Philodendron erubescens "Pink Princess" is one of the newer introductions in houseplants. It only grows 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It needs several house of bright direct light. Less light will result in less vivid coloring. Does very well under plant lights. ANDREW MESSINGER
One of the many "split leaf" philodendrons. Notice how the splitting varies from leaf to leaf. In homes, the leaves grow about 6 to 8 inches long. In the wild, this tropical vine can have leaves a foot wide and twice as long. This specimen is being grown on a bark totem to keep it upright. Bright light brings out the white variegation; darker settings will result on mostly green foliage. ANDREW MESSINGER
Lemon trees like this Meyer lemon can make great houseplants in bright light. The scent of this plant is magnificent when in flower and the fruits can be as large as a softball. A heavy feeder it will require repotting but it can be tamed to be a smaller shrub in a 3- to 4-gallon plant. It will only flower when there is a 10-degree difference (drop) between the day and night. ANDREW MESSINGER
A single-stemmed fiddle leaf fig (Ficus) in the center. These look great as young specimens, but when pruned as they get taller they tend to send out lateral growth instead of vertical growth. Moderate to low light and they get very tall and often topple. ANDREW MESSINGER
A variegated Ficus decora or rubber tree. White in the foliage is dependent on good lighting while the darker colored varieties do much better in lower light. Available as standards (single stems) or with multiple stems on one pot. These to get tall. ANDREW MESSINGER
Cacti make great houseplants and demand little other than sun. They’ll tolerate cool nights and all will flower when "happy." Very easy on the water and keep young children away as the spines can be an issue. Wrap with newspaper to repot and use a cacti soil. ANDREW MESSINGER
Dracaena marginata in the variegated form (left) and the green species on the right. Sold as single stems and multiple stems in larger pots they tend to drop lower foliage as they get taller. With three canes in one pot the plant can be carefully pruned to make it appear as one lush and dense plant. Tips cut in early summer are easily rooted in moist sand with 3 inches of cane stripped of leaves in the sand. Canes can also be placed horizontally on moist sand or peat moss and each leaf note (cane section) can sprout a new plant. ANDREW MESSINGER
African violets are great houseplants for medium light (no sun) or artificial light. They flower most of the year and are inexpensive and there are miniatures (in the hand) and standards (background). Never water from the top and never leave standing in water. Heavy feeders. ANDREW MESSINGER
Norfolk Island pines make great Christmas trees for apartments, but wherever they are grown they inevitably get too tall and leggy. If allowed they will get 50 feet tall, and they cannot be pruned or shaped. One to stay away from unless you accept the inevitable. ANDREW MESSINGER
Peperomia obtusifolia v. does well in bright indirect light. It prunes well and is a great tabletop or desktop plant. The solid green variety tolerates less light and will grow slower. ANDREW MESSINGER
As I mentioned last week, this is one of the best times of the year to buy houseplants.
Greenhouses and garden shops need to free up space for holiday plants and displays, and many are filled with houseplants they’d love for you to have. The very mild temperatures of the past few weeks is also a big plus. This week, what to look for and what to stay away from.
First, where to buy these indoor gems? The best places are local greenhouses or garden centers that have greenhouses — or garden “rooms.” If they don’t have what you want or if you need a larger-size plant, they can usually order them. They also tend to take much better care of their plants than places like the big box stores and your local supermarket. If you’re looking for more exotic plants than you can find locally then there is Logee’s Greenhouses in Connecticut. Logee’s (logees.com) has plants for beginners up to the most advanced indoor growers, and you can shop online.
One greenhouse that I visited recently had a wide selection of “houseplants.” On the down side, instead of having a care tag in each pot identifying the plant and giving the most basic of care instructions, they merely had plant tags that all said the same thing, “Assorted tropical foliage” and that was it. Not helpful at all, and I noted my displeasure — for all that helped.
One type of “plant store” to shy away from is a local market that has a selection of tropical plants set outdoors on the sidewalk. These tend to get put outside when it’s much too cold, and the proprietors buy these plants from wholesalers who sell them plants that are not well taken care of. At this time of the year, wild fluctuations in outdoor conditions where the plants are put on display can have a very negative effect on the plants. These sun/shade, hot/cold reactions aren’t noticeable until you get the plants. Several days later the leaves begin to drop, or the plant just declines for weeks.
We divide the selections into flowering plants and what we simply call “tropical foliage.” Flowering plants can be as simple as African violets and orchids. Surprisingly, there are those who find African violets to be difficult while others find orchids to be easy. Both can be both if you don’t know what these plants need.
African violets are great for splashes of indoor color in natural or artificial light like under a kitchen cabinet. They’re bought in bloom so you know the color or colors you’re getting. The biggest two issues resulting in their demise at home are overwatering and too much sun. Too much water results in plants that rot. Never water these from the top, always from the bottom. Never let them sit in water for more than 15 minutes, and they will need regular doses of fertilizer (diluted in each watering) while in flower.
In full sun African violets will burn. They thrive in diffuse bright light and adapt incredibly well to undercabinet LED or fluorescent plant lights. They prefer it on the warm side and humid, so they do best in the kitchen or bathroom.
There are so many orchids to choose from these days. They’re sold in flower and budded costing from $15 well into the hundreds. Beware of orchids with “infused” colored flowers as they will never flower in these colors again. Buy orchids in garden centers for the reasons noted above and when in doubt ask for help. Even the cheapest of these should bloom for several months, and nearly all of them can rebloom as long as you have the timing, lighting and feeding right. But for $15 it’s really hard to go wrong. Read up on the variety you buy and on orchids in general. Remember also that none of these orchids should be grown in potting soil. Understand why and you’re well on your way to orchid addiction.
