15 Not-So-Easy Houseplants

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This peace lily (Spathiphyllum) is suffering from chronic underwatering: a typical problem with this species. It’s not as easy to grow as many people claim. Source: http://www.gardeningknowhow.com

In preparing yesterday’s article, 15 Easy Houseplants for Beginners, I, of course, took a look at other websites to see what they suggested. (No, that’s not plagiarism: it’s called “research!”) But I must admit I was surprised by some of their suggestions, sometimes even horrified!

After all, the purpose of writing such a piece is to showcase indoor plants that are particularly easy to grow, ones that even the most fledgling gardener could grow without difficulty. But these other lists included plants that I would never have thought to include among easy-to-grow plants, plants whose flaws rather make them a challenge to keep alive unless special precautions are taken. In fact, plants I would normally warn people about.

Let’s take a look and see.

Why Do These Not-So-Easy Plants Fail?

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Good light is very rare in most homes, leading plants to suffer from etiolation, like this unfortunate Aloe vera. Source: laidbackgardener.com

Sometimes the problem is simply that the plant needs really good light. I would never recommend such a plant as an easy-to-grow houseplant, not considering the horrible indoor lighting conditions most people have. Even fairly experienced indoors gardeners tend to overestimate the quality of light they have available to them. Imagine beginners!

The average dwelling is not a greenhouse, with light from above and on all sides. In most rooms, it only comes from one side, through a vertical window. And most readers of this blog live in temperate climates, where sun may be fairly abundant indoors in the summer, but miserably lacking in winter, what with short days and weeks of cloudy conditions. So even right in front of your largest window, there is often not enough light for many plants, especially if it’s on the north side of our home (in the Northern Hemisphere, that is). Imagine what conditions are like in the back of the room! That’s why, in my opinion, only plants that can tolerate low light can be considered easy-to-grow houseplants.

And they must also be not only capable of putting up with low light, but of doing for long periods. This belief that some many commercial nurseries seem to have—that 8 weeks is an acceptable lifespan for a houseplant (see The Life Expectancy of Houseplants) and therefore that a plant that can last 8 weeks in near darkness can be classified as a low-light plant—is just nonsense! According to my way of thinking, to be shade-tolerant, it always has to be able to grow and even thrive in shade, not just for a few weeks, but years.

In other cases, not-so-easy houseplants are too sensitive to dry air for the average home, too subject to insects or diseases, naturally short-lived or have special requirements that go beyond regular maintenance and thus complicate their care. If you can’t just resume a plant’s care by saying “put it in your living room and water it when its soil dries out,” it’s not an easy-to-grow houseplant.

15 Not-So-Easy Houseplants

Here are 15 indoor plants that appear on other people’s list of easy houseplants. In general, no, they aren’t extremely difficult to grow, at least not for a gardener with experience, but, for one reason or another, you just can’t expect a beginning gardener to succeed with them.

1. Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’ and other cultivars)

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Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata cv). Source: http://www.amazon.com

This fern tolerates dry air better than most other ferns, which is great, but is far less tolerant of shade. In fact, it really only does well when put in a pretty sunny location … and that’s not what most people do.

The Boston fern used to be a far easier houseplant before the middle of the last century, one our grandparents often grew to astounding sizes. What changed? Our indoor environment! We heat our homes more, yet this plant likes a cool winter. As a result, it often gets smaller and thinner over time instead of plumping up like a happy houseplant should do.

2. Bromeliads (Aechmea, Guzmania, Tillandsia, Vriesea, etc.)

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Various bromeliads. Source: www.orchardnursery.com

These plants are totally charming and can last for months in a typical house. But usually, they’re sold in bloom … and that’s a problem, because they die after flowering! And it’s just plain unfair to hoist a soon-to-die plant off on a rank beginner.

True enough, with rare exceptions, bromeliads will produce at least one “pup” (offset) before they go, a pup that will flower in its turn … a few years down the road! Understanding that is a lot to ask of a novice gardener. They’re more likely to become discouraged when they see the mother plant deteriorating bit by bit.

