To me, there is no more attractive and elegant indoor palm tree than the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana).
Apparently I am not alone, because it is a perennial favorite among collectors and casual indoor gardeners alike and is touted as the most popular decorative palm in the world. Nevertheless, despite this fame, it is often misunderstood. Here we take a closer look at the kentia palm, and hopefully give you some growing tips along the way to keep it thriving in your care.
Origin & Brief History of The Kentia Palm
To really understand how to care for a plant species, it’s a good idea to know where it comes from. And in the case of the kentia palm, it’s a particularly interesting story.
The kentia palm (or “thatch” palm, a name originating from the settlers who lined their roofs with their fronds) is endemic to a place called Lord Howe Island, which is a boomerang-shaped land mass situated off the southeast coast of Australia, in between the Australian continent and New Zealand. This is a little spec of an island, hard to find on a map, even when you know where to look! In fact, Lord Howe is just a mere 5.6 square miles in area and only a half of a mile in width throughout much of it’s length. A lilipad in the ocean.
However, what it lacks in size it more than makes for in terms of beauty and species richness. The island remains mostly undeveloped along the larger southern half, which is dominated by virgin forest that clings to two rugged mountains rising nearly 2900 feet up from the ocean. Due to the particular assemblage of native plants and animals found there and nowhere else (nearly 44% of all vascular plants are endemic, including the kentia palm), Lord Howe easily earned the recognition of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for the amazing amount of biodiversity it contains. A fitting paradise for the kentia palm.
Lord Howe has a cool, subtropical climate with an average low of 56F in August and average high of 78F in February. The island receives a total of approximately 59 inches of rainfall per year and humidity hovers between 60-70% year-round. There is no wet/dry season, with an average of 4-6 inches of rain falling each month. While helpful, keep in that these data come from the flatter, lower northern end of the island and therefore likely underestimate both the average low temperatures and rainfall experienced along the mistier reaches of the mountainous south.
The commercial exportation of kentia palm seed started in the 1880s, soon after it became apparent to first-world nations that this species was among the most suitable and attractive palms for indoor culture.
The demand for material quickly increased and by 1906 the Lord Howe Island Kentia Palm Nursery was born. Only seed was exported until 1980, after which time seedlings also became available. Satisfying the demand for kentia palms is still a vital part of Lord Howe’s economy to this day.
Growing The Kentia Palm
Howea forsteriana in the wild or grown outdoors can reach over 30 feet tall and can develop fronds up to 10 feet long. The mature plant looks a lot like a coconut palm and is single-stemmed. In good conditions they will often produce pendant clusters of small orange to reddish-black fruit that hang like beads on a string.
The kentia palm is often grown outdoors as a patio specimen or in the ground in full sun as a landscape/street tree in frost-free zones worldwide. They are quick to tolerate shade in such cases, but they look best and become larger in full sun. For example, in the U.S., they are frequently grown outside in coastal southern California where temperatures are moderate. However, even in the best of circumstances, they often have some difficulty transitioning from part shade to full sun, and it may take a few growing seasons for a kentia palm to really take advantage of sustained direct light. Full sun should be completely avoided in very hot, arid regions at all costs.
While mature plants outdoors may tolerate full sun in cooler regions, as a general rule indoor and smaller container plants should be kept in bright indirect light only. Indeed, the kentia palm will thrive indoors in bright indirect light from an east or west-facing window. Well-filtered light from a south-facing window or a bright location near such a window is also fine. Indirect light from a north-facing window may keep a plant alive, but is just too dim to support significant growth in my experience.
When picking a suitable location, besides ensuring bright indirect light, remember that this plant’s fronds do tend to spread quite a bit (one of the reasons why they are so elegant), so put them somewhere where they can stretch. While these are considered slow growers, I find that in good lighting they will regularly produce fronds that can get quite large, even when grown in small pots. Their overall height indoors is normally limited by the size of the window(s) they are getting light from, but palms of over 8 feet in height are common.
This species if very comfortable in average household temperatures, and the only caution is to avoid heat, typically from direct sunlight. Fortunately, H. forsteriana does not require the 60-70% humidity of Lord Howe in the home, but it is a good idea to mist this plant frequently as it does help keep it free from dust and makes the plant a bit less vulnerable to spider mites and mealybugs in my experience.
The kentia palm is not terribly picky about soils, but the soil should be quick-draining and preferably rich in organic matter. It should be watered like most houseplants; i.e., using the finger-stick method and allowing the surface soils to dry slightly between waterings. Do not leave this species in constantly wet or waterlogged soil as root rot can develop very quickly.
