Thursday, May 27, 2010

List: Easy, Attractive Houseplants for Beginners

The New York Times semi-recently solicited houseplant-related questions for Tibor Fuchs (the President of the Metropolitan New York Chapter of the Indoor Gardening Society of America1) to answer, which he subsequently did, in three parts (the first of which is here). I happened to see the list of questions he was working from during the brief period when they were being solicited, and was struck by how many of them were basically, please suggest a houseplant for me that's easy to care for.

Many of the questions then went on to request more specific plants that would survive with no light, bloom spectacularly, year-round, with enormous, brilliantly-colored, scented flowers, and be non-toxic to pets and children, which I assume is why Fuchs didn't bother trying to answer those questions, but the basic request was just, over and over, tell me the name of a plant I won't kill. Therefore, this list. In fact, I suspect I could do nothing but answer this question, every single day, and get more blog hits than I do from writing about other stuff.

There have to be some disclaimers, first.

"Easy" depends on what you think you're supposed to do, and I can't know, sitting here in my office and probably never having met you, what you think you're supposed to do. I also can't be certain you're going to acquire your plant from a reputable source that will sell you a healthy plant. But these are still your better bets, I think.

"Attractive" is also a problem. I don't know what you like. I tried to pick a set of plants that were diverse and colorful, but you might hate them all. I really think that's more your problem than mine, though.

Aglaonema cvv. ("Chinese evergreen") This is 'Peacock,' but there are many, many other varieties which are also good. I recommend any of them, but particularly 'Emerald Bay,' 'Golden Bay,' 'Maria,' 'Diamond Bay,' 'Jewel of India,' and 'Brilliant.'
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it too cold.

Chlorophytum x 'Fire Flash.' ("Fire Flash," "Mandarin Plant," "Green Orange")
If you killed it anyway: you probably either had it too hot or in too much direct sun.

Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime' or 'Goldstar' (shown) or other cvv. ('Art,' 'Dorado,' 'Janet Craig,' 'Janet Craig Compacta,' 'Jumbo,' 'Ulises,' 'Warneckei,' etc.)
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it cold.

Epipremnum aureum 'Neon' (shown) or other cvv. ("pothos") Includes the white, gray and green 'N'Joy,' the white-marbled 'Marble Queen,' and the yellow and green species.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it cold.

Euphorbia tirucalli and cvv. ("pencil cactus," "firesticks")
***This plant's sap is dangerous if it contacts the skin or (especially!) eyes. Though a very tolerant houseplant, I do not recommend it for homes with pets or children, or advise putting it in an area where it's likely to be knocked over or brushed up against a lot. Get it in the house, and then don't fiddle with it.***
If you killed it anyway: you probably didn't have it in enough light or overwatered.

Haworthia attenuata (shown) and other Haworthia spp. ("zebra plant," "fairy washboard")
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or had it in insufficient light.

Peperomia obtusifolia cvv. ("baby rubber plant") This is the variety 'Gold Coast;' other varieties are solid green or yellowish-green with darker speckles.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or got it too cold.

Plectranthus verticillatus. ("Swedish ivy") A variegated version exists, but it tends to revert to solid green pretty quickly.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or had it in insufficient light.

Saxifraga stolonifera. ("strawberry begonia") A variegated version exists but is slower-growing and a little more delicate, I hear. (Haven't grown it myself.)
If you killed it anyway: you probably underwatered.

Yucca guatemalensis. ("spineless yucca") This is a variety with gray stripes no the leaves; a solid-green type is the most common. There is also a variety with yellow stripes along the leaf edges.
If you killed it anyway: you probably overwatered or had it in insufficient light.

Anybody who's grown a significant number of houseplants would come up with a different list of plant recommendations, which wouldn't necessarily overlap much with the above. Generally speaking, I think beginners would do well with any plant that has a PATSP difficulty level below about 2.5 (see the sidebar for a list of plants with difficulty levels), though there are a few which are quirky in ways that wouldn't be well-suited for someone new to houseplants.

Of the above set, the three I would most recommend to someone new to houseplants would be Plectranthus verticillatus, Yucca guatemalensis, and Aglaonema cvv. This is because:

Plectranthus verticillatus is especially good for beginners because it grows very quickly: it's not quite instant feedback, but it's pretty close, and since it's an easy plant, most of the feedback will be positive, so it's a good confidence-booster. It's also very tolerant of dry air, temperature fluctuations, and fluctuations in moisture level. It does need fairly bright light, but it'll give you feedback on that, too -- in bright enough light, the stems will turn reddish-purple; in too much light, the leaves will bleach out slightly to a lighter, yellowish green. Finally, the last reason it's a good plant for beginners is that it's not terribly common in stores. It's very easy to start new plants from cuttings, so it tends to be one of those plants that gets passed from person to person. This means that if you manage to get a plant, you probably also already know someone who's a decent indoor gardener, from whom you can learn.

