Foliage so attractive, you don’t need flowers

This is dedicated to my friend, Cheryl,

who deserves to have potted plants

that are joyful to her every day! 

Front porch

Front porch

I also have a blog about mini gardens, if you’d like to see that also.

Front porch, where I often go unnoticed, hidden in this potted jungle. With businesses across the street, it makes a huge difference in my comfort level when sitting out here to read or just watch the anole lizards catch bugs, the squirrels play and the cars go by.

You can create a wall of foliage
You can create a wall of foliage.

How frustrating is it when the hanging basket of Petunias or Fuchsias you bought stops blooming?  Or the porch pot of Zinnias or pansies?  Does anyone want to look at plain green plants that are not blooming?  Wouldn’t it be nice to “set it and forget it” (only buy once) and have nice-looking baskets and pots from day one until frost? 

I got so frustrated with prominent display pots having so much down-time that I’ve changed my thinking, and my methods, more and more each year, away from blooms and concentrating primarily on foliage that I find beautiful, colorful, unusual, and/or interesting, usually by virtue of some type of variegation (the leaves have 2 or more different colors or shades.)  The problem with most flowering plants, especially in hanging baskets or in pots is that they are not always covered with blooms, and most of them lose most of their appeal at those times.  If you have plants that are already strikingly beautiful by virtue of their leaves, there’s never any down-time in the appeal of your display.

Bouquet with Coleus leaves, Perilla 'Magilla, a Begonia cutting
Bouquet with Coleus leaves, Perilla Magilla, a Begonia cutting
Hang pots at different heights for a sense of privacy

Hanging pots at different heights can allow more in the same space to help create a sense of privacy, and a more interesting overall appearance.

When I’m on my front porch and people walk by, they often say, “I love your flowers!” although there are few actual blooms.  As my pictures bear witness, I like a wild riot of colors and probably have too many pots in different colors, but that’s certainly not necessary if one prefers a more sedate, soothing effect with a smaller variety of colors.  Case in point, a large covered front porch with a fern hanging in each opening.  Always looks nice.  You can keep it is simple or punch it up as much as it takes to match the vision in your mind’s eye.  When I see the chartreuse of the sweet potato vine repeated throughout my porch display, it seems like the glue holding everything together, or the background fabric of a crazy patch quilt.  The eye is naturally drawn to light colors, and I love this plant’s ability to blend in AND steal the show at the same exact moment.  Everyone should find a glue plant like this that they love.

This is written primarily from the viewpoint of growing in some type of pot, but many of these suggestions are adaptable to growing in the ground, which I certainly do a LOT of, and there are plenty of pictures below of plants growing in the ground.  The plants I’ve suggested shouldn’t be too hard to find or very expensive, so take the idea and run with it!  See what attracts you at the store, then use the internet to find out more about them to see which are a harmonious match for you and the conditions you have to offer.  It’s absolutely not a comprehensive list of such plants, especially since I was able to bring very few plants when I moved across several states a few years ago.  With one exception, I’ve put this list together from the few plants I moved with me and those I’ve acquired through purchases and gifts within the past few years, plants I actually own at the moment and have available to photograph.

Foliage-only, shady NW corner

Foliage-only, shady NW corner

Unless otherwise indicated, the plants here are those that don’t mind coming inside for the winter.  If something can’t survive outside in your location, so you can still have it to use again next year**.  And some are well known house plants that really would prefer to go outside for the summer, as long as you have a suitable place for them outside.  When shopping for outdoor plants, don’t overlook the house plant section, for both hanging basket plants and plants for regular pots.

The standard is pretty high with me to be named on this list.  Some might agree or disagree with some of my choices, or have had different experiences with particular plants, but that’s part of the beauty and fun of gardening…  The unknown and experimental aspect, and the myriad of means possible to accomplishing the same end.  I hope you’ll enjoy this tour of my current and, IMO, most colorful and attractive plants...

Almost ready for the plant porn, but just a quick word about pots…  Whether grown inside or out, it’s critical to use a container with a drain hole in the bottom, even if a decorative cache pot is used.  Periodically watering your plant so water drains out of the bottom hole can help prevent the soil from becoming clogged with toxins.  If in a cache pot, remove for watering, then replace after it has stopped dripping, at least 10-15 minutes.  Almost any plant that can get rained on outside that does not have a drain hole is a candidate for being killed (drowned.)  Plant roots need air as well as water.

