In a moment filled with all too much that is unfamiliar, there is consolation in small things that remain constant.
My grandmother’s Clivia sits beside me faithfully, asking little, as it has for more than 40 years. Although it’s not that small anymore — there are now three massive pots of it.
Marc Hachadourian, the director of glasshouse horticulture and senior curator of the orchid collection at the New York Botanical Garden’s 55,000-square-foot Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, has a similar companion, a Sansevieria he adopted as a boy from his grandmother. It survived a house fire and has been thriving for decades.
“It’s more a pet than a plant,” Hachadourian said, acknowledging a common attachment that has grown more widespread during these homebound months. “I’ve seen people running adoption ads for houseplants, like a social-media influencer moving to L.A. who couldn’t take them along but wanted to make sure they found a good home.”
During the pandemic, Hachadourian’s job — overseeing the care of more than 2,000 kinds of plants in the conservatory’s 11 interconnected galleries — has continued, even with the building closed and the 117-year-old palm dome under renovation.
Recently, he replanted a Pilea cadierei, a botanical cousin of the social-media star Pilea peperomioides (also known as a Chinese money plant), with its gleaming, coin-like leaves. Hachadourian’s Pilea was brought to the collection by Thomas Everett, one of the 20th century’s leading horticulturists.
Working with “horticultural history and the garden’s history of scientific research and exploration,” he said, “brings back the people who wrote the books I studied from — and these are the plants they touched.”
That lineage of plants is not unique to the botanical garden, he noted: “People have that in their homes and families, too.”
But even if you’re lucky enough to have inherited your grandmother’s favorite plant, you may want to add to your collection. So as autumn begins, we compiled a list of houseplants — durable favorites, a few oddballs and the most cooperative orchids — to tuck in with.
Let’s start with the nearly indestructible, “the ones that won’t miss you when you go away for two weeks and nobody waters them,” Hachadourian said.
He calls them “the pizza-parlor plants”: a Pothos or Dieffenbachia, he said, “defies all possibilities and stays alive in the corner of the restaurant, even with an inch of dust on its leaves.”
Moses-in-the-cradle (Tradescantia spathacea), with its purple, white and green foliage, is extra durable, too, “a classic houseplant.”
So is that Sansevieria, or snake plant — and besides Grandma’s plain, dark-green version, there are those marbled or edged in white or gold, dwarf varieties and ones with cylindrical rather than blade-like foliage. “Definitely keep them in bright, indirect light and pot-bound,” Hachadourian said. “They may even bloom, with honeysuckle-fragrance flowers at night.”
Clivia miniata is another reliable choice; the only difficult part may be acquiring a good-sized plant to start. Give it bright light, but not direct midday sun, and a well-drained potting mix. Attempting to mimic the dormant period that triggers bloom in its natural environment, I bring mine indoors before the first freeze. I move it to the coolest place in my house, a mudroom with lots of windows, and start withholding water.
Although I can’t control it precisely — it won’t ever bloom on schedule — I try to keep it under 55 degrees (but above 35) and dry from October to January. Next, after a couple of weeks of raising the temperature into the 60s, as the days get longer, I resume watering and flower stalks begin to emerge.
Hachadourian and I both have a soft spot for oddballs, including a couple of very low-care, low-water individuals that basically have no leaves.
Like that pile resembling fat, pale-green onions in my dining room, from which a frothy vine emerges for maybe half the year: Bowiea volubilis, the climbing onion, is a long-lived bulb in the Asparagus family.
“Quirky doesn’t always mean difficult or challenging,” said Hachadourian, who puts the once-ubiquitous Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) in this category, because among cactus family members, it is odd.
“It’s a very different kind of cactus,” he said. “Most are spiny and angry, but not this one, with its leafless, jointed stems and then those wonderful flowers. I wish more people would grow them again.”
No desert plant, this bright filtered-light guy: Its ancestors were epiphytic, living in trees in Brazilian rain forests. Schlumbergera blooms in response to shorter days, with continuous darkness (13 hours or more a night) accompanied by cooler nights (55 to 65 degrees), from around the autumnal equinox until about Thanksgiving.
