Curt Swift, Ph.D.
Grand Junction Free Press Gardening Columnist

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December 27, 2012
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SWIFT: Replace your Christmas tree with ... houseplants

Christmas is a festive and solemn occasion for Christians throughout the world with an evergreen tree decorated with tinsel and ornaments providing additional beauty and comfort for the holiday season. When the tree is removed and relegated to the compost site or used to hold down the mulch over your strawberry patch, you will have an opportunity to fill the vacant spot with houseplants and continue to enjoy the beauty only plants can provide.

Shopping several days before Christmas I ran into Elaine Daymon who was maintaining a great collection of foliage plants at Lowe's. She happened to mention how a grouping of these plants could provide a focal point in your home where your Christmas tree was previously located. Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, a collection of houseplants can provide beauty well into next year. After the late spring frost in April you can always set these plants outside in a shaded location to beautify one or more of your gardens. If you don't have a shade garden you can leave these plants inside or place them under an awning outside. Some of Daymon's plants have beautiful and striking flowers in addition to colorful foliage.

I particularly like the Spathiphyllum for its white boat-like blossom. When combined with a dracaena, yucca, and a palm, your collection will have a South Seas look. Who doesn't want to have a spot in their home reminiscent of a vacation to the Caribbean? The leaf patterns of yellows, whites and green tend to complement each other. For accent, anthurium with its red blossoms should be included in the grouping. All of this will likely cost less than the 7-foot noble fir purchased for our home for Christmas, and this collection should survive well into next year.

The genus Spathiphyllum is so named for the spath partially surrounding the spike of tiny flowers. This tender herb is also called the Peace Lily possibly due to the fact it resembles a flag of truce. One online reference says Spathiphyllum means peace and prosperity in Latin but spath was the term used by Pliny the Elder in describing this type of plant structure, possibly due to its resemblance to a broadsword; spatha in Latin and spathe in Greek mean blade. Phyllon in Greek means leaf thus this plant has a broadsword-like leaf. The spathe is a modified leaf so the genus name Spathiphyllum makes sense.

Spathiphyllums are in the Aroid family (Araceae). You already know this family if you have ever had a philodendron, dieffenbachia, Chinese evergreen, or pothos as a houseplant. The Caladium, some types of which are called elephant-ear, and anthurium are also members of this large tropical family. Known as the backbone of the foliage plant industry, the aroids are not real fussy and adapt well to the warm, dry, low light conditions of our homes in the winter. They still need care and not be allowed to dry out or the flowers will wither away prematurely and the leaves wilt and scorch severely.

Aroids are great additions to any indoor plant collection especially when grouped together as most of them require similar conditions. Their light requirement is quite low. The Peace Lily requires only 20 to 40 foot-candles. (A foot-candle is a measure of light intensity.) If you have a light meter, deciding where to place these plants is easy. If you have a camera with a built-in light meter and the f-stop reading is 2.8 you have 32 foot-candles. An f-stop of 4 means 64 foot-candles, and an f-stop of 8 means 250 foot-candles are available. Another way to determine a spot in your home for these plants is based on the ease of reading a book. Twenty to 50 foot-candles is a comfortable light intensity for reading. As a way of comparison of foot-candles, cacti in the desert in mid-summer can be exposed to up to 10,000 foot-candles and the African violets you are growing under 40-watt fluorescent tubes are exposed to up to 860 foot-candles if the tubes are within 6 inches of the plant. 

A temperature between 62 and 80 is great for these plants and they appreciate being kept moist. Make sure the pots drain into a saucer with the pot held above the water that accumulates in the saucer with a trivet, rocks or some other item. They don't appreciate sitting in water.

Once you remove your Christmas tree or if you simply want to enhance the beauty of a spot in your home, go talk with Elaine and have her set you up with a grouping of Aroids and other plants from her collection at Lowe's. You will be glad you did.

Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the CSU Extension. Reach him at or check out his blog at He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.

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The Post Independent Updated Dec 27, 2012 12:52PM Published Dec 27, 2012 12:51PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.