The Prayer Plant – Maranta leuconeura

The prayer plant, Maranta leuconeura, is one of roughly 20 species within the genus that is native to the Brazilian rainforest, where it occupies shady niches along the forest floor.

Beyond it’s well-known habit of folding its leaves in an erect position as nightfall approaches, this is one of the most attractive and easy to maintain foliage houseplants available.

Let’s take a closer look at this species and find out what it takes to make these plants thrive.

Basic Care Guidelines for the Prayer Plant

This a small perennial plant that typically remains well under two feet tall at maturity and nearly as wide. It grows along a creeping rhizome (underground stem). Its foliage is typified by 4 to 5-inch long oval leaves marked with attractive fish-bone type venation that can contrast sharply with leaf background color. This species produces small flowers when grown in good light and high humidity, but rarely flowers with any regularity in the dim light of most homes.

M. leuconeura has very few needs beyond maintaining good ordinary housplant care. Unsurprisingly given its adaptation to the dappled light of the forest floor, this species enjoys bright indirect or well-filtered light but should be protected from hot sun. Light coming from an east (ideal) or west-facing window is recommended, making sure to filter all direct light with the possible exception very early morning sun from the east. If you place your plant in very strong light it may bleach out its coloration; whereas low light will lead to slow growth and is likely to make this plant more vulnerable to pests. I would not consider this plant a “low light” species. It may persist for a long time in low light, but it is unlikely to grow and will gradually fade out.

Prayer plants should be watered by adhering to the general rule of allowing the surface soil to dry slightly between waterings and checking soil moisture with the finger-stick method. This is especially true for plants grown in very dim light, which are always more prone to overwatering given their reduced transpiration rates. Likewise, plants in winter will normally have less need for water as well. Whenever you do water, take care to always do so thoroughly, letting the water drain out from the pot. Typical household temperatures are fine for M. leuconeura so long as extremes are avoided.

Prayer Plants Thrive in Humidity

High humidity is probably the one thing that M. leuconeura truly craves. Indeed, while many houseplants hail from balmy rainforest habitat, they often can settle for dry indoor air. Prayer plants too can cope with drier air to some degree, but they suffer for it. In particular, specimens kept in low humidity are easy targets for spider mites, which can do extensive damage before they are even noticed. Try to mist your prayer plant daily or set the pot on a tray of water and pebbles. A small room humidifier is also a good idea, and is likely to benefit the other houseplants in the room too.

Prayer plant in flower - something that rarely happens indoors.If repotting, any good quick-draining potting mix should do. Remember to be conservative with potting and only use pots slightly larger than the original. Prayer plants do not need large pots and, like most houseplants, are often most comfortable when their roots have nearly filled the pot. Fertilize regularly as any houseplant, making sure to cut the manufacturer’s recommended dose in half for plants grown in dimmer locations.

As with most rhizotomous plants, propagation is straightforward. When transplanting or repotting, select a young 6-8″ portion of the stem that has a least a couple leaves on it; cut it from the mother plant using sharp scissors or a razor blade. The cut should be angled. Take this stem cutting and bury it shallowly in a light seed starting mix, making sure that attached leaves are above the soil line. Keep the medium moist at all times. Place the cutting in a humid area and/or mist frequently. A plastic bag can also be placed over the cutting to raise humidity; use a popsicle stick on either side of the pot to prevent the plastic from touching the leaves. Keep the cutting warm and in indirect light; roots should appear within 4 weeks or so.

Common Problems with Prayer Plants

Prayer plant showing attractive foliage and leaf venation.

While lack of sufficient light is probably the leading cause of failing health and loss of color and vigor, leaf tip browning is commonly observed in long-time houseplants. This can be caused by many things, but is usually a sign of underwatering, low humidity, over-fertilization or high mineral content in tapwater. This can often be remedied in large part by raising humidity and/or periodically flushing the pot with reverse osmosis or distilled water to leach out accumulated salts and minerals. Use of distilled water also has the added benefit or reducing soil pH and unlocking trace metals that are normally bound up when plants are routinely watered with hard tap water. Prayer plants are vulnerable to most common houseplant pests, especially spider mites and mealybugs.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):

prayer plant” by Cliff under CC BY 2.0

prayer plant, flower cropped” by KaCey 97007 under CC BY 2.0

Maranta leuconeura Fascinator” by Maja Dumat under CC BY 2.0

The Secrets to Thriving African Violets

While technically not a violet at all, the African violet (Saintpaulias sp.) may be the most cherished houseplant of the century.

It’s not surprising why; they have modest light requirements, take up little space, are easily propagated and – most of all – they produce wonderful flowers. A healthy plant can be in bloom nearly year round. Let’s take a deeper look at this classic houseplant and what it needs to thrive in your care.

Originating from Tanzania and Kenya, the genus Saintpaulias holds over a dozen species (not including popular hybrids), the most important of which is Saintpaulia ionantha, the original “violet” described in 1894 that started it all. The African violet’s native habitat lies predominantly in the montane rainforests associated with the higher reaches of Eastern Arc mountains in eastern Tanzania, a particularly rich area of cloud forest that holds a wealth of globally-significant biodiversity and boasts high levels of endemism. Unfortunately, the future status of the African violet and other members of Saintaulia in the wild is tenuous at best.

African Violet Light Requirements

African violets are adapted to the shady nooks and moist microclimates found along rocky slopes, outcrops, limestone formations and even the protected side of tree trunks. African violets are averse to direct, hot sunshine and are well-known for being able to grow and bloom in lower light than most flowering species.

African violets are perfect windowsill plantsHowever, they do need a certain degree of moderately bright indirect light. Virtually any windowsill in the home can be used, so long as the plant does not receive direct light, which is just too hot and intense for this plant’s leaves. Early morning direct sun from the east is OK. Remember that as soon as you move away from a window light levels drop very quickly, so keep them close to windows, especially if using a much dimmer north-facing window. Rotate your violets every few days to give all sides of the plant ample light; if you don’t they will bend toward the light and it will ruin their attractive rosette shape.

