Browsing Category

Plant History

#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Plant History

A Horticulturalist’s Halloween

October 20, 2017

In honor of Halloween, meet twelve strange and bizarre plants from around the globe below!

1. Buddha’s Hand (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis
This extremely fragrant citron-variety of shrub or small tree has long thorny branches from which hang fruit segmented into finger-like sections! The rind of the fruit is commonly used in cooking for its zest. Its origin can be traced back to northeastern India and China.

2. Split Rock (Pleiospilos nelii)
The common name of this flowering succulent refers to the appearance of its leaves. Stemless, there is a deep fissure in the middle, with two or four opposite leaves surrounding it. Its resemblance of a small rock might have evolved as a defense mechanism against predators. It is native to South Africa.

3. Brain Cactus (Mammillaria elongata f. cristata)
The eery shape of this cactus generally occurs due to injury at a young age or a mutation which causes a hormonal imbalance within the plant.  The normally dormant lateral buds start to grow unregulated and out of control. It is covered with harmless but prickly spines, and should be handled with care (or gloves). In its native habitat of central Mexico, it produces white or yellow flowers in the springtime.

4. Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis) 
This tall, columnar species is categorized by a shaggy coat of long, white hairs. Historically, the hair has been used as a cheap alternative to cotton! As the plant ages, it beings to lose its silvery mane. It is native to Guanajuato and Hidalgo in eastern Mexico, although its mass appeal means it is now threatened in the wild.

5. Sticks On Fire (Euphorbia tirucalli)
Here at The Sill, we call the Euphorbia tirucalli by its other common name – Pencil Plant. This plant, native to Africa, produces a poisonous latex which can be converted to the equivalent of gasoline! The white, milky substance is used in traditional medicine in many cultures – yet research shows it might actually suppress the immune system… Bottomline: look but don’t touch… and don’t consume either.

6. Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes
This carnivorous plant has dangling pouches filled with a syrupy fluid that captures and drowns prey! Another common name for it is Monkey Cups, which refers to the fact that monkeys have been observed drinking rainwater from them in their natural habitat, across the Old World tropics.

Photos via Wikipedia 

7. Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula
The carnivorous flytrap’s leaves are trigged by tiny hairs on their inner surfaces that help them know to snap shut, trapping prey! Although the speed of closing leaves vary depending on the environment and type of prey – it can generally be used as an indicator of the plant’s health. It is native to wetlands on the East Coast!

8. Dracula Orchid (Dracula sergioi
The name Dracula means “little dragon”, which refers to the two long spurs of the sepals enclosing the orchid’s piranha-like mouth. It is a epiphytic species of orchid in the genus Dracula, and is said to smell like mushrooms! This is to help trick mushroom-pollinating fruit flies, to populate the orchids as well. Most Dracula Orchids call Antioquia, Colombia home.

9. Ghost Plant (Monotropa uniflora
This herbaceous perennial plant, also known as the corpse plant, is commonly white or pale pink with black flecks. It does not contain chlorophyll – instead it generates energy through parasitism! – making it great for dark environments, like dense forest floors. It is native to temperate regions across the world, including North America.

10. Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda)
This herbaceous perennial plant and its globular white fruit with black, iris-like center are poisonous to humans! The fruit contains cardio-genic toxins which have a sedative effect on the human cardiac muscle tissue – but are harmless to birds, the plant’s primary seed dispersers. They are native to North America – although we haven’t yet seen one in the wild!

11. Black Bat Flower (Tacca chantrieri)
The Tacca chantrieri is a species of flowering plant with rare, black bat-shaped flowers that can grow up to a foot across while its ‘whiskers’ can grow over two feet long! They are native to tropical regions of Southeast Asia, like Thailand, Malaysia, and the Yunnan Province of southern China. Understory plants – they prefer to lurk in the shade.

