The Natural Lifespan of Houseplants

It always surprises people to find out that houseplants–and for that matter, perennials, trees and shrubs as well–have an expected lifespan.

It definitely surprises people to find out that some trees are shorter lived than others and by several decades in some cases. And it is not a matter of taking good care of the tree–as a general rule, a flowering dogwood is not expected to live as long as an oak.

When it comes to houseplants, many of which are actually tropical plants that are merely confined to a container, quite often we don’t think about lifespan. Something happens because of the nature of the fact that it is growing in such artificial conditions and the plant rarely reaches what might be its normal lifespan. Few of us own plants for decades.

Every so often, however, something happens and a plant does grow up and mature in one place for a long time.

The weeping fig, ficus benjaminii, that you see above, is 34 years old. It was given to my grandmother in 1988 for her 90th birthday. She had no real interest in it, so it came to me. I grew it in one place for 5 years, and then for the rest of its life here, where you see it.

Recently, I have noticed more leaves than usual on the floor. After several weeks of cleaning up after the plant, I finally looked up, only to discover that 2 of the trunks were dead (thank goodness that I figured this out–I would have been cleaning up leaves forever if not!!)

You can see where I removed most of the dead trunks here. There’s a story about our loppers but I will save that for another time.

Then I decided to research the lifespan of potted ficus trees. Most places said 20-30 years for this variety so I am definitely on borrowed time as it is.

So we’ll see what happens as we go forward. So far the rest of the tree looks good. Fingers crossed.

Bird of Paradise Plant

If you have been with me for awhile, you may remember this image from last February. It was from a post that I called “It’s NOT Growing,” to gently poke fun at all those internet videos of every leaf unfurling.

I had said that I had no expectation of my plants growing in winter in very little sunlight in my cold home but that I was quite convinced that once the warm weather came and the sunlight returned, the plant would grow nicely and that the very tightly curled leaf–which had been in that suspended state of animation for 3 months–would unfurl.

So here’s the plant after its summer outside. Obviously more than one of those leaves unfurled. I needed to put it into a larger pot.

The Spoiler keeps remarking about how much he likes it–which alone is astonishing because he rarely comments on the house plants.

I have told him that by next summer I won’t be able to bring it back in–it will be a floor plant, probably touching the ceiling at that point.

And there’s where we may have a problem. Clearly there’s something delicious in my soil that the dog likes. I will need to find a solution for that. At least I know that it’s all organic–unless something has crawled in there that is tasty. Ick.

Calatheas Are Temperamental Houseplants

Mixed group of Calatheas

I absolutely adore calatheas. I find them so appealing that I keep them clustered together on trays to help maintain humidity around them.

If that isn’t enough, in the dead of winter in my cold, dark climate, I have been known to take these trays into the bathroom with me when I shower so that the plants can get some extra humidity.

Another of my calathea trays, with a stray alocasia

If I tell you that I am buying a humidifier for the room that they are in, you will know that I have officially gone over the edge.

Calathea Maui Queen

But just because I baby them doesn’t mean they cooperate. You may remember the above calathea, Maui Queen, from last year. Last year this time it was already spider mite infested.

This year, so far, no infestation, but it’s decided that it still isn’t happy. You can see a bit of that here. But it’s more evident in the photo below.

An unhappy calathea

And speaking of unhappy–remember last season’s post where I said that I had some calatheas that lost more leaves than they retained in the winter?

A very unhappy calathea

If this keeps up, there will be no plant left to put back outside next spring. Ugh! Talk about tempermental!

So this is why I brought the plants in early. I can only imagine what it would be like if I were bringing them in now!

Not ‘Gram Worthy

5 year old poinsettia

I was having an email exchange with a friend about my plants and I remarked, about the above plant, that it was getting so large that it was getting in the way of my printer, so clearly I was going to have to move my printer. Moving the plant is out of the question. If a plant is happy, it gets to stay where it is. Something inanimate like a printer can easily be moved somewhere else.

