10 of the Easiest Houseplants for Black Thumbs

Houseplants that can handle low light and drought sound like a fantasy, but I assure you that they exist and are easy to find, no less. How do I know which house plants can tolerate abuse? Because I had to grow and arrange hundreds of different plants for my upcoming book Plant by Numbers, and after the manuscript was completed I got really lazy... I mean, I decided to put them through a rigorous test to see just how long they could go without attention.


The plants on this list can all handle low light, drought and general neglect, but they don't grow much under those conditions and can fall victim to pests if abandoned for too long. However, they will quickly begin growing again with regular watering and bright indirect light. 'Regular watering' means to water the plant as soon as the top 1-2 inches of potting mix have dried out. Depending on the plant or the pot, this could be as often as every two days or every week. 'Bright indirect light' is used to describe a spot that gets bright light without getting hit by beams of direct sunlight. If your shadow has a distinct outline, it's too bright for the majority of these plants. Another note before we begin: It's far better to water too little than to water too much.



Without further ado, here's the list! Feel free to nominate your own choices in the comments section.

ZZ Plant
Zamioculcas zamiifolia 


If you're looking for an easy plant, try ZZ plant. Though it can go months without any attention of any sort, your occasional glance will be rewarded by a glimpse of flowers that resemble those of its relatives, callas and peace lilies. ZZ plant is a good houseplant for rooms with low light and it can tolerate a lot of neglect, but they don't like soggy soil. If you tend to overwater, plant them in a cactus mix so that the water can quickly drain from the roots. Just to give you an idea of how easy ZZ plant can be, I once tossed a seemingly dead plant onto a trash pile because after sitting in soggy soil for a while, the bulbs had rotted and the leaves had shriveled up. It smelled terrible, but as you've probably guessed, it came back to life after all.

Cast Iron Plant
Aspidistra elatior


Even the cast iron plant's name gives a nod to its indestructible nature, and it was much favored by the Victorian English for its ability to survive in the poor air quality of the time. You can usually tell that a home in the Southeast is old if it has a sea of waving deep green cast iron plant leaves surrounding its foundation. Actually, you might even see abandoned homesites that have been outlived by the plants themselves! They never produce seeds outside their native habitat because they rely on tiny terrestrial crustaceans from their Asian homeland to pollinate the flowers. They were long thought to be pollinated by slugs and snails, but I think that miniscule crab relatives are much cooler, don't you?

Fiddle Leaf Fig
Ficus lyrata


There are easier plants on this list, but for the sheer size and impact you can't beat the fiddle leaf fig or the related rubber ficus. They are large houseplants that add structure to a room, yet they don't really ask for much in return! Just water deeply once a week and it will be quite content. If you move your ficus tree and find that it has dropped a bunch of leaves, don't worry. It's perfectly normal for ficus plants to react this way to changes and as long as you don't respond by drowning it in extra water or fertilizer it will start putting out leaves in no time. 

Bromeliad
Various genera

In low light these bromeliads will be less colorful, but attractive nonetheless.
It's no secret that I'm a big fan of bromeliads, but maybe it's just because I'm too forgetful to water plants as often as I should. Most bromeliads deal with unreliable caretakers like myself by storing up water and nutrients in their vases of cupped leaves and absorbing them through tiny scales on the leaf surface. Others, such as earth stars (Cryptanthus hybrids) have thick and leathery leaves like those of succulents. I have some earth stars that have literally gone for four months without water and are just now starting to lose their older leaves. It's barbaric, I know, but how else would I know that they could perform such a feat?

Dracaena
Dracaena deremensis and others


They sure are common, but they're uncommonly tough. I have two chartreuse 'Limelight' dracaenas that were practically just tossed in a plastic pot with a few inches of soil.  I've watered them about five times in the last four months and they've been sitting in a dark room with the blinds shut the whole time. This is why you see dracaenas on the set of shows like 'The Office' or 'Mad Men': Because they can tolerate being grown by imaginary characters that get watered in a similarly imaginary way. If you're wondering why 'lucky bamboo' isn't included on this list, that's because it's actually just a type of dracaena! Oh, and they do a lot better in soil than in water, by the way. Give it a try.

