Houseplants for Indoor Pleasure

By Barbara Perry Lawton

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2009 issue)
a picture of a zebra plant

Zebra Plant

Take a close look at your houseplants. Are they looking healthy and vigorous?  If not, this is an ideal time to do some judicious pruning. Throw away that swan-necked African violet. Pitch the stringy old philodendron. If some are reclaimable with a hefty bit of trimming and repotting, do it. But don’t hang on to those droopy sad-looking old houseplants. New ones are inexpensive and will brighten the cold months with their bright crispy foliage.

Our relationships with plants are complex and far-reaching. It’s no wonder, with our close ties to the world of plants, that we feel more comfortable when we have plants around us. It’s no wonder that our homes are more appealing, more beautiful, more satisfying when we include healthy plants in the decor.

Tropical and subtropical plants as a group are the mainstay of our indoor plant world. You can buy them at reasonable prices at just about every grocery and discount store as well as at nurseries, florists and many garden centers. Other good resources for new houseplants are your friends’ favorite indoor stars—trade cuttings and you’ll all be better off.

When I volunteer at the Horticulture Answer Service at the Missouri Botanical Garden, people often ask what the Garden’s secret is in having all of its plants looking so vigorous and healthy. The secret is, simply, that when plants look puny or get some disfiguring disease, they are pitched. There are more understudies in the greenhouses and other backstage areas to take their place.

Grouping several compatible plants may offer design solutions that are not possible with single plants. Whether you group pots or plant several handsome specimens in one container is your choice. Try both ways. The specific spot that you want to brighten with plants may suggest the solution. In general, use large plants in large areas, small ones in restricted sites.

Compatible plants are those that require the same growing conditions. For instance, cacti, jade plants and other succulents require well-lit conditions and well-draining soil that is sandy or gritty—let them dry out thoroughly before watering. Ferns and weeping figs are among the indoor foliage plants that will tolerate moderate to low light and require a more organic, well-draining soil that is kept constantly moist but not soggy.

These days, most potted foliage plants carry good, informative labels that will help you learn how to care for them—save those labels in case you need to get further information from a nursery or the Missouri Botanical Garden! The most common cause of problems with houseplants is overwatering—the following plants all will thrive on a bit of neglect but can’t tolerate too much water. A book or two on the care of tropical and subtropical plants will help you learn more about the care of indoor plants and about the plants themselves.

Some Houseplant Suggestions

The following are just a few of the many foliage houseplants you are likely to find in local shops—all are easy to grow:

Aglaonema species, Chinese evergreen, requires low to medium light, warm temperatures. Allow soil to dry out between waterings—beware of overwatering. May grow two to five feet tall.

Aspidistra elatior, cast-iron plant, is tough and durable, will tolerate low light but not direct sun. Water thoroughly, then let soil dry completely before watering again.

Chlorophytum comosum, spider plant will take medium to bright filtered light, soil that is constantly moist but not soggy. Repot when it becomes rootbound.

Cissus rhombifolia, grape ivy does well in low light to filtered sunlight, should dry out before rewatering.

Dracaena, many species, flourish in medium filtered light. Allow soil to dry out before rewatering.

Philodendron, many species, will tolerate low light, do well in medium light. Allow soil surface to dry out before rewatering.

Saintpaulia ionantha, African violet, probably the most reliable of all indoor flowering houseplants. Light to partial shade and moist but not soggy soil.

Sansevieria trifasciata, mother-in-law’s tongue is tolerant of most light conditions, should dry out completely before rewatering.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.