I figure if I have a top ten houseplants list, I should also do a bottom ten. For the balance. Or because it's fun to rip on plants that have given me trouble.
I'm using the same criteria here as in the previous list (difficulty / beauty / anxiety), but I've left out some things that scored low because I haven't actually tried to grow them, and it seems unfair to call a plant bad if I've never actually had one. For the record, this disqualified Dionaea muscipula (venus flytrap), Gardenia jasminoides, Ravenea rivularis (majesty palm), Musa spp. (banana), Alocasia 'Polly' (African mask plant), Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia), and Adiantum spp. (maidenhair fern), which all had low enough numbers but no actual in-home experiences.
As before, #s 11-20 are included at the end of the post as honorable (or dishonorable, in this case) mentions. But first, here are the ten worst wastes of time and money I've tried to grow indoors. Please bear in mind that I actually still like some of these plants, but since beauty and difficulty both count, easy but ugly plants will show up on here, along with beautiful and difficult ones. And there are a few ugly and difficult ones, too. The top ten list made a lot more sense, overall, though I would have guessed some of these before I did the math.
10. Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight.' (joyweed, Joseph's coat)
The wilting and reviving is a feature, not a bug, but even so, it does make a person plenty anxious over time. Also, I had some minor run-ins with spider mites, and I never seemed to be able to provide my plant with enough heat, light, humidity, and water as it wanted: the ones at work grew enormous dark purple leaves, and mine at home, under as much light as I could manage, only ever seemed to just get by. The leaves stayed relatively small, and green, and it dried out often enough that a lot of the leaves at the base of the plant dropped, so it didn't wind up looking very impressive. I'd like to try again at some point, but it wasn't, overall, a particularly good experience.
9. Codiaeum variegatum. (croton)
I used to think these were prettier than I do now, but I still think they're pretty, especially 'Mrs. Iceton.' But oh, god, the spider mites. I don't actually mind mites that much as a general rule: I've gotten them off some plants before, even plants like Cordyline fruticosa that are supposed to be mite magnets, and it hasn't killed me. But I absolutely cannot get spider mites off of crotons at home, even spraying all the time with soapy water, even wiping the leaves off by hand one at a time with a damp paper towel every other day. It'd maybe be less of an issue in someone else's home: someone who could get a manageable number of plants and then hold there indefinitely, without a compulsive need to collect more, might not have such difficulty: less risk of introducing them by accident. But in my apartment or in the greenhouse, they're like cat hair and white couches: it's only a matter of time before they find one another.
8. Asplenium spp. (bird's-nest fern)
These, on the other hand, do great in the greenhouse, and never seem to have many problems there, but whenever I've bought one in the past, it does great for about six to nine months and then suddenly starts to fall apart. I have an Asplenium antiquum from April 2007 at home that is still technically alive and everything, but it doesn't seem to be producing new fronds anymore, and a lot of the old ones have been turning brown at the base and falling off. I think these are probably not really houseplants, even if they are included in all the books.
7. Hylocereus undatus. (dragon fruit, pitaya)
I feel guilty for letting this one show up on the list: it's not like it's been a lot of trouble. At the same time, it is a very, very ugly plant as things stand at the moment, and I'm not seeing any signs that it's going to age any prettier. Plus it's gotten big enough now to be wobbly, and it's tipped itself over a few times and broken pieces of itself off. I mean, it's a mess. And then with the aerial roots all over the place, too -- I just, I don't know. I hate to just get rid of it, if it's growing okay, but you know, space is limited, and I know there's got to be a more attractive plant out there somewhere that would make better use of the space this one is in.
6. Chamaedorea elegans. (parlor palm)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: everybody has a supposedly "difficult" plant that they have no trouble growing, and everybody has a supposedly "easy" plant that they can't do at all. Chamaedorea elegans is one of the latter, for me. The fronds start going black at the tips and working their way backward; sometimes whole plants rot out at the base; spider mites -- it's always been a variety of things happening simultaneously, but it's also always been bad. But then I'll have customers bring theirs in to get repotted, and they won't even know what they've got, and they'll have it in a drainageless pot, next to a heater at home, and they'll tell me that they've had it for fourteen years or something insane like that, and it'll look great. It's insane. I don't even think they're that pretty, compared to some other palms (Chamaedorea cataractum blows elegans out of the water), but it irks me that I can't grow one.
5. Adenium obesum. (desert rose)
4. Hedera helix. (English ivy)
Again with the spider mites. Some houseplant books will tell you that these are easy, and they might be correct, if you live in a house without central heat. But if your air is at all dry, if the temperature is usually above 60F (16C), if you don't have fans going all the time in the middle of winter, you're better off without one of these. Get a Hedera canariensis instead, if you have to have something from this family (though H. canariensis isn't a vast improvement, it's at least somewhat of one); get a Senecio macroglossus if it's the leaf shape and habit you like, get a Plectranthus verticillatus, Philodendron hederaceum, Epipremnum aureum, or a Pilea nummulariifolia if you just want something that trails, but nobody with central heat should ever get one of these unless they want spider mites. The same qualifiers apply here as for Codiaeum variegatum: you might be able to get away with it if you're not bringing in a lot of other plants and you never set your plant outside. I mean, people do do this. I'm just not one of them.
