I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me with a look of embarrassed apology and asked, ″Can you recommend a foolproof houseplant for me? I seem to kill everything I try to grow indoors.″
Well sure, I can! And to make it a little more interesting, here are a few of my favorites you may not have seen before; plants that are a little more unusual than the familiar peace lily, pothos, or African violet, but just as easy to grow. No matter what the light conditions on your windowsills, there's an easy care plant will thrive and possibly expand your indoor gardening horizons.
Full Sun (an unobstructed, south-facing window)
Sea Urchin Cactus (Echinopsis spp.)
This is one of the easiest cactuses to flower indoors. Grow it in a sunny spot, water once a month, and that's it. If you can keep it cool in winter (50 to 55°F), even better. Flowers emerge from furry buds and open into huge (8-inch-long), trumpet-shaped blooms in white or pink. A specimen covered with giant blooms is a real show stopper and it couldn't be easier to grow. Plant your sea urchin cactus in a plain clay pot, which allows the soil to dry out more quickly than in plastic or glazed clay pots. Use a soilless mix or special cactus soil.
Part Sun (an unobstructed, east- or west-facing window)
Hoya or Wax Plant (Hoya spp.) This vining plant grows well in a hanging basket or trained up a trellis. The succulent foliage may be solid green or variegated with white or pink markings. Individual flowers can be anywhere from 1/4″ to 1″ in diameter, depending on the species, but all hoya flowers are star shaped, with five flared petals and a five part, contrasting center. Most of the wax plants you'll find in garden centers have fragrant flowers about 1/2″ wide in shades of pink. Wax plants grow best in part sun. Flowers form on existing bloom spurs, so leave those spurs in place once the flowers drop. Hoyas are drought tolerant. Grow them in a soilless mix and water when the top inch of soil feels dry.
Bright, Indirect Light (an obstructed, east- or west-facing window)
Ribbon Bush (Homalocladium platycladum) The structure of this plant is fascinating. Segmented, flat, green stems produce small leaves which drop off fairly quickly, leaving the stems to photosynthesize. Small, greenish flowers form directly on the stems and are followed by dark purple fruit. Ribbon bush makes an excellent specimen plant due to its quick rate of growth and unique form. It grows happily in either soilless or soil-based mixes and should be watered when the top half inch of soil feels dry to the touch.
Indirect Light (a north-facing window)
Squirrel's Foot Fern (aka rabbit's foot fern, aka Davallia fejeensis) is a tough plant with a delicate appearance. The fronds of squirrel's foot fern are finely cut and twelve to eighteen inches in length. This is a footed fern, with furry rhizomes that grow across the soil's surface, sending roots down and stems up. In a hanging basket, the rhizomes will eventually circle the pot, sending foliage in every direction to form a ball of fern. Unlike many ferns, squirrel's foot fern is perfectly happy in average household humidity and is quite drought tolerant. Water when the top inch of soil feels dry. As an understory plant in nature, this fern grows best in light shade or dappled light. Indoors, it's best suited to north and east facing windows.
Dark-ish (an obstructed, north-facing window)
Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior) The common name of this plant says it all; this is one tough houseplant. It tolerates cold, dim corners and won't complain if you forget to water it once in a while. In fact, overwatering is the number one enemy of the cast iron plant; only give it water when the top half inch of soil feels dry. A well-cared forAspidistra is a lovely plant. The strength of its upright form combined with the graceful curve of its leaves create an appealingly fluid form. I've had my cast iron plant for more than twenty years and I plan to keep it company for at least another twenty. Come to think of it, it'll probably outlive me.
If you need a house plant for companionship this winter, start with one of these. I promise they make very good company.
Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (www.acmeplant.com), a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at www.downanddirtygardening.com. Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden; she lectures at garden shows and events across the country.