The “have it all”‘s, beautiful foliage, tons of flowers, for hanging or ground pots…

Begonias are wonderful plants with attractive and interesting leaves of many shapes and sizes.  Many are ever-blooming, meaning that it’s rare for them to take a break from making beautiful flowers in addition to the snazzy foliage, even while they’re inside for winter.  Many are grown solely because of their spectacularly lovely leaves.  Many work well as hanging plants, and most are easy to care for as long as they aren’t sunburned, or become too wet or dry.  There are so many, you never know what you’ll find in regard to plant types, leaf shape, size, color, and bloom colors.  These can be found in regular and hanging pots, in house plants, annual plants, and sometimes as perennial plants at garden stores, depending on the climate of your location.  Appreciative of morning or evening sun, but most prefer very little or no direct sun in the heat of the day.  With so many different ones out there, there is definitely a Begonia suitable for just about any location and occasion.  Hardiness varies.

Begonia 'Lucerne' flowers

Begonia Lucerne flowers

Begonia 'Lucerne' backlit

Begonia Lucerne backlit

Begonia 'Castaway' flowers

Begonia Castaway flowers

Begonia 'Castaway' potted with Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew)

Begonia Castaway potted with Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew)

Same as previous.

Begonia Castaway

Wax Begonias make excellent container plants, inside or out, although this particular plant is in the ground. They are hardy here in Z8.

Begonia coccinea

Begonia coccinea

Orangish Begonia foliage dominates this corner and looks especially cool when backlit.

Streptocarpella!  Soft, fuzzy foliage, kind of like African violets, but much more tall and upright plants, although as they get large, they can lean and thus look fantastic hanging.  Beautiful blooms in white, pink, lavender, or purple on thin, wiry stems that look like they’re floating in the air.  Can take quite a bit of direct sun, will maintain a fairly compact, rounded overall appearance unless it has insufficient light.  Hardy only in frost-free climates.  Sorry I don’t have a picture, still trying to find one for sale since moving to the south.  Fire up the goog to find tons of pics of this striking beauty!  I can’t stop thinking about and wanting this plant again.

For hanging baskets

Those hanging plastic basket pots are plant-killers by design. Not saying that’s the intention, but the result is what it is. All of the water in the ring-around-the-hole is unable to drain from the pot. That plastic thing at the bottom does not keep the roots from making contact with this water, which can cause rot, and takes up space that could be filled with roots/soil*. The most critical thing to do is make some holes in the true bottom of the pot. The easiest way for me is to use a sturdy pruner to nip some little triangle holes around the outer rim or the inner rim near the hole, which is something you can do while the plant is hanging in the pot.

If you’re re-potting, there’s no reason not to remove that plastic thing at the bottom of the pot. The increased root space combined with better drainage can do wonders for the performance and longevity of any hanging plant!

Gibasis geniculata (Tahitian bridal veil) has tiny leaves that are purple on the back, medium green on the front, and although they are not required for this to be an attractive plant, it makes masses of tiny white flowers on little wiry stems that stick out from the mass of leaves.  Doesn’t seem to mind how much sun it gets or when, as long as there’s some at some time of the day.  This may also be referred to as Tradescantia geniculata.  I like to plant some type of more upright plant in the middle of this one since it’s a real downer.  I don’t mean it’s bumming me out, I just mean that it hangs down.  When a piece gets to the edge of the pot, it will start hanging down over the edge (trailing) as it grows. Has proved hardy for me in z8 in this hanging pot (a “Topsy Turvy” tomato planter that I didn’t move or add anything to this year.)

The tiny white flowers of trailing Tahitian bridal veil are so cute and make a good companion to wandering Jew and many other plants.

Tahitian bridal veil bloom

Tradescantias are wonderful, beautiful, resilient, fast-growing vine-ish plants!   T. zebrina (wandering Jew,) has smallish leaves and comes in several different forms that range from green to gray to purple, pink, white, and red on the front, and are often purple on the back.  They have a “juicy” texture, can make aerial roots, and definitely makes roots easily from any piece that breaks off.  A classic hanging beauty, inside and out.  In different amounts of light, the leaves can change colors.  Hang the same thing in different places and it can look like you have 2 different plants.  Hardy to at least z8.

Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew) backlit

Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew) backlit

Begonia 'Castaway' potted with Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew)
Begonia ‘Castaway’ potted with Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew)

Tradescantia zebrina with tons of light!

T. pallida (formerly Setcreasea pallida, AKA purple heart) has medium-size purple foliage front-and-back, as long as it is getting enough sun.  It also makes tiny pink flowers but they are fairly inconspicuous.   The flowers are not always open on this thirsty plant, and these are primarily appreciated for the lovely deep purple leaves, and its’ ability to dangle long distances from the top of the pot.  Also easy to snap off a piece to start a new plant, look for roots at nodes but possible mid-stem.  Hardy to at least z8.

Purple heart (Tradescantia pallida)

Flowers on purple heart.

Syngoniums come in beautiful shades of green, white, pink and orange.  In tropical climates where they have the opportunity to grow up a tree trunk, they really put on a show, with leaves that morph into completely different shapes (but are unfortunately reportedly invasive.)  In a hanging basket, they are a gently dangling plant with stunning, heart-shape leaves, and aerial roots.  Early or late-day sun, or dappled midday light is best.


Other Syngonium I found growing in the yard.

Heart leaf Philodendron has plain medium green leaves but they really are heart-shaped.  There are different variegated versions available.  This is a vine that makes aerial roots from leaf nodes and doesn’t mind dangling, or growing up some type of support, which can cause your vine to make some much bigger leaves.  Can handle any exposure except full sun.  Any node (with leaf removed) from a healthy piece of stem should root.  I have better results with larger cuttings with 2 buried nodes, and 6-8 exposed with 2-3 additional leaves removed.  Hardy in frost-free climates (though probably invasive,) roots may survive if hit by frost.

Heart leaf Philodendron
Heart leaf Philodendron hanging basket.

Heart leaf Philodendron with stick supports.

Heart leaf Philodendron on metal rack support.

Aerial roots of heart-leaf Philodendron.

Aerial roots on heart-leaf Philodendron.

The below heart-leaf Philodendron is an Exotic Angel plant with much more thin, delicate leaves and prominent veins.

Philodendron scandens micans

Purple passion (Gynura ) is not only purple, it’s fuzzy!  Give this beauty lots of direct sun, don’t let it get bone dry or stay soggy.  Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this one alive long enough to have more to say about it in the future.  Inspect closely for bugs before buying one of these.  The fuzzy, surprisingly delicate leaves make it extremely difficult to get rid of critters manually, and I don’t think purchased, non-sentimental house plants are a serious enough occasion to use chemicals.

Purple passion (Gynura)

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) comes in a burgundy so dark it’s referred to as “Blackie,” and a beautiful bright chartreuse version called “Margarita” or “Marguerite.”  Related to morning glories, but no flowers.  This stuff grows FAST.  Likely so fast you’ll want/need to cut pieces of it off…  which you can stick right in soil to start a new pot, or in water to grow that way, or to grow some roots before going into soil, roots most often at nodes, but possible mid-stem.  So unless you are extremely impatient, you can start with just a plant or two, and end up with this stuff in many more locations within a few weeks.  Cuttings up to two feet long are possible but will wilt the first few days.  Optimal size seems to be about 14 inches., with the last 3″ of leaves removed from what will become the root end (the cut end.)  No joke, this plant genuinely grows fast enough to start new pots many times within a single summer.  In addition to dangling, it will grow up anything thin enough to “twine” on.  That means it holds on by making a spiral around something like the prongs of the hanging hook of a hanging basket, fishing line, twine, wire, lattice trellis.  Happy about anywhere, preferably with a break during the midday sun, which can cause wilt, although that seems more important to potted plants than ground plants.  Not the best plant for bringing inside as it is highly prized by many plant pests, but easily replaceable each spring, and may survive in in the ground or its’ pot when left outside and start growing again in the spring, depending on where you are, where you put the pot, and the weather.  Try under a big pile of leaves or against the house or any of the other often successful techniques if you need to zone-cheat a bit.  Hardy to z8.

Sweet potato vine 'Margarita'
Sweet potato vine ‘Margarita’ mass growing in the ground.

Sweet potato vine flowing out of a pot.

With just a little help from you, sweet potato vine can grow anywhere you can secure fishing line, pictured with Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew.)

