The houseplant market is hot! Sources report a thirty to fifty percent increase in houseplant sales during 2020, and a large portion of the shoppers are beginners. In a time of limited social gathering, quarantines, and more people than ever working from home, plants provide oxygen, beauty, and an interesting, affordable, and easily managed activity. Like outdoor gardening, tending indoor plants reduces stress and adds a comforting sense of connection with nature, especially in winter.
Doing well with houseplants doesn’t require advanced study, but it does require some basic understanding of what keeps a plant alive and healthy—that’s half the battle. The other half involves choosing plants that thrive in the light, humidity, and care you can offer. Plant death or disappointing performance is almost never the fault of the plants or suppliers. Most plant failures are the result of choosing plants that can’t possibly thrive in your home. If you follow a few guidelines, you won’t be disappointed.
Ten unfussy houseplants (and what they want)
Not all plants are alike, but they all require basic things: light, water, growing medium, a survivable temperature range, and some degree of humidity. (For greater detail on houseplant requirements, go to buffalospree.com and search “winter survival guide for houseplants.”)
With a reasonable amount of accommodation, these plants will give back much more that the little effort they require.
The ZZ Plant
With that botanical name, you can see why it’s called simply “ZZ.” Its needs are equally simple. Water it only when the soil feels very dry. Give it some light without burning it in direct sunlight. Even in darkish offices or houses, the emerald palm is dependably green and pretty, and among the most tolerant and hard-to-kill plants.
The spider plant offers many advantages, including easy care and tolerance for low light. It multiplies easily and some gardeners use it as an annual in containers or as edging for outdoor flower beds.
Prayer plants (Calathea) and Radiator plants(Peperomia)
Both come from tropical climates, meaning they like generous light, warmth, and some humidity. Both are pretty, many with multi-colored leaf patterns.
Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera)
By now, this beauty has finished flowering and is fresh on plant-lovers’ minds. (Similar plants are the Easter and Thanksgiving “cacti,” and none of them is an actual cactus.) The common name probably popped up because they require only minimal watering and moderate light. The trick to make them flower: keep them outside in late summer or early fall (protected from heavy rain) so they get chilled. Take them in before a frosty night. Buds will be set by then, and they will flower.
Several kinds of palms do well in our homes, with minimal requirements, but read the instructions as they have individual preferences. (They may not be entirely as easy as other plant types, but their graceful, traditional appearance is irresistible for many decorators.) The Parlor palm (Chaemaedorea elegans) hails from Victorian times, and tolerates remarkably poor light, but you must supply some humidity. Do not overwater. The Ponytail palm is actually a succulent, and requires very little water; bright light is preferable, but it survives darkish periods too. Fertilize rarely if ever. The Areca palm is similar to other palms in preferring indirect light and sensitive watering: more in the growing season and very little in fall and winter.
Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)
Can you guess from the name how tough it is? A survivor of Great Grandmother’s dark old parlor, it accepts what you give it—unless you are too generous with the water.
Money Tree (Pachira aquatica)
This very trendy plant has the advantage of flexible stems that you can braid. In some cultures, it is believed to bring luck, positive energy, and money—and that can’t hurt.
Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)
This orchid should dispel the belief that orchids are difficult. It often blooms for two months every six to twelve, in comfortable temperatures and average home lighting. Key to success: read the labels. It doesn’t grow in soil or potting mix; it must have bark, clay pellets, or sphagnum moss. Overwatering is the killer, so ensure complete drainage and drying out before dampening the growing media.
With everybody cooking at home, it’s smart to have this plant nearby: the sap soothes burns. It’s also an easy plant for beginners, tolerant of bright light or partial shade, and its fleshy leaves hold moisture for long periods. Grow in light (sandy) soil mix, and water rarely, preferably when half of the soil mix is dry. It is a fast grower.
False Shamrock/Purple Shamrock
This is one of the unfussiest of all plants in home conditions. Just give it bright, indirect light, and water when the soil feels dry. A sweet feature is the nightly closing of the leaves and flowers.
Other easy, non-toxic, plants for indoors
Air plants (Tilandsia) only require light to hang around in, and a water bath weekly.
African Violets (Saintpaulia) are trending again. Don’t over-water, and keep out of direct sunshine.
Hindu Rope Plant (Hoya carnosa compacta) is stunning when it flowers, and it’s undemanding; just supply decent, indirect light.
Swedish Ivy and other Plectranthus are not true ivies, just vining, easy going plants.
Poinsettias are not toxic, despite rumors, and you can enjoy this holiday plant for many months if you water evenly, don’t overheat it, and keep it out of drafts.
Zebra Plant (Haworthiopsis fasciata) is colorful, small, and likes dry air.
Houseplant troubles—what could go wrong?
We can list easy-care plants and offer you a Houseplant Survival Guide, but plants are living things and may present some problems.
• Most indoor plants die because of too much or too little watering. Only a few require constant moisture; most benefit from drying out before the next watering. Do not water on a schedule, but according to the plants’ needs.
• Light is in short supply in most homes in winter. Add artificial lighting.
• Our homes often feel drier than deserts; add humidifiers or trays of water under the plants (without letting them sit in the water).
• House temperature can be all wrong for some plants. The kitchen window might be too cold for begonias and coleus; they like seventy degrees Fahrenheit, and higher in the daytime. But others, such as clivia and flowering maples, want to be cooler, especially at night.
• Stressed plants are the first to experience pests or diseases. Improve their conditions and problems become rarer.
As we do in late winter, many houseplants get tired of dark days, overheated rooms, and dry, indoor air. Those conditions cause plant stress, and stressed plants develop characteristic problems (usually by March). Some develop scale, mealybugs, or white flies, and others show leaf spots or other symptoms of fungi. One wonders: where on earth did these come from? Occasionally pests do travel into the house on new plants, but usually the eggs or pupae or spores were just waiting in the soil or under the leaves. I think of these surprise problems as unwanted miracles, and then take the minimum steps to get those plants through two more months until it’s time to move them outside for the summer.
If you see evidence of a pest or disease, start with basic steps:
1) Identify the problem. Most troubles are because of light, watering, dryness, or temperature. Many land-grant colleges such as Cornell have great problem-solving websites with pictures.
2) Check the species’ needs and required growing conditions, and try changing the plant’s location or your care.
3) Keep infested plants away from healthy plants (although most diseases and many pests are species-specific.)
4) Wash the pests off in a sink or shower, or use rubbing alcohol on a swab to clean the leaves.
5) Remove and discard damaged leaves, including those that fell around the base of the plant. Sometimes a haircut or pruning is due.
6) Repotting is often recommended as winter wanes; if the problem is in the soil, fresh potting mix, and trimming or washing the roots may correct many ills.
7) Organic pesticides or horticultural oils, labeled for indoor houseplant use, may be necessary, but choose them only after correct identification of the problem—if they are labeled for that problem. Pesticides used “just in case” are never the answer; the cure can be much worse than the disease.
8) There is a time to discard a seriously troubled or troublesome plant. That’s what compost piles are for.
Most problems go away once the plant feels warm air and sunshine again. (May that be true for us all.)