10 Secrets of Common Houseplants


Houseplants are so common that we don’t often think about them. When was the last time you pondered your pothos? As it happens, there are some unusual things going on with your potted pets, and we’ve listed ten of them here.

1: Orchids

The root of their name

The root of their name

An orchidectomy is the removal of the testicles for any reason. Why did they name such an aggressive procedure after such a beautiful plant? They didn’t: the plant is named after “testicles” due to the resemblance between its root structures and male gonads.

Because of this, the Turkish beverage “salep” is made from ground orchids, and is purported to be an aphrodisiac. While we find the idea of ground testicles to be anything BUT an aphrodisiac, we have not tried the beverage so we withhold judgement.

The other commercial crop from orchids is vanilla, which is the ground up seed pod of one variety. Each pod contains up to 3,000,000 seeds, which are the smallest seeds in the flowering plant group.

Orchids are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants without directly harming them. They do not grow in soil, though house plants may have a soil-substitute to keep moisture for the shallow roots.

There are over 26,000 species of orchids, with more being discovered every year. It is one of the most complex organisms on Earth.

Many colors, none of them flowers. (Photo by Max Wahrhaftig)

Many colors, none of them flowers. (Photo by Max Wahrhaftig)

2: Poinsettias

Is it pronounced “poin-set-ta” or “poin set-ee-ah”? It turns out, both are acceptable, though the spelling lends itself to “poin set-ee-ah.” Or you can call them euphorbia, which is their genus.

These usually red flowers that usually appear around Christmas aren’t usual at all: they don’t have red flowers. Nor do they have pink ones. Nor white. Poinsettia flowers are always yellow, and you may have never seen them. What most people assume are flowers are actually called “bracts,” and they’re specialized leaves. The tiny flowers are found in the center of the bracts.

Why are they associated with Christmas? Because cultivator Paul Ecke, Jr. came up with the idea of sending free plants to television stations between Thanksgiving and Christmas. After Americans saw the plants on the new color versions of Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials and The Tonight Show, the association was locked in. The fact that they’re green and red doesn’t hurt either!

 3: Snake Plant

No stripes = asexual propagation

No stripes = asexual propagation

Also called “mother-in-law’s-tongue,” because of its sharpness, we’re referring to Sansevieria here to avoid confusion with other plants having a similar name. If you don’t have a a green thumb, these are the plants for you as they require little light, water, or love. But they love you, as NASA found that they’re excellent at processing formaldehyde which can be off-gassed from furniture in offices and the home.

Snake plants have a secret: you can tell if their parents had sex or not. Yes, plants are sexual, and all of the flowers we’re talking about here are sex organs. In the case of the snake plant, those grown from cuttings, that is, asexually, will not have a white band around the edges. This feature is known as variegation, and is prominent on plants reproduced sexually.

Of course, leave it to humans to find a way to lie about sex: if you divide the plant by the root structure instead, the variegation will be maintained.

4: Corn Plant

(Photo by Mokkie)

You’ll notice me when I flower.(Photo by Mokkie)

This is a type of Dracaena and it superficially resembles a corn stalk. Of course, it’s not related to maize, but is closely related to the unusual dragon tree which has a bright red sap.

Corn plants are common in offices because they have a remarkable ability to remove xylene and tolulene from the air. These chemicals are found in gasoline, paint, and other solvents, and they’re not a good thing to be breathing.

Corn plants do flower, though it’s uncommon. When they do, you’ll know it—the aroma is incredibly strong. Some people enjoy the smell, but many describe it as “artificial” or “cloying.”

The plants flower so rarely that it’s common for folks to disassociate the smell from the plant. Corn plants only exude an odor at night, when most offices are empty. In the morning, the smell is in the air, but not coming from the plant.

 5: Chinese Evergreen

(Photo by Mokkie)

Good luck or kidney stones? (Photo by Mokkie)

Another champion of air purification is the Chinese Evergreen, properly known as Aglaonema. These incredibly common plants are often found in malls, hotel lobbies, and gift baskets.

If purifying the air and easy care isn’t enough reason to own one, perhaps you’ll be swayed by the traditional reason to keep them in the home: luck. The Chinese evergreen is known as the good luck plant in parts of Asia.

You won’t have good luck if you eat it. Leaves contain high concentrations of calcium oxalate, which causes severe irritation. That’s the main component of kidney stones, which no one considers lucky.

