Hardy, Handsome Houseplants

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Breathing With Plants

I’ve been living in an upstairs apartment this winter and I’m very clear not that my next home will be at ground level. The apartment is lovely and well appointed, with great light and lots of storage, but I’m finding that I really miss being able to walk outside any time day or night and breathe in the fresh scents of growing plants. Our own gardens smell like no one else’s, and offer different fragrances in every season, after rain or as snow falls or on warm sunny afternoons. Living above a busy woodworking shop, I’ve come to appreciate that every kind of wood has its own scent, but I’m missing my garden connection.

Inevitably, the apartment is slowly filling up with houseplants. When I moved, I gave away my whole collection but now they’re reappearing. First came the cat grass for Sophie, followed by spider plants, also cat-safe and providing a little green for my plant hungry eyes. I’m keeping pots of those charming little Tete-a-Tete daffodils on a sunny windowsill, and a succession of hyacinths have perfumed my evenings all winter. These fleeting bulbs go out on the porch when their blooms are spent and will be soon transplanted into a garden. Since I don’t know how long I’ll be here (I’m on the affordable housing waiting list along with 50 other families), it seems inevitable that my houseplant collection will soon be restored.

Sharing The House With Plants

I’m certainly not alone in wanting to share my home with plants. Though younger people aren’t gardening as actively as their parents’ generation, they are increasingly growing houseplants. Indeed, millennials are said to be obsessed with houseplants, but in large part, this trend is driven by the high cost of housing; young people who can barely afford an apartment don’t have yards to play in. Even those who share larger homes don’t always get yard privileges, so a houseplant collection can support that human need for green companions.

Fortunately for the yardless, indoor plants offer a splendid range of texture, color and form as well as longevity and ease of care. As the houseplant trend booms, old fashioned favorites like ficus and Boston ferns are joined by fabulous new forms of prayer plants, philodendrons, and even cactus. Succulents in particular are enjoying a renewed vogue as trend conscious young folks realize their ability to survive indoors with little care. Succulents star in tabletop wreaths and in artfully arranged tiny pots. Glossy magazines picture the more colorful forms planted in patterns like crazy quilts or given prima donna spots on wide, shallow bowls on cocktail tables.

Always Room For Survivors

One key feature to the popularity of succulents is their ability thrive with very little care. That quality is especially appreciated in houseplants, which can be temperamental about drafts and daylight. Workhorses indoors or outside, the Sempervivums are highly fashionable these days, especially the hens-and-chicks types. These stunning succulents come in lots of sizes and colors, from smoky purple-and-burgundy Sanford and big, bouncing Royal Ruby to grape-to-chartreuse Purple Passion and Liliane, with mirror twin gold-to-purple coloring.

It takes a larger pot to show off the saucer-sized rosettes of Echeveria Perle von Nurnberg, with gorgeous pinky-purple foliage and soft coral flowers. Deep toned, burgundy Black Prince also looks smashing in a larger, shallow pot, top dressed with light toned gravel. One of my favorite succulents is the plum and merlot colored Aeonium Zwartkopf, which looks like a tiny tree designed by Dr. Seuss. Too tender for Northwestern winters, it does beautifully indoors, as does the Panda plant, Kalanchoe tomentosa, a branched, subshrub-like succulent with frosty foliage edged in dramatic black.

Friendly Ferns & Bountiful Begonias

Ferns never go out of style, especially since the strapping Boston Fern, Nephrolepis exaltata Massai, has captivating variegated siblings such as gold-splashed Tiger and bright chartreuse Rita’s Gold. Though some indoor ferns are toxic to pets (notably “fern palms”—really Cycads-and Asparagus fern), the Bostonians are pet-safe, but they will become and remain more attractive if they are hung high enough to discourage visits from nibbling cats. They’re great for indoor places without much direct sunlight and love the moist air in bathrooms.

When my mom was alive, I filled her apartment with begonias. Though they certainly look their best when watered weekly, these classic houseplants stand up bravely to all sorts of conditions and are often willing to bloom off and on all year indoors. I especially admire the various Rex offspring, with great sweeping leaves that give them the common name of Angel Wings. Stunning Summerwings Dark Elegance is a newer form which boasts dusky dragon wing foliage with smoldering red undersides, punctuated by masses of hot orange flowers, while Canary Wings couples citrus yellow foliage with flaming red flowers.

Gorgeous Geraniums

Tender geraniums wither in cold winters, but many will accommodate themselves to life on a sunny windowsill. The lovely Ivy Leaf geraniums are good adapters, and if given a sunny spot and fed with diluted fertilizer in early autumn, they’ll often bloom generously through the winter, when their cheery red or pink blossoms are especially welcome. Some of the tender Zonal geraniums also make decent houseplants, and though they’re a little less likely to bloom unless they get plenty of natural light, their handsomely patterned foliage is as lovely as any flower.

Scented geraniums were found in every parlor back in our great grandparents’ day and are gaining popularity once again. Lower growing and rather shapeless, the larger scented geraniums need to be pruned several times a year when they get leggy. The cuttings root easily so you can share favorite plants with friends. The scents are quite variable, but most release their fragrance best in a warm room, or of course when a fuzzy leaf is crushed. The citrus scented types like Lemon Fizz or Golden Lemon are among the easiest to please, while the spicier ones like Ginger and Coconut need a little more light. Highly scented but straggly forms like Angel’s Perfume and Attar of Roses can work well in hanging baskets or large pots where they can cascade freely. Scented geraniums are fun for kids to handle, and once you start growing them, it’s impossible not to keep looking for others. Please be aware that collecting is an addictive sport and don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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4 Responses to Hardy, Handsome Houseplants

  1. barbra boiser says:

    for the fun challenge of it, this is my 2nd year wintering over my impatiens in the house. i am happy to report they had this year’s first (cheery red) blooms on them this week. of course i keep them on the window sills and they seem as content as can be. i’ve rooted some in water to have more plants for later. they grew 3 feet high on kauai (where i’m from) and it’s fun to see them survive the winter in the house.

  2. Deirdre says:

    Interesting about growing scent-leaf geraniums indoors. Here (Australia) we grow them outdoors all year round and they turn into wonderful huge bushes.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      I envy you that! In some of the warmer parts of the States this happens here too, but not where winters blow cold. Sometimes a few of the hardier types will overwinter but they definitely show damage if temperatures dip.

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