20 hard-to-kill house­plants

Lynda Hal­li­nan seeks out in­ter­est­ing and in­trigu­ing in­door plants that aren't des­tined to self- de­struct.

NZ Gardener - - Contents - PHO­TOS: LYNDA HAL­LI­NAN & SALLY TAGG

Gor­geous in­door plants for the hor­ti­cul­tur­ally chal­lenged

This will come as no sur­prise to my friends and rel­a­tives, but for the rest of you, here’s a con­fes­sion: my green fin­gers only seem to func­tion prop­erly out­doors. While I can keep most plants alive in my gar­den (even paeonies!), when I bring them in­doors it is another mat­ter en­tirely. Thus, as much as I love leafy maiden­hair ferns, cheer­ful ger­bera daisies and dainty African vi­o­lets, their in­evitable de­cline seems to be­gin the sec­ond we leave the gar­den cen­tre to­gether.

Granted, I’m busy. Like most moth­ers, a fair part of my day is devoted to feed­ing, cloth­ing, en­ter­tain­ing and en­sur­ing the on­go­ing sur­vival of my two sons, so when it comes to ten­der lov­ing care, in­door plants play sec­ond fid­dle to my ac­tual chil­dren.

How­ever, when my youngest son, Lachie, started school this year and left me with an empty nest from 9am to 3pm each day, I de­cided to fill the void with house­plants.

Ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing, after the school run, I’ve made it my habit to pa­trol my bur­geon­ing col­lec­tion of in­door plants, snip­ping off spent flow­ers or shriv­elled leaves as I check for mealy­bugs, mildew or mites while pok­ing my fin­ger into the pot­ting mix to gauge their thirst lev­els.

So far, so good. I seemed to have turned over a new leaf, re­duc­ing my ca­su­alty list to the usual lily-liv­ered sus­pects (here’s look­ing at you, strep­to­car­pus). I’ve even man­aged to bring a stricken maiden­hair back to life (cut off the dried fo­liage, drench the pot­ting mix and keep it in a cool, dark room for rest and re­cu­per­a­tion). Note:

this is not a de­fin­i­tive guide to grow­ing house­plants, but rather my per­sonal rec­om­men­da­tions based on nat­u­ral se­lec­tion. The plants seen on these pages have sur­vived liv­ing in my home since the start of the year, so if your favourite hard-to-kill house­plant doesn’t fea­ture, it means I’ve prob­a­bly al­ready mur­dered it!


With pointy leaves and a trail­ing habit, ar­row­head vines look great dan­gling out of for­mal urns or retro macramé hangers. They do best in low light (the leaves scorch in full sun) and won’t tol­er­ate wet pot­ting mix in win­ter. For cream and green fo­liage, seek out ‘White But­ter­fly’ or its lit­tle sis­ter ‘Pixie’. ‘Il­lu­sion’ has lime leaves with pink veins. Be­cause syngoniums are poi­sonous to pets and chil­dren if eaten, choose a pot plant lo­ca­tion out of their reach.


This su­per-shiny trop­i­cal plant hails from Africa, where it was once known as the “eter­nity plant” due to its abil­ity to sur­vive droughts. As well as its fleshy leaves, which are fa­mous for their air pu­ri­fy­ing abil­i­ties, the so-called ZZ plant ( Zamiocul­cas

za­mi­ifo­lia) has a potato-like rhi­zome at its roots to act as a wa­ter reser­voir. Ma­ture plants can go with­out wa­ter for up to four months, though baby spec­i­mens will dry out more quickly. Wa­ter no more than once a month and keep your plants in a warm, well-lit room out of di­rect sun­light.


Fit­to­nia ‘Bianco Verde’ is named for the dis­tinc­tive sil­ver vein­ing on its leaves. I’d be ly­ing if I said I’d never killed one – I’ve killed at least a dozen – but they get an hon­ourable men­tion in this list for two rea­sons. First, when they start to shrivel, they are eas­ily re­vived with a deep soak and, sec­ond, like ger­beras, if they wilt they re­mind me to wa­ter all my other plants, quick smart!


Sub­trop­i­cal alo­casias are bold fo­liage plants for con­tain­ers, though the Ama­zon ele­phant’s ear ( Alo­ca­sia x ama­zon­ica) is too ten­der to thrive out­doors in New Zealand. Like all aroids, un­less it’s in a heated room or con­ser­va­tory, it barely needs wa­ter­ing over win­ter.


