Sunday, December 7, 2008

PATSP Bottom Ten Houseplants

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)
Difficulty: 7.0
Beauty: 4.0
Anxiety: 1.0

Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight.'

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)
Difficulty: 1.9
Beauty: 8.0
Anxiety: 2.0

Codiaeum variegatum 'Mrs. Iceton.'

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)
Difficulty: 3.4
Beauty: 6.0
Anxiety: 2.0

(l-r) Asplenium nidus, A. antiquum.

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)
Difficulty: 6.9
Beauty: 1.0
Anxiety: 3.0

Hylocereus undatus. This is not my personal plant; it's a former graftee at work, that was freed from the oppression of the bourgeoisie Gymnocalycium by a clumsy customer and got its own pot and support. Not really making the best use of it so far.

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)
Difficulty: 3.3
Beauty: 4.0
Anxiety: 3.0

Chamaedorea elegans.

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)
Difficulty: 3.7
Beauty: 6.5
Anxiety: 0.0

Adenium obesum.

I'll have more to say about these when I do the plant profile for them (soon), but I had a bad experience with trying to grow one at home this summer. It lasted about two months, looked like hell for all but the first week, and made me extremely angry in the process.

4. Hedera helix. (English ivy)
Difficulty: 3.8
Beauty: 5.0
Anxiety: 1.0

Assorted Hedera helix varieties.

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)
Difficulty: 2.2
Beauty: 5.0
Anxiety: 2.0
Coffea arabica.

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.
Difficulty: 3.7
Beauty: 3.0
Anxiety: 2.0

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)
Difficulty: 4.1
Beauty: 4.0
Anxiety: 0.0

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.


Hermes said...

I agree with your list apart from Asplenium which grows really well for me and always draws positive remarks from my visitors.

mr_subjunctive said...

So what are you doing for yours that I haven't been doing for mine? I'd really like to be able to grow them. . . .

Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ said...

Portulacaria afra (no. 14 on your list--note spelling)is an easy plant here in the Phoenix area. There are SO few easy plants here I just wanted to highlight it. The varigated variety is NOT easy, but the plain green one is. It can be in part sun or full sun (even in Phoenix!!!) and requires some water in our summers, but very little in winter. Also, if you let it stay dry in the spring for about 6 weeks, it shrivels up some, but, when you start to water again, it has little white flowers!
Anyway, I'd say that in the Mid-west indoors to get the all green variety and don't over-water and give morning sun at least. Are you doing that?

Anonymous said...

I don't have a bottom ten list. I have three different lists:

1. The Never Again List (thanks for reminding me that Portulacaria afra should be on it.) This is a list of plants that I like and have owned, but have failed with repeatedly, plants I have owned and do not like, and plants I currently own and like, but are troublemakers that I will not replace should they die.

2. Plants That Should Be On The Never Again List, But I Have Trouble Resisting Them. (Codiaeum and Alocasia spp. go here.)

3. Plants I have never owned and will never try, either because I do not like them, or because They Require the Kind of Care I Will Not Be Able to Give Them, No Matter How Much I Kid Myself.

Almost everything on your lists is on one of my lists as well, though I have never given Alternanthera any thought one way or another. I do fine with Adenium and Echeveria, mostly because they go outside for almost 6 months of the year, and I accept that Adenium is semi-deciduous. And I do think P. Xanudu will be a new addition to list 3.

Anonymous said...

I should have said "I accept that Adenium is semi-deciduous under the conditions I am able to provide."

mr_subjunctive said...


Yep. South window (though perhaps artificial light would be better: I've got one that was marketed for Seasonal Affective Disorder which is bright enough to fool cacti. Considering how weak and occasional sunlight is here in the winter, the consistency might help). Pretty lean, quick-drying soil, in a clay pot. It's not so much that it dies on me as that it's so painfully slow-growing that I have to live with every little mistake forever. You know, like, I forget to water once, it drops three leaves, and it takes it nine months to grow three more.

I've seen the variegated ones, but I don't remember where, and we've never had them at work.

mr_subjunctive said...


