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The What, Why, and How of Tropical House Plants

September 10th, 2008

What Exactly Is a Tropical House Plant?

Dieffenbachias in my yard

First of all, is it supposed to be houseplant ( one word ) or house plant ( two words )? I just googled *house plant*, and it asked me “Did you mean: houseplant”. So Google wants to make it one word. However I looked in my old Webster’s Dictionary, and houseplant is not even there. I guess that makes it optional.

A houseplant is a plant that is grown indoors, in your home or office. Most often it is used for decoration, but it also helps to purify the air, since plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.

Tropical houseplants are those that are native to the tropical regions of the world. In such a climate they thrive year-round, and grow to much larger sizes than they would reach in your house. Since I live in the tropics, I can vouch for the fact that my outdoor gardening consists largely of cutting back the foliage, so that it doesn’t take over.

The term “tropical houseplant” is somewhat redundant, since most house plants are originally from the tropics, and consequently have a better chance of surviving in the warm interior of a home or office.

Why Would I Want to Grow Tropical Houseplants?

Oleander - pretty, but not a houseplant

My personal reason? What makes it all worthwhile is the sense of satisfaction when the cutting I get from a friend finally turns into a beautiful plant. It takes skill and a lot of luck to deal with the unique problems of each individual plant. And sometimes, I fail. But, more often than not, I end up with a plant that I am proud to exhibit.

How Do I Take Care of Tropical Houseplants?


Each variety of plant has its own requirements. In nature, a plant will thrive in a location that has what it needs. But when we put the plant in a pot, and bring it into our house, we have to make sure that we simulate its natural setting as much as possible.

To survive, tropical houseplants need light, warmth, and moisture in varying amounts. To thrive, we must also consider such factors as nutrients, size and type of pot, and pest control.

Future posts to this blog will go into more detail about the what, where, and how of growing tropicals indoors.

Note: The pictures above were taken of the Professor’s garden, and show the rampant growth of tropical plants in their native environment. In future posts, I will show pictures of some of my houseplants.

May your thumb always be green

…The Professor, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Related Links

  • Indoor Gardening Houseplants – Indoor gardening houseplants are almost as varied as the plants that grow outdoors. Horticulturists say “almost”, because some species of nature’s flora are not suited to be indoor gardening houseplants. Some are too big, …
  • House Plants Create Lively Homes – What are the characteristics that make house plants such a great addition to the house? Plants and pots both are available in many sizes. You can have tall, small and large or wide plants or pots that are colorful, clear, or decorative. …
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Christmas Plants in the Virgin Islands

December 15th, 2009

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in the Virgin Islands. Here are some pictures of some of the seasonal plants that let us know we’re approaching the holiday season — since it snows only very rarely here in St. Thomas. The Christmas plants with flowers have them only during this time of year.

There are captions for each picture, which you can see by hovering. When you do so, the slideshow will temporarily stop until you move back off the picture. I don’t know the real names of some of these plants, so I’ve given you the local name, if the plant has one. And, as you can see, they are not all “house plants”, but they all could be.

I’m going to use a different method of showing you the pictures this time. Last time, I used a “gallery” script of my own design to be able to show all the slides in a small space. This time, I’m using a “slideshow” script, which is not my own. ( Why re-invent the wheel? This script in my opinion is the best one available on the internet. ) I would appreciate it if you could let me know which of the two types of scripts you like the best.

Which type of script do you prefer for viewing pictures?

April 29, 2011: Here are the results of the survey so far:

Gallery 47 votes ( 78% )
Slideshow 13 Votes ( 21% )
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Tropical House Plant Care – Fertilizing House Plants

November 14th, 2009

Blooming Coleus between two Blooming Vincas

I forgot to pinch off the blooms on this coleus.

Your plants basically need two types of nourishment to survive: water and minerals. They get minerals by absorbing them from the damp soil through their roots. Outdoor plants can often gather all the minerals they need from their surroundings by themselves. However, houseplant care requires more careful attention from the gardener, since the nutrients available from the soil in a pot are limited.

