Croton: The October 2020 Houseplant of the Month

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Green, yellow, red, orange, brown, purple, black—the flamboyant croton brings autumn’s glow into your home. It’s a very eye-catching plant with thick, shiny leaves that proclaim that Mother Nature had an exceptionally good day when she came up with this beauty. 

Different colors and forms of croton leaves.
There’s wide choice of leaf coloras and shapes.

The best-known crotons have multicoloured leaves, but there are also varieties with just yellow and green markings. The leaf color often changes as the leaves mature. You have the choice of leaves: small or large, broad or narrow, entire or lobed, violin or spatula-shaped and so much more. Some even have leaves twisted into spiral! 

Male flowers of croton.
The male flowers aren’t unattractive… but tend to become lost among the showy leaves. Photo: Kroton, Wikimedia Commons

Crotons also bloom indoors, with narrow stems of puffy white male flowers and rather stark female ones borne separately on the same plant. They’re much less attractive than the leaves and some people simply cut them off.

Origin

Hedge of colourful crotons
Crotons are used as hedges in tropical climates. Photo: http://www.homedepot.com

The croton comes originally from southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and Australia, but is now grown worldwide in tropical countries where it’s a shrub or small tree often used as a hedge. It can become huge indoors as well, but most specimens sold are of modest size. 

The plant’s botanical name is Codiaeum variegatum, but the name croton is so well established that it’s used almost universally. Variegatum, of course, means variegated or multicolored, a very appropriate epithet indeed for such a colorfully leaved plant!

The seed looks like a fat tick full of blood. Photo: Kroton, Wikimedia Commons

The common name croton is derived from the Greek word “kroton”, which means “tick” and refers to the plant’s seeds, which look like ticks, although you’re unlikely to ever see seeds on plants grown indoors. 

The genus Codiaeum belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family, which also includes other familiar houseplants such as the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and the crown of thorns (E. milii). 

There is actually a genus called Croton in the same family, with more than 700 species including everything from annuals to trees, but the genus Codiaeum is much smaller, just 17 species, all leathery-leaved shrubs. Our croton (Codiaeum variegatum) is the only one commonly grown.

Croton Range

photos of several different crotons.
There is practically an unlimited number of croton cultivars. Photo: http://www.englishgardens.com

There are literally hundreds of varieties of croton, although only a few dozen are commonly seen in garden centers. Some large-leaved cultivars are: ‘Excellent’, ‘Petra’, ‘Norma’, ‘Mrs. Iceton’, ‘Nervia’, ‘Tamara’ and ‘Wilma’. Small-leaved cultivars include: ‘Gold Star’, ‘Gold Finger’, ‘Gold Sun’, ‘Mammi’ and ‘Yellow Banana’. 

What to Look for When Buying Crotons

Two crotons in pots, a tall one and a shorter one.
There are so many varieties of croton, it can be hard to choose just the right one.
  • Choose a specimen where the plant, its structure and its pot are in proportion. 
  • Decide what form pleases you: some are treelike with a thick trunk that can be single, braided or twisted into a corkscrew, others are grown as shrubs with multiple branches right to the base and still more are grown as a “tuft”: several plants of one cultivar in a single pot.
  • The plant should be well rooted and have sufficiently hardened leaves. Avoid plants with brown leaf tips or edges, a sign of insufficient humidity. 
  • If possible, reserve your croton when it arrives in the store, but don’t take it home right away. It will have traveled to the garden center from a hot, humid tropical country and needs to adapt to indoor conditions in your area and will do so better in a garden center greenhouse than your living room. So, arrange to pick it up a month or two later; by then it will be thoroughly acclimatized. 
  • The plant must be free of pests and diseases. Especially look out for mealybug and scale insects. 
  • The croton is very sensitive to cold and will drop its leaves at temperatures below 55 °F (13 °C). It will even die if left at such temperatures too long! During the cold months, make sure the plants are carefully wrapped in a sleeve for transportation home.