I sort of have those lists too, though some plants bounce around from one to another. Like I think Calathea started out on the I-Can't-Give-the-Right-Care list, moved to the I-Can't-Resist list, failed spectacularly and fell another level to the Never-Again list, and now I think we're creeping back to I-Can't-Resist again. Not sure what it is about Calathea: I actually think the Stromanthes we've got are prettier plants, if looked at side-by-side with Calathea, but I've never really even thought about buying a Stromanthe.

I had one Echeveria that did really great, actually, until it got big. Then I didn't know what to do with it, so I tried to behead and re-root the top, which in retrospect was a bad idea. They do well in the greenhouse, though, and I've enjoyed propagating from leaves, and I really like the flowers. Just not a good fit for the apartment, or for me personally, or something, is all.

Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ said...

Another interesting point is you mentioned Crassula ovata as being easier. When I moved to Phoenix from the Northeast (I worked in the greenhouse of a garden center there for 4 years)I had a big beautiful "jade plant" that I had grown for 10 years. It immediately started to drop hugh branches and ended up dying. Boo hoo! At various times I purchased several small ones to try to start again without luck. Finally I got one that is growing for me ... so I guess my point is that it depends on the environment where you live what grows well. Plants are smart and sometimes it is really hard to trick them into adapting!
Oh, I think lights would be good for Portulacaria where you are and don't let it dry out TOO much. I'd actually have it in a plastic pot with a little richer soil mix that drains well.

Aiyana said...

I agree with you on #5. I bought an Adenium arabicum 'Shada' and paid close to $100--as it was quite large. It did superbly, and then, rotted almost overnight. Never again. I followed the care instructions to the letter, but for some reason, when we have our short humid time in the summer (humidity as high as 20%!) I always lose a few cacti, succulents and caudiforms.

Anonymous said...

Love the list! I have a Dizygotheca elegantissima in a sub-irrigation pot in my office and he's growing like crazy. The pot is actually unglazed and sitting in a clear glass shell filled with water. I was worried about root rot, but two months in and the little guy is doing great (I bought him at Home Depot, couldn't resist the "exotic angel" tag).

Anonymous said...

Re: Asplenium -- how do you fertilize yours? I have one, and it's growing beautifully, even though I'm pretty sure I'm overfertilizing it. All the plants sitting next to it like a lot of fertilizer, so I somehow stopped paying attention and started fertilizing the fern the same way -- 1/4 tsp of 20-14-13 per gallon, with every watering, which comes to about twice to once a week. I'm maybe wrong, but this seems a bit much for an epiphyte -- or does this sound like the right amount to you? Now, I don't know if my Asplenium is doing well because or despite the extra fertilizer it's getting, but for what it's worth, I've been growing it for 3 years, and it honestly is a beautiful plant -- and in those 3 years I killedd 2 Adiantums, one Pteris cretica, and I moved one Arachnoides simplicor variegata outside because it wasn't thriving indoors. I basically swore off growing any other ferns inside, I just don't have the humidity they need (zone 6 PA), but I'd totally get about 20 more Aspleniums. Or 50. If I had the space, that is. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, *if everything else fails*, try upping the fertilizer on your fern, maybe it'll help.

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, I hadn't been fertilizing much, but I think I did add a few bits of time-release fertilizer in there a few months ago.

I actually had this conversation yesterday with a couple fern-enthusiast customers, and they said that possibly watering from overhead was the issue, that Aspleniums don't like water hitting the crown and new leaves will rot out easily if they're left too wet for too long.

It's kind of a moot point for me right now anyway, because I threw away the one I had not too long after posting this, and I don't plan on getting another one, but if I do, or if any of the A. nidus gametophytes should turn into new ferns for real, it's at least something to try. I do like them, and would grow them if I could.

I wouldn't swear off growing all other ferns inside, though: holly ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum) and I really get along well, now that I've more or less figured out how often to water and stuff. It's getting to be a problem, actually, because the plant in question has somewhat outgrown the spot I have for it, and I'm not sure where I can move it.

Anonymous said...

Ooooooh I'm pretty sure I have Cyrtomium falcatum growing outside. It sure looks like one, I should check the label that came with it. If that's the guy, I'll try propagating it -- I kinda wanted to learn propagating ferns for a while, but all this business of them dying on me got me discouraged. Thanks for the tip!