(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 17, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
I have always grown plants in my home. The more the better. My darling husband, while he appreciates a nice plant, much prefers one that flowers to one that is 'plain green.' I do grow some African violets and orchids. Some other flowering plants that I grow are seasonal; Christmas cactus, cyclamen, gloxinia and forced bulbs such as lilies and daffodils. So I find it difficult to have ALL flowering plants in the house. A terrific compromise is a plant that is grown for its colorful foliage with flowers that are either non-existent or small and insignificant. Please note that if you hover over any of the photos in the article you will see the plant name. If you click on the photo, a new window will open with the PlantFiles entry for that particular plant with more information.
The afore-mentioned husband has a favorite and it has a central place in our home where everyone can enjoy it. This one is not only colorful, it is animated! The Prayer Plant, or Maranta leuconeura var. erythrophylla, is beautiful and fascinating. The cultivar I have has lovely tricolor leaves with a solid red reverse. True to its name, it raises its leaves in the evening as if praying. Sometimes as you pass by, it moves a leaf in greeting (yes, plant lovers tend to assign personalities to their plants). The plant was purchased at the supermarket for a couple of dollars. It has grown fairly quickly and was definitely more than worth the investment. The tiny violet-tinted flowers are pretty, but too small to make much of a statement.
Now to one of my favorites, the plant in the opening thumbnail, Croton 'Petra' (Codiaeum variegatum). There are lots of great 'autumn' colors in the leaves; red, russet, orange, yellow AND green. The leaves are large and this makes a nice floor plant. Again, the flowers are nothing to write home about. There are other Crotons with different color combinations that you may find more intriguing.
Do you like purple? I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but if you do there are several terrific purple plants that are easy growers. Gynura aurantiaca, Purple Passion (the name I've always know it by) or Purple Velvet is a green plant with a purple overcast that can be so strong that the whole plant appears to be purple. If this plant does begin to bloom, the buds should be cut off. First, they are orange and clash absolutely with the purple foliage. Second, they smell, to me, like bad cheese. Cutting back the plant promotes bushiness, so it's a good idea, anyway.
Another great trailing purple that anyone can grow is Wandering Jew or Inch plant (Tradescantia zebrina). This plant is a tender perennial and can be grown outside in zone 9 and above*, but we are discussing it as a house plant. It roots quickly and easily from stem cuttings. An advantage of this plant is that it doesn't need full sun so it can be grown in more indirect light, although not in a dark corner. At left is my Wandering Jew. As you can see, I am one of those people who are reluctant to cut back a plant even though I know it will make it bushier and much nicer in the long run. At right is a photo from PlantFiles, courtesy of DebinSC, who obviously knows how to grow this plant to its best advantage. Thank you Deb.
I mentioned earlier that I grow orchids. There is a group called Jewel Orchids that are grown mainly for their colorful foliage, although they do flower. I have a small specimen of Haemaria discolor 'Dawsoniana'. This is the most common one you will find, often called the "Black" Jewel Orchid, but there is a great variety of these aptly named plants available. These orchids are terrestrial, meaning that they grow in soil, on the ground. Growing indoors, they must be watered very sparingly in the winter months.
Rubber trees, the oft mentioned Ficus elastica, can be a wonderful focal plant if you have the room. My resident 'Rubrum', although not knock-your-socks-off colorful, has red stems, shiny green leaves and size. I've had it for about 5 years and it is 4 feet tall. It may be the variety, it may be lack of care, but many rubber trees get much taller. 'Sylvie', recently acquired, is a variegated plant with some pinkish-brown that is very pretty. There is 'Variegata' with terrific red overlaying a green/white variegation.
You say you want color choices in a house plant? Two words ... Rex begonia! The Rex begonia (Begonia rex) has not only an amazing range of color but fascinating leaf shapes as well. I have a small Rex that I haven't been able to identify as to cultivar. It was very pastel when purchased but has since deepened in color. 'Escargot' (Begonia rex-cultorum) has a quirky snail-trail leaf in green and silver. Also called painted leaf begonias, 'Capricorn' has a silvery-green leaf with burgundy center and edge. I've included these and some additional cultivars in the collage below so you can see some of the spectrum of color available in this plant.
This plant grabbed me as I walked by at the nursery one day. I knew nothing about it except that it was a very pretty color. So I looked it up when I got home. It said 'Earth Star' on the tag. Cryptanthus bivittatus was said (I'm sorry, I've lost the reference) to be the most difficult of the Cryptanthus to grow. I bought it as multiple plants; all have died off except the main one on top which I have had for some time now. It's a succulent, which surprised me, because it doesn't have the thick, juicy-looking leaf that most succulents have. The tricolor plants come in many cultivars with different stripe patterns and shades of the basic green/white/pink stripes. There are many other Cryptanthus that may be of interest also.
Just recently, I was at the same nursery and they had their house plants on sale. This Pilea involucrata 'Norfolk', aka Friendship Plant, was irrestible. It is closely related to the more familiar Aluminum Plant, Pilea cadierei, but is more colorful.
Same sale (you didn't think I would get just one, did you?) ... Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) is a very cute little plant that comes in several colors, as you can see from the picture. It needs to be pinched back often to keep from becoming leggy. Plant this one in the pot with another plant that has similar requirements as a nice little companion.Many other common plants have variegated forms in green/white or green/gold that can be quite striking. Just a few that I have in my house are two different Sansevierias, Snakeskin Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata hahnii) and Mother-in-law's Tongue or Snake Plant (Sansevieria zeylanica). The former has a shorter rounder leaf. The latter I have had for many years and is very tall, has narrow leaves and does well with very low light and infrequent watering... a plant neglector's dream. Pothos is probably one of the most common and easy to grow house plants. 'Marble Queen' (Epipremnum pinnatum) is the variety I have, but there are many in plain green or gold/green. The next ones are upright forms of Peperomia, Peperomia magnoliaefolia variegata and Peperomia clusiifolia. There are many, many different Peperomias, some low growing with crinkled leaves in varied colors, others more upright like mine, some very colorful. They are yours to explore.
This is just a beginning. Go and experiment. Buy one plant to use as a focal point for a room. Or buy every plant that strikes your fancy the way I do. Look for sales or just pick one up at the supermarket. Work your way through this list and when your're done I'll see what else I can come up with. I will require pictures of your efforts, though, and there may be a test.
Photo Credits: with sincere thanks to the following DG members who have contributed their excellent photographs to PlantFiles just so I could borrow them for this article [insert giggle here]...
giancarlo (Croton 'Aureo-maculatum', Croton 'Gen. Padgett'), MotherNature4 (Croton 'Mamey'), palmbob (Ficus 'Variegata'), chanin (Earth Star 'Lisa Vinzant'), Happenstance (Rex begonia 'Raspberry Crush'), BUFFY690 (Rex begonia 'Harmony's Red Robin'), Kell (Rex begonia 'Escargot', Rex begonia 'Tornado'), Toxicodendron (Rex begonia 'Chicago Fire'), Joy (Rex begonia 'Boston Cherries 'n' Chocolate), DebinSC (Wandering Jew)
Jewel Orchid Terrarium photo courtesy of Zephyrus Orchids, a Canadian orchid retailer that also ships to the US (please note: I have never done business with this company and have no recommendation)
* Many of these plants are perennial in the higher zones. They may be grown as groundcovers or soar into large tree-like beauties. For those of us in the colder climes, the only way to enjoy them is indoors, or possibly to take them out in the warmer months.