Care Tips

Pruned crotons displayed in colorful artisanal pots
No matter how you display your crotons, always give them good light.
  • The croton prefers bright light or full sun. It will adapt to medium light, although will be less colorful there.
  • Water when the soil is slightly dry to the touch, but never allow the soil to dry out completely. Watering with cold water in winter can cause leaf drop. 
  • Crotons will (eventually) adapt to fairly low atmospheric humidity, but ideally, you’d grow them in room where the air is humid at all times. Thus, a humidifier would be wise.
  • Croton leaves remain on the plant for several years and can therefore pick up dust. They appreciate a good shower every now and then or, in the summer, can also be placed outside in the rain. 
  • Remove yellow or damaged leaves.
  • If the plant becomes too tall or less attractive, prune it back. It’s best to do this at the end of winter or in early spring. 
  • Fertilize lightly with an all-purpose fertilizer from spring through fall. 
  • Although it prefers warm temperatures at all times, a croton will do well in a cooler room (but never below 55 °F [13 °C]) during the winter months, in which case it will need less frequent waterings until temperatures warm up. 
  • During the summer months, you can move your croton to the patio or balcony, acclimatizing it gradually to full sun, provided that the temperature does not drop below 55 °F (13 °C).
  • Crotons can be multiplied by stem cuttings or air layering. They’re very slow to root and require rooting hormones and warm temperatures, so are best rooted under glass in the spring or summer.

The sap of the croton is mildly poisonous, so keep it out of reach of children and pets.

Preventing Leaf Drop

Crotons react badly to change, dropping their leaves by the dozens as a sign of protest, which is why it is best to buy an acclimatized plant (see What to Look for When Buying Crotons). However, that isn’t always possible, so you may have to acclimatize your own plant. And that’s easy enough to do. 

Croton in a plastic bag
Give your croton its own personal greenhouse while it acclimatizes. Ill.: http://www.uihere.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog

Simply enclose it inside a large transparent plastic bag (a bag recuperated from the cleaners or a transparent trash bag would be perfect). Or build a frame around it and cover the frame with sheets of transparent plastic. This will create an individual greenhouse where the humidity automatically will be very high, just what it needs as it adapts to local day length and light intensities. You won’t likely need to water your croton while it’s in its greenhouse. 

Temporarily move the plant away from direct sun, or it will overheat inside its shelter. You’ll be able to move the plant nearer to the window at the end of the treatment.

Keep your croton “under glass” for a month or so, until leaf drop stops, then gradually remove the greenhouse cover over a week or two so it can complete its acclimatization. 

Display Tips

Large crotons in artisanal hanging pots.
When arranging colorful crotons, dare to be different!

The croton fits with the urban interiors trend that rejects the perfectible world and embraces a hint of street culture with its bright colors. Display it in a recycled tin can, in a rubber pot made out of recycled car tires or in a container that is as colorful as the plant itself. 

It can be industrial and bold to make the croton a contemporary showstopper. 


The croton: yours to discover!

Text and photos, unless otherwise mentioned, adapted from a press release by Thejoyofplants.co.uk.
Styling by Elize Eveleens, Klimprodukties

Stopping Croton Leaf Loss

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The croton reacts badly to changes in its environment, often losing most of its leaves. Photo: Rez, garden.org

Question: I received a 39-year-old croton this fall. It keeps losing leaves even though I placed it right in front of a big window. Should I give it fertilizer and, if so, what kind?

Rachel Brassard

Answer: Your plant is not suffering from a lack of fertilizer, so no, don’t “feed” it (more on that later). It’s suffering from acclimatization shock, a very different problem.

The croton (Codiaeum variegatum) simply doesn’t appreciate changes in its growing conditions, especially when it’s a mature specimen. (Young crotons are easier to acclimatize.) This is doubly true when the move occurs in fall or winter, as in your case, because with reduced light due to short days and the dramatic drop in atmospheric humidity that occurs at that time of year, already just about all indoor plants are a bit stressed out and plants that are naturally poor at tolerating change, like a croton, find adapting even harder.

