Tough-As-Nails Houseplants

a photo of Golden Pothos 'Neon'

A key to having handsome houseplants that are healthy and vigorous, plants that enhance their surroundings, is to choose from among those known to be comparatively care-free.

By Barbara Perry Lawton

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2011 issue.]
a photo of Golden Pothos 'Neon'

Pothos ‘Neon’
photo by Robert Weaver

A key to having handsome houseplants that are healthy and vigorous, plants that enhance their surroundings, is to choose from among those known to be comparatively care-free. Overall, these will be plants grown primarily for their foliage and known for their ability to thrive on a minimal amount of water and not much care.

The following, in no particular order, are among the toughest of all houseplants and will thrive with a minimum of attention. Grow these plants for their attractive foliage—they will rarely bloom under home conditions. Note that the worst thing you can possibly do to most houseplants is to over water them. More plants are killed by this one cause than any other. I use a moisture meter (available in many plant centers for about $10) to help me know when to water.

Note that the first three of these tough houseplants are in the arum family (Araceae), commonly called aroids. This fascinating plant group is found over pretty much of the world, especially in the New World tropics. I would imagine that members of the family are among the most commonly found of all of our houseplants.

Philodendron (Philodendron spp.)

There are many species and varieties of philodendron, all native to tropical rain forests is the Americas. Some of these aroids grow as vines and some grow in upright forms and come in a variety of sizes. The leaves are shiny and they have aerial roots. Leaves may be small or large and of many shapes, and may be entire or deeply incised. Site them in light to partial shade at room temperature.

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema)

This aroid, a native of southeast Asia, grows in a bushy form to about 20 inches. It has leaves that are handsomely marked and may be solid green or variegated in various designs that include silvery to white designs. The Chinese evergreen will be at its best if kept in an enclosed sunroom. Note that different cultivars may require different light levels—be sure to read the labels.

Golden Pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum)

Native to Pacific islands, this aroid, also known as devil’s ivy for some unknown reason, grows as a vine or spreading plant. The leathery leaves grow on shoots up to three feet long and are colored in shades of yellow, white and green. Keep it in indirect bright light or partial shade at room temperature. This plant is a good specimen for a hanging basket or can be grown on moss-covered upright supports.

Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)

The spear-shaped leaves of the cast iron plant, a member of the lily family native to China and Japan, are of a rich dark green—it also comes in a handsome white-striped form. This tolerant plant can take any lighting except direct sun. Undemanding and tolerant of a minimum of care, this plant was a special favorite of the Victorian Era.

Dragon Tree (Dracaena spp.)

The dracaenas are members of the agave family (Agavaceae) and native to tropical and subtropical Asia, Africa and the Canary Islands. They have narrow spear-shaped leaves that may have many shades of green plus variegated forms that combine greens with white, yellow and other shades. The leaves arch as they mature. Most of the species and varieties grow in a sort of tree shape, some looking much like palms while others appear quite trunkless.


Other tough houseplants you might want to consider are dieffenbachia, the ivies, spider plant and jade plant. Wander around the plant center and read the various labels—you are bound to find several plants you can’t resist. A good resource for studying houseplants and their care is The Houseplant Encyclopedia by Ingrid Jantra and Ursula Kruger (Firefly, $29.95).


Even these low-care plants will appreciate a bit of fertilizer during their active growing periods. Use a weak solution of a liquid fertilizer formulated for houseplants. In addition, all of these plants will look better and be healthier if occasionally you spray off any accumulated dust.

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. She is also the author of a number of gardening and natural history books. She has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography, and is a regular contributor to The Gateway Gardener.