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Air plants (various species of Tillandsia) need such different care from other houseplants, they need to be treated separately. Source: cdn.shopify.com

As for air plants (Tillandsia spp.), a subgroup of bromeliads, their situation is somewhat different. First, they are rarely sold in bloom, but rather as unrooted plants you’re supposed to hang from the ceiling or deposit on or glue to an indoor arrangement of some sort. The fact that they need totally different treatment from any other houseplant automatically makes them complicated. They have to be watered, not by humidifying the soil they grow in (because they don’t grow in soil!), but by soaking them in water or spraying them regularly. Of course, they also need bright light and air movement. I wouldn’t say air plants are necessarily difficult to grow, but they aren’t easy either. If you want to know more about growing air plants (Tillandsia), read How to Make Your Air Plants Thrive.

3. Butterfly Palm or Areca Palm (Dypsis lutescens, syn. Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)

 

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Butterfly Palm (Dypsis lutescens). Source: http://www.ikea.com

This plant’s susceptibility to spider mites makes it a challenge to grow. It often breezes through summer in fine shape, then, with the arrival of fall and drier indoor air, spider mites show up and soon start to take over. You never seem to be able to get rid of them entirely!

The butterfly palm is not the only palm with this problem, by the way. As a result, few are good choices for beginners.

4. Cacti and Succulents

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Cactus and succulents: great choices if you have full sun, but most aren’t given nearly enough light and go downhill slowly once you bring them home. Source: thesucculentsource.com

There are hundreds of houseplants in this category and most are not at all hard to grow … if you have a lot of light. Indeed, most even prefer full sun (there’s not much of that in the average home)! Sadly, our homes are simply much more shaded than most people imagine. As a result, I see cactus and succulents in various states of decline wherever I go. Yes, they may be still alive, but barely.

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This is not a happy cactus (Opuntia). It’s severely etiolated due to insufficient light. Move it to a sunny window, fast! Source: pistilsnursery.com

Of course, among the wide variety of succulents, there are some that tolerate some shade and are therefore better choices for beginners, such as aloes (Aloe spp., including A. vera), haworthias (Haworthia spp.), gasterias (Gasteria spp.), succulent euphorbias (Euphorbia spp.) and, of course, the oh-so-popular jade plant (Crassula ovata) … but they still need a location that receives at least 5 hours of indirect light per day, therefore a location very close to a window. You have no idea of how many very sad, floppy jade plants I see, alive but struggling, in people’s homes. Their weeping stems seem to say, “Please put me out of my misery!”

Also, many beginner gardeners lose their succulents over the winter because they water too much. When you grow succulents, it is very important to let the soil dry out before watering again. Doubly so when light is low, as is the case in winter. Often, at that season, cacti and succulents only need to be watered once a month, yet the average indoor gardener tends to water everything they grow once a week. You can just feel the rot settling in!

5. Calathea (Calathea spp.)

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Calathea zebrina. Source: http://www.planten-kopen.com

This is a prime example of a plant that “holds” for several months, especially when you buy it in the spring or summer, but ends up going rapidly downhill in the winter. It’s supersensitive to dry air (a common problem indoors in winter) and really has a hard time dealing with the lower light winter brings. The result is a great plant that soon goes bad.

6. Croton (Codiaeum variegatum)

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Most crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) drop their leaves one after the other when you move them into your home and soon come to look like this. How could anyone possibly call them easy to grow? Source: garden.org

Recommending crotons to beginning gardeners is out and out horrific. This plant has a terrible reputation among gardeners for its ability to quickly go to pieces when you bring it home. The problem is that it simply doesn’t tolerate changes in its growing conditions, so when it goes from the full sun and high humidity of Florida or Costa Rica to a dingy apartment where the air is drier than the Sahara, it starts losing leaves. And more and more fall off as time goes on. Now, if you know how to properly acclimatize it, you can get it to adapt perfectly well to average indoor conditions, but it’s hardly a plant you’d want to entrust to a beginning gardener! Shame on anyone who promotes the croton as an easy-to-grow plant!

7. English ivy (Hedera helix)

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English ivy (Hedera helix). Source: http://www.amazon.com

Typically, this plant is easy to grow in spring and summer, then fall comes and it falls apart. The problem is that when the air gets drier, as it almost always does during the heating season, spider mites appear out of nowhere and quickly kill it. Few plants can be covered with spider mites as quickly as English ivy.

8. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)

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Like most peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) sold these days, this one is severely underpotted and will quickly go into decline unless it receives very good care. Source: amazon.com

Sure, this plant is easy enough in general, but it quickly takes on a wilted lettuce look when it runs out of water and each time it does, the next recovery is less and less successful. It always seems to be drastically underpotted when it reaches your local garden center, which, of course, compounds the problem. Quite often, it must be watered more than once a week just to survive! Repotting it into a bigger pot as soon as you get it home will help, but if you’re one of those people who tend to forget to water every now and then, the peace lily is definitely not a wise choice for you!

9. Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)

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Severely overcrowded, this pot of Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla) won’t likely live very long. Source: amazon.com

Few Norfolk Island pines survive more than a few months in the average house. Their need for fresh, humid air while our homes are hot and dry in the winter ends up killing them. Plus, the trend these days is for nurseries to stick a half a dozen or so young plants in the same pot so it will look fuller … and that only means there are more roots competing for the water you apply, with fatal results. Under good conditions, and when reduced to one or two plants per pot, this indoor conifer can live for decades. Still, I wouldn’t offer it to a rank beginner!

10. Peperomia (Peperomia spp.)

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One of many types of peperomia. Here, Peperomia caperata ‘Emerald Ripple’. Lazaregagnidze, Wikimedia Commons

There are too many species (over 1500!) of peperomias for me to make more than a vague generalization about them, but even so, many of the commercially available varieties are prone to rot if overwatered … and who doesn’t apply just a bit too much moisture every now and then? Typically, peperomias grow well at first and its owner is very pleased with the result, then, months later, they suddenly keel over and die. It can be quite a shock to see them go from healthy and happy to dead and rotting in just a few days.

11. Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura)

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Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura erythroneura). Source: carlosbato-arte.blogspot.ca

Yet another plant that gives encouraging results at first, especially if you buy in spring or summer, when there is more light in our homes and the air is generally humid, but the low light and dry air of winter cause it to die back gradually. By spring, it’s often only the shadow if its former self, if indeed it’s still alive.

12. Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)

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Rubber plant (Ficus elastica ‘Burgundy’). Source: www.homedepot.com

It’s unfortunate that nurseries continue to insist that the rubber plant is a low-light plant when, on the contrary, it requires a lot of light, even full sun. True enough, it “holds” quite well in shady spots, sometimes for six months or more, but once it’s used up its energy reserves, leaves start to drop one by one until death ensues.

13. Schefflera or Umbrella Tree (Schefflera actinophylla, syn. Brassaia actinophylla)

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Schefflera (Schefflera actinophylla). Source: www.homedepot.com

This is the larger of the two common scheffleras, the one with big, shiny, umbrella-like leaves, not the dwarf schefflera (S. arboricola), a much, much easier plant to grow. Like English ivy and the golden cane palm, its susceptibility to spider mites makes it difficult to maintain in good shape for very long.

14. Spineless Yucca (Yucca gigantea, Y. elephantipes and Y. guatemalensis)

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Spineless Yucca (Yucca gigantea). Source: www.waitrosegarden.com

Generally sold as a small tree with a brown, woody looking trunk with tip cut off and two to four tufts of lanceolate leaves at the top, the spineless yucca is a superb plant, but it shares the rubber plant’s bad habit. That is, it “holds” well, for months at a time, even in shady spots, then, when it has spent all its stored energy, it launches into a long decline. It can sometimes survive (one can hardly say “live”) for two or three years under a typical home conditions, but, unless it’s right in front of a sunny window, becomes more and more etiolated and less and less beautiful over time, with yellowing leaves galore!

15. Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

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Unless it is properly acclimatized, the weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) starts losing leaves and is soon in decline. Source: goodtogrow.files.wordpress.com

Okay, this plant can tolerate the shade and dry air of our homes and can even live decades under such conditions, but, as was the case with the croton, this is only true if you acclimatize it well beforehand. Otherwise, the leaves begin to fall almost as soon as you bring it home and it soon looks dreadful. Many more people manage to kill their weeping fig than succeed in keeping it healthy and happy. Read Stop Your Weeping Fig From Losing Its Leaves to learn how to acclimatize it.


