Growing Trees Indoors

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By Nara Schoenberg

My husband’s weeping fig tree (Ficus benjamina) left this world only last year, having lived 20 years with no fertilizer, ever, and far less water than it rightfully deserved, the only thing this tree got was proper tree trimming every month. “I never watered it until I noticed it was sick,” my spouse cheerfully reported. And this isn’t simply a tale of survival. The 4-foot tree looked pretty good — and sometimes gorgeous, with a full crown of glistening leaves — for most of that time. We contacted a Little Rock AR Tree Service company to help us move the trees and ask what is the best way to take care of them.

I was expecting a lecture and a guffaw when I ran this scenario by Barbara Pleasant, author of “The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual” (Storey, 2005), but instead I got a (restrained) pat on the back. Turns out that a select group of tall, treelike houseplants, including my husband’s unstoppable fig, can be true survivors, right up there with cockroaches, Coke Classic and Eliot Spitzer.

“Through your laissez-faire attitude, you’d given the tree exactly what it wants, which is stability,” According to the Tree Surgeon we spoke to, trees are built to stay in one place. Find a place where it’s happy and, except for rotating it for light, leave it where it is, see if it’s happy and leave it alone.

Among Pleasant’s reassuringly simple recommendations for those who would grow these tall, low-maintenance plants indoors: Go with the usual suspects. “You can search the globe over looking for a tree that will grow in a pot indoors, and you’ll come back to the same five or six,” she said.

Her favorites include:

*Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina): With lush foliage and a pale, stately trunk, it’s pretty and remarkably durable. It does shed some leaves, both seasonally and in response to adverse light conditions. Pleasant cautions against ones with braided trunks, which are trickier to grow than the single-trunk plants.

*Rubber plant (Ficus elastica): It has wide, dark, glossy leaves and can (slowly) grow to 12 feet tall. “That is definitely the most bomb-proof one,” Pleasant said.

*Dracaena varieties including corn plant and dragon tree: “As you can tell by looking around in malls and airports, it’s pretty bomb-proof,” she said. “And the thing is, if it fails when it’s tall, you can cut off its head, and it’ll sprout a new one.” (In my experience, dracaenas can tolerate anything except very dark spaces, but they’ll rebound as soon as they’re moved.)

*Parlor palm, also known as bamboo palm (Chamaedorea): This has been popular since Victorian times, Pleasant said. “It’s a proven workhorse and can be bought really cheap.” She does caution that tap water can be a problem for these elegant self-starters; they prefer spring water or purified water.

*Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla): This is a stately beauty, but Pleasant cautions that it grows too large for most homes.

Cynthia McKenney, an associate professor of horticulture at Texas Tech University, also endorses the weeping fig, rubber plant and the dracaenas, although she points out that spider mites can become an issue with the latter. McKenney doesn’t put the Norfolk Island pine in the carefree category because it requires a humid climate and a lot of light.

Dan Quick, operations manager of the plant-leasing division at Bachman’s garden centers in Minneapolis, cautioned that ficus plants need at least moderate light; dracaenas are a better choice for darker spaces. For a tall plant in a very sunny space, he likes cacti such as the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea). “It’s a fine line to determine, but once a plant gets acclimated in its new home and you decide the right quantity of water, maintenance is negligible,” Quick said. “There’s hardly any on a cactus.”

Pleasant said that most of her favorites can be purchased for $35 or less (she has found parlor palms for $15 at home and garden centers). There are .other sources too: She got an 8-foot dracaena at no cost from the nonprofit site Freecycle (freecycle.org) and said Craigslist (craigslist.org) also is a good source of secondhand plants.

Her shopping advice is to look for plants that are well cared for, not whether they’re inexpensive or pricey. A home-improvement chain store with a gung-ho plant person in the garden center can be a great source, she said. Pleasant fertilizes large indoor plants, but you don’t have to go overboard. She recommends checking water levels regularly, perhaps tying it to a weekly event, such as a television program.

If you need help with indoor trees or would like to add them to your plantscape, Growing expectations will come in for a free consultation to help you. Contact Growing Expectations at info@interiorofficeplants.com to set up an appointment.

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