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The 10 Hardest Houseplants to Keep Alive, According to Gardenista Readers

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The 10 Hardest Houseplants to Keep Alive, According to Gardenista Readers

January 27, 2020

Remember: houseplants are not living indoors by choice. So maybe it’s not surprising that so many Gardenista readers would place themselves somewhere on the scale of unlucky to full-fledged houseplant murderer. We asked our Facebook followers about the plants they just couldn’t keep alive; here are a few of the most popular answers, plus our advice in case they feel inspired to give these houseplants another go:

N.B.: Have a houseplant to add to our list? Let us know in the comments below.

Orchid

Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

Orchids are infamous for being finicky houseplants, prompting comments like: “I wouldn’t say I killed an orchid; they mostly kill themselves,” and, “The orchids no longer sparked joy…”

Can we blame them? Orchids are tropical plants that grow in the wild by attaching to other plants. Not exactly the atmosphere we provide for them indoors. All hope is not lost, however; an orchid can thrive indoors if it’s potted in loose bark potting mix, placed in indirect sunlight, provided with enough humidity, and not overwatered.

For more orchid advice, see Orchids: A Field Guide to Planting, Care, and Design.

Maidenhair Fern

If you dare grow a maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum), a humid bathroom makes a nice home. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: If you dare grow a maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum), a humid bathroom makes a nice home. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

Maidenhair ferns like misting, dappled light, and humidity. If you can, give your maidenhair some time outdoors as well. The delta maidenhair is especially attractive, but mahogany maidenhair ferns can be slightly hardier, or check out the easier-to-grow varieties in The Houseplant Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Finicky Ferns.

Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree

Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.
Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

We imagine the follower who wrote “Fiddle leaf fig…never again” shuddering at the thought of trying desperately to keep a fiddle leaf fig tree alive. But if you haven’t yet reached that level of hopelessness, try giving your fiddle leaf fig tree plenty of humidity, indirect sunlight, moist soil, and infrequent waterings. If yours has brown leaves, check out 7 Secrets: How to Save a Dying Fiddle-Leaf Fig Tree for help reviving it, as well as Lessons Learned: The Two Fatal Mistakes I Made with My Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree.

More advice in Fiddle Leaf Fig Trees: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

African Violet

Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

African violets love humidity, which is why many people place them on top of steam radiators. In the absence of these, you can place bowls of water among your African violets, place their pots in a tray on top of a bed of wet gravel, or let them sit in the water that drains out of the pots after you water the plants. With a little care, you’ll be rewarded with colorful blooms (the traditional blue flower has been joined by hundreds of new cultivars with pink, white, purple, and yellow blossoms).

Learn more in African Violets: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

String of Pearls Succulent

Photograph via Etsy.
Above: Photograph via Etsy.

Exclaimed one follower: “A suicidal String of Pearls that hated the color of my wall paint so much it died within one week of entering my home!” To avoid this, make sure its soil is completely dry before you water it, and place it in partial sun away from any drafts.

Learn more in String of Pearls: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

Air Plant

Photograph by John Merkl.
Above: Photograph by John Merkl.

Low-maintenance as they are, air plants (Tillandsias) can be tricky: They don’t grow in soil and instead need rocks or shrubs to cling to; they’ll need several hours of indirect sunlight (so you may not be able to display one on a bookshelf), and they’ll need more or less water based on the humidity of their environment. But, if you do your research, an air plant can make a unique addition to your houseplant collection.

Learn more in 10 Things Nobody Tells You About Air Plants.

Staghorn Fern

Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Staghorn ferns look exotic mounted to a wall, and can do an excellent job of emphasizing the vertical space inside your home. But keep in mind that you’ll have to water a staghorn fern liberally at least once a week. To do this, remove the plant from the wall and soak the whole thing in the tub, then allow it to dry completely before hanging it back up.

Learn more in The Fern and I: How to Hang a DIY Staghorn Fern.

Lemon Tree

Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.
Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

To our follower whose Meyer lemon tree recently deceased, and who is now the owner of replacement lemon and lime trees: Keep your citrus trees outdoors as much as possible. Aside from that, citrus trees like humidity, air movement, and plenty of sunlight.

Learn more in The Truth About an Indoor Lemon Tree (Hint: It Belongs Outdoors).

Olive Tree

Photograph courtesy of Food5
Above: Photograph courtesy of Food52.

Olive trees will live for centuries in optimal growing conditions, which is good news if you live in a warm, sunny climate that mimics the Mediterranean. An indoor olive tree will appreciate a layer of gravel at the bottom of its pot to mimic its rocky native environment, and a bright spot where it gets at least six hours of sunlight each day.

Learn more in Olive Garden: A Houseplant That Can Live for Centuries.

Calathea

Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

Calathea’s vibrantly striped leaves make it an attractive addition to your home. This plant will thrive in bright, indirect sun in well-draining soil with high humidity. Surrounding it with other plants can help increase the humidity, and it will do best in a shallower container due to its shorter roots.

Learn more in Gardening 101: Prayer Plants.

Read about more plants that troubled Gardenista readers in 10 Plants Gardenista Readers Will Never Grow Again.

More houseplant advice:

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