What are those numbers on the bag of fertilizer?

Fertilizers contain the key elements needed: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) in varying proportions. The numbers given on a bag of fertilizer show the relative amounts of these three elements. For example, an 18-6-12 fertilizer contains 18% N, 6% P2O5, and 12% K2O. Other elements are also necessary, but in much lower amounts.

Two Different Coleus Plants

These really are both coleus. The short one had its blossoms pinched off, and the tall one has been grown indoors, so it hasn’t tried to bloom.

How do I decide what proportions to use for my plants?

The amount of each element needed will of course depend on the species of plant. Too much is just as bad for the plant as too little, so it requires a bit of research to learn exactly what is right for your particular tropical plant. Usually this help is available by either reading the label, or by asking your plant-supply person.

What is the function of each of the primary nutrients?

Without going too deeply into biochemistry, we can say that flowering tropical houseplants have a greater need for phosphorus, whereas leafy green house plants like a lot of nitrogen. Potassium helps fight plant diseases, and helps fruit-bearing plants by making it easier to transport other necessary elements through plant tissue.

Dying Coleus Plant

I brought this back in the house, and it began to wilt. It has to lean against the wall. I think it’s had it.

How can I tell if my plant is getting too little or too much fertilizer?

A nutrient deficiency will often cause the leaves to lose color, or to be smaller than normal. To help the plant recover, use a soluble fertilizer, so the nutrients can be absorbed faster. Too much fertilizer can result in brown leaf tips, or in wilting. This condition is easily relieved by soaking the whole pot in water to allow the excess nutrients to be washed away.

How and when do I apply fertilizer?

Personally, I prefer fertilizers that are dissolved in water, as this method is less likely to result in over-fertilization. I mix the fertilizer according to package directions, and then apply it by thoroughly watering the plant, until it flows out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. I find that doing this about every two months is usually just about right.

An article like this one is featured on Ezine Articles

By being careful in fertilizing houseplants, you can make sure that they not only survive, but thrive. And be sure to take advantage of your plant-supplier. He should be happy to give you advice on how to keep your tropical houseplants healthy.

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Posted by Professor and filed under care, fertilizer, tropical house plants | 3 Comments »

Some Pictures of My Houseplants

October 14th, 2009

It’s been almost a year since my last post. I was busy trying to make some money online, so I neglected this blog. But that’s going to change. While I’m trying to monetize the blog, I thought you might like to see some pictures of my houseplants, most of which were taken recently.

Since I live in the Virgin Islands, most of my houseplants are actually porch plants. And most of them don’t get much sun, but they get plenty of light. Since I live on the North Side of the island, and my porch has a roof, they only get direct sunlight for an hour or so except in the summer of course, when the sun comes from the North ( since I’m in the tropics ).

– to enlarge, click on any thumbnail –

Red Flower Planter on Railing Yellow Flowers Mother-in-law's Tongue
Bougainvilla Night Bloomer Night Bloomer Red Flowers

Red Flower

I got a cutting of this plant from outside my local liquor wholesaler’s office. I haven’t found out its name yet. The flower starts out red, then gradually changes to orange, then yellow.

Spider Plant White Begonia Coleus Blue Flower

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Plant Time-Lapse Videos

October 25th, 2008

Here are seven short videos that I found to be really interesting. They are time-lapse videos that show plants recovering from lack of water, plants closing their leaves for the night, plants growing, and plants that move. All of the plants shown can be grown indoors.

