"What is a good houseplant?" was the subject of a talk by George A. Elbert for the Jan. 7 meeting of the Potomac Valley Chapter, Indoor Light Gardening Society.
George Elbert and his wife, Virginie, have just published a book entitled "The Miracle House Plants - The Gesneriad Family," and also "The House Plant Decorating Book." Among their other books on indoor gardening are "The Indoor Light Gardening Book," "Plants That Really Bloom Indoors," and "Fun With Terrarium Gardening." Elbert is a founder and past president of the Indoor Light Gardening Society of America and is active in a number of other plant societies. Mrs. Elbert, in addition to writting about plants, is the author of several books on crafts.
According to Elbert, the current great influence of indoor gardening in our society comes from the fact that some plants can be produced by the millions and sold by the millions. From the commercial point of view, if a plant cannot be propagated easily in quantity, it is not a good houseplant.The large-scale production and wide availability of these "tried and true" plants has fed the demand of the great numbers of people newly involved and eager to learn about plants.
The boom in houseplants does not come from indoor gardeners who are members of plant societies and hobbyists. They know, grow and test many types of plants. These people, according to Elbert, know that there are many plants which are good in the home but do not have potential for commercial exploitation or have not been recognized by growers with production capacity. Unless the growers learn how to produce them in quantity they remain in limited distribution. The miniature gloxinia, Sinningia pusilla, is just one example, said Elbert; it is a good plant for the indoor gardener, but it will not be a commercial item until somebody learns how to produce and distribute it in quantity.
Elbert emphasized that groups such as the Indoor Light Gardening Society chapters know some of the really good houseplants and should make an effort to preserve them. Members should look back over some of their lists of plants that were among the first on their plant sales tables or exchanges when the group was organized and bring back into circulation some of their first enthusiasms. We need continuity of some of these choice items, he said, and it is unfortunate that some gardeners have become bored with a plant or tired of working with one species and fail to continue to propagate and disseminate it.
The African violet is probably the best houseplant ever "invented", said Elbert. Yet, it is so widely grown and so many cultivars have been developed and distributed that some indoor gardeners disdain it. However, there are many outstanding varieties of African violet and we should concentrate on these and preserve them.
Elbert commented on a number of other plants that qualify as good houseplants. Among them, for beginners he recommends Oxalis regnellii; it doesn't require a rest period (as many Oxalis species do); it blooms prodigiously. Such a plant is an encouragement for gardeners just becoming interested in houseplants. Oxalis martiana aureo-reticulata, with its pink flowers and gold-veined leaves, is an equally delightful example of this diverse species.
Elbert thinks that Lantana, which is an everblooming plant indoors, is marvelous for beginners. If your experience is that it is especially subject to attack by white fly, he said that the remedy is to put the plant under strong pressure of warm water at the kitchen sink several days in a row to remove the pest and its eggs.
Also mentioned was Crossandra, with its bright golden flower display; it is as reliable a bloomer as African violet and its culture is similar.
Some other good houseplants included among slides shown by Mr. Elbert were fine-leaf Boston fern, Nephrolepis 'Norwoodii', crape myrlettes, and Polyscias fruticosa (a good candidate for bonsai and other training).
Elbert also directed attention to the attributes of succelents. He pointed out their value as living sculpture, saying they fit into current structural and architectural emphases in modern interiors. The Euphorbias and Crassulas offer a wide diversity of foams and blossoms, and the Stapelias with their weird exotic blooms are worth the effort for their once-a-year burst of stars. Many cacti are hard to keep growing satisfactorily in the house but the succulents make good houseplants. They are care-free plants - built so that they can do without water - a big advantage with a lot of people, he remarked. He made a special point of the value of a moisture meter in culture of succulents.
The Elberts are now about to publish a new book on succulents. Watch for this book and learn why they recommend getting started in growing succulents in your indoor garden.
A stimulating exchange of ideas in programs such as this one is possible through membership in a plant society. Knowledge and experience in the culture of plants are broadened. Seed and plant exchanges increase the variety and sophistication of your plant collection. In the metropolitan Washington area, there are local chapters of many plants societies, such as African Violet, Indoor Light Gardening, Begonia, and Cacti and Succelents. For names of local contacts, you can call the American Horticultural Society, (703) 768-5700.