Dear Master Gardener: I didn’t think aloe vera plants flowered, but mine looks like it is getting a flower.

Answer: The aloe vera plant is an easy-care succulent that is native to Africa. It’s great to keep as a houseplant because the gel that comes from its leaves can be used to treat minor burns, sunburn, or skin irritations. As long as you provide a sunny window and don’t overwater, it’s difficult to kill an aloe plant. Plants grown indoors rarely bloom, so if you are going to get a flower you are quite fortunate! When they are grown in tropical climates outdoors, a flower emerges on a stalk from the center of the plant in winter. You can expect a yellow or red flower, depending on the variety.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Dishing on making the perfect dish garden

Dear Master Gardener: It seems poinsettias come in all kinds of colors. Which ones are natural colors and which ones are dyed? Is the plant safe to have around pets?

Answer: Poinsettias, native to Mexico, are the largest selling potted flowering plant in the United States with about $144 million in sales. According to the Random Acts of Flowers organization, more than 35 million potted poinsettias are sold every year in the United States, accounting for almost one-fourth of all flowering potted plants sold. There are more than one hundred varieties of poinsettias that come in various shades of red, pink, white, and cream. Some are even mottled. All other colors are created with dyes. Red is the most popular color and accounts for about three-fourths of all sales. According to the University of Vermont Extension, every state in the United States grows poinsettias commercially with California being the top producer with over six million pots grown, followed by North Carolina with 4.4 million, and Texas with about 3.7 million.

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Like many plants in the Euphorbiaceae family, the poinsettia can ooze a milky sap, so touching the leaves can irritate the skin. For pets, the poinsettia sap may cause mild irritation or nausea. You will probably want to keep your pets from snacking on poinsettia leaves - eating them could bring on vomiting and diarrhea.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Mulch leaves left bare by the disappearing snow

Dear Master Gardener: I am looking for a native shrub that is a bit unusual to plant at the edge of our woods. A neighbor suggested a witch hazel but I know nothing about it. What do you think?

Answer: Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) is unusual because it is perhaps the only native shrub that blooms in the late fall after other deciduous plants have lost their leaves. It is a small understory tree or shrub that is hardy to zone 3, and can reach a height of up to 25 feet, but more commonly grows to 12-15 feet with a spread similar to its height. It has crooked, spreading branches and handsome 3- to 6-inch dark green leaves, similar to hazelnut leaves, which turn bright yellow-gold in the fall. It likes moist, loamy soil but tolerates drier soils, too. The yellow, fragrant, spidery flowers emerge in mid-October and last a month or more, forming a bright spot in the leafless woods. The seedpods are also unusual in that they take a full year to mature then burst open forcibly, shooting their shiny black seeds up to 30 feet away.

Witch Hazel has an interesting history, having been used medicinally by Native Americans and early settlers. An extract distilled from its bark has astringent properties that are used for skin diseases, insect bites and aftershave lotion. The “witch” part of its name comes from its supposed ability to “witch” (find) water with its forked twigs.

This attractive and unusual native shrub would be a good choice for your woods. It is underused, but may not be readily available. If local nurseries don’t carry them, try mail order sources.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Castor bean plants can be a dramatic addition to a garden

Dear Master Gardener: I heard from a friend that if you force paperwhites in vodka the stems will stay shorter. Is this really true?

Answer: Yes, it’s true! Researchers at Cornell University found an effective way to reduce stem and leaf growth of paperwhites. They suggest planting your paperwhite bulbs in stones, marbles, glass beads, etc., as usual. Add water as you normally would, then wait about one week until roots are growing, and the shoot is green and about one to two inches above the top of the bulb. At this point, pour off the water and replace it with a solution of 4-6% alcohol, using just about any “hard” liquor. You can do the calculations to figure the dilution, but as an example, to get a 5% solution from a 40% distilled spirit (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila) you add one-part liquor to seven parts water. Researchers at Cornell suggest 4-6% alcohol as a safe range. If plants are given much more than 10% alcohol, growth problems will start and 25% alcohol is toxic. Do not use wine or beer as the sugars in them will cause major problems with the plants. If you do not have any liquor at home, 70% rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) works just as well -- assuming you can find it during this pandemic. Dilute it to one part rubbing alcohol to 10-11 parts water. Then, use this solution instead of plain water, to water your bulbs. The result will be a plant that is one-third shorter, but with flowers just as large, fragrant, and long-lasting as usual. You can have some fun with your children by doing an experiment having one bowl of bulbs with normal water and the other with alcohol. You may find the difference amazing!

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.