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!

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!

Foliage is Forever

Calathea Rattlesnake

Calatheas are one of my favorite houseplants for interesting, unusual foliage, but I must tell you that in my cooler, New England home, they struggle a little. Basically these are rainforest understory plants and my dry, cold house is about as far from a rainforest as you can get in say, February.

So, occasionally I give up and toss the sadder looking of my plants. But I find that if I start with large, robust specimens going into the fall, most of them will get through the winter just fine. You don’t want to see many of these plants when I first bring them outside for their “summer vacation.”

Calathea Zebrina

Luckily, they don’t need much of a summer vacation to revive and grow new leaves. This year I tucked them underneath a Japanese maple. Last year they summered underneath a dogwood–you know, typical rainforest plants, right? But the deep shade and humid conditions seemed to be what they needed to re-foliate to get through another long New England winter.

Calathea ornata

When I bring them inside, I do sit them on a humidity tray, altogether in one spot. I think that helps them somewhat. And of course they look lovely for a couple of months, until it really starts to get dry in my house and gray outside–but by then, I have forced bulbs for color to tide me over.

Calathea Maui Queen

There’s a significant discrepancy about growing instructions for these plants. Some growers say to let them dry a bit before watering while others suggest consistent moisture will lead to success.

Maui Queen’s leaves–the “other” side

As for light, bright indirect light is best, however you manage to achieve that. Last year, that meant that I grew these below a south window–on the floor. This year, I will bring them inside to a different room–I am hoping for more natural humidity–and I will set them on a table about 3 feet back from a west window. We’ll see how that goes.

I have seen the recommendation to grow them in the kitchen, again for the humidity. My kitchen faces east, but I think it would be too much sun. Perhaps if the other room doesn’t work out, I will try the kitchen. It’s nice to have options.

Memorial Plants?

On Monday I posted about the dish garden that was given to me to commemorate–or commiserate over–a loss.

A few weeks ago I posted about my ‘Snow Fountain’ weeping cherry which we planted to honor my Dad’s passing.

So all this posting about “memorial” plants has got me thinking about plants as a way of remembering people. It’s not unusual, of course, to plant a tree to remember someone. But what really got me thinking was a comment I made in response to a comment on my “Dish Garden” post.

If you recall, the second part of that post was about a “deconstructed” dish garden that a neighbor had given me. What I really didn’t say in that post was that she received that garden when her husband passed away–so I was sort of the repository of plants given in his memory–and that was fine because I knew him well and liked him very much.

In my comment I said that eventually my neighbor would move away or pass away as well and all I would have as a memory would be those plants, making them true “memorial” plants.

I wonder how other people feel about this. Do you find it creepy or comforting? I know that out in the garden I have lots of plants from folks that are “no longer with me” in one sense or another. Many have just moved away. Others I have lost touch with, for whatever reason. But whenever I see those plants, I think of the various people with fondness.

So why should it be any different with house plants? For many years, my longest lived house plant was a begonia that was a cutting from a neighbor. That neighbor is long gone, but I still referred to the begonia as “Mr. So-and So’s” begonia.

Now my longest lived house plant is a ficus that I refer to as “Grandma’s ficus,” for obvious reasons (I hope). It was given to my Grandmother on her 90th birthday in 1988. It is now mine (Gram wasn’t really into plants. I inherited it shortly thereafter, probably no later than early 1989).

Obviously I do not find this creepy at all. Then again, I work in a job where part of it is helping people who have just lost a loved one plan their funeral. So during the pandemic, especially, I have talked about death a lot to a lot of people. It’s been gut wrenching.

Sometimes, we are blessed that we do have plants to help us return to normalcy.

More About Holiday Cactus

Schlumbergera Coral Red

On Friday I talked about what I thought made Schlumbergera–or holiday cactus bloom.

Today I am going to talk about why it’s really not such a great idea to refer to them as cactus.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “cactus?” Sunny? Hot? Dry? All of those apply. In fact, most people either kill cactus by over-watering, or by never watering. Cactus can be a little tricky.

But these “Holiday” cactus actually aren’t in any way related to desert cactus or even to succulents, despite their somewhat fleshy leaves.

They are most closely related to orchids. Yes, they are epiphytes, which means if you were to find them in their native South America, (the Brazilian south eastern forests, to be exact) you would see them growing in trees or on rocks–and most definitely in the shade.

So that’s what makes their care a little trickier than just an ordinary house plant. They don’t want hot sun, like their “cactus” name implies. They like that “bright indirect light–filtered sunshine (think through a curtain, perhaps).

I keep mine in east and west windows and they seem to do just fine but I am at a fairly northerly latitude. If I were in Florida–or at the top of a mountain–I doubt that would work. I am in one of those places where we can’t make our own Vitamin D by going outside this time of year even without sunscreen!

And while we all know someone whose grandmother/mother/aunt had one of these for 70 years, the plants they are selling now are not those plants. Most are hybrids designed to bloom earlier and with far more blooms. I suspect we will be lucky if our plants last 70 years. I just lost my oldest at about 24 years.

How can we help get a long life from our plants? I grow mine dry and cool and I pot them in clay pots with cactus mix. So far that’s working out well for me.

Finicky Ficuses

Finicky ficuses

One thing that I realized as I was bringing in the house plants and trying to get them placed around in various windows, was that I tend to collect groups of plants.

I suspect most of us with room for a good number of plants will do this. We start out with just lots of house plants and over time decide to add more of certain kinds that we like deliberately.

My two biggest collections have to be either snake plants or “holiday” cacti in the schlumbergera genus. I have about a dozen of each–nothing crazy.

I do have about 6 or 7 different types of ficus though as well. Some, like ficus elastica–the well known rubber plant–are very easy. Even my old ficus benjaminii–the weeping fig–doesn’t give me issues.

But the 3 pictured above–you see ficus lyrata, the fiddle leaf fig, most prominent–are very finicky. I find it to be finicky about everything! It’s fussy about temperature, which you can’t be as a plant in my house. It can’t be overwatered or it rots (not usually a problem for me). And spider mites are a perpetual problem. I need to keep it showered–which doesn’t help with the “don’t over water” issue in my cold house.

Ficus Audrey

But the fiddle leaf fig looks good compared to ficus Audrey. This is one of my “OMG, this plant was over $30 so it can’t die!” plants. But from the moment I got it a year ago, it’s been nothing but trouble! In addition to all the issues that the fiddle leaf fig has, (you can actually see the spider mite damage on the lower leaves–yuck!) It also gets mealy bugs. Great. If I weren’t so “invested ” it would be compost.

Variegated saber leaf fig

This plant is actually fairly trouble free–it just doesn’t grow much. I know variegated plants are slow but this is an 18 month old plant for me. It actually doubled in size over the summer, which is good or it would have become compost. I was getting very discouraged. Obviously nothing will happen now until next summer–and I have moved it away from its 2 pest prone friends to try to safeguard it. The last thing I need is another finicky ficus!