3. Coffea arabica. (coffee plant)
I've had a Coffea arabica for two years now, and it's still alive, it's grown noticeably, but we go through this thing every winter where it gets a bunch of yellow leaves, and any progress it managed to make during the summer is erased. It's now an eight-inch stick with four inches of leaves on the top, and by this time next year I expect it might be a twelve-inch stick with four inches of leaves on top. It's not much of a houseplant, though there are people out there who love them and are happily growing dozens right this minute. (There are people like that for every plant, it turns out.) My personal plant's fate is uncertain: on the one hand, it's alive after two years, and there are not a lot of plants I can say that about, but on the other, I don't foresee it ever looking much better than it does at the moment, so I might replace it with something a little easier to get along with.
2. Fenestraria rhopalophylla.
I bought one of these from Lowe's this summer. About two-thirds of its leaves had dried up and died within two months, and so I said, well screw this, and I threw it away. Then we got some in at work, and I bought one, and about two-thirds of its leaves have dried up and died within two months. It's still around, but it's getting increasingly hideous, and I know I'm not terribly good with plants that have different requirements in different seasons, so I think this one, though it lasted longer and was probably healthier to begin with, is going to be my last. Ever. Even when they're in very good shape . . . well, I like the look, but they're more odd than pretty.
1. Philodendron 'Xanadu.' (xanadu philodendron)
I've talked about my 'Xanadu' experiences pretty recently, but the short recap is: they're surprisingly anti-water, for a tropical plant. They're certainly interesting-looking when they're happy, but it's not like there are flowers or bright colors or huge, bold leaves, and they're not even the most interesting-looking Philodendron. Plus, they're paradoxically difficult to kill: they string you along, making you think that they're going to cooperate, putting out a little bit of new growth every once in a while: the difficulty is not so much in keeping them alive as in keeping them presentable. The ones at work are still doing okay (we're overwatering, I believe, but it's inadvertent: there are hanging baskets above them and there's only so much we can do), and I have no doubt but that there are customers out there who are capable of doing whatever the hell it is that 'Xanadu' wants, and who may run across this post one day and wonder what I'm going on about, but nothing about my experience with them has been pleasant. Never again at work, never again at home.
[Dis-]Honorable mentions (number in parentheses is the overall average rating):
11. Calathea ornata. (4.1) So beautiful, and I'm tempted to try again -- we have some new ones, 4-inch pots, relatively cheap -- but I can't imagine it actually working out. Once really should be enough.
12. Dizygotheca elegantissima. (4.1) One of the rare cases where a plant made it on the list despite performing pretty well for me; I did lose some cheap K-Mart plants to overwatering and spider mites, but the one I bought from work is still doing just fine. I do live in fear of mealybugs, but then I kind of was already.
13. Homalomena 'Emerald Gem.' (4.1) 'Emerald Gem' and I had reached an agreement, up until I noticed that I was having to water it, like, all the time, and repotted it. That was a mistake: since then it's dropped a lot of leaves and we've gone right back to it being a problem child again.
14. Portulacaria afra. (4.2) Not really a bad plant, but it's been frustrating for me all the same: it grows slowly, it drops leaves if it gets too dry and rots if it gets too wet, and it doesn't manage to be as attractive as the similar and much easier jade plant, Crassula ovata. I'm keeping it, but we're not really getting along.
15. Euphorbia bougheyi variegata. (4.2) It did get over its self-destructive tendencies, and we're okay, but it still makes me nervous to move it anywhere or put it near any other plants, and the growth habit is more odd than beautiful.
16. Cereus peruvianus. (4.3) I think the mealybug problem did eventually get solved, knock wood, but it took more than a year, untold amounts of pesticides, and more time than I care to think about going over it with rubbing alcohol. And now they're developing weird grayish patches that could mean any number of horrible things. I could tell similar stories about the ones we've had at work. Like the fabled little girl, when they're good, they're very very good, and when they're bad, they're horrid. But I like them anyway. Given up on them at work, but I'll still try to keep some at home.
17. Echeveria spp. (4.3) I can't manage enough light for these guys indoors, I think is my main problem, but they're also annoyingly brittle, I've rotted more than one out with overwatering, and I don't, frankly, like the look of them all that well once they start to develop a stem.
18. Begonia rex-cultorum. (4.3-4.4) A lot like the Calatheas: gorgeous but more or less impossible, at least for me, right at the moment.
19. Hedera canariensis. (4.4) Superior to Hedera helix on the spider mite front, but otherwise about the same. I like them, still, kinda, but I don't like them so well that I'm ever getting another. Probably. Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia), though it has a similar reputation for bugs, does much better for me.
20. Polyscias fruticosa. (4.4) Hasn't actually been a problem for me at home yet, but it's very new (I've had mine for about a month). The ones at work have been sort of iffy from time to time, though they seem more resilient than their reputation would suggest.
As before, I'll open the floor up for alternate bottom ten lists. Hit me.