Sunday, January 15, 2012

List: Houseplants Native to the Southern Pacific Ocean

One of the things I did in October / November that led me to the point of burnout by November / December was, I spent a lot of time trying to track down the native ranges for a bunch of different houseplants. This was a lot more complicated than it might sound, because there doesn't seem to be any central authority for these sorts of questions, so I had to refer to multiple sources of information, and different sources occasionally contradict one another, and on occasion it's tough to find any source that will hazard a guess at all, so the whole thing wound up taking a good chunk out of my November and I'm not even confident that the information I gathered is correct. I mean, it should be mostly correct, but there will be occasional errors. So I probably won't be any more error-prone than any other sources, but it may be important to keep in mind that this list, and the others like it, may contain errors, so you shouldn't use it for any work where getting a plant's native range wrong might result in someone's death. For example.

The main source of information, incidentally, was GRIN, which is awkward to use and woefully deficient about certain genera of plants, but which at least tries to provide range information for most of the plants it does cover. I'm mostly using their method of dividing up the globe, as well. GRIN has differing categories for the Southwest Pacific (#45 on the map below) and the South Central Pacific (#44) --

Image credit: GRIN.

-- which I'm combining because I only found two houseplants from the South Central Pacific, so I can't make a South Central post, so I may as well combine Southwest and South Central. What that means is, we're talking about the mess of little islands to the southeast of Papua New Guinea and northeast of Australia, places like Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Samoa and American Samoa, the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and all those other little places I'd heard of before but never really bothered to locate on a map.1

But now I have! Map from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, by way of Voice of America.

This is not a particularly good part of the planet to hunt for possible houseplants; out of a 622-plant list, only 23 (3.7%) come from this part of the globe, and only a handful are exclusive: most were also found in India, China, Indo-China, Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, or some combination thereof.

Other sources of the information consulted for this list and the ones to follow, in descending order of trustworthiness: Plant List, (not linked because I've been unable to connect to it and am unsure if it still exists), general Google searches, Wikipedia, Tropicos,2 and possibly a few other places I can't remember and didn't write down. I've tried to select plants for the photos section that I'm most confident are native to the South Pacific, leaving the ones I'm less certain about for the end of the post.

The whole native-ranges project should be good for another twenty or so posts like this, though obviously the whole globe won't be represented. Very few houseplants come from Siberia, for example.3

Here we go.

Araucaria heterophylla (Norfolk Island pine) is found exclusively on Norfolk Island,4 which is located a bit to the south of most of the other plants on this list. GRIN considers Norfolk Island to be part of Australia, not part of the Southwest Pacific, but Norfolk Island surely has more in common with New Caledonia than it does with Australia, so I'm saying it belongs here.

Breynia disticha (snowbush), green revert of the variegated cv. 'Roseo-Picta.' This one is from New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and nowhere else.

Codiaeum variegatum (croton), variety 'Petra.' Crotons have a broader distribution than Breynia, but it's still centered on the right general area: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, northeastern Australia (specifically Queensland), plus the Southwest Pacific islands of Fiji and Vanuatu.

Epipremnum aureum (pothos), officially belongs to the South Central Pacific, according to GRIN, because it's native to French Polynesia, which is to the east of most of the other plants under discussion. Close enough, though.

Murraya paniculata (orange jasmine) has a fairly broad range, extending as far west as India, north to China and Taiwan, south through Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia, and east to the Northern Marianas islands in the Northwest Pacific. Also the islands of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, in the Southwest Pacific.

Pandanus veitchii (probably a synonym for P. tectorius? Common name is screw pine). Nobody seems to have a terribly good idea where P. veitchii came from, but GRIN says Indonesia and the Philippines, south through Papua New Guinea into eastern Queensland (NE Australia), then throughout the Pacific Ocean as far north and east as Hawaii. The germane islands for this list are New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, French Polynesia, and Vanuatu.