Both Bowiea and Schlumbergera like a fast-draining potting mix. And don’t overpot them: Tight quarters are preferred. Also, go easy on the water. (With Bowiea, begin withholding water when the vines start yellowing in fall, signaling dormancy.)
And what’s not to love about a plant that moves? Prayer plant, Maranta leuconeura, has vividly marked leaves that fold up at night. Hachadourian’s aunt had one on her kitchen windowsill (it also makes for a nice hanging basket).
Her reaction when she clued in to its nightly routine: “Miraculous — magic!”
The most dependable of the trickier types
Begonias, many of which have showy foliage and bonus flowers, are a must. But Hachadourian suggested staying away from the silver-leaved Rex types, at least at first. Their exacting requirements, including high humidity, can be hard to satisfy, especially in winter.
Other rhizomatous types are easier, he said. One that the botanical garden’s plant-information line gets a lot of inquiries about is a 19th-century hybrid, Begonia Erythrophylla, the beefsteak or pond lily begonia, that often shows up in old hand-me-down pots.
Some durable rhizomatous varieties, with modified stems that look like caterpillars, have spent many years in my house. Marmaduke is a big plant with puckered, yellow-green leaves splashed reddish-brown, and pink spring flowers. Kit Kat is mounded and lower-growing, with chartreuse-spotted bronze leaves and white flowers.
Most of the cane-like or angel wing begonias, which have fibrous root systems, also do better in the home than most Rex types, Hachadourian said.
Basic begonia care: Give them bright, filtered light and moderate humidity. Keep plants away from drafts and allow them to approach dryness between watering.
Pass-along plants to share
“With this newest houseplant generation, they may not be collecting things to hand down like Grandma did her china,” Hachadourian said, “but you could take cuttings of a plant, take a leaf with you to hand down.”
Speaking of grandma plants, he said, consider the African violet: “It has waned in popularity, but if people realized they could keep propagating it — the sharing mentality of some houseplants is making them a social thing, so why not those?”
His multiplication how-to: Take a leaf cutting, leaving as much petiole, or stalk, as possible. Cover a water glass with aluminum foil; poke a hole through with a pencil. Place the stem through the hole, where it will root in the water and eventually make a new plant.
Or give someone an amaryllis bulb. (Hachadourian does and then enjoys the excited email progress reports from recipients.) Pass along a jade plant, a Philodendron, a Peperomia.
And why not share Cryptanthus, “an odd little bromeliad I got at the Two Guys discount store for $1.99 and used to propagate as a kid, and give away,” he said. “I couldn’t bear to throw the offsets out.”
Adaptable to varying light levels, Cryptanthus plants develop the best foliage color in bright light and, unlike other bromeliads, don’t store water in their cup of leaves.
Everyone needs an orchid
Hachadourian, the author of the recent how-to book “Orchid Modern,” acknowledges that people are looking to expand beyond the familiar Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, and suggested two alternatives.
Ludisia discolor, the jewel orchid, is prized for its velvety foliage — unlike most orchids, where the flower’s the thing. Easily rooted from stem cuttings, it produces little, white spring blooms, even in lower light, so it can grow happily among other houseplants.
Paphiopedilum Maudiae hybrids, lady’s slipper orchids with mottled, checkered foliage and charming blooms, need medium to low light. And after the Paphiopedilums, they are among the easiest orchids to grow on a windowsill.
New isn’t always better
Don’t stifle the urge to go with what is familiar and what has flourished before — for you or for someone else whose plant sticks in your memory.
The trendy, Swiss-cheese-like Monsteras of the moment — the more holes and notches in the foliage, the more likes they seem to garner on Instagram — may be thrown over when some pretty new leaf arrives on the scene. But our life-partner plants will remain.
“You think, ‘I had a really nice X, and I want to get one again,’ and that’s good — go with that,” Hachadourian said.
It’s like making a successful garden outdoors: Repeat your successes.
“Get more of the performers,” he said. “People have a tendency to avoid the common, but there’s a reason things are common: because they work.”