Finding the Next Big Trend in Houseplants

When Nancy McDonald guided me along her hilly Mt. Dora road to tour the local greenhouses, a question loomed large in my mind and popped up several times while I was talking with the growers. I couldn't help but wonder 'what will be the big trend in houseplants?' and by the end of the day I had my answer. But first, allow me to introduce you to somebody who I also consider to be the next big thing in indoor foliage.

Nancy showing me how to propagate Lycopodiums
Nancy taking an important phone call

A little over a year ago, I met Nancy McDonald of NGM Productions at the FNGLA Landscape Show in Orlando. She was pretty hard to miss, excitedly showing her bromeliads and Anthuriums to curious passerby, having them sniff the leaves of the dark leaved midnight ginger, anxiously awaiting their response. "It smells good, right?" When I saw her this summer, her booth was so humming with energy and excitement over her Cryptanthus planted snail shells and hydroponic houseplants that I found it hard to break past the crowd! It wasn't Nancy's plants that drew people in, but rather her refreshing energy and confidence in her colleagues in the industry. She talks about her 'competitors' as if they were her pride and joy, telling me all about their accomplishments with the fervor of a soccer mom with honor roll student bumper stickers. She has every reason to be proud, too.

But I digress.  Here's how the next hot plant will make its way to your windowsill.

The 'ant plant' is certainly novel, but is that good enough? From the collection of Ray Roberts.

Tried and True versus Novel and Cool

Who decides what's in fashion in the first place? You and I create the demand for new and novel houseplants, but it's the grower who makes the decision to bother sacrificing valuable space on their nursery benches.

A grower has to choose which plants will give them the greatest returns: They could place all their bets on reliable plants like pothos, they could go all in with unusual plants that could prove to be the 'next big thing', or in most cases they'll do a little of both; experimenting by trying out the cool new stuff to see how quickly they make the leap from cutting to a full and bushy four inch pot. Oh yeah. A plant has to have a quick turnaround if it's to end up in the big leagues. Most growers provide a steady supply of the common and reliable houseplants to pay the mortgage, but luckily those growers are also plant geeks and crave new and unusual plants just like us. They get their fix by collecting and trading the 'good stuff' with each other before growing them on to see if they're a good fit for large scale production. 

For a plant to even end up at your local garden center, it has to be interesting, durable, colorful and easy enough for the growers and retailers to think it's worth the time and money. That's why commonplace plants like English ivy, golden pothos and Dracaena never seem to go out of style: They're reliable. On the other hand, if the blue dyed orchids and venus flytraps are anything to go by, it's pretty safe to assume that for better or worse, we shoppers crave novelty.

Kenny Stewart of Stewart Greenhouses shows us his pothos combo plantings
Selaginella was all the rage in Victorian England, but this new variety is something else!

Trying Something New
Nancy McDonald's nursery was a perfect example of the creative experimentation that leads to new plant introductions. Years ago she received a cutting of an unusual epiphytic Dischidia plant with pouch-like leaves. When I visited her last week, that cutting's progeny were flowering, fruiting and producing airborne seeds much like those of the milkweed to which it is related. With the excitement of a child discovering a hidden creek in the woods, (Remember that feeling?) Nancy gingerly plucked the feathery seeds from their pods and set them in trays to germinate. She explained that they were sprouting and growing at lightning speeds, but had been damping out after a few days. So now she'll try a lighter mix to appeal to their tree-dwelling nature. In a few years, you might just see her Dischidia sold in Exotic Angel's collection alongside other epiphytic plants that they've brought to the mainstream. That these unusual plants even make it to retailers is a testament to the work of experimental and creative gardeners like Nancy.

Nancy gathers seed from a Dischidia
Rather than try new plants, some growers try to grow them in new ways. At Chamberlain's Exotic Foliage, they've started growing thick and gnarled bare-root stumps elevated above the soil to create bonsai in record time. Have you seen the hydroponically grown houseplants at Lowes? They make those too. Everything is grown on platforms that atop a system of rails around the well staffed compound with all the efficiency of a factory. And it works.

A finely oiled machine
Factory-made bonsai
Others focus on growing classic houseplants with a twist. It might be a new cultivar of ivy with differently shaped or patterned leaves, or the grower might train them on a trellis to create a readymade topiary. When I asked Kenny Stewart of Stewart's Greenhouses about what trends he predicted for houseplants, the answer was a return to traditional bulletproof plants. I happen to agree with him, but the fairy gardens scattered around the greenhouse indicated that he was ready for anything. Dwarf Caladiums just an inch tall sat alongside some low growing Selaginella outside a fairy's home made to look as if fashioned from a gourd.

Small is Big Again
Even if the public never fully embraces fairy gardens, I can't help but think that America will be on the lookout for small houseplants. It makes sense, really. You can fit a lot more small plants in a room or container than large ones! When I did a little research to confirm my suspicions, it turns out that in an article on the hottest indoor trends for 2013, Garden Center Magazine says that retailers should "Think Small for Big Revenues." The three big trends were fairy gardens, terrariums and living walls, and all three trends call for small plants.

Nancy's snail shells would look right at home in a fairy garden.
Mount Dora Plant Company sells little hypertufa venus flytrap pots.
As I work on my book and combine different houseplants together in container gardens - and as I try to get everything to fit in my small apartment, I can definitely see the appeal of small plants. I'm sure that anyone downsizing to a smaller home or a smaller cubicle could appreciate them too!

Okay, now sound off. What do you want to see more of in the way of houseplants?


  1. something that I can start myself, I picked up a small hydroponic system from a yard sale for 5.00, it has everything but the lil pots, and I would like to start from seed. where would I aquire seeds of the exotic variety. LOVE UR SITE< came across it through pinterest, and searching craigs link for terrarium to create for my windowsill. I have houseplants everywhere, the typical variety, tree size darn near, living in the south I have had much better luck with my green thumb, hoping to biuld a small greenhouse next summer on this 3 acres. thanks for your info, happy thanksgiving to u and urs

  2. What is the name of the plant that is in the snail shell. I'm talking about the one with the pink on the outside of the leaves. It is beautiful and I have one. I'm trying to figure it out because I think it might bloom and I want to be able to take care of it.


Please feel free to share your questions, ideas and suggestions!