The kalanchoe leaf: pretty and strangely prodigious

In any light the kalanchoe tomentosa has contrast and texture, but when the midafternoon sunlight touches the light-green succulent, each plump and velvety leaf is outlined in white gold as the undersides darken.

The outer end of each almond-shape leaf is serrated; the seven to nine tips are deep or rust-red, which contrasts beautifully with the delicate green.

The leaves detach easily and, when a dropped leaf has lain on the soil surface more than six days, a tiny furry plant grows where the leaf was attached to the parent plant. This occurs even on dry earth or stone.

Since this succulent, like the aloe vera, grows best and appears bushier when planted two or three to a pot or bonsai tray, two or three detached leaves can be laid on sandy soil in a three-inch clay pot or placed so that the tips ae about 1 1/2 inches apart.

Like all plants, this succulent needs air, light, and adequate moisture. When watered once or twice a week, it thrives in the dry air of the average home. However, during warm rains (temperature 63 degrees F. or higher), it can be put out with the other indoor plants to be washed and refreshed.

When the plant is grown in a mixture of two-thirds sand, medium to coarse, and one- third garden loam that has been fortified with an aged-in-earth, crushed eggshell, it never needs fertilizer. However, a bit of diluted fish fertilizer every two years won't hurt the plant. Use only a drop or two at the most.

A pebble mulch enhances the natural beauty of the plant and will provide the same benefits it gives to all indoor plants. It keeps the soil surface from becoming too dry and, as the undersides of the stones wear imperceptibly, needed trace minerals reach the roots.

The kalanchoe tomentosa should have maximum sun and light; thus, it should be put on the sill of a south or southwest window.

Houseplants come and go. You may give away your best, or put them out in the spring and, come fall, bring in a different plant. But once you have a kalanchoe, you always have at least one, no matter how many you give away. When you pot your aloe vera in the fall, you can put a kalanchoe alongside it in a clay bulb pot. Both need sum and the same amount of water.

A local gardener who swapped her best, bushiest kalanchoe for a potted rosemary after her rosemary failed to survive a winter temperature below 15 degrees F. set her lanky kalanchoe in a sunny, sheltered spot outside for the summer.

She set it in a hole three inches deeper than needed, but did not fill in the top two inches. Rain and wind would eventually fill it in and her kalanchoe would be more compact, or at least appear so. Generally, the color, particularly the red tips, of the kalanchoe darken under strong daylight. The leaves become plumper, also, and new leaves are wider and shorter.

A light frost will not hurt the kalanchoe.* The plant has great durability. Few plants, in fact, are so tolerant of heat and long dry periods.

The average home kalanchoe tomentosa rarely flowers.

You see the small reddish blossoms on very old greenhouse plants. The indoor gardener's plants are rarely more than three years old, however. Usually, the gardener has grown new plants from detached leaves and has given away the old plants, or left them outside when she repotted and brought inside the jasmine, red oxalis, or smallest kalanchoe in midfall.

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