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Gimme 5 Safe Plants

Get a flowerpot ready for these attractive nontoxic plants.

By Jarad Krywicki

Although plants don't move quickly or screech at the top of their lungs, they have many of the same needs as our companion birds. In order to survive, they require water, the right amount of sunlight, attention, good food and someone who knows how to take care of them.

Because of their similarities, it is strange that birds and plants do not get along better with each other. It always seems that a plant left near a bird will suffer from terrible bite marks (at the very least) and, as a result, it will do its best to make the bird sick. Furthermore, training a bird to respect plants is often an insurmountable task, so the burden of responsibility falls to the foliage. Thankfully, it is a much easier task to find plants willing to remain harmless and nontoxic to birds — no matter what tortures they endure. The following is a brief description of the personalities, looks and requirements of five nontoxic houseplants that are great for you and your bird.

The African Violet
"Roses are red, violets are blue ... " Actually, African violets (Saintpaulia spp.) are typically cultivated in white, red, pink, mauve and deep purple, not the blue we think of in the children's poem. They bloom almost all year round. In fact, they are an evergreen plant, meaning they retain their foliage for more than one growing season.

The continual bloom of the violets is likely a result of their native environment, tropical East Africa, where they were first found by their Latin namesake, Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire. The Baron, then District Commissioner of Tanga Province in Africa, discovered these plants (Saintpaulia spp.) on one of his treks through the wild in the late 19th century. Since then, the violets have had a continual increase in popularity as household plants.

African violets have acquired such a large following that they are cultivated in many color mutations. Serious African violet growers enter their stock in competitions where they are judged on certain standards of beauty. Sound familiar? There are, in fact, African violet clubs and shows for people to join and share their love of these appealing evergreens. Growers have even cultivated a strain of mini-violets — maybe they were jealous of the mini-macaws.

If you purchase an African violet — or you see one in your East African wanderings — you'll notice that they are approximately 6 inches tall, with long-stalked, plain oval leaves. The flower petals are usually different sizes from each other, and the petals and the leaves are slightly hairy to the touch. If you plan on keeping your African violet, you will need to keep the roots (not the leaves) moist. It does not fare well in high temperatures or dry conditions, and it should be kept somewhere that is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the day and 55 degrees Fahrenheit at night. African violets grow well in peat that contains loam (a loose soil of mixed clay, sand and silt) and sharp sand.

The Boston Fern
Although it is not quite the same party animal as tea leaves have proven to be, Boston's second most well-known plant is the Boston fern (Nephrolepsis bostonensis). Perhaps the stately and respectful demeanor of the fern is due to its status as one of the Earth's oldest types of plants. It is thought that great jungles of ferns and fern-like trees grew in prehistoric times, before humans were even a speck in the global Petri dish.

The Boston fern is a lot younger than its distant cousins. It is actually a very recent mutation of the sword fern (N. exaltata). Sword ferns were introduced into horticulture in 1793 and quickly became very popular. During the Victorian era (1837 to 1901) it seems you couldn't walk into a decent household without seeing a fern overflowing from a china pot. The Boston fern mutation was discovered in Boston during this time, and has since been cultivated as a desirable houseplant.

Boston ferns are ideal for hanging baskets. They have numerous downward-arcing, bright green fronds that are reminiscent of the hair of a curly-haired '80s rock-'n'- roll star. Each frond, or (in this case) pinnate, is composed of dozens of leaflets (small leaves connected to the same stalk). You may notice small spore cases on the underside of each leaflet; they are the fern's method of reproduction.

Boston ferns grow best in humid environments with good, indirect light. Their soil (leaf-mould, sand and loam) should be kept moist, but not wet, and they should be watered often. They thrive in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, especially with frequent misting. Direct sunlight or excessive heat may damage a Boston fern, but don't worry; neglected ferns can usually be revived with proper nursing. In other words, Boston ferns are ideal indoor and office plants.

The Croton
Out of the five plants on the list, the croton (Codiaeum variegatum) is probably the most difficult to grow indoors. It has only been kept as an indoor plant in very recent years, though it has been cultivated in tropical gardens since the late 19th century. Its rich leaf coloring more than makes up for its problems with indoor life and, during the last five to 10 years, many varieties have been developed to withstand low interior light.

