How about bringing a new plant home to cheer up these dark winter days? For the avid gardener, houseplants can be an excellent source of greenery and even flowers when the outside garden has gone gray and dormant in the doldrums of mid-winter. The following are some of the best houseplants for the winter “windowsill garden.”
Snake Plant or Mother-in-Law's Tongue (Sansevieria spp.). The Snake Plant is a familiar indoor plant that has been re-invented over the decades with the introduction of interesting new hybrids. S. cylindrica, for example, has unique cylindrical upright foliage that has become very popular in homes with modern minimalist décor. S. ‘Black Gold' is a fantastic cultivar that contrasts very dark green-nearly black foliage with a bright yellow margin. S. ‘Silver Queen' is a tall, upright, silvery sword-leafed version of the Snake Plant, great for use as an accent around the home. The Snake Plant is easy to grow – it has low water needs, can tolerate low light conditions, and has few pest problems.
UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email the Hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org (preferred) or call (530) 538-7201.
By Emilee Fowkes Warne, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, February 16, 2018.
The Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis spp.). One of the easiest orchids to grow indoors in our climate, the Moth Orchid can yield a rainbow of beautiful flower colors during their bloom time, which is typically between January and April. A flower spike will appear as early as November and, once the buds open, the flowers can last as long as three months. Once the flowers have finished blooming, save the old flower spike as long as it remains green. It will often branch from lateral buds the next year and the cycle begins again, yielding new flowers in late winter each year. Moth Orchids only require bright, indirect light, good drainage, and a short cold period in October when temperatures get down into the low 50s to remind them that it is time to bloom again.
ZZ Plant, also known as the Aroid Palm (Zamioculcas zamiifolia). Hailing from eastern and south Africa, the ZZ Plant makes an excellent houseplant that is well-suited for the beginning indoor gardener. It has naturally glossy leaves in a rich emerald green color that is very attractive in the home environment. More attractive still is the ZZ Plant's ability to tolerate low water and low light conditions. This plant's root system is comprised of an adapted rhizome which can store large amounts of water. In times of drought, the ZZ plant can draw upon this water source for many months to keep itself alive. In a pot, it should be watered sparingly (just two to three times each month) but very thoroughly watered at those times. The ZZ Plant prefers bright indirect light, but can tolerate a variety of conditions and exposures, including north, south, and east facing windows.
By Emilee Fowkes Warne, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, February 2, 2018.
Understanding the four basic needs of all houseplants can not only give you the knowledge you need to care for these plants, but also help you to select an environment in your home where the right plant can survive and even thrive. The four basic needs of houseplants are:
- Supplemental Nutrients (fertilizer)
Water. Our home environments are typically up to 50% drier than what most plants prefer, so indoor plants can be surprisingly tricky to water. When the soil of a houseplant lacks adequate moisture, the soil particles will contract and pull away from the edges of the pot, allowing water to run down and out of the drainage holes without actually being absorbed. To avoid this, apply water around the base of the plant thoroughly until the pot feels significantly heavier and the water no longer runs directly from the soil surface straight out through the drainage holes. Salts will accumulate in potted plant soils from repeated watering and will cause leaf tip and marginal leaf scorch if the soil is not leached periodically. Prevent this by leaching salts from the pot by allowing water to flow through the soil and drain out. Empty the saucer after watering.
Airflow. Often overlooked, this is an important requirement for the over-all health of the plant and the prevention of indoor pests. It is important to place an indoor plant somewhere that will get regular air circulation, but no blasts of freezing winter air or stifling summer heat from a frequently-opened door. Plants require both carbon dioxide from the air for photosynthesis and oxygen for respiration, which is the basis for all growth processes. If they are placed in a dusty, forgotten, water-stressed location, they will struggle to thrive and become an appealing target for spidermites.
Air that blows out of central heating/air conditioning vents is especially dry and can interfere with leaf and flower growth if there is no added humidity, so avoid locating a plant directly in a vent's air flow. Humans prefer an indoor humidity of 20-30%, but plants, especially tropicals that are otherwise well-suited for the indoors, generally prefer 75-85% humidity. Placing the plant on a tray of pebbles with about an inch of water in the bottom should provide an appropriate amount of humidity around the plant even when overall household humidity remains low.
Supplemental Nutrients. An application of fertilizer—even just a few times a year or at a weaker dosage more often — can greatly improve the vitality of your houseplant. Fertilizer replaces the nutrients that a plant uses up in its lifecycle and cannot acquire naturally when confined to a pot. The type and composition of the fertilizer needed depends on the type and size of the plant. Always follow fertilizer directions closely and do not use more than the recommended amount. Do not apply fertilizer to a sick, weak, or wilted plant, as it can cause more stress and may kill the plant.
The following are tried-and-true houseplants:
Tough, easy-to-care-for houseplants for beginners: Snake Plant, also known as Mother-in-Law's Tongue (Sansevieria spp.); Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior); ZZ Plant, also known as Aroid Palm (Zamioculcas zamiifolia); Heartleaf Philodendron (Philodendron cordatum); and Pothos, also known as Devil's Ivy (Epipremnum aureum).
Reliable plants for indoor flowering: Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis spp.); African Violet (Saintpaulia spp.); Flamingo Flower (Anthurium spp.); and Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera spp.).
Houseplants with unique foliage: Rhizomatous Begonias (Begonia spp.); Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla); Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina); and Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera deliciosa).
Many of these plants will be discussed in greater detail in the next Real Dirt Column.