What Are the Best Houseplants to Get You Through Winter?
It seemed like a simple question: what outstanding houseplants should you consider before winter ends our commitment to outdoor planting?
But if you ask the staff at Steve’s Leaves Inc. greenhouses in Lewisville, Texas – where the collection includes “between 1,500 and 2,000” species and varieties – you can expect a cheerful answer.
“Are you asking us to choose between our favorite children?”
Yes, I am.
Even quantifying the exact number of choices was apparently not easy.
“We’re too busy to stop and count,” said Steve Rosenbaum, who started the business as a wholesale company 45 years ago, then built a website, and added mail order retail about 10 years ago. “We have so many hybrids we’re testing that haven’t been named, which probably adds many hundreds to the total.”
More than 900 orders are on the way in most weeks, he told me, over 1,000 of them during the peak summer season, all of which have been miraculously multiplied and made ready in just 12,000 square feet of greenhouse space. This is a place where innovation in growing crops is the signature, not automation.
“We still fill pots one at a time; there are no automatic flat fillers on a conveyor belt, ”said Rosenbaum. “These plants are real handcraft.”
Adding the machines would take up space and reduce the growing room – so how could he choose which of the kids no longer fit? Not possible.
The more colorful, the better
Yes, “Blätter” goes well with Mr. Rosenbaum’s first name, but it was more than just coincidence in choosing what to call the business.
“I chose Steve’s Leaves as the company name because it rhymes, of course,” he said. “But I noticed later that I love plants with colorful foliage the most. These provide color all year round – you don’t have to wait for flowers. “
Ever since Mr Rosenbaum, 63, began taking plants as a hobby, he has had a preference for leaves, especially colorful ones and otherwise patterned ones. The more contrast, the better. Or as he put it: “Everything that is colorful and glittering”.
So much so that he admits he has amassed a personal stash of a few hundred strains of Coleus, more suitable for the patio than indoors, in addition to the company’s stunning indoor plant collection. Steve’s sheets, indeed.
Take the syngonium called marble (Syngonium podophyllum albo-variegatum Marble), one of his favorite houseplants, despite its unruliness. Adaptable from shade to partially sunny weather, it has a bushy habit and will flow over the rim of a pot or fill a hanging basket. The arrowhead-shaped foliage (the common name is arrowhead vine) is generously marked with white areas.
This difference is also its disadvantage, which drives up the price.
“Propagation is difficult because you have to throw away a lot of material that is not good for cuttings,” said Rosenbaum of the either completely green or completely white growth that does not produce any marble-like offspring. “A lot of syngonium are simpler, but I like the contrast of this one.”
The begonia selection of a begonia hybridizer
Begonias, a mainstay of the company, certainly live up to the multicolored leaf requirement. “There is a begonia for everyone,” said Mr. Rosenbaum, admitting that many of these plants need moisture, especially the Rex and Rhizome species.
Two days a week, Mr. Rosenbaum’s friend Don Miller, a 40 year old friend, the company’s begonia expert and a leading breeder, joins the team.
Mr. Miller imported dozens of begonias from his own hybridization work, and another breeder even named one in his honor. But when asked to name a particular favorite, he didn’t hesitate – and it wasn’t one of his own. He suggested the 30-year-old Australian Flamingo Queen, a type of angel wing with tubular stems.
“I love the whole package,” he said of the Flamingo Queen, with its large, light green leaves dotted with large white spots and lush pink clusters of flowers.
Give him a place near a light window and in a not too dry area, suggested Mr. Miller.
He recommends grouping indoor plants – especially begonias – on bowls with pebbles and some water to create a happier microclimate. Or operate a humidifier, a boon for plants (and plant parents) in the ultra-dry heating season indoors.
Another tactic: set up a terrarium with species that are particularly moisture-dependent, such as Begonia pavonina, a Malaysian species sometimes referred to as a peacock begonia. Their leaves take on an eerie blue sheen when lit by a camera flash or under certain other lighting conditions. The Begonia melanobullata from Vietnam is also a terrarium species, a collector plant that always attracts attention. The species name speaks for its spherical leaves, which refer to their characteristic blistered or pebbly surface.
