Why do novice gardeners always seem to start with the most complicated houseplants? Gardenias, bonsais, carnivorous plants, living stones and, in fact, flowering plants in general (hibiscus, azaleas, etc.) are the ones even the most experienced gardeners often struggle to grow. Ideally, if you’re a beginning gardener, you’d start with easy plants, ones that can put up with both a bit of neglect and overly enthusiastic care.
Once you’ve successfully kept a few easy plants alive and in reasonably good shape for a year or so, consider your thumb to be getting green. Then you’ll be ready to move on to more difficult varieties.
The following 15 plants are about as close to unkillable as any plant could be and will succeed in almost all indoor conditions. In particular, they’ll tolerate low light and irregular waterings, always the leading causes of houseplant death, and will also put up with dry air, another major problem in many homes.
- Aspidistra or Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)
This old-fashioned houseplant is back on the market. It gets the common name from its cast-iron constitution. Or maybe it’s slow growth is what gives the impression it’s made of cast iron. In fact, though, it does grow, only very slowly. An aspidistra looks rather like a giant clump of lily of the valley, but without the flowers. Its dark green leathery leaves are sometimes spotted or striped yellow or white. It’s very tolerant of low light and in fact, doesn’t much appreciate full sun.
- Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema)
This is an upright-growing plant with short, thick stems and fleshy lanceolate leaves, often marked with silver and sometimes, in newer cultivars, with pink or red instead. Its growth is extremely slow … but it tolerates all but the darkest corners! It may even bloom one day and produce attractive red berries … but that can take years! It’s best to consider it as being a foliage plant.
- Dieffenbachia or Dumbcane (Dieffenbachia)
This is a strongly upright growing plant erect with a thick “trunk” and huge broad leaves usually spotted with white. When it reaches the ceiling (and it will over time), just cut off the top and reroot it as a cutting. A new stalk will also appear from the base of the mother plant. The name dumbcane refers to the fact that it’s toxic sap can render the chewer temporarily incapable of speech, but don’t ever chew on this plant, even as a joke: it’s poisonous! This is an old-time favorite, often found in dark churches and office hallways where it has apparently been growing since forever.
- Dracaena or Dragon Tree (Dracaena spp.)
There are several species of Dracaena, but the easiest to cultivate is the so-called corn plant (D. fragans), the one with a thick, woody trunk and large, arching, lanceolate leaves, sometimes with a yellowish band in the center. It does indeed look like a corn plant! D. deremensis, often just called dracaena, is similar and indeed, is now considered simply a variety of D. fragrans (yes, change your plant label!). Just as easy to grow as the original D. fragrans, it has narrower, darker green leaves, sometimes striped white or yellow.
- Dwarf Schefflera or Dwarf Umbrella Tree (Schefflera arboricola, syn. Heptapleurum arboricola)
Much easier to grow than the other commonly grown schefflera, the one with larger leaves (S. actinophylla), the only truly dwarf thing about the dwarf schefflera is its leaves, as it can become quite a sizable indoor tree over time. It has dark green palmately compound leaves, definitely a bit umbrella like. In some cultivars, they are variegated with white, cream or yellow markings. Its branches tend to arch out at awkward angles: don’t hesitate to prune them back to stimulate denser, more attractive growth. A classic plant for banks and malls because of its indifference to neglect.
- False Shamrock (Oxalis triangularis, syn. O. regnellii)
No, it’s not a true shamrock (Trifolium), but it does bear three leaflets, each triangular in form. They can be green or purple, often with a silver or pink mark. Oddly, they close up at night. This is probably the easiest houseplant to bloom and indeed, flowers quite readily and pretty much all year, with pink or white flowers. It’s very easy to grow and can go fully dormant if you neglect it long enough, then sprout anew from its underground rhizomes when you start to water again. That said, it’s certainly not maintenance-free, always needing a bit of grooming, as there always seem to be a few dried leaves or dead flowers to remove.
- Fiddleleaf Fig (Ficus lyrata, syn. F. pandurata)
Probably the easiest of the many figs or ficuses sold as houseplants, it doesn’t drop its leaves when you move it like the more commonly grown weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). The large dark green leathery leaves are indeed fiddle-shaped, as the common name suggests. It becomes huge over time: don’t hesitate to cut it back when it goes too far.