The leaves it bore when you brought the plant home had acclimatized to conditions that were certainly somewhat different. Your plant has therefore reacted by dropping them in order to grow new ones. However, under such circumstances, a mature croton tends to go overboard and lose so many of its leaves that it can longer long adequately carry on photosynthesis, in which case it may take years to entirely recover, if indeed it survives.

To help yours adapt, I suggest massively increasing the atmospheric humidity. At 90% humidity, it will be able to carry out photosynthesis much more efficiently than at 30%, even if lighting isn’t the best. You’ll find it will stop losing leaves very quickly once the humidity increases substantially

Give your croton its own personal greenhouse while it acclimatizes. Ill.: http://www.uihere.com & Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux

It’s pretty much impossible to increase the air humidity in your home to 90%… and you wouldn’t like it anyway; that’s too high for humans to feel comfortable. However, you can easily give your croton that kind of humidity by enclosing it inside a large transparent plastic bag (a bag recuperated from the cleaners or a transparent trash bag would be perfect). Or build a frame around it and cover the frame with sheets of transparent plastic. This will create an individual greenhouse where the humidity automatically will be very high.

Temporarily move the plant away from direct sun: the defect of an individual greenhouse is that temperatures inside rise terribly when the sun shines directly on it. You’ll be able to move the plant nearer to the window at the end of the treatment.

In other seasons, I would have suggested keeping your croton “under glass” for 3 to 4 weeks, until the leaf drop stopped, but since it’s winter, the plant will still undergo a shock when you remove the bag. So, just leave it its greenhouse all winter. In spring (mid-March, late March), when the sun becomes stronger and humidity in your home returns to a more normal level, gradually remove the greenhouse over a week or two so it can complete its acclimatization.

You won’t likely need to water your croton while it’s in its greenhouse. Ill.: http://www.uihere.com, PinClipart.com & Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux

Note that you won’t have to water your plant much while it bathes in its extra humid environment. Indeed, possibly not at all. Yes, in a closed environment, plants can often go for months without watering. Only water if the soil becomes dry to the touch.

But will it be able to breathe sealed under plastic like that? Of course! Plants are the ultimate air recyclers, producing then using their own carbon dioxide and oxygen. 

What About Fertilizer?

In your question, you asked about fertilizer, as if you thought that would help, but, in fact, applying fertilizer to a plant suffering severe stress will actually harm it. Fertilizer is not a panacea and should never be supplied to a plant that is struggling to adapt. Fertilizer is something you give healthy plants in order to improve their performance, not weakened plants that will have trouble absorbing it.

In addition, winter is generally not the right season to fertilize houseplants, even healthy ones. Instead, you would normally apply fertilizer to a plant when it’s actively growing, that is, in spring or summer. So, yes, you can fertilize, but not right away. Wait until you remove the plant from its greenhouse shelter in the spring.

Plants can’t read fertilizer labels and really don’t care which one you use. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux

Which fertilizer should you use? It really doesn’t matter! Plants are essentially indifferent to the multiple fertilizers on the market. They’re not really designed for plants, but rather to appeal to the gardener’s belief that plants have very specific fertilizer needs. (Read Plants Can’t Read Fertilizer Labels.) Just use whatever fertilizer you have on hand and your croton will be perfectly happy. 

And also, it’s rarely necessary to fertilize a houseplant at more than a quarter of the recommended rate.

After Recovery

A croton will adapt to most indoor conditions… as long as you give it a chance to acclimatize. Photo: Hernán Conejeros

Once your croton has acclimatized to your conditions (and it’s surprising how well an acclimatized croton will do in almost all indoor conditions, even under poor light and relatively low humidity), don’t move it around. You can give it a regular quarter turn to stimulate equal growth from all sides, of course, but don’t move it another room or other location; otherwise you’ll have to acclimatize it all over again.

If you treat your croton correctly, it ought to thrive in your home for another 39 years!

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