Hard to Kill – Houseplants for the Inept

FOR years now, my foyer has been a halfway house for indoor plants — that is, halfway between a cozy berth in someone else’s home and a pauper’s grave in my backyard.

I killed some of these plants gladly. Before leaving Minneapolis for New York, my friend Julie bestowed on me a 12-foot-long asparagus fern with wicked spines and an anger management problem. Meanwhile, the spider plant she left seemed to drop another clone every time I slept. (Out-of-control asexual reproduction is surely the stuff of nightmares.) By the time Julie moved back to Minneapolis seven years later, I’d terminated them both. Plants need water, you know.

Other houseplants were beautiful — until I got my blundering hands on them. A jade plant dropped its emerald leaves, as round and smooth as river stones. A Dracaena marginata with a mop top rotted from the soil up. My mother-in-law, her rooms overflowing with verdure, passed along a parlor maple (Abutilon striatum). It had flowers like crepe paper, the color of a Cape Cod sunrise. This one I drowned.

When I learned that I would be moving last August, for the first time in 11 years, I took stock of the survivors. What did I find on the radiator cover? A pair of umbrella plants that counted a dozen leaves between them. A ficus with something like psoriasis and another with a stoop. I felt pity, and I felt shame.

It was time for a clean break.

A month after moving into my new home, I phoned three experts to ask what new houseplants I should draw close to my bosom and adopt as my own. They suggested plants for shady windows and plants for dry winters. They shared their best tips and their favorite catalogs. They prophesied plants that cannot be killed. Their greatest hits are below — with a star next to the indestructible plants.

As for the widows and orphans from the old duplex: when the moving truck pulled up, I sneaked a few in the back. The ficuses were an anniversary present from my girlfriend, and I’m too superstitious to let them go. It’s one thing to live without houseplants; it’s another to live alone.

Uli Lorimer

THE DIRT Mr. Lorimer, 33, is the curator of native plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. After nurturing “all kinds of things in sort of sad shape” at home, Mr. Lorimer said, he “disseminated the collection to the public.” (Translation: he moved the plants to the curb.) Mr. Lorimer’s new motto: “If it’s not worth growing well, it’s not worth growing.”

DIGS Perhaps only in Brooklyn — Williamsburg, to be precise — could Mr. Lorimer find a dwelling as strange as the crooked “rear house” he rents with his sister. To enter the late-19th-century residence, Mr. Lorimer must tromp through his landlord’s home, exit into a courtyard and then walk through his own front door.

WAX PLANT (HOYA CARNOSA VARIEGATA) Can’t decide which window should host this sweet-flowered, thick-leafed vine? Mr. Lorimer’s specimen has sprawled some 15 feet along a bamboo pole, from one window to another. The wax plant takes its style cues from “Desperately Seeking Susan”: the new vines are hot pink; the flowers, patently fake. The secret to raising it to adulthood, Mr. Lorimer believes, is “to back off the water” in the winter, imitating the plant’s natural dry period.

RABBIT’S FOOT FERN (DAVALLIA FEJEENSIS) A hanging basket made of wooden slats provides a comfy home for this fuzzy native of the Pacific Islands. Mr. Lorimer has encouraged his four-year-old plant to “creep around the bottom of the basket and make a kind of fern ball.” In the summer, the fern swings from the branch of a peach tree in his courtyard.

BIRD’S NEST FERN (ASPLENIUM NIDUS) Mr. Lorimer could probably bring more sunlight into the house — say, if he removed the roof. Somewhat easier, from a gardening perspective, is to select a shade-loving plant like the bird’s-nest fern, whose form resembles “a badminton shuttlecock” turned “upside-down.” The new growth from the central rosette is chartreuse, Mr. Lorimer said; the older fronds, which may be a foot wide, are dark and shiny.

CROTON (CODIAEUM VARIEGATUM) Finally, a plant that matches everything: the whorls of brightly colored leaves can be “yellow, red, green and orange,” Mr. Lorimer said. When the shrub grows large and woody, it can practically steal your date at a party. At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s conservatory, he said, “You can see it from 50 yards away, looking through the glass.”

★ CAST-IRON PLANT (ASPIDISTRA ELATIOR) Like vending machines and cosplay, Mr. Lorimer said, the aspidistra is big in Japan. Maybe it’s the ground-level flowers that bear an unlikely eight petals — the botanical equivalent of a two-headed goat at the state fair. Or perhaps it’s the plant’s indifference to light and water. Ultimately, Mr. Lorimer said, you can treat this plant like a piece of furniture. That is to say, remember to dust its foot-long leaves every once in a while.

TRY THIS AT HOME Mr. Lorimer is surely too busy to run a spa for houseplants. But he does recommend pampering them with a good soak in the shower. Winter is “a hard time for plants in apartments,” he said. “It’s much dryer than people realize, especially if you have radiator heat.”

FROM THE GREENHOUSE TO YOUR HOUSE For ferns, he occasionally shops online at Logee’s Tropical Plants (logees.com), which can be visited in Danielson, Conn., in the northeast corner of the state. He also drops by the Black Jungle Terrarium Supply site (blackjungleterrariumsupply.com) to look at plants that are suited “to low light levels.” And for the poison dart frogs — “on sale!” Mr. Lorimer noted.

Mike Rimland

THE DIRT As director of business development for Costa Farms, an international wholesale nursery, Mr. Rimland, 54, racks up more than 100,000 frequent-flier miles a year finding hardy new plants to sell.

