Pick Your Houseplants

Foxtail Fern
Most ferns, including the Foxtail Fern, prefer a moist environment and indirect light.

By Cindy Haynes
Iowa State University Extension

Winter is the best time to appreciate houseplants. As the snow is falling outside, gardeners live indoors nurturing their houseplants. New gardeners, however, often find houseplants overwhelming. Since there are thousands of different types of houseplants to choose from – how do you choose which ones work best for you?  Follow the same process used for selecting outdoor plants.

Site selection
The key to plant success is placment in an appropriate site.  Outside, hostas perform best in some shade and daylilies prefer mostly sun. Houseplants are the same. The key difference is that the indoor “site” often refers to a particular window or exposure.  Plants like ferns, begonias and African violets prefer indirect light, while cacti and succulents (aloe, jade, Old-man cactus, etc.) prefer direct light.  Indirect light can be found in north-facing and some east-facing windows, whereas south-facing and west-facing windows have more direct light.

Other site characteristics to consider are temperature and humidity. Is the site cold during the winter or hot because it is near a heating register? How humid is the area during the winter or summer? Most houseplants are native to the tropics, so they prefer to be away from drafty windows or doors. In fact, many houseplants can be easily damaged by temperatures below 45-50 F. Most houseplants also prefer moderate to high levels of humidity. Since Iowa homes are not typically humid in the winter, some special houseplants benefit from placement on humidity trays (pebble trays) or near a humidifier.

Another important consideration when selecting a houseplant is knowing how much maintenance it will take to keep the plant thriving. For example, in my home the cacti and succulents are performing the best. This is because they are placed in a southern window with plenty of direct light daily. These plants also work best in my home, because I tend to forget to water them regularly. Knowing that I have a tendency to underwater my plants, I have selected plants that will tolerate – even thrive with these site and maintenance conditions.  

Making the Match
What plants match your home and maintenance conditions – you might ask? This is where you get to do a little research.  There are several wonderful books available that will tell you which houseplants like which conditions. Gardening books are filled with beautiful, colorful pictures. So even if you don’t know (or couldn’t begin to prounouce) the scientific name, you can find a few plants that you like that meet the conditions of your home.  

Show these pictures to someone at a local garden center or florist and you are well on your way to filling your home with plants. If they don’t have or can’t get what you are looking for – they can easily suggest some alternatives. If this is still too overwhelming to start, check out the list of some of the most commonly available indoor plants. Many of these are easy to find at garden centers or florists.

Indoor Plant List

Direct light usually means at least some bright light – often from a west or south-facing window. Plants that prefer indirect light will be more successful in a north or east window. For moisture, plants that like it dry will need to dry out considerably before watering again. For plants that like it moist, letting the top of the soil dry out too much could result in wilting or death. Always check the top of the soil to determine when a plant needs water.

Contacts :
Cynthia Haynes, Horticulture, (515) 294-4006, chaynes@iastate.edu
Jean McGuire, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-7033, jmcguire@iastate.edu

There are four photos and one table for this week's column.