Questions on: Goldfish Plants

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service

Q: I was reading the advice you gave on your Web site about goldfish plants, but I still have a question. I’ve had a goldfish plant for almost a year. This spring, nearly half of its leaves fell off and the plant appears sickly. The strange part is that the leaves that are falling off are still green. Is there anything I can do to save it? (e-mail reference)

A: It is going into a rest period. Let it do so. Keep the soil barely moist for about six weeks, then increase the watering and it should releaf for you.

Q: Is a goldfish plant toxic? (e-mail reference)

A: I don't have it listed as being toxic, but I wouldn’t nibble on it to find out.

Q: I have a problem with my goldfish plant. It has started to die off in little branches and is losing many leaves (mostly dried up and dead). The new growth is coming in with leaves that are curled under and don't look good. I'm afraid I'm going to lose the plant. Is there anything I can do? I know it likes bright light, but in the fall and winter, my window just doesn't provide that. (e-mail reference)

A: With the days getting darker, you should get an artificial plant light to augment what is missing from nature. The plant should get 13 hours of light a day. If there is nothing wrong with the plant, this should push it along to recovery.

Q: My goldfish plant has just started flowering. I’ve noticed little white bugs on the plant that have formed cottony webs inside the buds. What are they and what can I do to get rid of them? I’ve babied the heck out of this plant and I’d hate to lose it now! (e-mail reference)

A: It is difficult to say, but the bugs could be cottony cushion scale or spittlebugs. Take a cotton swab or Q-tip, dip it in rubbing alcohol, and then carefully dab it on the little critters. Try it on a few at first to make sure there is no negative reaction to the treatment. If not, then we have to come up with something that will do the job and not kill the plant, which is probably a systemic.

Q: The new growth leaves on my goldfish plant are mottled with a lighter color, almost as if they were variegated. Some of these leaves are slightly deformed as well or curling under as they grow in. Do you have a guess as to what the problem could be? (e-mail reference)

A: The curling could be from mite or scale presence, a gas leak or ethylene gas given off by adjacent flowers or fruit. Try a close examination to see what you can find.

Q: I have read most of your comments about how to care for a goldfish plant. I bought one in August. It was in full bloom, but the blooms disappeared within two weeks. I hung it in my bathroom, where it gets some indirect light. From my research, I felt it was probably not getting enough indirect light. I put a 60-watt grow light in my bathroom fixture to give it more light. The grow light is about 18 inches away from the plant and I leave it on about 16 hours a day. I am watering the plant when my water meter says the plant is at a medium moisture level. I mist it about twice a week. I’m still trying to figure out a fertilizing schedule and what type of fertilizer to use. (e-mail reference)

A: I never have suggested this before, but I am going to try it with you. The trick, according to all of my references, seems to point toward high humidity around the plant, with frequent misting a common suggestion. Why not use a humidifier in the room during the winter months? This will bring the humidity up from the normal 10 percent to15 percent that home interiors are during the dead of winter. Misting is a nice, but infrequent treat for the plant. Based on its tropical origins, there is no way the continuously high humidity requirements can be met by trying to remember to mist every day, which, even then, I think is inadequate. Give it a try this winter and continue to maintain your other cultural approaches, which appear to be on the mark. Let me know if the plant comes back into flower.

Q: I have a goldfish plant and have made many cuttings from it to share it with friends and family. The cuttings seem to be thriving, but do not bloom! What am I doing wrong? (e-mail reference)

A: Why does everyone assume that they are doing something wrong when the plant doesn’t respond the way they expect? You could be doing everything right and still have it not flower.
Usually the non-flowering of a houseplant is due to one or a combination of factors such as too low a light intensity or duration, inappropriate temperature regime to bring it into flower, over-fertilization with a high nitrogen material, drafts of hot or cold air, inappropriate watering cycles or the plant remaining in the juvenile stage.

Q: My goldfish plant has developed white, cottony looking spots on it. Do I have a fungus? Would spraying with water/dish soap solve the problem? (e-mail reference)

A: It could be a fungus, but I am willing to bet that it is cottony cushion scale at the leaf junctions. If that is the case, insecticidal soap would be somewhat ineffective. For a small number of these pests, I suggest taking a cotton swab and dipping it in rubbing alcohol and rubbing them off. The alcohol will dehydrate the pests, but not hurt the plant.