There you go! 15 plants that may be interesting for gardeners who have a bit of experience, but which I would certainly not to offer a wet-behind-the-ears gardener. Definitely not “easy-to-grow houseplants,” in spite of what some websites claim!20180127A Spathiphylium www.gardeningknowhow.com

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Trash-Basket Plants: Prettier Than They Sound!

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Botanists refer to bird’s-nest ferns (Asplenium nidus) as trash-basket plants, but they deserve better! Source: Pedro García, flickr

I’ve long been fascinated by bird’s-nest ferns (Asplenium nidus and similar species, such as A. antiquum and A. australasicum). They get their name because their very unfernlike fronds—they’re simple and tongue-shaped rather than highly divided like most fern fronds—that form an open, cuplike rosette, much like a bird’s nest. Also, to carry the bird analogy a step further, their young fronds, still pale green, are rolled up like a ball and can be said to look like eggs sitting in the hairy brown center of the nest, something you’d most likely see only in spring, just as the plant is starting to go into a growth spurt.

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Asplenium nidus in the wild, growing as an epiphyte. Source: http://www.fazfacil.com.br.

Curiously, sometimes birds actually do build nests in bird’s-nest ferns. The Madagascar serpent-eagle (Eutriochis astur), for example, often forgoes building a nest of its own and simply sets up shop in the ready-made nest of a large bird’s-nest fern.

A Way of Coping With Harsh an Aerial Lifestyle

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Leaf litter fills the “nest” of a bird’s-nest ferns … and helps feed them. Source: LaboratorTEBA, YouTube

As cute as this bird’s nest habit might seem to humans, it didn’t evolve that way to please our eye, but has a very practical purpose.

Bird’s-nest ferns are essentially epiphytes (plants that grow on tree branches), although they’re also found on rock faces and sometimes fall to the ground to continue growing as terrestrial plants. The epiphyte lifestyle is a difficult one: the bare bark their roots cling to offers little in the way of moisture and minerals, but bird’s-nest ferns’ special shape helps them compensate. They catch and hold fallen leaves, bird droppings and other detritus which can then decompose slowly, feeding the fern. The detritus also holds rainwater well, helping the fern cope with dry spells.

Botanists call the plants with this growth habit “trash-basket plants”, a rather unfortunate name, don’t you think? Other names include litter-gathering plants, nest-epiphytes, and detritophylic plants. I prefer to think of them all as bird’s-nest plants, a much more sympathetic description.

Other Bird’s-Nest Ferns

But Asplenium nidus and its cousins are not the only bird’s-nest plants. Many epiphytic plants have evolved similar habits, that is, using their foliage to catch and feed on fallen leaves and as a means of storing moisture.

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Basket fern (Drynaria quercifolia). Note the green fertile fronds and the brown shield fronds. Source: avrotor.blogspot.ca

Basket ferns (Drynaria spp.), for example, which cling to tree trunks or rocks, have even evolved two types of fronds. They produce both long, green, fertile fronds, deeply cut, that both collect the sun’s energy like most leaves and also produce spores for future generations of ferns, and “shield fronds.” These are short, entire and sterile (never produce spores) and rapidly turn brown. They form a “basket” that collects litter and organic debris, thus supplying the fern with nutrients. Thus shield fronds are useful even after they are dead!

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This is how the staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) grows in the wild, with brown shield fronds helping to catch fallen leaves. Source: D. Gordon E. Robertson, Wikimedia Commons

There are many other ferns with similar habits, including one commonly grown as a houseplant: the staghorn fern (Platycerium spp.). Staghorn ferns too have green, fertile fronds that reach outwards to catch the sun and short, shield or cup-shaped ones that quickly turn brown. Pressed against a trunk or rock surface, they protect the fern’s roots from damage and desiccation, but the top margin opens outward to catch forest litter and water. Most owners of staghorn ferns have no idea of the real purpose of these curious shield fronds.

Beyond Ferns

Why should ferns have the exclusivity of a good idea? Epiphytic plants the world over have developed a similar strategy.

