Plant Care 101

An Origin Story: Where Did My Houseplant Come From?

Learning a bit about a plant’s origins can unlock the mysteries of their unique needs.

Have you ever wondered why some of your plants seem to be so high maintenance? They need the perfect level of humidity. They completely freak out over temperature changes. Well, to understand something better, sometimes you have to return to their roots. 😉

It’s no secret that houseplants didn’t spontaneously start growing indoors. Most houseplants have been optimized to thrive indoors—incidentally by nature or intentionally through human cultivation. But still, they'll always remember where they came from! Just like any living thing, learning about the origins of a houseplant can help you care for them better and understand their specific needs.

The Earliest Origins of Houseplants

Humans are complex creatures. And we’ve always been connected to nature, but when did we start bringing plants into our homes, not just coexisting or tending to them outside?

The answer kind of depends on your perspective. Courtyards as an extension of our homes may teeter on the line between indoor and outdoor space, but we'd argue they are just another room of the house. Courtyards have been a thing since... well, ancient times. So we've been wanting to keep plants in our homes for a ~very~ long time!

Obviously, all of the plants we enjoy indoors started in the wild. But when crafty researchers and botanists brought home specimens from their travels and started propagating those plants, they were able to decide the traits they liked best and use the best ones to grow more. Leading pretty quickly to a focus on plants that could adapt to life indoors and in containers. Perhaps the one common trait of all houseplants is that they are hardy little guys, equipped to survive in extreme conditions.

Because let's face it—keeping a plant indoors in a small pot is an extreme condition!

Fast forward all the way to the Victorian era (and bigger windows!) and it's hard to imagine those fancy parlors without an array of exotic leafy plants. And boy did that "trend" take hold!

Okay, but we are still missing a very important piece of the puzzle here—where are they from?

Where Did My Plant Come From?

One of the beautiful things about houseplants is the ability to tend to plants from all around the world, possibly from parts of the world that are very very different from your own!

The majority of houseplants are evergreen species, which translates most directly to tropical climates with temperatures around 60-80 degrees all year round. But there are a few other climates to consider as well. We'll review climate by climate with common houseplants examples.

Tropical

Tropical rainforests are on or near the equator, meaning the sun is out for a consistent 12 hours of the day, precipitation is evenly distributed over the year, and as we said, it never really dips below 60 degrees.

Most of our houseplants fall into the tropical category simply because their needs already translate to the indoors fairly well. When you imagine roaming through a rainforest—it’s definitely balmy, it might be raining, it’s very green, and there’s a whole lot of tall trees towering above you.

In this imaginary rainforest, the plants you see around the rainforest floor, or perhaps working their way up a tree, are the plants we typically have at home—but bigger!

When you bring home a plant, knowing that they came from a tropical climate can give us little clues on how to care for them. Typically, tropical houseplants like:

  • Evenly moist soil. But still let the top one to two inches dry out before watering again.
  • Bright, indirect light. Keep in mind, they’re used to being shaded by very tall trees.
  • Humidity. Many can adapt to lower humidity, but they will always appreciate a boost!

Some common tropical plant examples include:

Monstera Deliciosa

If you’re out exploring the tropics, you’ll find native Monstera deliciosa growing up trees in Southern Mexico or Guatemala. In this habitat, they can grow to over 65 feet tall! Goals, right? They also produce an edible fruit that some say tastes "delicious", hence the name!

In our homes, they can typically only reach between 6-9 feet—which is still quite the feat. Monsteras grow so tall in the wild because they latch on to very tall trees with their aerial roots. To mimic this in your home, get some moss or coir poles to help your monstera grab on, and grow up!

Pothos

Pothos are found in many warm, tropical places, but the plant was first discovered on the islands of French Polynesia. There are many varieties of Pothos, including the ever popular Marble Queen, Golden, Neon, Satin, and more. Pothos are known for their classic heart-shaped leaves and climbing abilities.