Q: I have a goldfish plant that I need to repot. Is there a specific type of potting mix I should use and what can I do to avoid transplant shock? Should it be fertilized and, if so, how often? (Email reference)

A: Repot when active growth is beginning and when the roots have consumed or filled the container it is planted in. This is an epiphytic plant (grows above ground) in the wild, so you don’t need conventional potting soil. It can be potted in coarse sphagnum moss or, if you prefer, a combination of sphagnum moss, perlite and vermiculite in equal volumes. Fertilize only when the plant is in an active growth phase, not before. Use a high-phosphorus liquid fertilizer.

Q: I have had a goldfish plant for about 1 1/2 years. The only time that it bloomed was when I first purchased it. I found out that I am supposed to mist the plant every day with distilled water. I’ve been doing for about a month. The plant gets watered once a week and is in indirect light. The room is in a public building so the temperature does not get cold. Since I’ve started misting, the plant is getting rust spots and its leaves are starting to drop. What am I doing wrong? (E-mail reference)

A: You are probably overwatering it. I would back off on both the watering and the daily misting. The presence of rust is an indication that you are doing too good a job of keeping the humidity high. Your building probably has a humidity control system built into it. Try backing off on the watering to every 10 to 12 days and misting two to three times a week to see if that improves the situation. If you can, move the plant to a cooler location at night.

Q: I have a couple of questions about plant propagation. Do you have to let the cut surface of geraniums dry before rooting a cutting? If you cut the tops off of a pepperomia will it send out new shoots from the bottom? Do you have to let the cuts dry before rooting? I have a goldfish plant that I got as a few sticks in a cup. It is now a very full plant with some of the shoots more than 3 feet long. Four of the shoots, probably the original ones, blossomed this fall. If I cut off the long shoots, can I cut them into sections to re-root or will just the tips grow? (E-mail reference)

A: You don’t have to let the geraniums dry before rooting, although it won't hurt if they do dry but not too long. Pepperomia will send out new shoots only if there is a latent bud there and depending on how much of a stub you leave behind. No need to let the cuts dry before rooting. Your goldfish plant should root if the stem has finished flowering. To help the process, add bottom heat and use a rooting powder.

Q: This is my third goldfish plant and hopefully my last. However, I am wondering if it is really a goldfish plant. The flowers are a beautiful orange/yellow (just like candy corn) but the flowers are shaped like fat, plump goldfish, with pursed lips and are not the long Chinese- fighting-fish-looking-flowers. The tag says goldfish but the flowers are not red and elongated like some pictures I’ve seen on the Web. I haven't had much luck with the other two either but it's such a beautiful plant! (E-mail reference)

A: It probably is, since there are numerous varieties of columnea spp. To care for them provide normal warmth, usually room temperature is more than sufficient, and provide bright but indirect light – no direct sunshine. Water sparingly during the winter months. During the rest of the year, keep the media continually moist, mist the leaves frequently with distilled water and repot in late spring every other year. They propagate fairly easily from stem cuttings after flowering has stopped. Dip the end of the stems in rooting powder and use bottom heat to accelerate the process.

Q: I have a goldfish plant that I bought about three months ago. Since then it has always bloomed with increasing amounts of blooms. About a week ago the leaves started falling off. The tops of the stems are also turning black, almost as if they are rotting. I haven't watered it recently ( I thought it might be overwatering), but I mist it about every other day. We have had a recent temperature drop in Atlanta so I thought that was the cause, but it seems to be getting worse. ( Atlanta, G.A.)

A: You were probably overwatering. These plants should be watered sparingly throughout the year. You are correct in assuming that a temperature change could have a negative impact. They are also susceptible to cyclamen mites and aphids. I suggest watering just enough to keep the soil from drying out completely as the plant may have moved into a rest period. Prune off the blackened stem back into healthy tissue. Try to keep it warm and in bright indirect light. If the plant doesn't improve over the next 2-3 weeks, then it is likely a goner and you’re better off dumping it.

