Our Prized “House” Plants Are Actually Tropical Plants in Disguise

Ficus leaves on carpet

You may not have thought about this, but our indoor plants behave quite a bit like plants in nature. Many of them are, after all, tropical plants that have been conditioned to grow in our homes. It’s quite something to take a trip and see some of them growing “in the wild” as I like to call it.

I have seen things like my ficus benjaminii, shown above, growing in warm places–they’re actual trees like the maples growing outside my house here in Connecticut. It’s amazing. The closest we come to seeing something like that here is in a mall and it’s a paltry comparison.

I have seen poinsettias growing in Mexico and hibiscus growing in Hawaii and I am always amazed at what these plants look like compared to the puny specimens that I have at home in containers. They’re large shrubs–and sometimes even hedges.

And I am not sure that I will ever get over the 8-10′ laurus nobilis that I saw in Texas! We struggle to get those to a couple of feet in containers here in the northeast–and we buy them, if we are lucky, as very pricy small plants! How can something like get so huge out of doors?

What is my point in ranting about all this? After all, this blog isn’t a travelogue and I am not posting photos of any of these things that I am talking about (alas, they only live on only in my mind–I don’t have them on film, or digitized.)

Late summer rose garden

These random thoughts came to me as I was walking the dog up the driveway the other day and I noticed how much my roses were “slowing down” in growth and preparing to defoliate and go dormant for winter. Some already had bright orange hips while others were changing their green growth for a sort of yellowish color before they lost their leaves.

I noticed this and thought about my ficus shedding its leaves in my living room and mused, “hmm. They’re really not all that different after all.”

I know enough to stop feeding my roses (if I ever feed them) in August so that they can begin this process of “going to sleep” for winter. And our house plants, too, as I mentioned on Monday, also slow down their growth, use less water, and don’t want any additional fertilizer this time of year as they go into this quieter time of year (although I am not sure most of them are as dramatic as the ficus and lose a lot of leaves!)

Take time to notice the seasonal changes in your plants. While it can be sad, there are always those plants, like the zygocactus, that respond to lower light levels and cooler temperatures and begin to bloom. So there are always the “silver lining” plants, as I like to think of them!

Okay You Have Brought in Your House Plants–Now What?

Surely I can fit a few more plants in here, right?

As you can see, I have a lot of house plants. And almost everything in this photo went outside for the summer.

So now that it’s all crowded back inside, what am I looking at and for?

First, I am still double checking for any unwelcome visitors. This past weekend when I cleaned my house, I was delighted to discover all sorts of tiny spiders cleaning up after any stray insects that might have come in. Although they might give my windowsills a bit of an early Halloween look, I don’t mind. They’re actually doing a lot of plant housekeeping for me. They are very welcome guests.

Next I am checking moisture levels. Some of these plants are still drying out very quickly–every 3 or 4 days. Others are still soaked from the drowning they got in all those tropical storms. As a general rule, the plants that were very thirsty outside are going to need to be watered more often inside. These are the ones that have already dried out and that I have already watered once or more since I have brought them inside.

Finally, I am turning them. Because the light levels are lower inside, plants will tend to lean toward it. So every time I check them or water them, I turn them.

So that’s what I am busy with right now. But I am never too busy to enjoy the plants.

More About Bringing Houseplants Indoors

My aglaeonema and others, newly relocated back inside for winter

I lecture on house plants a lot. And inevitably when I talk about the fact that a good portion of my house plant collection goes outside for the summer, I will get the question “but what about bugs?”

So I tell my cute little story (which really wasn’t cute at the time, but always leaves them laughing) about bringing in a baby bird. Believe me, once you have done that, you don’t care about a couple of spiders, or crickets or what have you. That’s what usually manages to sneak inside.

5 decadesBut even then, that’s not what they’re asking. They want to know about the usual house plant “critters:” aphids, mealy bugs, spider mites–the usual bad guys. But no–see, a summer outside usually will not only control any issues that I might have had from the previous spring, but it will wipe them out until mid-to-late winter. I won’t begin to see any recurring pests until growth starts up again next spring–usually around March or so.

Why is this? Outside those little house plant critters have a lot of predators to keep them in check. They usually completely destroy them for me. And any residual eggs won’t hatch until next springtime’s warmth tells them it is time to wake up.

So I don’t bother treating my plants with any sort of insecticides because it isn’t necessary. I will keep close watch on them as I water for the next few weeks just in case, but I have rarely found a problem in the fall. The plants are going to sleep this time of year. Any insects must be as well.

I have been growing house plants for the better part of 5 decades (yes, I started young). In my early years, I lost a lot to insects. I now know how to manage them before they multiply and destroy the whole collection.

Transitioning Houseplants Indoors

Some of the many house plants that now need to come back inside

Labor Day weekend is the time when I traditionally bring my house plants back inside from their summer vacation. And this year, they had a much better summer than the Spoiler and I did. Despite being drenched and battered by 3 separate tropical storms (Fred, Henri and Ida–and all within a period of about 10 days no less!), the plants flourished and grew–most so much that they outgrew their original places in my home.