In the wild (and in your home), they also grow strong aerial roots that can attach to a surface and climb. In the rainforest, this would be a tree. In your home, this could be your walls! There are reports of Pothos attaching and climbing a wall so well that they make holes. We love a strong and mighty little plant! But…your walls probably don’t. You may want to give them a trellis or moss pole to climb instead.

Fiddle Leaf Fig

A veritable houseplant icon, the Fiddle Leaf Fig (aka Ficus lyrata for you binomial name lovers out there) is from Western Africa, living in the lowland, tropical rainforests from Cameroon to Sierra Leone. Fiddle Leaf Fig trees, in the wild, can grow up to 50 feet tall! But it is useful to note that the specimens we can grow at home are just little baby plants at a fraction of that height.

In their native habitat, these little ones would be protected by the tall leafy canopy of mature trees.

Fiddle Leaf Figs can also produce fruits that are a type of green fig. At home, they're not going to flower or fruit, but they still look fantastic!

Subtropical

The subtropics are right next door to the tropics! Summer is long and hot, and winter is unlikely to freeze. However, there is a fair amount of variability in the climates that can exist in subtropical regions. They can be humid with heavy rainfall in the warm months or more arid and dry with rainfall in cooler months. In fact, many of the world's deserts can be found in the subtropics!

If you notice a plant is identified as native to the subtropics, keep an eye out for qualifiers like prone to humidity and heavy rainfall (think southeastern China or Florida) or if they are prone to aridity and dry summers (think mediterranean or southern California). For the purposes of this breakdown, we'll stick to the humid subtropics here and go into more detail on arid regions in the next two sections.

A lot of plants that are native to the tropics cross over into the humid subtropics, so you can follow essentially the same guidelines here:

  • Evenly moist soil. But still let the top one to two inches dry out before watering again.
  • Bright, indirect light. Keep in mind, they’re used to being shaded by very tall trees.
  • Humidity. Many can adapt to lower humidity, but they will always appreciate a boost!

A few common examples of plants you can find in the subtropics are:

Dracaena

These plants are native to Madagascar, right at the border between the tropics and subtropics. Sometimes mistaken for a type of palm, one of the most popular variants, Dracaena marginata, is also known as the Dragon Tree! 🔥

They live very well indoors and are pretty easy to care for and quite drought tolerant! Most Dracaenas like comfortably warm temperatures around 70 degrees and do appreciate higher humidity, but are generally adaptable to less than ideal conditions. They also prefer medium to bright, indirect light, but can tolerate low lighting. If you decide to keep a Dracaena in low light, do take extra precautions when watering (allowing up to 50% of the soil to dry out) and keep in mind they won't really grow.

Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise is commonly found in many tropical and subtropical regions, but is native to eastern South Africa. They grow quite large in the wild and have unique, vibrant flowers that appear to have “feathers” and a “beak,” which is how they got their name. While much less likely to flower indoors, a Bird of Paradise makes a statement no matter what with its impressive size, elegant oblong leaves, and instant jungle vibes.

They need well-draining soil and warm temperatures to thrive. Similar to the Dracaena, these plants are drought-tolerant, so it's always best to err on the drier side. They do like a bit of full sun, but avoid placing them in a spot where they'll get direct light for many hours at a time—their leaves might burn.

Savannah (or mixed Woodland-Grassland)

The climate known as savannah is most often found in subtropical or tropical regions, but can also exist in temperate regions. It is distinguished by its transitional nature, often found between woodland and grassland. While there may be a relatively high density of trees, the canopy never closes as it would in other forests, allowing much more light to reach the grassy grounds below. Rainfall is often quite variable year to year and limited to one season. This also translates to dry season wildfires.

