Sunday, November 30, 2008

PATSP Top Ten Houseplants

A few days ago, Elizabeth Licata at Garden Rant posted a list of her top ten houseplants, rating them by "killability," "beauty," and "maintenance." I think killability and maintenance should really be the same thing: a properly-maintained plant, regardless of its requirements, ought to be pretty hard to kill. (It's just that some plants have completely unreasonable ideas about what "properly maintained" should involve.) But whatever. I went ahead and used that anyway, though I've renamed maintenance as "anxiety," since Licata used how much anxiety the plant causes as her test of what maintenance rating to give.

But whatever. Anyway. So here are my choices for top ten houseplants, using the same criteria she did, on 0-10 scales.1 The numbers for beauty and anxiety were quick and dirty subjective values, and would not necessarily come out the same were I do do this again, but if I did it again, you'd probably see the same twenty plants showing up repeatedly, in varying combinations. I've included the ten runners-up at the end of the list, as honorable mentions.

10. Aglaonema cvv. (Chinese evergreen).
Difficulty: 8.4
Beauty: 7.5
Anxiety: 7.0

Aglaonema 'Diamond Bay.'

I'm not surprised Aglaonema made it on the top ten, but I would have expected them to place a little higher, since I consider them pretty much the perfect houseplant.

9. Schlumbergera truncata cvv. (Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus)
Difficulty: 7.6
Beauty: 6.5
Anxiety: 9.0

NOID Schlumbergera, or whatever (see footnote 5). Photo is by gailf548, from

This was the first surprise to show up on the list: I have one, but it's tiny and asymmetrical and kind of goofy-looking, and not a plant I think about very much. I don't disagree with my numbers, though, so I guess it deserves to be here.

8. Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant, airplane plant, mala madre).
Difficulty: 9.9
Beauty: 6.0
Anxiety: 8.0

Chlorophytum comosum.

I know there are people who have trouble with these, but . . . well . . . but they shouldn't. They're really not that complicated.

7. Saxifraga stolonifera (strawberry begonia)
Difficulty: 8.4
Beauty: 7.0
Anxiety: 8.0

Saxifraga stolonifera.

Not something I would have thought to put on the list if I were coming up with it off the top of my head, and in fact not something I even particularly cared for before starting the present job, but they've grown on me. They've also grown on everything else.

6. Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash' (Fire Flash, Green Orange, Mandarin plant)
Difficulty: 9.9
Beauty: 6.0
Anxiety: 8.0

Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash.'

These are a little messy sometimes (if only the leaves didn't go so dramatically black when they die!), but I've never met a plant that was so indifferent to care, pests, etc. And although I kind of take it for granted now, that's a really pretty orange.

5. Aloe aristata hybrid (no common name as far as I know)
Difficulty: 8.2
Beauty: 7.0
Anxiety: 9.0

Possibly Aloe aristata x Gasteria batesiana. It's gotten much bigger since this picture was taken.

Another surprise. Not that I don't love mine, not that it hasn't been, like, the easiest plant ever, but I would never have thought of it for a top ten list, and it's weird that it showed up here.

4. Sansevieria trifasciata cvv. (snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue)
Difficulty: 8.5-7.6, depending on cultivar
Beauty: 5.5-7.0, depending on cultivar
Anxiety: 9.0

Sansevieria trifasciata 'Laurentii.'

A surprising number of customers don't like these; people seem to either love them or hate them. A big, full 'Laurentii' is a gorgeous plant, though. And 'Black Gold' kicks ass all over the place.

3. Haworthia attenuata (or possibly H. fasciata: see comments) (zebra plant)
Difficulty: 8.8
Beauty: 6.0
Anxiety: 10.0

Haworthia attenuata. Unless it's H. fasciata.

It's true that I've never had any trouble with these, and when they're happy, they do look very good. But #3, Mr. S? Seriously?

I have no explanation.

2. Philodendron hederaceum cvv. (heart-leaf philodendron)
Difficulty: 8.8-9.7, depending on cultivar
Beauty: 7.0-8.0, depending on cultivar
Anxiety: 8.0

Philodendron hederaceum micans.

Okay, now this is more like it. I'm always surprised when I see a list of easy-care houseplants that includes pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and not Philodendron hederaceum, because pothos gives me considerably more difficulty.

A lot of people can't tell the two apart, either, which makes me think that the omission of Philodendron might be because people think they've included it already. It's the much better plant, in any case, and the all-yellow version ('Aureum,' or 'Lemon-Lime') is really very attractive, with reddish new growth, bright yellow mid-aged growth, and green older leaves. I also like 'Brasil,' which is both green and yellow, and micans, which is reddish, with a velvety appearance.

Even my mother can grow Philodendron hederaceum.2 So you really couldn't ask for a more tolerant plant.

