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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

"Indestructible" Houseplants


This summer's heat coupled with the associated watering restrictions in Decatur may have some of us thinking of indoor gardening sooner than expected this fall. If you have never grown houseplants, this is the perfect week to start. September 16-22, 2012 is designated as "National Indoor Plant Week", encouraging people to connect with nature by using houseplants in their homes and offices.

Indoor plants are proven effective at purifying the air. NASA has done extensive studies to identify plants that might be effective for keeping living quarters in space stations healthy for extended periods of time. They found that different houseplants were more efficient at eliminating different indoor pollutants. They showed that three pollutants commonly given off from new construction, benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene could be removed from the air by plants. Interestingly, they found that no plant was effective at removing tobacco smoke from the air.

Benefits from indoor plants are not limited to the air we breathe. Multiple studies have shown that exposure to nature, even a houseplant, has positive effects on reducing stress, increasing productivity and restoring the mind. Richard Louv wrote about nature's benefits to children in his book "Last Child in the Woods" and his Children and Nature Network provides updates on the latest research about this hot topic at: www.childrenandnature.org.

The benefits of keeping houseplants are clear. If you have a successful outdoor garden, you should be able to garden indoors just as well, right? Not always. I have had even experienced, accomplished gardeners lament to me that they can't keep houseplants alive. There are a lot of factors that contribute to success with houseplants, but just like our outdoor landscapes, choosing the "right plant for the right place" is important. Depending on your situation, choosing houseplants that can survive a fairly wide range of indoor conditions, so called "indestructible" houseplants, may be just the strategy to turn your brown thumb a shade of green. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Pothos or Devil's Ivy (Epipremnum aureum)
    • Native to the Solomon Islands, tolerates wide range of light levels, though in low light leaves will lose variegation
    • Extremely "brown thumb" resistant–will tolerate a lot of neglect and poor cultural practices.
    • Easy to propagate–cuttings root easily in water
  • Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)
    • A native of Central and South America, tolerates low light, but growth slows dramatically. Too much light inhibits their white, long-lasting blooms
    • Another "brown thumb" resistant plant–performs well in average temperature homes, cool temperatures increase likelihood of problems with crown rot
    • May be propagated by division. Roots may be tough, so a serrated knife will help the division process.
  • Mother-in-law's Tongue or Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)
    • Native to Africa, cream to yellow variegations reminiscent of a snake
    • Probably the most "brown thumb" resistant plant of all–many dead-looking plants will miraculously revive when proper care resumes
    • Repotting is seldom necessary, since roots are sparse and plant looks best when allowed to crowd the pot
  • Arrowhead Vine (Syngonium podophyllum (Nephthytis))
    • Native to Mexico and Central America, related to climbing philodendron
    • Performs well in average home temperatures and bright filtered light. Fertilize only in summer.
    • New plants can be easily propagated from cuttings. Overgrown, leggy plants may be cut back severely to encourage lush new growth.
  • Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
    • Native to South Africa, common name comes from long, thin leaves emerging from a central point, plus "babies" borne on long stems
    • Prefers cool to average home temperatures, but will tolerate warmer temperatures. Roots have evolved to store water, making it very tolerant to inconsistent watering practices. Fluoride in tap water will turn leaf tips brown. Use distilled or rainwater to prevent tip browning.
    • Spider plant "babies" are easily propagated simply by planting in their own pot.
  • Dracaena
    • Another native to Africa, a wide variety of sizes, shapes and unique variegations are available
    • Enjoys average home temperatures and low to medium light
    • Many plants will lose lower leaves as they mature. If the plant becomes overly spindly or ragged-looking, stems may be cut back severely to encourage new growth. New growth may take weeks to emerge. Water sparingly until new growth is apparent. Stem cuttings may be used for propagation.
  • Purple Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina)
    • Native to Mexico and Guatemala, thrives in high light and high temperatures–great choice for a sunny patio or sun room
    • Looks its worst in the winter months, often stems lose lower leaves and lose much of their beautiful green, white, and purple coloring.
    • Many people cut their plant back severely in the spring or start an entirely new plant each summer. Stem cuttings root extremely easily, in water or planted directly in soil.
  • Philodendron
    • Native to South American rain forests, can be found as a vine, tree, or shrub
    • Very tolerant of low light, but not low temperatures. Provide average temperatures to discourage root rot.
    • Provide a resting period by watering only just before soil is completely dry in winter.
  • African Violet (Saintpaulia sp.)
    • Each species native to a specific, unique region of East Africa. Wide range of colors and sizes available. Propagates easily from leaf cuttings, and often the new plant looks entirely different from the parent plant due to mutations in the leaf tissue.
    • Plants thrive in average home temperature and light. Water with tepid water, never cold. Water from below by setting pot in shallow bowl or saucer until soil is evenly moist. Watering from above increases likelihood of crown rot, and cold water on leaves will cause brown spots.
    • Mealybugs are a common pest. They resemble bits of cotton and like to hide on the underside of leaves or along the main stem. Using a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol, dab each mealybug to eliminate them. Repeat as necessary, as mealybug eggs will continue to hatch and develop after the first treatment. If a plant is severely infested, the best choice is to discard the plant if you have other houseplants, especially African violets. Mealybugs do travel, and heavy infestations are hard to remedy, even with diligent treatment.
  • Umbrella Plant (Brassaia actinophylla (Schefflera))
    • Native to Queensland, in northeast Australia. Loved for its shiny, palmate, deep green leaves that may be variegated, and may grow to ten inches across!
    • Average home temperatures and light are preferred, though the umbrella plant can tolerate lower light or hotter temperatures. Mealybugs and scale are common pests, and hard to eradicate because of numerous leaflets and crevices they can hide in. Treat mealybugs as detailed for African violets. Scale insects look like hard, round, cream to brown colored bumps along stems, and particularly on the underside of leaves. Spray with a solution of insectidical soap to eliminate them–the soap can penetrate the hard shell of these insects. Insecticidal soap is also appropriate treatment for mealybugs. Again, repeated treatments will probably be necessary, and heavy infested plants are best discarded.
    • A rule of thumb for umbrella plants: in general, if it is not a dwarf variety, the bigger the pot, the bigger the plant.


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