6: Pothos

(Photo by ZooFari)

Friend to fish, enemy to cats and dogs. (Photo by ZooFari)

Pothos, that plant that is often seen wrapping around diners and barber shops, is a lie. Well, it didn’t used to be: the plant officially known as Epipremnum aureum has been removed from the pothos family, though undoubtedly we’ll still call it that. Even more confusing, it’s also called philodendron, which is a completely different plant.

Of course, it has other common names as well, including centipede tonagvine, money plant, and our favorite Australian native monstera. And though it also helps remove harmful chemicals from the air, it is a monster. When released in the wild, it can quickly overwhelm an area and drive out most other plants. Keep this plant indoors, and away from your cats and dogs, as it can cause toxic reactions in pets.

Unless your pets are fish: “pothos” can actually help them. When grown at the top of a fishtank, the toxin-removing properties are extended to the water as the roots processes nitrogen wastes.

7: Jade Plant

(Photo by Karelj)

(Photo by Karelj)

Jade plants get their name from their swollen leaves, that look like pieces of jade. Very easy to care for, they’re succulents, meaning they store water in their leaves.

In Africa, the Khoi people use the roots as a food source. In Japan, a gift of a jade plant is a sign of friendship. In America, giving someone a jade plant means “we’re afraid you’d kill anything else.”

Japanese friendship, it turns out, is fairly easy to cultivate: the jade plant has the ability to grow from its leaves. All you need do is pick off a cluster of leaves, place them in soil, and another jade plant should appear in time. Sometimes this happens simply because leaves are knocked from the plant into the soil surrounding them.

At some point, different varieties were created by an apparent Tolkien fan: some have names such as “Gollum” or “Hobbit”.

And yes, they do flower. Small white or pink five-petalled flowers appear under the right conditions.

8: Christmas Cactus


Or is that a Thanksgiving cactus?

Yes, they’re true cacti, though they’re unusual. Like the orchids, they’re epiphytes, growing on trees or rocks in their native Brazil. Like all cacti, they have no leaves—what we think of as leaves on the Christmas cactus are actually segments of stem.

They got their name because they flower in the late fall, but there is much dispute over the naming. In the United States, “Thanksgiving Cactus” is becoming the more common name, and there are actually two different cultivars that some claim represent each holiday. If you wish to follow that mode of thought, spikes are found on Thanksgiving cacti, while more rounded leaves indicate a Christmas cactus.

Oh, but that’s not confusing enough. We now have an Easter cactus, which is similar, but represent an entirely different species.

Regardless of the marketing, here’s a tip for getting the most blooms out of your seasonal cactus: keep them dark, cold and dry in the weeks leading up to the holiday season. That’s the signal to the plant that it’s time to produce flowers rather than new foliage.

9: Begonia

(© Raimond Spekking / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL)

(© Raimond Spekking / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL)

Begonias are another large group of plants, with incredible variety. Some have beautiful flowers, others have interesting foliage. But they all share an interesting name, and that comes from Michel Bégon, a 17th century French governor of what would become Haiti.

Known as the man who “turned cities of wood into cities of marble,” he did literally that in the French port of Rochefort. King Louis XIV gave Bégon the royal edict to create the port, but that didn’t stop Bégon from using the port for his own interests: he commissioned scientists to travel the world and bring back plants. For a time, Rochefort was a European center of botany.

One of the plants that captured Bégon’s attention would later be named for him, and the present-day conservatory in Rochefort has more species of begonia than anywhere else.

One other odd fact: giving someone a begonia as a gift may not be a great idea: it means “be cautious.”


 10: Ferns

You’re probably not far from a fern right now, but take a closer look the next time you see one. These things are older than coal, much of which was made by ferns hundreds of millions of years ago. Among the most primitive house plants, they lack flowers, seeds, and fruits, reproducing via spores.

They’ve existed since the Devonian period, which is when sea animals first made their tentative steps on to land. That’s so long ago that if these guys did figure out how to flower, it wouldn’t matter: there wouldn’t have been anything around to pollinate them.

Fern reproduction requires standing water, which is why you’ll find them in swamps and rain forests. As with animals, fern sperm is motile, meaning it swims. Each little sperm must land in water to swim until it finds an egg. And that’s pretty strange for a plant.

Ferns are grown as a crop, as the young fronds, known as “fiddle heads” are popular in the spring when they appear. People roam woods and swamps to collect them for canning or salads.

Featured image of poinsettia close up by André Karwath.

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