Real Estate

Greening up the indoors

Master gardener advocates for the health and beauty of house plants

The mantra for placing indoor plants, like buying a home, is location, location, location.

Generally, when deciding where to put a new plant, "light would be the limiting factor" in where the plant will be happiest, according to UC Master Gardener Joan Cloutier, who teaches a class on choosing indoor plants.

The plant that can tolerate the lowest light, she said, is known as a "cast-iron plant," or a "saloon plant," she said. This type of plant historically could even survive in a dark smoky saloon bar. The scientific name for it is aspidistra.

True to her master gardener training, Cloutier said, "I emphasize knowing scientific names" since "sometimes the same common name can be used for different plants."

In her course, she often guides students toward plants that can be grown large and tall and used as floor plants, sitting in entrances and exposed to outside cold air. Kentia palm, grown in Hawaii, is a hardy plant that survives in relatively low light. These can get quite tall to fill a living space.

Many of Cloutier's recommendations are the choice of what she calls "interior scapers," or people or companies who supply businesses and hotels with foliage.

Another easy-care indoor plant with big thick green leaves that grow up vertically is known by its common name, "snake plant," or "mother-in-law's tongue." Its scientific name is sansevieria.

Flowering plants, like phaleonopsis orchids, require "medium light," Cloutier said, and can sit in a window as long as there is never any "hot light," meaning when the sun is blazing through. They require some liquid fertilizer but are about the easiest indoor flowering plant to grow, except for perhaps African violets, which she points out are a good "desk plant."

Spathphyllum, known commonly as "peace lily," have dark green glossy leaves with a white leaf-shaped flower that appears a few times a year.

Pothos, or "Devil's ivy," comes with variegated yellow green leaves or sometimes green and white.

An Asian evergreen called epipremnum aureum can be a vine hanging from a basket or planted as a floor plant with a stake for the plant to climb.

While succulents are wildly popular, most do better outside, Cloutier said, as they need "really high light" from the sun. Jade plants are hardy succulents that do well in the Bay Area where there isn't regular frost in winter.

You may notice your plants "reaching" for light. Cloutier said it is perfectly fine to rotate them so they will "reach" back toward the window. Generally it's only necessary to move a plant to a different spot if it seems to be drying out from being too close to a heating vent, in too low light, or the soil isn't able to dry out enough and it remains too soggy for the plant's roots.

The main reason to include indoor plants in your home, Cloutier said, is that "putting oxygen into the air is good." She said NASA did a study on ways to clean the air in the International Space Station and one plant star was English ivy, for removing carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, benzene and other chemicals. While ivy outside can tend to take things over, it makes a pretty and healthy indoor plant.

Cloutier says its important to look at plants' tags to gauge water and light needs to match with the space you plan to put it in. Growers tend to want plants to grow quickly so they can put them in the market. But Cloutier advises to fertilize indoor plants at the lowest rate on the typical package or bottle.

"It's best to feed more often in spring, summer and early fall," she said, and cut back in winter, since the plant will most likely be dormant then.

Best air-cleaning plants:

Dracaena Dragon tree

Chamaedorea seifrizii Bamboo palm

Spathiphyllum spp. Peace lily

Hedera helix English ivy

Sansevieria trifasciata Snake plant or Mother-in-law's tongue

Epipremnum aureum Pothos or Devil's ivy

Rhapis excelsa Lady palm

Aglaonema modestum Chinese evergreen

Anthurium andraeanum Flamingo lily

Nephrolepsis exaltata bostoniensis Boston fern

Chlorophytum comosum Spider plant

Ficus benjamina Weeping fig

Elizabeth Lorenz is the Home and Real Estate Editor at the Palo Alto Weekly. She can be emailed at

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