Phaius tankervillae (nun orchid) can be found in Fiji and New Caledonia, but also north to China, west to India and Sri Lanka, and south to Australia. The photo isn't of P. tankervillae (it's P. Microburst Octoberfest), and I was unable to locate the parentage information for P. Microburst Octoberfest, but P. tankervillae is the most widely cultivated Phaius, so PMO probably includes tankervillae genes, and as near as I could determine, tankervillae also has one of the larger native ranges, so the odds are that the picture's fairly representative of the species even if it's not actually the species. Especially since it's not a particularly good picture anyway. (It was all I had showing both blooms and foliage.)

Polyscias fruticosa. (ming aralia) Mostly a Southeast Asia species: it's found in Indo-China (Cambodia, Vietnam), northward to China, west to India, and south to Indonesia. Fiji, in the Southwest Pacific, is at the southern tip of its range.

Dizygotheca (now Schefflera) elegantissima (false aralia). Finally another one that's definitely on this list: S. elegantissima is exclusively native to New Caledonia.

Scyphularia pycnocarpa (possum-tail fern) is only found on Fiji.

Now for the recommendations.

I would enthusiastically recommend Pandanus veitchii, because once established they're incredibly easy to grow. (I have lost a couple offsets to unknown causes before, but they're usually easy to establish, too.) Screw pines are too big and prickly to be suitable for everybody, but if you don't mind big and prickly then you should track one down. They don't seem to be bothered by dry air, as far as I can tell they're pretty flexible about watering, I have yet to see any bugs attack them,5 and they'll stay alive in a wide range of light conditions, though some sun is helpful.

Epipremnum aureum and I have had some missteps in the past: specifically, I've lost plants after repotting, more than once, and I'm not sure why. They do well for almost everybody else, though, and I've been doing better with mine for the last couple years. Pothos is likewise fairly flexible about water, light, and humidity, and not overly bothered by any pests.

After those two, it becomes more or less impossible to choose. I adore Auraucaria heterophylla, Breynia disticha, and Murraya paniculata, for differing reasons: Araucaria has been remarkably easy for me, and is one of the plants I've had the longest, though spider mites can occasionally be a problem, and it will do best in a cool, humid, and bright spot without direct sun. Breynia disticha is likewise slightly prone to spider mites, and will drop leaves if allowed to dry out too much, but it's flexible about light, temperature, and humidity, and grows gratifyingly fast. Murraya paniculata will produce lots of small white flowers with a heavy fragrance resembling orange blossoms, which can self-pollinate to form small inedible red fruits. It has no particular pest problems and is very tolerant of indoor conditions, but needs bright light, lots of water, and abundant fertilizer to grow well.


The anti-recommend is Codiaeum variegatum, because the anti-recommend is always Codiaeum variegatum. If you get a nice specimen, in a suitable (very bright, warm) spot, that doesn't have spider mites to begin with, and you don't bring home any other plants that might have mites: then you have a shot, but if you bring in other plants very often or buy your plant from a place that has spider mites anywhere on the premises, I can pretty much guarantee that your plant is eventually going to get covered in mites, defoliate, and die. I don't even consider buying Codiaeums anymore, and haven't for years.

