Perfecting indoor plant culture with options


Who knew my cheery collection of durable potted plants had such deep roots?

It’s not quite the Hanging Dardens of Nineveh, but my little cottage home, overstuffed with furniture-like tropical beauties and racks of cascading foliage comfort me all year, especially this chilly month, connecting me with the outdoors.

I’m not a pioneer, of course; over three thousand years ago East Asians were perfecting indoor plant culture long before mythical Babylon and the better-documented Mediterranean gardeners.

Farther north it was largely out of favor until European explorers began hauling exotic but cold-sensitive plants from afar, aided by the invention of glass “Wardian cases” which protected tender plants from saltwater and cold during extended treks and voyages.

But up until Victorian times only a few wealthy folks could afford glass windows, much less large, lean-to greenhouse-like “orangeries” where they overwintered citrus and other tender trees. For middle- and working-class folks, indoor plants couldn’t handle the low light and cold of cottages and terrace houses, and the air itself which was seriously polluted from coal fires.

That’s why Aspidistra, one of the sturdiest survivors, was called “cast iron plant.” It was so popular that George Orwell used it as a symbol of conformity, writing that “there will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.”

Improvements in air quality, indoor lighting and heating, coupled with a cheerier outlook on life, created a perfect wave for bringing more Nature indoors, reaching fervor-pitch in the 1960s and 70s (remember macramé hangers?).

Interestingly, about three-quarters of over a hundred attendees at a recent plant swap I helped with in England were under 30. Several expressed how, because they’re stuck indoors all winter with computer screens and TV, indoor plants are important living environmental connections. Plus, because they move around a lot, their “phytopets” are portable hobbies that light up their rooms without requiring as much commitment as, say, a cat or rabbit.

By the way, while keeping plants indoors unquestionably livens things up, bringing comfort and the satisfaction of keeping something alive with little real effort, recent research has shown that they make practically no difference in indoor air quality. Not enough to measure, much less matter.

Sorry, but the overhyped Mississippi-conducted NASA research of the 1980s, leapt on by the potted plant industry as a feel-good marketing campaign, was conducted in small sealed chambers, not real-life rooms with doors, windows, and recirculating air. So, grow them because you love them, not because they clean your air.

Me, I’m growing way too many. To accommodate all my leafy lovelies, I added on a large room with large energy-efficient double-pane windows on three sides and a tile floor that’s easy to mop dry. I arranged them so they create and share jungle-like humidity, plus when I water them, they drip onto those below and eventually into pans that can be emptied easily.

While I do coddle a few fussy plants, over the decades I’ve found that there are only a couple dozen or so really dependable ones that can tolerate the sometimes low-light, relatively cool temperatures, and - most importantly - low humidity of indoors.

Typically, they have broad, slick leaves which are able to collect maximum light and resist drying out too quickly. There are quite a few, but my favs include my Ficus (rubber tree, fiddle leaf fig, weeping fig), Sansevierias, Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), Pothos vine, ribbon plant and other Dracaenas, Philodendrons, Begonias, dumb cane (Dieffenbachia), wax Hoya vine, dwarf Shefflera, and quite a few succulents. Oh, and the now oft-overlooked Aspidistra.

Look-good, feel-good potted plants: nothing new, still relevant.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to

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