Now, looking at that plant, it’s really nothing special–in fact, a lot of people might say it’s even ugly. It’s certainly nothing I would ever post on Twitter or any of the other social media sites because it’s definitely not “eye candy.” It’s not that kind of plant.

Office redo–to accommodate the plant

But it has a lot of sentimental value. It’s almost 5 years old–in fact, it’s probably older, but I have had it for 5 years, or almost, this Christmas season. Like many of my holdover “Christmas” plants, it now blooms out of season, but that’s okay–that’s part of the charm. So it definitely deserves the extra room that I have now given it. And as a bonus, my printer is actually closer to my desk so I have made my workspace a bit more efficient too.

Close up

I did a close-up of its leaves and stems earlier this summer–they’re quite lovely by themselves.

But sometimes, it’s nice to have plants that aren’t just showy. Sometimes it’s nice to have plants with some longevity too.

When to Bring in House Plants

Just one of my overcrowded windows

As with many things, there are a lot of theories about bringing house plants that have spent time out of doors back inside in the cooler months. For some of you, it still isn’t cool outside. In other places, you may already have had a frost or freeze. So what is the best rule to follow?

For me, rather than trying to guess what the nighttime temperatures are going to do, I rely on length of daylight. I’m not sure about you, but by mid-August, I can already tell that the days are significantly shortening. And if I can tell, you can be sure that your plants are noticing too.

To be honest, if it weren’t so heart-breaking, that’s the point at which I should probably start bringing in my plants. Those of you at different latitudes obviously have different points when you notice this change, but whenever you begin to notice the changing light, that’s the point at which you should begin to transition your plants indoors.

If that’s far too early for you, there’s another option for you to try. This isn’t something I have done, but I have heard it recommended by a grower from Costa Farms (one of the huge commercial house plant growers) as something he does with his own plants.

He says that when he begins to transition his plants back indoors, he moves them first into a shady place for about 2 weeks to simulate the lower light in his home–then he moves them indoors. Why does he do this? He says he gets far less leaf loss this way.

This is exactly the reason I begin to move my plants in when I notice the days getting shorter. If I leave them out too much longer, once I bring them in, they do lose a lot of leaves–or as I joke, I need the leaf blower inside the house!

So keep this in mind now that the autumnal equinox is just past–and if you still have plants outside enjoying the lovely fall weather–perhaps it is time for a move!

Waves of Plants

Herbs and tender evergreens

it’s kind of funny–my plants come in in “waves,” as l call it. And people who know me will periodically ask, “are all your plants in? They have no idea what they are asking!

The tropical plants, or house plants, are all in because it is getting quite cool here. It’s down to the mid 40s this morning. So the 200 or so tropical plants are safely inside and have been for the last 3 weeks. I will talk more about my theory on that–and some other theories–on Monday.

Amaryllis bulbs

Then there are these: amaryllis bulbs. They should be drying out before I bring them into the basement for winter. I may have to bring them in when they are wetter than I care for them to be. I should have brought them in this past weekend but I was too busy pruning dead stuff off my other plants because of our summer drought.

Then I have the plants that come into the sun porch–that’s the photo at the head of this post. These herbs and “tender” evergreens can take some cold, but not New England cold. They will need to come in before a hard freeze.

Container succulents

And then there are my containers that also will need to come in before a hard freeze because, as a general rule, container plants can’t be left to over-winter outside here. These are things like potted succulents that would be hardy if I were growing them in the ground, blueberries in containers, and plants that everyone else thinks are appropriate to plant in the fall like hydrangeas and roses so they ship them to me but if I were to try to plant them now, they would die–so I have to overwinter them in my garage.

So the “are all your plants in?” question is hugely complicated!

The Only House Plants That You Can’t Kill Are Plastic or Silk

Dying ZZ Plant

I recently have read a few articles about house plants that are hard or impossible to kill.

