WHO ARE YOU going to tuck in with this fall and winter, as the garden starts to rest and we are all indoors more? Do you have any hand-me-down houseplants from a relative, maybe, or plants that you bought yourself that have been with you since college or your first apartment?
Marc Hachadourian, Director of Glasshouse Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and I answer “yes” to both of the above. And he joined me to talk houseplants, and which ones make the best longtime companions to grow and even share—and how to match them to your site and meet their needs. Spoiler alert: He wants us all to start growing African violets again, and some of their other Gesneriad cousins.
Marc is also Senior Curator of Orchids at the New York Botanical Garden’s 55,000-square-foot Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, and author of the recent book “Orchid Modern,” so no surprise that some of his suggestions today are easy to grow orchids because, after all, he’s @orchidmarc on Instagram.
Read along as you listen to the September 21, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “Orchid Modern” (affiliate link) by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.
tuck in with reliable houseplants, with marc hachadourian
Marc: Hi, Margaret. How are you?
Margaret: O.K. I don’t know what I am. I’m not anything Margaret. I think I’m Tired Margaret, @tiredmargaret. [Laughter.] Oh boy,
and I’ve got to haul all those houseplants in because we’re going to have the 30s this week.
Marc: Well, I hope a lot of the exhaustion is from gardening.
Margaret: Yes, maybe.
Marc: All good things.
Margaret: So let’s, shall we say, that you have a lot of quote “houseplants,” like thousands [laughter] in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and that you and your team of about—is it eight gardeners—tend to? Is that correct?
Marc: Yeah, eight gardeners in the conservatory and another eight gardeners in our behind-the-scenes collections house, which is almost the same size with almost even more plants than the conservatory. So you could say we have a lot of children around here. [Laughter.]
Margaret: A lot of houseplants, folks. So congratulations on the conservatory reopening just recently. And I believe that also there was the completion of the renovation of the historic Palm Dome above it [below]?
Marc: Yes. Part the reopening of the conservatory was the celebration of the completion of the restoration, in which we not only repaired the historic structure, but also had some upgrades to the computer-control systems and our ability to really create the most perfect environment for the plants that exist within. We also did an updated renovation and planting, adding almost 60 new species to the Palm Dome—some really fantastic and outrageous new palms to rearrange, not only the theming, but the visitor experience in there. And it looks beautiful. We were standing in there in the bright sunlight the other day and it feels like this over 100-year-old conservatory is brand new.
Margaret: Wow. And I know it was a very strange year to have all of you working. I mean, you were essential because the plants were there and needed you, and yet no visitors could come. And now on I assume, a ticketed basis, visitors are able to come in smaller numbers?
Marc: Yes, visitors are allowed not only on the grounds, which were open a couple weeks earlier but also to visit the interior of the conservatory spaces. [More on NYBG’s reopening details.]
Of course, throughout what was a beautiful spring here at the Garden, it was a real challenge to not be able to celebrate that with all of our regular visitors and our members. But now that the conservatory is open and people can come back, it’s been a real pleasure to welcome back our regular visitors and our members because they’re the real champions. They love what we do, and to see the smiles on their faces and hear those words of thanks and gratitude, because the Garden provides such a place of respite and sanctuary for so many people and there’s such an emotional attachment. They were thrilled as much as we were to have them come back to the Garden.
Margaret: Oh, well I’m really glad. And again, congratulations.
So, we can backtrack and tell people … And I don’t know, a month or two ago, I don’t remember when I called you out of the blue [laughter] and said I wanted your help with a houseplant story for “The New York Times.”
And I blurted out, I mean, it’s not like we talk to each other all the time or we’re best friends or anything. And I just blurted out that, “Well, I have these plants from my grandmother,” and I told you about my Clivia. It used to be her big pot of Clivia that was in our sunroom. And then I took it with me when we sold that house and so on and so forth. And I’ve had it, I don’t know, 40-something years and now it’s three or four big pots and so on and so forth [above, at Margaret’s]. And you right away, you didn’t laugh at me or anything, you right away told me about your grandma plant. So tell us about it.
