Out-of-Madagascar Succulent House Plants

Much like the unique plants and wildlife of Galapagos Islands that evolved in isolation, the “endemic” plants of Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, are equally unique. (Endemic species are found in one place and nowhere else on Earth.) Madagascar succulent plants evolved to withstand the island’s extremely hot and often dry growing conditions and wide-ranging environments, from rain forests and dry forests to deserts. This is where some of our best succulents for easy outdoor (and indoor) cultivation originate. They overcame extremes of climate and epic drought to survive, yet they are beautiful and worthy of growing.

Madagascar succulents for growing come in dramatic sizes, shapes, and forms. Some are upright succulents with strong trunks that make good indoor trees and shrubs. These have long life spans and tend to have hard or woody stems. Larger sizes make them particularly valuable for “greening” indoor spaces where ceilings and light sources are high up. And, if it’s bright enough, some bloom. Here are three large, useful indoor or outdoor Madagascar endemics for planting.

Madagascar Palm

These large specimens of Pachypodium lamerei show its form. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

The Madagascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei, USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11) isn’t a palm but is often mistaken for one. It is a big succulent beloved by designers for outdoor living spaces as well as indoor drama. Its big, fat, spiny trunks are topped with clumps of leaves. Mature specimens can reach many feet in a relatively small pot (those planted in the ground can reach up to 20 feet.), and spiny trunks prevent animal damage. After several years, a mature plant may produce flowers similar to those of Hawaiian plumeria.  Put your big Madagascar palm pot onto a rolling pot platform to bring it indoors in winter and out for the summer to accent that special patio.

Mother of Thousands

Mother-of-thousands has beautiful clusters of coral-red flowers.

Mother-of-thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana and Kalanchoe tubiflora, Zones 9-11) is one of the easiest plants you can grow.  It’s so fast-growing and drops so many seedlings it’s a weed in succulent nurseries because of it’s “mother of thousands” reputation.  She makes babies along her leaf edges that eventually detach and root, offering you plenty of volunteers.  You’ll save every single one after you experience the plant’s enormous coral-red pompom blossom clusters. Due to shade tolerance in hot-zone gardens, mother of thousands can grow in any home or come out to the garden after the last spring frost. So long as your pot is very well-drained, and you plant it in porous Black Gold® Cactus Mix, there should be no chance of overwatering.

Pencil Tree

Firesticks are easy to find in one-gallon pots timed for sale as holiday color accents. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

When the days grow short, the pencil tree (Euphorbia tirucalli, Zones 11-12) turns red-orange, leading to the popular name of the common, commercially-grown variety “firesticks” or ‘Sticks on Fire’.  Firesticks is sold by florists in winter for holiday color, so indulge, knowing that it will make a really good long-term house plant. This is a highly toxic species, so beware growing it if you have pets or kids. (Keep pencil tree up high and out of reach where the light is bright or refrain from growing it at all.)

Mature specimens will eventually reach a tree-like stature or become a big bush. (In the ground, they can reach 4-8 feet high.) Be careful when you prune off stems; the white sap is so toxic that it can cause temporary blindness if allowed to enter the eyes. In Africa, its sap was used as an arrow poison, so take these warnings seriously. Wear protective gloves and wash everything–tools and clothes–afterward pruning. (Click here to learn more about pencil tree toxicity.)

Planting Madagascar Succulents

Grow Kalanchoe tubiflora in lightweight pots for easy movement, unlike this heavy Mexican one. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

These tender succulents hold water in their stems and leaves and have shallower roots so that you can plant them in smaller-than-anticipated pots. Choose low, broad containers to help keep top-heavy specimens stable. A pot just large enough for anchorage that’s not tippy will do. One that’s relatively lightweight and easily moved indoors and out with the seasons is also recommended. Modern lightweight pots, made of composition or fiberglass, are a more portable choice than heavy ceramic pots, which are almost impossible to move without breaking or damaging floors.

Invest in rolling pot platforms for each floor pot to make them easy to move. This will allow you to roll them out and hose both plants and pots down thoroughly at winter’s end to renew their appearance for summer.