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Giant bird’s-nest (Anthurium salvinii). Source: http://www.htbg.com

The vast genus Anthurium contains over 1000 species of terrestrial, climbing and epiphytic plants, some of which (including A. andreanum and A. scherzerianum and their hybrids) are commonly grown as flowering houseplants, but they’re not trash-basket—excuse me!—bird’s-nest types. However, some 100 species, including A. hookeri, A. plowmanii, A. cubense and A. salvinii, have developed the bird’s-nest habit, and they are often quite spectacular due to their large size.

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Anthurium salvinii’s roots grow upwards, into the leaf litter. Source: myjunglegarden.com

The giant, thick, paddle-shaped leaves can be 3 feet long and form a rosette inevitably filled with leaf litter in the wild, where they usually grow as epiphytes at first before their enormous weight sends them crashing to the ground to continue their existence as terrestrial plants. Their thick, orchid-like roots actually grow upward, not down, into the litter, all the better to feed themselves. They make stunning and easy-to-grow houseplants … if you have the space for them.

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Bulbophyllum beccarii. Source: Scott Zona, Wikimedia Commons

And there are trash-basket orchids, as well. Bulbophyllum beccarii is one. Its very unusual paddle-shaped leaves trap fallen leaves and flowers, although they work as individual traps: it doesn’t really take on a nestlike shape.

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The upward-growing roots of Ansellia africana form a leaf-grabbing basket. Source: http://www.orchidboard.com

Most other bird’s nest orchids, notably in the genera Ansellia, Cyrtopodium and Grammatophyllum, have a very different growth habit. They develop baskets of upright-growing aerial roots designed to catch leaves and other debris. They tend to be huge orchids in nature (again, birds, including such enormous ones as eagle owls [Bubo bubo], have been known to nest in their root basket). Curiously, in pots, they generally only produce root baskets when stressed by a lack of nitrogen.

The Ultimate Trash-Basket Plants

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Tank bromeliads (here, Neoregelia hybrids), catch and hold water and debris. Source: pxhere.com.

This search for bird’s-nest plants inevitably leads to the most efficient water and leaf catchers of all: tank bromeliads. These plants, in all sorts of genera of the Bromeliad family, including Aechmea, Billbergia, Guzmania, Neoregelia, Vriesea and even some Tillandsia species, are epiphytic or lithophytic (grow on rocks) and form a rosette of leaves so tightly bound than it holds water perfectly. As a result, the growing point of these tree-growing plants is actually under water! Curiously, they mostly absorb water and minerals through trichomes (scales) on their leaves rather than through their roots.

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Male poison arrow frog (Ranitomeya variabilis, formerly Dendrobates variabilis) carrying his tadpoles to a bromeliad tank. Source: sbl.royalsocietypublishing.org

Not only do these tanks catch rainwater, fallen flowers and leaves, bird and animal droppings, etc., they also serve as a home for all sorts of small animals, from microbes to tadpoles and mosquito larvae … whose excrements also help feed the plant. Each tank bromeliad is essentially an environment unto itself.

Tank bromeliads make great houseplants and you’ll find various kinds in garden centers everywhere.


Whether you call them trash-basket plants, leaf-litter plants or bird’s-nest plants, these plants are absolutely fascinating and well worth not only studying, but growing. Try one today!

A South Florida Garden Tour

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Day Two: Taking in the Show at TPIE

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A small section of the show at TPIE.

The TPIE (Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition) is the most important foliage and tropical plant show in North America. It’s held every January in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this year from January 18 to 20. I was able to attend this year as part of the 3-day media tour organized by the FNGLA (Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscapers Association) for members of the Garden Writers Association.

TPIE is a trade show showcasing the latest trends in foliage, floral and tropical plants. It covers nearly 5 acres (2 hectares), a virtual indoor garden of show-stopping display and gorgeous plants. It’s essentially designed to allow nurseries, and especially garden centers from eastern North America, to meet up with suppliers of products and plants from all over the world. There were some 400 booths at this year’s show including suppliers from over 30 different countries.