A few things: first, no plant is impossible to kill, not even an air plant. Trust me on this. I can tell you this from experience. I have done it. I have even managed to kill air plants. And of course, for further evidence, see the above.

The next recommendation is cactus. Surprisingly, for a beginner, these plants can also be quite easy to kill. Why? Because the way most plants are killed is by over-watering and so cactus are generally watered too much and are drowned. I too have killed cactus, although not by over-watering. I have done the opposite: I haven’t watered them enough. The plant literally was powder when I went back to touch it. Oopsie. So believe me, yes, cactus can be killed and more easily than you think. The best thing to do with cactus, generally (and this doesn’t hold true for succulents, necessarily) is to keep them in a sunny window and to water them sparingly every 3-4 weeks, depending on how warm it is in your home.

The next recommendation is that crazy ZZ plant. I’ve already killed 1 of those and am well on my way to killing a second. I suspect they don’t like my cold house. But I am sure not going to call them easy, needless to say! The photo at the top of the post is my second ZZ plant, wasting away. Sad, very sad.

Succulents, as a group, are generally supposed to be easy. Some are very easy. And some are not. It pays to know what type of succulent you have and how it should be treated. Some like full sun, others do not. Some will put up with weekly watering, others will rot with this kind of treatment. So again, to just recommend a whole group of plants as “easy,” is quite frankly, irresponsible.

I have seen ferns recommended as easy. Don’t go there unless you live in a greenhouse.

I have seen fiddle leaf figs recommended as easy. They are not. They are finicky about temperature, light and water. If you can satisfy them, then they are easy. Otherwise, they are going to lose leaves and be prone to insects. They’re not worth that heartache.

The upshot of all of this, I guess, is do not believe what you read in “lifestyle” publications. You need to go to reliable plant sources to get the true facts about plants and their needs. Once you have that information, you can decide what plants will do best for you in your home, apartment or condo.

Let’s Try to Avoid Confusing Similar Plants

A monstera variety–see more below

I get it–there are times when plant ID can be confusing. I admit that I have done it once or twice myself. However, what is not good–and what I have seen happen in nationally syndicated publications (which I have not done, thank goodness!) is where the so-called experts have confused plant names and IDs and even run photos of the wrong plants.

That’s the point at which I say, “hello folks! Is there no fact checking out there anymore? Beginners–and maybe even more than beginning gardeners–are relying on you for this information. Please try to get it right if you are claiming to be an authority.”

The most egregious thing I have seen lately was the confusion of monstera delicious and split leafed philodendron. The reason I say that this is so egregious is because monstera has been the “it” plant for at least a couple of years now. Babies and toddlers can probably pick out a monstera leaf! (Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much!) I mean, that plant is everywhere! It’s on jewelry, fabric, housewares, clothing, the cut leaves are sold in just about every floral department. If you can’t ID a monstera leaf, you haven’t been paying attention.

And yet, just a week or two ago, I read in a nationally syndicated publication, something to the effect of, “monstera, also called split leafed philodendron….” That’s the kind of thing that just wants to make me rip my head off! I don’t know if it’s lazy–or worse!

There’s even a national catalog selling a “philodendron monstera. ” What? Pray tell which plant do you get? Growers choice? Whichever they have at the moment? The photo is of a monstera deliciosa but with that description, one can never be sure.

There are all sorts of wonderful articles out there about how to distinguish the two different plants. This is just one of those articles. It’s thorough, has lots of great photos, and one wishes that the author of the publication who can’t tell the two apart had taken the time to do a simple internet search to see what these plants were about.

And my photo above. It’s of a monstera adansonii, a different, smaller version of monstera commonly called Swiss cheese plant because the holes in the leaves are all contained–there are no “split” leaves like on monstera deliciosa. I guess it might resemble a giant Swiss cheese with a little imagination.

There are many different varieties of monstera, including a lovely variegated one. And I am sure they will continue to be confused. So please be aware of this ongoing problem.

Perhaps that’s why they say a “little” knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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!