Houseplants get the love in NYTimes—but will they love you back? Maybe.




It’s a short story. If you’re not willing to pay some minimal attention to your indoor plants at least every couple weeks or so, they will die. I don’t care what kind of plants they are or how foolproof they are supposed to be.  Even with maintenance, some of them will falter, get buggy, or just die for no apparent reason. Like any plant, indoor or out.

However, there are (almost)foolproof houseplants. Some of them (draecaena, phalaenopsis, spathiphyllum, aspidistra) were mentioned in a NYTimes article Thursday, but many were not. And some of the ones that were listed in the piece are not exactly foolproof—I'd consider them intermediate-level plants at best. I would be hesitant to recommend hoya carnosa or asplundia to the beginner, for example, and frequent Rant commenter Mr. Subjunctive, who is featured in the article, agrees. “I wasn't told that the aim was to come up with ‘hard to kill’ plants. Any plant is easy to kill if you're trying hard enough,” he comments in a post aimed at visitors from the Times.


I can completely understand why the Times piece did not mention such obvious choices as sansevieria, saintpaulia (African violet), or any of the philodendron or pothos. I can see where these would be considered too commonplace or too frequently mentioned. But they’re that way for a reason. Sansevieria is really difficult to kill. I don’t even think I could compost it unless I ran it through a chipper, which it might break.


As for the philodendron and pothos varieties, these are handsome plants, resistant to everything, and easy to propagate. I would also have mentioned the zygocactus, one example of which I have had for over 20 years; saintpaulia, which flower all year-round; and cyclamen, which flower profusely in season, but whose foliage is almost as pretty. Pedestrian or not, they’ll work hard for little return in the way of maintenance. They’ll also improve your indoor air quality, an important fact the Times writer does not mention.

And that alone ought to be enough for houseplants to cease being a punchline in so much of the gardening world and start being a necessity.

The images here are from last year's houseplant census, except for the African violet, which I took today.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I suspect the “hard to kill” angle was tacked on after the fact; I was asked for a set of unusual, useful, pretty, and easy-care plants, and that’s what I gave. I’m assuming that’s what the other interviewees were asked for too. (I think I was the last one interviewed, and I didn’t hear what the other people had said; had there been more coordination, probably someone would have covered the more obvious choices.) [shrug] I stand by the choice of Saxifraga stolonifera as my easy-care plant (even my mom can grow them, so how hard can they be?), and I don’t consider the other four of mine especially difficult (even the Asplundia and Anthurium are only barely more difficult than the average houseplant).

    There’s really no way to recommend a plant that’ll work for everybody: I have a troubled history with Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant) and Saintpaulia (African violets), and am intimidated to this day by Cyclamen, but think Hoyas are a piece of cake, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one to a beginner. Sometimes you just have to buy one and see how it goes.

    A more useful article might have been “Plants You’re Liable to Kill No Matter How Hard You Try Not To.” Though even there, my commenters said I was being too hard on some of the plants.

  2. I just gotta figure out what a cat doesn’t think is tasty – any lists for that? Something a weird cat who turns down sashimi tuna but leaps up, running and screaming for yard clippings, will ignore?

  3. I again am impressed with how well meaning writers simply ignore the reality that most Americans have never grown any houseplant. Most Americans with a window would probably love to have a houseplant but they are terrified; they tried it once and it died therefore I have a black thumb; end of story – never to try again.
    On the other hand in most cases when a beginner is successful in keeping a houseplant alive for a year he or she will never go back; they will try another one – in five years they are into orchids.
    It is that first experience that is make or break. There are ten dungeon plants out there that may not be very exciting to us, but to the beginner they don’t even care about the common or Latin name; they just want it to survive. If it does we’ve got em.

  4. Problems with common place plants, people, is THAT precisely, ad nauseaum..

    I rather have no plants than those ridiculous FICUS so many in New York and USA, keep indoors for the hell of it. They look corny, sappy, particularly when phototropism attacks, and the fool gardener never turns the plant around to balance the twisted trunk or when it reaches the ceiling. God DAMN IT.

  5. Anyone who mentions Hoyas………is fabulous.

    Christmas cactus are my foolproof houseplant. So far, 3 years, the cats have ignored them.

    In a previous life I was manager of a houseplant department………Should I diverge and tell a few stories?

    A woodland raises the white blood cell count in humans. Do houseplants?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  6. My vote is for pothos as the hardiest. I’ve had one pothos for over 6 years now, and I don’t do anything to it but give it water. It’s still as healthy as ever.

  7. Plants enjoy music. Classical is best but any will do, opera, country, easy rock, blues etc I leave the radio on all day for them. They enjoy humans moving about a room, I often touch them as I go by. Best in the kitchen: humidity from cooking pasta. Plants are living things, they thrive if loved and fussed over like anything else.

  8. My cats prefer monocots: spider plants, cyperus, palms, soft leaved orchids. Hoya carnosa is definitely on my list of plants with iron-constitutions! As long as it gets enough light and not too much water, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

  9. My vote goes to Aglaonema or Chinese evergreen. I have a solid green one that I have had for 26 years now and it is still going strong. Thrive on neglect, low light conditions and barely any water.

    Very collectible too with lots of variegated silver and creme markings on the leaves and lately vibrant red ones.

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