Hosing also removes dust and lingering pests. For smaller potted specimens, the shower works the same way.

Succulents were considered novelty plants until western droughts became more common and severe. Then everyone went crazy over succulents in the garden. Now everyone is going crazy about house plants. So, when the two come together, consider one of these plants from Madagascar. They’re exotic, easy, impressive, and will endure the most epic drought and survive, no sweat.

Mother of thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) has leaf edges covered with tiny plantlets that fall and root.


How to Water House Plants

Watering house plants…it sounds simple, doesn’t it? But, if it were simple, there would be fewer black thumbs out there. Proper watering is at the heart of good plant care, and if you don’t know how to water a plant, then its little green future may be in peril. It is surprisingly easy to drown a plant with aqueous attention.

There isn’t a one-fits-all watering method because the needs of plants vary so widely. Some specialty plants, like many orchids and African violets (click here to learn more about African violet care.), require special watering, but lots can be grouped into heavy, average, and light watering categories. These are the plants covered in this article. Many characteristics impact watering, including the plant type and size, the growing environment, and even the pot type.

Watering and Pots

Consider drainage, pot material, and pot size before planting. You’ll also need a good saucer for catching overflow.

Before considering how to water what, it is necessary to cover planting containers. Consider these three container characteristics before potting up a plant or determining a water regime.

1. Drainage – First, unless you are watering an aquatic plant, pots must have drainage holes at the bottom, which allow water to fully drain. Otherwise, water will pool at the bottom and stagnate because of a lack of air. This will result in root rot or no root growth the soppy bottom of the pot. So, not only do drainage holes allow roots to get fresh water from top to bottom at each watering, but they help give roots needed air.

2. Material – The pot’s material will also impact a plant’s access to water. Terracotta pots soak up and release water, which increases the need to water. So, refrain from planting water-needy plants in Terracotta. Ceramic, fiberglass, and plastic pots are more watertight.

3. Size – Consider pot-to-plant and root-to-soil ratios. Larger plants in smaller pots need more water, while smaller plants in larger pots need less water. Why? Because smaller root systems soak up less water, and if little plants are grown in larger pots, the soil will hold water for longer. The flip side is that when the roots of a large plant outgrow a pot and become intertwined, they no longer have room to take up water, so the need to water greatly increases, especially when conditions are hot, dry, and sunny. Plant roots need room for good water uptake.

Watering and Environment

Most tropical house plants grow best in indirect light but prefer average warmth and relatively high humidity (or the occasional water spritz).

Just use common sense when weighing environment and plant watering needs. When conditions are sunny, dry, hot and/or breezy, plants need more water. So, if you place them in a hot, sunny window, near a vent or radiator, or in a warm conservatory or sunroom, plan to water more. Likewise, in lower-lit rooms that are cooler or very humid, the need for water will be reduced.

The soil environment also plays a big role in watering frequency. The more water your potting soil holds, the less water the plant will need. For example, Black Gold®Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix holds a high amount of water, unlike Black Gold® Cactus Mix and Black Gold ® Orchid Mix, which hold far less water. Black Gold® All Purpose Potting Mix is somewhere in the middle. We create different potting mixes because plants have different soil-water needs. That’s why it’s important to pot up a plant in the right mix.

Watering and Moisture Testing Methods

Succulents require far less water, especially in winter, so test the soil to be sure it is quite dry before watering.

The most basic watering method is simple; water the pot entirely until the bottom saucer is filled. Do this every time you water, and make sure there are no dry pockets in the potting mix down below (this can happen when soil becomes too dry between waterings). Consistent, thorough watering will also allow you to better calculate when to regularly water a plant.

When to rewater is the trickiest bit that gets new house-plant growers into trouble. How can you tell when you need to rewater? There are a few ways to determine this with average house plants. Most gardeners use the finger test. Stick your finger down into the soil. When it feels dry down to a couple of inches, then rewater. But, some gardeners want greater precision. Soil-moisture meters are accurate and popular with calculating gardeners. They indicate the level of moisture in the mix down to any given depth, allowing for more precise watering. Once you have a good watering rhythm, the need to test should be less frequent or even unnecessary.

