House Plants

House Plants

by Rod Smith

Former Iowa Certified Nurseryman and
Oregon Certified Nursery Professional

© 2006-2024 Rodney A. Smith
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House plants bring color and life inside the house. Many have colorful leaves and flowers in interesting shapes. They especially add life and interest when the days are dark and dreary outside. Here are some tips to help house plants grow better.

Put plants in places where they will get the right amount of light. Light is the most important factor in making house plants grow well. House plants are listed in the following chart according to the amount of light they need. No plants will tolerate dim light for long periods of time. Low light plants will tolerate low reading level light. Moderate light plants will tolerate good reading level light. Bright light plants do best in a north window or near a sunny window but out of direct sunlight. Filtered sun plants do best in a sunny window that is filtered by curtains or trees outside. Sun plants need at least four hours of direct sunshine each day. Some plants will tolerate a large range of light levels.

A light meter can be used to get an accurate measure of the amount of light in different parts of the house. They usually come with a list of plants and the amount of light each plant needs.

East, south and west windows are all sunny, but each will get different amounts of light according to the season and trees that might shade them. It may be necessary to move a plant to different windows to find the right amount of light. A few plants need more or less light when they are flowering.

Light can also be provided artificially with lights. LED lights are brighter and whiter than fluorescent lights. Special red and blue LED lights are even better. Incandescent lamps produce more red light which encourages African violets to bloom.

Water plants according to their individual needs. Some plants need to have soil that is consistently moist. Other plants will die from root rot unless the soil dries out between waterings. Also, African violets do not like to have the crown get wet, so use a watering can with a small spout so the pot is not flooded. The following list of house plants indicates how much watering each prefers. Here are tips that work for all plants.

When you water, give plants enough water each time so some drains out of the pot. This insures that all of the soil is wet. However, some soil will shrink as it dries and pull away from the pot so the water drains out of the pot immediately without wetting the soil. If this happens, give the plant several small waterings until the soil swells and is thoroughly wet.

Do not let plants sit in a saucer of water. Watering will flush excess salt out of the soil, but the salt will be pulled back into the soil unless the saucer is emptied. Excess salt causes salt burn which is a browning of the tips and edges of the leaves. Also, the soil may stay wet too long if the pot is sitting in water. For plants which need high humidity, such as gardenia, fill the saucer with rocks to keep the pot above the water level.

Let the plant tell you when to water again. Frequency of watering will change according to changing growth rates, light, temperatures and air movement. A few plants like to be consistently moist so they do not mind being watered every day or two, but most plants do best if the soil is allowed to dry out between waterings. If the soil is wet all of the time, many plants, especially figs, loose lots of their leaves and may develop root rot. Also, fungus gnats are kept under control by letting the soil dry out. If a house plant takes more than two weeks to dry out, try planting some additional plants in the pot.

Here are four ways to tell when the soil is dry enough to water. Lift the pot to see how heavy it is. Look at the drainage hole to see if the soil is dry. Push a finger into the soil to check for moisture. Push a water meter into the soil to check the moisture level. The water meter is the best method. It should come with a list of plants and how dry each likes to be before watering. Be sure to push the tip of the water meter to a point halfway between the top and bottom of the soil to get an accurate measurement.

Watering is made much simpler if a moisture holding material, such as polyacrylamide gel, is added to the soil. It soaks up the excess water, then releases it again as the soil dries out. The moisture holding material should be mixed into the bottom half of the pot so it does not migrate to the top of the soil as a slimy mess.

Use a good quality potting soil suitable to the type of plant. Soil in pots does not drain as well as in the garden because the pot interferes with drainage. Potting soils provide extra drainage by adding sand, perlite or pumice. Cactus and succulents need excellent drainage so they need a special soil. Orchids need perfect drainage so they are grown in Orchid Bark. A tall container will drain better than a short container. Drainage is also improved by putting a string out the drain hole into the saucer.

Move plants to the next size larger pot only when the roots fill the present pot. Roots will come out of the drainage hole when the pot is filled with roots. Repot into the next size larger pot or, perhaps, two sizes larger if a plant is fast growing. Too large of a pot will cause the soil to stay wet for a long time which promotes root rot. When repotting, make one or two cuts down the side of the root ball to cut circling roots. To limit the size of the plant and to keep it in the same pot, cut off the outer inch of soil and roots and replace it with fresh potting soil. Begonia and Saxifraga stop blooming if they are root bound, but Saintpaulia, aglaonema, hoya, impatiens, stephanotis and strelitzia bloom better if slightly root bound. Most plants prefer to be repotted in the winter or early spring when not actively growing.

