Friday, August 26, 2011

6 Plants That Give Me A Run For My Money

No matter what you call your own personal list of challenging houseplants (“Plants That Hate Me”, “Difficult Houseplants”, “Houseplants I’ll Never Grow Again”, “What In The World Was I thinking When I Bought This?”, “Plants That Drive Me To Drink”), one thing’s for sure: it differs from one indoor gardener to the next. For example, I would never include a Pothos on any of my lists that include temperamental houseplants because I find it exceptionally easy to grow. But ask another houseplant lover and they’ll tell you that they can’t grow it to save their life. On the other hand, I’ve always had a turbulent relationship with the extremely popular Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) that most growers consider an easy-to-grow, fail-proof, highly-recommended-for-beginners, difficult-to-kill, even-a-child-can-grow-it plant.

What this means is that with so many contradictory opinions emerging from varying personal experiences, almost any plant can land on an indoor gardener’s “difficult houseplants” list - even the (almost) indestructible Aspidistra elatior (Cast-Iron Plant), the immortal Sansevieria trifasciata (Snake Plant) and many of the Aglaonemas, all of which are generally considered to be some of the most difficult to kill. But it’s all relative. Easy to grow for me may not be easy to grow for you.

Alright, so what’s your point?

I guess my point is that you should take all of these lists with a grain of salt, including my own. Yes, environmental factors play a key role in the long term health of houseplants (you cannot succeed with a Calathea if you don’t provide high levels of humidity, amongst other things). And yes, commitment and effort contribute to your success with plants. And there’s no doubt that the more delicate plants deteriorate faster than others when their needs are not met promptly and precisely. And I’ll even go as far as agreeing that sometimes no matter how much you pamper, plead, scold or threaten, some plants just refuse to cooperate. But no, the lists are not set in stone. Under the right circumstances even the most so-called demanding houseplants can thrive.

Now let’s get to the purpose of this article.

Below is a list of plants that I find difficult to grow indoors, mainly because it is hard, and at times impossible, to provide the specific care they need (enough light, sufficient humidity, the right temperature). I have grown all of them at one time or another, some of them more than once, most of them fairly recently, so the list is not based on popular opinion but rather on my own personal experience with them. And even though many of them have a reputation, in general, of being somewhat challenging, it’s still my personal view.


1) Alocasia x Amazonica (African Mask, Elephant Ear)

This temperamental beauty is one of the most beautiful foliage plants I have ever seen. And one of the most exasperating ones. Over the years, I have fallen victim to its lovely tropical appearance one too many times, and ended up lugging home yet another soon after one of them has failed under my care. Despite the fact that I’ve yet to conquer them, I’m not ready to give up on them. Although that’s debatable these days.

In order to succeed with this lovely plant, certain requirements (nonnegotiable demands) must be met. High humidity is absolutely essential; I cannot stress this enough. In dry air, brown leaf tips will develop, leaf loss will occur and spider mite infestations, which this plant is highly prone to, will become a chronic problem. Soil must be kept evenly moist during the spring and summer, and allowed to dry slightly during the colder months; never allow it to dry out completely. A shady location is tolerable but a brightly-lit spot out of the path of direct sunlight is best. Average household room temperatures are fine; make sure you keep the plant warm. If an Alocasia Amazonica becomes chilled, it will drop all its leaves and go dormant; this may also occur when the medium dries out completely.

There is no doubt that this charming houseplant is sensitive and will only grow happily when its needs are met. If you can’t provide proper care, and are not willing to make an extra effort, don’t bother taking an Alocasia Amazonica home; it will disappoint you.

• Excellent candidate for hydroculture.

2) Dionaea Muscipula (Venus Flytrap)

Although I’d always been curious and somewhat fascinated by carnivorous plants, I’d never taken much of an interest in actually growing one at home. A Dionaea Muscipula (known by its well-known common name Venus Flytrap) found its way into my life because my husband wanted one. And only because he was eager to see one in action. (Every man has a little boy inside of him, no matter his age)

Humidity, a lot of humidity is required; a terrarium is often used to keep levels high. During the active growing period, keep the (nutrient-poor) potting medium evenly moist; never allow it to dry out completely. Do not fertilize. Venus Flytrap is sensitive to chemicals found in tap water; it’s preferable to use distilled or rain water.

The plant can be grown in full sunlight from early spring to late fall, but protection should be provided against the hot, midday sun of the summer months. Adequate lighting, as much as 12 hours a day, 4 of which should be direct, is best to keep this plant healthy; supplemental lighting may be necessary. There is a dormancy period from November to March; move the plant to a cooler location (45 to 50 degrees) during this time.

It sounds simple enough but Dionaea Muscipula can prove to be extremely difficult to grow indoors, which was exactly the case with my husband’s (the ending was tragic). But even if it did end up in the trashcan eventually, it was a very interesting experience. We got the opportunity to watch this plant snap its ‘jaw’ shut on a fly in less than a second. It was amazing.

* Not yet tested in hydroculture.

3) Stromanthe Sanguinea ‘Tricolor’

Undoubtedly one of the most stunning jewels of the tropical world, this member of the Maranta family is as temperamental as it is beautiful. But how can anyone resist the eye-catching, multicoloured foliage of this dazzler? I’ve gone through a few over the years and they’ve all spent the majority of their time in my home curling their leaves because the humidity is never high enough. Before you know it, the leaf tips and margins turn brown, and the plants begin looking very unattractive. I end up tossing the plants out and swear I’ll never get another. It’s a lie. I always end up bringing a new one home again. And again.

