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Plantgasm - I love plants too much. By Derek Powazek.

Go Big and Go Home

One of the misconceptions people have about houseplants is that they’re all those small, limp plants you see in your doctor’s office. It doesn’t have to be that way! You can garden indoors with big plants if you’ve got the space.

My Dracaena fragrans has hit the ceiling twice. It’s great as a large indoor plant because it doesn’t really get wider, it just gets taller. Umbrella Trees (Schefflera) are another good choice for a large indoor plant, but they can get unwieldy over time. Mine had to eventually get lashed to the wall to keep it from falling over. And the Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla) can be very happy inside, but be warned: they can become as wide as they are tall.

But by far my favorite large indoor plant is the giant Alocasia (species like odora, calidora, and macrorrhizos). They’re not often thought of as houseplants, but if you’re not in a subtropical climate, growing them indoors is your only real choice. (I’ve got a couple outside here in San Francisco, but the ones inside are far happier.)

I love the upright Alocasias because they’re tough. Smaller elephant ears (like the many varieties of Colocasia Esculenta) are often fragile, ripping if you brush by in a hurry. But an Alocasia calidora will sooner knock you out of its way. And the patterns in their leaves are just wonderful to look at.

alocasia veins

calidoraThey’re also extremely quick growing, so there’s rapid feedback. The A. calidora pictured here is less than a year old. Let me repeat that: this plant, which is almost as tall as me now, is not yet one year old. This is as close to instant gratification as you can get in a garden.

When your Alocasia is happy, you’ll know. It will look fat and strong, its leaves will point skyward, and sometimes it’ll even bloom. When it’s thirsty, its leaves will droop down. And unlike some plants (I’m looking at you, Maindenhair), if you let the plant dry out so much that it droops and then water, it’ll perk right up without losing any leaves. Giant Alocasias are almost impossible to overwater. Trust me, I’ve tried. Just make sure the pot its in can drain so that the water doesn’t become stagnant. If the leaves drip water from their tips, you’ve overwatering. Just cut back a bit.

And here’s the real secret to these giant beauties: they’re easy. All you need is the space for it. Put it in the brightest window you have, but it’ll tolerate a shady spot. Repot it when it outgrows its pot. Water it weekly with a little general houseplant fertilizer. When a leaf turns yellow and droops, cut it off.

The only downside I should mention is that spider mites just love these Alocasias. Spider mites are tiny (almost too small to see) bugs that spin a small web in the crevice where the stem meets the leaf. They can damage the foliage eventually, but they’re easy to control. They can be killed with rubbing alcohol applied with a cotton ball or diluted in a mister. The leaves are tough – they won’t mind – but it’s best to do this at night, so the sun won’t hit the alcohol, which could burn the leaf.

I got my Alocasia calidora at Logee’s but you can find them for cheaper on eBay (How To). You can also find them at big box home stores, though those are usually A. odora.

Houseplants don’t have to be tiny wimpy things. If you’ve got the space for it, go big!

What’s the biggest plant in your house right now?

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12 Responses

I don’t have a lot of really large houseplants (not any that stay inside permanently there are a few big ones overwintering inside) but more larger numbers of small plants (easily 90% in a 3-5 inch pot or more).

Speaking of Alocasia and the like how do you feel about wintering them dormant and starting them again in the spring or do you always just grow them right through the winter indoors? I tried once with a Colocasia but the spider mites were a little much.

I’d really like to get into them more but so far wintering them dormant has worked about as well as dealing with the spider mites.

Posted by Andrew on 21 March 2011 @ 11am

Andrew: I just grow them straight through. They don’t go dormant if the weather stays the same. Even the ones outside don’t die back much in the mild San Francisco winters. Truth is, as a Californian, I didn’t even know what “overwintering” was until recently (sorry).

Posted by Derek on 21 March 2011 @ 11am

I am so jealous right now. Maybe I’ll just try it again inside next winter and deal with the spider mites as they come.

Posted by Andrew on 21 March 2011 @ 12pm

Mine are all relatively small. The largest right now is a bromeliad I picked up at Lowe’s (no pics yet) but even that is not very large.

I’d love to have something taller–I thought about dracaena but they’re toxic to cats, and since I have one cat who will chew on anything growing (she’s already gone after the bromeliad, which is now on a stand, and my first hosta, which is now outside recovering) whatever I have in the house that’s at floor level HAS to be cat-friendly. That means no philodendron either. :( I’m not giving up, though, just gotta keep researching.

Posted by melissa on 21 March 2011 @ 1pm

Melissa: Have you thought about hitting the cat-level plants with one of those deterrent sprays? They’re usually just citrus oil. I’ve used one (I think it was called “NO”) to help encourage my cat to stay away from the plants. She generally won’t go after a plant unless it’s small and grasslike.

Posted by derek on 21 March 2011 @ 2pm

This post and that incredible shot of the leaf convinced me — I just bought one off of ebay (!)


My biggest plant would have to be the Fred I have on top of the fridge (the one you said your Dad gave you, the one with the green shimmery/sparkling leaves), I can’t think of the name of it right now.
It’s probably grown 6″ since I’ve gotten it.

Posted by myla kent on 21 March 2011 @ 11pm

My what big plants you have :) I’m an alocasia fan also and they are almost out of control here in Hawaii…enjoyed visiting your blog for the first time and i loved your word of the day – very cool….

Posted by noel on 22 March 2011 @ 12pm

Wow! That corner looks so lush. I don’t have anything like it I’m afraid. I’m usually outside with my plants so I only have one little pot of Cryptanthus bivitattus.

Unless there is a typhoon alert, most common between June to October, in which case about 80% of my garden gets relocated indoors and my biggest plants would then be a cycad or a palm.

Posted by Bom on 23 March 2011 @ 6am

I’m growing a fabulous gunnera pitcherplantRob gave me… indoors… it’s a big clump from an outdoor plant that was cut way back. The foliage is still pretty small but I’m sure it will be a giant soon enough.

Posted by Dirty Girl Gardening on 23 March 2011 @ 8am

I haven’t tried the deterrent sprays. The problem is I’m gone so much of the day and that’s a looooong time for that stuff to wear off enough for her to go back at it. I wonder how long the deterrent effect is meant to last.

I did discover the magic of plant stands after she went after the bromeliad, so that may be the answer.

Posted by melissa on 23 March 2011 @ 8pm

i have 3 foot alocasia planted in my 20 gallon frog aquarium and it’s roots are the primary filtration. the roots go down into the gravel and the actual leaves stick way out of the top of the tank. its been growing like that for about a year now and it looks pretty happy. when you said you can’t over water them you were right! They are quite happy growing directly in water as long as it doesn’t stagnate. it’s a lot more fun to maintain than a filter also – it removes nitrogen and other organic wastes by producing leaves which it eventually drops and I cut off.

thanks for the great post/website and enthusiasm about plants.

Posted by brian engh on 30 March 2011 @ 1am

Brian: Photos! We must see photos!

Posted by Derek on 30 March 2011 @ 11pm


Plantgasm is where Derek Powazek chronicles his botanical antics and misadventures. More.