Leaf Care

Interesting foliage adds a lush splendour Ito any home, but one cannot overlook the importance of leaves to a plant’s well being. All plants are kept alive and growing by a process called photosynthesis. The action of light on the chlorophyll in the plant’s leaves and stems provides it with the energy it needs to nourish itself. Many plants are grown for their attractive foliage. Knowing how to care for leaves will preserve and enhance their beauty, and keep plants healthy.


A plant’s natural habitat provides it with fresh air, light and soft rain water. Once brought inside the house, plants need special care if they are to receive important nutrients. If the leaves are allowed to become dirty they clog the plant’s pores and it is unable to breathe. Dusty air, aerosols, smoke and gas fumes all contribute. Central heating dries out the air, starving leaves of humidity. In industrial areas the leaves will quickly become dirty, oily and discoloured and will need cleaning every week or two.

Use a feather duster to flick gently over dusty plants before cleaning, and wipe both the tops and bottoms of larger leaves with a damp cloth. Leaf shine products should only be used on smooth, shiny leaves.

For some foliage it is better to spray with distilled water, particularly for smaller, more delicate plants. Use a fine mist of room temperature water. This will also keep up the humidity, which can otherwise be maintained by standing a pot on a tray filled with moist pebbles, or by sinking it in moist peat in a larger pot.

  • Mist spraying is invaluable for providing humidity, and is often the best way of cleaning sensitive plants. Most plants can be misted daily in the growing season.
  • Occasionally the easiest way to clean a small plant is to dip all of it into slightly soapy water, taking care to rinse the leaves afterwards in clear water.
  • Some leaves, such as those of the Cape Primrose, should be kept from water which may damage their surface – gentle dusting will usually suffice.

Larger plants with strong leaves can be wiped clean of dust with a soft cloth but waxy, scaly, powdery or hairy leaves are more difficult to clean. Hairy leaves should be cleaned by using a very soft brush or by lightly mist spraying but ensure that water droplets are shaken off the leaves afterwards. Droplets left on leaves can cause discolouration, or even scorching, especially in direct sun. Gentle spraying of leaves with unusual surfaces should be the only treatment given as their surfaces will be damaged by cloths or brushes.

Commercial leaf shine products which are applied with a cloth or aerosol must be used in moderation only. Never use on hairy or furry leaves.


Positioning your plants

  • The atmospheric conditions in the home can swiftly damage leaves, but following some simple guidelines helps to provide a stable environment.
  • Give the correct amount of light – filtered daylight is best. Too much sun can wilt and scorch leaves, too little light can cause leaf-drop or loss of variegated pattern on leaves.
  • Avoid draughty spots. Many plants are sensitive to draughts, and may drop their leaves.
  • Provide humidity for tropical plants. Mist spray leaves frequently, or stand plants on moist pebbles.
  • Give plants plenty of room, and hang up trailing plants to recreate their natural habitat.
  • Trailing plants receive the growing space they need in a hanging basket.

Grouping leaf types

Try experimenting with different variegated leaf patterns, shapes, textures and colour, and make use of interesting containers or baskets to make a lively display.

Set up a tall plant in a corner, such as Philodendron domesticum, or P. erubescens – these both have large, glossy, spade-like leaves – or a large palm such as Chrysalidocarpus lutescens with delicate, arching fronds.

In front of this set small, variegated plants such as Fittonias or Peperomias, that both have pretty tracing on their leaf veins. A small-leaved trailing plant can ‘fill out’ the group and link plants together – this is a lob for a small Ficus or Hedera. Alternatively, put in a feathery fern to contrast with the bold, glossy foliage.


A hanging basket provides an ideal home for trailing plants such as Hedera helix or choose Chlorophytum comosum for some strikingly variegated foliage. Senecio rowleyanus or the delicate Ceropegia woodii will give a frothy balance. Asparagus densiflorus works particularly well in a hanging group. Scindapsus pictus or Saxifrage Stolonifera are attractive oval-leafed plants.

When hanging up plants make sure that they receive plenty of water – take care also to group plants with similar watering and feeding needs.

For table tops, smaller, more contained plants will be in their element along with interesting cacti or succulents. Try the sword-shaped leaves of airplants such as Tillandsia cyanea or Guzmania lingulata, surrounded by a subtly variegated Pilea species or the pink-spotted leaves of Hypoestes phyllostochyd

Take leaf cuttings

Plants grown for the beauty of their foliage will eventually become overgrown and straggly. Rather than discard the plant, take leaf cuttings and start again so you will have a younger, healthier and more robust plant with a more even foliage.

Most soft stemmed plants root easily from leaf cuttings taken throughout the year, given suitable indoor conditions. Cuttings should be taken from the parent plant and placed in a water-filled jar. When short roots have grown, pot up the cutting and treat as a mature plant.

Some cuttings will also take root if potted straight into rooting mixture, but they may need to have their severed end coated in hormone rooting powder to speed up the rooting process.

Many plants can be propagated by leaf cuttings. Cut the stem just below a leaf node in order to avoid stem rot.

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