Marc: Yeah. I think, rather than feeling that you were alone and a little bit of an oddity, you found out that you had another kindred spirit here with the plant that I have from my grandmother. I’ve had a Sansevieria, a snake plant, now for over 40 years, probably 45-plus years now. And it was given to me in a coffee cup, as a single growth, and the plant even has survived a house fire. So if there’s any testament to the durability of a snake plant, this is really the champion. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Wow. And it’ll put up with a lot, please do not set a house fire. But it’ll put up with a lot and it’s not in a coffee cup anymore, I don’t think, right?
Marc: Oh, goodness no. It actually, even though it was 20 years ago, exploded the container it was in. The roots pressure became so much that the terracotta pot broke into pieces. We heard a shattering noise in the next room and you go, “What was that?” And there this plant was sitting bare-root, with shards of pot all around it. And we repotted it and it’s still continuing to grow.
So this plant is definitely happy and healthy and this looks … It probably will outlive me. [Laughter. Above, some snake plants at Margaret’s.]
Margaret: Yeah. That’s kind of the interesting thing for me, was when I took her plant, her Clivia, I never thought, obviously decades down the road, I never thought about, “Wow, this is really a legacy thing, and it could live infinitely.” I mean divisions, fans of it, pieces of it could live forever, if given even half a chance. And with the Clivia or the snake plant, you don’t have to do much, but probably best not to wait till you hear the pot explode in the next room to pot it up, right?
Marc: No, not at all. It was pot-bound but I didn’t realize it was on that verge of destruction, shall we say.
Margaret: Yes. So you’ve written this book “Orchid Modern,” and it’s just so colorful. It’s so full of creative ideas on using orchids and the how-to, of course, in it as well. And in it, you cover a lot of different species of orchids. And I know Phalaenopsis have become sort of a thing. Everybody’s got a Phalaenopsis; it’s become almost ubiquitous. But when we talked for the “New York Times” story, you had some other suggestions and in the book you do, as well, a really easy orchid that maybe people overlook.
Marc: Absolutely. One of my favorite types of orchids that does very well alongside even African violets or a Phalaenopsis, are what are called Maudiae lady slipper orchids [Paphiolpedilum Maudiae hybrids; flower detail above]. They have beautiful mottled and patterned foliage in that classic whimsical lady slipper bloom. And I find that they’re just as easy to grow as almost any other houseplant. They’re becoming more available than they were years ago, thankfully.
And they really are a superb choice for somebody, like the book is geared towards, who has a few orchids and wants to branch out and get something new, something different, expand their orchid growing and their orchid collection. It’s an excellent choice of plant.
Margaret: So medium to low light? When you say among other houseplants, do you mean it doesn’t have to be a super-high light environment?
Marc: No. They’re orchids that do well in medium to low light conditions. And they’re actually for people who live in either apartments or have homes where they don’t have a lot of light. It is one of my first recommendations for an orchid to try in the home. And the benefit of that beautiful patterned foliage makes them even nice to look at when they’re out of bloom.
Margaret: Huh. Wow. And are they grown in bark or, I mean, is it in … Do you know what I mean, the medium that they’re in, or how do they grow? How do they pot it?
Marc: These tropical lady slippers because they’re terrestrial, they would grow in a bark mixture rather than a moss mixture, now that you see with most Phalaenopsis are being grown in. But a fine bark mixture with smaller particles is best for those types of orchids. They prefer to be kept almost evenly moist, not drying out too much between watering, but are pretty forgiving of a range of watering conditions. And they’re not so fussy that they would cause problems for the grower.
Margaret: Huh. When you water … I probably, every time I’ve ever spoken to you, I probably ask you this again and again because I need more confidence. Obviously at NYBG, it’s in a different situation, but in a home situation, do you put them in the sink and let water run through them? Or do you plunge them in a trough of water, a pot of water or whatever. What’s a good way to water, to know that they’re fully watered, when something’s growing in bark like that?
Marc: Well, we certainly don’t walk around with buckets of ice cubes to water the plants.
Margaret: Oh, no ice cubes on the surface.
Marc: But the best way to water orchids in the home is actually by letting water flush through the container.
