Indoor plants for a beginner
November 5, 2018 2:05 PM   Subscribe

For the first time in a long time, I can have house plants: I finally have both sunny rooms and grown-up, sedate cats who won't try to eat and/or climb into them. I haven't had plants in a long long time, and have no idea where to start.

I have one completely empty sun room that is well-lit throughout the day. I'd also like plants in my living room, which only gets a couple hours of direct afternoon sun.

I have one large schefflera in the sun room that until recently lived at my office. It's probably ten years old and I have managed not to kill it all these years. Can you suggest some additional plants that do well indoors and are relatively hard to kill? Is it possible to grow herbs indoors without grow lights? This is my ideal scenario but it seems like if it were easy, more people would be doing it.

Most important: Not poisonous to cats.
posted by something something to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Cast iron plant is hard to kill and listed on the non-toxic-to-cats list of the ASPCA. Christmas cactus fits the same bill and you get some nice blooms in the fall/winter period.
posted by jquinby at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2018

There is a three-plant system for air quality that includes areca palm, money plant, and mother-in-law's tongue -- all easy to grow and get. They should do _really well_ in a sun room. It was invented by someone in India who was particularly interested in air quality in office buildings, and it has had really good effect.
posted by amtho at 2:26 PM on November 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

My suggestion? Don’t think about it at all. Buy plants that strike your fancy when you see them and just learn which ones do well in your home and with your levels of care. I’ve amassed a pretty decent collection of houseplants this way and I’m definitely no horticulturist. I definitely have tried to overthink it all many times though. Now, if a plant goes kaput, I know not to get another one like it because it either doesn’t like my apartment’s conditions or the care level I’m able to provide. I’ve been surprised a few time by things that have done well. And one of my best plants is from the leftover knob of ginger I threw in a pot of dirt.

Buy plants! Have fun!
posted by stefnet at 2:34 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, the three-plant system I mentioned above is toxic to cats.

One note: it's a bit difficult to find house plants that are totally non-toxic; check out the various levels of toxicity indicated on the ASPCA site.

My approach? Was to avoid things that are super toxic, like lilies, and be OK with plants that would just cause an upset tummy.

THEN I also made sure to have cat grass available, so that the urge to eat green stuff -- that a lot of cats have, and which isn't inherently bad -- could be met by stuff that they were supposed to eat, which was the grass. Then they generally left the other plants alone, unless they just got super bored (in which case I would find teeth marks in leaves, but they didn't actually ingest them), or the grass supply ran out (in which case they would try to eat whatever plant looked most like grass).
posted by amtho at 2:46 PM on November 5, 2018

I came in to suggest mother-in-law's tongue as well. It's also known as snake plant. It is claimed above that it is toxic to cats, and apparently it is indeed mildly toxic. I'll just say that we have two young, rambunctious cats, and neither of them have taken much interest in the plant. Digging into the soil, yes, but not chewing the leaves.

It may help that the plant is decades old (like, 7 of them) and the lower leaves may be to tough to chew.
posted by intermod at 2:51 PM on November 5, 2018

The thing is, there are plants that get listed as toxic to cats but their toxicity is very mild in terms of g/kg ingested to get any symptoms, and also are very bitter/tough/offputting to all but the craziest of cats.

Eg ficus and spider plants show up on some of these lists, but 90% of cats won’t eat them, and 95% of the remaining cats would be very hard pressed to eat enough to hurt them.

Remember, both onions and garlic are technically toxic to humans.

My point is, appearing on someone’s (often sloppy, unreferenced) list of ‘technically toxic to cats’ is not necessarily a reason to never own one, a lot depends on the cat, their access, and their ability to not eat very large amounts of noxious plant matter.

I’ve known cats I would trust with ‘toxic’ plants after some light monitoring, I’ve known cats that never showed interest in any plant, I’ve known cats that cannot be trusted not to kill themselves in a sealed padded room.

I generally recommend these as easy novice indoor plants: Pothos, sansevieria, jades, echeveria, Chlorophytum, air plants, angel wing begonias, papyrus spp., dracenas, anthurium, Easter lily, xmas cactus.

The succulents depend on the sun room angle, and I’m sure some of those show up on some ‘toxic to cats’ lists, but I’ve found them to be generally unattractive to cats, ymmv.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:29 PM on November 5, 2018

I've had happy basil and mint indoors. Near sunny windows, and in separate pots, because mint's pretty aggressive. Cat-specific safety tips, deterrents.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:56 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ficus Lyrata, or fiddle leaf fig, is a gorgeous showstopper that isn't that hard to care for.

Pothos is the easiest plant of all time.

