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Tired of winter? Looking for a challenging gardening project?

Try growing a zebra plant — not the easiest to care for but well worth the effort

The main attraction of the zebra plant is its foliage.

Like many gardeners I heave a sigh of relief when February arrives, knowing that we are past the midway mark through winter. At this point we are also pretty tired of the season and looking for something to perk us up as we wait for spring. For some that may mean a warm holiday get-away, but for us stay-at-home gardeners that can mean buying an unusual or special plant.

One such plant is the zebra plant (Aphilandea squarrosa). Not only is it beautiful, but it is a challenging plant to grow successfully as a houseplant — perfect for just when a special project is needed.

This native of the Brazilian rainforests is not the easiest plant to grow as an indoor potted plant, but with some effort it can be done successfully. It will not likely be a long-lived plant but will provide an interesting focal point while you have it.

The main attraction of the zebra plant is its striking foliage. It has pairs of shiny, lance-shaped, dark-green leaves that have a wide white midrib and wide white veins. In its native habitat it is a two-metre-tall shrub but as a potted plant it will grow about 30 cm to 50 cm tall. Pruning and pinching will create a bushy plant that is more attractive. When plants are for sale in garden centres they usually are in bloom, which are actually bright-yellow waxy bracts, while the flowers (usually white) are less significant and protrude from the bracts. The flowers last only days but the bracts will stay attractive for a couple of months, and the stem of the plant has an attractive purple tinge.

Replicating the native habitat of the zebra plant — the Brazilian rainforest — is not easy in our homes during the winter. Although the indoor temperature will suit the plant, the humidity levels will not. Because they crave high humidity, this is the reason they will be relatively short-lived plants. However, placing the plant on a pebble tray, periodically misting it, and keeping the leaves clean by regularly wiping them with a soft damp cloth will aid in providing some much-needed humidity.

When you purchase a zebra plant it should have already been planted in a well-drained planting mix with lots of organic matter. The soil must be kept moist at all times — not sodden, but it should never be allowed to dry out or the plant will experience leaf drop. This will also be caused by cold drafts so keep the plant away from doors and windows where it might be subjected to cold air. It is a good idea to keep a close watch on plants newly introduced to the indoors to ensure that they are not bringing in unwanted insect pests. Zebra plants can be attacked by aphids and spider mites so be diligent to catch any outbreak at its onset.

Zebra plants like bright, indirect light and although you wouldn’t want to expose it to direct sun later in the season, the weak rays of the February sun will not hurt it. Perhaps by month’s end it would be best to move it away from direct sunlight. Like most houseplants, the zebra plant should not be fertilized during the winter but in a month or so it could be given a light dose of soluble 20-20-20 as the days lengthen and growth rate increases.

The bracts will begin to wither in a couple of months and should be clipped off as they expire. In the spring the plant can be cut back if you want to keep it from getting too large. The terminal shoots can be used as cuttings. Simply dip the ends of the cuttings into a rooting hormone and then plant them in some dampened soilless mix. Keep the planting medium moist and tent the container to keep the humidity around the cuttings from getting too low. It is generally not recommended to put this houseplant outdoors during the growing season. Keep it indoors, protected from the elements, and provide as much humidity as possible. Don’t forget to keep the soil consistently damp.

If you are suffering from winter fatigue, why not treat yourself to a spectacular new houseplant? The zebra, a showy evergreen plant that produces a prized display of foliage, might be just the tonic you need as we coast (ever so slowly) toward spring.

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