Plants That Need Heavy Water

Ferns and many large-leaved tropicals are among the plants that require more water.

Think big. Large and thin-leaved tropicals, fast-growing plants, and those with big, fast-growing root systems require more water. They soak it up and spit it out quickly. (Some large-leaved plants with thick, tough, waxy leaves can be exceptions because some hold onto water quite well.) Elephant ears (Alocasia and Colocasia spp.), Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), and peace lilies (Spathiphyllum spp.) fall into the heavy-watering category as well as semi-aquatic plants, like papyrus (Cyperus papyrus). Depending on the growing environment, they may need to be watered daily or every few days.

Plants That Need Moderate Water

Many tropicals with slender or average-sized leaves perform very well with moderate (sometimes even low) water.

Moderately vigorous plants that are not succulent often require moderate water. These are your not too much, not too little, in the middle plants. Soil moisture meters are perfect for these. Begonias, spider plants, peperomia, pilea, palms, and philodendron all fall into this category. They may need to be watered once or twice a week under average indoor growing conditions.

Plants That Need Little Water

Cacti and succulents are among the easiest to kill because wayward gardeners tend to overwater them.

Cacti and succulents, such as agave, aloe, echeveria, and jade plants (click here to read more about growing jade plants), require the least amount of water. The main killer of these plants is heavy winter watering. In their natural habitats, most endure a dry winter period, so this is what they expect in homes as well. Root rot, stem rot, and plant death are the side effects of heavy watering, so it’s best to err on the side of safety and water little to none between late fall and spring–maybe once a month. If you bring them outdoors in hot summer weather, the need for water will increase to approximately three to four times a month.

Lots of semi-succulent tropicals are also surprisingly tolerant of low water. Snake plant (Sansevieria spp.), cycads (Cycas spp.), and ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) are included in this group. (Click here to watch a video about tough, low-water house plants.)

When getting the hang of watering a new plant, make sure you fully understand its growing and moisture needs. Then refrain from the desire to water just a little bit more or a little bit less than it needs. Get basic watering right, and you will be on your way to having a true green thumb.

If you are not certain of a plant’s specific water needs, then ask our garden experts via Ask a Garden Expert!

ZZ plant is a semi-succulent tropical that also requires low water.

Colorful Flowering Kalanchoe for Winter Cheer

Do you seek a cheerful holiday plant that will look good in your home all season long? One of the best is the succulent flowering kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11). Unlike the top-selling poinsettia, it is tough, easy to grow, and always looks good.

Garden sticklers (like me) like plant names to be pronounced correctly, and kalanchoe is not exactly an easy name that rolls off the tip of the tongue. The correct pronunciation is /ka·luhn·koe·ee/, however, it is often incorrectly pronounced as the name looks, /ka·lan·choe/. Regardless of how it is pronounced, it makes a very colorful indoor plant for the high holidays.

The Kalanchoe Calanday® Dendi has prolific, bright red flowers.

Flowering kalanchoe is a classic holiday plant in Europe, but it is less so in the United States. It’s hard to understand why. The tough succulent from Madagascar makes an attractive, long-lived house plant with robust clusters of starry, four-petaled flowers that come in a variety of colors, with red and white being most popular at this time of the year. (Flowers are also available in shades of purple, pink, yellow, and orange, and double forms are popular.) Plants are forced into bloom in winter, but they naturally flower in spring, so expect a new flush later in the season. During the rest of the year, enjoy their attractive large, glossy leaves with scalloped edges.

As a house plant, flowering kalanchoe has another distinction. It is featured in NASA’s 29 best air-purifying house plants. I did some checking on this list, and even though it does rank at #28, it made it!

Four Beautiful Flowering Kalanchoe Varieties

Flowering Kalanchoe in the Calendiva® Series are double and flower densely.

The most common and best of the kalanchoe on the market are bred in the Netherlands by the company Dümmen Orange. They breed high-performing plants with dense flower clusters in a wide color range. The most famous varieties include those in the Calandiva® Series, which have large, heavy blooming clusters of fully double flowers that come in many shades (the Grandiva® Series is similar but flowers are larger). Compact plants in the Calanday® Series are very densely branched and flowered. Plants in these series are some of the easiest to find at nurseries and greenhouses, and they all make excellent house plants.

