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Don Kinzler, Published November 08 2013

Growing Together: Houseplants to choose if you’re hard to live with

If a pet owner fails to properly care for their cat, we can hardly blame Fluffy. If we’re difficult to live with, it’s not our plant’s fault.

I inherited a passion for houseplants from my mother and grandmother, whose windows were filled. My wife Mary tolerates my addiction patiently while I fill our kitchen and dining room windows with plant-laden tables. I have a theory that plants do better while communing with their own kind in a diverse, leafy population.

There really is no such thing as a houseplant. The plants we grow in our homes were native outdoors, mainly in tropical regions. I’m not sure when cave people developed a liking for philodendrons in their dwellings, but these outdoor natives adapted to the confines of our people-oriented homes.

Houseplants vary greatly in their requirements, which is why a little homework helps. When shopping for houseplants, I’ve noticed it’s difficult to differentiate the easy-care plants from the hard-to-grow species because they’re usually in a mass sales display. Some areas of our homes require proven, easy plants, and so it helps to sort the types.

What makes some plants relatively carefree? They’ll tolerate a little neglect, such as us forgetting to water regularly. Tough plants grow under conditions of low humidity and dry indoor air. They require little primping or pampering. They’ll not only tolerate low light, but even produce new growth. They aren’t prone to insect and disease problems.

I’ve include scientific names in parenthesis because common names are not standard, and I’ve noticed some non-traditional names popping up in the plant sections of larger retailers. But if you look closely at the name tag, there is often part of the scientific name, which is standard the world over.

A favorite example is Sanseveria, the botanical name of the spear-shaped specimen called snake plant, sword plant or mother-in-law’s tongue.

Here’s the list of top-performing “easy” plants. We’ll ignore the high-maintenance prima donnas.

E Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens). Glossy, green, heart-shaped leaves grow on a vigorous vine. Pinch to encourage branching or train vertically on a moss pole.

E Dragon tree (Dracaena marginata). Spear-shaped leaves on a tree-like plant create a nice floor feature. Slow growing, it can reach six feet indoors. Don’t over-water because soggy soil promotes root rot.

E Jade plant (Crassula) becomes more beautiful with age as it forms a small tree. Use a heavy container because they become top-heavy. Plump, spoon-shaped leaves are succulent. Sandy mix helps prevent soggy soil. This one likes it dry.

E Cactus. We all knew these would make the list. Ideal if watering just isn’t your thing. A grouping of several different kinds makes an interesting display in a sunny window.

E Snake plant (Sanseveria). If all else fails this variety will please both beginners and experienced gardeners. It thrives in both high and low light. Available in green, variegated, dwarf and tall varieties, and prefers dry air and soil. These rarely need repotting.

E Golden pothos or devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aurea). Heart-shaped leaves emerge green and become variegated with cream and yellow. Stems can trail up to eight feet. Trim back several times each year to keep bushy. This plant does well in offices with fluorescent lights.

E Spider plant (Chlorophytum) is impressive for beginners and experienced alike. Slender, arching leaves are available in solid green and variegated forms. They like to be “pot bound” and are best grown on a pedestal or hanging planter to display the hanging brood of “spiders.”

E Wandering Jew (Zebrina). Glistening purple-, silver- and green-striped leaves are produced on fast-growing vines. Pinch to prevent legginess. This plant would rather be moist than too dry.

E Cast iron plant (Aspidistra). This tough plant survives heat, dry air blasts and low light and is content with infrequent watering. Be careful though because it resents soggy soil.

E Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema). Dark green, pointed leaves are marbled with white, cream or silver. It rarely needs repotting and is not fussy. But the evergreen won’t tolerate cold drafts or soggy soil.

E Corn plant (Dracaena massangeana). Similar to a field-corn plant in appearance, they can reach a height of three to five feet, creating a great floor plant. Droopy leaves indicate over watering.

E Peace lily (Spathiphyllum). Dark green, glossy leaves arch away from the central base. They’ll produce white blossoms if light is sufficient. Soggy soil and salt accumulation can cause its leaf tips to brown. Re-potting every five years is often sufficient.

Imagine looking out your picture window this January to cold, windswept, snowy tundra while you’re snug in your living room among a fresh collection of greenery. By the way, during our recent house fire, the gracious firefighters inquired immediately if all pets were safe. I nodded, thinking to myself, all my houseplants will be OK.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com