Most bromeli­ads grow naturally as epi­phytes, so they’re used to a vari­able wa­ter sup­ply. Grow in­door bromeli­ads in a free-drain­ing pot­ting mix and top up their cen­tres with wa­ter from time to time, let­ting them dry out be­tween wa­ter­ings.


The ul­ti­mate in­door plant, with or with­out prick­les. Just take your pick and pot it up in a gritty mix.

When the go­ing gets tough, these in­door plants keep go­ing. You're more likely to kill them with kind­ness than ne­glect.

Nes­tled into sphag­num moss, car­niv­o­rous plants look cute in ev­ery­thing from tea cups to jam jars and an­tique crys­tal vases.


There are sev­eral Pilea species grown as in­door plants but the one that most takes my fancy is the pur­ple-veined friend­ship plant, Pilea

in­volu­crata. It looks cool in ter­rar­i­ums. My mother has a pot­ted pilea on her (rarely used) for­mal din­ing ta­ble and it’s thriv­ing de­spite to­tal ne­glect.


No prizes for guess­ing how this lit­tle suc­cu­lent got its name. Sem­per­vivum arach­noideum is a cu­tie for small con­tain­ers, with clus­ters of webbed rosettes about 1-3cm across.


Like most small boys, my kids are fas­ci­nated with in­sect-eat­ing plants. When­ever they ac­com­pany me (un­der duress) to gar­den cen­tres, I bribe them with pot­ted car­niv­o­rous plants and hence we now have quite a col­lec­tion! Car­niv­o­rous plants need con­stant mois­ture and the best way to de­liver that is by nestling them into pots of damp sphag­num moss. Grow­ing them in moss makes it easy to check their wa­ter­ing needs; as soon as you no­tice the moss has dried to the colour of saw­dust, you know it’s time to rewet it. Venus' fly traps are the most tem­per­a­men­tal car­niv­o­rous plants, and sar­race­nias turn brown and crispy if un­cared for, but glossy ne­penthes pitch­ers are fool­proof.


The big­gest bird’s nest ferns ( As­ple­nium nidus) I’ve ever seen flour­ish in the shade of Ju­lian Matt­thews’ tree-lined drive­way in Waikanae. They are the size of moa nests, whereas the hy­brid forms of As­ple­nium nidus ‘Crissie’ and ‘Les­lie’ would be bet­ter suited to rais­ing spar­rows! These quirky hy­brids have wide crested fronds with tong-like tips that look more like staghorns or kelp sea­weed than fern fronds. They are a real talk­ing point and ev­ery­one who has seen mine, pot­ted up in old food tins, wants to know what they are and where I got them (Beck’s Nurs­eries in Cam­bridge).


The in­door star of the 1960s and 1970s, Mon­stera de­li­ciosa has made a global come­back with hip­ster mil­len­ni­als. This iconic jun­gle climber with Swiss cheese leaves has aerial roots and ends up look­ing a bit gnarly in its dotage, but you have to be pretty de­ter­mined to knock it off.


I love ferns with pa­tri­otic fer­vour but, sadly, ferns do not love me. Al­ready this year I’ve killed four maiden­hair ferns and I’m not much bet­ter with Bos­ton ferns ( Nephrolepis ex­al­tata ‘Bos­tonien­sis’).

“Ooh,” said my friend Fiona when she spied my most recent vic­tim. “Is that a lime-leafed Bos­ton fern?”

“Nope,” I con­fessed. “It’s a sun-dried spec­i­men.” In a new record (even for me), it took just one day on my sunny shed win­dowsill to as­sas­si­nate it.

Other mem­bers of the same fam­ily are no­tably harder to knock off. The long, dark fronds of the gi­ant sword fern Nephrolepis bis­er­rata ‘Ma­cho’ are im­pres­sive in our spare room; dainty ‘Fluffy Ruf­fles’ is a desk­top sweetie; and the al­most alien-look­ing ‘Curly Locks’ is a guar­an­teed con­ver­sa­tion starter with poo­dle-perm fronds.


I have de­vel­oped quite a be­go­nia fetish. Al­though I still think the tuber­ous flow­er­ing sorts are too flam­boy­ant for their own good, I can’t re­sist the painted-leaf Rex va­ri­eties with their sil­very red swirls. ‘Eye­lash’, its deep-green leaves licked with black mas­cara, is my cur­rent fave.


