THE arrival of winter jasmine heralds the advent of warmer weather, and this year, it’s among several floral harbingers of spring that seem to be appearing earlier than usual.
Magnolias and sasanqua camellias are already blossoming in Shanghai parks.
How do we enjoy flowers? Well, visiting parks to view seasonal displays of color is one way. Buying cut flowers for the home is another. But for those who want a more daily and lasting contact with nature’s blooms, indoor gardening is the answer.
In Shanghai, where most people live in apartments, that means potted plants on patios, rooftops or windowsills.
It may seem a bit daunting at first, but it’s really quite easy to cultivate plants at home, according to Qin Xiuli, who is an avid grower of houseplants.
For beginners, she recommends five species that are easy to grow and ideal for the indoors: golden pathos, spider plants, Kalanchoe, geraniums and common succulents.
Golden pathos (lv uo in Chinese) is one of the easiest plants for anyone to grow. It’s leafy, fast-growing and decorative, and it requires minimum attention. The plant, a native of Polynesia, is also known as devil’s ivy because it’s probably harder to kill than to grow.
One of the benefits of golden pathos is the ability to “style” it. The plant can grow upward along a vertical support, or you can simply let the branches cascade from a hanging pot to create a green curtain. The plant can purify the air in a room and asks only for a little water in return.
One drawback is cold. Golden pathos can’t cope when the temperatures near freezing, so it’s important to place it towards the sun in warmer rooms.
Spider web plants are similar to golden pathos and easy to grow at home. The ornamental plants with variegated foliage are natives of Japan. One tip: Don’t water every day.
Kalanchoe, also called widow’s thrill, goes by the names chang shou hua (long life flower) and jia lan cai (Buddhist temple herb) in China. It is a genus of a family of succulent flowering plants native to Europe. The flowers of different species are colorful and ideal for keeping at home.
Qin said all good indoor gardening starts with the proper pot.
“The flower pot is important,” she explained. “You want to choose one with high permeability, like clay earthenware. Plastic pots are popular because they are light and not so fragile. The pot should match the size of the plant you plan to grow and be pleasant with your home décor.”
Common houseplants need one change of pot every spring, with new soil and a bit of fertilizer.
When buying potted plants in the market, choose ones that look healthy, with no wilted or brown leaves. If you are repotting them at home, choose a high-quality commercial potting soil. When watering at home, Qin suggests using the water from rinsing rice.
Some indoor gardeners make their own plant food at home, using kitchen water. To do that, use fish guts or residue from making soybean milk. Put them in a container for a month or two, then add water. The drawback is that these concoctions can be smelly and attract insects. Sometimes it’s advisable to stick to commercial plant food.
Succulent plants are always popular in homes because they are attractive and require little care. But they do need a bit of sunshine and good air circulation to thrive.
“Succulent love sun and drought-resistant,” Qin said. “They actually grow better outdoors than in. The need a permeable soil without too much fertilizer.”
The seeds, pits and kernels of common fruits can also be grown into small houseplants.
Longan (long yan, or dragon’s eye) is a sweet fruit indigenous to China. Its black seeds can be soaked in water for a week – with a change of water every day – then planted in a pot. They should begin sprouting after a week and a tiny forest emerges after a month.
The pitaya can also be grown as a houseplant. Scrape the flesh in a container, add water and rub gently to separate the tiny black seeds. Wrap the mixture in a small muslin bag to squeeze out all the flesh, leaving only the black seeds. Dry with a hairdryer.
Find a pot without a hole in the bottom and fill with sterilized soil. Spray water on the top layer until very moist and then evenly sprinkle all the seeds. Spray water on the seeds and cover with plastic wrap. Repeat this step every day until sprouts appear. After about a week, the sprouts should cover the whole surface and be about one centimeter tall.
And for avocado lovers, here’s an indoor gardening project that children seem to find fascinating. Remove the pit of the avocado carefully and wash off all bits of fruit and the brown seed cover. The slightly pointier end of the pit is the top. Take four toothpicks and stick them at a slightly downward angle into the avocado pit, spacing them evening around the circumference of the avocado about halfway down. The toothpicks form a “scaffolding” to hold the pit above a glass of water, with the bottom submerged. Sit the glass on a sunny windowsill and change the water every four or five days.
In anywhere from five to eight weeks, the top of the avocado will dry out and form a crack all the way to the bottom of the pit. Through the crack at the bottom, a taproot will emerge.
Eventually a small sprout will peek through the top of the avocado pit. Be sure to keep the bottom of the pit wet. When the stem is about 15 centimeters tall, cut it back to about a centimeter to encourage new growth.
When it reaches 15 centimeters again, plant it in a rich, humus soil in a pot. Place in a sunny spot.
The plant will thrive on a patio in summer but should be brought indoors for the winter.
If you pinch off the top leaves periodically, it will encourage the plant to bush out.
Will you ever get avocados? It’s doubtful, but the plant is a lovely addition to a home.
Where to buy flowers and plants in Shanghai
The easiest way to enjoy blooms at home is the buy flowers in any of Shanghai’s prolific flower shops and markets. Prices in flower markets are cheaper than in shops, but some bargaining is usually required and a basic knowledge about plants is helpful.
Caojiadu Flower and Pet Market
This is a large, three-story flower market, with underground parking available at 10 yuan (US$1.5) per hour. The market has a multitude of vendors selling a wide range of plants and flowers. There’s little difference in price from one seller to the next, but it’s wise to examine the plants carefully.
Address: 33 Wanghangduhou Rd
Lanling Flower and Pet Market
This is another popular market in Shanghai that sells flowers and plants, along with birds and fish.
The parking lot is very small, so there’s usually a waiting line on weekends or before holidays.
Address: 1539 Lingshi Rd
Meilong Flower and Pet Market
This is a small flower market in the Minhang District where one can find common houseplants, especially succulents.
Address: 66 Yimei Rd
Wanshang Flower and Pet Market
This is a market in downtown Shanghai, with one store specializing in succulents.