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Difficult houseplants sometimes just need understanding

Some houseplants seem unhappy no matter how much care and nurturing they get from their owners. Often, our homes do not provide the preferred environment — bright light and high humidity.

Many plants have growth cycles attuned to day length and slow down during winter — even with artificial light. As with people, understanding the particular needs of some plants contributes to the difference between thriving and merely existing.

Phalaenopsis orchid

Beautiful, long-blooming and affordable in recent years, popular exotic-looking orchids are sometimes treated as disposable (the blooming plant is comparable in cost to a fresh flower arrangement). After the blooms are done, these plants go into a dormant stage. Many new owners think they’ve failed the plant in some way, but the rest period is natural. After one to several months of reduced water and fertilizer, the orchid will show signs of rebirth: a thick, succulent new leaf or the white, fuzzy tip of a new root will emerge from the bark chips to cling to the side of the pot, signals to increase water and fertilizer.

Placing the plant in a window with soft light and cool night temperatures often induces new bloom on Phalaenopsis. Don’t repot into soil: the bark chips are more similar to the tree trunks these plants cling to in nature.

African violet

These traditional favorites have a reputation, perhaps well deserved, as prima donnas of the houseplant community. It’s well known that African violets require bright but filtered light, and that they prefer to be bottom- watered. Like many succulent-leaved plants, they’re prone to overwatering, seemingly absorbing the extra moisture repeatedly until a sudden and complete collapse.

Placement of African violets can be challenging — they don’t want to be too cold, like near a window. But also not too hot, like near the heater. And no fumes, and also no cold water on their leaves, please! These cause leaf spotting, which the plants must outgrow before looking decent again.

If a caretaker can provide all these African violet requirements, they’ll be rewarded with long-lived, colorful blooms in stripes, ruffles, spots and other patterns.

Maidenhair fern

The texture of this fern suggests a shady forest full of wonder and hidden creatures. Delicate, dissected leaves on dark, fragile stems come in pendulous and spiral forms, both absolutely gorgeous — until they dry out. One time. After that, maidenhair fern isn’t so pretty anymore.

Considered cold-hardy in its natural habitat, in our homes this plant performs best with warm air and lots of humidity — maybe the bathroom of a large family, or in a kitchen window where spritzing it several times a day (as several care-related websites recommend) is realistically accomplished.

On the opposite end of the moisture-desiring spectrum from succulents, ferns thrive with high moisture on a regular basis and benefit from placement on top of a saucer of gravel and fresh water. Some overachievers even give their ferns long, warm showers in the people shower.


Colorful leaves are the hallmark of this plant — from lemon yellow and bright green to deep reds and oranges with dark, almost black stripes or splashes. Several new croton varieties with deep reds and burgundies are expected to be especially popular this year. But stress-out that croton and those colorful leaves will let you know — by dropping off the plant overnight and in unison.

Croton stressors include being moved, cool air drafts, heated air drafts, drying out and possibly being looked at wrong (this last one is just a hypothesis). The key to croton happiness — and thus, retention of leaves — is consistent, unchanging, perfect conditions. Most likely with a humidifier nearby, especially when heating systems are running and drying out croton’s air.


Like croton, tree Ficus respond poorly to life stressors such as moving, changes in moisture or temperature, and the like. These high-light plants can live for decades in the right spot — which is not near the front door or up against a cold window.

Rubber plant, another member of the Ficus genus with larger, rubbery leaves, can tolerate lower light and is more resilient but has a chunkier profile, not the graceful, weeping arcs that make tree Ficus so popular. Ficus tend to be heavier feeders than many houseplants, so caretakers should plan to keep them well-nourished.

Some plants need more care than others. Understanding the needs of the individual is key to success. These “needy” plants are perfect for the person up for their unique challenges.


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