An alternative to sunlight that most professional growers opt for is florescent lighting. Given their preference for cool light and their short stature, African violets are perhaps one of the most suitable houseplants for culturing under florescent light. Artificial lights afford a degree of control over growth and temperature that is hard to match, and comes with the added benefit of ensuring an optimal and consistent photoperiod. If you go this route, its most practical to use a cool white florescent tube that sits about 8 to 12 inches from the top of the plant, and leave it on for about 14 hours per day. Any inexpensive indoor florescent grow light with enough wattage that can accommodate several plants will work fine.

Potting Soil for African Violets

Potting soil for African violets.There are as many recipes for “secret” potting soil for this species as there varieties of the plants themselves. However, the basic aim is to achieve a soil high in organic matter that drains quickly and is light enough to allow oxygen to enter while remaining slightly moist. Most African violet enthusiasts will be quick to decry commercial potting mixes, but the reality is that most good African violet soil-less mixes are fine. What you want is a mix that is composed primarily of sphagnum peat moss. If you must tinker with the soil, a good compromise is to use a commercial potting soil and mix it with some more peat moss and coarse perlite, in equal parts by volume.

African violets do best a slightly acidic soil, but you don’t need to worry about that when preparing soil if using a largely peat moss-based mix, which should be plenty acidic on its own.

Watering Your African Violet

There are two schools of thought on watering African violets, each of which has their respective virtues.

On the one hand, traditional houseplant care generally favors watering from the top down, so water always freely runs out the bottom of the drainage holes where it can be discarded. For me, this is and will always be the way I teach people to water their plant material. For starters, this method discourages the build up of salts and minerals that are in tap water, fertilizers and soil mixes. These minerals (especially if you have hard water) can easily accumulate and create alkaline soil conditions or simply become saline to the plant (by the way do not used softened water on any houseplant).

Self-water pots are a good option for African violets.On the other hand, many serious African violet enthusiasts swear by wick or self-watering systems, whereby the pot is arranged in such a way that water is taken up into the root ball via capillary action. The thought behind this system is that it keeps the soil uniformly and consistently moist, without water-logging it. Of course, it also has the benefit of virtually eliminating the fear of missing a watering, or the stress from occasional underwatering.

I think that wick systems are fine and I am not against them. However, there are some important caveats. First, you must understand the chemistry of the water you are using. If your water is hard and alkaline, as it is here throughout much of the southwestern US, I would not recommend wick watering. Hard water in a wick system is a great way to accumulate minerals and salts in the root zone as the pure water evaporates off. Look for hard water stains on your glassware if left to air-dry. The same thing will happen in the soil, and white crusty material around the wick and surface of soil is a telltale sign of mineral buildup. Beyond potentially causing osmotic stress (in a severe case wilting), this will almost certainly raise soil pH to levels that “lockout” trace metals, most notably of which is iron. In other words, a bad idea.

If, however, you have access to naturally pure water (i.e., with low total dissolved solids and a pH of around 7.0) or are using distilled or reverse osmosis water, then I am all for it. In this case, the water will not add any significant mineral content to the soil or alter pH, so there is much less need for the flushing obtained from top-watering. Nevertheless, fertilizer residues will still accumulate over time so you should top-water ever couple weeks to leach them out and restore balance.

Potting & Repotting African Violets

African violets don't require large pots to thrive.African violets do not need particularly large pots at any point in their life and most standard-sized mature plants of 10″ inches in width or greater can be kept in a 4 inch diameter pot. If anything, plants in smaller pots tend to be more vigorous and produce more frequent blooms compared to over-potted specimens.

The type of pot you use is generally up to you, but must have adequate drainage holes that are covered with rocks or screening to prevent loss of soil. Most people that utilize wick watering prefer plastic pots, since they are non-porous and result in a more consistent watering regime with less loss to evaporation.

When repotting, make sure that the soil is slightly damp, as this should help the plant slip out of the pot without too much trouble. I would not disturb the plant’s roots unless they are very well coiled around due to being slightly pot bound, in which case I would slowly massage them apart and score the outside of the rootball slightly before putting into new soil. Make sure to brush/blow off any soil or dirt that settled on the leaves as this can promote fungus and/or leaf discoloration.

Proper Temperature for African Violets

African violets thrive in ordinary room temperatures, just stay away from extremes. Temperatures below 50F and above 90F are to be avoided, and plants are easily shocked if watered with cold water. Letting your water sit out overnight brings it to room temperature and also releases chlorine, thus killing two birds with one stone.

If you’re interested, it’s always a good idea to set a small thermometer next to the plant, either on the windowsill or at leaf-level if using florescent lighting, to see exactly what the temperatures are within the plant’s micro-climate and make adjustments as necessary. You may be surprised what you learn.

African Violets & Humidity

African violets thrive in humidity.Like so many houseplants hailing from balmy equatorial zones, your African violet likes more humidity than is wise to maintain at home. The ideal relative humidity is between 50 and 70%; neither of which is recommended indoors since this is a great way to grow molds and mildew, along with your African violets.

The compromise (unless you are blessed with high humidity naturally) is to either set the plant above a tray of water and pebbles, or very gently mist the plants. Misting is a delicate operation with these hairy-leaved plants and is best avoided if other avenues exist, since it can leave water spots or foster conditions for pathogens. An added twist to the tray/pebbles option is to sit the plant on a screen/rack over a basin of water in which an aquarium air pump and air stone is installed. The very fine rising column of bubbles will create a steady stream of humidified air. Just be sure that the plant is high enough above the water so that it does not actually come in contact with any fine spray from the aerator.

Fertilizing Your African Violet

African violets require regular feeding to maintain heavy blooms.Any plant that blooms as consistently as an African violet needs regular feeding. In fact, flowering is a highly energy-intensive process for any plant. So, even if sunlight, water and humidity are not limiting, a lack of nutrients and/or trace elements can quickly put the brakes on blooming, even if the plant seems otherwise healthy.