Geraniums also make great indoor houseplants for a sunny window. If you’ve taken cuttings of your garden geraniums, keep them well watered, well fed and pruned. In a sunny window they’ll flower nearly all winter, and in late winter you can root cuttings from them that can be replanted in the garden in late May.
Next there are the “tropical plants,” also referred to in the trade as “tropical foliage.” For the most part these will be Philodendrons, Ficus, palms and the cane plants like Dieffenbachia and Dracaena. I’ll touch on a few more. And don’t forget the cacti for the brightest of locations, and for indoor gardeners with lots of patience, cacti do and will flower.
For many of us our first indoor plant is a Philodendron. They are usually viny plants that are found in warm and humid tropical forests. Some will grow on other trees, with no roots into the soil, while some, like the P. selloum, will grow for many years from a crown before sending out shoots that will try to climb. P. selloum is often purchased in a 10-inch or larger pot and they can quickly need a larger pot and wider area to spread. They require little care other than watering, and like most of the Philodendrons they don’t need bright light or sun.
Philodendrons can also be found with variations in leaf color, size and form, with many having “split” leaves or intricately divided leaves. Some of the climbing types will be attached to bark slabs or wooden stakes, but I saw some tied to PVC pipe that I found very unappealing. You can also find some philos in hanging baskets.
When I refer to “cane plants,” these are tropicals that have vertical canes as their trunks. The “dumb cane” is one such plant. The traditional variety is Dieffenbachia picta, which is native to the tropical Americas. The leaves are usually thin and variegated (with white stripes, blotches or patches) and are sold in pots with one to several canes. The plant sap is toxic. Not great for homes where pets and young children might have access.
The Dieffenbachias don’t need direct sunlight and will grow in bright light to light shade to the side of a bright window. When they get leggy, the canes can be reduced in spring or summer and new shoots will emerge. The cut-off tops can be rooted in sand or fast draining potting soil, and the canes can also be cut, split up the center and laid on moist sand or peat. Each bud eye on the stem will result in a tiny plant emerging that can be cut from the cane.
The other big-selling cane plants are the Dracaenas. This includes the all-time favorite D. marginata that has sword-like leaves of dark green often with red edges. My favorite is D. marginata tricolor which has leaves with green, cream and red or pink colors. It grows much more slowly than the species and is a bit finicky, but great looking when happy.
Also in the Dracaena group is the corn plant, or D. fragrans, which has been popular in Europe for decades. It does get sloppy, though. On the other hand, it’s very easy to grow and does grow fast. It does well or at least it survives for a while in low light.
The Ficus, or rubber plants, is another group of tropical foliage plants that can do very well in our homes. Ficus benjimina is a popular one but is somewhat deciduous and will drop its leaves from time to time, freaking out its owner. It’s natural, and if you can put up with this seasonal change it’s a great plant. Beware that in the wild this is a tree that grows to 50 feet so it needs some pruning and watching. There is a variegated type and some new introductions that are well suited to indoor use.
Other Ficus include the traditional F. decora, which has wide leaves that can get 10 inches long and are rather stiff. Varieties include foliage that has cream, red and even white in them, but the darker foliage types will do better in lower light. The variety “Midnight” comes to mind as it has nearly black leaves. The fiddle-leaf fig has been very popular in the past decade and can make a great houseplant but one that can easily get out of control. It needs pruning, and pruned incorrectly it becomes a mess — quite large and out of control. All of the Ficus will “bleed” when pruned. It’s a white sap and the material rubber is made from.
Palms seem to have been an indoor plant of favor for as long as we’ve had heated homes and sunrooms. Some will grow slowly and do well, but my experience is that the palms are magnets for spider mites and mealybugs, and for this reason I never recommend them. If you’re diligent in cleaning them and watching for insects, one or two in the right spot can work.
The Schefflera, or umbrella plant, has been popular for a long time, but it’s also one of the first houseplants that gets trashed. The foliage can get sloppy; they are difficult to prune and shape. If you are smitten by one consider it to be a visitor as opposed to a long-term resident.
The Crotons (Codiaeum) are usually purchased in small pots or in larger pots with several stems. The foliage can be very striking, and they look incredible in the store. But once home they can become problematic as they are very sensitive to temperature changes. If the furnace or boiler goes down one night — or you leave it outside on a cold night — and the temperature drops down to the 50s, dropped leaves on the floor may not be far behind. The colors are hard to resist though.
Overall I’d suggest buying any of these plants noted above in 4-to-8-inch pots and growing them on. Learn about them by paying attention to their needs and doing some reading. If they do well just pot them up in the spring, and they’ll get bigger. If a few fail make sure it’s a learning experience and move on or try again.
Another group of smaller plants to consider are the Peperomias. For the most part you’ll find these in 4- or 6-inch pots and in various shapes and forms. Most are slow growers and smallish plants that are good for accents around the house. Few to no insect issues but most will resent overwatering and may rot
Got a sunny window that gets a bit cold at night but stays warm and bright during the day? Like to water on a once a week schedule and tend to neglect your plants? Then cacti may be your trick to the plant world. Available in various shapes (barrels to balls to paddles) these can make great plants for the home gardener who wants something different. And yes, they all flower, but it’s the foliage that’s the appeal.
Starting a houseplant collection? Start small and try them all. Find out what works best for you in various indoor locations. Experiment, learn and start small, Most important though, keep growing.
One fine body…