When I told my wife I was going to write something about growing trees indoors, she said: ‘great; now you can tell me what to get, and how to look after it.’ I have to say, I was a bit surprised, but she’s the boss, and I guess we’re going to be growing a tree indoors. So, join me as I discover what you need to know about indoor trees, and how to make them flourish in an enclosed space.
One thing that has struck me when researching this article is the popularity of indoor trees. Plants are one thing, but a tree is on an altogether bigger scale. I think we’ve all seen large indoor trees growing in shopping malls or mega-offices and wondered how it got there, and how much it takes to look after. I guess the prospect of something like that was filling me with dread.
However, after a quick look around, I discovered that not all trees you grow indoors have to be full-size, and younger specimens can flourish inside a home or office. Most of us are not in the position to grow a tree inside our home, as there is not enough space, or the structure of the building will not take the weight. That means we have to look at trees that can happily live in planters or large pots.
Where to start? I think the first questions you have to ask yourself are where do you intend to put your indoor tree, and how big will it grow? Finding a spot in a modern apartment may be tricky, as there’s not much space, and they usually have low ceilings, with little headroom for growth. So, it’s often better to choose the plant to fit the space, rather than look for a space to match the plant. Small pot plants can go just about anywhere, but if you’re thinking of a palm, that can grow six feet tall, then you have to find a spot where it’s not going to be crowded. You’ll also need easy access for watering. The other factor that controls plant growth is light. Some require a spot where they will get a lot of sun all year round, whereas others prefer somewhere more shaded, with the sun for only part of the day.
Bearing all this in mind, here are some thoughts on a selection of the most popular trees to grow indoors.
Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaena Marginata) & Corn Plant (Dracaena Fragans)
The Dracaena family includes around 120 different species of succulent shrubs and trees. They’re tropical varieties from Africa and are noted for being low maintenance. Both of these types of tree don’t need bright direct sunlight and can work in shaded areas of the home, or places that only get indirect sunlight for part of the day. As they are tropical plants, they need regular watering when the soil gets dry, and monthly feeding during the spring and summer. The Dragon Tree and Corn Plant can both grow up to 10 feet tall, so positioning for expected growth is essential. Interior hallways and stairways are a particularly good spot.
The Madagascar Dragon Tree has dramatic stiff and spiky green leaves with red and pink edges. If kept in the shade the edge colour may disappear. All-in-all it’s a relatively simple to maintain plant and will steadily grow if well cared for.
The Corn Plant has broad leaves, and the dark green is accented by a lighter green band down the centre, that resembles sweet corn. That’s how it got its common name. The leaves are at the end of thick stems like canes that can quickly grow six feet high. During the growing season, the Corn Plant needs fertiliser every couple of weeks or so.
Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus Lyrata)
When you look online trying to figure out what indoor tree to grow, the Fiddle Leaf Fig appears to be on everyone’s list. It’s probably one of the most popular indoor trees because it is so easy to look after. It’s one of those plants that relish sunlight, so putting it close to a south-facing window will give it all the sun it needs. However, there is one thing the Fiddle Leaf Fig doesn’t appreciate, and that is drafts. For some reason, it doesn’t take kindly to a stream of air flowing through its leaves. So, keep away from open doorways or air conditioners. Watering is not a problem, but the soil and the container must be well-drained. When the surface of the earth is dry, the Fiddle Leaf Fig can be drenched until water comes out of the drainage holes in the bottom of its container. The root system grows relatively quickly, and you may have to repot this tree every year to make room. The dense foliage on young specimens spreads out as it matures and grows to look more like a tree.
Rubber Plant (Ficus Elastica)
One of the perennial indoor tree favourites is the Rubber Plant. Even though it’s been going in and out of fashion, this plant has been gracing homes for decades. The Rubber Tree plant will grow tall if tended correctly. Even though it is hardy, it doesn’t like too much water or too much light. Getting the right balance will allow the Rubber Tree plant to thrive. It’s essential to place the plant out of direct sunlight and to keep an eye on the soil, as it needs to be kept moist during the growing season. Little and often is the key, and when things go dormant in the colder months, there is no need to water it more than every couple of weeks. Too much water will see the leaves turn yellow and then brown, and eventually fall off. The plant will tell you it needs more water when the leaves begin to droop. Eventually, the Rubber Tree plant will grow to almost 8 feet tall if cared for with regular watering and not too much sun. Minor pruning will encourage bushier growth of the variegated coloured leaves.
Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
The name suggests this is a type of pine tree, although it’s not. Even so, it is popular around the holiday season and is often sold as a living year-round Christmas Tree. The Norfolk Island Pine is a tropical plant and needs to be taken care of as you would an orchid or gardenia. It thrives on high humidity, so it’s a good idea to fill the bottom of the planter or pot with a water-filled pebble tray, so there is always a humid atmosphere around the plant. Spraying with a water mist every week is highly recommended. To get the most from the Norfolk Island Pine find a spot in the home where it’s going to get as much bright direct sunlight as possible. It can tolerate indirect light but prefers the more lighted areas around the house. When the soil around the base of the plant feels dry, then it’s time to water. Liquid fertiliser will promote growth in the summer months. The pyramid-shaped tree can grow as high as 8 feet and will need space for the lower parts to grow out. Over time these lower limbs will naturally turn brown and die back.
Umbrella Tree (Schefflera Amata)
Here’s another of those tropical plants that can feel right at home in your house or office. In the wild, they come from humid environments, but they can adapt to the drier air you find in a regular home. You’ll need plenty of room for a mature specimen, as the Umbrella Tree grows up to 8 feet tall, and has a widespread like an umbrella. There is a dwarf variety that will grow no more than 3-feet tall. The leaves are glossy and due to its hardiness are unlikely to turn brown at the tips if underwatered. This is a plant that prefers to be underwatered, as overwatering can cause root rot, and turn the leaves black. Make sure the soil in the planter is well-drained, and that it stands in indirect sunlight. The Umbrella Plant is susceptible to spider mites and mealy bug and needs to be inspected every few weeks to keep a check on the pests.
Jade Plant (Crassula Argentea)
This is just what you need if you are looking for something that has the appearance of a tree to grow indoors. The Jade Plant is a tropical succulent that does well indoors, and that is part of its appeal. They do well in parts of the home with slightly cooler temperatures and prefer the soil not to dry out during the spring and summer growing season. In the winter they can deal with less water. However, it’s advisable not to wet the leaves, so avoid splashing them when watering. If the leaves begin to turn brown, it’s a visible sign the plant is not getting enough water.
Parlour Palm (Chamaedorea Elegans)
In Victorian times every home would have a potted palm tree. The most popular was the Parlour Palm, because of it’s inexpensive, easy to care for, and thrives indoors where other plants struggle to grow. What made it a hit for the Victorians was that this was a plant that didn’t need a lot of sunlight to survive, and could be placed in a shadowy corner of a room and still look good. The Parlour Palm can also withstand a degree of under watering most other indoor trees cannot. The best advice is to only water when the soil looks dry. These decorative plants have made a comeback in recent years, and have become popular in offices where maintenance and watering schedules can often take a back seat.
Weeping Fig (Ficus Benjamina)
One of the most graceful trees you can grow indoors, the Weeping Fig is another plant that tolerates low light better than most house plants and doesn’t like to be overwatered. The Weeping Fig is a tree that can outgrow your home if you let it. The arching branches can take over unless they are gently pruned. The tree is very decorative with its charcoal grey bark and bright teardrop-shaped leaves. The exciting thing about the Weeping Fig is that it will tell you it’s not happy by dropping its leaves. When this happens you know it’s time to water or move it away from a cold draft or dry, hot air. In the autumn the tree will generally drop a few leaves.
Yucca (Yucca Elephantipes)
It’s a bit like swings and roundabouts with the Yucca. As it comes from the desert, it can get away without being watered regularly, but if you want it to thrive, it needs as much sunlight as possible. The Yucca with its thick trunk and spiky leaves is typically seen in offices all around the world. The hot and dry environment is almost like the desert conditions the plant enjoys most. An excellent specimen can grow up to 8 feet tall, with a slender trunk, and a bushy outcrop of sword-shaped leaves on the top. As with many desert plants, the Yucca is slow-growing, so if you want to be a focal point of a room, buy the biggest you can afford.
Money Tree or Guiana Chestnut (Pachira Aquatica)
Initially, this is a South American plant from the wetlands, although that doesn’t mean it likes to be over watered. On the contrary, the Money Tree likes good drainage to survive. The slender trunk of the tree is often sold braided. It comes from its association with East Asia, where it is called the Money Tree as it is meant to bring good luck. The new growth three has a green trunk which changes colour and texture over time, becoming rougher and a dull grey-brown complexion. The tree can tolerate lots of water provided; it has plenty of light. If left to its own devices, the Guiana Chestnut grows to 60 feet tall in its natural habitat but can be trained to be more compact at about 5 feet indoors.
As you can see, the most popular indoor trees are not what you would expect. Although they’re classed as trees, they’re really like bushes. That may be a good thing as outdoor trees usually have massive root networks, which need to go deep underground to support their height and weight.