Cultivating Exotic Plants

Raising colourful and exotic house plants is an exciting introduction to exotic species, and recreating their natural habitat offers a challenge of its own.

To the adventurous houseplant enthusiast, tropical plants present a challenge out of the ordinary. Tropical plants not only need warmth, but also a damp and humid atmosphere. High temperatures are usually quite easy to create, but maintaining high humidity is difficult. Plants can be mist sprayed frequently, but the effects of this are quickly lost, and too much can soon damage upholstery, curtains and carpets. However, there are some simple and easy ways to create the right conditions.

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Surprisingly large number of house plants come from the steamy jungle floors of Central and South America or Southern Africa, and these tropical atmospheres have yielded some striking and unusual species.

Examples range from the glossy foliage of Dieffenbachia and Elephant’s Ear, to breathtakingly beautiful orchids and lilies, and the resplendant Angel’s Trumpet. A tropical atmosphere, though, is not easy to maintain in a centrally-heated home; dry air and unnatural draughts curl leaves and starve them of moisture. It was the Victorians who hit upon the conservatory as a practical means of cultivating the exotic specimens they collected around the world, and this warm sunny environment, now very popular provides the ideal environment for tropical plants.

The plants shown here are just some examples of the many tropical species, but provide fundamental guidelines for success.

Leopard Lily – Dieffenbachia

  • Description: Long-leafed evergreen. Natural habitat: Brazil and Colombia.
  • Growing at home: Propagate by taking cuttings at stem tips or by taking stem cuttings.
  • Points to watch: Poisonous sap.

Angel’s Trumpet

  • Description: Downy leaves; white, creamy yellow or pink fragrant flowers. Natural habitat: Central America.
  • Growing at home: Propagate by cuttings in late spring and summer. Pot in rich, well draining soil in spring. Keep at a temperature of 27°C (80°F) in spring and summer and at a minimum of 7°C (45°F) in autumn and winter. Water sparingly in September to April.
  • Troubleshooter: Insects gathering around the leaves are whitefly. Spray with a Malathion-based or systemic insecticide.

Arum Lily – Zantecieschia aethiobica

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  • Description: Arrow or lance-like leaves. Large, conspicuous spathe. Natural habitat: South Africa.
  • Growing at home: Propagate seed in spring in warmth or by offsets separated at potting time.

Slipper Orchid

  • Description: Thick, fleshy leaves with waxy flowers. Natural habitat: Tropical Asia.
  • Growing at home: Propagate by division when repotting. Move plants in pots one size larger when flowering is over or when pots get crowded. Keep temperature constant at 20°C (68°F).
  • Points to watch: Do not bury leaf bases or they will rot. It must have warmth and a high level of humidity. Grow in a glass terrarium or stand the plant in a tray full of moist pebbles. Don’t let the tray dry out. A bright spot with no direct sunlight is best for Slipper Orchid.slipper-orchid

Pineapple Plant – Antra cinnosus ‘variegatus’pineapple-plant

  • Description: 90cm (3ft) leaves with purple-blue flowers and green bracts.
  • Natural habitat: South America. Growing at home: Plant leafy shoots from top section of Pineapple.

Tips for growing exotic houseplants

  • Grouping plants in small clusters helps to create a microclimate. Each plant constantly gives off moisture, and when grouped together each contributes to keeping the local atmosphere humid. Also, it is much easier to mist spray a group of plants than one on its own.
  • When plants are positioned in a group the air between them is relatively stationary and less likely to dry out quickly.
  • Position plants in light shade. It is easier to create a humid atmosphere in light shade than it is in a very warm position. Therefore, select those tropical plants that thrive in light shade. These are usually plants that live on or near to the ground in jungles. Avoid climbers.
  • Hospitalize tropical plants which start to look sick. Move them to a special area, perhaps in a shower cubicle, where warmth and humidity can be easily provided. In a bathroom, avoid accidentally covering plants with talcum powder as it will soon clog the breathing pores in the leaves.
  • Group exotic plants to generate humid air; this provides a healthy natural setting for their lush foliage.

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