It’s not the first time I’ve attended this show. I’ve been twice before and indeed I’d go every year if I could. It is by far my favorite trade show… and as a garden writer who has to keep up-to-date on the latest garden trends and plants, I visit quite a few over the course of a typical year.

For me, it’s a chance to peruse the newest, most intriguing and most attractive houseplants, plus also the latest in pots and products: things I’ll be able to write about in this blog. There are no plant sales: everything is strictly wholesale… but at least I can start making a list of new plants I want to try.

Visiting the show takes essentially all day. Our group started with a very interesting lecture on how lifestyle trends affect how people buy and use plants followed by a guided tour of the showroom. Then we were on our own, schmoozing with all the nursery people. I took a ton of pictures!

Latest Trends

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Cooking and edible plants ought to go together, right? Here, containers of herbs and vegetables are incorporated directly into the kitchen counter. Genial!

Wear Your Plants

This year it seems that gardeners will not only be growing plants, they’ll also be wearing them. Here are a few examples.

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A tillandsia lapel pin or brooch.

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Here comes the bride, all dressed in succulents!

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Even I’ve caught the bug and am wearing a tillandsia necklace. Photo: Jo Ellen Myers Sharp

Outstanding Displays

I could have presented 50 pictures here, but I cut it down to a few favorites.

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A wall of color-coordinated vandas certainly draws the eye at Silver Vase Orchids & Bromeliads.

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My thought is you really can’t have too many colors in a show display.

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I liked the “welcome to my house” look of this display

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A mind-boggling choice of orchids.

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The display by Bullis Bromeliads won first prize in its category.

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This huge display, by Plants in the City, was spectacular, showing a city street with the Brooklyn bridge in the background. I can only show part of it: it was always too crowded for me to take pictures.

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The display by Excelsa Gardens was an award-winner for its class.

Plants Worth Noting

Just a few of the superb plants I noted. Some of the will be making it to a garden center near you this spring!

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Exacum ‘Kandy’ has enormous flowers compared to the original Exacum affine, a some-what forgotten houseplant with paler flowers once sold under the name Persian violet.

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The Soiree series of Madagascar perwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) produces masses of much tinier flowers than any I have even seen.

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There were so many bromeliads, it was hard to choose a favorite, but I finally did: Neoregelia ‘Sunkiss’

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I’ve been seeing this Sansevieria ‘Fernwood’, with its very thin almost wispy leaves, in garden centers, but this is the first time I’ve seen it labelled.

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A dwarf zee zee plant: how cool is that? Zamioculcas zamiifolia ‘Zamicro’.

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This was my favorite foliage plant for color: Aglaonema ‘Sparkling Sarah’.

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Tillandsia ‘Samantha’: definitely a Best in Show in my eyes!

Julia Hofley, houseplant expert and fellow garden writer, and I checked notes and we both decided this plant, Tillandsia ‘Samantha’, was our favorite new plant. Well, guess what? So did the judges! It was accorded not just one, but two awards: Attendee’s Choice award and Most Unusual Plant.

Colorful Containers

This show offers lots of truly attractive containers… but using some of them is going to making gardening more difficult, as they rarely seem to have drainage holes. You might want to get out a drill if you buy one. Here are few of the more interesting ones.

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Very cute pots for a mini garden… I’m not sure how the plants will get enough light, though!

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Pineapple-shaped pots with a Tillandsia topping.

Lessons Learned

TPIE is a good place to go to learn how plants are treated in nurseries. Here are a few examples.

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Some plants (here Fittonia) are shipped simply as stem cuttings dropped into a plastic bag: who would have thought it was so easy!

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All those twisted, spiralled and braided Sansevieria cylindrica plants you see in stores are actually just leaf cuttings. Here is what they look like, freshly imported from Asia and dusted with a fungicide, before they are potted up.

Horrorculture

I’m sorry, but there are some horticultural practices I don’t approve of, notably when gardeners are being lead to buy by a product that is not what it is purported to be. I call that horrorculture rather than horticulture.

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Haworthias covered in paint: if you did this to puppies or chicks, you’d be arrested! It just makes me sick to see it!

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Cactus spray-painted to make them more saleable. Atrocious.

