A gift of a houseplant is a gift that keeps on living because nobody really has a brown thumb.
In the 1890s, houseplants were the rage in America and then they became the providence of little-old ladies who most likely propagated the plants from starts in the 19th century. In the mid-1970s, houseplants again became a fad, and the love of houseplants and their psychological and physical benefits encouraged people to keep a few plants indoors.
Houseplants are particularly popular in our area because we see no outside blooms for five months of the year.
Garden centers tempt you with exotic, gaudy, fussy plants that make your gift recipient feel like a failure when they die — which most likely will be sooner than later.
For a gift, it is best to buy a familiar plant because it means it thrives here.
When selecting the plant, if the temperature outside is below 50 degrees, take some steps to ensure that your purchase avoids cold shock. If the store does not have really big plastic bags to cover the plant and the pot, take a bag with you. Have a companion drive your vehicle right up to the store’s door — a walk across the parking lot even for a completely covered plant can be deadly. Pre-heat the vehicle. Repeat the process in reverse when you get home!
Tried-and-true houseplants need not be boring or trite, and many of them bloom and live for decades. I like the leafy green in the house and grow the very easiest-to-care-for houseplants. They go outside on the north side of the house during the summer.
Most of my houseplants could be classified geriatric. For example, I started a palm from a date pit 30 years ago, and my Dracaena was a gift 28 years ago. My coffee bush I started 16 years ago from a coffee bean grown by Ruth Allan’s bush.
The gift plant’s label will tell you some of the growth requirement, but go to a website such as gflora.com to see pictures of the plants and check light requirements.
Next go to denverplants.com. This website provides a list of houseplants irritating to pets or toddlers who nibble plant parts. You may have to place your new plant on a high stand above the floor level.
In North Central Washington homes, houseplant problems are few. There is low relative humidity outside, and the heated air in our houses is dry. Most exotic houseplants come from tropical or semitropical areas where the humidity is very high, so a bowl of water left to evaporate is helpful.
Check weekly for pests such as aphids, spidermites, scale insects or white fly. These insects may have been dormant on the plant at the nursery, but will hatch in your house. They can move easily to infest your other houseplants.
From November to February, we have very little natural light, and most houseplants need 12-14 hours of direct light. Take down the window screens — notice that they are colored black to block out as much sunlight as possible. Taking down the screens increases the light by 30 percent. If you can see a shadow cast on the wall by your upraised hand, a plant requiring only low light can survive.
The wind stirs up dust all year long. Dusty leaves limit a plant’s rate of photosynthesis. This weakens the plant, so the leaves need to be washed with soapy water a couple of times a year.
Many houseplants die from over-watering. Watering from the bottom of the pot is most effective. The plant absorbs the water from the underlying dish, and you can throw out any extra so the plant’s roots are not living in a swimming pool. Those annoying little black gnats on the plant’s soil are a sign that there is too much surface water.
From October until March, houseplants do not need fertilizer. Winter growth spurred by the fertilizer — which is usually spindly, encourages insect predation.
Houseplants are easy to start from cuttings placed in water or directly into the soil, so you can share your new plant with others.
When you are given a plant gift, it can be a cheery reminder of your friend for years to come.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in the At Home section. Bonnie Orr is one of three columnists featured.