As far as what fertilizer to use, there are many good African violet specialty liquid fertilizers that should do the job. However, with regard to feeding schedule, you have choices. You can either adhere to the recommended manufacturer’s dose and schedule, or you can opt of a continuous feeding approach, whereby the recommended dose is cut to between 1/8 and 1/4 the full dose, but delivered each time the plant is watered. The continual feed method is an especially good option for self-watering systems.

African Violet Propagation

By far the best way to propagate African violets is through leaf cuttings.

This is a very easy process, especially once you’ve done it a couple times. First, select a healthy, young leaf toward the middle of the rosette – something semi-mature but with a good size. Snap it off at the soil level and then angle-cut it with a razor blade just above the break. Put the cut end of the leaf in some water while we prepare the soil.

African violet cuttings rooted in water need extra time to adapt to living in soil.Either buy a light seed starting medium, or make your own by combining equal parts perlite and vermiculite and filling a small 2-inch pot. Moisten the medium with water (I like distilled or reverse osmosis water for this) containing a very dilute concentration of liquid fertilizer (1/8 manufacturer’s recommended strength). Make a hole with the blunt end of a chopstick or pencil and insert the cut-end of the leaf. Gently firm the medium around the cutting and water it again, and let the medium drain thoroughly.

Take the pot and stick a couple Popsicle or other small sticks on both sides of the pot, and gently place a sandwich bag or any other fine, clear plastic over the cutting and pot, making sure that the cutting does not touch the plastic. This will elevate humidity and help spur root production. Take the plastic off every couple days or so for 10 minutes to ventilate. Now wait until new plantlets begin to form.

When a plantlet has several leaves and is beginning to form a mini-rosette, you can gently knock off the medium and divide them. Use a sharp razor when making cuts and try to avoid damaging roots when doing so. Pot the new plantlets in their own 2″ pots and treat as adults.

Another option is rooting cuttings in water; however, while this may seem easier, it ends up being the slower route. The roots created in water tend to be very weak and generally need to be shed in favor of terrestrial-adapted roots anyway. So save yourself and the plant some time and start your cuttings directly in soil.

African violet photo credits (in order of appearance):

African violet” by Leslie under CC BY 2.0

African violets” by Ann under CC BY 2.0

African violet” by sean mason under CC BY 2.0

African violet show” by walrus36 under CC BY 2.0

African violet roots and leaf starts” by Madaise under CC BY-ND 2.0

Top 3 Indoor Palm Trees For The Home or Office!

Perhaps no other type of plant epitomizes the tropics like palms do, so it’s natural that many people are interested in decorating with indoor palm trees. Sadly though, the vast majority of all palm species are very ill-suited to indoor culture, and most of the large and seemingly inexpensive palms that are commonly offered at large nursery chain stores in the indoor section have virtually no chance at thriving in the average home. Thus, when it comes to buying indoor palm trees, you must do your homework.

Our Pick: The Best 3 Indoor Palm Trees

There are way too many palm species to discuss here that could be grown indoors or may have good potential for indoor culture. And there is not much point in discussing indoor palm trees that may be suitable for homes that have a large atrium, sun room or attached greenhouse, since those are conditions most people cannot replicate.

That’s why I decided to discuss only 3 palm species, which are arguably the absolute best for indoor culture. Unlike most palms, each of these has a demonstrated ability to tolerate low light, low humidity and low temperatures better than the rest. In short, if you don’t have experience growing palms indoors, these are the most likely to survive and thrive in your care.

Kentia palm - one of the best indoor plam trees
Kentia palm enjoying light indoors.

Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana)

There’s little debate that the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) is the best overall choice for an indoor palm tree. That’s why it was the subject of our recent article, All About the Kentia Palm. In case you don’t have the time to look that over, rest assured that the kentia palm is exceptional in its ability to deal with dim light, low humidity and stale air.

Give this palm strong indirect light, such as that coming from an east or west-facing window, and it should thrive for you. A south-facing window is also acceptable, so long as the light is very well filtered. The big challenge with the kentia palm is giving it as much bright indirect light as possible without burning it with direct sun. This species comes from Lord Howe island, where the temperatures are consistently cool year-round. The heat generated around a south-facing window and the direct rays of the sun will therefore quickly singe this plant.

Besides giving it strong, cool light, simply follow some general palm care guidelines. For example, all indoor palms love humidity, so mist the kentia palm frequently. This not only makes it a bit more resistant to pests but also reduces the rate at which water is lost, and can therefore help minimize leaf-tip burning, a common occurrence in palms (especially indoors) that we’ll discuss more later. In addition, resist the temptation to quickly repot the kentia. It’s usually best to leave your kentia in the pot it arrived in, at least for the current growing season. These palms, and palms in general, tend to enjoy being cramped in pots. This is in large part because pots with a high proportion of roots to soil tend to drain better and hold more oxygen. Only palms that have roots coming out of the drainage holes, or specimens that are beginning to split their pot, are in dire need of transplanting. And even when you do transplant, chose a pot that’s at most 20-30% larger than the original.

Kentia palms can and will be plagued by pests, especially if kept in dim conditions and in dry air. Thorough treatment with neem oil or horticultural oil will usually control most light to moderate infestations. However, if this plant is grown in very marginal conditions, it may be a losing battle. Also remember that kentia palms can grow large and very wide indoors, even in small pots. Make sure they have room to spread and, if space is an issue, push off repotting as long as possible to keep them from growing too big and tall.

Parlor Palm - one of the toughest of all indoor palm trees.
Densely-planted parlor palm for sale.

Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans)

The genus Chamaedorea is huge and consists of many species that have good potential as indoor palms. However, the most battle-tested among them to date is clearly Chamaedorea elegans, the “parlor palm.” This is easily my first pick for anyone just dipping their feet in palm culture.

