That plant which we may know as a finicky specimen can, in its natural home, behave like a completely different "animal." Understanding a plant's preferred habitat can really enhance the experience of growing tropicals in the home.

Many of the plants we grow indoors arise in tropical countries. Indeed, "tropicals" is used as a general nursery term. It refers to that great mass of exotic plants that gardeners north of about zone 9 know only as potted plants for indoors. We who have a yearly freeze crave these tropicals. The annuals and perennials from our flowerbeds have seasonal cycles that make them poor choices for life on the winter windowsill.

At top: orchids are only "impossible" when they don't have the right conditions

We are told about the "tropicals" needs for humidity, special soil, and the like. Do we really appreciate those needs? Many sickly, suffering tropical plants say we don't. Let's take a good look at tropicals in the places they call home.

When they say they like humidity, they really mean it.

Some tropicals are rainforest plants. That means they, and all the plants in the vicinity, are actually getting rained on at least once a day. Now, that's serious humidity.

But not all tropicals like it wet.

There are some places in tropical zones that are NOT soggy wet climes. Even the balmy Caribbean isles have places that are very hot and dry for part of the year. Cacti abound, and orchids go dormant awaiting the rainy season.

Some things we grow are just the babies of big vines and even trees.

You'd be amazed if you could see true mature specimens of some of your favorite tropicals. Take the humble golden pothos, Epipremnum aureum. In office cubicles, it limps along with four inch leaves. A very happy pothos might stretch long enough to tickle the top of the computer monitor. The same plant in the tropics is a massive vine which climbs trees and bears leaves up to 30 inches long.


Tropical country does not always mean "hot."

Plenty of tropical countries have mountainous terrain. Elevation means cooler temperatures. Ever popular flowering "holiday" cacti (Schlumbergera) are examples of plants from cool mountain climes.They can withstand temperatures to near freezing.

Rainforest plants grow on organic litter and very little actual soil.

Where the climate is always warm, and especially where it is always moist, there is typically a layer of organic matter over a thin layer of mineral soil. Bits of leaves and organic debris are constantly falling to the ground, to become part of a quickly composting mass. Plants rooted here are experiencing a loose, moist, airy environment. This is quite unlike having their roots tamped into finely ground peat potting mix, pressed into a pot, and left untouched for years.

How does all this "enhance my experience of growing tropicals?"

I hope first, that you stop feeling guilty when your tropicals fail to thrive. Now you know it's not you, it's simply the hostile environment of your home or office (no offense meant.) Next, check your plant care to see if you can better meet the needs of your beloved bloomers.

Humidity in your home or office will never come near that of the rainforest, but midwinter heated air needs help to make you AND the plants more comfortable.

Use home humidifiers, gravel trays, and misting to boost humidity. Read "Increasing the Winter Humidity Levels for Your Houseplants" for hints.

Soil needs to hold some moisture but also allow air. Use a good quality potting mix, never a dense, heavy one. Repot after two or three years, when the mix becomes dense and heavy.

Don't leave pots in puddles. This allows salt buildup in the soil. With good quality potting medium, you can water until the pot leaks, and still not have soggy soil.


Tropicals can be beautiful additions to the indoor spaces. Pothos, schefflera, Chinese evergreen, and peace lily are old favorites because they are among the easiest of tropicals. Keep experimenting and reading about tropicals. You'll learn methods they like. Understanding plants' origins can give you new respect for their needs, and assuage your guilt over being unable to make any one particular plant thrive. Take it from me (because I know whereof I speak) if you've killed a tropical plant, just try another. There are many lovely plants which can tolerate the "botany-busting" conditions of our homes and offices and many of them are inexpensive enough for a few experiments.

Images courtesy of PlantFiles