In Winter, Turn Your Green Thumb to Houseplants
Indoor plants can be low maintenance and attractive
Leslie Land, longtime “Garden Q+A” columnist for The New York Times, is a journalist, chef, garden consultant, the author of two cookbooks, co-writer of two garden books and founder of the food, garden and foraging blog In Kitchen and Garden.
I had houseplants before I started gardening and have had them in all the years since, but my relationship with this large and varied tribe is best described in the language of therapy: We’re co-dependents. Being a plant person who must spend many winter months inside, I need them for the comfort that growing things provide. And being keen on welcoming rooms, I need them for the beauty of ever-changing life.
But they need me for everything, at least in the winter. (Come summer they get to vacation outdoors in the care of Mrs. Nature.)
One of the things I love about gardening is how much work nature does for me if I just let her. So if I’m going to be a plant’s one and only for anchorage, food, water, light and warmth — day after day, month after month — that plant had better meet my strict criteria. If it isn’t decorative, vigorous, highly resistant to bugs and disease, uninteresting to the cats yet interesting to us, I throw it out.
Until about a decade ago, I had trouble being hard-hearted. Like most plant people, I’d get attached. If it was lovely once, it might be lovely again, I’d reason. Then at some point (probably while shopping at a greenhouse full of plants far handsomer than mine), I’d come to the grand revelation: You’re in charge here. If you can kill a carrot to eat it, you can kill a sickly geranium to stop looking at it.
So in fall, I look at every saved plant with the eye of a potential purchaser: Would I buy this if I saw it in a nursery? Sounds harsh, but those that make me say “yes!” get everything — my heart, my window space and my undying gratitude. Without them, I don’t know how I’d make it through the winter.
(MORE: Passions: Growing and Collecting Orchids)
A Few Favorite Unusual Houseplants
• Palm Leaf begonia: I cannot for the life of me figure out why this plant isn’t more popular. The leaves that give it its common name are so attractive that it doesn’t matter whether they’re sparse or luxuriant. Unlike most begonias, it looks terrific even — or maybe especially — when it gets spindly.
Spindliness can result from light deprivation, but my palm leaf plants get tall and thin because I can’t bear to prune them. Stalks are willing to stretch indefinitely, throwing out long tips with little leaves at the end. And since they seldom branch unless cut, it’s easy to create a sort of stylized palm tree. As a bonus, they flower, each upper joint sending out a slender stem topped with a froth of yellow and white.
• Beefsteak begonia: I would not be inclined to name a plant beefsteak, no matter how thick the dark green leaves or red their reverse sides. But it was called beefsteak long before our friend Jeff gave us a little cutting, about a dozen years ago, so beefsteak it is.
Whatever you call it, if you give it a little time, it makes an enormous puddle of shiny leaves, crowned in late winter and spring with a halo of tiny pink flowers on very long stalks. This is a rhizomatous begonia, the kind with thick stems that act as water storage organs. As far as I know, the only way to kill it is by overwatering it.
• Papyrus: This one comes with an asterisk, because we have one cat who was so determined to eat ours that we had to give it away. But that’s about the only downside of this tough plant. Papyrus needs a fair amount of sun to keep putting out new growth, but it’s willing to keep its old growth nicely green in low light locations. It doesn’t flop — unless your cat keeps pulling the stems down — and is way too tough to interest bugs. As a bonus, the stiff, grasslike stems with their plumed tops look dashing in almost any pot, from the simplest to the most highly decorated.
• Amethyst passionflower: Enthusiasts might turn up their noses at this old-timer, and if I lived where passionflowers are hardy, I might feel much the same. Because I don’t, I treasure Amethyst’s willingness to grow enthusiastically and to flower year-round, indoors and out, as long as it gets plenty of bright light.
The dark-edged midgreen leaves are strung along narrow, sinuous stems, and the waving tendrils add to the generally lacy effect. The bonus here is that the beautiful and long-lasting prunings are ideal for the vase. (Sometimes they root, but usually they don’t.)
• Purple heart: Not that I’m obsessed with purple; this just happens to be a more attractive version of a plant known in pre-PC days as "wandering Jew." Like that staple of the ’60s, the purple form is just about unkillable, willing to put up with inconsistent watering, being pot-bound, getting little light or being subjected to broiling sun — you can put it pretty much anywhere except in a closet.
The thick stems hang more or less straight down, dividing into a lush cascade of pointed dark violet leaves punctuated by tiny pale lavender flowers. Its only flaw is brittleness; the stems break with breathtaking ease, so it’s important to keep purple heart away from high-traffic areas.
Sentimental About Houseplants: Moi?
When I say I no longer have trouble casting out houseplants that cease to please, that’s not entirely true. We are still in possession of the Christmas cactus bestowed on us more than 20 years ago by our old friend Peter’s mother.
I don’t care for holiday cactus — Christmas, Thanksgiving or Groundhog Day. I dislike it when it’s resting and even more when it’s in bloom, and left to my own devices I would never have acquired one. Peter’s mother has been dead for at least 15 years, and Peter, a man of whom we were very fond, left this mortal coil in 2006. But can I get rid of this unbeautiful and highly pedestrian plant? I cannot.