This palm hails from the steamy forest understory along southern Mexico and into Guatemala, and is an unusually low-light tolerant palm. That’s why it is the only palm species on my list of 14 Truly Low Light Plants. Indeed, it is very likely this capacity for tolerating dim lighting that has made this species the most popular in homes around the world.

C. elegans can reach 3 meters high outdoors in the wild, but in the home usually remains quite small, typically well under a meter. Moreover, growth is very slow, so getting a bigger specimen to start is a good idea. This palm normally grows in its native habitat as a single-stemmed plant, but is normally sold in tightly planted composed of many small palms.

There are very few things you can do wrong with the parlor palm. Give it good indirect light (no direct light) by putting close to an east or west-facing window. A northern exposure my work if that’s all you’ve got – but put the palm right up against the window, since light levels drop off very quickly even a couple feet away. Water as you would any other houseplant, letting the surface soils dry slightly between waterings. However, it is worthwhile catering to C. elegans‘ thirst for humidity by frequently misting the leaves and the very surface of the soil. Putting the whole pot on a tray of pebbles and water is also a good idea in dry conditions. Whatever you do, do not keep the soil constantly wet or you will kill this plant from root rot.

Pests are not a common problem with vigorous plants, but weakened palms, especially those grown in dark corners and in dry conditions, can be particularly susceptible to spider mites. Spider mites are bad news for any plant, but can really tear through a parlor palm’s relatively delicate leaves. If you’ve got an infestation, try horticultural oil in concert with an improvement in growing conditions (i.e., brighter light and increased humidity).

Lady palm - one of our favorite indoor palm trees.
R. excelsa – a graceful indoor palm.

Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)

The lady palm is another great indoor palm tree that’s also used as a landscape palm outdoors. Rhapis excelsa has an interesting upright growth habit and beautiful, open fan-like fronds that give it an understated elegance and allow it to fit into narrower spaces compared to a kentia palm.

This species is believed to have originated somewhere in southern China and Taiwan, although this is not clear since the lady palm only exists today in cultivation, with no actual wild population. Regardless of where it came from, however, it is clear the lady palm is here to stay. R. excelsa is known for being tolerant of low humidity, relatively pest resistant, and is likewise comfortable at common room temperatures. It is also very sensitive to direct sunlight, which should be avoided indoors at all costs.

Ironically, while it burns very quickly in direct sunshine, it requires fairly bright indirect light, especially compared to the parlor palm and kentia palm. Therefore, if considering the lady palm make sure that you have a good east or west-facing window; or perhaps a shady location close to a south-facing exposure.

This species enjoys soil moisture but is sensitive to overwatering, especially if in a large pot. Follow the general rule of letting the surface soils dry slightly between waterings. Humidity cannot be too high, on the other hand, but the lady palm is quick to adapt to drier air, within reason. Mist R. excelsa daily to keep it happy and help combat a potential spider mite infestation.

Rhapis excelsa can grow up to 4 meters outdoors, but will generally get only half as large indoors, and with a young plant this will take lots of time. This is a slow-growing species and should not be fertilized aggressively. Even in good indoor conditions, it’s wise to err on the conservative side, giving this palm only 1/2 the manufacturer’s recommended fertilizer dose. For the same reason, there is no need to rush to repot. As with most palms, try to repot infrequently, only when the roots have filled the pot. When you do repot, use a high quality potting soil rich in organic matter that drains quickly.

Indoor Palm Trees, Leaf Tip Burn & Water Purity

Assuming you can provide good indirect light and follow the suggestions above, you should succeed with any or all of the indoor palm trees above. However, there are some issues common to indoor palms and many houseplants that is worth understanding.

Japanese maple showing mild leaf tip burn.
Japanese maple showing mild leaf tip burn.

Leaf tip burn is a common problem with a variety of plants, indoors and out. There many things that can cause this phenomena (whereby the tips of leaves will discolor and die back), but in most cases it’s usually due to underwatering, very low humidity and/or the presence (or accumulation) of dissolved solids, such as salts and hard water minerals, in tap water (or fertilizer). This in turn raises a biger issue of water quality and soil chemistry. I apologize in advance for the digression, but it’s important to understand for palms and plants in general.

All plants transpire or lose water water through microscopic pores called stomata. However, transpiration rates vary across the leaf (just like perspiration rates vary across the human body), with the highest rates occurring along the tips or margins of leaves. When water vapor is lost from a leaf, only pure water is released and everything else is left behind. It’s the reason why your glass and stemware may have white-ish residue left on them after air-drying.When water is lost at the leaves, more water is drawn up by the plant through capillary action to replace it. However, as just discussed, the salts and minerals naturally present in the water cannot turn into vapor and are deposited in the plant’s tissues. The result is a gradual accumulation and concentration of dissolved solids at the leaf tips. At some point, the concentration of these solutes reaches a point where they cause local toxicity and tissue necrosis – aka tip burn.

Humidity is a factor in tip burning because a plant’s rate of transpiration is somewhat dependent on humidity. All other things being equal, low humidity will result in a relatively high rate of transpiration. Consequently, both a high concentration of dissolved solids in tap water (or fertilizer residue in soil) and/or low humidity can exacerbate leaf tip burn. And both together can eventually cause the death of the entire plant.

If the palm is otherwise healthy, minor leaf tip burning is not a big deal, just gently clip the ends of the fronds if it bother you and increase humidity around the plant to slow water loss. However, if the entire plant is suffering from it and the palm is also growing poorly, with pale, stunted or discolored leaves, then it demands greater attention.

Water purity is important for indoor palm trees to thrive.
Machines like this sell “RO” water.

The easiest way to deal with tip burn accompanied by poor growth is by watering the palm with very pure water. Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about using typical home-filtered water, like that produced by your refrigerator filter or some Britta unit. I’m talking about distilled or reverse osmosis water (“RO” water is commonly available in the large purified water machines outside most grocery stores). Unlike tap water or most so-called home “filtered water”, which can have total dissolved solids ranging from 50 to 300 parts per million, RO and distilled water have virtually nothing in them. Distilled water should read “0” ppm with a hand-held tester; whereas RO water can be anywhere from 0 to 10 ppm and still be effectively pure. Most common household tap water filters simply don’t actually extract dissolved solids, and usually pick out much larger particulates or volatile compounds like chlorine. It may make your water taste better, but it’s not any different as far as the plant is concerned.

