Houseplants are trendy once more — which is “groovy” or “cool beans” or maybe just plain super. Not only do plants make oxygen for us to breathe, they bring nature indoors and can help us relax. And there are so many pretty ones to choose from. BUT! Here in the Southwest, our humidity is low — so if you want your plants to survive, you need to purchase the right species. The good news is that getting the right kind isn’t hard and you don’t need a botany degree.
Most houseplants are originally from humid areas of the globe (mostly rain forests), and need 45 to 99 percent humidity to survive. Common houseplants like philodendron and African violet simply do not do well in our Southwest homes with an our average of 20 percent humidity — or less when furnaces pump hot, dry air into our homes, or worse, AC units blow cold, dry air into our spaces. Luckily there are still many low-humidity houseplants to choose from.
In general, look for houseplants with smaller leaves, or narrow or waxy leaves, like many succulents or even some palms. I started making a list back in the last century, and have just kept adding to it. What follows are some of my favorites.
Spider plants have narrow leaves that use little water. They also have water storage roots (cool looking but not edible).
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum), with a number of beautiful cultivars, comes from a seasonally dry area, and most do fine.
Dracena, also called dragon tree, has narrow leaves and come from the Canary Islands — a seasonally dry region.
Ponytail palm (Beaucarnia) grows to 20 feet tall in the wild, but kept in a pot, as mine has been for over 30 years, it is barely 5 feet tall.
South African succulents like desert rose (Adenium), sanseveria (Sanseveria), ox-tongue (Gasteria) and jade plants (Crassula) all tolerate low humidity.
Plants that normally hang off cliffs or dangle from the tops of trees (epiphytes) are used to toughing it out — echeveria, pothos and orchid cactus are some good examples. I have some pothos that has been in the family since at least the 1920s.
Finally, orchids. Many of them are low-humidity species, and as long as you give them bright but not direct indoor light they should do well.
Pets and Houseplants
I used to think I had pet-safe houseplants, because one bite of a really bitter plant is usually enough to deter most pets. Then I got a Siamese cat who would eat them anyway because he was bored, hacking and spitting the whole while. Hanging houseplants may be the solution for your home (as it is for mine). The ASPCA has lists of dog- and cat-safe plants at www.aspca.org, and the following low-humidity plants are on their safe lists:
Air plant (Tillandsia, a type of bromeliad)
Areca palm (Areca species)
Bamboo (Bambusa, NOT lucky bamboo — a species of Dracena)
Bromeliads — a family with over 3,000 species and countless cultivars, includes air plants and pineapples
Echeveria, hen and chicks, (Echeveria species)
Holiday cactus (Zygocactus species)
Orchids (in general)
Orchid cacti (Epiphyllum species)
Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
Pony tail palm (Beaucarnia recurvata, related to yucca)
Wandering Jew (Tradescantia species)
Queen’s tears (Billbergia nutans — a kind of bromeliad)
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
True yucca (Yucca gloriosa — often sold as a dracena but Dracena are not safe)
DISCLAIMER: The author reports information from research and does not guarantee the safety of the plants mentioned. Please check with your vet. Neither the author, the Arizona Jewish Post or the ASPCA can be held liable in any way for information about pets and houseplants as presented.
Jacqueline Soule, Ph.D., is a local author with a number of books about gardening in the Southwest. Her latest, “Butterfly Gardening for Southern Arizona,” is available in local garden centers and nurseries. You can read more of her writing at www.gardening
withsoule.com, www.swgardening.com, and www.savorthesw.com.