Flowering Kalanchoe Selection and Care

This holiday display of flowering Kalanchoe in Europe illustrates its seasonal popularity there.

For the longest length of bloom select plants that have tight flower buds or are just starting to open and show some color. Those purchased at this stage will often continue blooming for up to eight weeks. The healthiest will have many glossy, undamaged leaves.

Because they originate from the tropics, flowering kalanchoe will not survive a winter outside unless you live in southern Florida or southwestern California. Give them plenty of bright sunlight from a south-facing window in winter, but when taken outdoors in summer direct sun can burn their leaves, so choose a spot with bright shade.

Water lightly in the winter. Wait until the soil is dry to the touch, usually after 7-10 days. Often plants will have a foil wrapper around them, so be sure to remove that when watering. Water them in the sink, and let the excess water drain before putting the foil wrapper back around the plant. Place a dish at the base for safety. In spring and summer, plants will dry out more quickly and require more frequent watering.

Propagating Flowering Kalanchoe

Some particularly beautiful varieties are worth propagating.

Kalanchoe is very easy to start from cuttings. This is a good learning tool for children because of the leaves root quickly and are fun to grow. Cut a stem 4-5 inches long, and after cutting let it lay on a paper towel for several days until the cut end seals over. Then place the cutting in a small pot with Black Gold® Perlite. It will root in no time and start to grow! Have your child pick a pretty, well-drained pot for it, fill it with Black Gold® All Purpose Potting Mix, plant it, give it good care, and watch it bloom and grow.

So, when you purchase a colorful flowering kalanchoe, remember it has multiple uses. Enjoy the colorful flowers it can bring into a home on a dreary winter day. With little care, these plants will continue to flower for many weeks. It also makes a delightful host/hostess gift. Don’t overlook this plant at other times of the year as well.

Beyond Poinsettias: Fresh Holiday House Plants

Florist’s gloxinia has fallen out of vogue but has spectacular flowers in winter.

Red, green, and white–these are the common holiday colors. Poinsettias, amaryllis, paperwhites, and cyclamen–these are the common holiday plants in these colors. Why not shake it up? You can have these colors and enjoy them anew with more adventurous seasonal house plants.

Plant vendors sell all kinds of other indoor plants fit for the holidays and winter. It’s nice to include something new and just as festive but more exciting. Lots of cheery holiday plants also make long-lasting additions to the indoor garden, unlike most of the classics. (Click here to learn more about maintaining common holiday plants year-round.)

Holiday Flowering Plants

Red Guzmania (Guzmania hybrids)

Starry, red guzmania flowers can last more than three months!

The floral and foliage characteristics of this tropical plant tick off all of the holiday boxes. Their blooms are starry, red, and festive, and they are supported by splays of glossy green foliage. There are many red guzmania varieties from which to choose, which have begun to appear more often for the holidays. Ambient humidity and warmth are important for the good health of this rain forest plant. Pot up red guzmania in a well-drained potting mix with high bark content, such as Black Gold Orchid Mix.

Anthurium (Anthurium spp.)

Clean the leaves and long-lasting flowers of anthurium to keep them shiny and attractive.

Glossy, bright red flowers make anthurium a real color contender with the traditional poinsettia. Its deep green leaves are also glossy. Choose cheery varieties for window-side tabletops or less sunny, north-facing windowsills.

Varieties may be tall or small. Large, bright red, heart-shaped flowers are the glory of ‘Queen of Hearts’, which reaches up to 2-feet. Anthurium ‘Million Flowers Red’ is a shorter red-flowered variety that produces extra-small flowers in large numbers. The cutest miniature,  Anthurium ‘Baby White’, has little, white, petal-shaped blooms and only reaches 6-8 inches tall. Grab one of these, or another attractive variety, on your next trip to the garden center.

Rich, all-purpose potting soil, such as Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix, high humidity, and warmth help anthurium bloom best. Wipe their leaves and long-blooming flowers off with a damp cloth every month or so to keep them clean and glossy.

White Jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum)

White jasmine flowers are most fragrant in the evening.

