I'm very much of two minds on this one. All the plant-seller websites tell me that it's a super-easy plant; my actual experience with it has been decidedly mixed; and lots and lots of other people have had a really tough time with it.
If you do a web search for Homalomena1 'Emerald Gem,' you will inevitably run into sites that praise the hell out of this plant. You'll read things like, Compact shape! Tolerates low light! Disease resistant! Tolerant of stress conditions! The perfect choice for an area with height restrictions! Humidity is not critical! Easy-care! Remains lush and healthy! Durable foliage!2 In fact, the word "durable" and variations on "durable" are repeated in almost every profile.
This raises some questions. Like, what does it mean for a houseplant to be "durable?" Exactly what sorts of conditions can it survive because of its durability? If it's so durable, why are all its leaves turning yellow? Nobody ever says.
For my own plant, this was never really that big of an issue, because I got it cheap ($3) and only got it because . . . well, because it was cheap, and because I wondered if it would work for me.3 So, you know, durable or not, who cares. That was about eight months ago, and although it doesn't look as good now as it does in the above picture (which is from October), it's still alive, and it gets by okay.
The number one problem actual people will report to you about this plant is that it drops its lower leaves. A lot. I'll be blunt: I do not know why this happens. I would normally assume that it's from overwatering, and watering is probably a factor in there somewhere, but my plant doesn't drop leaves with any kind of predictable pattern at all. I have no idea what it wants me to be doing differently.
The two concessions to reality that (some of) the plant sellers make are, they tell you 1) don't leave the plant to stand in water, and 2) don't let it get cold. There's wide disagreement about exactly how cold is too cold, but I've seen warnings about 70ºF (21ºC), so be aware that we may be talking about a plant with a pretty extreme understanding of the word cold. My problem might be temperature: the plant is a reasonable distance away from any doors or windows, but it's probably not so far away that it never dips below 70ºF.
We had an opportunity to get some of these in, on the last tropical plant order we placed. WCW4 nixed the idea, on the grounds that Homalomenas5 have not been easy to maintain in the greenhouse in the past. This is easily explainable, though, if we accept that they might start throwing leaves at 69ºF: certain areas of the greenhouse are at or below that temperature all the time in the winter.
When customers ask for recommendations for dark spots, I run through the standard list pretty quickly6, and more often than not people don't like any of them. So more options are always nice, and Homalomena would fit the bill if I could recommend it with a clean conscience. As it is, though, it's too difficult to recommend to most people, we can't keep it in the greenhouse anyway, and if neither of those were a problem, there's still the issue of it not really looking that exciting. The leaves are nice, true: they're shiny, they're green, they have an interesting texture, and the plant is self-heading, but all of that also applies to Spathiphyllum spp. or Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which are also much easier plants, and the first even has attractive flowers into the bargain.
Which brings me to the other adjective that all the plant-sellers bring up for Homalomena: "compact." This probably is a legitimate selling point for this plant: they aren't likely to outgrow whatever space you put them in.7
As best as I can figure out, here's how you grow one:
Light: flexible. I wouldn't put one in partial sun, but filtered or reflected sun should be okay. And, actually, my plant was doing pretty well during the summer when it was getting about an hour of direct sun every day.
Water: Bless me, I have no idea. Overwatering is bad, underwatering is bad, standing in water is bad. Mine gets watered about three or four days after I can't feel moisture in the soil anymore, and . . . well, and it's still alive. The growers' guide helpfully suggests that they be kept "on the dry side."8 They may be one of the plants that people overwater just because they have a tropical look and people assume they must need a lot of water. (Dracaena fragrans and Aglaonema spp. have this problem in spades: it's very hard to convince people that the plants would be happier if they were cared for less. This is also the reason why I think I used to have trouble growing Dieffenbachias: it seemed like anything with such watery stems and such broad leaves had to be thirsty all the time. But no.)
Humidity: Nice if you can get it, but seems not to be critical.
Temperature: Already covered above.
Pests: I assume it's probably subject to the same ones as any other plant. I've yet to have any pest problems with mine, and pest / disease resistance is supposed to be a selling point, but considering how hard the plant sellers are hyping the plant, I'm thinking the pest resistance may be overstated too.
Grooming: One does get tired of picking off yellow leaves, though it's not like you're doing it constantly.
Fertilizer: I've fed mine once or twice, but really don't know what it needs exactly. My growers' guide says they're pretty heavy feeders, though not insatiable, and they're also sensitive about high levels of soluble salts in the soil, so it's potentially a bit of a catch-22.
Propagation: I assume that plants like my own, which have multiple plants potted up together, can be divided fairly safely, but beyond that, I have no idea. The growers' guide says they're mostly from tissue culture.
The hype isn't the plant's fault, obviously, but even so, somebody is being a little dishonest. They're not all that easy to grow, and it's a little cruel of the tropical foliage industry to suggest otherwise. I understand that business is business, and people are in it to make money, and it's hard to make money if nobody buys your plants, but it seems to me like there's not much money in convincing people that they have black thumbs, too: people who think they have black thumbs don't buy very many plants. Either give better instructions, or acknowledge that it's maybe not the easiest plant, you know?
EDITED 5/13/08: It actually got worse, so I raised the difficulty level from 5.5 to 6.7. We seem to be arguing mostly about how much water it deserves, but it's also not bouncing back since I started trying harder. I'm afraid its days are numbered.
EDITED 10/21/09: We seem to have come to an understanding of some kind on the watering; I'm watering less, and it's doing okay, so I've re-evaluated the difficulty level and now consider it a 5.6. (Subject to change, of course.)
EDITED 1/20/10: Not sure what changed, exactly, but it's behaving itself just fine now, so I moved it down to a 3.8, which is approximately "normal" difficulty. The location it's in at the moment has a bright fluorescent light about 2-3 feet above the rim of the pot, it's warm all the time (because it's near the ceiling, in the kitchen / living room), and I water it when it begins to droop a little. The drooping is pretty subtle, unfortunately. I'm also feeding it, and I wasn't before, though I'm not giving it a lot of food. This all seems to be working out just fine, so possibly it was over-potted before and has only now grown into its pot, or it really does begin to throw leaves at 70F/21C and is only happy now because it's never that cold, or it's not the low-light plant it's advertised as being. Something doesn't add up about all this, but it's working now, so I'm not going to complain.
Photo credit: both my own.
1 This is actually pronounced "Hahm-uh-low-MEE-nuh," but I always pronounce it "HAHM-uh-LAW-muh-nuh," for reasons which will be explained shortly.
2 (All are actual quotes from various websites, in case there was any doubt.)
3 Also, I enjoy saying "Homalomena," the way I pronounce it, which inevitably gets this stuck in my head:
The ultimate expression of this association is that now my husband or I will automatically sing "doo doo de doo doo" in response to the other of us saying "Homalomena," which I hope we never have to explain to anybody we don't know.
4 = Wonderful Co-Worker, the other person working in the greenhouse right now, who has been mentioned repeatedly in the blog already.
5 (Doo doo de doo doo)
6 Dracaena fragrans, Dracaena deremensis cvv., Aspidistra lurida or A. elatior, Spathiphyllum spp., Sansevieria trifasciata, Zamioculcas zamiifolia, Aglaonema spp., Philodendron hederaceum, Epipremnum aureum, and Chamaedorea elegans, more or less. Sometimes also Rhapis excelsa, Chlorophytum comosum, and Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash,' depending on how low they seem to mean by "low."
7 Particularly not if you kill the plant.
8 The dry side of what?