Q: I’ve had a goldfish plant for about 3 years. It’s in a south window year round and it does well. It has grown very straggly and falls over the pot. Should I prune this plant? I don't get as many flowers as I would like and certainly not constantly as with some of your other goldfish plant owners. (E-mail reference)

A: Your plant could have one of the mosaic viruses. If you or someone in your family is a smoker, that could be the source of the infection. With viruses, there is no cure, and the plant must be dumped to keep the disease from spreading to other plants which it can easily do. Or, it could simply mean that you are not pampering it enough. These plants are a challenge for even devoted horticulturists to grow, as it has a must do list to keep them thriving: frequent misting to keep the air around the plant moist, keep the soil on the dry side during the winter, keep the night temperature between 55-65 degrees F., and finally, make sure the potting soil is well drained. It should be repotted every two years in the late spring. This is a plant that needs as much indirect light as you can provide, but not direct sunlight.

Q: I have a wonderful large and frequently blooming lipstick plant. My husband just told me about a very similar looking plant called a goldfish plant. I can find very little information about it. (E-mail reference, Chicago, Ill.)

A: This is a common name that is broadly understood to mean Columnea banksii, which is an easy form of this species to grow. They have a list of demands that must be met in order for them to perform satisfactorily. Among them are frequent misting to keep the atmosphere moist around the foliage, compost on the dry side during the winter months, and night time temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees F. If you overwater, botrytis will be a problem. Fertilize at regular intervals in spring and summer, trimming back foliage once flowering is over.

Q: I have had my goldfish plant for a year now. We live in New York, so it stays indoors in direct sunlight and it blooms most of the time. I water it once a week with two 8-ounce bottles full of water. My question is, can you regrow plants from the pruning scraps (like you can with a spider plant)? (E-mail reference, N.Y.)

A: Thanks for giving me your location. Yes, a goldfish plant can be propagated from stem cuttings after it is finished flowering. They will root best if provided with bottom heat and a rooting hormone is used.

Q. I am writing this in response to the person who asked you how to care for a goldfish plant. I have one that I keep in a screened house all summer, and it blooms the whole summer long. It gets a lot of fresh air and I try to keep it watered, but not too much. It seems to do better outdoors than inside. I hope this helps them. (Heola, S.D.)

A. Thank you for your gardening insight on goldfish care. It appears as if you have found the magic button to get this plant blooming.

Q. I have a 2-year-old goldfish plant that is growing good, but it still hasn't bloomed. Am I using the wrong kind of soil or what is wrong? (Pettibone, N.D.)

A. The goldfish plant (Columnea sp.) is a plant that is not easy to care for. It definitely belongs to that group of houseplants that need pampering. Here are the requirements:

Q. Several years ago I bought a small "goldfish" plant. It thrived, displaying forest green oval leaves and orange purse-like flowers.

After bringing it home from the county fair in June, 1996, it began dropping leaves at the slightest touch. It is in the same location as before, but is "woody." The leaves it retains are a nice green, but not as dark as before. The leaves that drop do not discolor before dropping.

I have transplanted it about 10 months ago. I periodically fertilize it. Please advise. No parasites visible.

Goldfish plant is not listed in any plant book I can find. What is its proper name?

I have tried to start rooting slips, but they don't root. How do I cultivate it?

Thank you. (Buchanan, N.D.)

A. The goldfish plant is known as Columnea rubra, and could be one of several cultivars now presently on the market, or a long established hybrid like C. `Alpha,' C. `Banksii,' or C. `Mary Ann.'

All Columneas need bright light, without it being direct sunlight. Some species will require supplemental lighting from fluorescent bulbs to meet the light requirement. I suspect this is the case with yours, based on what you have told me.

The next requirement is high humidity around the leaves, but sparse watering. North Dakota homes in winter have desert-like humidity, another cause for leaf drop.

Being an epiphytic plant—not growing in soil, but in the body of another woody plant or rocks—it should not be in standard potting soil. Try repotting in equal parts sphagnum peatmoss, vermiculite or soil, and perlite or sand.

Columneas are among the more challenging gesneriads, which include African violets and gloxinias.

Thanks for writing.

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