THE INDOOR GARDENER : Pencil Tree Sap Contains Poisonous Substance


QUESTION: I love cacti and succulents, so when I ran across a pencil tree recently I bought it for my collection. Then a neighbor told me it’s poisonous. Is she right?

ANSWER: Yes, I too love the unique appearance of this tree-like succulent (Euphorbia tirucalli) , but beware: It’s full of a milk-like sap that’s relatively poisonous. Be sure to take all the necessary precautions to keep it out of the reach of small children and plant-eating animals. Like most succulents, the pencil tree, which has smooth, glossy-green cylindrical branches bare of leaves, needs lots of bright sunlight and very little water. Not enough sun or too much water and the lead will quickly go out of your pencil tree; It will get mushy, droop and die.

Over-Watering Rots Peperomia Plants

Q: I recently bought a pepperoni plant. It did all right for a couple of weeks, but then the stems started turning soft and mushy. What did I do wrong?


A: To begin with, you didn’t buy a pepperoni plant, you bought a peperomia. Pepperoni comes on pizza! The three most common varieties of this plant are Peperomia obtusifolia, which has waxy green and yellow oval leaves; P. caprata, or emerald ripple peperomia, which has dark green leaves that are wrinkled like a water-sodden finger, and P. sandersii, the watermelon peperomia, so named because of its grayish-green oval leaves marked with silver stripes.

Care for all peperomia is the same: Give them filtered, indirect light and, most important, let them dry out between watering.

Purple Velvet Sprouts Foul-Smelling Flowers

Q: I was overjoyed recently to discover a beautiful deep-purple colored, fuzzy-leafed vining plant in an out-of-the-way nursery. Do you know what this plant is called, and how does one take care of it?

A: It’s called purple velvet (Gynura aurantiaca), or perhaps it is G. sarmentosa or purple passion plant. Both look alike and are often confused with each other, but the care for both is the same: Bright filtered light and enough water to keep the soil uniformly moist. Pinching new growth off from time to time is the key to keeping this plant bushy.

One caution about this plant: Properly cultivated, it will produce clusters of tiny orange flowers that should be pinched off as soon as they appear--they have a very unpleasant odor. You’ll know when your purple velvet has sprung into a bloom. Just follow your nose.