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Ask an Expert: How to Care for the Most Popular Houseplants

Ready to start a plant collection? Here are some basics.

From left to right: 1. Fiddle-Leaf fig; 2. Snake plant; 3. Spider plant; 4. Monstera; 5. Pothos; 6. Cat palm; 7. ZZ plant; 8. Dracaena; 9. Bromeliad. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Plant Shopping With a Pro

The basics of some of the most popular houseplants, as explained by Emily O’Gwin, greenhouse manager at Bethesda’s American Plant:

1. Fiddle-Leaf Fig

Difficulty: Challenging.

Soil: 50 percent cactus mix, 50 percent regular potting mix.

Light: Very bright indirect to direct sun.

Water: Allow to dry slightly between waterings in spring and summer. In fall and winter, reduce watering and allow to become about 40 percent dry.

Know: Given their finicky nature, O’Gwin suggests trying a small one before blowing the budget on a large tree.

2. Snake Plant

Difficulty: Easy.

Soil: Cactus mix.

Light: Low to half a day of direct sun.

Water: Allow to become about 80 percent dry between waterings.

Know: Though not edible, it’s in the same family as asparagus.

3. Spider Plant

Difficulty: Easy.

Soil: Regular potting mix.

Light: Low to half a day of direct sun.

Water: Allow to dry about 50 percent between waterings.

Know: O’Gwin’s favorite for beginners, it’s easy to propagate and nontoxic to pets.

4. Monstera

Difficulty: Easy.

Soil: 50 percent cactus mix, 50 percent regular potting mix.

Light: Medium to half a day of direct sun.

Water: Allow to become almost completely dry between waterings, then water thoroughly.

Know: It’s a vine, so eventually you’ll want some sort of structure, such as a moss pole, in its pot for it to climb.

5. Pothos

Difficulty: Easy.

Soil: 50 percent cactus mix, 50 percent regular potting mix.

Light: Low to half a day of direct sun.

Water: Allow to become nearly dry between waterings, then water thoroughly.

Know: Dangly growth makes it great for a shelf or hanging basket.

6. Cat Palm

Difficulty: Medium.

Soil: Cactus mix.

Light: Low to direct morning sun.

Water: Allow the first couple inches of soil to dry between waterings.

Know: Its fronds can burn in strong afternoon sun.

7. ZZ Plant

Difficulty: Easy.

Soil: Cactus mix.

Light: Low to direct morning sun.

Water: Allow to become fully dry between waterings.

Know: Tough to kill unless overwatered. Its root system is built to withstand drought.

8. Dracaena

Difficulty: Easy.

Soil: Cactus mix.

Light: Low to direct morning sun.

Water: Allow to dry thoroughly between waterings.

Know: It comes in many colors and styles and is one of the only low-light-tolerant plants that can still get tall.

9. Bromeliad

Difficulty: Easy.

Soil: 50 percent orchid mix, 50 percent sphagnum moss.

Light: Low to direct morning sun.

Water: Allow soil to become nearly dry, then water thoroughly. Mist a couple times a week to keep leaves hydrated.

Know: In its natural environment, it grows on treetops and other high-up spots.

This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She oversees the magazine’s real estate and home design coverage, and writes long-form feature stories. She was a 2020 Livingston Award finalist for her two-part investigation into a wrongful conviction stemming from a murder in rural Virginia.