Houseplants with Impact

You’ve seen them in garden centers, office buildings, malls, restaurants, and any place lucky enough to hire an interior landscape designer. Dramatic, colorful, and graceful, large specimens truly bring the outdoors in.

Many people are afraid to try these plants because of the cost, design considerations, or high maintenance. It’s true that you might mourn a five-foot-tall ficus more than a sprig of ivy, but the care really isn’t that different.

Before heading to the nursery, take some time to determine your needs. If you have a small home, it won’t take a giant tree to make a big impact. On the other hand, a large well-lit room with a cathedral ceiling can comfortably house a specimen plant several feet tall.

What purpose do you have in mind for your new plant? Will it decorate a large bay window, fill an empty corner, or serve as a table centerpiece? Perhaps you want to add a dash of color to the room, or want an unusual variety as a conversation piece. Large plants can also improve the air quality inside the home, filtering pollutants, adding humidity, and filling the room with a fresh aroma.

For instant, easy-care impact, it’s hard to beat the dracaena. These come in many varieties, but the larger ones such as the Corn Plant are called “false palms” for their arching tree-like effect. If it’s a true palm you want, try a Kentia Palm. This is the easiest variety to maintain, and is used extensively in professional displays. Trees are the obvious choice for large specimens, but there are few varieties that do well in the average home. Ficus is the variety most people are familiar with. The Ficus family includes the Rubber Plant and Weeping Fig. The Umbrella Tree, or Schefflera, comes in many sizes, some reaching as high as six to eight feet.

You don’t need a tree to make a dramatic splash in your home. Smaller varieties can be presented in a big way. Vines and other trailing varieties such as the large-leafed Monstera Deliciosa (split-leaf philodendron) can be attached to a moss stick to grow into an attractive vertical display. Hanging plants, such as the thick Boston Fern can provide interest in a window, and a group of Pothos or Philodendrons look great on a plant ledge or shelf.

Caring for big plants isn’t really any different than caring for the smaller ones. Each variety has its own care requirements regarding light and water; look them up if you’re not sure. Generally, trees require bright, sunny spaces and won’t do well in shade. Palms prefer shade, and dracaenas enjoy something in-between. One challenge that comes with large plants is keeping the leaves clean of dust. Smaller plants can be rinsed off in the kitchen sink, mid-sized varieties enjoy a cool shower, but if your plant is several feet tall you’ll have to do it by hand. Regular misting with a spray bottle can help, but it’s a good idea to occasionally wipe each leaf carefully with a damp cloth.

Pets can be a problem too, since these large specimen plants usually sit directly on the floor. If your cat or dog (or child!) enjoys digging in the dirt, you can sometimes fend them off by placing a thin layer of pebbles on the surface. Don’t place anything on top of the soil that will interfere with air circulation.

Now that you’ve decided to try a big plant in your home, the next question is how to obtain it. You can purchase a young plant, or even start it from seed, and wait for it to mature into a large specimen. This might be the least expensive, but it can take years before it reaches the size you want. Explore unusual sources; my four-foot corn plant cost me five dollars at a yard sale. Plant nurseries and garden centers are the obvious source, though large specimens can cost quite a bit in these places.

Getting the plant home is a challenge in itself, depending on its size. If you’re buying from a nursery, ask if they will deliver. If your plant is too tall to fit vertically, you can lie it down for transportation, placing a bag around the pot to contain the soil. Just be sure to secure the plant so it won’t roll around on the way, support the branches and leaves with soft material, and stand it back upright as soon as it arrives.

If you’ve always wanted a big plant but were afraid to try it, don’t be tempted to buy a silk look-alike instead of the real thing. Let your creativity flow. Create the fresh, tranquil feeling of a jungle right inside your home or add dramatic flair to a room with large specimen plants.

Butterfli Lily

Once available only as a long-lasting cut flower at florists’ shops, the Butterfli lily (alstroemeria) recently has taken off as a potted plant. To keep the dwarf plants blooming, locate them in a cool, bright area. Water well when the soil feels dry on top. Avoid letting the soil completely dry out or remain soggy.

Lavender Topiary

Lavender rises to a new height of popularity in its topiary form. This sun-loving herb’s fragrant purple flowers and aromatic gray-green foliage are equally at home indoors and in the garden. Water plants only when the soil is dry. Prune branches after flowers fade to maintain the ball shape.

Keepsake Azalea

You can enjoy the beauty of springtime year-round with Keepsake azaleas. These new hybrids come in many shapes and sizes, including the braided, 2-foot-tall tree at left. For best blooming, place azaleas in sun; shade in summer. Keep soil moist, but never soggy. After flowering, fertilize to promote new buds.

Lois Burks Begonia

There’s nothing flighty about Lois Burks. Unlike other angel-wing begonias, this variety stays compact. Show off the salmon blooms and silver-flecked leaves in a bright area, away from full sun. Water when the top 1/2 inch of soil is dry. To keep plants healthy, remove faded leaves and flowers. Feed monthly.

Sunrise Cactus

Named after the vibrantly colored rays of dawn, the pointed petals of Sunrise cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) open each morning, then fold up again at dusk. Flowers come in red, purple, or pink. Place plants in a cool room near a bright window shielded from direct sunlight. Keep soil slightly moist.

Ivy Topiaries

You needn’t be a skilled sculptor to maintain ivy topiaries. Pretrained on special wire forms, these living works of art will thrive in any indoor setting, away from direct sunlight. Soil should be slightly moist at all times. Keep ivy in good shape by winding new growth around the topiary form.

Lace Cap Hydrangea

Resembling old-fashioned bonnets, the blooms of Lace Cap hydrangea complement a crisply starched tablecloth. Colors available include white, pink, red, blue, or lavender. Place pots in bright, indirect light, and keep soil moist. Cut off spent flowers. In spring, transplant hydrangeas to a semi-shaded garden site.