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Plant of the Week: Houseplants that Survive

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Each week since 1997, Dr. Gerald Klingaman has offered readers a unique window as he chronicles of the social history of plants.

"What always interested me was the background of the plants and how they got there and the people involved in bringing them forward," he said.

Klingaman, a retired extension horticulturist who is now operations director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has created is a library of hundreds of plant histories that run in newspapers across the state and have become a favorite of gardeners in Arkansas and beyond. We hope you'll enjoy our extensive archive of his works and return each week to see what's new. 

Plant of the Week: Houseplants that Survive
 

Technically, I’m not really lazy.  Instead, there are things I like to do and things I put off until the spirit moves me. I love the physical aspects of working with plants – germinating seedlings, rooting cuttings, potting, pruning and that kind of thing – but maintenance and the ever-boring “care as needed” leaves me cold.  Because of this propensity towards a kind of benign neglect, especially as it relates to watering, I’ve identified a few really tough houseplants that put up with my personal foibles.

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NO FUSS -- Nephytis or arrowhead vine is a near-perfect tabletop specimen that will survive for years as a no-fuss houseplant. (Image courtesy of Gerald Klingaman) Credit mandatory.

Probably if you asked any group of gardeners what they considered the best houseplants, each would produce a different list.  Any “best of” list is doused in the aesthetic biases we each hold and moderated by the light and humidity characteristics of our own home while being forged by our particular maintenance schedule.  And, because I’m married, two of the following plants are my wife’s favorites and she won’t let me throw them out.

In my world view, the perfect houseplant is the right size for its intended role, it survives long periods of neglect between waterings, it isn’t always dropping things and it enjoys spending the summers out on the patio.  After a bit of cajoling, I finally convinced my wife that a weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) was not a good houseplant for us because it was always raining down leaves, especially when I stretched the watering schedule beyond its limit of endurance. 

But she won out on the tree philodendron (P. selloum) she loves, even though I argue it takes up an unreasonably large footprint in our living room each winter.  This plant, with its deeply cut, cookie-sheet sized leaves at the ends of two-foot-long petioles is a pretty plant, but its six-foot wide wingspan makes finding a home for it a bit of a challenge.  I help this situation by putting it out in the summer where the back side is next to the house, and the large leaves reach out towards the light. This one-sided effect then makes it easier to find a bright spot where I can shove it up next to a wall come winter. 

A pair of floor specimen plants we both like are scheffleras (Hawaiian Schef, Schefflera arboricola and the big Australian S. actinophylla).   Hawaiian schefflera is probably better for the average home because it can be maintained in the under waist-high size without difficulty, while the regular Queensland schefflera is a forest tree capable of reaching 50 feet tall, so keeping it under eight feet tall is hard.  Both will drop a few leaves when first brought inside in the fall, but the leaves are big, the number lost is small and the period of leaf drop is short. When I move them outside in the spring, both get a general pruning back to maintain compact, manageable size and ensure new, lush growth for the following winter indoors. 

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FOR THE FLOOR -- For a manageable floor sized houseplant, the Hawaiian schefflera is hard to beat. (Image courtesy of Gerald Klingaman) Credit mandatory.

Nephytis (Syngonium podophyllum) is a vining houseplant that makes a near-perfect tabletop specimen, so long as you keep it in a six-inch pot.  I especially like the selections like White Butterfly or Exotic Cream because they shine all winter long.  Like all vining plants, nephytis will grow bigger and badder if you put it in a larger pot, but then it becomes too large to use as a centerpiece on the table or to sit on a windowsill.  When it starts to produce running shoots or stands too tall, prune it hard.  These cuttings root easily, allowing you to share your tough houseplant with friends and family.

I think I consider the moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) a perfect tabletop houseplant, but someday I may change my mind on it.   These are available year-round in the grocery stores and I consider them one of the best investments in flowering houseplants. They bloom for four to six weeks, and if you cut the scape back, they will rebloom.  When they are out of bloom, I hide them away in a bright corner, but usually have another ready to rotate into position near the sink so I can watch its buds grow and develop. 

I have lots of other houseplants – many of the cacti and succulent kind – that tolerate my erratic and unpredictable watering schedule.  Of the green, leafy types these few plants are good choices for the novice gardener looking for hard to kill greenery.  But to make it work, don’t overpot, don’t be afraid to prune them back and move them outside in the summer to a bright, but shaded location where they can recover from a long winter indoors.

For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns, visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.

 
By: Gerald Klingaman, Retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - Nov. 21, 2018