Yucca guatemalensis is a good plant for beginners because it handles neglect very, very well. About the only hard and fast requirement is that you provide bright light -- plants can survive without actual direct sun, but ideally you should have at least a little every day. They are, in any case, not good plants to stick in a corner and forget about. They'll grow best with regular, thorough, but infrequent waterings. The one warning about these is that you should be sure to get a plant that's solidly rooted. An awful lot of the plants we see in stores up here are thick sections of cane that were stuck in soil and shipped out as soon as they began to root and sprout some leaves. This means that their root system may not be very well-developed, and a rootless Yucca is going to be very touchy about overwatering. This is temporary, as they will grow new roots, but you should check to make certain the soil is dry (even well below the surface of the pot) before watering. If at all possible, try to get a plant that's already got a substantial root system, too, obviously. Yucca guatemalensis is kind of a sentimental favorite for me, too, because at the moment my longest-lived indoor plants (about 12 years) are Yuccas.

Aglaonema cvv. are slow-growing plants with variegated foliage in many different kinds of patterns and colors. They handle low light better than most plants, though bright indirect light is still best, and do best when allowed to dry out almost completely, then watered thoroughly. Some varieties are sensitive to cold temperatures (anything below about 60F/16C), though breeders have been working on this, and some of them can handle temperatures down to freezing (32F/0C) for short periods. There's no good way to know how cold your plant can get, short of trying it, so it's best to keep your plant above 60F/16C unless you know for sure that it can go colder. Aside from their issues with cold and overwatering, though, they're great plants, and arguably one of the prettier options from this list.

Not pictured:

Aechmea fasciata
Alworthia 'Black Gem'
Ardisia elliptica
Chamaedorea metallica
Chlorophytum comosum
Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana'
Dracaena marginata cvv.
Dracaena reflexa 'Riki'
Euphorbia trigona
Ficus maclellandii
Hoya lacunosa

Philodendron hederaceum cvv.
Rhapis excelsa
Sansevieria trifasciata
Spathiphyllum cvv.
Synadenium grantii
Tradescantia pallida
Tradescantia zebrina
Zamioculcas zamiifolia


1 The President! Even though he only has 300 or so houseplants!


Liza said...

Excellent list, mr_s. I probably would've added Pothos, because they thrive under fluorescent lighting. Not that people have fluorescent lights in their house. That would be weird, right?

mr_subjunctive said...

But . . . um . . . pothos is on the list, between Dracaena and Euphorbia. Even though I suck at them personally.

Also, aside from a single halogen fixture, and a large lamp we never use so I don't know whether it's fluorescent or not, I don't think we have a single incandescent light in the house. Which, okay, we're not typical, but still, I'm sure it happens elsewhere. We sort of made a point of it when we moved in, to keep the electric bill low. Our electric company even gave us free fluorescent bulbs, though I'm sure they charged us double for something else to make up for it.

Laura said...

Thats a great list. I tend to kill indoor plants. My problem is that I find the indoor plants are pretty generically labeled in the stores, (even in some of the better nurseries I visit) So I'm not really sure what the plant needs (light or water wise) I'll be keeping this list on hand.


Paul said...

Funny story! Once, I decided to show off my plant "knowledge" and plucked a twig of that very euphorbia thinking it was an ephedra. Fortunately, I only lightly nibbled the broken end and ingested maybe a drop or 2 of the bad crap. My mouth and throat burned for 3hours.

Unknown said...

I'm ashamed to admit I've killed one or two of those in the past. This sounds bad, but I think a plant can easily be killed by owner boredom, and the fact that I didn't place the plants well. Maybe I just wasn't ready for plant parenthood? So it wasn't the plants' fault, it was my own. Now that I group everything, huddling them around light sources, I no longer am bored with any of them. This must sound so bad, but they need their happy little plant environments to thrive.

Anonymous said...

So glad Tradescantia zebrina made the list. I <3 my T. zebrina, though it displays a total failure to be purple. Even under full sunlight, it just grows faster and keeps being green and white.

I also <3 your plants lists. Thanks!

Martin said...

I'm glad to see that none of my victims are in that list. I felt a bit of shame when a rosemary plant died in my care but the time that we used it as a Christmas tree might have been a contributing factor.

I recently saw a gadget that might keep novices from overwatering. It's a probe that you stick in the soil and it beeps when your plant needs water. I think they are a ridiculous waste of money and resources but everybody else seems to want a gadget for everything.

I am living abroad and when I moved into a new flat in April I asked the landlady if I could replace the dead plant on the back terrace. She told me to suit myself but I noticed her giving me a funny look. It turned out that it wasn't dead. I keep wondering why there are any deciduous plants native to the subtropics. Any ideas?

mr_subjunctive said...


Lack of tagging (or, more importantly, correct tagging) is a big problem with houseplants. It's not just your stores; it's everywhere.

And when they are correctly tagged, usually you can't find a price.


I'm surprised that's all, actually. I've talked to two different people who got some E. tirucalli sap in their eyes and were blind for three or four days. It sucks, because they're such tolerant, easy plants to grow.