Snake Plant
Sansevieria trifasciata and others


It's on just about every list of easy houseplants, but what I love most about sansevierias is that they come in so many different flavors. From the standard striped Sanseveria trifasciata to the tubular leaved Sansevieria cylindrata and the many dwarf forms, there is one for just about every taste. They have bold shapes that lend themselves to modern decor, yet are minimalist enough to look at home in any setting. I used to have problems with growing snake plants because they would rot within a few weeks of buying, but have determined that it was because of the big-box retailers' overwatering. Don't you just hate it when that happens? Since all of my current plants came from reputable growers, I haven't had any problems.


Mistletoe Cactus
Rhipsalis, various species


Rhipsalis is the unsung hero of the houseplant world and though it is becoming more common, few books give it a mention. And that's a shame, because it is one of the easiest houseplants ever. I left a tray of rooted mistletoe cactus cuttings on a dark shelf for about a couple of years as an experiment, and watered it roughly once every one to two months. At the end of the year it looked almost exactly the same as it had when I started. I also leave them suspended in grapevine balls of sphagnum moss that I have called rainforest drops, watering them every one to four weeks. They're also one of the few houseplants that bloom in low light, so what more could you ask for?

Devil's Backbone
Pedilanthus tithymaloides


For such a mischievous name, this Euphorbia relative sure has a soft side. Sure, the zigzagging stems do look pretty wicked, and it's definitely rugged enough to survive some hellacious conditions, but I grow devil's backbone for its translucent striped leaves. They seem to glow like backlit parchment paper even in lower light, but they look phenomenal in bright indirect light or direct sunshine because they take on a glorious pink tinge. This plant does look best with more light than the others in this book, but it is a real survivor and only meekly suggests that it needs water by occasionally letting the tips of its stems go limp. Usually you have to go for a few weeks without watering before it starts to complain though.

Haworthia
Haworthia and Gasteria species


Succulents are incredibly tough houseplants in general, but the Haworthia and closely related Gasteria plants actually look good under such circumstances. Whether they're on a sunny windowsill, near a window in a north facing room or even an office lit by fluorescent lights, these South African succulents even go so far as to bloom without direct sun. I've even committed the cardinal sin of growing some of my haworthias in a container with no drainage holes, and they've responded by simply putting out more roots near the surface of the soggy potting mix. I wouldn't recommend doing drowning your own plants, but a succulent that can survive overwatering and low light is one worth growing, even for serial plant killers. There are many species available, but most have descriptive names like 'zebra plant', 'window plant' and 'ox tongue'. 

Rattlesnake Plant
Calathea insignis


I happen to think that this prayer plant relative resembles peacock feathers more than anything, but the tough sounding name of 'rattlesnake plant' is indeed appropriate for the purposes of this article. You'll be hard pressed to find a lush and leafy looking houseplant this easy, and it makes all of the other so-called prayer plants seem like more trouble than they're worth. In the chaos of arranging 50 container gardens for my book, I left one of my peacock plants out of its pot and sitting on top of another houseplant. I only noticed my mistake a few weeks later, but the rattlesnake plant was standing its ground with nothing more than a few browned leaf tips to show me that something was amiss. Well played, rattlesnake plant. Well played.

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There are many other foolproof houseplants out there and I show you how to combine them for low maintenance indoor gardens in my book, Plant by Numbers.



6 comments:

  1. I was sure I would have at least half your favorites. Turns out I only grow a few Bromeliads and some Rhipsalis of the ones mentioned here.

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  2. I can grow anything in my garden, but indoors it just does not work...your information was greatly appreciated.

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  3. Great post! This will be helpful for so many people :) I feel like most people I talk to lately say they have a black thumb!

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  4. How about mother of thousands..
    They just seemed to grow anywhere.

    Tradescantia is another survivor.
    They just seemed to crawl into existence in my garden.

    Somehow I find Haworthia & the prayer plant are more sensitive type.
    I had manage to keep them alive but barely.
    And they eventually died compared to other hardier ones like Dumbcanes, Birdnest ferns & Crown of Thorns.

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  5. Rhipsalis are sure thought! I believed the were difficult because they look so fragile. But I have one who grows in a dark room. It grows so fast in the summer I have to trim it regularly. Another unkillable plant I like a lot is the syngonium.

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  6. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is more than just a fine line! it's like the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning!
    we buy houses cash

    ReplyDelete

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