12. Devil’s Tooth (Hydnellum peckii)
This inedible fungus has a mutually beneficial relationships with its host trees – it gives out minerals and amino acids in exchange for carbon. When the fungus is moist and healthy, its fruiting bodies ‘bleed’ a bright red juice, while poor health and age make it become brown and nondescript. You can find this funky-looking fungus in places in North America, Europe, and – more recently – Iran and Korea.










#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Plant Care, Plant History, Plant of The Month

Meet Our Fall Plant Pick – Ferns

September 15, 2017

Ferns – we have all heard of them, yet we fail to completely understand, and maybe even appreciate, them. It seems that people either love them, or hate them. But ferns, as houseplants, are relatively easy to care for once you get to know them! They might be a little needy, in comparison to say snake plants, but that can be great for people who enjoy taking care of their plants everyday. (I am looking at you, overwaterers!) Either way, they have became one of the most popular houseplants. If you are looking to add a new addition to your sill this fall, try a Fern!

So What is a Fern?

The ferns that we see and know today are actually quite ancient and mysterious. They first appeared on Earth as far back as 360-400 MYA! Fossil records indicate that they have outlived dinosaurs, saw the civilization of man, and survived numerous extinction threats. Before ferns – there were mosses, lichens, algae, and fungi scattered about, but nothing taller than those grew on the landscape. Ferns became the dominant plant life form because unlike their predecessors, the mosses, they had evolved a primitive but true vascular system. And around 360 MYA, the landmasses of the earth collided, forming the supercontinent Pangaea. Ferns spread throughout Pangaea, covering it almost entirely! Interestingly enough though, most surviving ferns that we see today actually evolved much later, during the Cretaceous Period, after flowering plants existed (about 100-70 MYA).  Many of the original ferns went extinct due to the several ice ages.  And to this day, there are still new fern species being discovered yearly!

Image via earthlyuniverse

How are ferns different from most plants?

Ferns are their own lineages. What that mean is they do not grow seeds, nor flowers, but reproduce by splitting, rhizomes, and spores.

Fern spores via here

Because the spores have no protective shell to protect it, unlike seeds, it also explains why they love high humidity environment. In addition, they are more primitive than other plants.

Common Ferns

Staghorn Ferns

Platycerium spp., natives to tropical South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. They are different from most ferns because they are epiphytes-living on trees instead of in the soil. They have pronounced sporophytes (the stags) and pronounced gametophytes (the shields), and both are separate parts in the staghorn fern’s life cycle.  Not to get to scientific-y here, but each ‘stag’ frond is created upon successful fusion of gametes produced by the gametophyte. Staghorn fern looks great, and does well, in hanging and mounted planters.Shop Staghorn Fern and Olmsted


Boston Fern 

Photo via Pinterest

Birds Nest Fern

Asplenium nidus, Birds Nest, is another easygoing fern that is native to tropical regions such as southeast Asia, Australia, east Africa and Hawaii. The fronds emerge coiled up from the center of the plant. As their unique ruffly leaves unfurled, they create a vase-like or bird’s nest shape. Hence the name, birds nest. Given the right indoor environment-high humid and medium to bright light-they will thrive.  They also make a great gift since they are known for the love ferns.

  1. Shop our Bird Nest Fern

General Ferns care

SUNLIGHT: Medium indirect bright light to low light.  Never direct sun, unless the species demands it.

WATER: Water weekly. Allow potting mix to half-dry out before watering.  However, soil can be moist or wet, but not sopping-wet.  Water more frequently during warmer months and drier months and fertilize during growth.

HUMIDITY: Any humidity level other than dry will do, but it prefers very moist air that will help lead to larger leaves and faster growth. A regular misting with a squirt-bottle will help raise the humidity.

TEMPERATURE: 65°F-85°F (18°C-30°C). It’s best not to let it go below 60°F (15°C).

In general, Ferns have been known to purify the air, and are excellent starter plants due to their low maintenance. There are thousands of fern species today. I am curious, do you have ferns? What’s your favorite? Comment below.


