By William Hageman
December 5, 2012
When you want to commemorate an event — a birth, wedding, graduation, death — the right houseplant can make more sense than a flower arrangement or a toaster. These plants, sometimes referred to as memory or legacy plants, can live for decades, keeping the memory of a person or event alive.
"A lot of plants will keep going indefinitely," says Julie Bawden-Davis, author of five garden books and founder of the healthyhouseplants.com website. "Of those that won't, if you see them going downhill you can propagate a piece of the plant. It's not the same plant, but essentially you're keeping them going."
Bawden-Davis, whose new book, "Fairy Gardening: Creating Your Own Magical Miniature Garden" (Skyhorse), is due out in March, says people ask her about memory plants all the time.
"(They say), 'this plant was given to me when my aunt died, and it's not looking so good, and I can't lose it.' Or 'Every time I look at this plant I think of my grandfather.'"
She herself was given some jade by her grandfather that she planted outside. After his death, "it was flowering and I thought, 'Oh he's still with me.'"
Here, then, is a list of some potential legacy or memory plants, ones that you can keep going inside or out, depending on where you live.
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum): A common sight at garden centers — and funerals — the peace lily features dark green foliage and a large white flower. They are strictly indoor plays that take medium light, bloom year-round and are very forgiving. "It will grow for years and years, and they'll get large after a while," Bawden-Davis says. "They're very easy to take care of indoors. If they get a little droopy and you forget to water them, they'll bounce back in hours."
Corn plant (Dracaena): These often show up in plant baskets; once they get a little bigger, take them out and give them their own pot. "I have one I got when I moved into my house in '87. Now it's 7 feet tall." They don't need a lot of light — too much and the leaves will burn — and look good in the corner of a room.
Ficus bonzai tree (Ficus benjamina): A native of India, they have a reputation of losing their leaves if moved around too often, but Bawden-Davis says that's overblown. "These are grown in hotels and malls," she says. "They look like a tree indoors. In some places you can grow them outdoors (Florida, California) too."
Pothos (Epipremnum aureum): Maybe the easiest indoor houseplant to grow, the vining pothos is sometimes called a pass-along plant. Yours looks great, a visitor comments on it, you take a cutting and put it in water, and you'll shortly have a rooted plant to pass on. A hanging plant, they tolerate all light extremes and can be trained to climb walls.
Wax plant (hoya carnosa): It gets its name because its green, leathery leaves look like wax. If you're careful not to overwater, and give the plant enough sun, it will bloom and last a lifetime. "My mother and I met her great aunt, and she had one," Bawden-Davis says. "She had gotten the plant from her mother. I took some cuttings and brought them back home, so now we have cuttings from an 80-year-old plant."
Roses They're a popular gift and can grow outdoors anywhere in the country. They need full sun and good drainage, and in colder climates should be cut back and mulched to keep the roots warm during the winter. "Roses are one of those plants you can baby if you want to or leave them alone, they'll still look good."
Evergreen azaleas A commonly given gift plant, it should be taken outdoors, either in containers or in the ground. Members of the rhododendron family, these like acidic soil conditions and grow particularly well in the Pacific Northwest and Georgia. They come in a variety of colors.
Amaryllis Another big-box garden section staple, these South American natives can go outside in warm climates, but getting them to re-bloom can be difficult.
Tulips Like roses, they can be planted outside and with proper care will come back, though you're not going to get the same plant to re-bloom. Instead, you'll get new, small bulbs growing around the original one. Making tulips an indoor legacy plant is difficult — after the flowers fade — and they're not around long — the plant needs to be fed so next year's flower develops. Once the leaves fade, the bulbs need to be dried out and chilled for two months. Only then can you plan for the next year.