1. Dracaena deremensis group ('Warneckei,' 'Limelight,'3 'Lemon-Lime,' 'Goldstar,' 'Art,' 'Janet Craig,' 'Riki,'4 'Janet Craig Compacta,' etc.)
Difficulty: 7.9-9.0, depending on cultivar
Beauty: 7.0-8.0, depending on cultivar
Anxiety: 9.0-10.0, depending on cultivar

Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime,' or possibly 'Goldstar.' The two look pretty much identical.

Dracaena deremensis 'Art.'

God help you if you don't like strappy-leaved plants, but if you do, there's something somewhere in the deremensis species for you. They're robust, undemanding, come in a variety of colors, patterns, and sizes, and are just all-around solid members of the houseplant community.

Amazingly, Licata and I overlap on only two and a half plants: Schlumbergera (though she calls it something else5) and Sansevieria are the full overlaps, and Dracaena is the partial one (she mentions every kind of Dracaena except the deremensis group, but they're probably close enough to count). I think a lot of this is because she's biased toward flowering plants more than I am. I evaluated flowering plants too, and I did give them points for beauty -- you'll notice that the plants in this list don't actually have particularly high beauty scores -- but none of them are conspicuously easy, for all the drama of the flowers. The three highest-rating plants primarily grown for their flowers were Schlumbergera, which did just barely sneak into a spot on the list, Anthurium andraeanum, and Vriesea splendens.

Honorable mentions:
11. Yucca guatemalensis (7.5)
12. Zamioculcas zamiifolia (7.5)
13. Ardisia elliptica (7.4)
14. Alworthia 'Black Gem' (7.4)
15. Strelitzia nicolai (7.4)
16. Anthurium andraeanum (7.4)
17. Echinocactus grusonii (7.4)
18. Ficus microcarpa (7.3)
19. Ficus maclellandii (7.3)
20. Synadenium grantii (7.3)

So . . . what's your top ten list look like?


Photo credits: All mine, except the Schlumbergera picture.

1 In order to make the average work out properly, and make higher-ranking plants get higher numbers, I had to flip the PATSP difficulty rating around. So the number for "difficulty" here is just ten minus the PATSP number.
2 The plant thing skipped a generation. Grandma always had lots, though mostly her stuff was outdoors. Mom has frequently tried, but she's not consistent enough with tropicals and just flat-out doesn't like succulents (Mother! You're embarrassing me in front of the other garden bloggers!), so there are usually only a few at any given moment, and none of the few are usually doing all that well. But: I've given her a Philodendron hederaceum and a Saxifraga stolonifera, and she reports that both of them are currently doing okay.
3 There is the possibility that 'Limelight' is actually a sport of Dracaena fragrans, not D. deremensis. I've had a tough time locating any information about where 'Limelight' originated. Never mind. It's D. deremensis. It was a mutation of 'Warneckei,' apparently.
4 There is the possibility that 'Riki' is actually a sport of Dracaena reflexa, not D. deremensis. I've had a tough time locating any information about where 'Riki' originated. UPDATE: 'Riki' is in fact a sport of Dracaena reflexa. See 'Riki' profile for details.
5 "Schlumbergia." It's actually Schlumbergera. I am still looking for definitive answers about the Schlum/Zygo distinction (whether there is one, what the difference between the two if they're different). All the people who are positive they know seem to be split about fifty-fifty. These are, of course, pretty small nits to pick. Have decided as of 26 October 2009 to just call them all Schlumbergera.


Hermes said...

Top Ten best-selling houseplants in UK

by 2006 sales value

1. Spring bulbs
2. Chrysanthemum
3. Orchid
4. African Violet (Saintpaulia)
5. Peace lily
6. Poinsettia
7. Cyclamen
8. Begonia (flowering)
9. Azalea
10. Begonia (foliage)

Source: Flowers & Plants Association/TNS (Omnimas)

They feature a slightly different list by Popularity for the same year

Personally I couldn't do without Spaths and Orchids and Maranta spp.

Anonymous said...

#3 is probably H. fasciata. Very similar to H. attenuata ( but easier to grow.

Anonymous said...

I didn't use a formula to achieve my results, so here is my entirely subjective list of plants ranked according to ease and beauty:

1. Philodendron selloum
2. Hoya carnosa (I think mine is 'Krimson Queen')
3. Monstera deliciosa
4. Zamioculcas zamiifolia
5. Euphorbia lactea
6. Epipremnum aureum (Golden, Marble Queen and Neon)*
7. Peperomia incana
8. Crassula ovata
9. Sansevieria trifasciata esp. 'Silver Laurentii' and 'Compacta' which is very to 'Black Gold'.
10. Strelitzia nicolai

I definitely grow a few other plants that I find particularly beautiful, and still others that are as easy as those listed. But the list represents the best of both.

*I'm the opposite of you in this regard: I cannot keep a Philodendron hederaceum decent-looking to save my life; I find pothos quite easy and the variegated forms more attractive than the variegated phils to my personal taste.

