House Plants

by Rod Smith
Oregon Certified Nursery Professional

© 2006-2014 Rodney A. Smith
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House plants bring color and life inside the house. Many have colorful leaves and flowers in interesting shapes. They especially add life and interest when the days are dark and dreary outside. Here are some tips to help house plants grow better.

Put plants in places where they will get the right amount of light. Light is the most important factor in making plants grow well. House plants are listed in the following chart according to the amount of light they need. No plants will tolerate dim light for long periods of time. Low light plants will tolerate dim reading level light. Moderate light plants will tolerate good reading level light. Bright light plants do best in a north window or near a sunny window but out of direct sunlight. Part sun plants do best in a sunny window that is filtered by curtains or trees outside. Sun plants need at least four hours of direct sunshine each day.

A light meter can be used to get an accurate measure of the amount of light in different parts of the house. They usually come with a list of plants and the amount of light each plant needs.

East, south and west windows are all sunny, but each will get different amounts of light according to the season and trees that might shade them. It may be necessary to move a plant to different windows to find the right amount of light. A few plants need more or less light when they are flowering.

Light can also be provided artificially with lights. Fluorescent lights give a good amount of green and blue light for growing but some plants need more red light for flowers. Mixing incandescent lamps with fluorescent will provide a full spectrum of light. Even better, full spectrum fluorescent grow lights are available.

Water plants according to their individual needs. Some plants need to have soil that is consistently moist. Other plants will die from root rot unless the soil dries out between watering. Also, African Violets do not like to have the crown get wet. The following list of house plants indicates how much watering each prefers. Here are tips that work for all plants.

When you water, give plants enough water each time so some drains out of the pot. This insures that all of the soil is wet. However, some soil will shrink as it dries and pull away from the pot so the water drains out of the pot immediately without wetting the soil. If this happens, give the plant several small waterings until the soil swells and is thoroughly wet.

Do not let plants sit in a saucer of water. Watering will flush excess salt out of the soil, but the salt will be pulled back into the soil unless the saucer is emptied. Excess salt causes salt burn which is a browning of the tips and edges of the leaves. Also, the soil may stay wet too long if the pot is sitting in water. For plants which need high humidity, such as gardenia, fill the saucer with rocks to keep the pot above the water level.

Let the plant tell you when to water again. Frequency of watering will change according to changing growth rates, light, temperatures and air movement. A few plants like to be consistently moist so they do not mind being watered every day or two, but most plants do best if the soil is allowed to dry out between waterings. If the soil is wet all of the time, many plants, especially figs, loose lots of their leaves and may develop root rot. Also, fungus gnats are kept under control by letting the soil dry out. If a house plant takes more than two weeks to dry out, try planting some additional plants in the pot.

Here are four ways to tell when the soil is dry enough to water. Lift the pot to see how heavy it is. Look at the drainage hole to see if the soil is dry. Push a finger into the soil to check for moisture. Push a water meter into the soil to check the moisture level. The water meter is the best method. It should come with a list of plants and how dry each likes to be before watering. Be sure to push the tip of the water meter to a point halfway between the top and bottom of the soil to get an accurate measurement.

Watering is made much simpler if a moisture holding material is added to the soil. It soaks up the excess water, then releases it again as the soil dries out. The moisture holding material should be mixed into the bottom half of the pot so it does not migrate to the top of the soil as a slimy mess.

Use a good quality potting soil suitable to the type of plant. Soil in pots does not drain as well as in the garden because the pot interferes with drainage. Potting soils provide extra drainage by adding sand, perlite or pumice. Cactus and succulents need excellent drainage so they need a special soil. Orchids need perfect drainage so they are grown in Orchid Bark. A tall container will drain better than a short container. Drainage is also improved by putting a string out the drain hole into the saucer.

Move plants to the next size larger pot only when the roots fill the present pot. Roots will come out of the drainage hole when the pot is filled with roots. Repot into the next size larger pot or, perhaps, two sizes larger if a plant is fast growing. Too large of a pot will cause the soil to stay wet for a long time which promotes root rot. When repotting, make one or two cuts down the side of the root ball to cut circling roots. To limit the size of the plant and to keep it in the same pot, cut off the outer inch of soil and roots and replace it with fresh potting soil. Begonia and Saxifraga stop blooming if they are root bound, but Saintpaulia, aglaonema, hoya, impatiens, stephanotis and strelitzia bloom better if slightly root bound. Most plants prefer to be repotted in the winter or early spring when not actively growing.

Fertilize regularly with a water soluble or a slow release fertilizer. Several companies make water soluble fertilizers that work well. Osmocote makes several slow release formulas. Foliage plants need mainly nitrogen. Flowering plants need about equal amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. I do not recommend fertilizer sticks because they put too much fertilizer at one spot.

