Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
The phrase "the right plant for the right place" is one way to think of choosing plants for your landscape. If you choose a plant not quite adapted to a particular space in your yard, you will struggle to get that plant to thrive, and it may not even survive. The same idea applies to houseplants. Some plants are better adapted to the typically low light conditions found indoors. These plants will naturally perform better in your home or office without a lot of extra attention.
One plant that falls into this category is the ZZ plant, Zamioculcas zamiifolia. This plant may be found under other common names such as "aroid palm", "eternity plant" or my personal favorite "fat boy".
The ZZ plant is native to eastern Africa. This part of the world has dry and rainy seasons of the year, and the ZZ plant has adapted to these conditions. The ability to survive drought conditions is one adaptation that also makes the ZZ plant a great houseplant. The plant grows from an underground rhizome that resembles a potato which stores food and water to nourish the plant through tough environmental situations.
The underground rhizome produces large leaves with a fleshy base that may be up to 24 inches long, covered in six to eight pairs of leaflets each up to six inches long. The leaflets are smooth, shiny, and dark green. They look almost unreal. The first time I saw a ZZ plant I thought it was plastic. I also thought it had a very prehistoric look to it. It just seems like something the dinosaurs would have eaten.
ZZ plants seem to thrive on neglect. They prefer to be on the dry side. Overly wet soil may result in decay of the rhizome. They prefer bright, indirect light but will tolerate extremely low light conditions. I read an article recently from a gardener's blog relaying his attempts to kill a ZZ plant, which included leaving it in a dark closet for two weeks. Even after two weeks of complete darkness the plant looked just fine!
Despite its ability to survive deplorable conditions, the ZZ plant will thrive if given appropriate water and light. Just a little supplemental light makes a big difference with the ZZ plant. I first saw the ZZ plant growing in a person's office with absolutely no windows, just the ambient fluorescent light. ZZ plants are the only thing that will grow successfully in this person's office, so they have lots of them.
I mistakenly thought by the number of ZZ plants this person had in her office that they were easy to propagate and fast growing. My assumption couldn't be more wrong! It turns out she just kept buying more of them since they were all that would survive in her office. ZZ plants are actually fairly easy to propagate, but it takes a year or more to start a new plant from a leaf or stem cutting, and several more years to have a plant of significant size.
The propagation method referenced most often is to take individual leaflets and insert them cut end down in fast draining but moist potting mix. In about a year you may be lucky enough to have the beginnings of a new rhizome forming at the base of the leaflet. Often the original leaflet will wither and die, but careful digging will reveal a tiny rhizome where the leaflet used to be. If you are patient enough to attempt this method, use many leaflets to increase your chances of success.
Another method that is a bit quicker is to separate rhizomes from a single pot. Much of the time, ZZ plants for sale actually contain several rhizomes which may be carefully separated. Take care not to damage the rhizomes when separating them as this may encourage rot.
Because they take a long time to propagate, and once they are established grow rather slowly even in great conditions, ZZ plants are often fairly expensive to purchase. It is not uncommon for a plant in a four or six inch pot to cost around $20. But that may be $20 well spent considering how durable and indestructible the ZZ plant is in most indoor environments.