DIGS Mr. Rimland previously helped lead Costa Farms’s three-acre research-and-development greenhouse in Miami. He continues to run trials there on some 5,000 plants, representing 200-plus varieties. (Though he has helped to introduce dozens of commercial plant varieties, his recommendations below are widely grown cultivars.)

MOTH ORCHID (PHALAENOPSIS) The colors and cultivars of these popular orchids may outnumber iPhone apps. The cultivar called Baldan’s Kaleidoscope is yellow with red stripes (“I’m horrible at naming colors,” Mr. Rimland said); amabilis resembles a clean white kimono. Though some consumers think of these gift-plants as disposable, with enough sunlight they will flower again and may ultimately span two or three feet. “You could keep it forever — 10, 20, 30 years,” Mr. Rimland said.

PEACE LILY (SPATHIPHYLLUM) Growing a peace lily for its “dark shiny leaves” might be like listening to Rufus Wainwright for the bass line. What sells this plant, be it desktop-size or six feet tall, is the cup-shaped white flower with the studded stamen. From a commercial standpoint, Mr. Rimland said, “If it didn’t have those flowers, it probably wouldn’t exist.”

PONYTAIL PALM (BEAUCARNEA RECURVATA) Name aside, this native of arid Central America isn’t a true palm, Mr. Rimland said. And the burst of long, thin leaves on top looks less like Charo than Rod Stewart (in his “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” years). In any event, this plant is no diva, subsisting on weak light and occasional watering. “There’s not a lot you need to do to it,” Mr. Rimland said.

MALAYSIAN DRACAENA (PLEOMELE REFLEXA) With its thin, upright trunk and tangle of shiny green foliage on top, this Pleomele resembles a pompom noisemaker from New Year’s Eve. In the winter warmth of Florida, Mr. Rimland said, plant growers “look for the reds and the purples.” But the “consumer in Boston or Minnesota, stuck inside, really likes to see green.”

★ SAGO PALM (CYCAS REVOLUTA) “You could drive a truck over it, and you couldn’t kill it,” Mr. Rimland said. Do we hear a challenge?

TRY THIS AT HOME Many gardeners will install a light-loving plant in an east- or west-facing window. But they may not place it close enough to the glass, Mr. Rimland said. One way to gauge the intensity of the sun is to conduct a kind of Groundhog Day test. If you put out a hand and see a shadow, “you have good light,” he said.

Mark Hoover

THE DIRT Mr. Hoover (a k a Mr. Subjunctive), 36, gossips about the quirky lives of his 878 houseplants on his blog, Plants Are the Strangest People. The home page (plantsarethestrangestpeople.blogspot.com) features a standing column with another 75 plants he would just love to own — in case any readers have an Orthophytum gurkenii sitting around.

DIGS Mr. Hoover’s not-so-hot house is a “pretty boring ’60 ranch,” he said, in Lone Tree, a tiny rural town 15 miles southeast of Iowa City. (His backyard ends in a cornfield — “except this year they planted soybeans,” Mr. Hoover said.) To create a swinging plant pad, he and his spouse enclosed the three-season porch, traded the carpet for concrete and added a shower and a tub for watering.

PANDAN (PANDANUS AMARYLLIFOLIUS) Screw pines like this pandan used to be popular in ’70s houseplant books. “I don’t know whether they became uncool,” Mr. Hoover said. Pandans may grow as tall as their owners, and the oldest leaves will drop aerial roots. Popular in Southeast Asian cuisine, the toasted leaves give off a “popcorn-cake-caramel corn kind of smell.”

LONG-LEAF FIG (FICUS MACLELLANDII) Most ficus trees have a “panicky” temperament, Mr. Hoover said. They drop leaves on a rumor. His long-leaf fig, by contrast, adapts to relocation as easily as an army brat. Mr. Hoover’s shrub — three feet tall, with narrow, 10-inch leaves — may fruit with figs someday. Don’t eat them, he said.

ANTHURIUM (ANTHURIUM ANDRAEANUM) “Some people don’t like anthuriums,” Mr. Hoover said, “because the spadix, if it’s a pink flower, looks sort of pornographic.” (Ostensibly, other people like the plant, with its fleshy spike, for just that reason.) Mr. Hoover appreciates these tropical American imports, “because I can get them to flower without having to work very hard at it.”

JUNGLE DRUM (ASPLUNDIA JUNGLE DRUM ) A plant that started three years ago in a four-inch pot now boasts a leaf as big as a newspaper folio. Indeed, a relentless growth habit is one appeal of this Central American palm. If the vibrant green leaves dry out between waterings (a common complaint), Mr. Hoover recommends up-sizing to a bigger pot — say, a two-bedroom apartment.

★ STRAWBERRY BEGONIA (SAXIFRAGA STOLONIFERA) The botanical name sounds like a Mary Poppins tongue-twister, and the “round, grayish, scalloped” leaves are nothing special, Mr. Hoover said. He came to appreciate the survival instinct of this tiny plant when he noticed it sending out runners at the nursery — on the cold floor, beneath a table, with no obvious water or light.

TRY THIS AT HOME Mr. Hoover likes to improve the drainage for plants like cactuses and succulents — “stuff that’s prone to rot if it gets too wet,” he said — by mixing one-eighth-inch-diameter clay pellets with the soil. He blends about one part clay pellets (sometimes called aquatic soil or soil conditioner) with 10 parts potting soil — or, say, a handful in a six-inch pot.

FROM THE GREENHOUSE TO YOUR HOUSE Mr. Hoover accumulates most of his plants these days in swaps with his blog readers. But he window shops at Glasshouse Works (glasshouseworks.com), an Ohio-based grower.

Hard to Kill – Houseplants for the Inept – NYTimes.com

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