Check plants every week for insects and diseases. The most common disease is root rot from the soil being wet all of the time. The only effective treatment is to let the soil dry out between waterings. Leaf spots, molds and mildews are less likely if the leaves are kept dry or dry quickly. Spider mites are a problem on many plants, especially palms. Watch for off-color leaves and fine webbing. Scale and mealybugs are also common. A fine oil spray gives good control without poisonous fumes.

Keep house plants out of cold drafts. A patio door may look like a great place for house plants but cold drafts when the door is open is hard on most plants. Also, hot dry air from heating vents can cause many leaves to quickly wilt. Heating vents might be closed or covered with a baffle to direct hot air away from plants.

House Plants listed by light requirements

Scientific name               Moisture		Description
  Common name                   Light

Low light
Aglaonema modestum            Moist         Colorful leaves. Tolerates low     
  Chinese Evergreen             Low           light and dry air.               
Aspidistra elatior            Soak & dry    Very tough plant survives heat and 
  Cast Iron Plant               Low-Bright    low light.                       
Asplenium nidus               Soak & dry    Large, arching fronds from a dark  
  Bird's Nest Fern              Low           crown.                           
Cordyline terminalis          Soak & dry    Tough plant for low light          
  Hawaiian Ti Plant             Low                                            
Dieffenbachia spp.            Soak & dry    Large, green and white leaves. Can 
  Dumbcane                      Low-Moder.    grow to ceiling. Poisonous sap.  
Draceana spp.                 Soak & dry    Strap-like leaves, often striped.  
  Dracaena                      Low-Moder.    Can grow tall.                   
Spathiphyllum spp.            Moist         Large green leaves with white      
  Peace Lily                    Low           flower in fall.                  

Moderate light
Araucaria heterophylla        Moist         Formal, tree-like growth habit.    
  Norfolk Island Pine           Mod-Bright                                     
Davalia spp.                  Moist         Fuzzy rhizomes creep over and down 
  Rabbit's Foot Fern            Moderate      the pot.                         
Maranta leuconeura            Soak & dry    Colorful, curved stripes on leaves.
  Prayer Plant                  Mod-Bright    Great hanging basket.            
Monstera deliciosa            Soak & dry    Large leaves are split. Stem needs 
  Split Leaf Philodendron       Mod-Bright    support.                         
Nephrolepis exaltata          Soak & dry    Arching fronds make a great hanging
  Boston Fern, Dallas Fern      Mod-Bright    basket.                          
Palms                         Soak & dry    Many sizes and frond shapes. Some  
  Palms                         Mod-Bright    grow tall.                       
Philodendron caudatum         Moist         Heart shaped leaves. Vigorous      
  Heart Leaf Philodendron       Mod-Bright    climber.                         
Rhoeo spathacea               Soak & dry    Leaves are green on top, purple on 
  Moses in the Cradle           Mod-Bright    bottom. Flowers are boat shaped. 
Zebrina pendula               Soak & dry    Silver stripes and purple. Great   
  Wandering Jew                 Mod-Bright    for hanging baskets.             