Distilled or RO water helps palms and other affected plants in two ways. First, when a plant sheds this type of water, there’s nothing to leave behind in the leaves, and hence nothing to accumulate in the leaf tips (besides fertilizer residue or other soil additives already present). This cuts down burn dramatically. Secondly, and more importantly (but not as obvious), is how this water helps restore pH balance and promotes vigor.

Sweetgum with telltale signs of iron choloris
A sweetgum leaf with classic signs of iron chlorosis.

Most tap water (especially in the southwestand other arid/semi-arid regions of the US) tends to be alkaline and will eventually make soil alkaline too. If curious do a quick test with an aquarium pH test kit. This is a problem because most plants prefer soils that are neutral to slightly acidic (<pH 7.0). Why? Because nutrients and trace elements in the soil, even if in abundant supply, can be “locked up” at even moderately high pH values. The first thing that often gives away alkaline soils is that plants will go anemic and begin to yellow, despite fertilizing. This is one cause of iron chlorosis. In this case, it occurs because iron is locked up in these soils, and iron is the most important metal needed for chloroplast formation and function. Moreover, it’s not only iron that can be bound up in alkaline soils, various other trace elements can be rendered unavailable too. Using RO/distilled water, which is normally neutral, helps bring down soil pH. Further, because it is hyposmotic compared to the soil, it also leaches salts and hard water minerals out of the soil as it’s being watered through (water until it drains from the pot, then discard it). This both drops pH and helps keep it within a useful range for the plant. Consequently, the benefits from using this type of water go far beyond helping to minimize leaf tip burn.


Palm leaf two” by Fil.AI under CC BY 2.0

kentia” by Eduardo Millo under CC BY 2.0

Chamaedorea elegans” by Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0

Rhapis excelsa” by somone10x under CC BY 2.0

brown leaf tips” by Jessie Hirsch under CC BY 2.0

NOT an ATM” by Allan Ferguson under CC BY 2.0

A sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) leaf showing the signs of interveinal chlorosis.” by Jim Conrad [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All About The Kentia Palm

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.

Home of the kentia palm
Image by NASA Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Kentia palm native habitat
Kentia palms growing on Lord Howe at Neds Beach.
Black Diamond Images – CC BY 2.0
Kentia palm native habitat
Kentia palm in native habitat on Lord Howe.
Black Diamond Images – CC BY 2.0

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.

Kentia palm ready for sale
A young kentia palm ready for sale.
Forest & Kim Starr -CC BY 2.0

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.

Kentia palm habitat in the south of Lord Howe
H. forsteriana growing in cool, pristine forest.
John Game – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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).

kentia palm disease
Damage caused by Cylindrocladium infection.
Scot Nelson under CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

belmore sentry palm- cousin of the kentia palm
Note the downward fronds of H. belmoreana.
tanetahi under CC BY 2.0

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

The 7 Best Office Plants Revealed!

Decorating with office plants is one of the best ways to combat the often sterile, cold feel of the workplace. The color and softness they bring also help remind us of the natural world that can seem so distant when we’re busy doing our jobs.

The only problem is that finding suitable office plants that not only look good, but can thrive in typical office conditions can be challenging. Moreover, most nursery center stock sold as indoor plant material comes with little or no information about the particular species, even if the scientific name is provided (which it usually is not).

Consequently, many office plant shoppers are likely to purchase plants that are claimed to be “low light” but are in fact destined to perish in the relatively dim confines of the typical workplace. Trial and error when it comes to selecting office plants is definitely not the best – or most economical – way to go.

Helping You Find The Most Suitable Office Plants

The good news is that you don’t have to kill a bunch of innocent plants until you find one that can withstand your office. We’ve endeavored to take the headache out of the selection by featuring some of the most attractive, adaptable and easy to grow office plants available.

Each of these office plants has passed our criteria for dealing with: (1) low light levels; (2) low humidity; (3) poor ventilation; and (4) typical, occasional neglect.

Without further ado, let’s get to the picks.

1) Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema spp.)

Native to the warm, humid regions of Asia, where these plants occupy the dim light of the forest floor, the common name “Chinese Evergreen” encompasses over 20 named species in the genus Aglaonema, not including a constantly growing list of Aglaonema cultivars.

The Chinese evergreen is one of the most attractive and low-maintenance office plants.
Aglaonema ‘Silver Queen’ likes a bright office.
by ryoki – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

These office plants are very tolerant of low light levels generally, but take note that the various cultivars are not equal in this regard. As we’ve said before whenever considering houseplants, remember that varieties with darker, deeper green foliage are usually much better at dealing with very low light compared to more variegated forms, whose bright streaking and coloration normally displaces leaf area that could otherwise support light-capturing chloroplasts.

For example, Aglaonema commutatum ‘Silver Queen’ is an outstanding and extremely popular office plant that is low-light by most standards; however, its broad areas of pale, silvery-grey coloration make it significantly less hardy in darker, windowless office spaces compared to say A. commutatum ‘Maria,’ which is typified by reduced variegation and a deeper, dark green background coloration.

Consequently, the lighter, paler leaf-forms of Aglaonema can be used where there is at least some bright indirect light, and they should thrive if placed withing several feet of most windows.

A. commutatum is one of the most forgiving office plants available.
This A. commutatum is better suited for low light.
by Kurt Stüber under CC BY-SA 3.0

If, however, your office is illuminated solely by overhead lighting, or the plant is bound for a dim spot far from any window, definitely opt for the darker forms of Aglaonema, such as ‘Maria.’