Indoor-grown plants outgrow their pots very slowly, and it’s best to err on the side of a smaller pot rather than quickly moving them up to a bigger one. If in doubt, pull the plant from the pot and check the root ball – has it nearly completely conformed to and filled the pot…and/or are roots starting to force their way into the drainage holes? If so, then repotting in a slightly large pot (no more than 20-30% bigger than the original) is warranted.
A common issue observed with kentia palms indoors is that they are very prone to leaf-tip burn. This is usually due to hard-water minerals/salts normally present in tap water. These salts/minerals are relatively dilute off the tap but in time accumulate in the leaf tips because that’s where transpiration (water loss) is highest, and because water evaporates but these dissolved substances do not and continue to increase over time. Slightly burned tips (affecting less than an inch of the tips) are not much of a problem and can be cut off if unsightly. To help prevent a mild case of burn, make sure that whenever you water this plant, do so thoroughly and really let the water flow out of the bottom of the pot (and ensure proper drainage by discarding it, rather than letting it wick back up into the pot from the tray).
More extensive burn suggests more elevated levels of salts/minerals that can profoundly alter soil chemistry as well as causing localized leaf necrosis. For example, high levels of calcium bicarbonate in hard water sources over time will result in a very alkaline soil; and very alkaline soils often make fertilizers and certain trace elements (e.g., iron) inaccessible to plants. Consequently, if you see significant tip-burn and the plant seems to look weak (and/or grow pale or yellowish, a classic sign of possible chlorosis), I’d suggest you water this species with reverse osmosis water (the type from large machines outside of some grocery/convenience stores – don’t trust your refrigerator filter or most tap filters that don’t remove minerals) or distilled water.Depending on how hard your water is, it may not necessary to water with RO or distilled each time, but you can at least do so periodically to “purge” the soil now and again.
As far as pests go, the most likely suspects encountered indoors are mealybugs, spidermites and scale; whereas outdoors there are more concerns, including various fungal infections, such as “black rot” (Cylindrocladium sp.) and “pink rot” (Nalanthamala vermoeseni), and more mysterious pathogens like “Leaning Crown Disease.”
Finally, it is a good idea to fertilize your kentia palm regularly using a high quality indoor plant or palm food. Fertilize throughout the year (especially if regularly watering with distilled or reverse osmosis, which tends to leach just about everything from the soil) but adjust strength based on need. In general, higher temperatures and higher light means a greater need. For example, an indoor plant grown in a relatively dim corner in winter may need at best 1/2 the manufacturer’s recommended fertilizer dose; whereas a vigorous plant in bright light during the summertime may benefit from the full dose.
The Kentia Palm’s Close Cousin – The “Belmore Sentry” Palm.
Although not nearly as popular as the kentia palm, its closely-related congener, the Belmore sentry or “curly” palm (Howea belmoreana), is also sometimes available.
This species too hails only from Lord Howe, and is in all husbandry respects virtually identical to the kentia palm. However, H. belmoreana stays smaller (around 20 feet) and has a more compact crown with fronds that tend to curved downward, thereby giving it a more “curly”-shaped look.
Featured (top) photo credit: “Howea forsteriana” by László Majercsik under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
No matter how content you are with your houseplant collection, it’s natural to be drawn towards large indoor trees.
There’s no question that an indoor tree is adds a touch of class to the home, and is one the best ways to complement large, airy spaces with that “interior-scaped” look.
In my opinion, you just can’t compare the impact of just one healthy tree, even compared to a mountain of leafy 6-inch pots.
But finding and growing beautiful indoor specimens is not the same as choosing a typical houseplant.
That’s why I figured it would make sense to go over my personal picks – but first let’s talk about the constraints to bear in mind when selecting your own.
Selecting Suitable Indoor Trees
Recognize that most trees generally do poorly indoors, for a variety of reasons; chief among them is the lack of light.
Unless you are blessed with large, floor to ceiling south-facing windows, most larger indoor trees will need to get buy with little to no direct sunlight.
Beyond tolerating relatively weak indoor lighting, a good indoor tree must naturally reach tree-like proportions. At minimum, this requires a plant that is tall (versus low and shrubby) and can reach a height of 6 feet.
Finally, good indoor trees should all be capable of adapting to home or office environments and actually growing. This includes thriving in varying humidity levels, tolerating stagnant indoor air, and not needing a winter cold-dormancy (such as that required for temperate zone trees).
Now let’s get started.
My Favorite Indoor Trees With Care Instructions
Here are our top (5) best indoor trees, based on attractiveness, ease of care, and tolerance for indoor light levels.
1) Fiddle-Leaf Fig (Ficuslyrata)
In the wild, where it grows along a thin coastal swath of steamy West African lowland rainforest stretching from Sierra Leon to Cameroon, the fiddle-leaf fig is a formidable tree that can exceed 40 feet in height.