Marc: The reason why you’re doing that is, watering provides a number of different reasons, a number of different benefits to the plant. Not only does it provide hydration, but the watering of the plant is also how you get aeration around the roots, and you get air down into that potting medium. You want to allow the water to run through the container, watering with tepid water for just a couple of minutes, to allow also any accumulated fertilizer salts or decaying organic matter, like as the bark breaks down, to be able to wash through the container, as well. So watering provides a number of different functions and it’s best to do it over the sink. Let the water run through, rather than soaking the plant in a vessel of water, either.
Margaret: O.K. I will now remember [laughter], I will now behave. I will, I’ll behave. So any other orchids that you want to recommend that we might not know about that are on the easier side like that?
Marc: Absolutely. An orchid that most people, if you showed it to them, wouldn’t even recognize it as an orchid. Jewel orchids, particularly Ludisia discolor [below], has these dark, velvety, almost black leaves with these wonderful red veins through them. They really are one of the easiest and probably best low-light orchids that exist out there. They also do fantastic in terrariums.
So if you have … Then they grow right alongside of other houseplants and they don’t really need an orchid mix. They’ll grow in the same peat-based mix that most of your other houseplants will. They have the benefit, although not the main attraction about them, of having little white flowers in early spring. But it’s really the draw is the foliage.
And if you look up jewel orchids on the web, you’ll see a multitude of different species with fantastic pattern to colored, some even metallic-looking foliages. But Ludisia discolor is very easy to grow in the home. And as the plants get bigger, it’s one of the few orchids that you can actually easily root from stem cuttings. So you can propagate it, as well. And it might take a little effort to find, but it’s well worth seeking out and really an unusual houseplant that most people don’t even think of orchids as being beautiful foliage plants.
Margaret: Huh. Easy to root, that’s amazing. I didn’t know that. So, huh; I had no idea. That’s fun. So making more orchids.
Marc: Yeah. It’s one of the easiest to propagate. The thick, succulent stems sometimes can be brittle, and if one happens to snap off, you can just place it in a container of soil and water it, and then it’ll root on its own and continue to grow and propagate very easily.
Margaret: And what kind of medium are we growing this one in? What would be a good vessel and a good medium? You said it could be in a terrarium but what would that medium-
Marc: Any plastic or terracotta container. The plants prefer to be kept evenly moist in shaded, warm conditions. But in terms of soil, they’re not really that fussy, like some other orchids are. Because they’re terrestrials, they’ll do well even in a Pro Mix—a peat and perlite mixture, something with some drainage and organic matter and they don’t seem to fuss too much at all.
Margaret: Hmm, O.K. Now, thanks to you and our adventure in “The New York Times,” I have my first Cryptanthus [photo top of page], which because I needed to take some extra pictures for the story. And so I went to the nearest garden center that has a good houseplant department, and there was one of these. I think they call them earth stars, is that right?
Marc: Correct. The common name, earth stars, is given to a group of bromeliads—plants related to pineapples—that have these fantastic brightly colored and patterned rosettes of foliage that sit nearly flat to the soil level. There are really wonderful and durable group of houseplants.
Margaret: Yeah. Because other bromeliads that I’ve grown, I guess they were epiphytic in that they weren’t in a pot of soil, exact. I mean, they might’ve been nestled in something like a pot of bark because then they just stay up right. But they had water in their cups and that was the deal, you kept filling the cups with water and keeping them humid, so to speak
Margaret: But this is different.
Marc: Many of the bromeliads like the Urn plant, the Aechmea, the Guzmania, and those other rosette type of bromeliads that have their water storage. There’s a cup in the center, which you keep filled to help keep the plant hydrated.
Earth stars are native to areas where they actually get a lot drier, and they don’t have that same rosette of foliage. What I always loved about them and found irresistible is that as the plants mature, they produce little baby plantlets at the center of the rosette that can easily be popped off, stuck in a pot of soil, and they’ll root and easy to propagate on their own. Growing up I had a bunch on my window sill and I couldn’t bear to throw out the propagations and that they created this little army of them, tucking them in containers of other plants and propagated them in mass.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Oh. So, they’ve been around a long time because they seem to be an it thing now. I mean, I see them more than I used to, I feel like, I mean, in terms of popularity. Maybe because some are screaming pink, like the one I got is mostly pink.