Amy said...

I'm slowly collecting houseplants and snake plant is next on my list. What about jade plants? I love the way they look, but are they hard to grow?

mr_subjunctive said...


That list actually matches up pretty well with what we sell at work: the sequence might be different, but most of the plants would be the same. Probably something else instead of foliage Begonias: those don't work out very well for us, in general.

Of course, what sells and what's easy to take care of are two more or less entirely different things.


But when I've identified that plant before as H. fasciata, I've been corrected and told it was H. attenuata now, that fasciata was no longer a current name. The one in your picture looks more like the one I know as H. pumila, to me. I don't know what to think anymore, but I'll change the post accordingly.


Well, I at least have most of the ones on your list, and like them too: the husband has a Philodendron selloum from a long time ago that seems to like him, so he takes care of it, and I'm hopeless with pothos, so he does most of them, too.

I had to look up Peperomia incana -- I've seen similar Peperomias before, but I'll have to watch for that one specifically, since it comes so highly recommended.


Jades are in fact easy for most people. The choice of soil is the biggest part, I think: as long as it's potted in something that's not going to hold a lot of water for a long time, you can do just about anything to a jade (Crassula ovata; it was on Karen's list) and it'll stay alive. Getting one to look good and continue to look good is a little tougher, but they're still easy plants.

Anonymous said...

Desert Tropicals has pictures of both haworthias

and I think they match the plants we sell under those names, with pictures here:

But that's a lot of links.
In other words, If enough of our sources say olne thing, then I'm perfectly fine with accepting it, regardless of what some other expert may claim. They're so closely related anyway, that maybe they're really subspecies! Or C.V.'s! Oy the nightmare is growing!

Well, we do our own labeling, and the customers seem to accept whatever we tell them, except for this one Dudleya expert who stops by, but he gives us some new species occasionally, so it's all good.

Anonymous said...

That was a great list, thanks.

When I first started out, pothos gave me hell too - they rotted away one by one. Then I realised they are huge sun lovers (no direct sun for too long though) - give them sun and they thrive like crazy. East window is best. Now the pothos are multiplying so much I don't know what to do with them. They tend to branch out and vine, so I started new plants from those vines and have about 20 now from 8 initially.

I just bought a baby aloe aristata and zebra plant recently from the succulents section in the supermarket (since my succulents have been doing well I thought I'd try more - with the exception of the jade plant which rotted away) so was delighted to find mention of them in your list. I hope mine don't end up dying!

I agree with aglaonema being on the list too - a great plant; hard to kill. One of my silver queens was very badly infested with mealy bugs recently; I sprayed it twice and it is totally under the weather (leaves drooping pathetically), but it still refuses to die. I love them because they never want to give up.

Anonymous said...

Please don't hate me because I don't know the proper names - I've learned the ones in the garden, and my houseplants are somewhat forgotten. Here's what I have, whether it's a top pick or not.

1. Spathiphyllum (I have 3 or 4 of these, different sizes)
2. Variegated mini scheffelera
3. Chinese evergreen - you can't kill them
4. Corn plant
5. Cyclamen - florist variety that spends the summers outside and blooms like heck at the holidays
6. Prayer plant, the remenants of a dish garden I got about 10 years ago
7. Several Saintpaulias
8. Various coleus I couldn't let disappear when it got cold, so there are cuttings rooting in the window

Don said...

Thanks, Mr_subjunctive. Even if there's a subjective dimension to it, that's a useful list.

From the list of best sellers, I suspect that most houseplant purchases are gifts, and that the buyer is wishfully thinking of these plants as a longer-lasting alternative to cut flowers. For most such purchases, I doubt that long-term ease of care enters into consideration.

And, speaking from my experience in the landscape industry, retail customers tend to buy what's familiar.

Off the top of my head, my personal top-ten list would include:

Philodendron erubescens

Monstera deliciosa

Pellonia repens

Zamioculcas zamiifolia

Hoya pubicalyx "Pink Silver"

Philodendron hederaceum ssp. micans (velvet leaf philodendron)

Billbergia nutans

Neomarica gracilis

I've only had the Pellonia for a month, but it continues to grow vigorously in our apartment, and it doesn't seem particular about humidity or watering schedule. And it's beautiful, a plant that grabbed me by the lapels and wouldn't let go till I bought it.

Aiyana said...

I'm not a big houseplant fan, so I don't have a top 10 for houseplants. I do have a Aglaonema 'Diamond Bay' in my bathroom, however. You are right, it's pretty perfect.

forest said...

My most perfect houseplant is the orchid Brassavola Little Stars (Brassavola nodosa x cordata). It takes all kinds of abuse and blooms every November with an incredible exotic scent. Flowers last 3 months or more.

Hoya pubera comes in second with similar performance: I forget it for months, but it still blooms lusciously scented flowers in November.