Resorting to Tropicals for Houseplants

Create your own tropical paradise with these exotic houseplants. However, in their native lands these tropical plants have jobs to do.

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Hide CaptionShow CaptionThe leaves of the mosaic plant resemble individual pieces of mosaic art.
(Fittonia verschaffeltii)

Mosaic plant is an interesting tropical whose leaves look like individual pieces of mosaic art. Deeply defined leaf veins are etched with pink, white or green, resembling stained glass. It too has uses outside of serving as a houseplant. "An infusion of leaves are used in Ecuador by native peoples to relieve toothache," says Coelho.

This petite plant (which reaches only about three to six inches tall) can be used in dish gardens, terrariums or companion plantings for bonsai. When grown indoors, be sure to provide mosaic plant with plenty of soil moisture and humidity. Also place in indirect or fluorescent light. It doesn't perform well in dry air (especially in the wintertime) or with bright, direct sunlight. Control growth habit by pinching back when it starts to get spindly. USDA Zones 10 to 11.

(Musa acuminata)

Banana is the fourth largest fruit crop in the world with a variety of applications, including medicinal and edible uses. In parts of Central and South America and Africa, byproducts of the roots, seeds and pseudostems are used to treat digestive and intestinal problems. When it rains in tropical areas, the banana leaf (when held upside down by the leaf petiole) can be used as an umbrella. Various parts of the banana go into making paper, fiber for clothing, and rafts.

To grow indoors, provide banana with bright light and moderate moisture; bananas are heavy feeders so apply fertilizer every week or two when actively growing. Transplant or take your container outside for the summer and bring indoors for the winter. If your banana plant gets too tall for its indoor environment, cut the pseudostem back by about one-half. In no time at all, you'll have new unfurling foliage. USDA Zones 10 to 12.

(Monstera deliciosa)

Nothing says tropical foliage like Swiss cheese plant, appropriately named for its dissected foliage resembling the holes in a block of Swiss cheese. In tropical regions, Monstera produces an edible fruit that tastes like a combination of banana, mango and pineapple. The fruit can be used to flavor drinks and ice cream. The leaves of M. spruciana are used by the Shuar tribe in Amazonian Ecuador as an anti-inflammatory agent; according to ethnobotanist Dr. Bradley Bennett, it is thought to make an excellent treatment because its leaves are so large that, when heated, they can be applied to treat a large area of the body.

When grown as a houseplant, it may take a while to produce fruit, and the foliage may not be as large or dissected as it would be in its native habitat. However, it is quite attractive when grown in a hanging basket or trained to climb. It does not require lots of light or moisture but will be more vigorous if given ample sunlight and water. M. deliciosa albo-variegata has large dissected leaves with creamy-white and green variegation. USDA Zones 10 to 11.

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