Let your winter evenings be filled with the floral scent of jasmine. The white tubular flowers appear in fall or early winter and smell nicer than paperwhites. It grows as a vine and needs some pruning and training so trim as needed. Place it in a spot with bright, indirect light, and provide it with good potting soil and regular water.

Christmas Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)

Calendiva flowering kalanchoes has lovely double flowers and come in many colors, including red and white. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The English call this succulent Christmas kalanchoe because its bright flowers look radiant during the holidays. The compact plants have succulent leaves and reach between 6 to 18 inches. Popular varieties are red or white, but pink, orange, and yellow bloomers are also available. Flowering typically occurs from winter to spring but can last up to 6 months.

Like most succulents, kalanchoe needs little water during the winter months. It grows best in bright, sunlit, south-facing windows. Well-drained potting mix formulated for succulents, such as Black Gold Cactus Mix, is a must.

Florist’s Gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa)

Florist’s gloxinia has huge, bell-shaped flowers.

Florist’s gloxinia deserves more attention due to its big, showy flowers. It has fallen a little out of vogue, but who knows why? The enormous, bell-shaped flowers of red and/or white (as well as purple and pink) are spectacular and will keep blooming for weeks with good care.

Grow florist’s gloxinia as you would its close relative, the African violet, and transplant it into Black Gold African Violet Mix. (Click here to learn more about growing African violets (and gloxinia).)

Holiday Foliage Plants

When it comes to house plants with festive foliage, there are many to come by that will consistently look good all year. In summer, they can even be brought outdoors to liven up the patio.

Silver Queen Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema ‘Silver Queen’)

Aglaonema silver Queen with a small number of green areas on the leaves

The textural ‘Silver Queen’ has boldly marked leaves of white and green. The 1-2-foot lush plants are shade-loving and originate from the humid tropics and subtropics of Asia where they survive in the forest understory. Give them a good, water-holding potting mix like Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix.

Two Tone Moonstone Red Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema ‘Two Tone Moonstone’)

Arguably the prettiest of the Aglaonema hybrids, ‘Two Tone Moonstone’ leaves are mottled with white and green and have pinkish-red stripes down each leaf. Grow it as you would ‘Silver Queen’.

T REX™ St. Nick Rex Begonia (Begonia T REX™ St. Nick)

T REX™ St. Nick provides a whirlwind of color. (Image thanks to Terra Nova Nurseries)

Introduced by Terra Nova Nurseries, T REX™ St. Nick provides a whirlwind of color. Its large, toothed leaves are dark greenish-purple with specklings of pinkish-white and bold streaks of pink and red. Pink flowers bloom in fall. Lightly moist fertile potting soil (like our All-Purpose Potting Mix), average humidity, and filtered light will keep it happy. Be sure not to overwater it in winter.

Mammy Croton (Codiaeum ‘Mammy’)

Flower leaves of Codiaeum variegatum. Close up Green croton plant surrounded by red crotons.


If you want a serious pop of color in your home, then grow the 2-3 foot croton ‘Mammy’. Its wavy, linear leaves are mottled with red, orange, and purple, and new growth is green and yellowish. Ironclad croton are very easy to grow if given large enough pots with well-drained potting soil (our Natural & Organic Potting Mix is a good choice), regular water, and average humidity. Wipe or rinse off the leaves from time to time to keep them dust-free.

Stay with the holiday color palette but break beyond the mold when it comes to holiday house plant choices. There are so many other jolly plants to enjoy through the season.

Succulent Wreaths Renewed

This beautiful designer wreath features only rosette-shaped succulents with great color.

Succulent wreaths began in California back in the 1960s when Sunset Magazine shared this now universally popular do-it-yourself idea. Until recently, finding a pre-made one for purchase was nearly impossible. But today succulent wreaths are sold everywhere in every manifestation, from small desktop sizes at $20 to large, spectacular specimens that command as much as $150 for a designer composition. And their value extends beyond the holidays; after winter passes a whole garden full of cool succulent plants can be harvested from just one wreath.

