When you visit any garden center or even one of those big box stores, there is always a houseplant section, but, most discouragingly, they all sell essentially the same plants. However when you visit people’s homes, you’ll often see houseplants that are never (or hardly ever) offered in local garden centers. If you ask about them, you’ll likely to hear a long and fascinating story, for many of these commercially unavailable houseplants have been handed down in the same family for generations, came from a cutting offered by an old friend or were picked up in a flea market or at a plant exchange.
Most of these hand-me-down plants used to be grown commercially, but disappeared from the market ages ago. Why? My theory is that, because they are practically unkillable and they are already found in so many homes, they were no longer marketable. Either that, or plant nurseries have simply so totally forgotten about them that they don’t even know they exist. Ask around the next time you’re in a nursery and you’ll see. These plants are commercially extinct.
Ask whether anyone has one at your local horticultural society meeting, however, and it’s an entirely different story: hands will fly up! These plants are all immensely shareable and therefore you’ll soon find inundated in cuttings and divisions.
For me, for a houseplant to be a true hand-me-down, it has to have been around for a long time: at least 30 years. And it should be absent from regular garden centers. That’s why I automatically eliminate the spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum ‘Vittata’) from the list, even though yours may actually be a hand-me-down. There is no real sense of saving it for further generations, as it is still widely available from just about every plant merchant. The same goes for the famous heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, generally known by its former name, P. scandens oxycardium). It was introduced in 1936 through the Woolworth store chain and, while it may be that you think the specimen you inherited from your great aunt Elise is at least 70 years old, it’s also quite likely she bought it in 2002, so widely is this plant still available. And the same goes for the various dracaenas (Dracaena spp.), pothos (Epipremnum aureum), rubber trees (Ficus elastica), jades (Crassula argentea), wax plants (Hoya carnosa), clivias (Clivia miniata), dieffenbachias (Dieffenbachia spp.) and so many others. Yes, possibly you can trace your plant back as far as Noah’s Ark, but if it is still commonly sold, it is not of any great historical value.
A Few Hand-me-down Plants
What follows are examples of houseplants that truly have been passed from one generation to another for a long time and are almost never offered commercially any more, at least that is outside of mail order nurseries specializing in ususual houseplants. When you have one of these plants, you almost have a moral obligation not only to keep it going, but to ensure its continued survival by sharing it with others.
Three Begonias with a Long History
Let’s start with begonias, as so many of them fall into the hand-me-down plant category.
The beefsteak begonia (Begonia x erythrophylla) is among the first hybrid begonias ever produced, introduced in Germany in 1845. With its shiny, waxy, rounded leaves of a delicious red wine color, its pink flowers during the winter (when you need flowers the most!) and its somewhat pendant habit due to creeping rhizomes that come to hang down outside of the pot, it makes an excellent choice for hanging basket.
Begonia ‘Immense’ (B. x ricinifolia ‘Immense’) is certainly aptly named. With its large green somewhat asymmetrical star-shaped leaves that can measure up to 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter, this 1847 hybrid stands out from the crowd. Equally curious are the whorls of hairy red scales that swirl around the petiole (leaf stem). It produces a thick creeping rhizome and blooms in the winter, producing clusters of small pale pink flowers.
These first two begonias can be propagated by rhizome cuttings, but also by leaf cuttings and even leaf section cuttings, making sharing them extra easy.
The original angel wing begonia (Begonia ‘Lucerna’ [‘Corallina Lucerna’]) was hybridized in Switzerland in 1892 and is still widely distributed… at least non commercially. With its upright stem, its wing shaped leaves prettily spotted with silver and its drooping bright pink flowers in summer, it doesn’t look much like its cousins. This begonia is propagated by stem cuttings.
There are more hand-me-down begonias out there: begonias are truly a group of plants with staying power!
The walking iris (Neomarica northiana) is also called the apostle plant, as it is said that each segment must have 12 leaves before it will flower. It was introduced in the 1920s. It is indeed an iris relative and certainly looks the part, with its sword-shaped leaves and its short-lived blue and white flowers with the usual iris standards and falls. The flowers seem to emerge directly from a leaf that continues to grow in length after the blooms stop. Eventually a baby plant forms near the end of the stem, pulling the stem downward and making it a very curious hanging plant. I regularly see this plant in people’s homes, but almost never in garden centers.