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These mosses aren’t mosses at all: they’re coloured dried reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) and quite dead. As long as you know they aren’t mosses, that’s fine. But beginning gardeners often ask me how often to water them, a sign that information is not getting out.

Just Weird

I’m not complaining: I like weird.

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A moss-filled flamingo topiary filled with pink polka dot plants (Hypoestes phyllostachya).

The Party’s Over!

There was a Happy Hour for all the exhibitors and guests after the show… but I was so burned out I returned to my hotel… to work on preparing this blog.

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Silver Vase Plant

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The Gift Plant that Keeps on Giving

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Aechmea fasciata

Hardly anyone buys a silver vase plant (Aechmea fasciata) for themselves as as a houseplant. It’s usually offered in bloom at full florist prices and is therefore a bit pricey to be just a “houseplant I picked up the other day”. However, it makes a stupendous gift plant. After all, if you catch the plant just as it is coming onto the market, its fabulous inflorescence will last a full 6 months and maybe more: not many plants can beat that! And if you give it to a plant person, which is what I recommend, oh the fun they will have with it!

Quite The Looker

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Some cultivars have distinctly banded leaves, others are more uniformly silver.

Well, first a description. The silver vase plant forms an upright vase-shaped rosette of arching silver green leaves with spiny edges. The silver coloring comes from the whitish scales called trichomes that cover the leaves. Their role is to capture humidity directly from the air. If you spray water on an aechmea, the trichomes will rapidly absorb the water and become transparent, turning the plant entirely green for a short period. The trichomes tend to appear in a banded pattern, giving the leaves a bicolor green and silver appearance, although many cultivars of A. fasciata have been chosen for a more uniformly silver appearance.

Of course, foliage is a wonderful thing, but the flower stalk that arises from the center of the rosette is its real claim to fame. It forms a dense inverted pyramid of bright pink bracts edged in fine spines: it’s the tough, leathery texture of the bracts that helps ensure the inflorescence lasts for months, as the small blue-violet buds that turn red as they open barely peek out above the bracts only last a day each, although they can be produced over several weeks.

Maintaining Your Gift Plant

The silver vase is from southeastern Brazil where it primarily grows, as most bromeliads do, way up in the trees, as an epiphyte. However, like many of the larger bromeliads, it is often knocked out of its host tree and may well continue to thrive on the ground. The latter point is important, as we usually grow it in a pot of soil, as if it were a terrestrial plant… and it’s just fine with that.

Keeping a silver vase plant going for a few months after you buy it is a snap. Just keep it moderately moist, watering the soil when it gets dry. And you can also add water to the tank (more on that later) as well if you want to. Provide normal indoor temperatures and at least moderate light and you’re off to the races. Getting one to rebloom is a different story, though. It’s not impossible (in fact, I find it easy to rebloom!), but you’ve got to give it much better conditions.

The Second Generation

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Pups appear after the plant blooms or has undergone some sort of stress.

The first thing to understand about reblooming an aechmea is that, as with almost all bromeliads, it only blooms once, then the mother plant dies, slowly, usually taking a full year to do so. But before she kicks the bucket, though, she’ll produce from one to four offsets (called pups). They can either be removed and potted up individually when they are about 1/3 the size of their mama or left to form a cluster (in which case, cut mama out when she croaks). To separate the pups, you’ll probably need to unpot the mother plant and cut the pups free.

Pot them up in the mix of your choice. Logically an orchid blend would be ideal, as it is designed for epiphytic plants, but the pups actually do just fine in plain old potting soil. You can also grow them mounted on bark, driftwood or osmunda. Theoretically a 6 inch (15-cm) container will suffice if you grow them in a pot (they don’t an ever-expanding mass of roots like most other plants), but the plant can become top heavy over time, so you might want to insert the pot in a heavier cache-pot when the plant becomes wobbly.

So it is actually the babies that rebloom… and that can take a while. 18 months at least, but more likely 2 to 4 years under average home conditions. And if the conditions are poor, they may never rebloom.

