Some houseplants make their owners happy for decades without much fuss. I asked a few houseplant owners about their favorites and heard some surprising choices. Most of these good old plant pals don’t even flower. It’s the foliage, structure or habit (plant behavior) that we love.
If you’d like some extra oxygen in the house, the beauty of living greenery and the pleasure of tending a bit of the garden indoors, try one of these A-list house guests.
• Grape Ivy (Cissus, Kangaroo Vine): I know one that is 60 years old. Mine came from a garden center only three years ago and it’s still in its 4-inch pot, cheerily pushing out glossy leaves and shoots that climb up the plant rack and onto picture frames.
• Geranium (Pelargonium, Scented or Ivy-leaved): My husband declares this gold-leaved plant – now 5 years old and enormous – his favorite. “I don’t even care if it flowers,” he says. (It does, when he keeps up the fertilizer program.) “I just love the fragrance and bright leaves; they look better inside in the winter than outside in summer!”
• Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria): Often purchased for Christmas, this evergreen (a tree in Australia) is trouble-free, with a tidy conifer shape, deep green needles and steady growth – from 6 inches to 5 feet in 10 years. Mine tolerates a dim northern window in winter, and summer on the deck.
• Cacti: I hesitate to recommend these to everyone, since some people don’t like prickles and spines, and others (myself included) sometimes kill them by overwatering. Yet many friends love collecting cacti of all sorts, and children – especially boys – consistently gravitate toward them in the garden center. Plant professional and friend Tim Hughes declared one cactus his favorite. It’s happily pot-bound and has grown to four times its size within six months.
• Swedish Ivy (Plectranthus australis): My friend Audrey Segebarth grew one under a glass-topped coffee table for most of its 60 years. Plectranthus varieties (many now popular as container annuals) must go dry between watering, and need indirect but bright light. Pale or variegated leaves need the most light.
• Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica): I was surprised to hear my sister, Marge Vogel – a veteran plant collector and expert in new tropicals and annuals – declare the old rubber plant to be a dear favorite. It’s been in her house since 1974 when I introduced it from a New York City apartment and it just grows on: sturdy, tolerant of imperfect light, dryness and pot-bound conditions.
• Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii): While this is a flowering plant, I include it (in spite of the thorns) for its shape and foliage even in nonflowering months. My current specimen is a new variety with larger leaves and flowers than those I kept in 1970s apartment windows. Like all Euphorbia species, its white, milky sap can irritate some people’s skin.
• Aloe Plant (Aloe vera): Garden center manager Teresa Buchanan – with a specialty in houseplants and tropicals – chose Aloe as a favorite and the best gift plant for beginners. “I gave it to three nieces for Christmas, to keep in their kitchens,” she said. The sap is soothing and cooling on burns or itching skin.
• Clivia: Teresa also recommended this easy plant for its beautiful, thick, straplike leaves (and the occasional bonus of a spectacular flower).
• Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose): Some say it’s like an easy African violet. Others think it’s a primrose because of the name, but it’s not. If you avoid overwatering, it’s a low-care, long-flowering, superior houseplant that also does wonderfully in summer in a window box or garden in the shade.
Unless I offered particular suggestions about their needs, the plants listed above all prefer medium to bright light in the house, and would benefit from a summer vacation outside in partial shade or morning sunlight. (By bright light indoors, I mean placement near an east or south-facing window or near fluorescent or plant lighting.) They all need watering when the soil is dry to the touch, and must be well drained: Many plants become diseased or die if they stand in water for more than a couple of hours.
Most houseplants – typically tropical in origin – perform best if they are fertilized lightly in spring and summer but then have a winter rest period, during which you water lightly and fertilize very lightly if at all.
Plant experts tend to pass advice on to new plant owners, with specific care instructions, and I fear that we sometimes make it seem too complicated. In the words of Tim Hughes (owner of that overachieving cactus plant), the learning happens this way: “First you make all the usual mistakes. You repot too soon, thinking that makes them grow bigger, faster. You overwater. You forget to water ... Soon you’ve wiped your windowsill clean of houseplants. So you buy more ... and make fewer mistakes.” Then, he says, the next time only half of them die, and eventually one of them thrives: You’re now a houseplant expert! Don’t be afraid to try.
So many more
This is a limited plant list representing favorites of just a few. Surely I’ve neglected many dependable, tried-and-true plants that have graced parlors and windowsills since Victorian times: Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), Cast iron plant (Aspidistra), Dracaena, ferns, Ficus, Jade plant, Snake plant, Spider plant, Schefflera and Philodendron.
I also omitted the incomparable orchids and the vast begonia genus, with so many that thrive in house conditions. Meanwhile, new and desirable houseplants are discovered every year, whether new cultivars of old favorites, new plant discoveries from around the world, or new annuals we discover do well inside for the winter.
Explore one of the handful of garden centers that keep the houseplant section open all winter, and visit the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens to see these plants and more. In both cases, the bright light and humid air will lift your spirits. Besides, you might make a new friend – the undemanding, green, dependable and pleasing kind.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.