How long can a houseplant be legitimately expected to live?
You probably expect yours to survive at least 2 or 3 years, even more. In fact, when you purchase a houseplant, you probably simply think it will live forever. But did you know that the vendor considers the natural life expectancy of a houseplant to be… 8 weeks? And only 4 weeks in the case of a flowering plant? Decidedly, garden centers and florists are not very confident in the ability of their customers to care for houseplants!
Sadly, this belief – that 8 weeks is the normal lifespan of a foliage plant and 4 weeks, that of a flowering one – can have a negative influence on the success you actually do have with the plant, at least in the medium and long term. That’s because the information the seller gives about caring for your plant is based on his acceptance of a very limited lifespan. Here’s an example:
The label on the rubber plants (Ficus elastica) sold in my local garden center bear a symbol indicating that they can be grown in low light. How reassuring! In most homes, sun is at a premium. How nice to know that I can stick my new rubber plant in a dark corner and expect it to thrive.
However, the rubber plant is not a low-light plant, not if you want it to live a long life. Rather, it needs good light at all times and in fact prefers a few hours of full sun daily. But it can tolerate low light for a lengthy period, well over 8 weeks, before it starts to deteriorate, so the supplier feels justified in sticking a “low light plant” symbol on the label.
Thus the poor rubber plant stuck in that dark corner will hold on, though it won’t thrive, for months, sometimes even up to half a year… but when it finally does use up the last of its stored energy, it will die. Of course, the supplier feels no guilt over this – hey, the plant lasted more than 8 weeks! – but the plant’s new owner is disappointed and probably feels guilty. Where did he go wrong? This is even sadder in that the rubber plant is particularly long-lived: properly maintained, it can thrive in the average home for decades… but not in low light.
Misinformation and Inappropriate Practices
It’s not just a matter of lighting, of course, although you’d be surprised at how few “low light plants” really can live for long periods in the low light. Here are some other bits of misinformation that can be conveyed by suppliers who see houseplants as perishables rather than living organisms:
- If a given plant can tolerate dry air temporarily, the label will likely claim it is adapted to dry air, even if it needs good humidity for its long term survival.
- Carnivorous plants require rainwater or distilled water for their long term survival and will only tolerate tap water for short periods, but the label is unlikely to inform you of this inconvenient truth.
- You may be told to you can water an orchid by placing ice cubes on its roots… but the orchid in question is a tropical plant and such a treatment will eventually kill it… but not within 8 weeks.
- Cactus are often sold in terrariums, yet the high humidity that reigns in a terrarium will eventually cause them to rot… but only 4, 5 or 6 months down the line.
- You may be told that your air plant (Tillandsia) gets all the moisture it needs from the surrounding air and never needs watering… causing a slow but fatal dehydration.
Where to Find the Correct Information
The garden centers that sell houseplants don’t make the labels with misleading information; they just sell the plants as they are shipped to them, misleading label and all. So skip the label and instead ask questions of a real person! There is almost always a trustworthy, knowledgeable gardener on staff who can really give you the correct growing information about the plant you’re interested in.
Websites that claim to have answers to everything are horrible places to find information on houseplants: they generally just parrot the misinformation the original supplier gave. The same goes for any website that seems to see houseplants as elements of interior design. However, there are plenty of good houseplant websites, especially those associated with universities or that are run by people who are obviously plant nuts. You can find trustworthy information there.
And most houseplant books are written by people who are truly passionate about plants and have considerable experience with them, so they also supply excellent information on houseplants. I’ve written many books on houseplants myself and confess to being a plant nut: maybe you can find one of mine?
The Real Life Expectancy of Houseplants
How long can a houseplant really live?
Obviously, there are plants that are naturally short-lived under indoor conditions and you should indeed use them as the seller intended: as short-term decorations. I call them “gift plants” and inevitably they are plants raised in cool greenhouses under high humidity: no one legitimately considers them to be true houseplants. This group includes cinerarias, calceolarias, lilies, hydrangeas, spring bulbs, etc.
Other than these few ephemerals, there is in fact almost no limit to how long most “true houseplants” can live if you give them the conditions they require: good light, good humidity, appropriate watering, etc. People often write me about houseplants they’ve been growing for 20 years or longer and are still thriving.
The oldest indoor plant in the world is said to be an Eastern Cape giant cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii). It has been growing in the greenhouses of Kew Gardens since 1775 and is still in perfect health. Ten to one the original vendor’s label didn’t recommend it as a low light plant!
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I have Philodendron that we bought at a nursery in Barrington Il. in 1976. It has survived seven relocations, one of which left in in unheated storage for three months. We were about to throw it out when my wife noticed the tiniest of shoots. We kept it and it has flourished ever since. Not bad for a 44 year old plant. Not sure how old it was when we purchased it. Could be fifty years old. I keep it in a sunny spot and give it a 12 Oz. bottle of water every Sunday. We intend to leave it in our will.
