Here's a different plant idea for Christmas -- Kalanchoe

My friend Katherine, who couldn't come to our open house, thoughtfully sent us a beautiful kalanchoe plant which was in full bloom -- covered with tight clusters of red flowers.

The florist had recommended it, she said, as an alternative to the usual holiday plants: poinsettia, holly, and Christmas cactus.

I'd never had a kalanchoe (also called scarlet gnome and brilliant star) and so was delighted with its cheerful blossoms and succulent little leaves. But I'd always been led to understand that kalanchoes are fine for the initial bloom , but after that you might as well discard them. They just get unattractively rangy, refusing to blossom again.

Well, I cherished my little plant all that winter, carefully pinching back the spent blossoms and giving it all the attention I could in my sparse window garden.

It didn't mind when I forgot to water it, letting it dry out. It just perked up when I did reach for the watering can.

However, as winter waned, the plant simply petered out. By sparing we'd both had enough of that thankless tender-loving-care bit. The outside perennials were calling, the days grew milder, and finally were warm enough to put out the houseplants for the summer.

The kalanchoe, a sorry little orphan by then, was put against the back of the garage and forgotten.

The wind finally knocked it over and it lay for days on its side before I noticed its condition. I stood the pot back up and rain fell on it. Finally, it was knocked over a second time, then it dried out completely.

One day I came across the kalanchoe half-hidden in tall grass and weeds. Picking it up ruefully I noticed that the stalks had plenty of life, much to my surprise.

With nothing to lose at that point I clipped the whole thing back flush to the soil. Then I braced it among other pots on the table under a willow tree. All summer it stayed there, and, when the clouds gathered, getting rained on -- sometimes too much, sometimes not enough. In drought I sprinkled all the plants , but gave the kalanchoe no more attention than anv of the rest.

Nonetheless, the kalanchoe simply dug in its roots and refused to give up.

There was a solid potful of green leaves about an inch high by September. I brought the best of the houseplant indoors and decided to give the kalanchoe another chance.

All I did was add a bit of additional humus to the pot without disturbing it. The plant thrived in the den window, set buds, and, by December, war gloriously in bloom again.

Driven to research, I learned that the tops actually beg to be severely spring-pruned. Also, the plant needs the rest I'd callously enforced. No water , right. Shady spot, right. My nontreatment was shoddy, but proper. All the poor thing got was half a chance.

I was ashamed to tell my friend Katherine. But now, wait till she makes her Christmas call this year!

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