Do not expose any form of Chinese evergreen to sustained direct light, as they are sensitive to burn. Well-filtered direct light, or early morning sun from an east-facing window, is appreciated if the plant is gradually acclimated to it. Plants that are getting too much light will often develop pale, somewhat bleached or washed out-looking foliage.

Assuming the very modest light requirements of this genus are met, there is little beyond ordinary houseplant care that’s required. In other words, use proper watering techniques, provide good drainage, and watch out for pests. These plants enjoy humidity, but are extremely good at adapting to dry air. Still, it’s a good idea to mist them occasionally and wipe their broad leaves with a damp cloth now and then.

Due to their very slow growth rates, fertilizing should be performed regularly, but at 1/2 the suggested dose – unless the plant is growing in vigorously in bright light, in which case full strength indoor fertilizer can be used.

2) Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum spp.)

The low light requirements of spathiphyllum make them hardy office plants.
Peace lily with “spath” flower.
Fabian Sanhueza – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Not actually a relative of true lilies, the genus Spathiphyllum, sometimes collectively referred to as “Spath” plants, are a large group of Aroid plants that inhabit the forest understory in tropical regions from Asia to the Americas.

Generally speaking, virtually all of the cultivars commonly available are tolerant of very low light levels, which is whey they are often seen in group-type plantings in commercial areas such as shopping malls. Indeed, with their uniformly deep green leaves, peace lilies can tolerate some of the dimmest locations indoors, and can even do well under good overhead artificial lighting in otherwise windowless locations.

Spath plants are often purchased while in flower. The characteristic white spathe (hood) and enclosed spadix are more likely to develop in plants grown in strong indirect light; they often persist for a few days to a week, after which time they will begin to discolor and fade. If you are not partial to these flowers, it’s often a good idea to pinch them off early to divert more energy into producing foliage.

Large spathiphyllum make stunning specimens.
Some peace lilies can grow quite large.
by Tona & Yo – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Peace lilies do enjoy high humidity and grow best in warm environments, but are quick to adapt of virtually any conditions so long as their very minimal light requirements are met. Fertilize plants according to growth and light exposure; i.e., give more vigorous plants in brighter light the full recommended dose and specimens in dim lighting at most 1/2 manufacturer’s recommended strength.

These plants will tolerate considerable overwatering compared to most houseplants and as they enjoy moisture, but don’t push it. It’s a good idea to follow basic watering techniques and allow the surface soil layers  to dry slightly between waterings. If, however, you see wilting, you’ve held off too long!

If all that weren’t enough, Spathiphyllum are among the best air cleaners in the houseplant world, and were among the most efficient at reducing various airborne pollutants in NASA indoor air quality studies.

The main difference between the various cultivars available is size, with most topping out under 3 feet tall. However, there are some hybrids that make stunning, large indoor plants, such as Spathiphyllum ‘Sensation,’ the largest  cultivar commonly available that produces huge ribbed leaves and can grow up to 6 feet tall!

3) Golden Pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum)

Golden pothos is the Jeckyll and Hyde of indoor plants. Let me explain.

This is what happens when you let a golden pothos out of the office!
E. pinnatum overtaking a palm.
Forest & Kim Starr – CC BY 2.0

Indoors, the familiar golden pothos or “centipede tongavine” as it’s sometimes called, is the respected and mild-mannered – Mr. Jeckyll. This species makes one of the most attractive and durable container or hanging plants you can get, and normally takes the form of a thin (pencil-width) vine adorned with bright green, cream-colored variegated leaves about 6 inches long that are particularly colorful in bright indirect light. The vine can be trained to climb posts, walls and other objects.

Outdoors in its native haunts in tropical regions of southern Asia and the western Pacific, however, and particularly across the various regions where it has escaped cultivation and threatens native trees, it is the evil Mr. Hyde.

Indeed, when let loose in tropical forest, E. pinnatum sheds it’s “baby” leaves and assumes monstrous proportions. Leaves on a mature plant typically go from being heart-shaped, intact and unbroken (i.e., entire) to long, irregularly dissected and pinnate. They also get absolutely huge, and can grow to over a meter long and a foot and a half wide! A fully mature E. pinnatum can grow to over 60 feet tall and develop a 2 inch diameter trunk.

No, you will never need to worry about your golden pothos climbing out of its pot and attacking you in retaliation for neglect. But you should mind its extremely short list of requirements; which are: (1) give it bright indirect light; (2) water thoroughly but let the surface soil layers dry slightly between watering; and (3) give it an all purpose fertilizer once and a while to keep it fed. A daily misting is recommended, but not essential. Like the spath plant, the golden pothos is one of NASA’s air-cleaning species.

Golden pothos is an office plant with the heart of a tiger.
E. pinnatum more subdued and trapped in a pot!
by Elvis Ripley – CC BY-NC 2.0

Beyond that, there are few ways you can kill a golden pothos, and they can endure just about all of the rookie mistakes that might kill other so-called office plants, including under and over-watering. They are also among the easiest office plants to propagate; just place short sections of the vine in water – or simply stick them in a light soil kept continually moist.

Finally, its quite rare for this species to be blighted by pests or disease. Overall, this is a easily one of the best – if not the best – office plant for newbie to experienced houseplant growers alike.

Take note that all parts of the golden pothos plant are toxic, thanks to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. So keep them away from curious pets/children.

4) Heart-Leaved Philodendron (Philodendron scandens var. oxycardium)

The heart-leaved philodendron is probably the hardiest office plant currently known to man! OK, perhaps there’s something even more durable out there, but I have still yet to find it.

P. scandens is a very undemanding and attractive vining office plant.
P. scandens is a very hardy office plant.
by Brian under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

P. scandens var. oxycardium is native to balmy south America, where it can grow several meters tall and boast leaves a food wide. Indoors, however, it is a moderate to slow-growing vine with bright to dark green heart-shaped leaves that rarely exceed 6 inches in diameter. It has a climbing habit that can be encouraged by temporarily tying the vine to objects such as walls, posts and staking material.

