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


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!