Easy AND interesting plants?
February 21, 2013 10:26 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for easy and interesting house plants. Please help.

We have a little live science area in our house (it's actually my dining room sideboard). We have Triops, Sea monkeys, pollywogs, etc. After expressing lots of interest and watching videos on youtube of scientists scouring mountainsides looking for pitcher plants, my 5 year old got a pitcher plant.

It made me remember how much I enjoy having plants in the house.

What are plant projects and interesting plants to grow that aren't difficult? The house is normally between 68-72 and in New England.
posted by beccaj to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Cacti are dead easy, come in lots of varieties and tolerant to being ignored for long periods. I also think they grow in interesting ways.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:31 AM on February 21, 2013

What's the light situation? That will affect things.

Terrariums are kind of "in" right now, and there would be a really awesome "Science!" feel to a terrarium. Also - some of the woodier herbs may be fun - rosemary especially, because you can clip it into a topiary over time. (And - bonus, you can use the bits you clipped off in cooking!)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:32 AM on February 21, 2013

I'm a big fan of succulents for easy and beautiful but I'm not sure how well they'd fare indoors. Having said that, one of my old bosses used to have a succulent jungle in her dark little office and they appeared to be in good shape.
posted by faraasha at 10:35 AM on February 21, 2013

My three house plants (in my office) that intrigue me most are my blooming succulent, which I think is a small leafed kalanchoe, my aloe, and my bonsai olive tree. I am also partial to wandering jew because of it's cool purple coloration and because I'm Jewish, and to jade, another beautiful succulent which will bloom periodically.
posted by bearwife at 10:41 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since the interest involves a 5 year old, I suggest a spider plant. They're extremely tolerant of light levels, temperature changes and changing moisture levels. If they get brown on the ends, a little clipping with scissors makes them look new again. But mostly it's the baby plants they put out. Break one off, put it in a glass of water until it has roots, and stick it in some dirt = happy new plant! Bonus points: they flower frequently, and NASA says they're the best plant for cleaning pollutants from the air (learned from tests about which plants would be most helpful on a Mars mission). Downside: if you're not careful your house will be stuffed full of spider plants, and they're not all THAT interesting.
posted by kestralwing at 11:00 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Orchids can be surprisingly easy to grow. I'm also a big fan of African violets. And both these plants are interesting.
posted by shoesietart at 11:23 AM on February 21, 2013

I have a six-foot-tall tree (potted) that grew out of a grapefruit seed. I would say grapefruit are even easier to grow indoors from seed than an avocado. Both would be good kids' projects, though.
posted by scratch at 11:25 AM on February 21, 2013

How about a Sensitive plant? They are pretty cool.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:36 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Logee's is what you need to be looking at. They sort the plants by light requirement and you can see the ease of care. They have a Rare and Unusual section which is really interesting and could be fun to look through with your kid to see if anything clicks.
posted by lydhre at 11:39 AM on February 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm going to quickly 2nd Logee's as a plant source. I sent my FMIL a miracle fruit plant for Christmas and she loved it. The service was excellent.
posted by Flamingo at 11:43 AM on February 21, 2013

Came in to suggest sensitive plant. We've grown them in the house in New England, and kids that age think they're incredibly cool. Heck, I think they're pretty cool.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:48 AM on February 21, 2013

Just suggesting that you make sure the plants are not toxic. The kalanchoe mentioned above (or at least the variety I have) and most succulents are not safe around those who might impulsively decide on a snack. Not sure if five is 'old enough to know better' or not, but I've had to be careful with some of my more impulsive patients which plants make it to my office at work.
posted by gilsonal at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2013

If you get some direct sun in your science area, then amaryllis bulbs are totally amazing because once they sprout, they grow SO quickly. When I was in elementary school we would buy an amaryllis bulb around Christmas and when it started sprouting, I would start measuring it every day. On average, the first flower stalk would grow an inch a day. Which is amazing! I'd come home from school and sometimes it would be noticeably higher. And then the flowers come and Bam! They're totally amazingly over-the-top and huge, which is nice in the middle of a New England winter.
posted by colfax at 1:28 PM on February 21, 2013

If you've got enough sunlight on your science shelf to grow a Nepenthes (aka "Asian or tropical pitcher plant"), you've also got enough natural lighting to grow Pinguicula (butterworts) and Drosera (sundews). Both are carnivorous, like your pitcher plant. Some species of the Drosera move to catch prey, which is pretty exciting.

If your pitcher plant is a Sarracenia (aka "American pitcher plant, trumpet plant"), then you've got enough light to grow Dionaea (Venus Flytraps). In my experience, all 5 year olds love flytraps.

All of the above are easy to grow if you remember to only water them with demineralized water (distilled or reverse osmosis), never let them dry out and give them enough light. Also, in the fall, do not toss them out because they look like they died. They just went dormant for the winter, they'll be back in the spring.

