1. By: Elisabeth Ginsburg

    Cast iron plant is one of the toughest house plants available.

    The best house plants add a lot to life without adding extra hours to the day because they require as little fuss as possible. Their benefits are most notable in winter when the need for green, living things is the greatest. Only plastic plants are completely un-killable, but the following “hard-to-kill eight” need little, give a lot and thrive under normal household conditions.

    Aloe vera

    Aloe vera is tough and grows best in full sun.

    A cut Aloe vera leaf exudes a substance that soothes minor burns, a quality that has made this succulent plant a longtime kitchen staple. Its other virtues include an attractive clump of erect, grey-green leaves with serrated margins that are complemented in summer by tall spikes of tubular yellow flowers. Aloes increase freely by offsets or “pups”, creating new plants that can be separated from the mother plants and given away to friends and family. Best of all, the plants accomplish all that on a minimum of water and care.

    Place your aloe in bright, direct sunlight (at least 6-hours a day) and water only when the soil surface is dry. Plants can withstand partial sun, but they will perform poorly in shade. When moving aloes outdoors in summer, slowly acclimate them to full sun conditions to avoid leaf scald.

    Spider Plant

    Spider plant is reliably beautiful and can take a beating.

    A favorite since Victorian times, spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) works well on tall plant stands or in hanging baskets that allow the perky “spiders” (offshoots of plantlets) to cascade over the sides. The long, slender leaves, which also help purify indoor air, may be all green or striped with white or yellow and arch gracefully outward. Tiny white summer flowers are a nice bonus, as are the stems of young spider-like plantlets that form at the flowering nodes.

    Detach and pot separately when the plantlets reach about 2-inches across, or keep them tethered to the parent plant and place each “spider” atop a small pot filled with soil-free mix.  It will root readily.  Spider plants thrive in bright, indirect light.  Water regularly but do not allow their soil to become too wet.

    Christmas Cactus

    Christmas cactus is tough but requires good care for flowering.

    The familiar Christmas or holiday cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) is sometimes also called “crab cactus” for its spreading growth habit.  An epiphytic (tree-dwelling plant) cactus with arching, segmented leaves, it produces claw-like flowers of vivid red, pink, orange, cream, or purple at the ends of the stems in late fall to midwinter.  These are true cacti, though they lack sharp spines.

    Holiday cactus will flourish as long as they receive bright light and their yearly watering schedule is met. After flowering, plants should be watered very minimally for a period of three months. Then from mid-spring to summer, water them regularly when the soil feels dry down to 2-inches depth; in this time they will put on a new flush of foliage. In early fall, place them in a cool place and reduce watering once more, until you see flower buds develop on the plants. Then keep them regularly irrigated again until flowering ceases.

    Sansevieria

    When snake plants become too root bound, divide them.

    You may call it “snake plant” or even “mother-in-law’s tongue”, but whatever the common name, Sansevieria trifasciata is an indoor standby.  Its bold, lance-shaped foliage stands erect, generally reaching about 2-feet tall in sunny indoor situations.  If your snake plant summers outdoors, place the container in full sun to light shade.  The leaf markings that inspired the “snake” nickname are gray-green against a lighter green background.  Though it rarely happens indoors, sansevieria produces greenish white flowers in spring, followed by orange berries later.  The plants appreciate regular watering from spring to fall, but reduce watering significantly in winter.

    English Ivy

    Variegated forms of English ivy are extra pretty and just as tough.

    Outdoors, English ivy (Hedera helix) can be lovely, but virtually uncontrollable. Grown indoors in containers, it has better manners. Numerous cultivars, including many with interesting variegation and smaller leaves, are available from garden centers. Because of its expansive nature, ivy works well as filler for large containers or in hanging baskets.  As with many other houseplants, it prefers bright indirect light.  Watering should be regular and the potting mixture should not be allowed to dry out.  When the ivy becomes too unruly, simply trim it to shape. Vines need to grow to a great height to flower and fruit, so indoor specimens never flower.

    Jade Plant

    Jade plants perform best in full to partial sun.

    The jade plant (Crassula ovata), sometimes called “jade tree” because of its gray trunk-like stems, is actually a branching, succulent shrub from southern Africa. The plump, glossy, oval-shaped leaves are its chief glory, and sometimes have a slight reddish tinge. Indoor jades will occasionally produce small, starry, pinkish-white flowers as well. Container grown specimens may reach up to 30 inches tall and prefer bright light indoors and partial shade outside. Water when the soil feels dry down to a finger-length depth.

    Golden Pothos

    Vining golden pothos is very hard to kill.

    Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is a striking foliage plant with big, heart-shaped leaves, marbled in golden-green.  In the wild, it is a vigorous climbing vine, but as a civilized houseplant, it grows no more than 6- to 8-feet tall.  If you want it even smaller, it can also be kept in check by periodic trimming.  Because of its good looks and vining nature, the big-leafed plant is useful for hanging baskets, plant stands, and large containers.  Bright indirect light, evenly moist soil, and occasional stem pinching will keep it full and healthy.

    Cast Iron Plant

    True to its tough nickname, cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) can survive shade, neglect, and climate conditions that would send many other plants into fatal swoons. Like spider plant, it was beloved by Victorians and is still a hit today. With green or variegated lance-shaped leaves that sprout on long petioles or leaf stems, mature aspidistra may grow to 2 t0 3 feet tall and wide. The plants grow slowly and flower infrequently indoors.  If flowers appear, they are purple and lurk near the plant’s base.  Aspidistras grow best with regular watering but will survive with little moisture.

    Care and Feeding

    Hard-to-kill houseplants need little help to look great, if you start with good care.  Average house plants require a  high-quality mix like, Fafard® Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, to ensure good growth and success.  Established plants should be fed intermittantly with a diluted all-purpose fertilizer.  More succulent house plants, like aloe, snake plant, jade, and Christmas cactus require mix with excellent drainage, so lighten consider lightening the potting mix with equal amounts of perlite or bark.  Succulents are accustomed to lean rations and need little additional fertilizer.

    About Elisabeth Ginsburg


    Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State.

    She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others.

    Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

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