This species falls within the subgenus Urostigma and is therefore considered one of many types of “strangler” figs, which refers to a group of fig species that have the ability to first take root in the crown of other “host” trees as a hemiepiphite (usually from seeds carried by bird droppings) where they send roots downward around the host until it’s smothered out via “girdling” (constriction around the trunk until the thin ring of living vascular tissue is cut).
This adaptation is a result of the fierce competition for light in the very tall and dense canopy of lowland tropical forests.
The flowers of Ficus lyrata are pollinated by a fig wasp in the genus Agaon. The small figs that result mature at roughly an inch in diameter.
Indoors, the fiddle-leaf fig is much more tame, and is typified by a thin upright trunk (or multiple trunks) topped with oversized pear-shaped, wavy deep green leaves. Presently, this may be the most fashionable home or office tree, thanks to its leafy, bold tropical appeal and wide tolerance for varying light and humidity levels.
As with most indoor trees, the real key to keeping this fig happy and looking good is light, as much as you can provide it.
Although it can certainly still do well in very bright indirect light, as long as this plant is gradually acclimatized to it, several hours of filtered direct light through a south, west or east-facing window will be greatly appreciated, and will create a much more vigorous, fuller tree.
Another important care tip is to be conservative with watering (especially in winter) and ensure proper drainage.
Only water this tree when the surface soil layers begin to feel slightly dry when probed with a finger. But when you do water, really soak the roots and flush the plant out, taking care to dispose of the water that fills the collection tray.
This will help ensure that fertilizer salts and hard water minerals don’t wick their way back up into the soil where they can accumulate over time and result in leaf tip burn, a common condition in tropical plants whereby the tips or margins of the leaves become black and/or brown and resemble heat damage.
For an extra “purging” of accumulated salts in plants already affected by significant burn (or as a first aid for over-fertilized plants), you can water the tree with distilled or reverse osmosis water every couple weeks or so to strip salts from the roots.
Ficus lyrata enjoys high humidity, but will adapt to drier environments typical of most home or work spaces. A good way to give it some localized humidity is by misting daily, which will not only foster health but help keep its broad leaves dust free. For very dusty leaves, it’s best to wipe them down periodically with a damp cloth. Leaf shine looks very good on this plant.
A healthy fiddle-leaf fig in good light will grow quite quickly. And a 6-foot plant from small starter plant material is easily attainable by even inexperienced growers. And as with most ficus species, they don’t need a very large pot to attain tree-like proportions either. If anything, resist the temptation to increase pot size too rapidly; these trees seem to do better when their roots mostly fill the pot.
If you see roots coming out the drainage holes, or the tree has been growing vigorously in the same pot for more than a year, gradually start increasing pot size annually. Any high quality potting mix should do.
Ficus lyrata should be fertilized during periods of growth (especially during the summer months), at a dose commensurate with growth rates. For example, a tree grown in strong light should receive an all-purpose indoor plant food at full dose; whereas a tree kept in dim light may require only 1/2 of the manufacturer’s recommended application.
This is easily one of the most durable indoor tree species, which is why they’re so often used in interior landscaping for homes and offices. In fact, even if this species is placed in a totally unsuitable location (e.g., a very dim, windowless corner) and is in fact slowly dying, it may still seem outwardly healthy for months. Although they are not unusually susceptible to pests by general houseplant standards, they can be infested by the usual suspects.
A much more common problem with F. lyrata are the development of brown or black blotches or spots on their leaves. These spots are normally a result of some trauma caused by physical injury, pests, chemical/fertilizer residues, nutrient / trace element deficiencies, heat or fungal/viral diseases. Unfortunately, in many cases it can be very difficult to determine the exact cause.
If lighting is sufficient, good watering practices are being used, and no pests are found after careful inspection of the leaves and roots (pull plant from pot to look for root mealybugs – look for their telltale fluffy secretions), it is a good idea to “reset” things and try to re-establish mineral balance with this detox procedure.
Flush the pot with a thorough watering with distilled or reverse osmosis water; really soak the plant, let the water run out of the pot and be sure to discard the drained water. Then immediately apply an all purpose plant fertilizer at 1/2 manufacturer’s recommended strength, and continue watering using distilled or reverse osmosis water for the next month or two. Ifthe blotches resulted from either a nutrient deficiency or an excessive buildup of fertilizer or hard-water mineral salts, this should help.
In addition, it is not unusual for nursery plants grown in optimal conditions (high light/humidity) to gradually lose some leaves upon acclimating to a much dimmer, drier location in a home. Leaf loss should stabilize within a couple months at most; if not, look for pests, confirm sufficient light is being provided, and make sure to avoid over or under watering.
