enjoy the daylight, to bring it inside the curtains after dark; don’t trap it in the coldest part of the room overnight!)

The ambitious who seek to keep the plant healthy after its flowering period has passed will need to cut off all the stems of the spent flowers and give the plant a complete rest for four to six weeks, leaving it to its own devices. Once its holiday is over, kalanchoe wants to be watered freely during the warm summer months and allowed to enjoy as much summer sunshine as possible in a well-sheltered spot outside if this is practical; it will also appreciate some liquid flowering plant fertiliser every couple of weeks or so. And, whether kept indoors or allowed to spend time in the garden, the householder/gardener will need to keep a wary eye on the undersides of the leaves, which are favoured by aphids. If it is to be persuaded to flower again, it becomes rather more demanding and needs to be kept in a location where the temperature ranges between a minimum of 16°C … 60°F … and 27°C, or 80°F. Frankly, most householders are probably well advised to consign a kalanchoe to a compost heap after the flowers have passed and start again in the late autumn with a new plant.

In addition to its pretty flowers, kalanchoe brings one further benefit to the home. It actually does a little to help remove chemical vapours from the air, the chemical vapours which come, uninvited, from furniture and furnishings, from polishes and aerosol sprays. It has to be said that this is not really its forte but, in the words of a certain well-known supermarket chain … ‘every little helps’. It seems a pity that Robert Blossfeld’s surname was Blossfeld; Blessfold might seem more appropriate for the man who brought us kalanchoe!

Sandy Simpson