Individual videos may be selected by clicking the 2nd button below, or you can let them run automatically. Here is a list, with a brief description of each:

  1. Plant Recovering: This coffee plant was in need of some water.
  2. Plant Closing Up: This “Praying Plant” is closing its leaves for the night. Pictures were taken every minute for 220 minutes.
  3. Plants Growing: Some bush beans are grown from seeds. The video was shot over a 4-day period.
  4. AeroGarden vs Dirt: This is a very effective commercial showing the growth of some lettuce in the Aerogarden kitchen garden system vs high grade potting soil.
  5. Plants Growing: This time lapse shows some corn plants growing over a period of 10 days. It shows both root and leaf growth.
  6. Plants that can Move: Shows a variety of plants that can move on their own volition, including a Venus Fly Trap.
  7. Plant that Moves When Touched: In the Virgin Islands, we call this a “Sensitive Plant”. I have quite a few of these in my yard, but I consider them a weed, since they have very sharp thorns that even go through gardening gloves.

Aerogarden with Gourmet Herb Seed Kit
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Uses High-yield Aeroponic Technology

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Bringing Tropical Houseplants Indoors for the Hurricane

October 17th, 2008

I have noticed that, for me at least, when something goes wrong, that’s not the end of it. Something else will go wrong before the first thing is finished. Well, that’s exactly what happened to me the other day here in the Virgin Islands.

Hurricane Hugo - 1989

The first bad thing was Hurricane Omar. By Wednesday, the forecasts were predicting a direct hit sometime that night or early the next morning. So I began the process of preparing for the worst. Years ago, Hurricane Hugo (left) taught me that it’s much better to “waste time” getting prepared than to gamble on a miss.

When I had finished clearing everything possible off my front porch, it struck me that this was a good opportunity for another blog post. I could show pictures of my house plants before and after the hurricane. I had just purchased a new digital camera, so I learned how to use it, and practiced by shooting pictures of how I had tried to protect my plants from the expected high winds.

Next, I went to my computer to transfer the pictures, and begin writing the “before Omar” post. That’s when the second bad thing happened: my computer crashed! Undaunted, I turned on my backup computer, only to discover the third bad thing: my backup software wouldn’t work on that system. That’s why I’m a bit late in posting this, as I just got through hacking my way into the hard disk from the crashed computer, and I finally have access to the website.


Plants Indoors Before Omar

The first picture shows many of the smaller plants huddled together on my computer worktable. Some of them are already looking a little droopy, as they have never been indoors before. But I have turned on my ceiling fan to give them a little breeze, and I explained to them that this was only temporary, and that they would soon be back outside. I am particularly concerned about the coleus in the back, as it probably has some pretty bad memories of its life before I rescued it from the Home Depot last month.

Plants Outdoors Before Omar

Here are some of the larger plants. I couldn’t fit all my plants indoors, so I have placed most of them up against the inner porch wall. If the winds don’t get too strong, they won’t blow around as much. Maybe they’ll lose a few branches, but at least they’ll survive. In the background behind the (purposely) overturned chair is my largest houseplant — a coconut palm, still in its youth. My two bougainvillas are up against the back wall. They were already living here, as I am trying to get them to bloom, so they need to stay dry for a while.

At the time of this picture, it had rained a bit, but you can see that the porch floor is only wet near the railing, so it hasn’t yet begun to blow. The storm doors on the left will be barricaded shut before dark. I didn’t want to cut out all the light indoors until the last minute. The power is still on at this point, but you never know when it will get shut off. Actually, it stayed on until about 8 PM.


The Eastern Sky After Omar

This view of the eastern sky at about 6:15 Thursday morning looks pretty ominous, doesn’t it — it also looks like it was taken with B/W film. But neither is true … you can’t tell from the photo, but those clouds are moving from west to east. That means that the hurricane has already passed to our north, so I can begin restoring the plants to their former location.

The silver lining is that Omar was a real “wuss” — at least here in St. Thomas. I slept right through the storm. The winds were never strong enough to wake me up, and the plants survived without any broken limbs. By morning it was dead calm, at least at my elevation of 1200 feet above sea level, and the sun broke out about 8:00. The curfew imposed by the governor was lifted at 11:00, and our power came back on before noon.