2) The Weeping Fig (Ficusbenjamina)
While we’re on the subject of Ficus, let’s not forget the venerable weeping fig, Ficus benjamina. While the fiddle-leaf fig has enjoyed a comparatively recent surge of popularity, the weeping fig has been a popular indoor tree for much longer, and is presently growing in many more households than any other fig species, by far. As you might expect, there’s a good reason for such ubiquity.
With its roots in lowland southeast Asia, the weeping fig thrives in the heat and humidity, and in the wild it can grow into a towering tree with a canopy pushing over 80 feet high that rains down elegantly drooping boughs teeming with shiny, lanceolate leaves. The bark is smooth and pale, and will often give rise to aerial roots along the trunks and lower branches in regions with particularly high humidity. This species can produce an edible fruit, but they are small and mostly favored by birds.
Ficus benjamina is a very tough tree that is frequently used for exterior landscaping; it is a common street trees in frost-free zones worldwide, along with the also ever-present and bulletproof Ficus microcarpa. However, it is indoors where the weeping fig has an earned even broader recognition, as it can be grown into an attractive and stately indoor tree that demands remarkably little care.
Despite what you may have heard, Ficus benjamina grows very well in full sunlight, even outdoors.
Consequently, there is absolutely no way you can provide too much direct light when growing indoors unless you (1) shock the plant by failing to acclimating it when moving it from a low to high light location, or (2) burn the leaves due to excessive heat buildup near a window in direct light, which can often occur in a poorly ventilated rooms in summer. Filtering such “hot” light through blinds or screening is recommended.
Having said that, the wonderful thing about weeping fig is its adaptability to fairly dim conditions. This tree can do reasonably well with no direct light at all, provided it is given very bright indirect light along an east/west facing window. Of course, even brief exposure to some direct sunlight will promote a much fuller, more vigorous tree.
A north-facing window is not recommended.
F. benjamina’s reported vulnerability to cool weather in some sources is overstated. Again, this a common street tree in many cities in the U.S. that experience winter temperatures that routinely dip below 45F. These temperatures will certainly suspend growth temporarily, but the tree will generally retain a full canopy of leaves and otherwise remain unaffected. A bigger concern are very cold drafts, which prevent the plant from adapting to falling temperatures naturally.
If continuous, strong growth throughout the winter is desired, keep ambient temperatures above 70F and keep floor pots a few inches off of the ground to slow heat loss from the root mass. A heating pad applied to the bottom of the pot can also be used.
Misting this tree is a good idea, not so much because the species needs it (it can adapt to very dry air), but it does help make it less vulnerable to dry air-loving spider mites and helps keep leaves free of dust.
Aside from providing moderate to high light, give Ficus benjamina good general houseplant care: pot in a well-draining medium; fertilize regularly with a general purpose houseplant fertilizer (especially in summer and when grown in bright light); water thoroughly but allow the surface layers of soil to dry very slightly between waterings; and repot vigorously growing trees annually, with only a slightly larger pot each time. Do these things and you will find the weeping fig to be a very fast-growing and trouble-free indoor tree to cherish for a very long time.
As an added bonus, I find Ficus benjamina to be relatively disease-free compared to most houseplants, and not particularly vulnerable to sap-sucking insects either, probably due in part to the thick latex they exude when subjected to even slight injury. Still, they can be targeted by mealybugs and spider mites, among other pests, so monitor them periodically to catch/react to any infestations early.
Probably the most common issue with this tree is its well-know habit of shedding leaves when acclimatizing to a new location.
This can happen to any houseplant to some degree, especially if it’s going from a much brighter location to a dimmer one, but the weeping fig is legendary for doing this even in the face of slight moves in the same house.
Don’t panic! Just continue applying good basic care and this should stop fairly quickly. Remember that a weeping fig grown in primarily indirect light will have a much more sparsely-leaved, open look compared to the leafier form it assumes when grown in partial to full direct light.
Light pruning of branches is a good idea, especially if needed to keep a compact shape in moderate light situations; however, F. benjamina does not respond well to drastic pruning, and is often reluctant to re-sprout from old wood unlike other Ficus species that can regrow from stump cuts (e.g., F. microcarpa).
Don’t forget that variegated (white-streaked) forms of Ficus benjamina, while beautiful, will need substantially more light than the standard type to support itself, since variegation dramatically reduces the amount of leaf area dedicated to light-capturing chloroplasts. Thus, if you are looking for a tree for moderate light conditions, do yourself and the plant a favor and pass on the variegation.
3) The Umbrella Plant (Scheffleraactinophylla & Scheffleraarboricola)
There are two species that go by the common name “umbrella plant” or “umbrella tree,” Schefflera actinophylla & Schefflera arboricola. While the two share many features, they are quite distinct.
Schefflera actinophylla – The “Octopus” Tree
Also referred to as the “octopus plant,” S. actinophylla is native to the rainforest of Australia, Java and New Guinea where it often grows as a large multi-trunked tree that can reach up to 50 feet tall.
