The Atwells have added a banana plant with variegated leaves to their living room for, well, variety. You won’t get fruit in our cold climate, but it makes an attractive houseplant. porjai kittawornrat/Shutterstock

Winter arrived late this year. The trees in our yard held onto their leaves well past Thanksgiving, which delayed raking. Finally, though, I can begin paying attention to our house plants. Based on how they look now, I predict a good year for them.

As I began typing this column, emails showed up from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Coast of Maine organics compost company, each promoting houseplants. As a sign from the rulers of the Internet? But let’s start with what we’ve already got.

I am excited that we have two green oranges on our miniature – both the tree and the fruit – orange tree. Previously, it produced one orange that stayed orange on the tree for two years, falling off last winter, but this year it is doubling our pleasure. The ripe miniature oranges – about an inch in diameter – are edible, but we didn’t eat ours last time around as it was a few days before we had discovered it had fallen off. Maybe this time we’ll get to taste them.

On my desk and the windowsill next to it are several plants that I stare at while trying to figure out each week’s column. The terrarium that I created last March at the Portland plant shop Terrarium is going strong and requires almost no care. A purple shamrock, Oxalis triangularis, that I planted from seed more than five years ago is doing well, although it hasn’t blossomed for a while. Right beside it is a coffee tree that we bought several years ago. It has yet to produce any beans, but it has had blossoms occasionally. We also grow succulents of all types, which are tough, attractive and almost impossible to kill.

This year, we added a variegated banana to the living room, bringing to three the number of bananas we grow. They’ll never produce fruit in our climate, but the leaves are large and attractive, and the new plant adds variety. Come summer, the banana plants live on our patio, where they handily camouflage the heat pump.

We have grown bromeliads since the 1970s. At one point we stopped, after discovering that one of our cats was allergic. Her eyes would swell shut if she brushed against a bromeliad. With no cats now, we are bringing back the bromeliads. In their natural environment down south, they grow on trees and need no soil, but we find they do best here in shallow pots with a little planting medium. Bromeliads are prized for their thick foliage, which come in various colors and patterns. The foliage forms a rosette, or cup, that holds water. You may get flowers, but for me it’s the foliage, which lasts for months, that’s the real enjoyment.


We are also growing cannas, or canna lilies, another large plant that used to be popular for its bright, showy flowers. But as hybridizers have done their work, the foliage has become more variegated, and I think it’s now the star of the show. We could take our cannas out of their pots and store them for the winter, as we do with our dahlias and gladiolas, but then we’d need to replant them next spring.

My wife, Nancy, bought some propagating tubes from the online company Ivolador, and we plan to propagate some begonias. These begonias, unlike the beautiful blooming nonstop begonias, are grown mostly for foliage.

Another of our favorites is bird of paradise, which also lives on the patio in the summer. Its orange blossoms (don’t count on getting those every year) look like a bird in flight.

We have one of the plants that the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society recommends: mother-in-law’s-tongue or Sansevieria. Ours is hardy but not striking, though several fetching varieties with colored leaves exist. The Society also mentions the large, low-light loving family of aroids. Philodendron, which comes in hundreds of varieties, is the most familiar of the aroids.

Coast of Maine recommends the classic holiday plants: Christmas cactus, poinsettia and cyclamen. Christmas cactus comes in two types; the most common blooms before Thanksgiving and is done by Christmas. Poinsettia and cyclamen are typically bought in bloom. They can be made to rebloom in subsequent years, but most people just compost them.

You needn’t stick to what Nancy and I grow indoors, or what the catalogs recommend. Take a pleasant trip to your favorite plant shop or even the plant section of the grocery story, see what looks good to you and buy it. Do read the labels first, though. Little is worse for a gardener than to ignore the labels and, say, inadvertently buy a sun-loving plant when your home has no sunny windows.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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