20 hard-to-kill houseplants
Lynda Hallinan seeks out interesting and intriguing indoor plants that aren't destined to self- destruct.
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.
3 NERVE PLANTS
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!
4 ELEPHANT’S EAR
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.
7 FRIENDSHIP PLANT
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.
8 COBWEB HOUSELEEKS
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.
9 CARNIVOROUS PLANTS
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.
10 BIRD’S NEST FERN
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).
11 FRUIT SALAD PLANT
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.
12 NEPHROLEPIS FERNS
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.
15 SNAKE PLANT
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.
20 CHAIN OF HEARTS
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.
‘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.
Asplenium nidus ‘Crissie’.
Venus’ fly trap ( Dionaea muscipula).