If you're getting a little overrun with triops and polliwogs, there's always aquatic Utricularia (bladderworts).
posted by jamaro at 1:29 PM on February 21, 2013

Also, if you do get a flytrap from the hardware store, take the clear plastic cup off the top and let the plant spread out. The tops are meant to protect the plant during shipping, not be a permanent home. VFTs are bog plants so put its pot in a saucer with at least an 1" of demineralized water in it; this takes care of its humidity requirements too.
posted by jamaro at 1:39 PM on February 21, 2013

I have wonderful sun, and these grow easily:
Geraniums (which will survive poorer sunlight) bloom nicely during the winter. There are scented geraniums at specialty nurseries, whose leaves smell like lemon or rose and whatnot. Geraniums are very easy to propagate, so that could be a fun science thing.

Purple tradescantia spathacea, aka purple oyster plant. It's an outdoor annual in the north, perennial in the south. It's a vivid purple with bright pink simple flowers. (It's related to Wandering Jew). It will root from cuttings placed in water or stuck into dirt, and it will not die. I took cuttings then abandoned a plant, and that pot is sprouting after 3 months without water.

Passionflower vine is fun because of its curlicue tendrils and how it will try to take over the world. It has stunning blooms. There are many species, I have Bahama Blue and the straight Passiflora incarnata, both are very easy (bright sun needed)

Peace Lily, Spathiphyllum, likes low or indirect light. That's a tough plant too.

Your child may find an epiphyte (air plant) really cool.

Projects? Other than propagating, there can be experiments with seeds to see if light or darkness make the sprouts grow faster, or lessons on "more isn't always better" in terms of watering.
posted by Anwan at 3:37 PM on February 21, 2013

I'm fond of cane begonias, aka angel-wing begonias. The one that I have is an attractive plant — the leaves are reddish on the underside, while the tops are a deep green with white spots that are almost iridescent when you look at them closely in a good light — as well as interesting: it blooms in two stages. At first there's a simple, two-petal bloom. After a while, those wilt and drop off and are followed by a more elaborate bloom.

It's also quite hardy and over the years has survived too much light, not enough light, being watered too much, not being watered enough, being an indoor plant, being kept outdoors on the balcony, being outside in the garden (as long as it wasn't in full sun), being allowed to grow so big it practically covered a wall, and being ruthlessly pruned back to the main stalk and one leaf (then left alone until it covered the wall again). My mom used to joke about needing to take a machete to it a couple of times a year to keep it from taking over her living room. The plant I have now is a cutting from the plant I inherited from her. Unfortunately, the main plant succumbed to a bad case of powdery mildew a little while ago — of course, that was 18 years after I inherited the plant from my mother, so not really what you'd call a life cut tragically short. The offspring seems to be doing fine.

I joke that this plant is going to take over the world, and I'm doing my part by giving cuttings of it to as many people as I can. If you're anywhere near Oakland… want a cutting?
posted by Lexica at 6:31 PM on February 21, 2013

My succulents are the only things doing well with my black thumb. Also, corn plant and fiddle-leaf fig are ok.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:36 PM on February 21, 2013

We entertain ourselves by trying to sprout seeds from our food - so tomatos, avocado, potatos, peppers. You could try to plant the seedlings outside, and then gather seeds again after you eat them.
posted by florencetnoa at 6:54 PM on February 21, 2013

6 years ago I bought a Prickly Pear (nopal) pad from the produce section of my local grocery store for $1. it is now multiple pads and a very healthy 3 feet tall. It was pretty floppy due to being dried out when I bought it and it needed about 6 months of weekly watering to recover, but now it's a regular low-maintenance cactus. I watered it for the second (or third?) time this winter today. The one I got must be a variety grown specifically for food use, because it doesn't have the typical large spines, although it does still have the splinter-like glochids.

also i pot my habanero pepper plants for indoor overwintering, they look neat and will survive in a sunny window, although that won't be enough sun in the summer.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:58 PM on February 21, 2013

to add to the cactus, if pieces get broken off due to rough handling, you can just plant them and get more cacti!
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:59 PM on February 21, 2013

My kid insisted on planting some lemon tree seeds a couple of years ago, and I put the resulting seedlings in a south-facing window. They have made really pretty houseplants (citrus plants have shiny leaves), have been fairly hardy, and they were free. (They do have thorns, but the kid just thinks that's cool.)
posted by BlueJae at 8:23 PM on February 21, 2013

I have never managed to kill a peace lily. And that's saying something.
posted by Salamander at 1:52 AM on February 22, 2013

I have a mother-in-law's tongue that I often do not water for weeks. Still alive.
posted by bunderful at 6:40 AM on February 28, 2013

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