Ask the Master Gardener: Is a snake plant good for a beginner?

Answers this week include: Can fruits grow in this zone? How to care for a hoya plant and what is this affliction on a poinsettia?

An indoor potted plant has upright spikes.
A unique feature of a sansevieria, or snake plant, is its ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen at night.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: I purchased a plant called a snake plant. Is this a good houseplant for a beginner?

Answer: Sansevieria, also known as mother-in-law’s tongue or snake plant, endures when others fail. It’s quite tolerant of neglect — dim daylight, haphazard watering, dry air — it survives. The only way to kill this plant is drowning it with too much water. Sansevieria is a succulent so keep the soil on the dry side. I water mine about every two weeks during the fall and winter and water it a little more in spring when new growth appears. Fertilize it at half-strength no more than once a month during the spring and summer. They like low humidity, which is perfect for our dry, winter homes. A pot-bound, mature plant will send up tall spikes of dainty, white, fragrant blooms.

A unique feature of a sansevieria is its ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen at night. Although all plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, there is a group of plants (one of which is a sansevieria) that have a kind of photosynthesis that releases the oxygen at night. This houseplant is nontoxic.

Dear Master Gardener: Can we grow apricots, cherries, peaches, or plums in this area?

Answer: The tricky part of trying to grow stone fruits here is the trees bloom very early in the spring at a time when temperatures fluctuate a lot. The delicate flowers can be easily damaged by freezing temperatures, which would mean no fruit that year. One thing to keep in mind is that for most fruits you will need to plant at least two trees that are compatible with each other to get fruit. Two apricot varieties that are pollen compatible and have good to very good hardiness ratings for our climate are Scout and Westcot. Westcot is a favorite among serious cold climate apricot growers, but it can be somewhat difficult to find. Peaches love warmth more than the other stone fruits, so trying to grow them in this area is not recommended. Even gardeners growing them in the southern part of Minnesota have marginal success.


Although cherry trees are self-pollinating, you will get better production by having two varieties. Tart cherries have better success in cold climates than sweet cherries. They are beautiful trees with stunning copper bark and dark green, glossy foliage that turns orange in autumn. Evans/Bali is very cold hardy and has large, bright red fruit with small pits that sweeten when left on the tree (assuming the birds don’t get them first). North Star was developed by the University of Minnesota in 1950 and Meteor in 1952 and has fair to very good cold hardiness for our fruit growing zone.

Like tart cherries, plums are the most reliable of the stone fruits for Minnesota gardens, as long as you choose the right variety. The colors of the fruit range from deep purple to red to pale yellow and the flavors also vary. To ensure maximum pollination and good fruit set, most plums need another compatible variety. Toka is the recommended variety for cross-pollination and has a fair hardiness rating for zone 3.

Blackice, a University of Wisconsin release with good cold hardiness, is a dwarf tree with large two-inch fruit that has blue-black skin with deep red flesh. Plum trees developed by the University of Minnesota that have good hardiness ratings for zone 3 include La Crescent, Pipestone and Underwood. Waneta and Pembina, developed in South Dakota in 1913 and 1923 respectively, are also very cold hardy with Pembina possibly being hardy to zone 2. Mount Royal is a prune-type European plum with good hardiness rating for our zone. It is self-compatible and gets about fifteen feet tall. It has blue skin and yellow flesh and is a heavy producer.

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Dear Master Gardener: My mother-in-law gave me a hoya plant that she has had for over 20 years. How do I take care of it and how often does it flower?

Answer: Hoya, also known as wax plant, is an indoor tropical plant that can live forever, has a reputation for being indestructible, and produces fragrant, star-shaped flowers. Both the leaves and flowers of this plant are thick and waxy. The most commonly grown hoyas include the variegated forms of hoya carnosa and hoya bella. Hoyas do not mind being root bound and can be kept in the same container for years, as long as they are fertilized during the spring and summer.

Many sources recommend rarely repotting them. This houseplant is sensitive to too much water, so it is imperative that it be potted in containers with drainage holes and a well-draining potting medium. Allow your plant to dry out completely between watering sessions. Like other easy houseplants, hoyas tolerate low light levels; however, they will grow faster and be more likely to flower under bright, indirect light conditions.

The key factors that trigger a hoya to bloom are age of maturity (yours is definitely mature at over 20 years of age), having the plant in bright indirect light and keeping it root-bound. Fertilizing your plant with a balanced fertilizer during active growth (spring and summer) may also induce flowering. When your hoya is done blooming resist the urge to remove the spent blooms, as subsequent blooms will reappear from those same spots in following years.

Dear Master Gardener: The poinsettia I bought for Christmas is dropping leaves and has what looks like small patches of cotton where many of the leaves attach to the stem. What is going on?


Answer: It sounds as if you are experiencing an attack by one of the most common plant insects, mealybugs. They are tiny, pale insects whose females and egg sacs are covered with a white, waxy substance. Although mealybugs have legs, they are sluggish and move very little. They tend to congregate in groups, like small wads of cotton, in leaf axils and on the undersides of leaves.

They suck plant sap, causing stunted and distorted growth and leaf drop. They excrete a substance called honeydew that sometimes encourages sooty mold fungi. In addition to poinsettias, mealybugs are attracted to other plants such as philodendrons, coleus, ficus, jade, hoya and cactus. Because the waxy substance on mealybugs repels pesticides, chemical control is difficult. Fortunately, handpicking can eliminate small infestations, as does “painting” the bugs with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.

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 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.

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