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A plantita’s guide for parenting popular plants

By DOREEN JOSE Published Oct 20, 2020 12:22 am

I was really clueless in the beginning. For me, houseplant parenthood started out innocently enough over two years ago when I moved into a sun-filled apartment, and some of my friends gave me potted plants as housewarming gifts.

I got so enamored of seeing the plants grow lovelier by the day that soon I was getting more and more plants, planters, and stands. Each day with the plants was not just any other day, with surprises like new leaves and flowers and buds.

However, along the way, there was a lot of drama and heartbreak also, with some plants getting sick and dying because they had specific needs that I was not able to meet.

It gets really challenging approximating the ideal environment (some like it hot and some cannot take direct sunlight, for example) for each and every plant when you are caring for a whole battalion of them. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

Out in the wild, plants just take whatever Mother Nature throws at them and thrive. They just grow, even on a rock or a crack in the concrete and they just rely on rainwater.

A houseplant alignment chart categorizing plants in a spectrum of low-to-high maintenance.

It is a completely different story for houseplants, as any plant parent knows. Plants make people happy, but people have to make plants happy also by giving them what they need in terms of light, humidity, water, soil mixture, pep talk or rock music (okay, the last two may be a matter of plant parenthood style, but you get the idea).

The truth of the matter is that each plant has different needs, and a plant parent has to know the plants through research and observation. Especially in this day and age when almost half of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction, it’s all about responsible parenthood. (Source your plants responsibly also by making sure you get your plants from legitimate nurseries, not from green criminals who steal plants from parks and forests out of desperation in these difficult times).

In the houseplant spectrum, Monstera Deliciosa is considered chaotic neutral (‘I shall love you, but maybe I will hate you too’).

Antoine de Exupery’s The Little Prince said it perfectly: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” Basically, you have to pretend you are the sun and the rain for your plant, so you have to be quite sensitive to its needs.

You have plants that can be described as lawful good like welcome or ZZ plants that thrive in neglect, and then there are infamously chaotic evil ones like the fiddle leaf fig trees that have broken the hearts of many because despite all the love and care they are given, they seem unmoved, deciding to be miserable and lose those precious leaves until they die.

I have seen the Licuala grandis (Vanuatu palm) getting full sun outdoors and liking it, but indoors, they get easily sunburnt, so I had to take care to position it farther away from the southeast-facing windows. Photos by Doreen Jose

In the middle of the spectrum, you have relatively easy-care plants or true neutral like the palmera and the chaotic neutral like the monstera.

Here are some of the most popular houseplants du jour and a few tips on caring for them, for those who are embarking on this journey of plant parenthood in these soul-trying quarantine times.

ZZ or welcome plant is a super-easy houseplant that can go without watering for weeks. 

Welcome or ZZ plant (Zamioculcas Zamifolia)

The ZZ or welcome plant, also known as Zanzibar Gem, is probably the lowest maintenance plant you will ever find. It is considered a lucky plant by Feng Shui experts because it is very steady.

It can tolerate extremely low light levels, even just fluorescent lights, and irregular watering. It can go for weeks (even months) without watering as it contains high levels of water in its thick and textured leaves, but do water when the top few inches of soil feels dry to the touch.

It thrives best in humid climates. If you see yellowing leaves, that means you are overwatering it. I water and sunbathe this plant baby once a week for best results.

Areca Palm topped NASA’s list of air-purifying plants in its clean air study done in the 1980s.

Areca Palm (Dypsis Lutescens)

Also known as butterfly palm, golden cane palm, or yellow palm, the areca palm piqued my interest as it topped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) list of air purifier plants in its clean air study done in the 1980s.

This is a relatively easy care indoor houseplant. It needs medium bright indirect light, high humidity, and rich moist soil. I fertilize it monthly with coffee grounds as it likes slightly acidic soil, but one has to be careful not to over-fertilize it as it is also sensitive to fertilizer salt buildup. It can easily develop yellowing leaves if under-fertilized or if it is getting too much light.

It is quite sensitive to extreme temperature, so keep it away from cold windows, air conditioners and heaters. It is also vulnerable to common pests like mealy bugs and aphids, so you have to check the leaves and soil regularly.

This plant is listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and has to be treated with care and respect.

Fiddle Leaf Fig trees are notoriously difficult plant babies. 

Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree (Ficus Lyrata)

The fiddle leaf fig is one of interior designers’ “it” plants because it looks good whether spindly or bushy. But this plant baby has quite a reputation for being very finicky.

There are even special Fiddle Leaf Fig Food products available out there, just for this prima donna of houseplants.

A native to western Africa, from Cameroon west to Sierra Leone, it grows in lowland tropical rainforest so caring for it means that one should simulate that environment.

When I got mine as a small plant baby with just two leaves, I was told that it does not want being moved around. It does need to be rotated once a month, though, as it tends to grow toward sunlight and will lean on one side if you do not rotate it.

The Little Prince said it perfectly: ‘You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.’ Basically, you have to pretend you are the sun and the rain for your plant.

Fiddle leaf figs do not like a lot of things, in fact: too much sun, too little sun, dry air, soggy soil, super dry soil, drafts, and so on.

Dropping leaves mean that the plant is not getting enough light. I move it away from the windows during summer as I noticed that in the hottest months, it was always thirsty, with its top leaves drooping right after watering.

Watering it is quite tricky, as overwatering will kill it easily. The rule of thumb here is to water when the soil dries out. In the summer months, I take care to water it thoroughly until water seeps through the drainage holes, but in the cooler months, it is happy with just even watering of its topsoil three times a week. I spray its leaves with water once a week to make sure it gets a lot of humidity.

A happy peace lily will give you real lilies (below). The peace lily is “drama queen” of a plant that droops its leaves when it is thirsty, as one can see in this before and after watering collage (above).

Monstera (Monstera Deliciosa)

This plant, which has become so popular lately, is also known as the Swiss cheese plant because of the holes on its leaves. It is native to tropical forests of southern Mexico, and has since been introduced to many tropical countries. (See Monstera photo at the top of this story.)

It needs bright to medium indirect light and should be watered thoroughly once a week. Monstera requires humid conditions, so spraying its leaves with water once a week is advisable.

In the spectrum, it is considered chaotic neutral (“I shall love you, but maybe I will hate you too”).

I have found it quite easygoing, and, knock on wood, I have never had a problem with pests. Signs to watch out for are browning or yellowing leaves, which can be caused by underwatering or overwatering, respectively).

I think my monstera seems too happy as it never stops growing new leaves, so I can see why it is considered an invasive species in some places.