#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Interview, Plant History

Travel Within Your Home With These 7 Houseplants

August 17, 2017

Why settle for a souvenir when you could have a living memento of your travels?

Plants bring colors to life, they grow with your care, they originate from fascinating places…

We teamed up with HomeToGo to suggest 7 unique houseplants you can use to create vacation vibes in your home. From the tropical Myanmar jungle to the refreshingly high altitude of the Himalayas, these plants will make your home a travel expedition!

P.S. Find HomeToGo’s interview with our plant expert extraordinaire Christopher Satch HERE.


#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, How-to, Plant Care, Plant History

Leaf Variegation

August 17, 2017

We still do not know what exactly causes plants to be variegated, we can only make an educated guess, but we do know how plants become variegated. Variegation is a change in pigment production or plastid development in the plant.

What are plastids? Well, besides the chloro-plast, plastids generally serve some metabolic function, usually creating pigments to deal with excess light. It is believed that variegation arose as a means for lower light plants to deal with excess light, for example when trees fall and the forest clears in their native habitat.

Photo by the Exeter Area Garden Club (link)

Plants can ‘revert’, too! For example, a variegated rubber tree (Ficus elastica) can go back to regular coloring – usually due to it being moved to a space with lower light. Reverts are random as much as variegation is.

Try moving a houseplant known for its variegation – for example a pothos or philodendron – into a sunnier space at home and see if the new leaves become more variegated over time!




#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Behind The Scenes, How-to, Plant Care, Plant History

Plants and Mushrooms

July 19, 2017

Soil is life for plants. For millions of years, plant have been interacting with microbes in the soil – and have formed strong, intricate relationships with them.

Plants interact with both bacteria and fungi in the soil, and in fact, if it were not for fungi – there would be no life on land.

It is agreed on by scientists that fungi colonized land well before plants have! However, the question of when they colonized land is a difficult one to answer, as our approximations are based on the fossil record, which can only tell us when only some organisms have existed – i.e. organisms with hard or solid body parts or spores (which many fungi are anything but).

Regardless of when fungi colonized land, they added a component to soils that was not present in soils before – large amounts of carbon. This helped to not only break down the rocks on land, but also to help retain water on land, and consequently help pave the way for plants!

Image via Planet Permaculture (link)

One of the first and oldest interactions between plants and fungi is the symbiotic relationship known as a lichen. A lichen is formed from cells of algae and a filamentous fungus weaving together to form a unit that is different from either organism. The algae feeds the fungus sugars and the fungus helps to retain moisture and occasionally provide nutrients from either the substrate that they’re growing on or from dust in the air.

Lichen covering a tree

On the surface this relationship seems symbiotic, which would mean both organisms can exist separately, but cooperation makes survival easier for both organisms. However, this is not the case for the lichen. Lichen does extend the range in which each organism can survive, but although the algae can exist and live freely – the fungus cannot.

Whether or not the fungus was able to survive in the past by itself but has lost that ability is up for debate, but either way, the relationship has evolved to be either one of commensalism or parasitism.

Other fungi in the soil that we know are relative to plants belong to three major groups: the Basidiomycetes, the Ascomycetes, and the Oomycetes. Most endophytic fungi (fungi that lives between living plant cells) are Ascomycetes, with some being Basidiomycetes. And the relationships of many endophytes to their plants are symbiotic.

(Interesting side note – endophytes are responsible in part for the flavor of most wine grapes, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon!)

Yellow Parasol Mushroom (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii) 

Occasionally, the fungi which live in the soil or the endophyte (or in some cases, it is the same fungus) may be in ideal conditions, and will reproduce sexually by producing a mushroom. This is perfectly normal, and considered in to be good luck in some areas of the world.

We think of houseplants as just the plants – but we often forget that each pot of soil is a tiny ecosystem. Microbes like bacteria and fungi live in the soil. Some of them are helpful to the plant, and some of them are hurtful to the plant. Some of them do nothing too! Most fungi in healthy soil exist to help the plant, and do so by many means.