Fertilize regularly with a water soluble or a slow release fertilizer. Several companies make water soluble fertilizers that work well. Osmocote makes several slow release formulas. Foliage plants need mainly nitrogen. Flowering plants need nitrogen and and a smaller amount of phosphorus. I do not recommend fertilizer sticks because they put too much fertilizer at one spot.

Check plants every week for insects and diseases. The most common disease is root rot from the soil being wet all of the time. The only effective treatment is to let the soil dry out between waterings. Leaf spots, molds and mildews are less likely if the leaves are kept dry or dry quickly. Spider mites are a problem on many plants, especially palms. Watch for off-color leaves and fine webbing. Scale and mealybugs are also common. For small numbers, apply rubbing alcohol with a cotton swab, or a fine oil spray gives good control without poisonous fumes.

Keep house plants out of cold drafts. A patio door may look like a great place for house plants but cold drafts when the door is open is hard on most plants. Also, hot dry air from heating vents can cause many leaves to quickly wilt. Heating vents could be closed or covered with a baffle to direct hot air away from plants.

House Plants listed by light requirements
Scientific name                Moisture      Description
  Common name                    Light

Low light
Aglaonema modestum             Moist         Colorful leaves. Tolerates low     
  Chinese Evergreen              Low-Bright    light and dry air.               
Aspidistra elatior             Soak & dry    Very tough plant survives heat and 
  Cast Iron Plant                Low-Bright    low light.                       
Asplenium nidus                Soak & dry    Large, arching fronds from a dark  
  Bird's Nest Fern               Low-Bright    crown.                           
Cordyline terminalis           Soak & dry    Pink striped leaves. Tolerates low 
  Hawaiian Ti Plant              Low-Bright    light. Needs high humidity.      
Dieffenbachia spp.             Soak & dry    Large, green and white leaves. Can 
  Dumbcane                       Low-Filter    grow to ceiling. Poisonous sap.  
Draceana spp.                  Soak & dry    Strap-like leaves, often striped.  
  Dracaena                       Low-Bright      Can grow tall.                   
Spathiphyllum spp.             Moist         Large green leaves with white      
  Peace Lily                     Low-Filter    flower in fall.                  

Moderate light
Araucaria heterophylla         Moist         Formal, tree-like growth habit.    
  Norfolk Island Pine            Mod-Filter                                     
Davalia spp.                   Moist         Fuzzy rhizomes creep over and down 
  Rabbit's Foot Fern             Mod-Filter    pot. Needs high humidity.        
Monstera deliciosa             Soak & dry    Large leaves are split. Stem needs 
  Split Leaf Philodendron        Mod-Filter    support.                         
Nephrolepis exaltata           Soak & dry    Arching fronds make a great hanging
  Boston Fern, Dallas Fern       Mod-Part      basket.                          
Palms                          Soak & dry    Many sizes and frond shapes. Some  
  Palms                          Mod-Bright    grow tall.                       
Philodendron caudatum          Moist         Heart shaped leaves. Vigorous      
  Heart Leaf Philodendron        Mod-Bright    climber.                         
Pteris cretica                 Moist         Long, narrow leaflets. Some varie- 
  Table Fern                     Moderate      gated or frilled.                
Rhapis excelsa                 Soak & dry    Easy to grow palm with fan shaped  
  Lady Palm                      Mod-Bright    leaves. Rounded shape plant.     
Rhoeo spathacea                Soak & dry    Leaves are green on top, purple on 
  Moses in the Cradle            Mod-Bright    bottom. Flowers are boat shaped. 
Schefflera actinophylla        Moist         Leaves have eight leaflets. Mist   
  Octopus Plant                  Mod-Bright    daily to provide humidity.       

