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

Hand-me-down Houseplants

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20160120AWhen 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.

A Definition

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.

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Begonia x erythrophylla

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.

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Begonia x ricinifolia ‘Immense’

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.

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Begonia ‘Lucerna’

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!

Walking Iris

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Neomarica northiana

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.

Queen’s Tears

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Billbergia nutans

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

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Schlumbergera x buckleyi, with hanging stems, is the real 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.

Boston Fern

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The real Boston ivy (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’)

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.

Screw Pine

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Pandanus veitchii

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

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Kalanchoe daigremontiana

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.

Any Others?

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.