- Heartleaf Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, formerly P. scandens, P. cordatum and P. oxycardium)
This climbing aroid bears dark green heart-shaped leaves. Its shade tolerance is legendary: I know of plants over 50 years old that have not seen a single ray of direct sun since they were purchased! You can grow this plant up a trellis or moss stake or let it dangle attractively from a hanging basket. Note that this plant has gone through several botanical name changes over the years and is now Philodendron hederaceum. Let’s hope this name sticks!
- Hoya, Wax Plant or Porcelainflower (Hoya carnosa)
The hoya is one of the few plants that blooms well even in the shade. On the other hand, the growth of this climbing plant is terribly slow: it can take 5 to 10 years before producing its first umbels of pink or white perfumed flowers, each with a darker crown in the center. In the meantime, fortunately, its foliage is attractive: thick and waxy, sometimes variegated or curiously twisted. It’s a climbing or hanging plant whose stems tend to get out of hand, so you may need to do a bit of pruning.
- Ponytail Palm or Elephant’s Foot (Beaucarnea recurvata)
Succulent plant with a surprising tolerance of dark corners (most succulents require intense light). The trunk of this small tree is swollen at the base, like an elephant’s foot, while its long, narrow, often wavy leaves hang down like a pony tail, the source of its common names. It’s a tough, easy plant, but very slow growing.
- Pothos or Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum)
Very similar in appearance and habit to the heartleaf philodendron, but with leaves not as distinctly heart-shaped and always streaked or marbled yellow or white. Like the philodendron, you can grow it either as a climber or a trailer.
- Snake Plant or Mother-in-law’s Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata)
This succulent has long, leathery, lance-shaped, dark green leaves with gray mottling that rise from the soil in tight clumps. There are also both dwarf varieties (bird’s nest sansevierias) and cultivars with various kinds of leaf coloring, from entirely dark green to highly variegated. It’s one of the most shade-tolerant houseplants, although in fact it prefers intense sunlight.
- Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Always popular, with a rosette of thin, arching, ribbon-like leaves often streaked with creamy white. It’s usually surrounded by countless “babies” on trailing umbilical cords (actually, stolons) and is popular as a hanging basket plant. It will tolerate most indoor conditions, but will stop producing plantlets if it doesn’t receive at least medium light.
- Syngonium or Arrowhead Vine (Sygonium)
Another obvious philodendron relative, just as resistant to low light. Young plants produce a compact rosette of arrow-shaped leaves sometimes marbled or streaked with cream, pink or red, but the plant completely changes its habit over time, developing long climbing or trailing stems and deeply cut leaves. You can prune it back to keep it in its juvenile appearance.
- ZZ Plant or Aroid Palm (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
This is plant is an aroid (as plants in the philodendron family are called), but it’s a very unusual one and it certainly couldn’t look less like a philodendron! Instead, it bears pinnate fronds with shiny leaflets and a distinctly swollen petiole, making it look like a palm or cycad, but without a trunk. It’s perfectly at ease in the shadiest spots and very tolerant of neglect.
Easy Peasy Plant Care
Obviously, each of these plants has its preferences when it comes to growing conditions, but all of them are tolerant of a wide range of environments, from full sun to deep shade (with, I hope, at least some light: after all, the plants receive all their energy from the sun)! They also make great office plants, able to grow far from the nearest window, living strictly on light coming from ceiling fixtures. All are perfectly fine with normal indoor temperatures and will tolerate dry indoor air in winter … but most would still prefer good atmospheric humidity if you can supply it.
As for watering, simply apply the golden rule of watering: water deeply, enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again. Really, caring for them couldn’t be easier!
You don’t even need to fertilize these plants! At least, not if you’re growing them in low light. Under good lighting, you can simply apply an all-purpose fertilizer at a quarter of the manufacturer’s recommended does from April to October.
And there you go! 15 houseplants that you can place almost anywhere indoors and that will decorate your home for decades. Practice using these very basic, hard-to-kill plants to build up your indoor gardening skills before you start experimenting with more complicated houseplants, such as flowering plants, bonsais, living stones and others.