Bright light
Alocasia spp.                  Soak & dry    Large dark leaves with light green 
  Alocasia                       Bright        veins.                           
Aloe vera                      Soak & dry    Leaves are thick curving spikes.   
  Burn Plant                     Bright-Sun    Sap used for healing.            
Anthurium scherzeranum         Moist         Colorful red or orange flower.     
  Flamingo Flower                Bright                                         
Aphelandra squarrosa           Moist         White striped leaves. Yellow       
  Zebra Plant                    Bright        flowers in fall.                 
Asparagus spp.                 Soak & dry    Fine foliage.                      
  Asparagus Fern                 Bright-Filt                                     
Chlorophytum comosum           Soak & dry    Baby plants at ends of curved stems.
  Airplane Plant, Spider Plant   Bright        Best in hanging basket.
Coffea arabica                 Soak & dry    Shiny leaves with wavy edges. Needs
  Coffee tree                    Bright-Filt   high humidity.                   
Cyclamen persicum              Moist         Heart shaped leaves. Butterfly     
  Cyclamen                       Bright        flowers in winter.               
Dizygotheca balfourianna       Soak & dry    Fine textured leaves. Can be trained             
  Fernleaf Aralia                Bright-Filt   as Bonsai.                                      
Dizygotheca elegantissima      Moist         Leaves are whorls of nine fingers. 
  False Aralia                   Bright        Can be trained as Bonsai.                                 
Gynura aurantiaca              Soak & dry    Purple velvety covering on stems
  Purple Velvet Plant            Bright-Filt   and leaves.
Hippeastrum spp.               Moist         Large red, pink or white flowers.  
  Amaryllis                      Bright        Allow to go dormant in summer.   
Homalomena wallisii            Soak & dry    Green and yellow leaves.           
  Homalomena                     Bright                                         
Hoya carnosa                   Moist         Vining plants with very fragrant,  
  Wax Plant                      Bright        waxy flowers.                    
Hypoestes phyllostachya        Soak & Dry    Unusual pink spots on leaves.      
  Pink Polka Dot                 Bright-Filt                                     
Impatiens wallerana            Moist         Pink, red, orange, purple and white
  Busy-lizzy                     Bright-Filt    flowers available.               
Impatiens x hawkeri            Moist         Large pink, red, orange, lavender  
  New Guinea Impatiens           Bright        or purple flowers.               
Mandevilla sanderi             Moist         Vining. Large pink to rose flowers 
  Mandevilla                     Bright        with yellow throat Spring-Fall.  
Maranta leuconeura             Soak & dry    Colorful, curved stripes on leaves.
  Prayer Plant                   Bright-Filt   Great hanging basket.            
Mimosa pudica                  Moist         Finely divided leaflets immediately
  Sensitive plant                Bright        fold up if touched.              
Oxalis triangularis            Soak & dry    Three or four leaflets. Pink flower
  Shamrock                       Bright        in summer or winter.             
Peperomia spp.                 Soak & dry    Many leaf shapes. Some upright,    
  Radiator Plant                 Bright-Filt   some trailing.                   
Pilea cadierei                 Moist         Leaves have silvery splotches.     
  Aluminum Plant                 Bright-Filt                                         
Platycerium bifurcatum         Moist         Forms large, branched fronds on a  
  Staghorn Fern                  Bright        wall. Soak once a week.          
Rhoeo spathacea                Soak & dry    Striped leaves with purple underside.
  Moses-in-the-Cradle            Bright-Filt   Boat shaped bracts with a white flower.
Saintpaulia ionatha            Moist         Rosette of leaves with white or    
  African Violet                 Bright-Filt   pink flowers. 14 hours of light. 
Sansevieria trifasciata        Soak & dry    Lance shaped leaves with yellow    
  Snake Plant                    Bright        margins and silver bands.        
Saxifraga stolonifera          Soak & dry    Leaves are shaped like a geranium  
  Strawberry Begonia             Bright-Filt   and colored like a begonia.      
Schefflera arboricola          Soak & dry    Eight leaflets on the leaf stalk   
  Octopus Plant                  Bright-Filt   spread like an umbrella.         
Schlumbergera buckleyi         Moist-dry     Needs long nights or exposure to   
  Christmas Cactus               Bright        cold to form flowers.            
Strobilanthes dyeranus         Soak & dry    Leaves marbled with purple and blue
  Persian Shield                 Bright        with wine red underneath.        
Tolmiea menziesii              Moist         Plantlets sprout from leaves.      
  Piggyback Plant                Bright                                         
Zebrina pendula                Soak & dry    Silver stripes and purple. Great   
  Wandering Jew                  Bright-Filt   for hanging baskets.             

