It’s inevitable, but how guilty you should feel?

By Steve Bender
December 17, 2019
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‘Tis the season filled with folly. Fa la la la la la la la la! Naked stems won’t make you jolly. Fa la la la la la la la la! Plants turn brown and fairly rotten. Fa la la la la la la la la! How soon will this be forgotten? Fa la la la la la la la la!

When I asked my readers on Facebook what houseplant they always seemed to kill, thousands longed to confess. Vegecide is rampant throughout the land, as folks either assassinate plants given as gifts or execute those they bring inside from their gardens. Each gory demise usually results from one of three causes.

  1. Too much water. Most houseplants need watering about once a week. Succulents, those that store water in their leaves and stems, need it maybe once a month, if that. Wet soil leads to rotting roots and quick death.
  2. Lots of plants hate your house. The light’s too weak and the air’s too dry. Most hardy plants also need a cold dormant period outside. So, no, you can’t keep a dwarf Alberta spruce on the bathroom vanity unless it’s fake.
  3. Death by a thousand cats. Cats spell doom for small houseplants. They will chew on them, sleep on them, shove them off the countertop, pry them from the windowsill, and rub on them until they’re merely single cells. Coexistence is impossible.

Readers find certain houseplants particularly difficult to keep alive for any length of time. I’ve compiled a list, so you know the risk you take. I’ve also assigned each plant a guilt factor from 0 to 10 (no guilt to overwhelming guilt) that you should feel when it succumbs, as well as reader testimony, so you know you’re not alone.

1. Poinsettia

Guilt Factor – 0

“I have a beautiful poinsettia going through a slow, agonizing death right now.” – Connie Phillips, reader

There is absolutely no shame in this, Connie. Even though plant breeders have made poinsettias much easier to grow indoors than before, the fact is unless you own a greenhouse, any subsequent blooms next Christmas will be small and pitiful. Buy a new one every year and keep our economy strong.

2. Moth Orchid

Guilt Factor – 1

“Orchids. I can’t stand them and they know it.” – Lorenza Foxglove, reader

There are dozens of orchids you could buy, but the one most people try is the “easiest” – the moth orchid (Phalaenopsis). These are the orchids you see displayed on greenhouse tables with incredibly showy blooms in colors of pink, purple, white, yellow, orange, and – if they’re been injected with dye – blue. They bloom for months after you buy them, then go into a sleep from which most never awake. Some people get them to bloom every year, but this is rare. So when you finally get sick of looking at nothing but leaves, chuck them and get new ones. Three months of blooms for $15 a plant is a pretty good deal, considering a flower arrangement costs as much or more and lasts about a week.

3. African Violet

Guilt Factor – 6

“My mother grew African violets by the dozens. I can literally kill one in three to five days.” – Melissa Huston, reader

Remember all those beautiful African violets blooming on the windowsill in your mother’s and grandmother’s houses? Well, you don’t see that anymore, because you’ve killed them. And it isn’t because they’re hard to grow. All they need is a bright window (no direct sun) and well-drained soil. Wet soil is the number one killer and probably the method Melissa prefers. To avoid this, plant your violet in a self-watering pot designed for violets. Or place the pot in a saucer filled with water as long as it takes for the soil at the top to become moist and then empty the saucer.

Christmas Cactus in Pot
Credit: Ralph Anderson

4. Christmas Cactus

Guilt Factor – 6

“I have two of these that a 98-year old lady from church gave me! One is from HER Mother's plant and the other is from her plant! In the summer I keep them outside on our covered deck and bring them inside when it turns cold. They are in front of a window and I open the curtains so they get indirect daylight! And I don't water until they are dry!” – Sheila Luster, reader

Well, Sheila, you just about said it all. Properly cared for, a Christmas cactus can last for decades. All it needs is bright light (no direct sun), good drainage, and watering about once a week. To get flowers, give it 14 hours of darkness per day for four weeks beginning in fall.

English Ivy Topiary
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

5. English Ivy

Guilt Factor – 3

“English ivy. It flourishes all summer long, but as soon as bring it into the house in fall, it dries out and falls apart.” Tom Smith, reader

The ivy is telling you something, Tom. It loathes growing indoors! It doesn’t get enough light, but it does get spider mites. It’s perfectly hardy outdoors, so just leave it there. Don’t feel too bad about the dead one, though. Where ivy grows, there’s always more.

6. (Rest in) Peace Lily

Guilt Factor – 7

“I kill. Every. Single. One.” – Stephanie Haynes, reader

Every one? You’re kidding, right? I’ve had peace lilies (Spathiphyllum sp.) all over the house for years. They’re easy. Just provide bright light (no direct sun), water when the leaves begin to droop, and fertilize every couple of months. If they don’t bloom, give them brighter light. No sympathy for you, Stephanie!

7. Rosemary

Guilt Factor – 2

“Rosemary. I know. Pathetic.” – Kelley Sassard, reader

Cut yourself some slack, Kelley. Everybody who tries to grow rosemary and other herbs in doors ends up killing them, unless they have a sun window or sunroom. Herbs despise the indoors because they need full sun and well-drained soil that’s allowed to dry out between waterings. You overwatered it – you know you did. Indoor herbs are also prone to spider mites and mealybugs. Just. Say. No.

lavender plant flowers in pot
Credit: nevarpp/Getty Images

8. Lavender

Guilt Factor -- 10

“I can’t keep lavender alive.” – Melissa Thompson, reader

Didn’t you read about plant seven, Melissa? Herbs, of which lavender is one, are harder than stale fruitcake to grow indoors. Lavender is a pain to grow outdoors. Why would you bring it indoors? Gotta give you a 10 for this one.

9. Maidenhair Fern

Guilt Factor -- 3

“It does fine until I forget for a minute to put water in the pebble tray and then it gleefully dies.” – Patti Smith

You’d think that a plant that thrives in shade would love growing indoors, but you’d be so wrong. It hates heated, dry indoor air. Frequently misting the foliage and placing in atop a pebble tray will help, but not if you forget the water.

Norfolk Island pine
Credit: DEA/G.CIGOLINI/Getty Images

10. Norfolk Island Pine

Guilt Factor – 0

“I used them as indoor Christmas trees, but they always died by March.” – Jean Hutchinson

Yes, Jean, and by doing so, they did you a huge favor. These semi-tropical evergreen trees may start off small, but they never stop growing. Eventually, they’ll push through the ceiling and roof, but not before all the lower branches have dropped. No one will take such monstrosities off of your hands. Count your blessings.