Although they are not closely related, care of P. scandens is virtually identical to that described for the golden pothos. However, P. scandens can even tolerate lower light with it’s uniformly green leaves. This obviously would not apply to the variegated form of P. scandens that is currently popular.

With it’s tolerance for very low light levels, relative comfort in dry office air and remarkable resistance to under/over-watering, this is the first office plant I would choose for the inexperienced grower and dimmest, darkest office environments.

Of course, in a completely windowless space this plant would gladly welcome even weak florescent lighting from a small desk lamp aimed in its direction. If your lighting is even too weak for this plant, it will let you know with very slow, leggy growth (i.e., the space between leaves will be exaggerated and the plant will look very spindly). This spindly look can be mitigated to some degree by pinching the growing tips of the vine to encourage side-branching.

Heart-leaved philodendron are particularly low light indoor plants.
Heart-leaved philodendron need little light to thrive.
photo by Katie Brady under CC BY 2.0

On the other extreme, direct light can quickly burn the leaves of P. scandens, so keep it in bright indirect light and be sure to filter any direct light.

A plant growing in dim conditions may need fertilizer just once every few months, and then only at 1/2 the recommended dose. In contrast, specimens in strong light that are putting on lots of growth will require more regular feeding to sustain vigor.

Like the golden pothos, the heart-leaved philodendron cannot be easier to propagate, and cuttings placed in a vase of water or a moist, light medium will normally root within 4 weeks or so, depending on light, temperature and the health of the plant.

Bear in mind that like the golden pothos, P. scadens is armed with toxic calcium oxalate, so consuming any part of this plant can cause an acute poisoning in people and pets.

5) Snake Plant or Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata)

No list of hardy indoor or office plants would be complete without mention of the virtually indestructible snake plant.

Snake plants make some of the toughest office plants.
Perfect office plant: snake plant.
Steven Severinghaus – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sansevieria trifasciata is native to West Africa, but is cherished around the world for it’s exotic look and legendary tolerance to a variety of home environments and light levels.

This plant consists of long and stiff, strap like leaves that contort slightly as they extend toward sharp tips. There are many varieties of snake plant, with some possessing subtle vertical striping and others coming in a bright slate grey. Perhaps the most common and recognizable variety is that typified by deep green leaves bordered by prominent yellow margins.

S. trifasciata is one of the most adaptable houseplants, especially in terms of light requirements. It can thrive in part sun and also grow well in purely indirect light, and relatively weak light at that. Large specimens are often used as floor pots in lobbies and bright walkways, where their vertical orientation and strange, twisted whorls provide texture and color.

Snake plant come in a myriad of shapes and colors.
Interesting, variegated form of S. poweli.

There are very few rules to remember when growing that snake plant. The biggest problem that most people run into is overwatering. While this plant is quite resistant to under-watering, continually wet soils can quickly lead to root rot. And unfortunately, due to their stiff leaves, the first sign of rot usually comes too late to save the plant.

Baring too much water and growing the plant in a closet, the snake plant is just about black thumb-proof. As such, along with the heart-leaved philodendron, I highly recommend S. trifasciata to anyone trying to break a houseplant killing streak.

6) Cornstalk Plant – (Dracaena deremensis)

The large genus Dracaena is a gold mine for finding low-maintenance and attractive office plants, and there are way too many varieties to describe in any detail here. However, a couple of my favorites are the cornstalk plant, Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’ and Dracaena marginata, the “dragon tree.”

Variegated Dracaena require bright light to thrive.
D. deremensis var. ‘Lemon Lime’ is always popular.
Maja Duma – CC BY 2.0

The cornstalk plant, a native of equatorial Africa, comes in many colorful variations including the popular ‘Warneckii and ‘Lemon Lime’ cultivars. However, for the low lighting of most office spaces, I prefer dark-leaved varieties of D. deremensis, such as var. ‘Janet Craig,’ which features broad green leaves that are much better at capturing light.

D. deremensis can grow to great heights (up to 40 feet) in the wild and are a popular landscaping/hedge plant in Hawaii. Indoors they also adopt an attractive upright growth habit, and can quickly exceed 6 feet in height under good conditions if not pruned down.

They usually come as multi-stemmed pots with 3 or 4 plants staggered in height. The name “corn” plant comes from the cascading whorls of flat green leaves that do resemble the general look of a true corn plant.

Like most Dracaena, the cornstalk plant thrives in bright indirect light, but will tolerate very low light as good as just about any plant can. It is also not picky about temperatures either; however, cold drafts are to be avoided. And while high humidity is enjoyed, it is not necessary, and this species will usually adapt to drier air.

Green-leaved Dracaena make the best office plants.
Stick with deep green Dracaena for low light.
Dinesh Valke – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Water as any houseplant. Propagation is easy using air layering techniques or rooting topped plants in a light growing medium

A common complaint about Dracaena are their vulnerability to leaf tip burn. This is usually a result of fluorine and/or chlorine in tap water, and can also result from salt buildup in hard water areas. This tip burn is likely to be magnified in hot environments with dry air, since the rate of transpiration is elevated under such conditions.

A good way to deal with leaf burn (besides gently clipping the burned tips) is by thoroughly watering the plant with distilled or reverse osmosis water periodically, at least once a week. And when tap water is used, let it first stand overnight to let the chlorine volatilize. Raising humidity by misting the plant may also help minimize the rate of tip burn.

A healthy Dracaena will require fertilizer periodically to maintain strong growth, especially if grown in good light and after flushing with distilled water as described above (since this leaches out beneficial nutrients too).

Overall, D. dermensis is one of my favorite low light indoor office plants – and with its good height an upright growth, it makes an outstanding and low maintenance office tree as well.

7) ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Last but certainly not least is the “ZZ” plant, more technically named Zamioculcas zamiifolia – this is definitely one of the most intriguing office plants of all.

While this African native has been known to botanists for over a century, it seems like the ZZ plant has only recently taken hold as a staple figure in mainstream interiorscaping.