Plants from these regions are exceptionally hardy, but they still have their preferences:

  • Fast-draining soil. They're used to rocky-dry habitats and many even have built-in water storage. So while they are well equipped to survive forgetful watering, over-watering is their kryptonite. Not too bothered about humidity.
  • Bright, indirect light. To thrive, they prefer bright conditions, but are generally quite tolerant of low light. Just don't expect them to grow very much.
  • Prefer warmer temperatures. They're fairly adaptable and happy in ranges from 70-90 degrees, but cannot tolerate very low temps (lower than 50 degrees). Keep away from drafty windows!

Snake Plant

While it may be somewhat surprising, Snake Plants originate from a tropical region! They are native to tropical regions of Africa, Madagascar, and southern Asia! However, Snake Plants typically grow in the rocky, dry habitats found around the savannah. This is why we can forget to water this guy for a while, and they really don't mind. The difference indoors is that they definitely don’t grow as quickly as they do in the wild—in some areas, they're actually considered a weed.

ZZ Plant

ZZ plants are native to Africa, from eastern South Africa up to Kenya. They've turned into quite a popular houseplant (or office plant) because they can survive with truly minimal care.

Their roots have the ability to grow as rhizomes, which swell to store nutrients and water!

Meaning they do just fine during periods of drought and barely need to be fertilized.

Desert

What we call the desert is not really a straightforward climate beyond the fact that it's an arid region. Depending on the place and the amount of rainfall it does receive, the extent of vegetation can vary significantly.

We can equally imagine desert as the barren sandy dunes of the Sahara as we can the comparatively lush landscapes of the Sonoran desert with cactus aplenty! While the deserts vary widely, the plants that are equipped to thrive in these arid conditions fall into just a few families, including agave, palm, cactus, and legume (!). And these plants have a few things in common:

  • Fast-draining soil. All plants in this region require a sandy, gritty potting mix that ensures the best possible drainage for their finely tuned roots (finely tuned to taking in water quickly and then almost immediately drying out).
  • Direct light. Unlike many houseplants, these are one of the few that can withstand the harshness of direct light for many hours at a time without any adverse effects.
  • High temperatures. These plants can not only withstand very high temperatures, they prefer it this way. Again, they're adapted to conditions that cause the soil around their roots to dry out quickly and almost completely.

Succulents

"Succulent" is a funny term—it's essentially a characteristic of a plant more than anything else. For example, cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Succulent plants are simply any plant with thickened, fleshy stems or leaves (think aloe or jade) that are used to retain water.

This ability to preserve water means they adapted to areas with very high temperatures and low rainfall—like deserts!

Succulents can thrive with just a bare minimum of water from the mist or dew they might encounter in the air.

Succulents also tend to have very shallow, but wide reaching root systems to cope with the small amounts of rain that are quickly evaporated by the strong desert sun. They must absorb as much as they can as quickly as possible. All of these traits point to an easy going houseplant. IF you can keep your interventions at a minimum! These plants want you to keep your love at arm's length.

Cacti

Cacti can be one of the hardest plants to generalize about. They have adapted to a wide range of environments that certainly include deserts but aren't limited to them! Just like succulents, cacti are usually well adapted to thrive in areas with very high temperatures and low rainfall. But cacti are distinguished from other succulents in that they have areoles—small, round, cushion-like bumps from which spines grow. If a plant doesn't have this, they're not (technically) a cactus.

Oh and don't let us forget about jungle cacti! Sounds like a contradiction, right? Some of our absolute favorite cacti are actually jungle dwellers.

Unlike their desert relatives, these cacti evolved as epiphytes, growing in the mossy crooks of tree branches or on rocks.

So yes, they're accustomed to the humid jungle environment, but they still grow in places that are hot and dry out quite quickly—just like their desert friends!

