Q: To boost my winter morale, I’d like to get a low-maintenance potted tree that does well indoors and produces lots of fragrant flowers (not a gardenia, which seems to be fussy). Is this too much to hope for? — Larry Gyer, Raleigh, N.C.
A: Small trees that flower abundantly indoors without much fuss are few and far between. One of the best is Brunfelsia australis, called yesterday-today-and-tomorrow because its 2-inch blossoms change color from purple to lavender-blue to white over the course of a few days. Sweet-scented flowers appear continually from late winter into spring, a welcome antidote to cabin fever. Brunfelsia needs plenty of direct sun to bloom well (as does almost any houseplant if it is going to flower); otherwise, it’s undemanding. Let the soil surface dry out between waterings, and don’t worry about repotting; it is rarely necessary. Even a small brunfelsia — most plants are sold when barely 8 inches tall — usually blooms the first season. In several years you’ll have a 3-foot tree, which you can easily prune (after flowering) to keep it at that height or to emphasize a particular shape.
If you don’t see a place for purple or lavender-blue flowers inside your house, there are other small, low-maintenance trees that bloom readily in other colors — if you can give them a spot with plenty of light. So-called African gardenia, Mitriostigma axillare, is much easier to grow than the true gardenia, Gardenia augusta. The white flowers it bears intermittently, all year round, have a heady fragrance reminiscent of jasmine or orange blossom. Each flowering branchlet can generate buds for three years, so go slow with the pruning shears. Prune off side shoots to keep it treelike. Speaking of oranges, a genuine citrus tree is also pretty easy to tend indoors. The glossy leaves are attractive, and there are almost always a few aromatic white flowers. Calamondin and kumquat are the best because their miniature fruits are in scale with the tree. Banana shrub, Michelia figo, has 2-inch, creamy minimagnolia blossoms that smell like its namesake fruit. Though a few flowers open every season, the most lavish show occurs in late winter and in spring. My last pick, Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt,’ may already be a fixture of your summer garden. The least finicky of all fuchsias, this cultivar has become a popular container plant. Bring it indoors, prune side shoots to define a “trunk,” and the branches will produce scarlet-orange trumpets all winter.