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Introduction to Exotic Foliage Houseplants

By Geoff Stein (palmbobMay 13, 2014
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This article serves as an introduction to some of the more exotic and popular species of house plants found in many nurseries throughout the country.

Gardening pictureThere are probably many hundreds of exotic plants that also work well as houseplants, but in this article I will cover a few of the more common ones that might be encountered at your local home garden center or nursery.  Some of these are indeed great houseplants while others are not quite so easy to grow indoors.  I use the term "exotic" to refer to a plant that is not only from some distant country, but also not normally able to grow in my climate, though obviously we all live in very different climates from one another.  Some of the readers of this article might be living in Hawaii or the tropics somewhere, in which case these plants will hardly seem exotic at all.  But I am assuming most readers do not live in the tropics.  This article is aimed more at those poor souls who have to deal with cold, snow and can really only enjoy exotic plants as houseplants.

The following are selected foliage house plants.  Subsequent articles might cover some of the more common flowering houseplants, but those generally require a LOT of light, more than most houses have.

Aglaonemas (aka Chinese Evergreens) are very common houseplants and have been used for such purpose for hundreds of years.  They are rather typical in their needs for exotic houseplants in that they need well draining soil, water when dryish, try to keep humidity up (mist and water pan below plant) and keep out of direct sunlight.  This plant does tend to look untidy if humidity levels drop too low.  But this plant tolerates low light better than most typical house plants.  What it does not tolerate is cold drafts (very tropical plant), though some varieties are more cold tolerant than others).  Plant is moderately toxic but actual cases of poisoning are rare (very bad tasting).

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 Aglaonema 'Jewel of India' (one of the more cold tolerant varieties) left;  Aglaonema 'Mary Ann' (right)

Alocasia amazonica (Elephant's Ear). I am embarrassed to admit how many of these I have killed over the last 5 or so years, or ever since they became a common and cheap house plant sold by many large garden centers.  But that is because I keep trying to grow this tropical species outdoors in my non-tropical environment.  As a houseplant it is definitely easier to keep alive, but not necessarily to keep it looking good.  Though popular as one, this plant really needs too much humidity to excel as a houseplant unless you really can remember to mist it 1 to 3 times a day, or keep the pot sitting in a large, water-filled basin on some pebbles (so the pot itself is not actually immersed in water).  Even still you might experience a good deal of brown-tipping on the leaves.  This African species is one of the most attractive of the Alocasias, and believe it or not, one of the hardier of them; that is why it is so popular as a houseplant.  This is a mildly toxic/irritating plant so careful around children and persistent plant-sampling pets. For more on Alocasias, see LariAnn Garner's long list of articles she has written on them.

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              Alocasia amazonica (left photo giancarlo, middle mystic); lower photo shows deep purple back side of leaves

Anthurium andraeanum (Flamingo or Tail Flower), despite its incredibly exotic and tropical-looking flowers, is actually one of my favorite of all houseplants (in other words, it's pretty easy to grow.)  These amazing plants produce very colorful flowers nearly all year round.  However, when not in bloom, it makes a nice looking foliage plant so I include it in this article.  I have let mine dry out to the point of almost weighing nothing, and still the leaves refuse to wilt.  I have also not fertilized mine in years and still they look great and flower frequently.  This does not mean you should not water or fertilize these, but if you forget, they will forgive you.  The only thing I have done to damage this plant is accidently put in full sun once - the leaves fried badly.  It did recover nicely, though.  This is considered a minimally toxic and contains some oxylates that can cause oral swelling and irritation.  For more on other Anthurium, see this article.

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                    Anthurium andraeanum foliage (left) and pink or red flowers

Aspidistra elatior (Cast Iron Plant) is a Chinese native and probably the least ‘exotic' plant on the list being described as a zone 7-10 plant, so you many might actually be able to grow in your garden.  But it is one of the better foliage house plants, too. It seems to survive, if not thrive, on very low light situations.  It is also relatively tolerant of low humidity, under-watering, cold temps as well as being fairly resistant to most pests that attack house plants.  This makes it nearly the most ideal of all the indoor foliage plants except for its being the ‘least exotic'.   This is a mildly toxic plant. Here's an article for more information on Aspidistras.

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                                                 Aspidistra photos by kniphofia and gedderdun

Asplenium nidus (Bird's Nest Fern) is a relatively easy fern to grow, but to keep it looking nice indoors requires nearly constant humidty.  There are a number of cultivars of this species, and very closely related species, some which have much thicker, durable leaves and are a bit less intolerant of low humidity.  Does pretty well in high light, sometimes even direct sunlight in early mornings, and needs to be kept a tad moist at all times.  Mist frequently with either rain water or distilled water as the salts from tap water really show on this plant.  This is a plant that really needs as little fertilization as possible (water-based once a year at the most).  This is one of the non-toxic houseplants.