Yellow Parasol Mushroom (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii)

To communicate with the plant, the fungus must connect with its roots. Through these root connections, the fungus can send and receive chemical signals to/from the plant. Some fungi will stay outside of the roots, while others may penetrate the root cells.

Regardless of which type of fungus the plant is interacting with – it accomplishes two major functions:

First – the fungus lowers the pH of the soil by selectively absorbing NH4+ (ammonium) and kicking out the H+. This helps solubilize and mobilize metals and phosphates that are essential for the plant! As a consequence of the ammonium absorption, this excess source of nitrogen also leaks into the plant. The plant trades carbon in the form of hexoses to the fungus for the phosphates and other minerals. Phosphate is essential for plant life.

Second – not only do fungi provide nutrients to the plant, but they also allow chemical communication amongst plants. This internet of fungi has been shown to allow insect-attacked plants communication to their neighbors. It has been measured that nearby plants will boost their own innate defenses if they hear over the mycelium that one of their neighbors is being attacked. (Some plants even use the mycelial network for more devious purposes – spreading toxins and growth suppressants so that other plants cannot grow. While others use it for more altruistic purposes – sharing sugars and nutrients to neighboring plants.)

Whether or not plants invented the idea of the internet first remains a discussion for the philosophers…

Yellow Parasol Mushroom (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii)

Either way, fungi – masters of the soil, can be beneficial for your houseplants! Consider mushrooms a sign of a happy, healthy mini ecosystem.

Questions? Comment below or shoot us an email: 


#PlantPorn, #PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Behind The Scenes, Houseplant Tastemakers, Plant History, Style Tips

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston

July 5, 2017

Isabella Stewart Gardner was an art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. She was also a regular in the newspaper gossip columns, for her eccentric and, at the time, scandalous behavior and tastes. The Globe’s Jack Thomas writes: “There was only one Isabella Stewart Gardner, which is too bad, for nobody was better at shocking Boston society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries…” (Fenway Park, John Powers, P 37).

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888), by John Singer Sargent. This painting was considered provocative at the time because of the low neckline and pearls around the waist.

Isabella Stewart was born in New York City on April 14th, 1840. At the age of 18, her former classmate Julia Gardner invited her to Boston, when she met Julia’s brother John Lowell “Jack” Gardner. Three years her senior, he was considered one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors. They were married two years later, and moved into a home at 152 Beacon Street in Boston.

After the death of her two year old son from pneumonia, learning she could not bear any more children, and the death of her close friend/sister-in-law, Gardner became depressed and ill. Her doctors advised that Jack bring her to Europe to improve her health and lift her spirits. The trip had the desired effect – when Gardner returned to Boston, she was as vibrant as ever.

Inside one of the galleries surrounding the courtyard at the Gardner Museum.

The Gardners’ frequent travels allowed them to put together a world-class art collection of paintings, statues, tapestries, silver, ceramics, stained glass, and more. Although already enlarged once, they struggled to fit their collection into their Beacon Street house. But Isabella realized their shared dream of building a museum after Jack’s sudden death in 1898. She purchased the land in Boston’s marshy Fenway area, and was involved in every aspect of the design and building process. The museum opened in 1903. Its glass-covered garden courtyard was the first of its kind in America.

The glass ceiling above the museum’s courtyard garden.

Isabella died in July of 1924 at the age of 84. She is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but her vibrancy lives on at the Gardner Museum in Fenway. The museum is home to a world-renown collection of more than 2,500 works of art. Artists represented include Rembrandt, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Degas, Raphael, Matisse – and more. But one of the most astonishing works of art on display is the museum’s interior courtyard…

Four walls, four stories tall, surround the museum’s enclosed courtyard garden.

A living work of art, the plants on display in the Courtyard change seasonally.

Despite how lush the courtyard looks, the environment isn’t ideal for plants. “The UV light filtering glass and humidity levels are appropriate for artworks but not plants,” the Museum points out. “It takes hard work to keep the garden looking spectacular.”