Owing to its more common handle “the umbrella tree,” this species produces very large, palmate and compound leaves that can stretch up to two feet across like a small parasol. The name “octopus” tree likely follows from its 2-feet long, red and tentacle-like raceme flowers. Like the fiddle-leaf fig discussed above, S. actinophylla is also known to sometimes start as a hemiephiphte on host trees.
In the wild, and in virtually any other region with suitable moisture and a frost-free climate, S. actinophylla is a quick-growing and highly versatile species that can thrive in full sun or nearly full shade. Unfortunately, this hardiness has made it a very troublesome invasive species in most of the Hawaiian islands and in south and central Florida, where it has been shown to rapidly colonize disturbed areas and also infiltrate pristine forests.
In the confines of the home, however, S. actinophylla makes a very adaptable and attractive indoor tree that can very easily reach 10 feet tall or more, if given good light (ideally including some filtered direct light), fertilizer and room to grow.
Water as any large houseplant (allowing surface soil to dry slightly between waterings) and prune as necessary to encourage fuller growth and increased branching. Pruning can be quite severe with this species, and it should resprout quickly from old wood if otherwise healthy.
This tree is comfortable at common room temperatures and not particularly sensitive to cold; in fact, it can tolerate brief exposure to temperatures just above freezing with no apparent problem. However, protect from drafts and keep warm to encourage vigorous growth throughout the year. High humidity is appreciated but not required.
Unfortunately, neither the flowers or fruit that this species produces outdoors or in a greenhouse setting is likely to be observed in most homes.
Schefflera arboricola – Dwarf Umbrella Plant
S. arboricola, or the “dwarf” umbrella plant, is a smaller, shrubbier version of S. actinophylla that hails from the cool, misty forests of Taiwan.
This evergreen species reaches a maximum of about 15 feet in height in the wild and has a similar leaf morphology to S. actinophylla. It also produces similarly-shaped flowers and fruit compared to its larger congener, which are likewise rarely observed indoors.
While outwardly similar, S. arboricola is much more manageable outdoors than S. actinophylla, where it is a popular patio and hedge plant in USDA Zones 9b and above. However, it is this specie’s adaptability as a houseplant that has made it a favorite.
Indoors when grown in good light and humidity, this plant can reach up to 5 or 6 feet tall and be pruned into an attractive tree or shrub. It’s tolerance for drastic pruning and re-growth from old wood also makes it a favorite among indoor bonsai keepers.
If you’ve ever visited Taiwan, you would not be surprised to hear that this species enjoys high humidity; therefore, daily light misting is a good idea, especially in dry/high light situations that can make it an attractive target for spider mites. High humidity has the added benefit of encouraging the formation of aerial roots in this species, which are especially attractive for specimens trained as bonsai.
The dwarf umbrella tree is very flexible in terms of light requirements, and can grow reasonably well in full shade, especially outdoors, but it will look and do better if given a bit of cool direct light; an east-facing window indoors is ideal.
It is a bit sensitive to excessive heat, so light through a south or west-facing window in summer should be filtered to prevent leaf burn. Although it is very amenable to low light levels, at minimum, very bright indirect light should be provided. A north-facing window is insufficient to support healthy growth.
The dwarf umbrella plant enjoys being watered thoroughly, but it is advisable to let the surface layers of the soil dry slightly between waterings, especially in winter. Not quite as cold tolerant as its larger cousin, try to keep S. arboricola on the warmer side, at temperatures above 70F to promote constant, vigorous growth year-round.
Beyond the above requirements, treat as any other houseplant and fertilize with a general purpose indoor plant formulation. Various cultivars are commonly available, including a variegated form.
4) The Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaenamarginata)
The red-edged Dracaena, or more commonly the “dragon tree,” is a species native to Madagascar that can attain a height of 20 feet tall with a spread half as wide.
Unlike many other members of the popular houseplant genus Dracaena, the dragon tree sports thin and stiff, ribbon-like leaves that sit like pom-poms on top of skinny, curvy trunks.
While it is not terribly tree-like in form, it can easily reach 6 feet high indoors and therefore makes a great houseplant for making use of vertical space in corners or between furnishings.
More importantly, it is one of the most abuse-tolerant indoor trees you are going to find.
D. marginata is not at all demanding, and will thrive in strong indirect light from an east or west-facing window. Of course, it will gladly accept some filtered direct light as well, which can give it a bushier look and spur growth.
In addition to being a relatively low light tree, it is also very adaptable to a drier environment despite it’s tropical, exotic look. Daily misting is greatly appreciated, however, and will help it fend off attack from spider mites.