This Maranta member obviously needs high levels of humidity to keep it happy. If you can’t provide that, don’t get one; it will deteriorate rapidly and become unsightly. Use a porous medium and keep it moist at all times; never allow it to dry out completely. Average room temperatures between 16°C (60°F) and 27°C (80°F) are ideal; avoid cold drafts. This Stromanthe fares well in medium light but brighter light intensifies the dramatic variegation. Avoid direct exposure to sunlight, which will damage the leaves and cause them to fade.

There was a time when this plant was so uncommon it wasn’t even listed in books about houseplants. Today you find it everywhere. And although it’s making its ways into many homes, unless its needs are met accordingly – the most important being high humidity – it will end up in the trash, sooner rather than later.

* Excellent candidate for hydroculture.

4) Ctenanthe Lubbersiana

This Ctenanthe is another eye-catching genus of the Maranta family and can be just as difficult to grow as many of its cousins. Despite the fact that it’s challenging to grow indoors, the attractively-patterned foliage makes it difficult for me to leave this plant behind at the greenhouse. So I often don’t.

If one of these irresistible plants ends up following you home, it’s important that you cater to its needs or it will decline fairly quickly. Provide plenty of humidity; the leaf tips and margins will brown and turn crispy in dry air. Place the plant where it will receive partial shade; keep it away form direct sunlight. Average room temperatures between 16°C (60°F) and 27°C (80°F) are ideal, and cold drafts must be avoided. Grow your Ctenanthe in an airy, fast draining potting mix, water moderately, keep the medium moist at all times and never let it dry out completely. When the winter season arrives and plant growth slows down, allow the compost to dry out a little more.

This lovely plant needs high humidity, a warm location, protection from the direct rays of the sun and protection against cold drafts. If you can provide all these things, especially high humidity, you may be able to succeed with one of these temperamental beauties. If you can’t, don’t even bother trying. You’ll end up quite disappointed.

* Excellent candidate for hydroculture.

5) Rhododendron Simsii – (Azalea, Indoor Azalea, Florist’s Azalea)

I debated adding this beauty to my list of challenging plants because under the right circumstances an Azalea can be remarkably easy to grow. But because they’re one of the most popular flowering plants, and sold by the gazillions year round to unsuspecting consumers that are unaware that this plant has specific needs that have to be met (if it’s going to continue looking as good as it did in the greenhouse), I felt it was my duty to share that vital information.

This plant likes it cool; too much heat, which is usually the case in an average home, is very problematic. In warm, heated rooms flower buds will fail to develop or they will drop prematurely if they do. And if that heat is combined with dry air, spider mites will move in and devour your stressed-out plant. Ideally, temperatures should not exceed 18°C (65°F) during the day and night temperatures should linger between 7°C (45°F) – 12°C (55°F), although a constant 18°C (65°F) should do fine. If there is no way to provide an Azalea with the coolness it craves, it will decline.

Keep the soil moist at all times; never allow this plant to dry out completely. Under-watering leads to premature dropping of buds, flowers and even leaves. Place the plant in a location that provides bright, indirect light; a shady location combined with cool temperatures is required to encourage and extend the flowering period. Provide plenty of humidity; plants grown in areas where the air is very dry do not perform well and are highly prone to pest infestations.

Azaleas are usually treated as temporary plants and discarded after the blooming period has come and gone. The primary reason is that many people believe that it’s a temporary plant. But for those that know it isn’t, the inability (or failure) to provide the four important requirements - plenty of water, high humidity, bright light and cool temperatures – has them kicking their Azalea to the curb eventually.

* Not yet tested in hydroculture.

6) Musa Acuminata 'Dwarf Cavendish' – Banana Plant

The first time I spotted these plants at the local greenhouse, I had to have one. With beautiful elliptical, medium green leaves and an interesting overall look, this compact banana plant adds a tropical look to the indoors that makes it irresistible. But as fun as it is to grow, is as difficult as it is to grow. If the environment it’s growing in is not ideal, the Musa Acuminata ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ will become very unpleasant-looking.

High humidity is essential. Do not grow this plant in dry air; aside from the fact that its health will be compromised, spider mites will infest it. Warmth is just as important as humidity. A location where it’s between 27°C (80°F) – 29°C (85°F) is the preference, but average temperatures are fine. If the plant gets chilled, its leaves will develop ugly black tips and patches. Water abundantly from April to September and keep the compost moist at all times; reduce watering in fall and winter, but do not allow the plant to dry out completely. Very bright light with a few hours of direct sun every day is ideal, provided it’s not too strong.

Musa Acuminata ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ likes a warm, damp environment and is much more suited to greenhouse cultivation. But if you’re eager to try and succeed with one in your home, like I am, it’s important that you understand its needs and apply them accordingly. You will fail miserably with this plant if you don’t.

* Excellent candidate for hydroculture.

Despite giving me a run for my money, I really like most of the plants listed above. With the exception of the Venus Flytrap (which I have no sincere interest in) and the Rhododendron Simsii (that I can’t provide with cool temperatures), I intend to keep growing the others, even if it means having to start with a new specimen whenever one of them fails. This includes the Alocasia, which is barely registering on my ‘interest radar’ these days. Sometimes I just don’t learn.


  1. With you on at least three of the six (Alocasia, Dionaea, Rhododendron), though I'm surprised Stromanthe doesn't do well for you -- it's the only genus in the Marantaceae that's never given me any significant problems. (I've never tried Ctenanthe.)

    But as you said, it's different for every grower.

  2. I'm pretty disappointed about the Stromanthe because it's one of my favourites. But I'm not giving up on it. I'm going to keep trying to succeed with it.