Gardenwise: Three (Nearly) Foolproof Houseplants to Get You Through The Winter

Pictured Above: Dracaena marginata surrounded by heartleaf philodendron (which closely resembles pothos) in a windowless office.

By Susan Tito 

It’s staying lighter longer, which means gardeners everywhere are getting giddy thinking about being able to soon play in the dirt. But don’t be too hasty in your countdown to spring: There’s still a lot of winter left! 

That sobering reality had me seeking my green fix anywhere I could find it. This year, it came from an unlikely source — a doctor’s office. Say what you want about this bland environment, with its mind-numbing, piped-in music and ancient magazines littering the waiting room. Many doctors’ offices — even those without windows — have thriving houseplants.

Do doctors and their staffs have greener thumbs than most? Probably not, but they know how to pick the right plants for their offices. There are many plants that thrive in low-light conditions. I am focusing on three — Dracaena, Epipremnum (pothos) a and Spathiphyllum (peace lily) — commonly found in supermarkets, big box stores and nurseries.

Dracaena

Dracaena is a popular foliage plant with strappy ornamental leaves in deep green or gold and sometimes with red margins. It is the consummate indoor plant. 

Almost everybody has seen Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderana), which grows easily in a vase or dish with pebbles and a little water, making it great for beginning gardeners. Its stems, also known as canes, sometimes grow in a spiral, lending an interesting look.

Other popular Dracaena species to consider are marginata and fragrans. Marginata, which goes by the common name of dragon tree, has long leaves with thin red margins. Fragrans ‘Massangeana’ is the corn plant, and it vaguely resembles its edible namesake, but it’s not for consumption! As with all Dracaena — and all the plants listed here — it is poisonous to pets, so keep that in mind if your pet is a plant nibbler. 

In general, Dracaena does not require much water. Place in a well-draining container and water only when the soil is dry to the touch. If the plant is sited in a room with windows or skylights, make sure the light is bright and indirect. In windowless spaces, good fluorescent lighting is required.

Pothos’ propensity to produce trailing vines is evident on this bookcase

Pothos

Epipremnum is commonly known as pothos or devil’s ivy. Featuring heart-shaped variegated waxy leaves, the plant is actually a vigorous vine reaching up to 10 feet long. As with Dracaena, pothos can handle some neglect and drier soil. Maintenance is a breeze: Just trim the vine to a length that works best for you. 

Some people have fun with this plant by letting it grow as long as possible, then stretching it across a table or draping it down the side of a file cabinet or bookcase. Having even one pothos can dramatically transform a nondescript space into an instant jungle!

To retain pothos’ variegation, make sure it receives bright indirect light. I bring my pothos outside in summer so that it gets an injection of natural light. I place it in a semi-shady area and it hasn’t lost its variegation yet. If you love this plant, you can easily propagate it by cutting one of the vines and placing it in a vase of water. Within a few weeks, the cutting will produce roots and it can be potted. 

A peace lily greens up a bland hallway

Peace Lily

Spathiphyllum (peace lily) is the ubiquitous low-light plant found in office settings, shopping malls and hospitals — and for good reason. This relatively unfussy native of the tropics has a quiet beauty, sporting glossy dark green ribbed leaves and sporadic white blooms resembling those of a calla lily.

The peace lily is a communicative plant. It will “tell” you if it is thirsty. Unlike the aforementioned plants, peace lily requires consistently moist soil. If you forget your regularly scheduled watering, peace lily wilts in protest. It is easily revived, however, sometimes within minutes of receiving water.

All three plants profiled here do double duty inside and outside the home. If you are looking to bring the look of the tropics to your garden, consider bringing these plants outside for a summer “vacation.” These jungle natives thrive in Long Island’s humid climate. Just remember to acclimate them gradually and never expose them to too much light, as their leaves will burn.

If you’d rather keep them indoors, you will be happy to learn that they are natural air purifiers. According to research conducted by NASA, these plants filter out harmful chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde and ammonia. So, in addition to lending beauty, they help to make your office or home a healthier environment. 

It looks like those doctors and their staffs know more about plants than they get credit for!


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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