Marc: Well pink is in right now, and they’re very photogenic. And I think the Instagram set has really attached themselves to them beyond the aroids, these colored and patterned foliages. I find them for people with lower light conditions, easier to grow than most succulents. So they have that beautiful star shape with that sometimes bright carnation-pink leaves. And they really almost don’t even look real. They’re really fantastic and deservedly need to be grown even more by houseplant enthusiasts.
Margaret: I’ll give you a progress report in a few months. We are only together for a couple weeks so far, so it’s a newcomer for me.
Marc: Still in the honeymoon phase.
Margaret: Yeah, we are, we are, we are. [Laughter.] I tell it I love it every day.
Marc: Good, good, good.
Margaret: So, you just said beyond the Aroids that we see a lot of on Instagram, like the Monstera I think is this sort of ubiquitous/everywhere, the more holes in the leaves and more variegation the better, crazier-looking big leaves the better, yeah? [Above, from Wikimedia, a leaf of Monstera deliciosa.]
Marc: Absolutely. Aroids are kind of the “it” plants in the moment, and people are rabidly collecting them and paying sometimes exorbitant prices for the rarest and most unusual types. It doesn’t mean that there may be the best and easiest-to-grow houseplants because there’s so many more options out there. Things like Gesneriads, the relatives of the common African violet. I am determined, need to make a big comeback because not only are they easy to grow and propagate, they have spectacular and gorgeous flowers and foliage and are absolutely ideal plants for houseplant conditions because they will tolerate low light, drying out. And I really think they’re one of the great under-sung, under-appreciated groups of houseplants out there.
Margaret: Well, that was such a surprise to me when we worked on the story together. When here you were rattling off all these plants and I’m taking notes furiously, typing and typing and typing. And then you said, “African violet.” And somehow, @orchidmarc, talking about African violets. Because there you are with this collection that has all this history there at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, these plants that have been in the collection for a zillion years, and rarities and things from all over the globe. And you said, “African violet,” and I thought, “Oh, another grandma plant.” [Laughter.]
Marc: Yeah. We see them as grandma plants because years ago, African violets were tremendously popular. They were amongst the most popular of houseplants at the turn of the last century in the early 1900s and even into the 1950s. There were entire societies devoted to African violets. Their popularity has since waned, as other things have come into fashion, but there’s a reason why they were popular. They’re fantastic, they’re colorful. They’re easy to grow, they do well in low light conditions.
And my grandmother used to grow gigantic African violets. And even recently, after this houseplant story, a friend of mine called me up and offered me leaves of an African violet that was propagated from his grandmother’s plant. [Above, from Wikimedia, ‘Pink Amiss’ African violet.]
Marc: So they’re great pass-along plants, and they’re fun little propagation projects, whether it be for yourself or something to do with kids. They can easily be propagated from leaf cuttings with just a few simple steps and really wonderful, wonderful plants for the home.
Margaret: So the few simple steps. We take the leaf off, with the petiole—is that what it is, attached—so, the little stem?
Marc: Yes. The stem of the leaf called the petiole. You just need a glass, a little bit of aluminum foil and a pencil. Fill the glass about halfway up with water, cover it with aluminum foil and using your pencil, poke a little hole in the foil. And you will take the stem of the leaf, the petiole, insert it in so the base of that is in touch with water in the glass. What will then happen is that the foil will help support the leaf and keep it out of the water. And in just a relatively short period of time, that leaf stem will start to grow roots and eventually its own plantlet. And then from there, once it develops a root system, you could pot it up and in a matter of a year or so, you’ll have your own another plant from that single leaf.
Margaret: Wow. The thing that’s so amazing about African violets is, well, I mean the African Violet Society of America just had chapters everywhere. I mean, I think it was founded in 1946 or something. And it’s still very active and they have a great website that has all kinds of details on how to grow them, cultural stuff; I can give a link to that. But you know, they are variegated-leaf varieties, there are minis, there are double flowers, there’s a range of color in the flowers. I mean, it is quite an amazing plant in its own diversity.