Each wreath is composed of many seedling succulent plants pressed into a soil and moss core. Those used for a table decoration will come with a clear plastic saucer to protect furniture from water damage. If the center hole is large enough in diameter, select a fat red or white candle to stand in the middle.

Buying a wreath pays off when you compare the price to that of buying each plant as an individual.
Buying a succulent wreath pays off when you compare the price of buying each plant individually.

Succulent Wreath Reconstruction

Wreaths are always densely planted with a wide variety of the most common succulents. Some are a real mixed bag, while the swankier types may be more limited to certain forms and colors. Both can be grown indoors all winter near a sunny window then taken outside after the last frost. By this time they may have become lanky or elongated due to less-than-ideal winter light. Once outside, some may send up flower spikes while others will produce “pups” that split off from the mother plant. Your former tidy wreath will likely become a chaotic mass of succulent growth, and that’s when it’s time to take cuttings or harvest the plants for your summer garden. Here’s how to get started:

Step 1

Begin by gathering a range of small, red, clay flower pots and a bag of Black Gold Cactus Mix. It is super well-drained, so there’s less chance of overwatering your potted specimens. Use wire cutters to remove the metal frame or nylon string that binds the wreath together, so all the plant roots are released gently and without damage.

Step 2

Fill a wide bucket or plastic box half full with potting mix, then add one or two cups of water. Use both hands to mix it like you’d toss a salad, over and over until the soil mass is uniformly damp but not wet. Add a little more water if it’s too dry. When properly moistened, you won’t be able to squeeze the water out, but it will still pack down nicely around the roots.

Step 3

Gently transplant each succulent into its pot, and press the soil around the roots. Do not water the succulent right away. Wait a few days and then water. Place them in a sheltered place such as a sunny window, sun porch or on a frost-free patio where they will get plenty of light during the day.
When the weather warms up you’ll have a whole collection of different succulents to play with outdoors. Those too elongated will eventually produce new compact growth more in keeping with the plant’s natural form. Group them together or grow each alone. Spot them into a rock garden or tuck them in with your flowers.

Succulent wreaths deconstruct into a broad collection of these smaller succulent forms and hues.
Succulent wreaths deconstruct into a broad collection of plants with distinct forms and hues.

Succulent wreaths are a green choice that give a lot more for your money than holiday evergreens and poinsettias. Study your wreath all winter long to gradually learn how each succulent species within it differs in form and size. Look them up to learn their names. Then when that original holiday investment is deconstructed, you’ll be well on your way to gardening with succulents without spending another cent for summer plants you want and already love.

What Are the Best House Plants for Low Light?

Chinese evergreen (Agleonema spp.) is one of many great low-light house plants.

“What are the best house plants for low light?” Question from Vesta of Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia

Answer: All house plants need some filtered light, but many will tolerate low to moderate filtered light from windows. I tend to go for shade-loving house plants with bold, colorful leaves. Here are a few of my favorites for small and large spaces.

Low-light House Plants for Small Spaces

Chinese Evergreen: The brilliant leaves of Chinese evergreen (Agleonema spp.) are boldly colorful and shade-loving. These low, lush plants originate from the humid tropics and subtropics of Asia where they survive in the forest understory. Two of my favorites for color include ‘Two Tone Moonstone’, with its pink and white leaves speckled with green, and the poinsettia-like ‘Red Zircon’, which has crimson-red leaves edged in green.

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata): This super tough house plant can tolerate both low water and low light. Some varieties are tall and upright while others are compact and pretty. I like the little ‘Gold Hahnii’, which has gold-striped pale green leaves. It is part of the Costa Farms Plants of Steel collection.

Tricolored Prayer Plant (Stromanthe hybrids): As the name suggests, the low-growing tricolor prayer plant (Stromanthe ‘Triostar’) has three-colored, lance-shaped leaves with bold markings of cream, rosy purple, and green. It originates from Brazilian rain forests and requires low to moderate light and sufficient moisture and humidity for good growth.

Rattlesnake Plant (Calathea lancifolia): This easy-to-grow house plant is very attractive with its elongated, dark green speckled leaves with purple undersides. Give it average moisture and low to moderate light. This is one of many attractive Calathea. Click here to view more of these shade-loving house plants.

Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum): Is a trailing house plant best grown in a hanging basket or on a mantle where it can trail beautifully. It has heart-shaped leaves and is very hard to kill.

Low-light House Plants for Open Spaces

Variegated Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa ‘Albo Variegata’): This rainforest trailer and climber has very large leaves with decorative holes, hence the common name. The variegated form is extra pretty and grows a little more slowly.

Fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata): The unusual, shiny fiddle-shaped leaves of this large house plant add textural beauty to homes. It is also a rainforest plant adapted to lower light.

Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans). The common parlor palm makes a very pretty house plant. It grows in low light and looks elegant in large spaces in the home. Be sure not to over water it.

Cutleaf Philodendron (Philodendron ‘Xanadu’ ™): There are lots of beautiful philodendron that grow well in low light, but the cutleaf form looks extra attractive. Click here to view it and other attractive philodendron.


Aside from filtered light, warmth, and humidity, most of these tropicals need plenty of rich, moisture-holding soil to dig their roots into. At planting time, provide them with containers that are several inches larger than their root balls. Make sure the pots have drainage holes at the bottom and deep saucers to catch excess water. Two of the best Black Gold mixes for substantial water-holding ability are Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix, which is OMRI Listed and contains coconut coir, and Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix, which is our #1 best seller for house plants of all kinds. Keep the potting mix evenly moist, never wet, and fertilize regularly with an all-purpose fertilizer.

Happy gardening!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

What is the Best Soil for Desert Rose?

“What is the best soil mix to plant my desert rose (Adenium obesum) in?” Question from Sara of National Park, New Jersey

Answer: Plant these beautiful succulents in very sharply drained soil that also retains water and has a slightly acid pH of 6.0. Of course, we recommend Black Gold Cactus Mix for planting, but you might also want to add a bit more perlite as well as some additional peat moss, which retains water and is acidic. Potted desert roses look nice when a layer of decorative pebbles is added at the top.

Plant these succulents in pots with good drainage. The water should run from the bottom of the pot at watering time. The potting soil should never become totally dry, so monitor soil moisture levels. In winter, water less. The mix should remain lightly moist to dry.

How Can I Revive My Japanese Sago Palm?

“Any idea what kind of plant this is? It was given to my mom and looks pretty bad. We were also wondering if it’s ok to cut all of the brownish leaves off. Will It come back with new regrowth?” Question from Donna of West Chester, Pennsylvania

Answer: You have a  Japanese Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta). It looks like it is struggling. Definitely remove the brown or dying leaves.

It will regrow with good care! These prickly cycads require lots of sunlight and very well-drained soil. During the winter months, they should be watered very little. Leaf browning can be caused by underwatering or overwatering–most often overwatering. If you are watering it a lot, give it a rest for at least three weeks. It should also be in a pot with drainage holes and a bottom saucer to catch water. Good potting mix will also help keep it happy. I recommend repotting it in Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix amended with added Perlite for drainage, if your mix looks old and depleted.

The drying leaves may also be caused by spider mites, a common pest of these cycads. Spider mites are tiny plant pests, and once you notice their damage, they are already numerous and a problem. The tops of leaves will look like they have little white spots across them. These are dead leaf cells that the mites have sucked dry. You might also see little webs on the leaves and stems of infected plants. To make sure you have mites, and to get an idea of population levels, take a clean piece of white paper, hold it beneath the leaves, then tap the leaves onto the paper. If you have mites, lots of tiny specs will fall. Eventually, they will start crawling around. These are spider mites!

If you think you have mites, remove the worst of the damaged leaves. Then spray, wash, and wipe the remaining stems and leaves thoroughly. Remove the top inch of potting soil and replace it with fresh. It also helps to wipe the container down, in case any mites have strayed. Finally, spray the plants with insecticidal soap or Neem oil. Continue to do the tap test and wipe and spray leaves as needed. In time you will overcome your mite problem.

Happy gardening!