As if he can’t get enough of begonias, Mr. Miller also volunteers every week at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, which is home to the largest collection of begonias in North America.
And at home? He admits he owns about two dozen plants. “I’m trying not to count them,” he said.
Is there a hoya in your future?
A friend who has been growing hoyas or wax plants for a long time has tried to switch me to this variable-looking genus with succulent leaves. But maybe Ryan Wilhelm, Operations Manager at Steve’s Leaves, has finally succeeded. A representative of this tropical member of the dog poison family (Apocynaceae), the same family as the milkweed, could be intended for a sunny window here.
One caveat, Mr. Wilhelm said: Be careful with the water – as its juicy leaves try to tell you – because “they can fall quickly if they are overwatered”.
He was on a binge, building up the company’s range of the Hoya genus, one of the trending genres during the recent indoor plant frenzy. For Mr. Wilhelm, the trigger for the boom is obvious: “It’s social media-induced shopping. People see a photo and look for it. “
And that’s why we are looking for customers on behalf of our customers – not only for Hoyas, but also for arum plants that belong to the Araceae family, which includes Syngonium and Monstera as well as other current social media favorites. Mr. Wilhelm has just returned from the 44th International Aroid Society Show and Sale at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami and is also looking for the next best thing in this world.
Of his beloved Hoyas, Mr. Wilhelm is currently fascinated by “the one who doesn’t look like a Hoya at all”: the weird H. spartioides, which he recently acquired. It’s upright and linear, resembling a huge branch of succulent pine needles.
As with any new purchase that the team is just beginning to distribute, the first plants will go to Steve’s Leaves’ auction site until sufficient supplies are built up for regular mail order.
Maybe I’ll start with something else, like Hoya kerrii with its thick, heart-shaped leaves. Or Hoya curtisii, a miniature whose stems look like heart chains because they contain speckled, olive-green, heart-shaped leaves.
However, patience is required.
“Hoyas are so slow,” said Mr. Rosenbaum. “But I enjoy growing things that inspire my team.”
Another thing to look forward to is the possibility of otherworldly hoya flowers, which are often bundled in umbels and sometimes even scented.
Making houseplants more at home
There is no one-size-fits-all houseplant care manual that can replace close observation of your plants in your particular conditions.
“I look at the leaves and give them diluted fertilizer when they need it, when they are a little pale,” said Mr Rosenbaum. “But people abuse fertilizer.”
They think it’s a pick-me-up, he said, to counter poor plant care – like leaving a plant in a saucer of water and rot. No such luck.
“The plants are living light meters if you can read them,” he said. “If it stretches, it doesn’t get enough light. When it’s scorching – too much. “
We have to experiment to find the motifs that suit our light, our humidity and our care requirements.
At home, too, Mr. Rosenbaum is experimenting – this time with a self-watering system hack learned from Summer Rayne Oakes, creator of the popular YouTube channel Plant One on Me. The hack is based on simple ceramic cones from Blumat that are inserted into the surface of the floor and connected with hoses that pull from a nearby water container.
“One downside to self-watering is that I’ve always advocated letting the soil surface dry before watering,” he said. “Instead, this system keeps it evenly moist – which is what mosquitoes like.” More tinkering is required.
As for me, I keep surfing. Sure, I love my big old clivias, sansevieria, and fancy leaf begonias. But like many people – especially given the shape of the pandemic – more society sounds good this winter. Who should I invite?
Because of the name alone, I think of Peperomia Fuzzy Mystery for a faint spot of light, a plant whose light green, structured leaves have dark ridges and are covered with tiny hairs. And the arrowhead-shaped leaves of Syngonium podophyllum Pink are glowing pink – hard to resist.
Also appealing and true to its common name, but for brighter light: pearl necklace, Senecio Rowleyanus, a South African species with juicy, pea-sized and pea-shaped leaves that cascade over a pot rim.
Obviously I need supervision or it will get pretty crowded in here.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden and the book of the same name.
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