Easy Potted Tropical Plants
How long can my old rubber tree, which I named “Big Jim” almost 40 years ago, continue to survive?
Talk about a tough old potted plant! It has been hauled across the country, set outside every spring, and pruned into a leafless hat rack every fall to help it fit back indoors for the winter. And it has survived neglect that can come only from a lazy owner who is gone for weeks and months on end.
But Big Jim keeps plugging along, tolerating the three worst environmental problems indoors plants have: Low light, cool-ish temperatures, and, perhaps worst of all, low humidity - near death to many of our favorite plants, which are often native to steamy jungles.
Over the decades, I have found that some plants simply can’t cope, are need coddling. Many are great plants, but not all that easy to care for without regular attention – which I am unable to guarantee. So here is my list – an abbreviated one, for sure – of plants that nearly anyone can grow, regardless of skills or attention, and which will thrive in the lower light and humidity of indoors.
Rubber tree (Ficus elastica) is the slower-growing, broad-leaf cousin to my slightly more fickle weeping fig (F. benjamina). Whether solid green or variegated, it is easy to keep shrubby with regular pruning, or “limbed up” into a small tree, growing best when kept in bright light, but can quickly fill an entire window. When mine gets too big to handle, I simply prune it back to bare stems; new shoots quickly sprout out right below where I make the cuts.
Snake plant Sansevieria (often called “mother-in-law tongue”) is so durable and tolerant of low light and neglect, I joke that it can be grown in an ashtray on top of a television! Its slow-spreading rhizomes produce clusters of flat, sword-like leaves, either tall or in compact rosettes. My favorite is S. cylindrica, which has long, arching leaves that are round in cross-section like carrots.
Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) is an all-time favorite foliage plant for its wide, pointed leaves on semi-erect stems. Many have very pretty colored variegated or blotched leaves in shades of both dark and pale green, white or yellow. The multiple-stem plants often hide short stems of white or yellowish flowers, shaped like narrow cupped hands (similar to that of peace lily). This plant is widely grown in dim hotel or airport lobbies, and its cut stems are super easy to root in water, for sharing with others.
“Baby umbrella tree” or dwarf shefflera (Shefflera arboricola) is a miniature of the larger species commonly grown in malls. Its whorls of thick leaflets tolerate indoors very well, and needs little if any pruning to keep it in bounds. Variegated forms are available for an extra splash of color.
For their sheer durability, Philodendrons are among the most common potted plants, from the heart-leaf vine to larger-leaf shrubs that can get the size of an easy chair. There are many interesting compact forms more suitable to indoors than the monster “split leaf” kind; perhaps the best of those is Xanadu, a compact, slow-spreading potted shrub only about three feet tall, with deeply serrated leaves.
One of the largest groups of indoor plants are Dracaenas, most of which are stemmy plants topped with lion-manes of long, thin leaves. Some, including the several varieties of D. deremensis such as ‘Warneckii’, ‘Janet Craig’, and ‘Rikki’ are compact and orderly, others are tall and multiple-stemmed. The large “corn” plant (D. fragrans ‘Massaneana’) is usually grown with three large trunks in one pot, while narrow-leaf forms (D. marginata) are often pruned to have several branches. By the way, the novelty “good luck bamboo” is actually a small type of Dracaena rooted in water and trained to grow with spiraling stems.
Peace lily, often called by its Latin name Spathiphyllum, tolerates perhaps less light than any other. The pot-filling leafy plant can get up to three feet tall, and often has separate, taller flowering stems each with a large white cupped “spathe” and finger-like spadix. It is outstanding for removing airborne contaminants, and can live for many years on little more than occasional watering and feeding. However, in most cases it is best to replant into a potting soil that is less well-drained than the greenhouse-friendly kind in which they are first grown.
“Dumb cane” (Dieffenbacia) gets its common name from how, if ingested, its sap can cause a painful (though not life-threatening or long-lasting) irritation to the mouth and throat, often rendering its eater temporarily speechless. Its long-stemmed, bold leaves, produced on sturdy upright stems, can be solid green, variegated, spotted, or striped.
Who hasn’t got a Begonia in the kitchen window? There are so many interesting forms, with colorful, often patterned leaves and airy sprays of small flowers! And they are outstanding “passalong” plants for their ease of sharing through rooted cuttings and even leaf cuttings.
Lastly, there is a relative newcomer to the easy-care indoor plant world, the interesting Zanzibar gem often called “ZZ plant” for its hard-to-share Latin name (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), looks a lot like the tropical cycad called "cardboard palm" but has thick, fleshy, naturally glossy leaves. Loves indoors, hates a lot of water.
More, More, More!
No two of us would come up with the same list of great indoor potted plants; my great-aunt says I am overlooking some of her all-time favorites, including “devils’ backbone (Pedilanthus), tall ponytail palm, and aloe vera.
So there are many other superb low-maintenance plants for indoors including Kalanchoes (flowering or not), bromeliads, airplane plant, ivies, asparagus fern, smaller-leafed Peperomias, cacti, jade, Haworthia, and other succulents.
There are even more great plants – love to hear from you about your favorites - but some come with one or two little caveats in their needs for humidity, more regular watering, more light, and the like. But these I have listed are great starter plants for any indoor collection.
And who knows? You may end up with a Big Jim that can become a dependable and patient companion for many years.