Not pictured:
  • Carmona species (fukien tea) are sometimes sold as bonsai specimens. They're native from Northern Australia, northward through Indonesia and Indo-China, up as far as China and Japan. They go as far west as India and Sri Lanka, and as far east as the Solomon Islands. I've never tried growing one (bonsai, even the fakey mass-produced plants sold as bonsai, are always out of my price range), and suspect them of being difficult besides,7 but the foliage has a strange/wonderful astringent smell to it.
  • Castanospermum australe (lucky bean plant) is one of those plants I have yet to see in person, though I keep hearing about them from elsewhere. Their native range is small: just Queensland (NE Australia), New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. I have no idea what they're like as houseplants.
  • I've never grown a Cocos nucifera (coconut palm); we tried sprouting one from a coconut at work once, but nothing happened, and I think we brought one in to sell once as well, but it sold too quickly for me to get much of a feel for how it worked. I understand they're supposed to be fairly difficult, requiring a lot of light, water, and warmth. Their native range is from Indonesia, south and east through Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, Australia, and Vanuatu, though they've been introduced to basically every tropical habitat in the world.
  • Ficus benjamina (ficus tree) can be found on the Solomon Islands, though it has a range extending north as far as China and Taiwan, west as far as India, and south as far as Australia. Like Polyscias fruticosa, they can alarm the unprepared, but are pretty good houseplants for anyone who can give them consistent care.
  • Ficus microcarpa (Chinese banyan). Pretty much the same range as F. benjamina, though its range extends a bit further to the west and north. The significant part of the range for this list are New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands. They're a little less prone to panic defoliation than F. benjamina, though I've had waaaaaaay more trouble with spider mites on my F. microcarpas than I ever dreamed of with my F. benjaminas, so I suppose it's a tradeoff.
  • Several somewhat obscure Hoya species are from the South Pacific as well, according to; the relevant species are H. affinis, attenuata, australis, barrackii, betchei, bicarnata, chlorantha, cominsii, crassior, diptera, dodecatheiflora, filiformis, guppyi, inconspicua, intermedia, limoniaca, marginata, megalantha, naumanii, neocaledonica, neoebudica, pilosa, pubescens, pycnophylla, schneei, trukensis, and vitiensis. I don't know what any of them are like to grow indoors.
  • Polyscias crispata (also P. cumingiana) also comes from the whole Indonesia / Malaysia / Papua New Guinea / Philippines area, plus New Caledonia. I assume its care is similar to that for P. fruticosa, though I've never grown one.
  • Solenostemon scutellarioides (more correctly Plectranthus scutellarioides; less correctly Coleus blumei -- most people just call it coleus) has a wide range from China to India in the north, to the northern coast of Australia in the south, including basically everything in between, as well as the Solomon Islands. It's not difficult indoors exactly, but it wants to be huge, grows really fast, can't dry out for long, and needs a completely unreasonable amount of light. Hard to keep up with; I prefer to treat mine as outdoor plants that just have to come inside occasionally for six-month stretches.
  • Spathoglottis species (ground orchids) are from diverse habitats within the India / China / Australia / South Pacific rectangle that I'm getting tired of typing out. S. plicata can be found in New Caledonia, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, and Tonga. I don't know whether they make good houseplants.

Borderline cases:
  • GRIN basically punted on the question of where Acalypha wilkesiana (beefsteak plant, copperleaf) is from. They think "Oceania," which is the general area we're considering, but it's so widely cultivated that the actual origin is unclear. I've never grown Acalypha wilkesiana, since it looks to me like another fast-growing, sun-needing plant like coleus, and I have enough trouble with coleus.
  • I wasn't sure whether to include Didymochlaena truncatula (mahogany fern) on the list or not, because GRIN says that it's basically from everywhere. All of tropical Africa, including South Africa and Madagascar, the whole India / Indo-China / Indonesia / Philippines area we've been talking about with everything else in this post (including, relevantly, Fiji), Southern Mexico, and most of South and Central America. This seemed . . . implausible. I mean, it's a fern, for fuck's sakes, how is it going to get from South Africa to Fiji? But other sites backed GRIN up on the claim, so I guess it could be true. My personal experience is that it makes a lousy houseplant: it's way too touchy about missed waterings for this particular house, and consequently mine pretty much always looks like crap. I do enjoy saying Didymochlaena, though.
  • Medinilla cvv. is another questionable inclusion; not only do I suspect most Medinillas being grown indoors are probably man-made hybrids, I suspect that almost no Medinillas are being grown indoors. Not for very long, in any case. (They don't even do terribly well in the ex-job's greenhouse.) They seem to be pretty common in Indonesia and the Philippines, and GRIN lists at least one species as being from Fiji.
  • Musa spp. (banana) is another weird case: the genus is generally within the India / China / Australia / South Pacific rectangle, but they're also widely cultivated and naturalized, so they're pretty certain that some Musa species are from the South Pacific, but I didn't care enough to want to sort through the tangle of species and ranges to figure out which. There's also been some hybridizing going on, too, so the question may be moot for some ornamental types. I have mixed feelings about them as houseplants: mine's been less trouble than I was expecting when I bought it, and has done much much better in the last year than it did when it first arrived, but they're still not a plant I'd recommend to people.
  • The natural range of Paphiopedilums (slipper orchids) stretches from northeast India, east and south through Indo-China (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc.), Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Southwestern Pacific, though I don't know specifically which islands. (GRIN was unhelpful on this one.) Virtually all commercially-available paphs are man-made hybrids, though, so this may not be relevant. As for what they're like as houseplants, well, they like to tease me:8 I don't know how they act for other people.
  • Spathiphyllum species (peace lilies) are primarily from Southern Mexico, southward through Central and South America,9 but GRIN swears that there are a few Asian species, and that at least one can be found in the Solomon Islands. This may not be relevant, since I'm pretty sure any peace lilies you can pick up in a store are going to be man-made hybrids anyway, but I suppose it meets the minimum criteria for inclusion, so hey, here it is. They make fine, if generally uninspiring, houseplants.