Getting the Pups to Rebloom

Light, light and more light, with at least some direct sun: that’s what you need to get the plant to bloom. Although many sources claim you have to avoid full sun, full indoor sun is not only fine, but probably ideal… just make sure you acclimate your plant gradually so the leaves don’t burn. That will also give a plant with broader, more silvery leaves. If your pup is producing long, narrow, mostly green leaves, you’re not giving it enough light.

I put my plants outside for the summer, acclimating them for a week or so in partial shade, but eventually getting them out into pretty intense sun. In a hot, arid climate, some shade will probably be needed, but otherwise, the more sun the better. I actually place the pots on the ground (the bright silver rosettes look smashing rising out the green foliage of my other garden plants). Slugs seem to show no interest in the thick, leathery leaves.

There are two ways of watering a silver vase. First, the typical houseplant way, following the golden rule of watering: wait until the soil is dry to the touch, then water abundantly. You’ll probably find it doesn’t need watering every week. You can also water it by pouring water into the “tank” formed by the leaves. Ideally you’d use rainwater, as tap water contains chemicals that can stain the leaves. My experience that I get little leaf staining as long as I give the plant a summer outside, when the soft water from rainfall flushes the tank out.

Please note you don’t have to water this plant by its tank. It will do perfectly fine if you only water it by its roots.

This plant is not a heavy feeder. I recommend diluting any fertilizer to about 1/8 of the recommended rate and applying it to the root ball when you water, not to the tank (to avoid staining). You could theoretically add a bit of liquid seaweed to the tank, but microbes can then develop and turn the water cloudy and, eventually, stinky. If so, drain and rinse.

With its tough leaves heavily covered in trichomes, this aechmea is surprisingly tolerant of dry air. Even so, it will enjoy being grown over a humidity tray during the winter months. Finally average indoor temperatures (anything about 60˚F/15˚C) are just fine as well. And don’t put the plant outside in the summer until temperatures have warmed up.

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Scale insects

The silver vase plant is rarely bothered by insects or disease, but scale insects and mealybugs are exceptions. Make sure you carefully inspect them upon purchase, as most infestations start with plants already infected before you bought them. Repeat treatments with insecticide soap, neem, or horticultural oil may control the problem… and definitely put the infested plant in quarantine, but I’ve learned the best thing to do when confronted with mealybugs or scale is to toss the plant!

Forcing Bloom

I’ve never had to do this. My plants have always bloomed on their own when they reached a reasonable size and have done so relatively quickly, blooming about two years after I pot up the pups. But then, I do put them outside for the summer and that, I firmly believe, explains why they grow so quickly and so well.

If yours has reached its adult size of about 1 1/2 feet (45 cm) high and wide and shows no sign of blooming, try placing a ripe apple at the base of the plant and covering it with a clear plastic bag for about 1-2 weeks (move the plant into partial shade temporarily, or heat will build up inside the plastic and cause damage). The toxic ethylene gas given off by the apple should convince it it’s time to bloom. In commercial productions, the entire greenhouse is treated with ethylene gas, causing all the plants to bloom at the same time.

More Where That Came From

There are many cultivars of Aechmea fasciata, some with more uniformly silver leaves, some with variegation, others with spineless leaves or bracts. However, cultivar names rarely appear on the plant’s label, so you will probably never know your plant’s true name.

Also, there are some oither 225 species of aechmea and probably an equal number of interspecific hybrids, some small, some medium-size and a few monsters that will eat up a lot of space, so take your pick. Watch out: some are insanely spiny!

Garden centers that have a houseplant section may offer a few choice varieties of aechmeas or mix a few aechmeas in with other bromeliads (guzmanias, vriesias, billbergias, etc.), but for a wide range of choice, try a mail order bromeliad specialist. There isn’t much choice in Canada (Hawaiian Botanicals has a decent choice of other bromeliads, though), but in the US you can try:

  1. Tropiflora
  2. Bullis Bromeliads
  3. Michael’s Bromeliads

I live in Canada and my method for getting choicer cultivars is save up my money and order a huge lot of bromeliads from the US ever few years. This requires obtaining an import permit as well as a phytosanitary certificate from the supplier, but is otherwise easy. And bromeliads travel very well, so they always arrive in mint condition.

21060111FEnjoy your silver vase and your other bromeliads. May they live long and prosper!