By Evin Morrison, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © Evin Morrison
In last month’s article, we introduced a few low-maintenance plants that can handle a few forgotten waterings, but we merely scratched the surface.
The great news is that there are plenty more varieties that you can introduce into your homes. Rest assured that bringing a bunch of plants into your home will not necessarily add to an already extensive chore list. Succulents allow you to enjoy the houseplant trend without having to fit an hour or more of weekly watering into your busy schedule.
But be warned! Not all “low-maintenance” plants are low-water tolerant. Many lists you’ll find online identify plants that can take a bit of neglect but are not able to handle drought-like environments. Follow this advice to avoid the rookie mistake of either over watering or under watering, and leaving a series of dead plants lined up on your windowsills. Know that for those of you with busy schedules or self-prescribed black-thumbs there is undoubtedly a low-maintenance plant out there for you!
These varieties will actually do a little better when neglected, rather than being drowned with water and affection.
Aloe and other succulents
Aloes are just one of the many succulent varieties in the world, and are easily accessible in most plant stores and even the supermarket. Aloes come in a myriad of colors and patterns. Some have a rough white mottled appearance, while others have coral pink edges.
The most common aloe that most think of is Aloe barbadensis. This aloe vera plant is touted for its medicinal and culinary properties. The long green leaves, which are edged in small spikes, grow out of a rosette formation. Each leaf can be removed, and the gel is commonly used to treat burns. But be careful to let the plant recover and sprout new leaves before cutting off too many! The plant still needs some leaves to be able to photosynthesis. And always do your research before assuming you have an edible or medicinal aloe, as not all varieties are..
Note: Click on images to see enlarged photos, captions, and photo attributions.
On a mobile phone, click on the information symbol (circle with a letter ℹ︎ symbol).
Like most low water tolerant plants, succulents can survive in harsh, dry conditions because they have evolved to store water that can be accessed when needed. For succulents, this storage process mostly happens in the leaves. By cutting the leaf of an aloe you can easily see how this plant is able to survive in drought-like conditions. The leaves are filled with moisture-retaining gel. In dry periods, the plant can draw upon this stored moisture to keep the plant alive. If the plant is too dry for too long, the leaves will start to appear shriveled and can eventually completely dry out. Think of it like a rain barrel in your yard. The water stored there will last a long while, but if there’s still no rain then eventually the barrel will run dry.
Other very popular varieties of succulents are kalanchoe, haworthia, gasteria, and euphorbia. One variety of succulent may easily be mistaken for another, but fortunately, because their care needs are all relatively similar, not knowing exactly what you have won’t be too detrimental. Still, it’s always a good idea to be an informed plant shopper and read (and keep!) the plant tags on your plants when you make a purchase.
Luckily, different varieties of succulents can all be planted in a very similar substrate. When potting up succulents, you want to make sure that moisture isn’t held for too long. Adding gritty material to potting soil, like perlite or vermiculite, will help the water drain away from the plant rather than allow it to sit in a moist environment. With all the moisture being stored by the plant, too much exterior moisture can very quickly lead to rot.
All succulents need to have a nice sunny spot to live in your home, but like all things this comes with a caveat. Our windows sometimes have the ability to magnify the sun’s rays, which in severe cases can lead to burning or scorching. Succulents’ appearance can be helpful in determining if they are receiving more sun than they need because many varieties will actually change color. Some will bronze, while others can turn from green to red. It might be alarming if you notice that your once green plant is now a brownish color, but if the stem and leaves are still plump and the soil isn’t too wet, rest assured that it’s simply getting too much sun. It’s like the plant getting a suntan to protect itself from a painful sunburn. By moving it into a less bright spot, the green color will return.
Cacti and succulents are often paired up together as if the words are interchangeable, but scientifically there is a difference. Think of squares and rectangles. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Similarly, Cactaceae are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
The simplest way to distinguish whether a plant is a cacti, is to look for the absence of leaves. Most cacti grow in ball, cylinder, or paddle shapes, but very few of them have anything that looks like a leaf. Unlike succulents that store water in their leaves, cacti have evolved to store water throughout the plant. Cacti grow in some of the harshest conditions and in the wild can grow quite large. Of course, in a home environment it’s less likely that they will grow to their full size, but always do a little research before you bring a plant homec
Cacti can be difficult to grow in our area because of our humidity levels. While it’s not impossible to successfully grow cacti you need to make sure that the plant is drying out completely between watering to avoid rot. Even with careful watering, sometimes the high humidity we experience in the summer is too much for a cactus to handle. Additionally, while many cacti can handle low temperatures in their native deserts, our cold wet winters just won’t do. Make sure you bring them inside if you let them spend a summer vacation outdoors on the patio. Once temperatures drop below freezing, it’s very possible that the moisture inside the plant will freeze, bursting the cell walls of the plant. Once it warms up and the plant thaws, it will collapse inwards as the internal structure is no longer able to support the plant.
