Don't despair if your green thumb turns a nasty shade of black when it comes to caring for indoor plants. You will be gratified to know that it's often not your fault -- it's more likely the tricky requirements of the plant or the inhospitable winter conditions within a Canadian house that cause your plants to shrivel and die.
Then again, it could be your fault because the natural tendency is to overwater and drown unhappy plants. Like people, plants' roots that are constantly wet or bone-dry either get mouldy and rot or become dehydrated and shut down.
Which means if you are a cursory gardener then many but, happily, not all indoor plants are for you.
You may already know that the most seductive flowering plants, including gardenias, exotic orchids (like the Lady slipper or Cattleya varieties), azaleas, hibiscus, oleander, mandevilla and bougainvillea need experienced and dedicated care.
Some need very consistent conditions. Gardenias are famous for dropping their buds and flowers if temperatures fluctuate and azaleas will droop and sulk almost immediately if inadvertently exposed to direct sun. Others need brutal mid-winter haircuts. All flowering tropical plants cannot sustain their summer abundance through our meagre indoor winters, while all need owners who are not faint of heart when it comes to insects, especially the most common of sunny pests -- spider mites and scales.
But the news is not all bad. The tropical plant world has responded to the needs of indoor gardeners by producing more plants with outstanding foliage, indestructible constitutions and reliable blossoms.
Flowering plants, including clivia, streptocarpus, the phalaeonopsis orchid, hoya and stephanotis, citrus plants and the ubiquitous African violet are all easy to care for and relatively dependable bloomers.
While the African violet, streptocarpus and phalaeonopsis will flower for relatively long periods of time throughout the year, others are less productive, but still spectacular.
The clivia (named after Lady Clive, so pronounced clive-ia) has big strappy leaves that give way to one or more single stems that bear a cluster of striking orange blooms once a year. And if you ever see a yellow one, grab it -- it's very rare and as beautiful as it is expensive. This plant likes to be root-bound, so don't repot it. And when you do, only move to a slightly larger pot, keeping it there until the container is about to bust.
The streptocarpus has soft, fuzzy leaves, much like its relative the African violet, with flowers that come in various colours, including dark purple, blue and pink. In a bright window, the dancing, orchid-like blooms are held high above its arching leaves and flowering seems to go on and on. If you keep it deadheaded, carefully watered (avoid the leaves and water from below) and moderately fertilized, I guarantee that this gem will become one of your favourites.
Some of the newest and most interesting foliage plants on the market include the newer forms of philodendron, including autumn (copper new leaves with red stems) or moonlight (chartreuse young leaves that darken to green as they mature). Philodendrons are great low-light plants, requiring some support as they grow vertically and regular wiping to keep their broad leaves shiny.
If you love chartreuse foliage, you could also try the so-called neon pothos. This is a trailing plant very similar in form to the philodendron, but would rather trail than climb. It has bright neon yellow leaves and will thrive under the most inhospitable of conditions and care. If you love the golden sweet potato vine, and grow it as an annual, this tropical version of summer sunshine is for you.
My personal favourites among easy-to-grow indoor plants are rex begonias. Unlike the tuberous or fibrous begonias, that are grown mainly for their colourful flowers. The rex varieties are superstars because of the kaleidoscopic colours of their leaves.
With names like escargot or chocolate cream, you'd think they were good enough to eat. All you need is moderate light (an east or north window; no direct sun please), some humidity (try a humidifier or place your pot on a pebble tray -- a saucer with a layer of pebbles that acts to raise your pot above a constant supply of evaporating water) and good air circulation to avoid mildew. You have instant colour in the middle of the winter blahs.