Wetland

The wetlands are known for having…well, wet land. It's a wetland if there’s water covering it for at least three weeks out of the year—but some wetlands can have standing water all year! Most wetland plants aren’t ideal for indoors as they can be excessively fast-growing. Plants from the wetlands can be good for those of you who may tend to overwater houseplants. But to be clear, you're not trying to create a swamp at home! These plants prefer:

  • Well-draining soil. While your immediate assumption about a wetland plant is that it should thrive in a very swampy situation, it's slightly more nuanced than that for our indoor friends. When you water, they prefer a good thorough drink, but they still don't want their roots sitting in water—so make sure to dump out any excess water and wait to water again until the top inch or so of soil has dried.
  • Bright, indirect light. While these plants can usually tolerate direct light when they're a mature specimen growing in the wild, the younglings we tend to at home are used to being shaded by their taller friends.
  • Humidity. One aspect of their swampy origins that definitely does translate to home care is that these plants love higher humidity. Try to keep them happy with a humidifier or in a humid spot.

Money Tree

The Money Tree originates from the swamps of Central and South America, which means they can withstand damp soil and bright light (especially when they're more mature)! They can grow up to 60 feet in the wild and grow a type of chestnut! But don't expect that at home... They'll stay much more petite and sorry, no nuts.

The Money Tree gained popularity as a houseplant in Taiwan in the 1980s, where it first earned its moniker of "Money Tree" as it became a symbol of good luck and positive energy.

Money Trees often have braided stems to create a more substantial trunk-look in the juvenile specimens we tend to at home. The green stems are particularly pliable, so if your Money Tree is growing out of its braid, you can gently re-braid the new growth and use a tie to keep it in place until the stems have begun to toughen up and turn brown.

What Does the Origin of My Plant Tell Me Now?

While we didn’t cover every houseplant in this article, we hope it’s shown you how much you can learn from a plant's origin story.

Examining the Past

Learning about the native climates that our plants once called home, gives you a great head start to caring for them indoors.

For each plant, you should be able to determine the following from their origins:

  • Humidity needs—are they from a tropical or subtropical area?
  • Watering needs—are they from a rainforest or a desert?
  • Soil needs—what is the soil like where the plant natively grows?
  • Lighting needs—is the plant typically shaded or in direct sunlight?

Many houseplant enthusiasts group their plants together based on where they come from. This isn’t just because we think they look nice together—it’s because their care is similar.

If you’ve been to a botanical garden, you'll have noticed this organization as well. As you travel through each room, the humidity and lighting conditions change to mimic the climate where the plants are from. But imagine if they tried to organize things in another way, like just alphabetically or something—they would have to isolate each and every plant in its own little bubble to provide the right conditions. Just like those houseplant enthusiasts, this grouping isn’t just for fun—it's simply efficient!

Cultivars and Hybrids

At this point, it probably won't come as a surprise that the plant you bring home from the nursery is a long way from home, both physically and generationally. I mean, no one is heading out to pluck each new plant from a distant rainforest.

Indeed, many houseplants are cultivars or hybrids that do not exist in the wild at all.

The word cultivar is a contraction of “cultivated variety.” It is a particular variety of a plant that has been found in nature—it may actually be a mutation or accident that doesn't occur frequently in the wild. But once found and selected, a clever human can cultivate it by propagating more of the same plant. You'll know if a plant is a natural variety when indicated with a “var” in the name. If you come across a cultivar, you'll see a “cv.” or single quotations around the name of the variety.

A hybrid on the other hand is the creation of an entirely new plant by cross-pollinating plant varieties. It can take a lot of time and patience but eventually it leads to a brand new plant that contains characteristics of two (or more) plants in one! The plant breeder generally owns the rights to that hybrid so they can market and sell it. You’ll know it’s a hybrid if the full name of your plant has an “x” in it.

Even though the origins of these cultivars and hybrids might seem more obscure, you can still look back to their relatives in the wild to guide your approach to their care. While they've probably been bred for their resilience to indoor life, they'll certainly appreciate your close attention to their native roots!

Intuitive Care

While we can't give our houseplants the full-on jungle they might yearn for, by getting to know a bit about their origins, the mystery of their unique needs starts to feel less random and make more intuitive sense. 🤓

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