I have a very large ficus (Benajmina) tree which I’ve had for 20 years. It was large when I got it as a gift so my guess is it’s close to 35 years old or so. It’s in as large a pot as I can find and by now is mostly roots. Very little soil fits in the pot at this point. I do fertilize it when watering with fish fertilizer for nutrients. A few years ago I tried cutting back the roots but they were so big I almost had to use a saw! I was afraid I’d kill it so I chose to leave the roots alone. It’s so large and heavy that it’s almost impossible to handle. It has started dying over the last couple months and I don’t know if there is anything I can do for it at this point. Leaves are dropping like crazy and dying while still on the branches. No bugs are apparent. The little bit of soil I added on the top seems to hold moisture while I know the roots must be dry. Also, we have hard well water which is what I water it with. Is this problematic? When I water it I give it enough that the water drips down into the drip pan so a clogged pot is not the problem. I’m wondering if the tree has just reached its full lifespan and there is nothing more I can do. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks.
My guess is that, over time, the soil has built up such a concentration of mineral salts that the plant simply can’t handle it. If you can wrangle it outdoors (that depends where you live; it’s late in the season for this), do so, then rince the roots again and again to dissolve and remove them. Or if it fits into the shower or the bathtub, do the same. That should help a lot. But you may still need to repot and saw off a lot of roots. Quite a job, but…
I have a dracaena that is 45 years old. My husband bought it right before we met in 1974! We moved many times and it’s still alive. It used to grow to the ceiling and I cut it back many times and it always grew back. It almost died about 10 years ago, but it came back with a little TLC. Now it stays about 10-12″ tall. It’s part of the family!
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So great to find your blog! I’m thrilled to hear about the 240 year old plant. I found you when Googling “How long do ficus trees live?” I have a ficus tree that is 40 years old. It was given as a housewarming gift from my grandparents to my parents when I was little. I grew up with the tree in our living room. When my husband and I married and bought our own house, my parents brought the tree to live with us. It has traveled across the country as we have moved from state to state for my husband’s career, steadfastly gracing our living and dining rooms with it’s presence. It drops leaves and gets sick from time to time, but with a little TLC, pruning and spraying off with the hose, it has always come back. We call it our “Family Tree” and hope to pass it along to our daughter when she grows up and has a home of her own.
Thank you! Can’t wait to get started regrowing my begonia.
Hi – I am soooooo happy I found your site. I have an Alice Faye Begonia that is limp. The leaf ends are shriveling and drying and the stems are drooping badly (think arches). The soil is moist to the touch from top to bottom, haven’t watered in over a week, and it is in a container with drain holes. I tried placing the plant near an East facing window to dry out the soil, but nothing is working – limp like a soggy fry. I live in a house with central heat and air and the temp is normally 73-76.
I’d suggest taking a stem cutting and starting a new plant. I’m assuming the mother plant is suffering from rot and might not recover, but if there is a healthy stem, you might be able to save it.
Thank you. Is there a specific place that I should make my cut. Also, do I let the cut callous over then place it in moist soil or should make the cut an immediately immerse the stem in water?
On begonias, you can cut pretty much anywhere, theoretically between two nodes. No need to let the cutting callus over. I suggest inserting the cutting into slightly moistened regular potting soil, as explained here: https://laidbackgardener.blog/2017/03/06/rooting-cuttings-step-by-step/ And do cover with a transparent dome or other to create a greenhouse environment.
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I have had a tiny flesh-eating plant inside a glass dome (with an opening at the top) for four years. It even grew a large shoot with a flower two years ago and has grown to about six inches tall. Unfortunately, something is killing it and the delicate moss around it. The water seems to have stagnated around it and doesn’t create that steamy environment like before. We live in Oregon and fall is here. The way it’s going, it won’t make it to winter. Any ideas?
I suspect that some sort of fungus has developed in the “soil”. Sometimes they choke out everything alive in their path or make the substrate impervious to moisture. Spores can remain dormant for years and were probably already there in the moss since the beginning, then a slight environmental change can set them off.
I don’t think you’ll have much luck with this, but you could try replanting it in fresh moss after thoroughly cleaning the container.
Here are a few notes I wrote about growing one of the carnivorous plants: https://laidbackgardener.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/no-hamburger-for-the-venus-flytrap/
Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I read your notes and am hooked now. I’ve found out that I have a Drosera capensis which I’ve never fed, so I might start there. Duh. Such beautiful, intriguing tiny plants.
I have a Dracaena that is 37 years old. It was a gift when my father-in-law passed away, and we got attached to it. When it hits the ceiling, I cut that one down and another one shoots up. It is not a beautiful plant at this point, but it is part of the family. 🙂
Congrats! That’s a long time to keep a plant going. Plenty of TLC!
I just bought one what do you recommend me to do to make it last as long as yours?
In case Judy doesn’t see this, I have a dracaena that is over 20 years old and doing fine. I give it medium light, water when the soil is dry to the touch and fertilize occasionally. Average home temperatures are fine. Mine does go outside each summer into a shady spot… and has been cut back severely several times, otherwise it would be too tall.
I think the only one consistent thing is that it has always been near a window to get bright light. I’m sitting here looking at mine and chuckling to think it has lasted this long. Good luck with yours. 🙂