Fertilize this slow-growing species conservatively (i.e., at half manufacturer recommended dose/frequency) and water the dragon tree as you would any typical houseplant, taking care not to leave the plant sitting in water and allowing the surface soil layers to dry slightly between waterings.
It’s not finicky about temperature, but locate away from cold drafts or exterior doors in wintertime. As will other members of Dracaena, the dragon tree can be sensitive to fluorine in municipal water sources, which can lead to blackened or dying leaf tips. This can also occur due to build up of fertilizer or hard water mineral salts.
If leaf tip burn for whatever reason is noted, it is a good idea to water the plant thoroughly with distilled or reverse osmosis water weekly to leach out accumulated soil salts and chemicals.
Just be sure to fertilize regularly in such case, since water of this purity will be hyposmotic relative to the surrounding soil and quickly leach out the bad with the good – i.e., the beneficial macronutrients and trace elements in the soil needed for plant maintenance and growth.
Another issue that may arise with D. marginata is that it can get too tall, making it look a bit spindly. This is particularly noticeable for single-trunked specimens grown in relatively weak light. Fortunately, this can be dealt with by cutting off the leafy tops (taking care to leave a good 6 inches of stalk on) and putting them into the same pot (if there’s room) or another pot to start a new plant.
Rooting hormone can be used, but is not necessary. In any case, be sure to keep the soil from drying out to avoid quickly desiccating fragile new roots as they emerge.
As with most Dracaena, topping also has the salutary effect of causing new shoots to develop below the cut, thereby promoting a fuller plant. This species is also a great candidate for propagation through air layering.
5) The Rubber Plant (Ficuselastica)
In the wilds of southern Asia where the “rubber plant” grows in dense rainforest, it is a beautiful and large tree that is reported to reach heights up to 100 feet and boast massive crowns thick with broad, glossy leaves. In most other outdoor settings it generally reaches 40 or 50 feet tall.
This is the third Ficus species discussed here, but is no less impressive as F. lyrata or F. benjamina when given proper care. Don’t confuse this “rubber” plant, with the real rubber plant (Hevea brasiliensis) that is the primary used for commercial latex production.
Care of Ficus elastica is generally similar to that described for F. benjamina and F. lyrata. Remember to water thoroughly but avoid over-watering this plant by following the general rule of allowing surface soil layers to dry slightly between waterings.
Misting this plant is not required, but is recommended for optimal growth and health, along with periodically wiping its broad leaves with a damp cloth. Under good growing conditions, F. elastica can very easily exceed 6 feet tall indoors.
As usual, the most important factor governing health and appearance of this species is light. And as with F. benjamina, this is another species that is often erroneously reported to be averse to direct sunlight indoors.
On the contrary, F. elastica is known as plant that does best in full sun, even when planted outdoors. What this species does not tolerate is the heat buildup associated with direct sunlight indoors, which unfortunately is common in most interior spaces/offices where ventilation is poor and the air is still, especially in summer.
Therefore, it is advisable to situate this species along an east-facing window and/or filter any hot direct sunlight through blinds, drapes or some type of screening.
Indeed, without providing some measure of at least filtered direct light, such as that through an east, west or south-facing window, most growers will find F. elastica to become leggy, weak and require constant staking to remain upright. Thus, growing this species in purely indirect light does not do it justice.
Even under relatively good conditions indoors, these trees will often get a bit long and/or begin to lean. An option in such cases, besides staking, is to prune the tree back, which will encourage side-branching and give it a fuller look.
As a bonus, the cut tops can be rooted by dipping in a hormone and inserting into a light, seed-starting medium. Place the cuttings in indirect light to prevent heat stress or drying and mist regularly; if successful, the new plant will begin producing fresh growth in four or five weeks and it can be gradually acclimatized to brighter light.
The rubber plant is also easily propagated via air layering.
Featured (top) photo credit: “Indoor Tree” by Jeremy Keith under CC BY 2.0
Unfortunately, the common trade name “Elephant Ear Plant” has been used and abused so tirelessly that, standing alone, it is absolutely impossible to know which plant is being discussed.
Moreover, this confusion is perpetuated by nursery stock with labeling that fails to list a scientific name, at least to genus. One can therefore go home with an elephant ear and have little idea as to how it should be maintained.
In fact, this colorful moniker is often associated with no less than four distinctive genera of herbaceous perennial plants. And while they all share some characteristics, such as being toxic, they do vary in their husbandry requirements such that a separate discussion for each is useful to grow and care for them properly. For example, things like sun exposure, cold hardiness, soil type and moisture, and mature size are not standard when talking about elephant ears.
Please follow along as we break down each type of the four so-called elephant ear plants and provide basic growing instructions.
1) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Colocasia
Commonly known as “taro” in many areas of the world (especially Asia) where it’s grown for its carbohydrate-rich corm, the genus Colocasia enjoys wide popularity as a food crop and a bold ornamental plant. There are just over a dozen species of Colocasia named to date, with several more likely to be announced in the near future. Colocasia esculenta is a particularly widely grown species used for food production.
Given Colocasia’s cosmopolitan distribution and the many thousands of years that it’s been under cultivation, its origin is a subject of debate. Nevertheless, it is believed that it may have originated Asia, most likely in lowland Malaysia. The corm of this plant is edible, as is the rest of the plant. However, its tissues are laden with calcium oxalate crystals – a potent plant toxin that can cause an acute reaction at very low doses. Symptoms of mild poisoning include chocking and burning/swelling in the mouth and throat, which could last for weeks. Thorough cooking is necessary to deactivate this toxin, although Colocasia varieties grown specifically for food are likely to have much less calcium oxalate to start with.
There are many cultivars of this type of elephant ear plant, but most are very large specimens and some species, such as the Thailand “Giant” strain, can grow over 6 feet high and push massive leaves that may in fact approach elephant size ears! Needless to say, a plant of this stature is best shown off growing outdoors or in a greenhouse where it can reach full size; however, it can be potted and kept indoors in very bright light, where it will remain much more manageable while still making a spectacular and large indoor plant.
An important consideration to bear in mind when growing this type of elephant ear is that they thrive in moisture. Indeed, their affinity for water makes them an ideal marginal plant around ponds or other water sources, and they are often grown partially submerged in water. Consequently, if grown in the ground or in a large planter, make sure that the soil remains uniformly moist. They are also notorious for being very heavy feeders, so keep them well fertilized with a balanced formula throughout the growing season if you want to enjoy this plant in all its glory. They prefer soil that is well-draining and neutral to slightly acidic.
As you might guess given their distribution among equatorial zones, this species appreciates high humidity. And while it can tolerate dryer conditions, this does make it highly susceptible to spider mites. Diligent monitoring of plants grown in drier climates should be performed to avoid a full-blown mite infestation that could prove difficult to control. Colocasia generally do best and reach their most attractive proportions in full sun, but can tolerate partial to full shade outdoors and still thrive. Indeed, locating specimens in shade is preferable in regions that experience lots of heat and low humidity during the growing season.
In fall, shortening day length will gradually trigger a cessation and die back of vegetative and root mass in favor of flowers and corm formation. Depending on the variety, Colocasia may be overwintered outdoors in regions as cold as USDA zone 7, but always confirm before purchasing. If overwintering in zones colder than 8a, it is advised to bury the corm in mulch up to a depth of 6 inches. If the corm successfully overwinters, you should see new growth emerge in spring. In zones below 7, growers should trim the remaining leaves and roots from the corms and remove them to overwinter indoors buried in mulch; they may be stored anywhere temperatures remain above freezing, and can be replanted in spring after the danger of frost passes. Alternatively, the corm can be treated as a houseplant and given bright indirect light in a cool location. Take care not to fertilize or water excessively during this time as the plant’s growth will be very slow.
2) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Alocasia
The genus Alocasia is a plant collector’s dream, currently holding about 79 species, not including various hybrids. They are native to southern Asia and Eastern Australia, but have long been cultivated in the South Pacific and elsewhere for food. Their rich corms are edible like those produced by Colocasia described above. And like Colocasia, the tissues of Alocasia contain toxic calcium oxalate as a means of defense against herbivorous animals.
The breadth and variety of this very interesting genus makes generalization difficult. For example, Alocasia x amazonica is a striking small to moderate sized specimen that boasts gorgeous contrasting dark foliage and whitish veins. This is one of the most highly-celebrated members of the genus for cultivation as an indoor plant, given its exotic look and relatively straightforward care. While not as easy as the typical houseplant, A. x amazonica has a fairly short list of requirements – provide them very bright indirect light or filtered direct light; maintain warm temperatures; give them high humidity; and grow them in quickly draining soil that is always kept uniformly moist.
In stark contrast to the comparatively dainty A. x amazonica stands Alocasia macrorrhizos (sometimes denoted A. macrorrhiza), which also goes by the names “elephant ear taro,” “giant taro,” and “ape.” Unlike the horizontal or drooping orientation of most elephant ear plants, this behemoth proudly stands with its massive leaves pointed upwards toward the sky. This is a true mountain of an herbaceous plant, and under ideal growing conditions the “Borneo Giant” strain can throw up two to three meter long stalks supporting one meter long leaves for a total height of 10-12 feet from base to leaf tips! Recent taxonomic study of the giant elephant ear taro using DNA sequencing places the origin of A. macrorrhizos in the Philippines.