Filtered Sun
Abutilon spp.                  Very moist    Rapid growing. Red, orange, yellow,
  Flowering Maple                Filt-Full   purple or white flowers.         
Acalypha hispida               Moist         Has long plumes of tiny red flowers
  Chenille Plant                 Filter sun      Needs regular pruning.           
Ananas comosus                 Soak & dry    Cut top off, dry one week and root 
  Pineapple                      Filt-Full     in sand & peat moss. Above 68 deg
Anthurium scherzeranum         Moist         Colorful red or orange flower.     
  Flamingo Flower                Filt sun                                       
Begonia spp.                   Moist         Many sizes and colors of leaves.   
  Begonia                        Filt sun      Red, pink or white flowers.      
Billbergia species             Soak & dry    Unusual flowers in many colors.    
  Billbergia                     Filt Sun      Mist leaves.                     
Cattleya Cymbidium Phalaenopsis Barely wet   Easy to grow if given right light, 
  Orchids                        Filt Sun      moisture and temperature.        
Clivia miniata                 Soak & dry    Strap-like leaves. Large orange and
  Kaffir Lily                    Filt sun      yellow flowers in spring.        
Crassula argentea              Soak & dry    Thick leaves and branches. Some    
  Jade Plant                     Filt sun      with striped leaves.             
Cycas revoluta                 Soak & dry    Stiff fern-like leaves. Very slow  
  Sago Palm                      Filt Sun      growing.                         
Cyperus alternifolius          Very moist    Long green stems topped by a whorl 
  Umbrella Plant                 Filt sun      of leaves. Grows in shallow water
Davallia trichomanoides        Moist         Very finely divided fronds with    
  Squirrel's Foot Fern           Filt Sun      reddish fuzzy rhizomes.          
Euphorbia pulcherrima          Moist         Red, pink, white or marbled flowers
  Poinsettia                     Filt sun      at Christmas time.                
Fatshedera lizei               Moist         Hybrid of Japanese aralia and      
  Tree Ivy                       Filt sun      English ivy. Needs staking.      
Ficus benjamina                Soak & dry    Small leaves and weeping twigs. Very
  Weeping Fig                    Filt sun      sensitive to overwatering and drafts.                          
Ficus elastica                 Soak & dry    Large oval leaves, some green and
  Rubber Plant                   Filt sun      some variegated.                          
Gardenia jasminoides           Very moist    Very fragrant white flowers. Needs 
  Gardenia                       Filt-Full     high humidity and cool nights.  

Full sun
Cactus                         Moist-dry     Many sizes and colors. Moist when  
  Cactus                         Full Sun      growing/flowering, then dry.     
Capsicum annuum                Moist         Bright red peppers are edible, but 
  Ornamental Pepper              Full Sun      very hot.                        
Carissa macrocarpa             Moist         Fragrant white flowers produce     
  Natal Plum                     Full Sun      edible red fruit.                
Citrus spp.                    Soak & dry    Fragrant white flowers and colorful
  Citrus                         Full Sun      fruit.                           
Codiaeum variegatum            Moist         Large oval leaves of various colors
  Croton                         Full Sun      on same plant. Needs humidity.   
Cuphea ignea                   Moist         Tiny, tube-like red flowers.       
  Cigar Plant                    Full Sun                                            
Cycas revoluta                 Soak & dry    Stiff fern-like leaves. Very slow  
  Sago Palm                      Full Sun      growing.                         
Echeveria spp.                 Soak & dry    Rosette of thick leaves. Plantlets 
  Hen and Chicks                 Full Sun      sprout all around.               
Gardenia jasminoides           Very moist    Very fragrant white flowers. Needs 
  Gardenia                       Sun           high humidity and cool nights.   
Kalanchoe blossfeldiana        Soak & dry    Scarlet, orange or yellow flowers. 
  Kalanchoe                      Full Sun                                            
Lantana spp.                   Never wet     Fragrant red, yellow or white      
  Lantana                        Full Sun      flowers in summer.               
Pelargonium peltata            Soak & dry    Red, salmon, orange, pink and white
  Geranium                       Full Sun      flowers.                         
Pelargonium spp.               Soak & dry    Fragrant leaves in many fragrances.
  Scented Geraniums              Full Sun      Flowers in spring to summer.
Solanum pseudocapsicum         Moist         Flowers and red fruit in the fall. 
  Christmas Cherry               Full Sun      Needs abundant light to flower.  
Stephanotis floribunda         Moist         Vining plant with very fragrant    
  Stephanotis                    Full Sun      white flowers in June.           
Strelitzia reginae             Moist         Exotic flowers of orange, blue and 
  Bird of Paradise               Full Sun      white all year.                  

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