Plant Nursery after Omar

This is how the west side of my porch is supposed to look. The coconut palm and the bougainvillas didn’t need to be moved, the chairs are back, and the immature plants are back on the railing. It’s early, so the porch is still soaking wet from the rain, which was enough to fill our cistern with good free water.

And if you look closely through the gap in the trees, you might be able to see my neighbors to the west. They still hadn’t opened their hurricane shutters, which surround their porch, so its hard to tell that there’s a house there … it looks solid-white.

Porch Railing After Omar

The entrance to the porch looks normal again, with the large plants sitting on the floor where they belong, and the smaller ones on the railing. The sun has broken through the remaining clouds, and the porch floor is beginning to dry out.

In the foreground are two of my favorites, which will be featured in future posts. On the railing is my original spider plant, which has, at last count, 18 daughters sprouting off the main plant, some with flowers. And the large fern on the floor, which I don’t even know the name of, was a “volunteer” that I found in the yard next to the house.

So all of the problems have been resolved, and everything is now back to normal.

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Tropical House Plant Care – How to Water Your House Plants

October 4th, 2008

An article like this one is featured on Ezine Articles

Too little water … too much water … either one can cause a plant to die. This article will help you decide exactly how much water to use, and what to do if you get it wrong.

What Determines the Amount of Water a Plant Needs?

There’s no general rule that works for every plant. It depends on:

  1. The plant’s environment: Higher temperatures, lots of light, and breezes or drafts will dry out a plant faster. Plants in small pots will need more water, and those in unglazed clay pots also, since the porous sides allow moisture to pass through. The type of potting soil is also a factor — more about this in another installment.

  2. The type of plant: Plants such as cactus that are native to a dry climate may not need much watering at all. Other plants with large, soft leaves need more water, as do plants that are blooming. I water my new cuttings daily, to stimulate root development.

Do all these factors mean that I just have to guess? … Not at all. Just use the “Feel the Soil Rule”. When the soil in the pot is dry to a depth of an inch or so, that’s the time to get out the watering can.

How to Water

Always give your plants a good soaking. It’s much better for them than small amounts applied more frequently. Every month or so, I like to just put the whole pot in a large bucket for a few minutes to make sure that all the soil is getting dampened.

Symptoms of Impending Disaster

How do you know if you’re doing it properly? It’s pretty easy to tell when a plant needs more water. Its leaves will begin to droop. Too much water is a more common mistake. It causes black spots, mold, or a “mushy” feeling in the stems.

How to Save the Day

If your plant is parched, just soak it for a while in a bucket. Mushy plants are more difficult to fix. Remove them from their pot and examine the roots. If they’re mushy too, it’s probably best to throw out the plant. Otherwise, replace most of the soil, and just keep it drier from now on.

Some Other Problems

  • Root-bound plants will need more water than usual. It’s best to repot them.

  • Ceramic pots with no drainage — just be conservative, and watch for symptoms of over-watering.

  • After repotting a plant, the new soil will stay moist much longer, since there are no roots in it to take up moisture, so you need to water it less often.

Once you get to know your plants, it’s much easier. You’ll develop a pattern, and you’ll learn to recognize possible problems before they get too serious.

Related Links

  • Indoor Gardening – The Essentials Of Quenching The Thirst Of Your Plants! – Watering systems for indoor gardens control the quantity of water provided to indoor plants and the frequency with which it is supplied. A number of watering systems for indoor gardens are available to suit the needs of various kinds of plants. You should also deliberate over such factors as the humidity and temperature of the plant location and the kind of container the plant is placed in. …

  • Watering in the Zone – Week 3 – To illustrate how little water houseplants use in low light interiors, I’m tracking this Dracaena Janet Craig ‘Compacta’. It was a new 4″ plant potted into a 2-liter recycled pop bottle planter about 2 weeks ago. No additional water has been added to the plant since then. …

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