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Houseplant, any plant adapted for growing indoors. The most common are exotic plants native to warm, frost-free parts of the world that can be grown indoors in colder climates in portable containers or miniature gardens. Most houseplants are, therefore, derived from plants native to the tropics and near tropics. Those that make the best indoor subjects are the species that adjust comfortably to the rather warm, dry conditions that generally prevail in indoor living spaces.
Although many plants can be grown successfully indoors, there are certain groups that, because of their attractiveness and relative ease of maintenance, are generally considered the best houseplants. These include the aroids, bromeliads, succulents (including cacti), ferns, begonias, and palms, all of which have long been favourites. Somewhat more demanding are those that are grown primarily for their flowers—African violets, camellias, gardenias, geraniums (Pelargonium species), and orchids.
Paintings and sculptures make clear that the practice of indoor gardening can be traced at least to the early Greeks and Romans, who grew plants in pots and perhaps brought them into their homes. The older civilizations of Egypt, India, and China also made use of pot plants but usually in outdoor situations, often in courtyards that were extensions of the house; and for centuries the Japanese have carried on the dwarfing of trees and other plants for room ornaments. But the popular art of growing houseplants did not receive much comment until the 17th century, when, in The Garden of Eden (1652), Sir Hugh Platt, an English agricultural authority, wrote of the possibility of cultivating plants indoors. Shortly thereafter, glasshouses (greenhouses) and conservatories, which had been used during Roman times to force plants to flower, were built in England and elsewhere to house exotic plants. In mid-19th-century England and France, books began to appear on the growing of plants in private residences, and the use of enclosed glass cases of plants (the wardian cases, or terraria) became popular.
Types of houseplants
There are thousands of tropical and subtropical plants that can adapt to growing indoors. Although some fancy exotic species do well only in a humid conservatory or a glass-enclosed terrarium, a great many species have been introduced that endure the adverse conditions of dry heat and low light intensity that prevail in many houses. A selection of the more widely favoured houseplants follows, under two sections: foliage plants, some of which also bear interesting flowers; and flowering plants, species kept primarily for their flowers.
In the aroid family, which has provided a range of long-lived houseplants, most prominent are the philodendrons. These are handsome tropical American plants, generally climbers, with attractive leathery leaves, heart-shaped, and often cut into lobes. Monstera deliciosa, or Philodendron pertusum, the Swiss cheese plant, has showy, glossy, perforated leaves slashed to the margins.
The dumb canes, of the genus Dieffenbachia, appear in a number of attractive species. They are handsome tropical foliage plants usually with variegated leaves; they tolerate neglect and thrive even in dry rooms. The Chinese evergreens, of the genus Aglaonema, are fleshy tropical Asian herbs of slow growth, with leathery leaves often bearing silvery or colourful patterns; they are durable and are tolerant of indoor conditions. Members of Scindapsus, popularly known as pothos, or ivy-arums, are tropical climbers from the Malaysian monsoon area; their variegated leaves are usually small in the juvenile stage. They do well in warm and even overheated rooms. The peace lilies (not a true lily), of the genus Spathiphylla, are easy-growing, vigorous tropical herbs forming clumps; they have green foliage and a succession of flowerlike leaves (spathes), usually white. Species of Anthurium, many of which, such as the flamingo flower, have colourful spathes, do best in humid conditions. Caladium’s tropical American tuberous herbs produce fragile-looking but colourful foliage; they keep surprisingly well if protected from chills and wintry drafts.
Begonias, with their often very decorative leaves, have long been favourites among houseplants, but, with few exceptions, they require more humidity and fresh air than the modern home provides. Begonia metallica, with its olive-green, silver-haired foliage; B. masoniana, with beautiful green, puckered leaves splotched brown; and B. serratipetala, with small leaves spotted pink, are examples of types more resistant to dry rooms.
There are many small foliage plants, often with strikingly patterned foliage, native to the tropical forest floor, some of which have become remarkably good houseplants. Among them are several prayer plants (Maranta species), which fold their attractive leaves at night; and the exquisite Calathea makoyana, or peacock plant, with translucent foliage marked with a feathery peacock design. Pilea cadierei, or aluminum plant, is easy to grow; it has fleshy leaves splashed with silver. Codiaeum species, or crotons, are multicoloured foliage plants that need maximum light and warmth to hold their leaves and coloration well. Although primarily thought of as bedding plants, the varicoloured coleuses, or painted nettles, can decorate a sunny window with a brilliant array of leaf patterns. Peperomia species form miniature rosettes or vines with waxy foliage, corrugated and decorated either with silver or creamy white.
Bromeliads constitute a plant family peculiar to the Western Hemisphere; they dwell on trees and rocks (as epiphytic plants) or on the forest floor (as terrestrial plants) and usually form rosettes of leathery, concave leaves, many with bizarre designs or striking variegations. Their flowers may be hidden deep in the centre of the rosette, surrounded by a cup of brilliant crimson inner leaves, as in Neoregelia and Nidularium. Species of Aechmea and Guzmania form colourful spikes or heads of long-lasting leathery bracts or bright berries. Billbergia species are tubular in shape; their showy flower stalk, with blue flowers, is often pendant. Most forms of Tillandsia and Vriesea have spear-shaped, flattened, colourful flower spikes. The earth stars of the terrestrial genus Cryptanthus are more or less flattened rosettes with striking leaf design, mottled, striped, or tiger-banded in silver over greens and bronzes.