Bright light
Alocasia spp.                 Soak & dry    Large dark leaves with light green 
  Alocasia                      Bright        veins.                           
Aloe vera                     Soak & dry    Leaves are thick curving spikes.   
  Burn Plant                    Bright        Sap used for healing.            
Anthurium scherzeranum        Moist         Colorful red or orange flower.     
  Flamingo Flower               Bright                                         
Aphelandra squarrosa          Moist         White striped leaves. Yellow       
  Zebra Plant                   Bright        flowers in fall.                 
Asparagus spp.                Soak & dry    Fine foilage.                      
  Asparagus Fern                Bright                                         
Cyclamen persicum             Moist         Heart shaped leaves. Butterfly     
  Cyclamen                      Bright        flowers in winter.               
Dizygotheca elegantissima     Moist         Leaves are whorls of nine fingers. 
  False Aralia                  Bright                                         
Ficus spp.                    Soak & dry    Many sizes and shapes of leaves and
  Figs                          Bright        plants.                          
Gynura aurantiaca             Moist         Fuzzy purple leaves look like      
  Velvet Plant                  Bright        velvet.                          
Hippeastrum spp.              Moist         Large red, pink or white flowers.  
  Amaryllis                     Bright        Allow to go dormant in summer.   
Homalomena wallisii           Soak & dry    Green and yellow leaves.           
  Homalomena                    Bright                                         
Hoya carnosa                  Moist         Vining plants with very fragrant,  
  Wax Plant                     Bright        waxy flowers.                    
Hypestes phyllostachya        Soak & Dry    Unusual pink spots on leaves.      
  Pink Polka Dot                Bright                                         
Impatiens wallerana           Moist         Pink, red, orange, purple and white
  Busy-lizzy                    Bright        flowers available.               
Impatiens x hawkeri           Moist         Large pink, red, orange, lavender  
  New Guinea Impatiens          Bright        or purple flowers.               
Mandevilla sanderi            Moist         Vining. Large pink to rose flowers 
  Mandevilla                    Bright        with yellow throat Spring-Fall.  
Mimosa pudica                 Moist         Finely divided leaflets immediately
  Sensitive plant               Bright        fold up if touched.              
Peperomia spp.                Soak & dry    Many leaf shapes. Some upright,    
  Peperomia                     Bright        some trailing.                   
Pilea cadierei                Moist         Leaves have silvery splotches.     
  Aluminum Plant                Bright                                         
Platycerium bifurcatum        Moist         Forms large, branched fronds on a  
  Staghorn Fern                 Bright        wall. Soak once a week.          
Saintpaulia ionatha           Moist         Rosette of leaves with white or    
  African Violet                Bright        pink flowers. 14 hours of light. 
Sansevieria trifasciata       Soak & dry    Lance shaped leaves with yellow    
  Snake Plant                   Bright        margins and silver bands.        
Saxifraga stolonifera         Soak & dry    Leaves are shaped like a geranium  
  Strawberry Begonia            Bright        and colored like a begonia.      
Schlumbergera buckleyi        Moist-dry     Needs long nights or exposure to   
  Christmas Cactus              Bright        cold to form flowers.            
Strobilanthes dyeranus        Soak & dry    Leaves marbled with purple and blue
  Persian Shield                Bright        with wine red underneath.        
Tolmiea menziesii             Moist         Plantlets sprout from leaves.      
  Piggyback Plant               Bright                                         

Part sun
Abutilon spp.                 Very moist    Rapid growing. Red, orange, yellow,
  Flowering Maple               Part sun      purple or white flowers.         
Acalypha hispida              Moist         Has long plumes of tiny red flowers
  Chenille Plant                Part sun      Needs regular pruning.           
Begonia spp.                  Moist         Many sizes and colors of leaves.   
  Begonia                       Part sun      Red, pink or white flowers.      
Clivia miniata                Soak & dry    Strap-like leaves. Large orange and
  Kaffir Lily                   Part sun      yellow flowers in spring.        
Crassula argentea             Soak & dry    Thick leaves and branches. Some    
  Jade Plant                    Part sun      with striped leaves.             
Cyperus alternifolius         Very moist    Long green stems topped by a whorl 
  Umbrella Plant                Part sun      of leaves. Grows in shallow water
Euphorbia pulcherrima         Moist         Red, pink, white or marbled flowers
  Poinsettia                    Part sun      at Christmas time.               
Fatshedera lizei              Moist         Hybrid of Japanese aralia and      
  Tree Ivy                      Part Sun      English ivy. Needs staking.      

Full sun
Cactus                        Moist-dry     Many sizes and colors. Moist when  
  Cactus                        Sun           growing/flowering, then dry.     
Capsicum                      Moist         Bright red peppers are edible, but 
  Ornamental Pepper             Sun           very hot.                        
Carissa macrocarpa            Moist         Fragrant white flowers produce     
  Natal Plum                    Sun           edible red fruit.                
Citrus spp.                   Soak & dry    Fragrant white flowers and colorful
  Citrus                        Sun           fruit.                           
Cuphea ignea                  Moist         Tiny, tube-like red flowers.       
  Cigar Plant                   Sun                                            
Cycas revoluta                Soak & dry    Stiff fern-like leaves. Very slow  
  Sago Palm                     Sun           growing.                         
Echeveria spp.                Soak & dry    Rosette of thick leaves. Plantlets 
  Hen and Chicks                Sun           sprout all around.               
Gardenia jasminoides          Very moist    Very fragrant white flowers. Needs 
  Gardenia                      Sun           high humidity and cool nights.   
Kalanchoe blossfeldiana       Soak & dry    Scarlet, orange or yellow flowers. 
  Kalanchoe                     Sun                                            
Lantana spp.                  Never wet     Fragrant red, yellow or white      
  Lantana                       Sun           flowers in summer                
Pelargonium peltata           Soak & dry    Red, salmon, orange, pink and white
  Geranium                      Sun           flowers.                         
Solanum pseudocapsicum        Moist         Flowers and red fruit in the fall. 
  Christmas Cherry              Sun           Needs abundant light to flower.  
Stephanotis floribunda        Moist         Vining plant with very fragrant    
  Stephanotis                   Sun           white flowers in June 
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