One way the gardeners keep the courtyard looking fresh is through a technique called ‘successive gardening’. The plants, a majority of which are in pots, are continuously rotated so they’re only in the courtyard when in peak condition. When not on display, the plants are nurtured in an offsite greenhouse, and then onsite greenhouse. There are nine different plant displays throughout the year.

Here’s what plants I spotted on my recent visit…

Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica)

Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’ (Dracaena deremensis) and Philodendron xanadu

Norfolk Island Pine Tree

Tree Ferns (Cyathea australis), Boston Ferns (Nephrolepis), and Orchids

Looking into the lush courtyard through a first floor window.

What plants do you spot?

Don’t forget to check out the museum’s greenhouse, which houses some of the courtyard’s potted plants when they’re not on display, on your way out! (We’ll be sharing photos of our favorite plants from inside the envy-inducing greenhouse next so stay tuned.)

#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, How-to, Plant Care, Plant History, Plant of The Month

Plant of the Summer: Succulents

July 3, 2017

The perfect summer plantsucculents thrive in hot, sunny weather, and their drought-tolerant nature means you don’t have to worry when the weekend rolls around!


Botanically-speaking, the term ‘succulent’ (from the Latin word “succulentus” for juice or sap) refers to any plant that has evolved adaptations to survive hot arid environments. It is a term that does not refer to any specific family or clade of plants, and in fact many succulent plants are not related to one another at all! Over twenty-five plant families have multiple succulents within them.

The trait of succulence has evolved multiple times throughout the history of plants – each time as a response to climate shifts to more arid conditions. Succulence can include a bunch of morphological characteristics – like thickened, fleshy leaves, and an alternative mode of photosynthesis. Many plants would, by botanic definition, be considered succulent even though we do not normally think of them as such. For example, snake plants (Sansevieria) and ponytail palms (Beaucarnea) have adaptations for surviving in desert conditions. Snake plants have thickened leaves and CAM photosynthesis, and ponytail palms have a thickened, woody trunk for water storage.

Horticulturally-speaking, and in the garden retail world, a succulent is anything that is not a cactus, doesn’t usually have spines, and is considered to be completely different from cacti (even though all cacti are succulents). This definition is arbitrary, and excludes many plants that are succulent, botanically-speaking, or have succulent traits, such as bromeliads and other various tropical plants. It has been used by collectors and in the marketing world for so long that the term ‘succulent’ is simply an accepted colloquialism at this point.

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Cacti are succulents from the family Cactaceae, which are native to the New World/Western Hemisphere. Euphorbs (commonly confused with cacti) are also succulents – but are from the plant family Euphorbiaceae, and are cosmopolitan in their distribution. Examples of plants in other families that have evolved succulent characteristics, include Yucca, Agave, and Aloe. All succulents are adapted to dry environments with full sun and no shelter. If you have a sunny spot – they are excellent starter plants due to their low-maintenance!


SUNLIGHT: Bright, full sun to medium, filtered light. (A very select few, like the snake plant, can tolerate low, indirect light.)
WATER: Water weekly or monthly, dependent on species. For example, cacti require less water than other succulents, like fleshy Echeveria or Aloe. Allow potting mix to completely dry out before watering again. Water more frequently during warmer months, and fertilize weakly during the growth season. Do not overwater, which will cause this plant to rot. When in doubt, it is better to underwater than to overwater.
HUMIDITY: Succulents do not care. Normal humidity is fine.
TEMPERATURE: 65°F-90°F (18°C-33°C). It’s best not to let it go below 60°F (15°C).
SIZE: Dependent on species. Most grow slowly, so will remain the same size, or increase in size in flushes of growth.
COMMON PROBLEMS: Succulents are generally very easy-going plants. May get scale and mealybugs. Treat pests as soon as they appear with weekly sprays of horticultural (Neem) oil.
PRECAUTIONS: Do not consume. Best practice is always to keep houseplants out of reach of small children and pets.


