Houseplants for houseplant killers

My Hoya carnosa or wax plant is pushing the Big 3-0

Like the Brave Little Tailor in the fairytale, I should wear a sash reading, Helen the Houseplant Killer. It’s my specialty, particularly in creative ways.

Most houseplant killers do it with too much love – by over-watering. My poison, on t’other hand, is neglect. I forget them. If you share my murderous tendencies, any houseplant that passes the Helen test is one worth knowing.

My first all-star is Hoya carnosa – the same one mishandled so egregiously in 2009 is still ticking.

While mine never flowers – it likely needs more indoor light than it receives – it remains an attractive foliage plant with glossy, speckled leaves. The key to its success at my house: I can forget to water it. And often do. It also enjoys an annual summer vacation outdoors. This year, I bent a wire coat hanger into an O and trained the trailing stems around it. Perhaps it will bloom for me… one day. [UPDATE: Reader, it did.]

Sansevieria trifasciata, also known as snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue

A year ago, my nephew gifted me my next all-star, Sansevieria, on my wanted-list due to its reputed indestructibility. So far, it has lived; and lived up to its billing. It’s also a “clean air plant,” said to remove air-borne toxins.

The handsome, strappy leaves (albeit, like most things at my house, a little a lot dusty) are patterned like snakeskin and sharp like a mother-in-law’s tongue – my own mother-in-law’s excluded – hence the common names.

My son has a Sansevieria cylindrica, an unusual form with cool, tubular leaves. It passed the trauma test when it was accidentally packed up and left in storage between moves for five months – emerging virtually unscathed. Clearly, in all senses, a keeper.

Zeezee plant’s attractive leaves (left) and its fleshy, water-retaining roots (right)

My latest acquisition is Zamioculcas zamiifolia also known as zeezee or ZZ plant, which one expert calls “nearly bullet-proof.” The test will be how Helen-proof it is over the (hopefully) long term. I admired it first for its distinctive, shiny leaves and was thrilled to learn that it is so easy-care. At Plant World’s Boxing Day sale this year, Sarah nabbed me one for 30% off. What luck!

Aeschynanthus marmoratus is a form of lipstick plant also called zebra basket vine for its mottled leaves

Having passed the one-year test, the Aeschynanth or zebra basket vine deserves a place on the list. This unfussy member of the huge Gesneriad or African violet family is satisfied during winters with only occasional watering and a perch in my bright northwest window. It makes tiny but interesting tube-shaped flowers, even for me. Summertime, during active growth when I’m more reliable with a watering can, it will be moved to a spot in bright shade outdoors.

Mine came from cuttings which rooted easily in water, and I’ve satisfied its need for well-aerated roots by mixing potting soil with the wood chips from an orchid – admittedly, an orchid I’d killed.

Phalaenopsis or moth orchids are (usually) amongst the easiest orchids for beginners

The baby-step orchid is the moth orchid or Phalaenopsis. That being said, I did kill my first one by looking at its cheap-looking, clear plastic pot and thinking, No, that can’t be right.

Well, yes, actually, it is. That pot lets air in, excess water out, and allows you to see if the roots are green and firm (as they should be) not black and mushy (as they should not). Hide it inside a porous sleeve such as terracotta, if you want, but make sure the roots never sit in standing water.

I repotted my first orchid. Disastrously. But after a primer from fellow Toronto Master Gardener and orchid queen Tena van Andel, I’ve managed to keep Moth #2 above blooming since my birthday at the end of September. Three months! Find the Toronto Master Gardener tip-sheet for orchids here.

Nephrolepsis obliterata ‘Kimberly Queen’

If you like showy ferns, I’ve found one that adapts to over-heated Canadian homes in winter, ‘Kimberly Queen’ Australian sword fern (Nephrolepsis obliterata).

Often sold as a summer container plant, it has a more upright habit than its fussier look-alike cousin Boston fern (N. exaltata), and will take summer sun.

But I learned how well KQ grew indoors a couple of years ago, when I hauled an entire urn of it inside one fall to avoid a frost, and simply left it there. It was watered when I remembered, and shed remarkably few fronds. It went back outside in spring and soon rebounded.

Next autumn, I repeated the process – in fact, it was our “Christmas fern” for lack of an indoor Xmas tree last year.

This summer, I added a second KQ (at right), and divided the first at the end of the summer, again in its outdoor pot.

While a little more lank than if grown in ideal conditions, it still looks perky after three months indoors, even with underwatering in dry, hot air and relatively low light.

The secret might be having a large, non-porous pot to hold moisture in the root zone. Still, this is a fern that has weathered Her-icane Helen, so good on her. And it’s a “clean-air plant” to boot. Queenly!

What are your favourite unkillable houseplants?


  1. The ZZ Plant you posted has to be my favorite of all easy to grow houseplants. I'd add a jade tree to the list, but some people say they have a hard time growing them, but I just don't understand how that can be.

    1. MBT, I agree about jade plant, and 20 years ago used to have a good-sized specimen. However, someone swiped it from its summer vacation spot at the time, and strangely I've never replace it. Thanks for the reminder. I'm really looking forward to cohabiting with ZZ. I suppose you could say that ZZ is Tops.