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                          Asplenium nidus potted examples (second photo Plantcrazii)

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                        larger outdoor Bird's Nest Ferns showing eventual size

Caladiums. I refer to these South American natives as annuals, though in some areas of the mainland U.S., gardeners can get them to survive over winter.  These aroids have nice colorful foliage that can be quite dramatic in a bright indoor setting.  These plants are some of the most needy houseplants in terms of humidity so not only will a water tray be needed but frequent misting is also recommended.  Supposedly and temperature variations will also damage leaves (so keep away from open windows or doors).  Even as a house plant Caladiums need a "downtime" when they go into dormancy (fall through winter) at which time they are basically leafless.  Just stow in a dark place and take them out again in spring.  These plants are moderately toxic and cause oral or gastric irritation (vomiting and drooling resulting). For more information on Caladiums, here's further reading

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                Caladium varieties top left Wings Missie, top middle KatG, top right vossner, bottom middle htop and bottom right Toxicodendron

Codiaeum variegatum (Crotons) are a spectacular houseplant, but one of the more difficult ones to keep looking good and happy.  This Pacific Islands native is a very thirsty species, but if you're not careful, you can overwater it.  However, this is one of the few house plants that are far easier to underwater than overwater.  Do not let the soil completely dry out.  The leaves are also very humidity-needy and need to be misted frequently.  Also, bugs love this plant (especially spider mites) so you may need to treat it regularly.  Crotons also really need a lot of light so keep this near a window.  And lastly, this plant really likes it warm so keep this in the warmest, most humid spot in the house (if there is one). This is another toxic house plant, but it mostly causes some oral inflammation and gastric irritation. 

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                                         some of just a few of the many varieties of Crotons, all being used as house plants

Coleus (aka Solenostemon scutellarioides or Painted Nettle) are a plant most gardeners immediately recognize.  These brilliantly colored Asian and African plants with the nearly endless variety of leaf color and shape. along with their frilly edges, are frequently used as outdoor annuals, but they also make fairly decent houseplants.  These plants need quite a bit of light, but direct sunlight will often fade the leaf colors (or worse).  These are thirsty plants and the ulta-thin, delicate leaves will wilt rapidly if the soil is not kept moist at all times.  Low humidity is also tough on the leaves making them brown-tip and crinkle (water trays help).   These plants need to be kept cut back to keep from being leggy and weak, and flowers should also be removed immediately (not showy at all).  Mealy bugs love these so keep a watch out for them.  These are considered nontoxic. For more on Coleus, keep reading here

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some of the hundreds of varieties of Coleus: top left Revclaus, top middle plantladylin, top right vince, bottom left daryl and bottom right tathisri

Cordyline terminalis (Ti Plant) is widely recognized as one of the best companion plants for tropical gardens, but they also can perform quite well as house plants.  This species of Cordyline is unlike all the others and comes in many dozens of varieties making it one of the most colorful and striking of all the indoor foliage plants.  One has to try to keep up the humidity of these plants and they do not tolerate drying out well (keep soil moist- water twice a week in most cases).  Bright light is a must (not one that tolerates low light), and water quality issues tend to lead to brown tipping (best to use distilled or reverse osmosis water if possible).  Spider mites can be a problem so keep leaves wiped down frequently.  Most consider this a non-toxic house plant.

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Some of the more popular varieties of Cordyline terminalis... the dark red-leaf varieties seem particularly adapted to indoor use

Dieffenbachias (Dumbcane)- These Brazililan plants are certainly exotic species for me as they cannot survive outdoors in winters except perhaps in the very best micro-climates of southern California.  These are some of the most commonly kept houseplants and some of the easiest to care for.  Like crotons, these like to be kept wet most of the time.  They also like high humidity so might benefit from misting and water trays.  Light should be bright but no direct sun.  However, these tolerate fairly low light for extended periods with few problems.  This is one of the more toxic house plants containing very potent oxylates which can cause a lot of oral and intestinal irritation.  The name Dumb Cane comes from the swelling of one's throat upon ingestion.  Swelling can be pronounced enough to cause asphyxiation.  This is the only houseplant I have personally seen a pet die from ingesting.

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                                                                       Dieffenbachias (middle photo vossner)

Dizygotheca (aka Schefflera elegantissima or False Aralia) is a New Caledonian species with two distinct forms: juvenile and adult plants look so different that for a long time I did not realize they were the same species.  Young plants have a wonderfully feathery,narrow dark forest green to almost black foliage that is completely lost in the adult trees, which have large, wide green leaves with just a hint of serration along the edges. This is a fairly finicky house plant reminiscent of a Ficus benjamina in terms of leaf drop- neither like to be moved, go through temperature changes or have any environmental changes.  Soil should be on the dry side most of the time.  Keep in as bright a light as possible and try to keep the humidity high.   This is a non-toxic species.