1 Sorry, Pacific Islanders. It's not personal, it's just that there are so many little islands. If it makes you feel any better, I could probably locate some of them correctly now, after doing this post.
2 Tropicos is tricky, because the locations they name are not necessarily locations where the specimens were actually collected, and it took me a while to figure this out. It's frequently unclear whether the location given is the location where the description was published, where the plant was collected, where a cultivated specimen has been grown, etc. Consequently, I tried to use Tropicos only in cases where there was nothing to be found anywhere else. It's possible that this is just me being stupid, and that there's a perfectly clear reference somewhere on Tropicos that will give me exactly the information I want, but it's the least user-friendly of any of the plant reference sources I consulted.
3 I don't think any of the zones on the map actually came up as having zero houseplant species in them, but that's largely because a few genera are ridiculously widespread: for example, Origanum (oregano), Goodyera (a genus of orchids, containing a few tropical species which are sometimes given the common name jewel orchids), and Drosera (sundews) all came up as being present in Siberia. Which no doubt there are species representing all three in Siberia, but these are almost certainly not the species people try to grow indoors.
4 (But it's not a pine.)
5 Though when I had one outside a couple summers ago, something did cut circular bites out of a couple leaves. None of the usual indoor pests seem terribly fond of Pandanus, though.
6 I'd also like to say that I think the difficulty of Polyscias fruticosa is often overstated on-line. Much like Ficus benjamina, it drops leaves when conditions change in ways it doesn't like. People often see this and panic, thinking that the plant is desperately unhappy, so they try to fix it with more water (because watering is the only thing most people know to do with plants), which leads to other problems. But once in a suitable location (normal indoor temperatures, filtered sun or bright indirect light) and given consistent care, they're really not nearly as scary as people think. One caveat: they are somewhat attractive to spider mites. I've never had that problem with my personal plant, but the plants at work sometimes had trouble.
7 They had a tendency to defoliate on us at work; I never figured out what that was about, but they almost always did it before they sold, so then we had a bunch of naked pretend bonsai sitting around.
8 "Look, look, I have roots! Whoops, now I don't! Hey, now I have roots again! Oh, never mind! Hooray, roots! Ha: tricked you!" The most frustrating thing about my paph is not that it's unhappy with me, it's that it won't just fucking die already. I know it wants to; I'd like to see it happen myself, yet it refuses to just give up and do it. If it survives to spring (it probably will), I'm going to mail it off to some nice PATSP reader via contest or something, 'cause this is getting ridiculous.
9 SPOILER: basically everything is from Central and South America. I expected most houseplants would be from Southeast Asia, but no: if it's succulent, it's from South Africa or Northern Mexico, and if it's not, then it's from Central or South America, particularly Brazil. Nobody would even bother growing houseplants, if we lived in a South-America-less alternate universe. That's how big of a deal South America is.


Paul said...

Add to the difficulty of the task you set forth upon, is that it has been only fairly recently that man has made an effort to actually figure out origins of species. Long before people cared to pay attention to such things, migrating tribes/colonies frequently took seeds or plantlings along with them to establish in whatever area they were settling -- greatly enhancing range spread.

Btw, assuming the info about the fern is correct, I would guess windborne spores would have been the most likely culprit.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! Really informative, but when customers ask me where a plant comes from, I always say (with a straight face) 'They're originally from the tropics. But these here are grown locally!' Locally meaning Florida, natch.