Join The Sill team this summer at our New York City Shop for a plant care workshop on succulents. For dates and tickets, visit our Weekly Workshops page HERE.


The following plant picks are drought-tolerant: Miniature Succulent Assortment, Snake Plant, ZZ Plant, Aloe vera, ‘Hedgehog’ Aloe, and shop more perfectly pre-potted HERE. (Domestic Shipping) 

Plant care questions? Comment below.

#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Behind The Scenes, Interview, Plant Care, Plant History

Interview: Lena Struwe

June 14, 2017

Dr. Lena Struwe (Credit: Susanne Ruemmele)

We interviewed Dr. Lena Struwe, an accomplished professor at Rutgers University, as well as the Director of the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, a leading herbarium in the world for the preservation of important plant taxa samples and records!

Dr. Struwe is the mentor of our resident Plant Scientist here at The Sill, Christopher Satch. Her research involves the order, Gentianlaes, which encompases a few plant families that are extremely economically important – including Rubiaceae (the coffee family), Gentianaceae (the gentian family), Apocynaceae (the dogbane family), and more. These plant families contain countless plants that we use on a daily basis – oleander, coffee, and periwinkle, just to name a few. With this in mind, we asked what she could share with us about what plants have taught her…

Gentiana verna CC BY-SA 3.0, Michael Gasperl (Migas)

What inspired you to choose Gentians to study?

When I started out in grad school my advisor had a grant to work on this group of plants, so I actually didn’t choose gentians. But I quickly fell in love with this family and have worked on them for over 25 years now.

What about Gentians makes them special?

They have a long history of being used by humans as medicinal plants around the world, and they also are incredibly gorgeous. Their flowers come in all colors, even black, and there are gentians on every continent and in every kind of habitat (except on top of glaciers and in the driest deserts).

Are there any easy ways to grow Gentians?

No, gentians are generally rather hard to grow. Some are suitable for rock gardens, but most live in symbioses with fungi and are very specific of what kind of soils they want. Some species in the Gentiana genus are probably the easiest for people in the temperate zones.

Are there any indoor Gentians for the houseplant lover?

Prairie gentians (Eustoma) are sometimes sold as a potted plant, but this species is not long-lived and they often get root rot. The same species is often found at florists as well and is a beloved cut flower.  Gentians are best grown outdoors. 

Eustoma grandiflorum Andrew Dunn, CC BY-SA 2.0

What inspired you to do taxonomy studies?

I have always loved plants, since I was very young. In third grade our teacher made us do a class herbarium and an inventory of a little forest plot, and I loved to explore and figure out what was growing and flowering there. I come from an outdoorsy family that sailed, canoed, hiked, picked mushrooms, etc., and cool plants are everywhere so it never got boring. When I went to college I had planned to do environmental studies, but ended up in botany classes and with an undergraduate part-time job in the herbarium, and the rest is history. The idea to explore the unknown when it comes to biodiversity, which is really what taxonomy is about, is something that fascinates me every day.

Any cool recent finds or new discoveries in the taxonomic world?

The recent news of a million-years old fossil tomatillo plant is a marvelous find. (Learn more!)

Fossil Tomatillo (Credit: Peter Wilf)

I’ve noticed that a lot of houseplants hail from Araceae family. Is there anything special about that family, to your knowledge, that makes them resilient to indoor conditions?

Many of the indoor Araceae plants grow naturally either as epiphytes (on trees) or on the forest floors in tropical countries. They are used to low light conditions, and sometimes droughts. Even in a rain forest it can be dry, especially if you are an epiphyte with no deep roots in the soil, or no way to catch the water that is falling down. 

Do you have any interesting plants in your home or garden?