For both: let it dry a little between waterings, make sure it drains well, give it a cool shower in the bathtub every couple weeks, and don't make sudden changes in the amount of light it gets.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:02 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been unable to kill: spider plants, wandering jew, christmas cactus, pilea peperomioides/chinese money plant, money plant, jade plant and they are all safe for cats afaik.

Weeping fig/ficus is a lovely plant if you have lots of light and fwiw I know people who have them with cats around but they are listed as toxic to pets. Pothos are also great but apparently toxic, I hang mine from the ceiling to keep them away from our cat.
posted by lafemma at 5:03 PM on November 5, 2018

My family has a pothos that's survived at least three generations (I currently have a cutting of it and my mom has the mother plant) and has been propogated into more plants than I can count. Nothing will kill this plant. It will live on with cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust. It has survived months of neglect and severe overwatering without dropping a single leaf.

As a bonus, it sends out this long shoots that can be draped around windows, dragged up steps, etc for a nice touch. Beware: if you do not trim it it will form a massive vine that will slowly take over your living space. Even if you cut off the excess shoots, the tiniest drop of water will have it grow into a new plant seemingly instantly. Beware. Proceed with caution.
posted by Amy93 at 5:52 PM on November 5, 2018

Another good starter plant is a something in the Crassula family. They're a hardy succulent that like a sunny spot and get along with a weekly watering. "Tom Thumb" or "String of Buttons" are common choices. They like to be transferred into cactus mix, but don't need huge pots. Our dog showed no interest in them. Not sure what a cat would do.
posted by dws at 6:15 PM on November 5, 2018

Jade plants are pretty great and at least in my experience pretty hardy. We have one that over time has grown from a leaf in a Dixie cup to a juicy thundering 3-foot tall beast with fairly consistent benign neglect on my part. When it drops a leaf and starts a new plant, I move the leaf to a paper cup filled with potting soil and start the cycle anew. These small jade children are my standard housewarming gift to people unsure if they can handle the reasponsibility of a plant- I’m 4 or 5 and a couple years in and so far there have been zero fatalities.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:00 PM on November 5, 2018

I agree with the people above on the Snake Plant (mother of tongue). It needs very little water and not very picky about its growing conditions. Plus it grows relatively fast!
posted by oracleia at 6:18 AM on November 6, 2018

FWIW, my cat only really likes to eat grassy plants, like spider plants. He's completely disinterested in our rubber plant, calathea, clusia or fiddle leaf. We put the spider plant on a high shelf and try to keep cat grass handy. Your mileage may vary depending on how much of a herbivore your cats are.
posted by nerdfish at 6:52 AM on November 6, 2018

With the caveats that: reliable information on toxicity is difficult to find (I have been unimpressed with the ASPCA site in the past), what's "easy" will vary from household to household according to what you're willing to do for the plants, and I am human and make errors.

indicates plants better suited to lower light.

Some plants which are not toxic may nevertheless be dangerous because of spines, thorns, serrated edges, etc. (indicated by !!)

Easy and nontoxic:

Asplundia 'Jungle Drum' (usually sold as Carludovica 'Jungle Drum')
Beaucarnea recurvata (ponytail palm)
Begonia cvv. vary a lot in ease of care, but the ones that are easy are very easy
Billbergia nutans (queen's tears) and other Billbergia spp./cvv.
Callisia fragrans (basket plant, inch plant)
Chamaedorea metallica (metallica palm)
Crassula ovata (jade plant)
!!Cryptbergia x rubra
Epiphyllum cvv. (orchid cactus)
Hatiora salicornioides (drunkard's dream)
Haworthia spp.
Leuchtenbergia principis (prism cactus)
!!some Neoregelia cvv., though ease of care varies
!!Pandanus veitchii (screw pine)
Peperomia clusiifolia
Peperomia ferreyrae
Peperomia pereskiifolia
Peperomia obtusifolia (baby rubber plant)
Plectranthus amboinicus (Cuban oregano) (counts as an herb; one can cook with it)
Plectranthus verticillatus (Swedish ivy)
Rhapis excelsa (lady palm)
Saxifraga stolonifera (strawberry begonia)
Schlumbergera cvv. (Thanksgiving cactus, holiday cactus, Christmas cactus)
!!Yucca guatemalensis (spineless yucca)


Easy and technically toxic, but worth considering anyway because they're not that toxic:

!!Agave spp.
Aglaonema cvv. (Chinese evergreen) (the pink or red ones are more difficult)
Chlorophytum comosum (airplane plant, spider plant, mala madre)
Chlorophytum 'Fire Flash' (fire flash, mandarin plant)
Cyperus alternifolius (umbrella plant, umbrella papyrus)
Dracaena spp. in general, but particularly D. fragrans (corn plant) and the D. deremensis cvv.
Epipremnum aureum (pothos)
Ficus benjamina (weeping fig)
Ficus elastica (rubber plant)
Ficus lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig)
Ficus maclellandii (long-leaf fig)
Ficus microcarpa (Indian laurel, "ginseng" ficus)
Monstera deliciosa (swiss cheese plant, split-leaf philodendron)
Philodendron erubescens 'Red Emerald' and 'Golden Emerald'
Philodendron hederaceum (heart-leaf philodendron) (in particular the cvv. 'Brasil' and micans)
Philodendron mexicanum
Pilea cadierei (aluminum plant)
Pilea mollis 'Moon Valley'
Pilea nummularifolia
Polypodium aureum (blue hare's foot fern) (toxicity difficult to verify, but I do think it's safe)
Whichever Schefflera you don't already have (it's either S. actinophylla or S. arboricola)
Scindapsus pictus (silver pothos)
Spathiphyllum cvv. (peace lily)
Syngonium podophyllum and S. wendlandii (arrowhead vine)
Tradescantia pallida (purple heart, purple queen)
Tradescantia spathacea (Moses in the cradle)
Tradescantia zebrina (spiderwort, wandering Jew)
Zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZ plant, eternity plant)


Nontoxic but slightly challenging (though they might nevertheless work out fine for you):

Aechmea fasciata (silver vase plant) and other Aechmea spp.
Aeschynanthus spp. (goldfish plant, lipstick plant)
!!Ananas comosus (pineapple)
!!Araucaria spp. (Norfolk Island pine, bunya-bunya tree)
Aspidistra spp. (cast-iron plant) (*most people find them easy, but I don't)
Chamaedorea elegans (parlor palm), C. seifrizii (bamboo palm), C. cataractum (cat palm) (*most people find them easy, but I don't)
Cordyline fruticosa (ti plant)
!!Cryptanthus cvv. (earth star)
Ctenanthe burle-marxii
Dracaena reflexa cvv.
Episcia cvv. (flame violet)
Hoya carnosa (wax plant, wax flower), H. bella, H. lacunosa
Nematanthus cvv. (guppy plant)
Pellionia pulchra
Phalaenopsis cvv. (moth orchid)
Saintpaulia cvv. (African violet)
Stromanthe sanguinea cvv.


Easy but dangerous; DO NOT get these:

Albuca bracteata (aka Ornithogalum longibracteatum) (pregnant onion)
Clivia cvv.
Dieffenbachia cvv. (dumb cane)
Eucharis grandiflora (Amazon lily)
Euphorbia tirucalli (pencil cactus); most of the other Euphorbia spp. too
Hedera helix (English ivy) and H. canariensis (Algerian ivy)
Hippeastrum cvv. (amaryllis)
Ledebouria socialis (silver squill)
Lilium longiflorum (Easter lily) (not actually easy, but very, very toxic so I'm including it on the list anyway)
Pachypodium geayi and P. lamerei (Madagascar palm)
Pedilanthus tithymaloides (now technically Euphorbia tithymaloides) (devil's backbone)
Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue) (It may be an overreaction on my part, but I know someone personally whose cat died after chewing on one. I think the cat was already pretty old when this happened, but it still makes me hesitate to recommend them for people with cats.)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:51 AM on November 6, 2018

There are a number of hard-to-kill plants that are great as indoor plants. Even as a beginner, there are plenty of options that you (and your cats) will love.

Easy to maintain and hard-to-kill houseplants

Snake Plant aka Mother-in-Law’s Tongue
This plant actually prefers drier conditions so there’s no need for constant sun, especially if you don’t have it to begin with. It’s a pretty hardy plant so even if you water it a lot or it gets too much light, it will keep chugging along. It also acts as a great air purifier as well as looking great.

Like other cacti, aloe vera asks for a lot of sunlight and very infrequent watering. So it’s okay if you accidentally forget about it. Make sure the soil is completely dry in between watering, this may mean watering as little as every two to three weeks.

Golden Pothos
This one loves to be kept out of direct sunlight and will only need watering when the soil becomes dry to the touch. These can grow quite quickly and will add the perfect amount of greenery to a room. Please see here for climbing plant advice.

A hardy choice, cast-iron plants can handle high light, low light and extreme temperatures. It’s also great during droughts and slow-growing. A perfect all-rounder for beginner growers.

Easy to grow herbs indoors

Many people grow herbs indoors for year-round use. Some are easier to grow indoors than others. The easiest herbs to grow indoors are lemongrass, basil, thyme, chives, mint and parsley.

Some plants are known to be toxic to cats so be careful before buying them just in case your cats decide they want to start eating plants again!
posted by joebailey at 3:01 AM on December 3, 2018

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