You rarely see this bromeliad (Billbergia nutans), with its tight rosettes of very narrow, almost grasslike leaves growing in dense clumps, other than in botanical gardens… and private homes. In the 1930s, however, it was a very popular Christmas plant because it blooms naturally at just the right season. And it is a tough-as-nails plant, easily tolerating almost the entire range of indoor growing conditions. It bears pendant stems covered in bright pink bracts while the actual blooms drip down as if they are crying, giving its common name queen’s tears. The flowers are not as colorful as the bracts, being a more mundane green with deep purple margins.
This is a great plant for people who want to try bromeliads, but aren’t patient enough to wait the 3 to 6 years most take to rebloom. Queen’s tears produces a mass of pups and matures rapidly, so there always a few plants in bloom every year just in time for Christmas. The numerous pups also means it can readily be multiplied for exchange purposes.
The True Christmas Cactus
The true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) merits a mention as a hand-me-down plant as it hasn’t been offered in garden centers for half a century. What you’re seeing in bloom at Christmas in garden centers are Thanksgiving cacti (S. truncata) that were specially treated so they would bloom at Christmas. You can learn how to distinguish between the two here.
The true Christmas cactus is not much appreciated in garden centers, as its distinctly hanging stems make it hard to ship (the more upright stems of the Thanksgiving cactus are much easier to manipulate), so it can be hard to find. However, I know lots of people who grow the real thing in their living rooms and have done so in some cases for over 40 years.
Including this plant of the list of hand-me-downs is a bit risky because there are so many look-alike ferns on the market, all cultivars deriving from Nephrolepsis exaltata or other Nephrolepis species. However, today’s modern clones are smaller, more compact plants than the true Boston fern, Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’. This plant becomes quite a monster, from distinctly arching medium green fronds to over 3 feet (1 m) in length, dripping downward like a cascade. It also produces dozens of thin green hairy rhizomes that dangle below the foliage like so much vegetable spaghetti. The original was introduced in 1894 and was the classic plant for the parlor, that room once found in every middleclass home and used solely for receiving distinguished guests… and funerals. You can still finds huge specimens of this fern in private homes, but also in churches and convents. Traditionally it was always placed on a pedestal, but it also looks great as a hanging plant.
Another plant seen in botanical gardens and private homes, but never in garden centers is the screw pine. (Pandanus veitchii). It’s actually a Polynesian tree introduced by Veitch Nurseries in England towards the end of the 1800s. Indoors, it forms a rather large plant with arching linear leaves of a waxy appearance, with small sharp hooks at the margin and on the underside of the leaf. The leaves are striped green and white. Over time the plant produces pretty impressive aerial roots and a profusion of babies emerging from its base and poking out through its foliage. I often see this big plant in people’s windows when I take my nightly constitutional.
Mother of Thousands
This upright succulent plant (Kalanchoe daigremontiana, formerly Bryophytum daigremontianum) bears its name well, as its long, thick triangular leaves are lined in dozens of tiny plantlets… and yes, maybe even thousands! It’s also called Mexican hat plant (even though it is from Madagascar), life plant and alligator plant. The plantlets fall off at the slightest touch and root in neighboring pots. Thus, the plant’s owner always has dozens to offer visitors. Garden centers don’t appreciate its naturally invasive habit (after all, imagine the weeding they’ll need to do as the plantlets start to move into and overtake the other plants in the section!). Although absent from garden centers, it is still commonly grown in many homes. Give this tough-as-nails plant plenty of sun and let it dry between waterings and you’ll find it easy to grow. But you too may come find its weedy habit a bit annoying!
There are several other kalanchoes that produce the same kind of plantlets, but K. daigremontiana is the traditional hand-me-down variety.
Have I missed a few essential hand-me-down houseplants? After all, what is common in one area might not be in another, so that is quite possible. If so, let me know and if I agree with you, I’ll update this blog.
Can’t Find Them?
Yeah, well there’s the rub: by very definition, hand-me-down plants just aren’t commercially available. As mentioned above, ask at your local horticultural society. Also look in flea markets and of course, at plant exchanges. Or visit grandma: she just might have one.
Among the few mail order nurseries that carry some of these plants are Glasshouse Works, Logee’s Greenhouses and Top Tropicals, all in the US. Canadians will need an import permit (from the federal government) and a phytosanitary certificate (supplied by the nursery) in order to import them.