Persian shield with sweet potato vine 'Margarita'
Persian shield with sweet potato vine Margarita in the ground.

You dont even need a pot of soil to grow sweet potato vine. Ive tied this jar to the post with fishing line. Just make sure you are able to dump the water if mosquito larva (wigglers) get in there. Check twice per week and change water if necessary. If there are no wigglers, just keep it filled.

Sweet potato vine looks incredible in a purple vase! This is hanging from the ceiling "inside: my front porch.

Sweet potato vine reaching out and tucked into fishing line wound around this pole.

For non-hanging pots:

Another Tradescantia, T. spathacea (oyster plant, formerly Rhoeo) has strap/sword-like leaves that are purple on the back and variable on the front, depending on the light situation and particular cultivar, but there’s usually some combination of white, pink, green, and purple.  Too much sun can fade the pretty stripes.  Hardy to z9 but reportedly invasive.

Tradescantia spathacea

Cordyline fruticosa (Hawaiian Ti plant) is another WOW plant with varying shades of burgundy, maroon, hot pink and dark green.  This plant burns easily and has its’ best colors without any direct sun.  Hardy to z10.  This plant has some interesting facts and history.

Cordyline fruticosa on tableCordyline fruticosa on table with conch shell and other plants.

Hawaiian Ti plant leaf

Hawaiian Ti plant, with parlor palm to the left.

Chamaedorea elegans (Parlor palm) is an excellent candidate if you’re yearning for tropical greenery.  Only very early or late direct sun, if any, for this one.  A vary un-fussy plant tolerant of most indoor situations, surprisingly thirsty outside in the heat.  Hardy to z10.

  • Parlor palm (Chamaedora elegans) can grow quite largeParlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans) can grow quite large
  • Parlor palm foliage.

    Solenostemon scutellarioides (formerly known as Coleus* by genus, and still called such in most instances) is the most versatile decorative plant I know.  Any color that suits your fancy besides blue is available from the foliage of Coleus.  They can be found in 6- and 4-packs, and individually in a range of already-growing sizes.  The rainbows and wizards are usually easy to find in seed form also. 

Recently potted mix of Coleus cuttings with a piece of Persian shield.

FWIW, Coleus have wild, descriptive, and interesting names, but knowing them is not something I bother with much, although I did save a few tags (which can be incorrect to begin with, accidentally mis-replaced by a previous shopper, missing completely, yada yada) this year so I could refer to them by name although I just said I don’t care about that.  It’s a sickness (and grammatically poor sentence) that most plant people can’t get over, the cutesy names.  There are about 2,000 named hybrid varieties in addition to the old standby “rainbows” and “wizards.”

Coleus Indian Summer

Coleus Stormy Weather

Coleus Henna

Coleus Florida Sun Jade

Coleus Red Ruffles

Coleus are most often used in the shade but it’s common for them to also be used in full sun in corporate/commercial landscaping, such as fast-food restaurants and strip malls, especially when there is some type of irrigation system.  There are Coleus more tolerant of direct sun than others.  Coloring is usually quite different from the same plant when placed in mostly shade vs. mostly sun, exponentially increasing the possible colors.  If I’ve bought 2 similar plants, I can’t tell which they came from after spreading cuttings to pots and various parts of the yard.  The only flaw of this plant is their thirst, and inability to cope with drying out.  Coleus is not for bogs, but will not tolerate being bone dry, and can go from starting-to-wilt to pretty-much-dead quite quickly.  Not the best match for those who are not home for days at a time unless a substantially large pot, irrigation system, someone to help water is used.  Hardy to z10.

A single Coleus Henna plant shows the variability. It has grown the bright part since being bought and planted about a month ago.




Some Coleus can make huge leaves (these are often called Kong series.)

The traditional advice has long been to remove the flowers from these plants but after decades of doing so, I have stopped doing that because I’ve seen so many butterflies and hummingbirds visiting these flowers.  Coleus are not true annuals, so they are not genetically programmed to stop living after producing seeds, so there is no danger of your plant dying just because it makes some seeds.  I usually remove the stalks after the flowers fade but before the seeds ripen anyway.  (The tiny seeds won’t make new plants exactly like the mama and may produce similar plants, or completely different plants.  The flowers and seeds form similarly to Basil.  Coleus seeds need warmth and light to germinate, don’t put them under soil, or try to start too early.)  Luckily, each person gets to decide which side of the “Coleus flowers issue” they prefer.  Or if you’re really indecisive, remove half of the flowers and see if you feel better.