    2. My first jade lasted almost 8 years then died from some weird, as-yet-unnamed disease that put beige veins all over the leaves, making it look like a dry, cracked dessert floor. The only difficult I ever had with it before that was trying to repot it without accidentally knocking off half the leaves and keeping it from toppling over with the weight of it.

    3. Anna, those "beige veins" might have been cracking on the leaves, and if so were related to *over*-watering. Jade plants like to dry out completely between drinks, especially when dormant in winter.

    4. Hey guys, I am in South Africa and as such do not really know about harsh winters and moving plants in and out… Coldest it gets were I live might be 0 degrees Celsius or a few below that if it is really cold at night. We plant our jade plants in the garden. They are extremely easy to propagate, as you just shove one of the pieces that broke off into the ground and water it, or not, and pretty soon you have a new jade plant.

      I was not very worried about the beige veins as I thought if this plant dies, I have a few clones about the place, so it is good to know that it is over watering, and not some disease.

      I too kill houseplants as a rule. Don't buy me cute little bonsai, don't buy me Azalea's or hydrangea's – not if you don't want em dead.

      What works great is the Peace Lilly ( this great plant shows you immediately that it is time for a water when it's leaves hang down low. If it gets it soon enough, voila! It perks right back up. Also cleans the air inside the house.

      Another keeper is Aglaonema ‘Silver Queen’. A friend got a small abused rejected plant from a friend who is more of a gardener than she is, it was in her car for days, then she threw it out and it was on the porch for days, and then I thought, well if nobody wants it… So I took it and planted it and it is still going and growing and it even made a silly little flower. It even got ripped out by a bunch of puppies, so I just shoved it back in, tamped it down and it is now still going strong. It gets water when the Peace Lilly gets water and it seems happy enough. I turn it now and then to keep the shape more even as the windows are to the one side.

      I adore plants I cannot kill and what with water getting silly expensive and rains getting less and less, it is better to invest in water-wise plants than to have water guzzlers.

    5. Cindy, Spathiphyllum was one of my first-ever houseplants when I was in university. It never flowered for me, but it was a tough little customer. Aglaonema, sometimes called Chinese evergreen, is another. And so is Syngonium, or arrowhead vine. None are quite as Helen-proof as the ones I mention in my post, but they are good beginners' plants. Again, *overwatering* is usually the worst you can do to them.

  2. Those are some lovely looking houseplants and I'm glad they are tough as I am rough on houseplants too. I only recently saw a ZZ plant for sale. I had never heard of it and thought it neat! Happy New Year to you Helen! Looking forward to the fling in Toronto!

    1. Hello, I came across your wonderful site while searching (fruitlessly) for a GTA retailer of the ZZ plant. Would you know of any store/nursery who has them for sale?

      Maisie, Z ZZZZZless in Pickering

  3. Helen, this post really did make me smile. I trump you on the Hoya. Mine does bloom. I laughed out loud about the plastic orchid pots. I too have made the same mistake. Currently, I group my orchids and they live en famille. One is a prolific bloomer. It seems to spur the others into blooming two or three times a year. When all bloom in harmony, it makes for a brilliant show.

  4. I have a lot on the killable list, not so many on the unkillable list. I do have a huge Aloe vera that is pretty house hardy. I have a few orchids that have lived a couple years, just hadn't bloomed. (I do have ONE flower stalk emerging!)

    1. Aloe vera is another Helen-hardy plant, although I haven't had one in a while. For your orchids, have you been feeding them? The mnemonic for feeding orchids is "weekly weakly" aka "weakly weekly" — there are special orchid fertilizers, but I think anything with a higher first number (such as tomato food) would work, diluted to about a quarter strength.

  5. I've killed every snake plant I've ever owned. NO idea why! Same with Dieffenbachias.

    My pothos, chinese evergreens and warnecki have all suffered from both smothering and outright neglect and keep bouncing back from the (near) dead every time.

    I've thought about orchids but they look kind of creepy and gross when not blooming, like tongues hanging out with snaking tendrils just waiting to snag you. My mom has one at home and I find I end up averting my eyes whenever I pass it! LOL!

    1. About the only way to kill a snake plant is by over-watering, which is how most people kill houseplants ("too much love"). Mind you, even these guys have their limits to how long they can go between drinks. So, it was likely due to one extreme or the other.

    1. Most of our local independent garden centres (I don't mean big-box stores) should carry Hoya — and I've even seen it sometimes in flower shops. Use the search field in the top left corner of our blog to look for "independent garden centres", as we did a post on them a while back.

  6. Great post. I've found a few on your list simply through trial and error. Zeezee & Snake plant flourish at my house. Despite my best effort, and lots of study, I still can't keep orchids alive. My high score is currently 4 months. Which itself was a new record for me.

  7. Hello there, found your blog while trying to source retailers for the elusive ZZ plant. Do you have any suggestion? I live out in the east end and so have visited Vandermeers etc. over the last 2 years. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Many thanks, for the info and the chuckles,


    PS OMGoodness I'm soo with you on the DA catalogue!

    1. Hi, Maisie, Mine came from Plant World, which admittedly is on the other side of town. But not soooo far away if you really want a ZZ plant. Perhaps if you spoke to the manager at Vandermeers, however, they might be able to source one for you. I don't have any insider info on whether this is possible, but it could be worth a try.

    1. I don't know about cuttings, but I've seen ZZ plant for sale at Valleyview in the northeast end — and Valleyview has very reasonable prices.

You might also like