How long do indoor plants live? A gardening magazine recently wrote that houseplants typically last two to five years, after which the author suggested it’s best to invest in a new plant. I’m afraid the writer vastly underestimates the power of a grandmother with a watering can and a little potting soil.
Long-lived houseplants are more common than we might think. A few years ago, I asked readers to comment on houseplants that were in their families for many years. My mailbox was filled with reports of Christmas cactuses, snake plants and ivies that were decades old, some over a century.
The average lifespan of houseplants is difficult to determine because their birth and death dates aren’t recorded in plant obituaries. The oldest currently living houseplant of record is located in the conservatory at London’s Kew Gardens. The 246-year-old Eastern Cape cycad has been growing in a pot since 1775.
People take their houseplant seriously. In 2014, a lady in Pittsburgh left a sizable inheritance to her Philodendron, so the 42-year-old companion plant would be well cared for after she was gone.
The lives of humans, pets and other animals span an average number of years, and there’s pretty much a maximum life expectancy. Indoor plants, on the other hand, have no predetermined lifespans, and botanists generally agree there is no definite end point.
The longevity of houseplants doesn’t depend upon whether they drink, smoke or overeat, but rather on care and growing conditions, including light, humidity, watering, soil, insects and diseases. Theoretically, in the absence of adversity, most houseplants can live forever — that is, until we kill them.
Some plants lend themselves better to indoor conditions than others, and their growing habits contribute to long lives. The following houseplants tend to be long-lived, making them valuable heirloom plants to be passed from generation to generation.
- Christmas and Thanksgiving cactuses: Becoming more elegant with age, these flowering plants are commonly passed along to children or grandchildren of the original owners.
- Jade plant: Members of the succulent group, they continue to grow into miniature trees, becoming larger as decades pass.
- Boston fern: The ease of dividing makes it easy to perpetuate ferns, even if they become crowded.
- Sansevieria snake plant: The sturdy plant simply keeps adding new sprouts to the clump’s perimeter, becoming wider and taller with age.
- Rubber plant (Ficus elastica): The large-leaved tropical native has a treelike nature, contributing to its long-lived tendency.
- Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina): Another treelike houseplant that will live for many decades under proper conditions.
- English ivy: Because it’s a tough outdoor vine in milder climates, it enjoys a long life indoors, if its susceptibility to spider mites or other pests is kept in check.
- Philodendron: The large family of plants includes vining members and large-leaved tropical forms.
- Monstera: Nicknamed split-leaf Philodendron or Swiss cheese plant with its huge rounded leaves, the plant becomes like a tropical tree with age.
- Bird-of-paradise: The bird-shaped orange and blue flowers don’t appear until plants average 20 years old, so patience is definitely a virtue.
- Aspidistra cast iron plant: This nearly indestructible plant gained its nickname during Victorian times when fumes from gas-fueled lights killed many indoor plants, but left this one untouched.
- Hoya: The trailing plants get better with age, rewarding patience with fragrant flowers.
- Spider plant: This classic can be perpetuated by propagating "spiders" or by rejuvenating an aging plant with a drastic cutback.
- ZZ Plant: Thankfully, its name was shortened from Zamioculcas zamiifolia. Although it was only introduced into the houseplant industry in 1996, it has all the characteristics of long-lived species.
- Cactuses and succulents: The slow-and-steady growth of cactus species and succulents like aloe and haworthia encourages longevity.
The following tips can increase the lifespan of any houseplant:
- Develop proper watering technique.
- Fertilize monthly or every other month March through September, discontinuing during the short days of winter.
- Provide the amount of light each plant type needs.
- Check for pests often and treat at earliest signs.
- Provide well-draining, high-quality potting mix.
- Upgrade pot size gradually when needed, but most houseplants are comfortable being slightly pot-bound.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.