Coleus flowers beginning to bloom

Coleus flowers beginning to bloom

Unfortunately (or not, depending on your personal preference) the flowers of Coleus are always this color, no matter what color or pattern is on the foliage. The stem part is variable but the tiny flowers are always light purple.

The flowers can be heavy enough to weigh Coleus plants down and make them lean.

Although it is not a true annual, Coleus is not the easiest plant to keep inside, and I gave up trying a long time ago.  Now I just save cuttings in jars of water in the windowsills.  Trim any leaves that would be under water, and most of the large leaves from the lower stem.  Don’t let them dry out, and replace water entirely if it becomes cloudy, discolored, or odorous, which rarely happens unless a leaf dies and falls into the jar.  This saves a ton of space and I have hundreds of plants to use in the spring that are bigger than the baby 4- or 6-pack plants.  If you find a Coleus you really like, I recommend trying to save at least one branch.  The selection at any store varies each year, and there are SO MANY different ones!

If you happen to live in or are able to visit east-central Ohio and are a fan of Coleus, I strongly urge you to make a pilgrimage to Baker’s Acres in Alexandria.  If Coleus were a religion, this is probably Mecca.  In addition to being an incredibly comprehensive and high-quality overall garden center/nursery, you’ll find an unbelievable selection of unusual plants of all categories.  When I lived in OH, I always came home from BA’s with a trunk and back seat full of cool and beautiful plants I’d never seen or heard of before.  These awesome folks actually breed Coleus, and are responsible for so many of the wild and lovely new additions to the Coleus scene every year.  I also recommend taking a few minutes to poke around their website.  If you don’t find yourself giggling soon, you may need to check the pulse on your sense of humor.  These people like to laugh as much as they like plants and have worked really hard to make the website amusing.

Perilla ‘Magilla* is often mistaken for Coleus, which is understandable with its’ similar leaves and square stems.  I love this plant because, depending on how much sun it gets, it can look totally different, (but of course, will match each other well!)  It’s much more schizophrenic than any Coleus I’ve had.  You’ll get some combination of green, white, pink, burgundy, and in a ton of sun there could be some bronze and olive drab.  It’s a little more forgiving than Coleus regarding water, but likely to wilt if the sun hits it during the middle of the day, then perk up again later.  No blooms to ponder.  I treat Perilla the same way as Coleus, regarding keeping over winter.  Hardy to z10.

Perilla 'Magilla' with early AM and late PM sun

Perilla Magilla with early AM and late PM sun

Perilla 'Magilla' cutting starting to make roots after about 2 weeks

Perilla Magilla cutting starting to make roots after about 2 weeks

Perilla Magilla

Perilla 'Magilla' in almost total shade

Perilla Magilla in almost total shade

Perilla 'Magilla' with a few hours of midday sun

Perilla Magilla with a few hours of midday sun

Perilla 'Magilla' in mostly sun

Perilla Magilla in mostly sun

Persian shield with Perilla 'Magilla'

Persian shield with Perilla Magilla

Perilla Magilla pairs well with Persian shield and Coleus.

Strobilanthes dyerianus (Persian shield*) is my favorite PURPLE plant, and is quite the attention-getter, even for non “plant people.”  It shows its’ best color when in dappled light from mid-morning to afternoon, then direct sun earlier or later in the day, like under a large tree with pretty high lowest limbs.  Just early morning or late afternoon sun is the next-best thing.  When in doubt about its’ placement, lean toward more shade.  Too much sun will turn the leaves green and/or gray, while less than optimal amounts of sun will just result in smaller leaves and slower growth, with no affect on the color.  This is also a thirsty plant, but a bit more forgiving than Coleus, and usually rebounds well from even profound wilting, although that would ideally be avoided.  Easy to propagate via water-started cuttings.  Roots take 2-5 weeks to form, depending on cut location and weather factors. 