Marc: Despite falling out of popularity, African violet breeders have continued creating new colors, forms, patterns, beyond your imagination. In some areas like Eastern Europe and Russia, where the plants are still popular, hybridizers have created things that are unreal in terms of ruffled patterns, every color and pattern imaginable. And if these are not your grandmother’s African violets, they’re spectacular, spectacular things. Which is why I think it’s just with the right moment, they could really enjoy a resurgence in popularity and deservedly so.
Margaret: You heard it here first, from @orchidmarc.
Marc: [Laughter.] Maybe I’ll have to change my name to @africanvioletmarc.
Margaret: I know. I saw on Instagram the other day that you had posted a picture of a yellow flower [above] that looked … It didn’t even look like a flower. It looked like a bird to me. But anyway, it was a relative of the African violet. And I want in the last maybe two, three minutes or so, I wanted to hear about other Gesneriads, other relatives that you’re excited about.
Marc: Well, the Gesneriad family is a huge family of sizes, shapes, colors imaginable. So essentially there’s a plant for every location. The plant, your flower, you’re talking about was a Columnea species native to Mexico that was blooming in the greenhouse. The flowers look like they’re stained glass. They have a base color of yellow and with this kind of giraffe or leopard pattern, chestnut spots all over it. As you look up at them and grows easily in a hanging basket, they really are fantastic. [Above, bloom of Columnea schiedeana.]
Many Gesneriads are hummingbird-pollinated. So they have tubular red, orange, or bright yellow flowers.
And they’re fantastic houseplants because they not only can bloom multiple times a year, but they’re quite durable and tolerant of lower humidity that some other houseplants like maybe Calathea or some Aroids might not like.
But there’s also fantastic plants in what used to be known as the genus Primulina or Chirita, in which they make beautiful African violet-like rosettes of leaves, many of which have silver patterns. And they will produce multiple times a year—these beautiful lavender, blue or violet bell-shaped flowers.
I can keep going on for hours; Gesneriads are just a really wonderful group of plants. And strangely enough, there really hasn’t been a book written on them for years.
Margaret: Oh-oh, I hear a book coming.
Marc: Way back when there was a book written called “Miracle Houseplants,” about Gesneriads. And I think it was perhaps a perfect description of this group of plants. And why they never achieved the level of popularity as orchids or Monsteras is beyond me.
Margaret: Hmm. I have to confess, I croaked a Gesneriad a number of years ago, an Episcia [above]. It was pink-leaved. Of course, that’s why I brought it home—because it had these pink leaves—and it didn’t do so well. But there are easier Episcia, aren’t there?
Marc: Absolutely. Those variegated forms of Episcias, although extremely beautiful and tempting, really prefer to be in a terrarium. They’re a little bit more delicate. But Episcia are close relatives of African violets, and they’re sometimes called flame violets. They have beautiful silver-patterned foliage also with chocolate brown or green markings, as well. And the flowers are bright, bright colors. Pinks, yellows, oranges, and reds.
And they enjoy warm conditions. That’s where the most challenging parts about them, is people wind up keeping them a little bit too chilly, but when they’re kept warm, they will grow well. And even a person here at the Garden has a spectacular specimen, almost growing directly on the radiator, and it’s almost flawless culture, growing next to his desk in his office.
Margaret: Crazy. Well, Marc Hachadourian, I always love talking to you. I’m going to run out now and get 47 new houseplants, of course, but whatever.
Margaret: We’ll give some sources. You turned me on to Steve’s Leaves, an online source, and some other ones [including Kartuz and Logee’s]. Of course, again, we’ll have a giveaway of “Orchid Modern,” your really fun and really beautiful book. So thank you for making the time; I know you’re busy and I really appreciate it. And again, congratulations on the reopening.
Marc: Thank you so much. Well, Margaret, you know I’m always happy to talk about plants with you at anytime.
Margaret: O.K. And Grandma.
more from marc hachadourian
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(Author photo by Chris Kozarich. Ludisia and hybrid Paphiopedilum from “Orchid Modern,” used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the September 21, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).