At the Root

Story Felder Rushing

Root_SansevieriaGot the blues for the tropics?

A friend of mine just moved into a lovely loft in a refurbished building in the downtown of her city. It is not unlike a typical apartment anywhere, though it is beautifully appointed with comfortable and interesting furnishings, exotic rugs, wall hangings and other art. However, for weeks after she moved in, she fretted about how it seemed somehow barren until we hit on the problem — which should have been obvious to me from the very beginning — no live plants.

There are so many reasons for having live plants indoors. They add color to interiors, tone down harsh walls or angles and cleanse rooms of airborne pollutants. They give us something to nurture and serve as much-needed connections to the natural world.

Forget that in most cases indoor plants bring their own set of troubles. They must be watered and fertilized, pruned and picked over to keep them looking neat and dusted. The real problem is that most potted tropical plants, being jungle natives, thrive in bright light, warm temperatures and high humidity. Without these, plants may as well be living in a tightly-sealed, artificially-moderated spaceship.

What a terrible thing to do to a living, breathing jungle creature!

My friend does have large windows, providing lots of bright light, but she keeps the heavy curtains drawn most of the time. Then, to keep the apartment’s temperature and humidity level comfortable, she runs her air conditioner all summer and heating system all winter. Both are bad for plants.

Plants can be protected somewhat from the low interior humidity by grouping them in natural combinations as a sort of “mini-jungle” so that they share the humidity given off by one another’s leaves. And direct blasts of dry air from ventilation ducts can be shunted away from plants with simple deflectors, which will slow down the loss of moisture from leaf tips and prevent browning.

The most important thing she can do in this situation is curb her enthusiasm for all things tropical. Luckily, though very few flowering plants really thrive indoors for long, there are still many good choices for foliage plants, including some with colorful variegated leaves.

I have had an old rubber tree for more than 40 years that I call Big Jim. Its thick leaves do well indoors. Ditto for my weeping fig, dracaenas and dwarf shefflera. I also have a large personal collection of Sansevierias, some of which are called “snake plant” or “mother-in-law tongue.” All thrive in low light and low humidity and need watering only about once a month.

Perhaps the toughest indoor plant of all is the Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), which can be rooted easily in water to share with other gardeners.

There are many others, of course, but the bottom line is there is no such thing as a “house plant.” Each creature is a guest in your home, and it’s up to you to ensure that they are comfortable and their needs are met. The rewards are bountiful, if you pull it off.

If worse comes to worst, check out the super realistic and practical modern artificial plants, but keep in mind that even they need occasional dusting.