Greenery in a room. The easiest plants. Happy enough with the indoor light they cope with closed places and need little water. Here are the ideal species.
Text © Giuseppe Mazza
English translation by Mario Beltramini
Green thumb? Certainly, not. In case, we can talk of good sense.
When we purchase an aquarium fish, a dog, a cat, a hamster, or a birdie, the first question is: “What does it eat?”, and we worry, while equipping the pool, the dog’s bed, the aviary, to lodge it in the best possible way.
We have to do the same thing for the plants.
Even if they are used to embellish the house, they are not paintings or sculptures, but living beings like us, or, better, our “far away relatives”.
The examination of the animal and vegetable amino acids, always the same, present, moreover, in a certain format; the structure of the system of protein synthesis, and the universality of the genetic code, show, in fact, that the life on the earth was born only once. The first animal, that far away relative of ours, was a plant. It lost the chlorophyll, and being, by then, unable to effect the photosynthesis, that is, to combine the water and the minerals taken from the soil with the carbon dioxide of the air, for transforming them, with the help of the sun, in living matter, started eating the other plants which were around it.
And, if our first relation with the Green World was violent, and the fate of the plants is to end up, directly or not, into the mouth of the animals, this does not mean that we have to treat them as knick-knacks, and condemn them to die of thirst, hunger, heat or cold.
The plants come to life, grow up, fight, make love as we do, and generate offspring. They fall sick, and maybe suffer and think. If we want them to be in good form between the domestic walls, we have, first of all, to cease in considering them as “vegetables”, a wording full of negative meanings, which often skims the idea of inanimate, and try to look at them as “different animals”.
And even if at the eve of the holidays, we will never find along the road, signboards inviting to “do not abandon the Philodendrons”, only when we shall understand that to sentence to death a plant is like killing a dog, or a cat, we shall have green thumbs.
That being stated, before purchasing a plant, I wonder, first of all, if I can afford it, if at home, I have the suitable location, with the light, the heat, the ventilation and the humidity required by that species.
The apartment plants, obliged, as per definition, to live distant from the sun, are coming, in fact, to a great extent, from the under wood of the tropical forests, where the light is analogous to the domestic one, but the temperature almost never goes down more than 18 °C, and the humidity reaches extremely high values.
During the millennia, they have invented many ruses for defending themselves from the excess of water on the leaves, but, not thinking to end up in a living room by the beginning of the 2000, are usually absolutely unsuitable for facing the chills of an open window in the middle of winter, the smoke, the smog, and, above all, the dry air of the radiators.
And, unless of having a luminous veranda, and a lot of time free, for frequent nebulizations and the required thermic control, it is better not to surrender to the consumers’ temptation of spectacular, but ephemeral, species, and opt for “easy plants”, able to accompany for years our life between the domestic walls.
Let us see some of them, of very easy cultivation, suitable for various situations.
The Sansevieria trifasciata, of which several varieties exist, more or less tall, with leaves striped horizontally, spotted, or with yellow borders, is by sure one of the most suitable for the modern rooms.
Native of south-eastern Africa, grows up well in the sun, in full light, but also at 2-3 metres of distance from the windows, where it contents of a watering every 10-15 days, and a light of only 500 lux. It adjusts the production of chlorophyll depending on the available light, becoming, a little at a time, dark green, when in the less illuminated corners; can be abandoned for weeks without a single drop of water; bears easily, in winter, minimum temperatures of 10-12 °C; accepts the dry air, polluted by the smoke, and, usually, dies only for “drowning”, when watered, stubbornly, all the days, in ill drained pots.
The Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana), native of the island of Lord Howe, east of Australia, bears similar conditions. In order to produce its couple of leaves each tear, it contents itself of little light and sporadic watering, and the only “maintenance”, due to the slow change in leaves, and the lack of rains in the human abodes, is a periodical washing with a sponge.
Several Dracaena, coming from tropical Africa, reveal themselves as equally rustic, but the two-coloured forms, like the deremensis, in order to increase the photosynthesis, are compelled, in extreme conditions, to lose or reduce, like the Sansevieria, their nice white or yellow stripes, which even have an undoubted aesthetical value, are a serious handicap for plants reduced to starvation by the lack of light.