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 False Aralia photos- immature form left and middle.  Right photo shows immature leaf form on left and mature on right. Left photo gingern, right photo katrinas

Dracaena fragrans, D. reflexa and D. marginata are among a number of Dracaenas used as houseplants and many do very well as one.   The Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans ‘Massangeana') is probably one of the most popular.  In some parts of California near where I live, this does well as a garden species, but in my area, it's stuck in the house or dead.  I have driven past large fields in Hawaii where they propagate this plant.  They just chop off the tops, stick three or four in a pot, and mail them to the mainland.  And they actually are very easy and successful house plants despite their rough cultivational treatment.  For an Agave relative, this plant does exceedingly well in low light.  It also has a high pest tolerance.  The most common problem people have with this one is overwatering - let the upper soil dry out before rewatering.  These plants have wimpy roots and rot easily if kept too moist.  Additionally the wimpy roots do little to support this plant so you may need to support it carefully if it starts leaning (they get top heavy easily).  This is another mildly toxic plant (mostly an irritant, though more serious problems can occur with massive ingestion) but most pets and small children can't reach the foliage fortunately.

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        Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' left,  Dracaena fragrans 'Dondo' middle and Dracaena fragrans 'Lemon-lime' right

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    Dracaena fragrans 'Warneckii' left          Dracaena fragrans 'Limelight' middle         Draceana fragrans 'Janet Craig Compacta' right

Image  Image Dracaena reflexa indoors and outdoors

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                                      Dracaena marginatas (left photo amandaemily).  Right photo is variety tricolor

Epipremnum aureum (Pothos) are Malaysian natives that live in the deep dark jungles where light is not direct, so these do fairly well in moderate light situations in the home.  But they do not like the dark and will get spindly and weak.  Pothos need to be watered regularly and thoroughly, but not until the topsoil is pretty dry, down an inch or so in the soil.  I have not killed a pothos from overwatering, but reportedly they will rot from it, particularly in low light situations.  Otherwise these are fairly easy, disease-resistant plants; oxylate toxicity exists but is extremely mild.

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                                              Pothos varieties, and used as a planted groundcover indoors in mall under Schefflera (right)

Schefflera arboricola  (Dwarf Schefflera).  Some Scheffleras are large trees and though may survive for a while as house plants, eventually outgrow this situation.  However, the dwarf schefflera, Schefflera arboricola, is a pretty good house plant, tolerating moderate light situations (though the more the better), drought and low humidity.   These Taiwan natives do require pruning, but they tolerate even heavy pruning quite well.  They do NOT like constantly moist soils.  Spider mites love these small trees.  Schefflera arboricola comes in about 4 different cultivars varying in degrees of variegation.  This is considered a mildly toxic plant and cause oral irritation.

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                              Schefflera arbicolas indoors, and outdoors on right (middle and right photos of variegated form);  left photo Xenomorf

Hedera helix (English Ivy) is the subject of hundreds of articles. Widely grown as both an indoor and outdoor plant, I will just make a few comments here.  I personally find ivy to be a far more resilient and easier plant when grown outdoors.  Indoors in becomes very picky about humidity, too little or too much sun, and it seems to dry out easily to the fatal point in pots indoors, while outdoors it is nearly impossible to kill.  This is a moderately toxic plant with a variety of toxic principles.  However actual cases of serious poisoning are rare (berries and leaves taste pretty bad). For more on English Ivy, see this article.

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                                                                                                        Ivy

Zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZ Plant) is a tough plant for me to grow outdoors, though I keep trying.  However, as an indoor plant, it is nearly ideal.  It does well with forgetting to water it for long periods, survives in low-light situations, is very disease resistant, it needs little to no fertilizer and it takes forever to outgrow a pot.  This is why I see these grown more and more often in malls.  This African native is related to Aroids, not cycads as the name would imply, but it does have thick, cycad-like leaves.  The only thing this plant needs indoors is to be glossed up now and then (leaves show water spots too well) but for some reason it does not tolerate the frequent use of leaf shining solutions.  Just use distilled water and a soft rag.  As are most aroids, this species is supposedly toxic, but there is almost zero information on how toxic. Here's an article on ZZ Plants. 

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                       Zamiocaulus indoors in mall (left), as house plant (middle- photo giancarlo) and in nursery for sale (right)

For further reading, see Selecting and caring for popular houseplants and this article at Bromeliad.com

There are hundreds - if not thousands - more plants that can be grown as houseplants, but these are probably some of the most common ones encountered in cultivation, and worthy of trying in your indoor garden.

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 7, 2010. 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.)


  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Thank you for another great article! karenmulhern 0 1 May 19, 2014 5:00 AM
An ocean of plants tropicbreeze 0 2 May 13, 2014 6:38 PM
Thanks Geoff (Palmbob) Jnette 0 3 May 13, 2014 5:49 PM
zonal denial drdeadlift 3 23 Aug 24, 2010 9:34 PM
The crazier the plant...the better ! heygeno 0 24 Apr 13, 2010 7:08 AM
Liked your article nutsfordaylily 2 21 Apr 10, 2010 7:33 AM
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