Common varieties of cacti sold to grow indoors sometimes have a blue tint to them. In the plant world this blue hue is often referred to as being “glaucus.” This blue-ish tint is a powder the plant produces as a protective layer. Called farina, this coating can be found on succulent varieties of all kinds and is a protective layer from the elements. The waxy substance repels unwanted water from sitting on the plant (which would cause rot), and likewise protects the plant from sun scorch. If you bring one of these varieties home, handle with care because the farina can easily be rubbed away with the lightest touch of a finger and the plant won’t produce more to replace the loss. This opens that area up to damage..
Air Plants (Tillandsia)
Air plants are a stylish addition to any houseplant collection. From the family Tillandsia, these plants are common to rainforests and other humid environments. So how can they possibly be low-maintenance, low-water plants, you might ask? Well, because as the name suggests, these plants extract the moisture they need to survive from the air.
Like an orchid, air plants are epiphytes. In the wild, epiphytes grow high in the trees attached to the bark. Their root systems are mainly used as a mounting or support system rather than to uptake nutrients like other plants that grow in soil. While many of these species do originate from South America, there are quite a few that are native to the United States and can be found in trees in parts of Florida.
With all plants that we bring in our home, it’s helpful to visualize how and where they grow in the wild. The closer we can replicate those environments in our home, the better. Try imitating a tree branch by creating fun displays in your home. With a little fishing line and a board, you can mount air plants to create green plaques that hang on the wall or hang a few air plants on string from the top of a window and make an air plant curtain. Your creative options are limitless — because your plant doesn’t actually need to be planted!
For care, air plants do best when misted with water. Be careful, though, since tap water often has minerals like chlorine to make it safe to drink. These additional components can be hard on your air plants, so use collected rainwater, filtered water, or let the tap water sit overnight so the chlorine can evaporate before you spray. A quick mist with a spray bottle every few days will keep your tillandsias happy.
If you think your air plant needs a little boost, you can use a bromeliad fertilizer. Make sure to dilute it to the recommended amounts on the container so that you don’t accidentally burn your plant. If your tillandsia is thriving, you might come home to find that it’s bloomed! While this is exciting, it also signals that your plant has reached the end of its life stages. But don’t despair! Like bromeliads, the tillandsia with the flower spike will begin to fade, but not before it pushes out pups from the base of the plant. These pups will grow as off-shoots and once the mother plant dries up, you can separate the pups and keep your collection going.
The variety of available succulents can bring a great deal of pizazz to your interior, with a limited amount of work. Just remember that even low maintenance plants require the right foundation of light, soil, and water. Finding the right potting mixture (for other than air plants) is likely the most beneficial component for plants highlighted in this two-part series. Well-draining soil will mitigate a plethora of watering sins and keep your plants from sitting in moisture.
Also remember that low-water plants are not no-water plants. Every plant needs water to survive – determining how much and how often is the key. Because succulents need little water, they are often more forgiving than their thirstier cousins, and a perfect choice for those with busy schedules. Try a succulent in your home and soon you will be joining the fan club!
- Cooperative Extension Services (n.d.). Plant of the Week: Thornless Prickly Pear Cactus. University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Retrieved September 5, 2023, from https://www.uaex.uada.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/thornless-prickly-pear.aspx
- Croissant, S. (2014, April 7). Cactus versus Succulent. UNDER THE SOLANO SUN. Retrieved September 5, 2023, from https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=13488
- Larson, B. C., Frank, J. H., Main, M. B., & Allen, G. M. (2016, March 2). FLORIDA’S NATIVE BROMELIADS. Retrieved September 8, 2023, from https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW205
- Papas, C. (2023, July 5). Tillandsia (Air Plants). Retrieved September 9, 2023, from https://extension.psu.edu/tillandsia-air-plants