I attract plants the way some people attract stray dogs and cats. It seems that everywhere I go, I return with a plant in a pot. This situation intensifies in the winter when house plants are looking for good warm homes.
Fortunately, the attraction is mutual; I don't mind finding another saucer and space for yet another plant in my house. Unfortunately, I'm not the world's best plant-mother. Being a busy person with the memory of your stereotypical ninety-year old, plants that decide to quarter at my homestead have to be tough. They may or may not get enough water and light, and if I remember to fertilize them, they're fortunate indeed. I tend to lavish attention on them for several months and then forget about them... especially if it's summer when my masses of outdoor plants need attention.
Yet year after year, plants appear in my truck or on my doorstep, plants that I or my friends have chosen with the best of intentions. Year after year, plants that haven't survived the honeymoon phase of our relationship move from the house to the composter. But some plants not only survive but thrive; plants that can beautify your interior landscape without needing to be fussed over.
Maranta leuconeura (Prayer Plant)
Marantas are also known as Prayer Plants because of their habit of raising their leaves to an erect position at night. Daytime or night-time, their leaves are showstoppers; large, and intricately patterned. The Maranta in my home, a M. leuconeura 'Erythroneura' (a.k.a. 'Herringbone Plant'), is one of my oldest houseplants, (over 15 years old now), and one of the showiest. Each deep green leaf has a central spine of light green with a rib cage of prominent red veins etched over top. The undersides of the leaves are a deep red. If you're looking for a Maranta at a garden centre, you'll probably find this one and the other most common variety, Maranta leuconeura `Kerchoviana', (a.k.a. 'Rabbit's Tracks'), which has light green leaves with roughly square dark brown blotches on either side of the pale green midrib.
The key to success with Marantas is making sure their basic needs are met. Marantas have to have protection from the sun, high humidity, and enough warmth in the winter. Generally, these plants like the same temperatures you do, from 60 to 80 degrees F. Unlike you, they don't have much tolerance for temperature fluctuations. Place your Prayer Plant in a location that is partially shaded, out of the range of draughts. Direct sunlight can scorch the leaves, and even be fatal. In winter, you should move your Maranta to a well-lit but sunless spot.
Keep the soil of the Maranta evenly moist, but not soggy. Unlike many houseplants, Marantas do not enjoy being allowed to dry out between waterings. Most homes don't provide enough humidity for Marantas to thrive; misting the plant's leaves is helpful, especially in the summer. You can also help create a more humid atmosphere by placing a bowl of water by your Maranta, and/or putting the Maranta in among several other houseplants (Bill Beaurain, "The Garden Helper"). The Maranta will tell you if conditions are not humid enough; its leaf tips will turn brown.
These plants like a slightly acid soil; treat them with an equal analysis acid fertilizer such as 'Miracid' every two weeks from late spring to late summer. In the fall and winter, when the Maranta is resting, cut down on watering and don't fertilize. Marantas don't need to be repotted often as they're slow growers; I've only repotted mine three or four times over fifteen years (but I'm not a good plant-mother, remember?) Experts recommend repotting every two years or when the plant is congested. Repotting should occur in early spring; it's a good idea to add some peat moss to the potting mix to improve acidity. If you're going to propagate new Maranta plants, divide the plant during repotting; cover the pots of the new divisions with polythene and keep them warm until the new plants are established.
Dieffenbachia (Dumb Cane)
The Dieffenbachia (a.k.a. Dumb Cane, Mother-in-law's tongue) is one of the toughest plants I've ever shared space with. It handles low light levels and periods of drying out with ease. I love the white featherings on the huge green leaves on mine, a Dieffenbachia amoena 'Tropic Snow'. The most common species is Dieffenbachia maculata (also known as D. picta), with ivory blotches or markings on green leaves. 'Exotica' is a variety whose markings are like speckles; the leaves of 'Camilla' are almost completely ivory. If you're thinking of getting a Dieffenbachia for your home, though, be aware of two factors that may make it an unsuitable choice; it can get large (small tree size, 5 to 7 feet tall), and its sap is extremely poisonous. Even a small amount in the mouth can cause the tongue to swell to the point that it will close your throat and cause suffocation (which is why it's also known as 'Dumb Cane'). After handling, propagating or repotting a Dieffenbachia, always wash your hands thoroughly.