Well, hell, so has everybody. I've killed Aglaonema, Epipremnum, and Haworthia fairly recently, even. The more important question is whether you know how you killed them, and whether or not it was your fault.


There are a few Callisia species that look just like T. zebrina but are only green and white; perhaps you have C. elegans or C. repens?

mr_subjunctive said...


I don't have the impression that rosemary is easy to keep alive at all, Christmas tree or no. I mean, I'm sure it's like anything else, and once you know how to do it, then it's easy (easier?), but all of my rosemary experiences (at work) have been pretty lousy. Especially trying to start them from seed.

Watering probes sound like a really good idea, but . . . well, I guess the problem I have with them is that I don't understand why looking at a meter is easier than touching some soil. I suppose the theory is that it takes all the decision-making out of it, because the meter tells you when to water, but . . . it's still no substitute for experience and judgment. Even if they worked reliably. Which they don't.

Donald's Garden said...

In Texas this plant makes an awesome groundcover. I grow it with red and chartreuse flowering plants. It adds to the beauty of almost any flower with its dark purple coloring. I have to hand chop it every once in a while because it can get 3 feet tall. I like it to grow about 10 inches off the ground. The flowers - yeah don't know what makes them bloom, but mine tend to bloom in the early mornings anytime of the year in spring, summer and fall. They disappear in the winter, but come back faithfully each year.

Donald's Garden said...

Oh sorry -I was referring to Tradescantia pallida in my comment.

Steve Asbell said...

I'll have to read the whole thing later but this is an awesome idea and you have some excellent choices. I haven't been able to find any of the broader leaved chlorophytums but I'll keep an eye out.
I especially liked the "If you killed it anyways" feature!

Don said...

Martin: Even in the tropics there are dry seasons.

paivi said...

I have two Aglaonemas - actually, got them last year inspired by PATSP - and what do I know, they're both doing terribly. Dead leaves, scant re-growth, a general feeling of apathy. The rest of the 50+ houseplants are doing more or less fine, but apparently Aglaonemas have issues with me.

It seems everyone has a 'difficult' plant that everyone else considers easy.

mr_subjunctive said...


Do you know which cultivars you have? (Not that it necessarily matters, but it might.) And were they healthy to begin with, as far as you know? While it's true that some people find certain "easy" plants difficult (as with me and Sansevieria and Epipremnum), it's usually possible to figure out the problem, if you're interested in doing so. I'd hate you to sour on the whole genus, especially if I was the one who originally encouraged you to give it a try.

emily said...

i love my lemon-lime dracena so much i bought another and one for my neighbor who swears she's house-plant inept. they're so cheery.
i think you're on to something though, paivi, because no matter how often people tell me that Zamioculcas Zamiifolia is dead easy("just stick it in a corner and ignore it for months at a time!" they say) i seem bound and determined to kill mine--one stalk at a time.

ScreamingGreenConure said...

I can't help but notice that Alocasia Polly isn't on this list. Doing a search, it seems it's on your list(s) of bad, difficult houseplants. That's unfortunate, because I just bought one. Oh dear.

mr_subjunctive said...


Yeah, um, there's an upcoming post about "houseplants" that beginners should avoid, and Alocasia amazonica 'Polly' is on it.[1]

I haven't had one personally. (Water Roots has, though; you may want to check out what she has to say about them. Also there's information about the parentage and care -- care is near the bottom of the page -- at See also for information about Alocasias in general, specifically soil mixes.) When I was caring for them in the garden center, our three biggest problems, in order of decreasing severity, were 1) spider mites, 2) drought, 3) cold.


[1] "Houseplants" in scare quotes because although they're often sold as houseplants, a lot of the plants on that list really aren't, and really only work if your willing to maintain a home environment that's substantially different from most people's. I wouldn't say Alocasia falls into that category, but it's still difficult. I rate them about 8.9 on the difficulty scale.

ScreamingGreenConure said...

Thanks for those links - my searching had melted my brain. I picked the beast up at Kew Gardens, because the leaves were so striking and the tag said it liked dimmer spots, which made it a good candidate for a bare place in my room. I came home, googled, and found out that it either loves bright light or hates all sunlight, and the whole origin of it is bizarre. The tag also claimed it likes things dry. Bloody hell. At least it's still alive one week later, and I got a mimosa, too.

paivi said...

Mr_s, I'm fairly sure mine are 'Peacocks', although the garden centre I got them from had no id for them.

And yes, they do seem a bit ailing. Shortly after purchase, one of the plants developed some kind of moldy white growth on the soil. Changed the pot and the soil, and it hasn't happened again, but who knows.

I rather like the look of the healthier Aglaonemas I've seen around and on your blog, so I will definitely give them another chance with a different cultivar. Pity they're not very often on sale here in Finland - our garden centres seem to prefer Dieffenbachias for some reason.

Anonymous said...

Aha! It may indeed be a Callisia elegans. Thanks for the pointer!
I'll have to research more.