Why no love for Medinilla? I brought an old specimen home, left it outside all summer, brought it indoors at the end of october - it bloomed beautifully for me until the cats ate it.


mr_subjunctive said...


Nothing against Medinilla, exactly; they just don't seem to do that well for them at the ex-job. (I don't know what they're doing to the plants, exactly, but they seem to feel the need to cut the Medinillas back severely, and often the leaves have burnt margins. Whatever that would signify.) And I haven't seen much reference to anyone growing them indoors, either in forums like Garden Web or on people's blogs. So I've been hesitant to declare them houseplants.

They're also enormous and expensive plants (once they get up here, at least), so even if I were inclined to try one for myself, I wouldn't be able to.

Tom said...

Carmona is a horrible houseplant (I've so many times). I think they hate me. I do love the smell of them though, I think they smell like fruit loops.

Spathoglottis are in the same vein as often pretty in the store but 10 minutes after you get them home they're leggy from not enough light and covered in spidermites.

I can't even get a coconut to survive one summer OUTDOORS let alone indoors (Ikea randomly has them for like $20 occasionally so I always get suckered in...and then they're dead in a month)

Castanospermum oddly enough appears at lowes and home depot around here fairly frequently. I tried it once, it did fine until I fertlized it, then all the margins burned and it looked like crap. Once I found mealybugs on it the thing just went in the trash.

Jayson in Missouri said...

It is a heck of a stretch sizewise, but Phormium tenax (New Zealand Flax) is no taller than many Musa and hits the geographic bull's eye.

mr_subjunctive said...

Jayson in Missouri:

Well, barely (GRIN says Norfolk Island, plus throughout New Zealand), but -- do people grow it indoors, ever? I've wondered if that would work a few times, when I saw it in garden centers, but I haven't heard of anyone actually doing it.

Tom said...

For the record on Phormium (I'm awful nosy today aren't I?) I've found it nearly impossible indoors. I've tried a number of times... I think it wants moisture with sharp drainage, it seems to rot really easy. I'll be damned if I give up trying though!

Tigerdawn said...

You're probably going to hate me for this, but Hoyas are from the South Pacific.

mr_subjunctive said...


Not according to GRIN. (Almost, but not quite.) For H. carnosa they say:

China: China - Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan
Eastern Asia: Japan - Kyushu, Ryukyu Islands; Taiwan
Indian Subcontinent: India
Indo-China: Vietnam
Malesia: Malaysia

and for H. obovata:

Malesia: Indonesia - Celebes, Moluccas

They seem to be mostly from Indo-China (Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.) and Indonesia, with a few going north and west to India and China, but GRIN doesn't put any of them on any of the little islands like Vanuatu, New Caledonia, etc. that are the focus of the post: the closest they get are the many little islands of Malesia (Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, etc.). I mean, I'm open to other information, but according to GRIN Hoyas are merely very, very close to the Southwest Pacific, not actually in the Southwest Pacific.

Hoya will be all over the Indonesia list, whenever I make it. Which is a reason to dread making the Indonesia list, since almost everything from the South Pacific list will be on it as well.

Tigerdawn said...

While it may be too esoteric for this post, has a pretty detailed list of origins.

mr_subjunctive said...


Well, I don't think I recognize any of the species from the South Pacific page (maybe H. pilosa), but I'll add them.

Tigerdawn said...

:-) You are quite a wonderful person, you know that? You didn't have to edit your post to include obscure "collector" hoyas but you did anyway. From personal experience, I can tell you that H. chlorantha and all the H. australis-es are a joy to have around...unless you let chlorantha get too dry and then it spits leaves at you. But I can think of several other houseplants that do similar things when dry.

e said...

I am not a planet person at all, I tend to be able to kill even plastic plants, but I'm going to try my hand one more time at a terrarium from the Solomon Islands (for a Solomon Islands Tree Boa) and wanted to find plants that were native to that area. I found your wonderful site in my searches and I thank you for the info. Hopefully my local greenhouse will have some of these plants in stock so my snake will feel at home.
If it pans out, I'll send you a pic.