If you choose a Dieffenbachia, it will need partial shade in the summer and bright light in the winter. The bright, indirect light of a north or east-facing window is ideal. Like the Maranta, it will not tolerate cold draughts or cool winter temperatures, needing a minimum 60 degrees F. Dieffenbachias grow ideally at day temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees F. with night temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees. The typical house will be too dry for them; mist your plant frequently.
Unlike the Maranta, Dieffenbachias like drying out between waterings; water them regularly from spring through fall, drenching the plant thoroughly. Beware of overwatering, as these plants are susceptible to stem rot disease. Applications of all-purpose fertilizer every two or three weeks will also be appreciated during the growing season,and you should clean the leaves of your Dieffenbachia appreciate having its occassionally, to prevent dust clogging its pores; applying mild soap and water with a damp sponge works well.
Conveniently, if your Dieffenbachia becomes root-bound, it may be repotted at any time. It's also one of the easiest plants to propagate; a two or three inch long piece of cane works as a cutting, and if the variety produces daughter plants at its base, these can be removed and used as cuttings too. You can also remove and pot up the top crown of leaves, using a rooting hormone and providing bottom heat, according to Dr. D. G. Hessayon (The House Plant Expert). As some point, you'll probably want to cut your Dieffenbachia back, because its lower leaves will naturally wither and die as it gets larger, making the plant 'leggy'. When this happens, cut the plant back to a four inch stump; it will resprout to produce a new plant.
Chlorophytum comosum (Spider Plant)
The Spider Plant is perhaps the most adaptable of houseplants. Over the years, believing that no room is complete without a plant or two, I've tried several different plants in our bathroom, a room that has a window with frosted glass and variable heat and humidity. Only the Spider Plant survived... and seems to thrive.
Spider Plant Runner
Even though gardening books advise that Chlorophytum comosum needs a well-lit spot (it isn't), and plentiful water when it's growing (which it doesn't get) and likes to have its leaves misted ocassionally in summer (I don't). Our Spider Plant is the kind you're most likely to find if you're shopping for one, a Chlorophytum comosum 'Vittatum' with long spike-shaped, drooping leaves banded with white. I get a kick out of its cascading masses of tiny plantlets. You might also find C. comosum ' Variegatum', which has green leaves edged with white. Both are an excellent choice for a hanging basket display.
While Spider Plants will tolerate 'normal' house temperatures, they prefer a temperature range of 55 to 65 degrees F.. They will not tolerate direct sunlight, and like their soil to be evenly moist (but not soggy). They should be fed every three or four months with any house plant fertilizer.
The most common problem with Spider Plants is tip burn, leaf ends that turn brown and dry off. Bill Beaurain, "The Garden Helper", says that this is usually caused by chemicals in the water (such as chlorine and fluoride), and suggests using rain or distilled water to solve this problem. Another potential cause is underfeeding, according to D.G. Hessayon; he advises feeding the plant with every watering. (If you do this, be sure to use your fertilizer half-strength, so as not to damage the plant.)
Other than this, Spider Plants are gloriously trouble-free, and one of the easiest of all houseplants to propagate. If possible, let the plantlet root while it's still attached to the mother plant; peg the plantlet down in the soil and cut the stem joining it to its mother seven to ten days later, when it's rooted. If this isn't possible, cut the chosen plantlet from its mother, place it in potting soil and let it form roots; it will take about a month doing it this way. You can also divide Spider Plants at repotting time (which should be done in spring, if necessary).
Enjoy Houseplants are one of the finishing touches that make a house a home. They cleanse and beautify our environment, and are soothing companions. The teeniest apartment or room has space for one or two, and even if you're a black thumb, you can grow one or all of these plants. Enjoy!
Beaurain, Bill. "The Garden Helper: Plants and Potted Flowers in the Home". http://www.thegardenhelper.com/garhouseplants.html .
Henley, R.W., Chase, A.R., and Osborne, L.S.. "Maranta Production Guide". University of Florida, IFAS. Central Florida Research and Education Center: Apopka. http://www.ifas.ufl.edu/~apkweb/folnotes/maranta.htm .
Hessayon, Dr. D.G.. The House Plant Expert. London: Expert Books. 1993.
Smith, Ronald C. (Ph.D.) "Interior Plantscaping with Large Houseplants." NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University, H-1123, March 1997. http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/landscap/h1123w.htm