The Wild Gardener Indoors

One of the easiest plants to grow indoors is the Chinese evergreen. The scientific name for these attractive plants is Aglaonema, from the Greek “aglaos” (meaning “bright”) and “nema” (thread). The name is usually thought to refer to the flower’s shining stamens. I’ve asked a number of houseplant experts if they knew the exact derivation of the name, but nobody had a clue.

The kind of Chinese evergreen usually found at greenhouses and nurseries is Aglaonema modestum. According to the Aglaonema Growers’ Notebook (now out of print but well worth the search), this particular plant, cultivated by the Chinese for centuries, is also found in northern Thailand, in adjoining Laos, and in parts of Vietnam. Throughout Asia, people commonly own at least one of these beauties, which are said to bring good luck. In the Philippines, for instance, this particular Chinese evergreen is known as “La Suerte” (Spanish for “luck”).

Author Roy N. Jervis discusses 19 species (12 of them in general cultivation), reminding us that although there are fewer than 24 botanically valid species, there are more than 100 varieties, forms and cultivars in use today. Aglaonemas, which belong to the Araceae or Arum family (our native jack-in-the-pulpit is also in this group), include herbs, climbers and a few shrubs. They all feature large, simple or compound leaves and a flower that — like the calla lily and the flamingo flower — consists of a modified leaf called a spathe that surrounds a spadix (a column covered with numerous tiny flowers, male on the top and female below).

Another apt descriptor for these plants is “tough.” They succeed in very dim light, surviving on as little as 10 to 15 foot-candles (a unit of illumination originally defined as the amount of light shed on white paper by a single candle one foot away in a darkened room). They do, however, prefer to receive at least the light from a north window for a few days every month, or supplemental artificial lighting.

Use a well-drained potting soil. If you make your own, a good mix is equal parts soil, peat moss and sand. Keep the mix evenly moist, and note that Chinese evergreens do well in self-watering pots.

In fact, they’ll grow quite well in water alone. Any vessel that holds water will serve — as long as it’s not made of copper, brass or lead. Remove the plant from its pot, clear away the excess earth, then carefully wash the roots in clear, tepid water.

Place a few small pieces of charcoal in the bottom of the container, then add the plant and enough water to cover the roots and part of the stem. Never let any leaves remain under water — they will rot. Don’t forget the charcoal: It’s important, because it will keep the water clean. As the water evaporates, replace it with fresh water. And don’t use chlorinated water. If that’s all you have, fill a sink with hot water and let it sit for 36 hours. (Don’t use water softened by a home appliance — plants don’t like the chemicals involved.)

And finally, be aware that temperature can be a problem: Chinese evergreens must be kept warm, particularly when grown in water. The roots are especially sensitive to cold. During the day, 75 to 85 degrees is ideal, with a 10-degree drop at night.

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