Houseplants: What do you live with?

The plants we plant in our homes and why.


Winter is on its way, and life indoors prevails until well into 2020. For you, what greenery is going to cheer the indoor interval? 

Think of the many gigantic, faithfully undemanding crassulas you have seen in offices and waiting rooms over the years. A long-term plant is a mute witness to friends, relatives, scenes, chapters, and acts in our lifetimes.

Many have spent years with their owners, who have formed strong bonds with them. I live with an assortment of houseplants, some of which date back decades. They represent departed friends who shared them, and my earliest gardening efforts. I probably should provide for them in my will.

Succulents, geraniums, begonias, dracaenas, orchids, and African violets: it becomes apparent that fashions in houseplants come and go, and today’s Internet infused world contains newer, non-plant “species.” 

Home growing stretches across varying conditions. Light is the leading factor for how plants adapt and grow well, but home heating systems also influence dust and humidity. Hanging plants may receive better light than those on shelves where they are shaded by other houseplants. Water at the root zone and humidity in the air vary. Depending upon where they originate, plants have different requirements. Compare, for example, desert vs. tropical rainforest.


Aspects of indoor plant décor

Are you looking for a sleek and stylish “curated” look? Or do you imagine a green profusion, your very own home jungle? For you, are flowers a must? Or does a wall of foliage plants augment your quest for serenity? 

Sources of light, or lack thereof (usually windows but also doors and skylights) control the species that can successfully cohabit with you. Pay attention to pot tags at the garden center and read them — most have simplified the growing conditions and light needs into a series of symbols and icons that are fairly easy to understand. Remember, overwatering kills more plants than almost anything else.

East and west facing windows invite indirect light that supports many foliage plants, such as begonias, as well as some that flower, such as holiday cactus. Succulents or tabletop cacti are most happy with heat and light, and direct southern exposure is the gold standard for them and for many flowering plants. These are good plants for people who travel or leave home for long periods of time.


The latest ‘thing’

In the 1950’s, a feature of fashionable homes was a shadow box of African violets internally lit with fluorescent tubes — the latest ‘thing.’ Today, growing nutritious sprouts year-round has gained widespread popularity, and such devices like plant stands and artificial light are a real assist. 

These appliances have grown in sophistication, supplying bandwidths of light that target specific phases of plant development, making it possible to grow and maintain a wide range of plants, independent of natural light. Gardeners Supply Company ( has a good entry-level range (or go to YouTube University). 


Plant propagators 

A good plant is made better by sharing, and houseplant enthusiasts may find themselves becoming capable propagators (quite useful during the holidays and at other gift-giving occasions). A small heat mat and propagating box ensure higher rates of indoor plant success.

Local garden centers have widened their range of houseplants over the years, and more is available here on the Island than you might think. Buy local where possible, and avoid mainland big box stores. That said, Logee’s in Danielson, Connecticut ( has long been a regional source for specialist plants, with a wide range of foliage, citrus, begonias, orchids, and many other exotic and fascinating plants.


VOCs: Plants as air cleaners

Concentrations of many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. Incidence of asthma in children is on the increase, as well as chronic pulmonary insufficiency (CPI) in seniors. Office work encourages sedentary lifestyles, and all of this points to the use of plants to cleanse indoor air. 

VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have adverse short and long-term health effects. Carpeting, glues, and upholstery off-gas formaldehyde and benzene, known carcinogens, and concentrate VOCs in energy-efficient spaces. Focusing on indoor air quality becomes critical.

Certain plants have acquired the reputation of air-cleaners, including spider plant, ivy, aglaonema, peace lilies, sansevieria, pothos, gerbera daisies, ficus, azalea, various dracaenas, chrysanthemums, bamboo palm, and philodendron, according to internet sources.

I stumbled across an article on Mother Nature Network ( that discusses how scientists have now gone a step further, inserting a synthetic version of a rabbit gene into a houseplant. “The idea behind inserting this gene into a plant is to create what researchers have called a ‘green liver,’” the article states, “A plant that can do some of the work of de-polluting our environment the way our livers do for our bodies.”

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, “[The modified plants] had sufficient detoxifying activity against benzene and chloroform to suggest that biofilters using transgenic plants could remove VOCs from home air at accelerated rates.”