The ZZ plant makes an interesting and low-maintenance addition to the office.
ZZ plant in office setting.
Nelson Pavlosky – CC BY-SA 2.0

The ZZ plant presents a somewhat odd picture indeed, with cycad-like features, a thick tuberous base and almost scaly leaves that seem misplaced among other more familiar houseplants. However, it is a member of the Aroid family, a common source of many indoor plants including the peace lily discussed above.

Due to it’s adaptation to the slightly drier grassland and savannah habitats, you will want to keep this plant in fast-draining soil and take care not to leave it wet soil. Beyond that, however, simply water as you would any other houseplant by letting the surface soil layers dry slightly between waterings.

While the ZZ plant can store water as an adaptation to periods of drought, you should water it regularly to avoid encouraging dormancy and/or leaf drop.

Aside from it’s peculiar good looks, the ZZ plant is very well-known for tolerating varying light levels, including everything from bright indirect and filtered direct light, down to fairly dim lighting typical of most office spaces. Protect it from hot, direct light.

This is a very slow-growing species that usually tops out at a meter in height for a large specimen. Fortunately, it seems very resistant to most houseplant pets and requires very little attention overall. Fertilize as you would an ordinary houseplant.

Another very interesting fact about the ZZ plant is that it can be propagated from leaf cuttings inserted into a light seed starting medium. However, brace yourself; according to this source, you may have to wait at least nine months for a plantlet to form! It seems that truly everything about this plant is slow.

Featured (top) photo credit: by Kate Bunder under CC BY-NC 2.0

5 Best Indoor Trees For The Home or Office

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.

Lemon trees tend to suffer indoors due to weak light and stale air.
Lemon trees very rarely thrive indoors.
by tiny banquet committee – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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 (Ficus lyrata)

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.

Ficus lyrata outdoors is a very different looking tree!
Ficus lyrata outdoors in Kahului, Hawaii.
by Forest & Kim Starr – CC BY 2.0

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.

Fiddel leaf fig is one of the most tasteful indoor trees for interior-scaping.
Ficus lyrata in the home.
by Sarah Sosiak under CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

A health leaf of F. lyrata soaking up direct sunlight.
Ficus lyrata enjoying full sun outdoors.
by Forest & Kim Starr – CC BY 2.0

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.

F. lyrata is one of the least demanding indoor trees.
F. lyrata – undeniably fashionable.
by Emily May under CC BY 2.0

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.

The dreaded blotches commonly reported for F. lyrata.
F. lyrata with badly blotched leaves.
by Robitika – CC BY-NC 2.0

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.  If the 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 (Ficus benjamina)

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.

F. benjamina can become a huge shade tree outdoors.
F. benjamina can become immense outdoors.
by Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0

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.

The weeping fig is probably the popular of all indoor trees.
Variegated F. benjamina indoors.
by Maja Dumat – CC BY 2.0

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.

F. benjamina will produce dense aerial roots where humidity is very high and constant.
Aerial roots of F. benjamina in high humidity.
by sclereid0309 – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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.

The weeping fig is well-known among bonsai enthusiasts for its suitability for training.
F. benjamina make outstanding bonsai material.
by Pierre-Selim CC BY-SA 2.0

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 (Schefflera actinophylla & Schefflera arboricola)

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

The octopus plant is a large and robust species suitable for indoor culture.
S. actinophylla with its tentacle-like flowers.
by Ahmad Fuad Morad – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

S. actinophylla grown outdoors in full sun can become a very large tree.
Multi-trunked growth habit of S. actinophylla.
by Tony Rodd – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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 is a smaller, yet no less impressive tree for indoor culture.
S. arboricola has a relatively compact growth habit.
Tuojia Elementary School – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

S. arboricola can be trained into bonsai with some skill and lots of patience.
S. arboricola are highly suitable as indoor bonsai.
Cliff under CC BY 2.0

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 (Dracaena marginata)

D. marginata can be grown outdoors only in the warmest zones.
D. marginata planted as a hedge row.
Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0

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.

The more familiar look of the dragon tree when grown indoors.
D. marginata indoors.
Mark Santa Ana – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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 (Ficus elastica)

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.

F. elastica can attain truly gargantuan proportions outdoors.
Massive field-grown F. elastica with aerial roots.
Mauricio Mercadante – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

With it's sharp tropical look, it's no wonder why F. elastica is one of the most popular indoor trees.
F. elastica in the home.
Margaret Shear under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

All About The Elephant Ear Plant

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

Elephant Ear Plant: Colocasia esculenta
The “elephant ear” of Colocasia esculenta.
photo by Jeevan Jose under CC BY-SA 4.0

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.

Elephant Ear Plant: Colocasia esculenta corms
Elephant Ear Plant corms – i.e., “taro” roots.
photo by Paxsimius under CC BY-SA 2.5

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.

Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic'
Colocasia esculenta var. ‘Black Magic’
photo: Drew Avery under CC BY 2.0

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

Elephant Ear Plant: Alocasia x. amazonica 'Polly'
Alocasia amazonica ‘Polly’
Greenery Nursery – CC BY 2.0

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.

Elephant Ear Plant: the huge Alocasia macrorrhizos
Alocasia macrorrhizos: a large species!
photo: Forest & Kim Starr under CC BY 2.0

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.

Alocasia cuprea
The colorful Alocasia cuprea.
by Frank Schulenburg under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

Elephant Ear Plant: Xanthosoma sagittifolium
Arrowleaf elephant ear: Xanthosoma sagittifolium.
photo by Olaf under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

The dramatic Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger'
Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’
meddie / aka Gramps – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

Elephant Ear Plant: the elegant and beautiful Caladium lindenii
Gorgeous Caladium lindenii
by Ahmad Fuad Morad under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

A colorful variation of Caladium bicolor
A variation of Caladium bicolor.
Olaf under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

A reddish pink variation of Caladium bicolor
Caladium ‘Carolyn Whorton’
by bigisbetter under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

Featured (top) image credit: “Caldium” by Robert S. Donovan CC BY 2.0