In our backyard is a large dawn redwood tree planted by the previous owners. It is a tree that is only found wild in a small area in China, but cultivated across the world. Scientists thought it was extinct since it only was known from fossils, but then it was found in the mid-1900s. There are similar stories of other rediscovered conifers, like ginkgo and the Wollemi pine. This is like finding a living Tyrannosaurus rex somewhere on Earth… 

Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Public Domain)

If there’s one thing you want the world to know about plants, what would that be?

If there weren’t any plants, there wouldn’t be civilization, agriculture, humans, food, spices, log cabins, hamburgers, gardens, or cupcakes. Wherever you are there are plants to explore, and they are a lot easier to look at than birds and mammals because they sit still! 


#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, How-to, Plant Care, Plant History, Plant of The Month

ALOE – June Plant of the Month

May 31, 2017

Meet our June Plant of the Month – the Aloe!

The succulent genus Aloe contains over 300 species, but the most widely known is Aloe vera. Commonly used for medicinal purposes, Aloe vera or “true Aloe”, is a member of the family Asphodelaceae, and has its origins in northern Africa. The specific origins are quite murky, but they are believed to have originated from the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. There is also quite a lot of variation in Aloe vera plants, which has led to the rise of the theory that Aloe vera is not a species at all – but rather a natural or ancient hybrid. 

Aloe vera in The Sill locally made August planter in Yellow (Shop)

Aloe vera has been known and used since ancient times, and is well-documented in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian records. Aloe is even referenced in the Egyptian Book of the Dead as part of the skin-preservation process during mummification! Know for its skin-healing properties, Aloe gel has been used throughout time as a treatment for many types of skin aliments. 

Depiction of Aloe from the Juliana Anicia Codex written in Constantinople in 515 AD (Source)

Additionally, ingesting Aloe was also used as a laxative in ancient times. Although aloe juice now exists as a beverage at most health food stores – the National Institute of Health does not recommend the consumption of raw aloe! In fact, for many beverages that contain aloe gel, the aloe extract must be processed first to remove toxic compounds (the same compounds responsible for the laxative action).

Aloe drinks by our NYC Shop

Other Aloe species do exist, and come in a wide variety of colors, patterns, variegations, and shapes! In fact – aloe species come in every color except for blue. (Blue is a rare pigment in nature, and most natural things that appear blue are actually a shade of purple.) 

Aloes are closely related to Gasterias (Gasteria) and Haworthias (Haworthia), and the jury is still out with regards to species placement within the genera and ultimately, the family. Intergeneric hybridization, the ability to cross-breed with an organism in another genus, is often rare, so there is a strong argument for placing all these organisms together as one genus (and recently, as one family). However, the morphologies of each species vary too greatly to fully support that. 

Aloes are distributed across Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Gasterias are native to the southern Africa, and Haworthias are native to South Africa proper. Natural hybridization occurs within these ranges, and interestingly enough, southern Africa has given rise to many new plant species. Southern Africa has a unique climate that is mostly responsible for the unique species of plants that can be found there and nowhere else in the world. 

Hedgehog Aloe in The Sill’s locally made Olmsted planter in Black (Shop)

Aloe Houseplant Care 101


Bright, full sun to medium, filtered sunlight.


Once weekly or monthly – depending on the time of year and amount of light your place is receiving. For example, in full summer sun, you may need to water once weekly. In the winter, when the plant is semi-dormant, once a month should be sufficient. Make sure the soil has completely dried out in-between waterings.


Aloes will tolerate many soils, but a well-drained loamy soil (potting soil) amended with sand is best.

Temperature and Humidity

Aloes like dry environments. Regular room humidity and normal room temperature will do. Between 65-85ºF (18-30ºC) is ideal. 


Feed Aloes only during the spring and summer months once every 3 weeks or month. Be sure to follow the standard application rates on the label of whatever fertilizer you choose. Do not feed in the winter. 


Aloes will flower about once a year if the conditions are ideal (bright, full sun). 


Aloes don’t need to be trimmed, but one can pluck the larger leaves to use the gooey insides for burns or skin ailments. 

