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The Plant Lady: Green-thumb challenged? Look for these hard-to-kill houseplants

This cornstalk plant at Exotic Plants is slow-growing and can survive for decades.
This cornstalk plant at Exotic Plants is slow-growing and can survive for decades. rbyer@sacbee.com

Houseplants are very in right now. However, If you are like me they never really went out of fashion. For those just entering the houseplant world, creating an urban jungle can be frustrating when plants seemingly die out of nowhere. Luckily there are several plants that can survive even the most green-thumb challenged.


Commonly called Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (due to its sharpness) or snake plant, this houseplant is indestructible. It can grow in very bright south-facing windows or very low light conditions, such as an office with minimal windows. As a succulent, it has low water requirements – anywhere from once a week to every four weeks – or whenever the soil has dried out completely.

When the plant gets large or is literally busting out of its pot, then simply move it to a larger pot. You can divide it at this point if desired. Use a serrated knife to separate the root ball. The plant multiplies by underground rhizomes (modified stems) which can be divided. Besides dividing, this plant can be propagated from leaf cuttings. The entire leaf or portions of the leaf can be placed in pumice and rooted to create new plants.

S. trifasciata is a popular species due to its yellow rimmed leaves (various hybrids are available). The leaves of this species can reach upwards of 3 feet tall. Indoors, the plant rarely flowers, but when they do they are very showy (2 feet tall) inflorescences. This species made NASA’s 1989 Clean Air Study, which listed plants that cleanse the air of certain toxins. S. cylindrica, as its name suggests, has very tubular leaves, which can grow upwards of 6 feet tall. Of note, their fibers are used in various commercial applications due to high flexural strength.

Dracaena fragrans

Another NASA Clean Air Plant, Corn plants are often found in the corner of your doctor’s waiting room, in the planters at the mall and anywhere where a touch of green is desired. Dracaena fragrans are native to Africa where they can grow upwards of 40 feet tall. As a houseplant, they can grow until they hit the ceiling, but luckily they are forgiving of being cut back. The long, 2-inch-wide leaves grow near the top of the trunk, giving it a bit of a palm look. Multiple stems and branching occurs as the plant ages and flowers (white and highly fragrant) .

The biggest complaint about these plants are the brown tips on leaf edges. This can be due to sensitivity to boron or fluoride in water. To negate this, use bottled or rain water and/or ensure to water thoroughly each time (water should flow out the bottom of the pot). If desired, simply trim the edges of the leaves off. It is also normal for the older, lower leaves to brown and yellow as they age. Overwatering is generally the number one killer of these plants. To prevent this, the top 1 to 5 inches of soil should dry out between watering. Dracaena fragrans “Massangeana” is a popular hybrid with a white streak down the center of the leaves.

Zamioculcas zamiifolia

We propagate a lot of ZZ’s at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory. Why? Because it is the most indestructible house plant we have encountered. Have a bright southern exposure? An office with no window? Did you forget you have a plant and haven’t watered it in 6 months? No problem. Pretty much the only thing this plant can’t tolerate is being severely overwatered.

Like most houseplants, the ZZ is grown for its foliage rather than its flowers, which are pretty insignificant. The foliage is comprised of upright to slightly arching compound leaves (12 to 24 inches long). The leaves are very glossy and shiny. Once the plant is busting out of its pot – repot. Now is the time to divide the plant if desired. Simply separate the underground tubers. New plants can also be formed from leaflets. At maturity, these plants can reach 2 or 3 feet tall and be equally as wide.

Scindapsus pictus

Similar to another Aroid family member (Pothos), Scindapsus has a bit more pizazz. The heart-shaped leaves have a velvety texture with a splash of white variegation. If allowed, this plant will climb up your wall, however it does well as a hanging plant. Scindapsus will grow with only overhead fluorescent lights or with a south exposure. If it gets too lanky, simply cut it back. Yellowing can occur with overwatering, so only water when the top 2 inches of soil has dried out.


If a small succulent is what you desire, then nothing will reward you more than a Haworthia. Most succulents need more light than an indoor location can accommodate. Enter Haworthias. Native to southern regions of Africa, they stay small (4 to 20 inches tall) and come in various leaf forms. Succulent soil is a must with these, as they prefer to dry out between watering, which can be from seven to 10 days. A south-facing window is ideal but they will tolerate an east exposure. A few interesting leaf forms include Haworthia truncata, H. cooperi, H. cymbiformis. The flowers arise on 4-to-8-inch flowering stalks but are a muted white. The flowers add interest but it is the foliage these beauties are grown for. Propagation can be done by dividing plants. Pests are minimal on Haworthia, with mealybugs being the primary concern. A bit of neem oil will help to eradicate them.