And analogous is the matter concerning many variegated leaves species, such as the Dieffenbachia, native of tropical America, which, even if bearing, as the previous ones, the dry air of the radiators, and minimum temperatures, in winter, of 14-16 °C, lose most of their attractions when the light is inferior to 600-700 lux.
Classic of apartment are also the Ficus, between which is conspicuous the F. elastica, the F. lyrata, and the F. deltoidea, decorated by odd spherical fruits, which make it similar to a Christmas Tree (the celebrated Ficus benjamina is not one of the strongest, as, in order not to lose the leaves, it needs a lot of light, elevated ambient humidity, and a good ventilation), and many Araceae, like the Philodendron cordatum and Philodendron scandens = Philodendron hederaceum, native of Brazil and Puerto Rico, and the ‘Emerald Queen’, a hybrid of uncertain origin.
Typical plants of the under wood, clung to the trunks, they accept difficult light conditions, around 500 lux, tolerating winter minimum temperatures of 10-12 °C, and the lack of atmospheric humidity, but grow up better when sprinkled, or, with frequent “pheboclysis”, to their mossy support. And analogous considerations are valid for the Monstera deliciosa, which reacts to the deficiency of light, reducing the perforations, the diameter and the foliar segmentation.
Other easy plants, less known, are the Syngonium podophyllum of central-southern America, of similar tillage as the philodendron; the Cissus rhombifolia, coming from central America, and the Cissus antarctica, at home in the Australian forests.
Relative to the vine, these plants with elegant and thin leaves, grow up well even in precarious light conditions, forming, depending on the support, columns or shrubs. They tolerate the dry air and minimum temperatures around the 10 °C, but they must not be in need of water in summer, when they are in full vegetative period.
The person having a not heated veranda, with remarkable thermic decreases up to 5 °C, will choose between the Priest’s servant plant (Aspidistra elatior), coming from China and in fashion in the cold buildings of our grandmas, the Asparagus sprengeri, the Fatsia japonica, and the Tradescantia fluminensis which, in spite of the not too much pleasant nickname of “Wandering Jew”, is suitable for decorating windows and hanging pots, with spectacular white-green cascades.
He who, on the contrary, looks for an “aristocratic” companion, less known, and bearing the radiators, will find it in the Rhoeo spathacea = Tradescantia spathacea, native of Mexico. Close to a window, with minimum temperatures not less than 10 °C, it brings out, one after the other, glossy spade-like leaves, even 30 cm long, with the inferior side of a nice deep violet, which renders, in comparison, quite insignificant its charming white little flowers.
Original, when the luminosity makes it possible, can also be a drawing-room decorated by papyri (Cyperus alternifolius and Cyperus diffusus), which can be cultivated without any effort, dipping, for a few centimetres, the pot in a container with some water.
Similarly, many “difficult” plants, can become “easy”, with some small tricks.
Once satisfied the thermic and luminous necessities of our guests, the humidity can be, in fact, incremented in various manners.
A first method consists in putting together all the pots in a larger plastic flower-pot, full of little balls of expanded clay, watered every now and then. The water gathers on the bottom, like in a reservoir, but does not reach the level of the pots, and, without generating any rottenness, evaporates between the little balls, creating, slowed down, like in the forests, by the leaves, a humid micro climate.
And with some supporting nebulizations, you will be able to keep also many-coloured Bromeliaceae of big size, like the Nidularium fulgens, or the Neoregelia carolinae, particularly if you will hav e the shrewdness to administer them, every now and then, some water in the natural “reservoir”, placed in the centre of the elegant rosette structures.
If this humidity is not sufficient, and the plants have a modest size, like the African Violet (Saintpaulia ionantha), the Fittonia argyroneura, the Cryptanthus, the Tillandsia cyanea, and many small Vriesea, Aechmea, and Guzmania, we can opt for some ingenious mini-greenhouses, shaped like bottles, of typical English taste.