If you seek maximum size and rapid growth, provide the giant elephant ear plant with full sun. However, it can also do fairly well in partial shade but may not reach gargantuan size. It also enjoys warm temperatures, high humidity and needs lots of water throughout the growing season. Avoid letting the soil go dry and be sure to feed well. Enriching the soil with high amounts of organic matter, such as steer manure, is recommended.
Like most elephant ears, they are highly vulnerable to mite attack in arid regions, which can be mitigated to some degree with frequent misting or spraying.
This species will not tolerate cold winters, and is generally less cold-hardy than Colocasia. For growers in USDA zones 8 and below, it is advisable to dig up the corms in fall around the first frost and overwinter indoors.
Despite its towering stature and almost frightening growth rate in ideal conditions outdoors, the giant elephant ear can be tamed in a container, and makes an outstanding, large indoor plant. It can grow 5 feet tall (or more) if provided with enough bright indirect/direct light and grown in a large pot.
Space permitting, I can hardly think of a more majestic and bold tropical plant for any home or greenhouse.
3) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Xanthosoma
Xanthosoma is a roughly 50-member genus that, unlike those discussed previously, is believed to have originated (or at least been first domesticated) in the New World tropics. Overall, they are quite similar in form to Colocasia, and are likewise grown widely for their starchy, edible corm. Although they are cultivated for food in various parts of Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and the Netherlands, they are a particularly important staple in Puerto Rico, Cuba and, more recently, West Africa.
Perhaps the most broadly distributed member of the genus is Xanthosoma sagittifolium, which is primarily grown for food but is also a common collector’s plant.
This is a fast-growing, large species that under ideal conditions can produce leaves up to 4 feet long and 3 feet wide on petioles of a meter in length. The foliage is attractive but relatively understated compared to some elephant ears, and it produces an unremarkable spathe type inflorescence common to the family.
X. sagittifolium does best in warm, very humid environments in strong, filtered light. This species requires continually moist soil that is fast draining and rich with organic matter to reach its full potential.
It can be grown in a large container where will it will make a very large and interesting indoor plant.
Outdoors the corm can survive winters in USDA zones 8 and higher; in colder regions the corm should be dig up and brought indoors until frost danger passes in spring.
In contrast, Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ is a cultivar that is grown only for its striking bright lime green foliage.
This plant can reach proportions roughly equivalent to X. safittifolium and is in all other husbandry respects likewise similar.
4) Elephant Ear Plants in the Genus Caladium
Unlike all of the other genera above, which are often grown for food, Caladium are strictly ornamental and do not form a corm (the are a tuberous plant). There are roughly a dozen species of Caladium, not including the myriad of popular cultivars available at most large nursery centers. Like Xanthosoma, this is also a New World elephant ear, with its “roots” primarily in South and Central America where they occupy the dappled realm of the forest understory.
Caladium are by far the smallest elephant ear plants discussed here, with an average size of roughly two feet tall by two feet wide. However, what they lack in stature they make up for in color and beauty; these are the showiest of all elephant ears, with varieties coming in a myriad of colors and leaf patterns, including red, white, bright green and pink. For example, the species Caladium lindenii(formerly placed in Xanthosoma) presents a striking arrow-head leaf with a deep green background that’s overlaid with wide, white/cream veins; whereas Caladium bicolor ‘Florida Sweetheart’ has reddish pink leaves fading to green along the margins, and C. bicolor ‘Angel Wings’ has bright white leaves with thin dark veins.
With their striking coloration, small size, and preference for shade or well-filtered direct sunlight, it’s no wonder why this is the most popular indoor elephant ear plant. Further, there are very few rules to abide by when growing these species. Like most of the types discussed above, they crave moisture and humidity. Keep them in a light, neutral to slightly acidic and well-draining soil that is rich in humus and kept continually damp/moist, but not waterlogged. Do not make the mistake of sitting their pots in water as you might a Colocasia!
Light requirements are also easily met, since most Caladium will thrive in full shade outdoors or in bright indirect light or filtered direct light indoors. Keep in mind that bright light is needed for most showy specimens to reach their full color potential. Fertilize as any foliage houseplant, with heavier feeding during the warmer months and when growing in bright light. As with the other elephants ears, all parts of this plant are toxic, therefore care should be taken to avoid accidental ingestion by children or pets.
Perhaps the only real shortcoming of the Caldium is that they are not especially cold hardy, making them ill-suited as an outdoor perennial in many regions of the country. In fact, unless you live in USDA Zone 9 or warmer, you will need to bring this plant indoors for the winter or be prepared to buy new plants each spring. The tubers can be dug up in the fall as nights become cool and, after trimming any remaining leaves/roots, the bulbs can be stored in a moderately-dry peat much in a dark and cool place (around 55F-65F) until spring. Alternatively, the tuber can be transplanted to a container indoors, where the plant may continue to grow (albeit slowly) if kept warm and provided sufficient lighting.