So that created issue number 1. Many of these plants did not return to the places they left. And once I brought them in and placed them, because they were larger, fewer plants fit in the same place. It’s not a bad problem, but it certainly required some creative adjustment on my part.

Problem 2 was all those tropical storms. While they did save me some watering, they did a heck of a number on the plants. Leaves were shredded, stems were broken and the containers were covered in mud. Debris was in the containers. Some plants, like the begonias, that don’t care for all that moisture, are actually showing signs of fungal issues. Others, like the citrus, which also prefer to be on the dry side, are losing leaves. It’s nothing earth-shattering, considering the true devastation and loss of life these storms caused–but it certainly caused more cleanup for me before I brought in the plants.

Lake view

And finally, because the plants are so much larger, my windows are even more obscured. This lovely view that I had all summer?

Aglaeonema in East window

I will now be enjoying the view of my plants until next May. That’s not all bad either.

Philodendron is Having a Moment

Philodendron Birkin

You have probably noticed that philodendron is very trendy right now. And it’s not generally the trailing philodendron that are trendy, although occasionally you might see a well-grown patterned one like ‘Brasil’ show up.

Philodendron Prince of Orange

No, for lack of a better description, these are the shrubbier container forms. Philodendron tend to have two habits: they vine or climb (or trail from a hanging basket) or, with some breeding, they remain small and “house plant” like for a number of years, before they develop the forms they had as understory plants. In other words, they either revert to their climbing or trailing ways, or develop wild obtrusive aerial roots. But that’s what happens with living things. They grow and evolve. It pays to know their habits.

Philodendron Dark Knight

Both of these plants–Prince of Orange and Dark Knight–were specifically bred to retain their character as house plants. And so far so good. I think that I have had them for 3 years now and I am not seeing much reversion to the wild understory plants that they could be.

Philodendron sport

This, however, is a reversion, or sport, that I pulled out of my ‘Birkin’ when I transplanted it. It was too healthy to discard. We’ll see how long I tolerate it–maybe as long as I have window space.

These plants are very easy to care for. They like bright, indirect light and will tolerate a bit of dryness (but don’t let them dry out completely between watering). Mine have never been bothered by pests.

Again, for easy care, colorful plants, I can highly recommend these.

Calathea’s Better Behaved Relative

Stromanthe (or ctenanthe) tricolor

This is a plant whose taxonomy keeps changing. I know it as stromanthe tricolor. But I believe that it is now known as a ctenanthe, which is a genus with a couple of plants at least.

Whatever you choose to call it, it is truly stunning and very easy to grow.

Like its calathea relatives (again, calatheas, marantas, ctenanthes are all treated as loosely related. I don’t have the true knowledge to explain all of that!), it likes indirect light and relatively moist soil, although it is not so fussy if it dries out occasionally.

It is definitely not fussy about humidity. I keep this plant in my den, in a northwest window. So it is cold, dark and dry. And it survives just fine every year with only occasional browning of the outer leaf tips. That could be from the lack of humidity, it could be from our chlorinated water, or it could be because it’s cold. My den will drop into the upper 50s overnight on winter nights. This plant is just fine with that.

So if you love colorful leaves but are afraid that the calatheas are too finicky for you, try this plant instead. You will not be sorry!

Aglaeonemas are Like Stained Glass Windows

These are some of my favorite house plants. I got my first one five years ago at a box store that I happened to pop into when I was in Pennsylvania for a friend’s wedding. Little did I know at the time that I would become a bit obsessed by these plants!!

Aglaeonema collection

I still have that plant and I have acquired a few more, most from garden centers, although it is all I can do not to obsessively collect them from sites like Etsy, where I have seen some fabulous specimens (there are some fabulous plant people on Etsy–I need to stay off there or I would run out of windows very fast!)

These plants are very easy care–much easier than the calatheas that I discussed last week. About the only thing that they object to is direct sunlight. Most of mine are in either shaded east or northwest windows. The shaded east windows never get direct sun. The northwest windows may see some direct sun very late in the day–about 5 pm or so. And even then, the sun is only there for a very brief time–probably less than 30 minutes.

The reason I describe them as being like stained glass windows is that their leaves are so lovely that when light shines through them, they do look like stained glass–abstract stained glass, of course, but stained glass nonetheless. At least that’s how I think of it. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination.

But again, as we get into the darker days of fall and winter, it’s going to be nice to have these brighter plants to enliven our homes.

Red stemmed aglaeonema–the plant that started my love affair

As we get nearer to Christmas, you’ll probably see me describe the red-stemmed aglaeonema as the “anti-poinsettia.” It’s a perfect stand-in if you want a cheery plant that’s not quite as garishly red as a traditional poinsettia (or if your house is too cold, as mine is).

But whether you choose to grow these plants for the holidays, or just as lovely year-round foliage plants, you’ll be sure to appreciate their gorgeous patterned leaves, and their easy-care habits!