When the opening is narrow, or, owing to the poor ventilation requirements, we close it for a long time with a stopper, a modest watering by capillarity, once a month, will be enough. In order not to soil the glasses (but, all methods are good), they use, in fact, to introduce a rope soaked of water, fixed to a rigid support and connected to a carafe.
Another ruse stays in placing the pot of the plants endowed of aerial roots, on a “brick islet’, placed at the centre of a basin, where there will be always water. The aerial roots will drink, like sponges, in the ditch, whilst the terrestrial ones, dry, do not risk any rottenness.
If you have an aquarium, you can also introduce them, as tubes, in the pool, with the triple advantage of sprinkling the plant, nourishing it, and purifying the water from the wastes of the metabolism of the fishes. They develop, immediately, candid
submerged roots, and in short time, if the pool is suitable, you will not even need any more the land and the pot. In my study, in Monte-Carlo, just to say, a trivial Philodendron has covered without any effort, in 16 years, starting from a branch, two walls, with more than twelve square metres of leaves.
We have reached, slowly slowly, an alternative cultivating method, called “hydroponic”, or, in poor wordings, the hydro-cultivation.
The premises are simple: the basic element for the life in the Green World is not the land, but the water. The soil is a support and a reserve of nourishing substances, but it’s the water which dissolves them and renders them assimilable. And since, as we have seen for the chlorophyll, many plants adapt themselves, often surprisingly, to new conditions, and develop in this case, special aquatic roots free of rottenness, it suffices to replace the land with a solution of mineral salts, to be renewed once a month, and to fill up, every now and then, the level.
It’s very simple, and so we can leave on holiday, abandoning, without any risk, the plants, for weeks; we eliminate the parasites which live in the earthy compounds; and, above all, we can keep species which are demanding on the local humidity side, which will compensate the hygrometric deficiencies of the air, with an additional pumping to their aquatic roots.
Between the species which are more suitable, are, generally, all the Araceae, the spadix plants, that is, with inflorescences united in a cylindrical structure, side by side, with a large bract, often coloured, called “spathe”, like the Aglaonema, the Dieffenbachia, the Philodendron, the Scindapsus, and, mainly, the Spathiphyllum and the Anthurium, which, if well illuminated, will enrich your house, for months, with their showy standards.
They accept, happy, this practice, also the Cordyline, the Cissus, the Pandanus, the Dracaena, and the Chlorophytum comosum, another distinguished “grandmas” plant. It’s sufficient to retrieve, from a friend, or from the gardens, one of the many shoots which come out, already rooted, on the stolons, and put it, with a grate, in the water, close to a window. It will grow up, without any particular attention, very quickly.
Can flower plants grow up in an apartment?
For the 99,9% of the cases, the answer, is, unluckily, negative. Most of the alluring proposals of the florists, are, to use an euphemism, “temporary decorations for the house”. The flowers, reproductive organs of the superior plants, require, in fact, for their development, the intense light of the sun, and, apart the spadix plants, and the insignificant corollas of the species quoted before, unless of installing a blinding lighting, like in a greenhouse, with special fluorescent or mercury vapours lamps, it is almost impossible to be present, inside a house, to these veritable “happy events”.
For the owner of a veranda or a luminous window, looking for easy and perennial plants, in flower without respite, I have only two suggestions: the hybrid orchids of the genus Phalaenopsis, in bud even eight months a year, in exchange for one weekly watering and periodical liquid manuring (but, attention to the smoke, which, slowly, kills them, as well as the owner), and the Bamboo Begonia (Begonia corallina, and its cultivars and hybrids, such as the Begonia ‘Picta Rosea’), with shrubby appearance, and nodose and elegant stems, similar to bamboos.
Even before coming in the limelight of the nineties, tortured and drastically pruned as a “sapling”, to be immolated to the consumerism with the name of Tamaya, this robust Brazilian species was circulating, since time, with success, in the nurseries of many European cities.
In a well illuminated room, it is in bud from March-April til December, contenting itself of one weekly watering, and of a 30 cm pot, which will give hospitality, in short time, to half-a-score of main stems, even two metres tall, loaded of pendulous and showy bunches of flowers.