This di­verse fam­ily in­cludes the fa­mous Caribbean fly­ing gold­fish plant, Columnea cras­si­fo­lia, the flow­ers of which look like pet fish leaping out from its vines. I grow the Norse fire plant, Columnea ‘Sta­vanger’ (see page 50) and ‘Golden Re­galia’, though nei­ther have bloomed yet. Hope­fully the lat­ter never does, as its bright red blooms clash hor­ri­bly with its yel­low var­ie­gated fo­liage. Both are beau­ti­ful in bas­kets.


What do snakes, vipers and moth­ers-in-law have in com­mon? They all fea­ture in the list of less than com­pli­men­tary com­mon names for San­se­vieria tri­fas­ci­ata. This vir­tu­ally in­de­struc­tible plant – I had one in my child­hood bed­room and never once wa­tered it in over a decade – is a win­ner for any ne­glect­ful home.


Any in­door plant that can live on fresh air is ob­vi­ously a sur­vivor. Tillandsias, or air plants, fit the bill nicely, with hot pink spikes that re­tain their colour for months. ‘Leo’ and ‘Par­adise’ are both groovy.


Once upon a time, ev­ery grand­mother in the land seemed to own a hang­ing bas­ket with bead-like Senecio row­leyanus dan­gling from it. And ev­ery grand­child in the land was in­structed, un­der threat of death, never to yank those tan­talis­ing strands of baby green bob­bles. Per­haps that’s why I find it near im­pos­si­ble to walk past mine with­out run­ning my fin­gers through it. The trick to keep­ing string-of-pearls alive is lots of nat­u­ral light and not too much wa­ter.


My ob­ses­sion with nee­dle-free mistle­toe cacti be­gan with a co­ral cac­tus ( Rhip­salis cereuscula) and its chubby cousin Ha­tiora sal­icornioides, af­fec­tion­ately known as drunk­ard’s dream. Hav­ing kept both alive on my pot­ting bench for a full year, I added the droop­ing va­ri­ety Rhip­salis

capil­li­formis and a chunky chain cac­tus ( Rhip­salis para­doxa) to my col­lec­tion. Then I dis­cov­ered Rhip­salis ‘Spaghetti’, which hangs straight like strands of an­gel­hair pasta. There are 35 species in the rhip­salis fam­ily, and I covet them all!

Mistle­toe cacti (aka rhip­salis) might be spine­less but they're def­i­nitely not fee­ble.


With their shiny fo­liage and so-per­fect-they-look-plas­tic flow­ers, sub­trop­i­cal flamingo flow­ers have a head start on most in­door plants: half the time you can’t tell if they’re alive or fak­ing it. The flow­ers last for ages, pro­vided you re­mem­ber to wa­ter them, and they cope well with low-light con­di­tions.


I’m stretch­ing the truth with my fi­nal choice, for Cerope­gia woodii, which hails all the way from Africa, is sur­pris­ingly easy to kill. This trendy trail­ing plant, which goes by many ro­man­tic names from sweet­heart to rosary vine, can’t cope with swel­ter­ing sun or wet feet. Never ever sit it on top of a saucer.

That said, when cut­tings are be­ing flogged for $20 each on Trade Me (it’s that pop­u­lar), you tend to pay more at­ten­tion to your pre­cious plant’s well­be­ing! I’m pleased to re­port that I haven’t snuffed out any yet.


All of these in­door plants are avail­able from gar­den cen­tres, though some of the more un­usual va­ri­eties may need to be or­dered in. Beck’s Nurs­eries sup­plies a wide range of house­plants to gar­den cen­tres, Bun­nings and se­lected Mitre 10 stores as well as sell­ing di­rect to the pub­lic from their glasshouses at 1494 Ti­rau Rd, Cam­bridge, Waikato. Call 07-827 6865.

Syn­go­nium podophyl­lum

‘White But­ter­fly’ has strik­ing, ar­row­head-shaped fo­liage that looks like taro leaves. It also has a wan­der­ing habit, pro­duc­ing at­trac­tive trail­ing ten­drils.

Not only is Zamiocul­cas za­mi­ifo­lia hard to kill, it earns its keep by re­mov­ing air pol­lu­tants. It’s pic­tured here with a minia­ture white cy­cla­men and var­ie­gated creep­ing fig, Fi­cus ‘Frosty’.

Fit­to­nia ‘Bianco Verde’, aka nerve plant, mo­saic plant and painted net leaf.

Minia­ture sar­race­nias.

As­ple­nium nidus ‘Crissie’.

Venus’ fly trap ( Dion­aea mus­cip­ula).

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