Jessie Keith
Black Gold Horticulturist

Abutilons: the Best Parlor Maples

Abutilon pictum ‘Thompsonii’

Container gardening has always been a big part of my garden. and years ago what started out as a small grouping of pots on our deck, has continued to expand. Now I have about 150 containers throughout my garden.  The plant selection varies, and I am always removing something that did not perform as well as expected by adding something new.  However, even with all the changes, some things remain consistent and one of the constants is my fondness for Abutilon.  I cannot remember a time when I have not had at least one Abutilon in a pot.

The common name for abutilons is parlor maple or flowering maple because the leaf has a maple shape and the plants grow well indoors or outdoors. Abutilon can also be called Chinese lantern because of the pendulous, lantern shape of the flowers. Species are native throughout the subtropics and tropics worldwide and most are evergreen. Some of the prettiest are from the Americas.

The Best Abutilons

The sizes, shapes, and colors of Abutilon flowers are quite variable.  Some flowers are bell-shaped and face downward, while others are more open and face outward.  Their blooming season is long, and once they begin to flower, they will continue to do so throughout the summer and into winter, if you bring them indoors.  They come in shades of red, pink, yellow, white and/or orange. South American species are specially adapted for hummingbird and bat pollination.

Abutilon ‘Moonchimes’

Abutilon ‘Moonchimes’

The large, open, 2-inch flowers of Abutilon ‘Moonchimes’ are a delicate primrose yellow. The compact plants reach 2 to 3 feet and have dark green foliage. This is a lovely variety for summer containers.

Abutilon ‘Red Tiger’

Abutilon ‘Red Tiger’

My all-time favorite Abutilon is ‘Red Tiger’.  The flowers on ‘Red Tiger’ almost look like a stained glass piece.  The yellow flowers have scarlet-red veining, and the design is so intricate that it almost does not look real.  It is definitely a conversation piece in the home or summer garden.  If you have not grown Abutilon and are going to try one plant, this would be my choice!

Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonn’

The cultivar ‘Souvenir de Bonn’ has leaves that are edged in cream and pendulous, orange, bell-shaped flowers.  This is a reliably good bloomer, and with the contrasting leave color, it makes an outstanding container plant.  I suggest giving this one some protection from the hot summer sun.

Thompson’s Abutilon

The leaves of Abutilon pictum ‘Thompsonii’ are green flecked with yellow patterns. This is a vigorous species that originates from Brazil can reach 6 feet, where hardy. Its orange flowers veined with red are no less beautiful and stand out against its unique leaves. 

Trailing Abutilon

Trailing Abutilon (Abutilon megapotamicum)

Abutilon megapotamicum is sometimes referred to as ‘Trailing Abutilon’ because, with pruning, it can be kept almost prostrate.  The flowers are small but abundant and have large, red calyces and yellow petals.  If left to grow where hardy, without trimming, this Brazilian native can reach up to 8 feet and is in constant bloom.

Abutilon ‘Nabob’

Abutilon ‘Nabob’

The Abutilon cultivar ‘Nabob’ has always performed well in my garden. It is tall, reaching 8 to 10 feet, where hardy, with very dark red flowers that attract hummingbirds. The leaves are very dark green.

Growing Abutilon

Here in the Pacific Northwest, Abutilon is not reliably winter hardy, but if the winter is mild, the plants will often survive as perennials and new shoots will emerge from the ground in the spring. Most survive in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10. I would not consider outdoor potted plants as winter hardy, so I treat them as annuals if they are not brought indoors. And, if they survive winter, then that is a pleasant spring surprise.

Abutilon is fast growing and new shoots will be in bloom by summer. My pots get varying degrees of sun and shade.  Some get full sun all day, and others receive full shade and some a mix of sun and shade.  I have found that Abutilons seem to be very adaptable and thrive in full or partial sun, but they do not want to be in full shade.  For pots in full sun, I plant them in Black Gold Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Mix because it is excellent for retaining moisture on a hot summer day.  For pots in a partially sunny location, I plant them in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix.

Abutilons are very easy to start from cuttings and that is an easy way to carry over plants from year to year.  Take new tip cuttings, dip them in rooting hormone, place them in a moist potting mix, and they will root in no time. Pot them up and keep them indoors in bright, indirect light to keep them happy while they winter over. Whether in indoor containers or in the ground, abutilons make superb blooming plants.