Split Aloe Leaf (Source)

Common Problems

Yellowing leaves, possible black stems

If the leaves of your Aloe are starting to yellow it is usually due to overwatering, but occasionally it can be due to nutrient deficiency or pot-boundedness. If this occurs, let the soil dry out first and if it continues to show signs of distress, re-pot your Aloe.

Leaves turning brown or wrinkling, curly leaf edges

This is usually a sign of underwatering, or potassium deficiency. If this occurs, give your Aloe more water.

Leaf Spots

Bacterial leaf spot. Try to avoid splashing water on the leaves when watering.

Aloe vera in The Sill’s locally made August planter in White (Shop)

P.S. Shop Aloes, or join us for an Aloe workshop

Shop all Aloe plants at The Sill here (ship nationwide), or join us for an Aloe Workshop at our New York City Shop here (ticket required). 

#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, How-to, Plant Care, Plant History, Plant of The Month

Meet Sempervivum (aka Hen and Chicks)

May 19, 2017

The common name “hen and chicks” usually refers to the ground-hugging and clumping Sempervivum succulents. Sempervivum is a genus of succulents in the stonecrop family Crassulaceae. It is one of the few succulents native to Europe and Asia.

Hen and Chick and Ezra (Shop Now)

Sempervivum grow close to the ground, have a rosette shape, and propagate through offsets – giving them the appearance of a mother hen with a group of baby chicks gathered around her. The “hen” refers to the main plant – and the “chicks” are the offsets. These offsets start as tiny buds on the main plant, and even when they sprout their own roots, they take up residence right next to the main – or mother – plant.

Sempervivum arachnoideum by Schnobby (Image Credit)

They are also called stonecrops because they are often seen growing in-between cracks on rock faces and boulders. In ancient times, it was observed that thunderbolts would never strike these plants! Because of this, they were thought to ward off thunderbolts, sorcery, storm damage, and more – making them a popular plant for the roofs and siding of houses. We now know that it is likely the boulders – that the plant grew on – that are the real reason why these plants were rarely struck by lightning.

Supervivum tectorum on roof by Arnoldius (Image Credit)

Also because of this, Sempervivum became associated with the gods of thunder – Jupiter, Thor, and Perun (or depending on your flavor of mythology – Roman, Norse, and Slavic respectively). The plant’s clumping habit is said to resemble the gods’ beards.

Sempervivum, a clumping rosette-forming succulent, is native to the mountainous regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are frost-tolerant, and have been used successfully on green roofs for thousands of years (although ancient peoples planted these on roofs not for the environment – but as a way to ward off lightning strikes!) They flower about once a year, but mostly reproduce by clumping, forming tight mats of plants. Unfortunately, they are monocarpic, so once an individual rosette flowers, it does die – but it produces multiple offsets before then. They occur in many colors, with the most color being expressed with the most sunlight.

Hen and Chick and Jules (Shop Now)

Most plants produce pigments to adapt to high-light conditions. Light exists as photons – and full sun is a massive amount of photons bombarding the plant. The excess energy from the light is actually absorbed by these pigments. A good way to know if your sempervivum is getting enough natural light is to monitor its color! More light means more vibrance or color, which means a healthy plant!


SUNLIGHT: Bright, direct sun to medium, filtered light.

WATER: Water weekly or monthly, depending on season and amount of light. Allow potting mix to completely dry out in-between watering. Water more frequently during the warmer months, as the soil dries out quicker, and fertilize weakly during the growing season. (Do not overwater – overwatering will cause this plant to rot! Remember that it is always better to underwater than to overwater.)

HUMIDITY: Not applicable. Regular indoor humidity to dry.

TEMPERATURE: 65°F-90°F (18°C-33°C). It’s best not to let it go below 60°F if possible (15°C).

SIZE: Dependent on species. Can grow slowly, or increase in size in flushes of growth.

P.S. Shop ‘Hen and Chicks‘ houseplants at The Sill here!