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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: Why tulips don't return, and Jerusalem cherry care

The green leaves of tulip plants.

The green leaves of tulip plants. Credit: Dreamstime

DEAR JESSICA: About 10 years ago I planted over 100 tulip bulbs on the property around my house. They were beautiful until I made the mistake of pulling out the dying flowers as they began to droop. Ever since then, I get only leaves in the spring. Is there anything I can do to bring back the flowers?Risa Chain, Port Washington

DEAR RISA: You didn't do anything wrong. Removing dying flowers has no bearing on whether tulips or other bulb plants return and bloom in subsequent years. You might have heard, however, that removing foliage will adversely affect them — and that's correct. Leaves left behind when flowers fade continue to photosynthesize. That means they soak up the sun (and water) and use it to produce food that will help the bulb survive winter and store energy to produce flowers the next spring. Removing green foliage and expecting tulips in spring is akin to expecting your car to run with an empty gas tank. Not going to happen.

In your case, I'm confident that your flower removal was 100 percent coincidental to your subsequent bloomless tulips. Let me explain: Tulips are wonderfully reliable, repeat-blooming perennials — in say Nepal or Iran, where the summers are desert hot and the winters are arctic cold. Here, however, even under the best of conditions, they simply aren't. Even in the Netherlands, where most tulips on the market originate, they're put through a vigorous climate simulation process to multiply for commercial dissemination.

Tulips outside their native habitat practice what accountants call "diminishing returns." They bloom beautifully the first year, then, whether you notice it or not, produce slightly fewer flowers each year until you wake up one spring morning and wonder where the party went.

Don't blame yourself. It's simply time to dig them up and plant more. Or, if you're not up for repeating the process, consider daffodils. Not only do they return reliably every year, they even multiply. For  best results, plant them in a sunny spot, water as needed and fertilize weekly with a 10-10-10 product all summer long.

DEAR JESSICA: We enjoy reading the feedback and advice you give to Newsday readers in the Sunday paper. We have learned quite a bit, and today we have a question for you: Early this fall, while on our daily walk, the elderly father (who speaks no English) of a Korean family that recently moved onto our block graciously gave us this plant. It has lots of red fruit that resemble a cherry tomato. The plant is doing well in our kitchen window (north side of the house) and with its red fruit, has been a perfect decoration for the holiday season. Any idea what kind of plant this is and what we should do to take care of it? Your expertise is very much appreciated. — G. Petsche, Huntington Station

DEAR G.: You are correct that, upon first glance, your plant resembles a cherry tomato. But looking closely reveals different foliage, as well as a strong, upright habit inconsistent with tomato plants. In addition, each fruit is held upright individually, as opposed to in the pendulous clusters typical of cherry tomato plants.

What you have is a Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), sometimes called "winter cherry" or "Christmas cherry" for its festive appearance, as you pointed out. The shrubby evergreen belongs to the same Solanaceae family as tomatoes (and peppers, eggplant and deadly nightshade). However, its fruit is strictly ornamental and should not be eaten, as the entire plant is toxic. Take care to keep it away from children and pets.

For optimal health and performance, the plant should be placed in a spot where it will receive full sun, and don't allow the room temperature to rise above 72 degrees, or fruit and foliage may drop. In spring, after the fruit has dropped, prune the plant back hard. Don't worry, this will stimulate more growth.

You can move the plant outdoors around Memorial Day and leave it there all summer, but it must be brought back indoors in September. If you choose to do this, don't just put it outside all at once. Instead, as with all houseplants that are moved, gradually acclimate it to the outdoors by placing it in a shady spot for one hour on a day in late May, then bring it indoors and set it back outside for two hours the next day. Increase outdoor time by one hour per day for a week before leaving it out for the season. This is called "hardening off" the plant and will prevent it from going into shock.

During the growing season, fertilize the plant with a liquid 5-10-5 product every two weeks. It will produce white flowers, which will develop into more fruit the following fall and winter. If you keep the plant indoors over summer, you'll need to help with pollination. This is easily accomplished either by giving the pot a gentle shimmy every day while in bloom or taping a cotton swab to the center of each flower, which will transfer pollen from one to the next.

With proper care, your gifted plant not only may last a lifetime, but may become a family heirloom. I reported back in September that reader Joyce Fedorowski of Rocky Point has a 102-year-old Jerusalem cherry that has been passed down from her grandmother to her mother and then to her. Good luck!

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