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This is not clickbait. I promise. And it has nothing to so with watering or humidity or anything like that. Although those are very important. Especially humidity, which a lot of people overlook.
So here it is. The one thing you can do to best know how to keep your plant alive:
Research how and where your plant lives in the wild
We know not to over or under water. We know to dust our house plants. But it’s hard to know exactly what each specific plant wants.
So find out where it evolved to live, and try and replicate those conditions.
Oh, and I don’t mean the geographical location, I mean the environment. The jungles of South-east Asia are similar in temperature and humidity as the rainforests of the Amazon, despite being as far apart as it’s possible to be.
Does your plant live in tropical rainforests?
The majority of foliage plants live here, so it’s a big group.
Vining plants in tropical rainforests
So here I’m talking about vining Philodendron, Monstera, Pothos.
- These plants will thrive in high humidity. Get a humidifier if your home has an ambient humidity level of below 50%.
- They like to dry out quite a lot (vining plants are usually semi-epiphytic and can easily get root rot).
- Use a potting mix that has a great drainage, but retains moisture – I make my own.
- Plants like this climb towards the light, so they can tolerate lower light but need more light in order to thrive. Some plants have an entirely different juvenile leaf form that will only mature if the plant get enough light, such as golden pothos.
Plants that live on the floor of tropical rainforest
Calathea, aglaonema, some ferns,
- Can tolerate lower light levels because they would receive dappled light naturally
- Like to have high levels of humidity
- Like to have moist roots are all times, but can succumb to root rot, so a well-draining soil is best. Not as chunky as for philodendron (I use less bark) but still plenty of perlite.
The reason for this is, as far as I can see, it rains a lot in rainforests, so the ground is constantly moist. The reason is it isn’t sodden and muddy everywhere is that it both soaks away further into the ground and is absorbed by the thousand other plants in the surrounding area.
Does your plant live in either less dense rainforests the periphery of rainforests?
These rainforests are still warm, but not as humid (but also not dry), and they’re not quite as lush. Think the plants that live in the jungles of Australia and Japan.
Vining plants in temperate rainforests
Er, hoya basically. oh, and epiphytic cacti, like Christmas and Easter varieties.
These plants require the same care as the vining plants that live in tropical rainforests, but there are a couple of key differences
- Since the canopy is less dense, these plants need brighter light
- They can tolerate drying out a lot more, because it rains less frequently
Non- vining plants in temperate rainforests
Some Ficus, like rubber plants, Alocasia, dracaena, African violets
- Like to dry out more than Calathea, but not as much as more vining plants
- Bright light
- Beware of these plants. The less common it is, the harder it’ll be to keep alive. And some varieties grow BIG.
Does your plant live in an arid environment?
Succulents, and a lot of palms.
- Let them dry out. Like, bone dry. They’re designed for this. Their roots rot extremely quickly
- Can survive extremes of temperature, but totally wus out in the rain.
- Harder to get to thrive than a million home decor blogs would have you believe.
- Your soil needs to be extremely well draining. If you’re using my recipe replace bark with sand.
- Bright light is the best, but if they’re not acclimatised slowly, they can burn
- Mealybugs LOVE them. Is it even a cactus if it doesn’t have mealybugs at least once in its life?
- Fairly unfussy about humidity, but don’t get them wet – i.e. they’ll tolerate actually humidity but don’t mist them and try to keep their leaves as dry as possible when watering.
The hardiness of your plant is an important factor to remember
You may be reading that and wondering why you have thriving Aglaonema yet a candle burning to commemorate a dozen dead Calathea when they require basically the same conditions.
There are a few factors that influence that, all basically relating to hardiness.
In short, some plants are picky. An aglaonema would LOVE to have constantly moist soil and a humid environment but will tolerate less perfect conditions – they take for example tap water in their stride.
A Calathea will just die. The reason we put up with it is that they’re absolutely beautiful, and a lot of humans love a challenge.
Some plants are extremely popular and have therefore had hardiness bred into them. Think plants like Monstera, that have made a lot of commercial plant growers very rich.
Actually as I’m writing this I’ve realised that I can’t actually prove causation.
Some plants, like Monstera Deliciosa, Golden Pothos, and even some Alocasia are actually invasive species.
- Did the popularity cause monstera to spread like wildfire (like domestic cats) or did they spread and people liked them and brought them into their homes?
- Did some plant grower notice that Monstera Deliciosa are naturally hardy so decided to breed them as house plants?
- It’s especially hard to see whether Monstera were bred as hardy house plants because they also produce a delicious fruit. Wow, they really are the MVP of house plants.
I’ve already written a post on the factors that affect how expensive plants are, but basically, if plants die easily, they’re more expensive because, for every one you buy, you’re paying for two others that either died in the greenhouse or, more likely, perished during transport.
Popular plants like Calathea bring in a lot of revenue for garden centres, so they breed them to be hardier, but they’re still in a greenhouse environment.
This is why tissue culture is such a big thing – you can effectively clone hardy plants over and over.
The plant that’s the exception that proves the rule
There was always going to be one, wasn’t there.
Whilst my tip of identifying where the plant comes from still broadly works, a species that basically turns up in every continent bar Antarctica and thousands of different habitats.
A plant you’re as likely to find in the deepest tropical rainforest as you are in a meadow in England.
still managed to earn a top spot among most popular house plants.
I don’t like this plant. I don’t know that many general plant addicts that you – if you like this plant, you probably only collect varieties of this genus.
For every one that will die the second the soil dries out there are a hundred more that don’t mind if you forget to water them for a month. They grow on the ground, climb trees, live amongst grasses…anywhere.
If your plant isn’t thriving, find out where it lives in the wild. Does it need more light? Less light? More humidity? Better drainage?
This can also help if you, unlike me, are into getting plants to bloom? A lot of blooming plants are extremely picky about temperature. If you’ve noticed, a lot of tropical plants won’t bloom in the home.
The plants we associate with flowering in our homes come from jungles that experience colder weather seasonally – hoya, African violets, Christmas cactus.
I hope this was helpful. It actually really helped me to consider a plant’s natural environment, but then I’m kind of a geek about botany and also the fundamentals of cultivating plants that can survive in rainforests and houses.
I’m just cool in that respect.