Most likely, crotons do not fare well indoors because they yearn for the sweet photosynthesis of their native habitat: the Malayan archipelago and other Pacific Islands. I would definitely be a lot healthier in Hawaii. When given the proper care, however, they will usually forego their tropical needs. This care consists of a temperature of 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (temperatures more than 70 degrees are best) and frequent watering. Make sure that your croton has good light and that it is misted in hot weather. Try to avoid any sudden temperature changes.

If you are successful, you will end up with a beautifully spotted or blotched plant. There are many varieties of Codiaeum variegatum, so the color of the spots and the leaves could be yellow, orange, red, green or white, and the leaf shape could be anywhere from long and narrow to ovate (oval, but broadest at the base). They will typically grow 12 to 18 inches in a pot, but get much taller outdoors.

Your birds may not have any problems after chewing on a leaf or two, but keep crotons away from your children and all the other uncontrollable mammals in your household. They are likely to stain something with the croton's indelible sap and then get sick because of its toxicity to mammals; if ingested it may cause rashes, diarrhea or vomiting.

Kalanchoe
Native to tropical Asia, America and Africa, kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) are bright, bold and (you guessed it) beautiful. Their name even derives from the Chinese name for a succulent plant.

In horticulture, a "succulent" is a plant that stores water in its stems and/or leaves and is adapted to living in a dry environment (like a cactus). Nonetheless, if a kalanchoe was bitten into, it would probably fulfill the other definition of succulent: juicy.

Kalanchoe are also photoperiodic plants, which means that the length of the day determines when they bloom. Their radiant red, orange, yellow and pink flowers usually bloom in spring or early summer, but (because of their photoperiodic nature) they can be induced to doso in other seasons. This can be done by restricting their sunlight to eight to 10 hours a day for two months. During their bloom, cool evenings will help the flowers to last longer.

Kalanchoe have a few unique maintenance requirements. They should be watered frequently when in flower, but sparingly when not flowering until the new buds appear. They need plenty of light and prefer bright, sunny locations. They do well in any well-drained soil in temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If their alluring hues make you decide to keep them outside, place them in partial shade and fertilize them every two weeks.

The Spider Plant
Sometimes, good things come in spindly, spidery packages. The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is definitely a good, but arachnid, package from South Africa. It is almost the "daddy-long-legs" of indoor plants, only, instead of removing bugs, it removes toxins from the air.

The methods of spider plant growth and propagation are also very insect-like. One would hardly guess that it is a member of the lily family. The mother plant grows numerous plantlets that hang in profusion around it and that will grow new spider plants if they find the right soil. Don't be afraid; it's not as if this will happen overnight.

The spider plant's name comes from its eerie plantlet tendrils and its ribbon-like leaves, which curl downward like spider legs. They are nearly indestructible plants that are ideal for novice horticulturists. Their spidery leaves will grow in virtually any location that has average humidity and air circulation, though they favor well-lit spots away from direct sunlight. They should be watered often in spring and fall, two or three times a week in summer and once a week in winter. You should fertilize your plant every few weeks in its growing season (spring and summer). Its ideal temperatures are from 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, though it can handle lower temperatures. Don't over water them; remember it was the rain that washed out the itsy-bitsy spider.

A Word To The Wise
Keep in mind that "nontoxic" means "not poisonous;" it does not mean "bird treat." Children's toys are nontoxic, but we do not offer them a spoonful of Playdough when they have been good. If your bird has an odd, ravenous fascination with one of your plants, keep that plant out of your bird's reach — the place where all of your houseplants should already be.

7-2-2004


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Gimme 5 Safe Plants

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Reader Comments
Great article. I would never buy a plant without thoroughly checking it out for dangers to my parrots AND dogs.
Shirley, Alton, IL
Posted: 3/13/2013 5:23:31 PM
Good article
Dan, Sandy Valley, NV
Posted: 3/7/2010 2:24:33 AM
good article.
Mary, Ptld, ME
Posted: 9/9/2008 3:17:28 AM
Good to know
Millie, Pine Bluff, AR
Posted: 8/16/2008 3:21:16 PM
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