By Nate Tschaenn
With millions of people around the world experiencing cabin fever this past year, it’s no surprise that people would turn to plants at a time like this. Surrounding yourself with greenery can have a calming effect and improve both physical and emotional health.
For those new to tending plants in the home, it might be difficult to know where to start. With so many kinds of suitable houseplants available, let’s talk about them in their different families.
Easily my favorite family of houseplants is the African violet, or gesneriad family, Gesneriaceae. Few other houseplants will bloom as frequently or easily as gesneriads. They have incredibly tiny seeds, like particles of dust, but are easy and rewarding to grow from seed. Gesneriads are also easy to propagate from leaf or stem cuttings, or in many cases rhizomes, making them a great plant for gifting or trading.
While African violets are the most recognizable, this plant family is incredibly diverse with more than 150 genera and 3,500 species. There is a gesneriad for a wide range of personal preferences and growing conditions. Add to that the thousands of cultivars with varying leaf and flower colors, patterns or sizes, and the possibilities are endless. Most species are fairly tolerant of a range of light conditions but do best in bright, filtered light like the majority of houseplants. It is best to water plants when the soil is nearly dry with a low-strength or African violet fertilizer. Water from the bottom by adding to a saucer or tray that the pot is sitting in. Avoid overwatering and consistently wet soil.
Goldfish plant (Columnea) and lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus) both have trailing species and can be great in hanging baskets. Sinningias, which includes the florist gloxinia, are also fun and diverse with a wide range of flower and plant sizes, some so small you could grow in a thimble-sized pot. I enjoy the fuzzy Sinningia canescens that can be grown like a succulent plant and has interesting exposed tubers.
Another family of plants I often recommend is the prayer plant family, Marantaceae. In particular, I like the genus Maranta or the prayer plant for which the family is named. These are among the toughest of the smaller houseplants and have beautifully spotted or striped leaves, particularly the ones with red undersides. The leaves and stems move throughout the day responding to light, raising themselves like hands to prayer in the evening. They tolerate fairly low light.
I’m also a huge fan of Calathea lancifolia as well as many other calatheas with beautiful leaves. Stromanthe is another common houseplant in this family although a bit larger in size.
Finally, you can’t go wrong with the aroid houseplants, family Araceae. Peace lily, anthurium, philodendron, dumbcane, and pothos are just a few of the many plants within this huge family that are extremely popular, easy to care for, and hard to kill.