Hardy to zone 9 although it will die back to the ground when frosted, or easy to save as a house plant over winter if you don’t mind it’s nakedness.  A potted plant takes up a lot more space and I usually only have one and save the rest as cuttings in water.  Even though it’s plenty warm in your house, the change of sunlight combined with the dry indoor air almost always cause this (potted) plant to go semi-dormant (sleeping.)  If you are going to bring one inside, I recommend removing almost all of the leaves first, because that’s easier than picking them up off of the floor later, and they can get crumbly when dry.  Leaving 3-5 leaves at each growing tip will be plenty.  Let it get a bit more dry than when it was outside actively growing.  When frosts are no longer a danger, you’ll have a LARGE plant to put outside, and it will fill out with beautiful new purple leaves within a few weeks, especially if repotted when replaced outside.  Don’t be shy about trimming the roots.

Beautiful Persian shield leaf with cool green spider

Beautiful Persian shield leaf with cool green spider

Mixed pot with Persian shield, Perilla 'Magilla' and one of the 'Kong' Coleus

Mixed pot with Persian shield, Perilla Magilla and one of the Kong Coleus

Persian shield with sweet potato vine 'Margarita'

Persian shield with sweet potato vine Margarita

Persian shield goes especially well with yellow and chartreuse foliage.

Persian shield

Potted Persian shield on porch.

Caladiums are excellent bulb plants that are inexpensive and readily available.  The heart-shaped leaves come in shades of pink, salmon, orange, white, green, red, and different patterns, some solid single colors, stripes, splotches, patches, flushes, and colored veins.  These can be purchased in packages like tulip or daffodil bulbs, or as potted plants already growing.  Until they get cold, they keep growing pretty new leaves.  The leaves show their best, brightest and most distinct colors and patterns when grown with lots of morning and/or evening sun but in the shade during the middle of the day.  Caladiums will go dormant for winter, are hardy to zone 7-8, and can be stored inside, or are easy to replace in the spring if that’s preferable. 

Caladium bulbs may make a flower that is fairly inconspicuous compared to the leaves unless you happen to get one that has a FRAGRANT flower.  If so, hopefully you will notice and get a whiff of the delicious perfume, similar to white-flowered Hostas.  “Carolyn Whorton” is the one with the most/best fragrance of the few I’ve had the pleasure of sniffing.  Most are not fragrant, and even the ones that are shouldn’t be purchased just because of their fragrant flowers.  If it is going to, each bulb only makes one flower that lasts for about a week.

Two Caladium leaves

Two Caladium leaves




Anthurium has heart-shaped leaves and makes beautiful spikes in various colors, especially red and pink.  Tolerant of direct light except mid-day.  There are many subtly different varieties out there.  The new leaf on this one is orange.



Schefflera arboricola is a smaller version of the plant usually referred to as umbrella tree with interesting small but tropical-looking leaves.  Can handle quite a bit of direct sun.  Not a very thirsty plant.

Schefflera arboricola

Schefflera arboricola

Sansevieria (snake plant,) in my opinion, does not get enough credit as  an indoor decoration, and absolutely not as an outdoor decoration.  These are happy about anywhere, from quite a bit of full sun outside, to a not-too-dark spot inside.  They need very little water, although they don’t mind getting rained on, or getting watered often if they are getting tons of sun.  A great plant for people who are often not at home for a few days or even a month at a time.  They don’t take up much space since the leaves tend to go mostly straight up, (as long as they get turned occasionally so they don’t lean toward brighter light,) and some can get as tall as people.  The sword-shaped leaves do not wilt, rarely get yellow tips or spots, and come in a vast array of plain greens, stripes (both vertical and horizontal) of lighter/darker greens, yellows, white, gray, and cream.  When brought inside for winter, a small sip of water about once per month is all it needs. 

Occasionally, some sans can and will make a stalk of jasmine-like (in appearance an heavenly fragrance) flowers but anyone growing this plant just for the flowers is exceptionally patient or will likely be extremely disappointed because it is a rare occurrence if it happens at all.  Hardy to z10.



Snake plant foliage, inexpensive, easy to find, so pretty!

Snake plant.

Sansevieria trafasciata flower buds

Elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta is pictured, other plants are also called elephant ears.)  The huge tropical-looking leaves on this plant can really make a “wow” statement in a not-too-sunny spot, the wetter the better.  This can be purchased as an already-growing plant or dormant bulb.  The bigger the bulb, the bigger the leaves although you can coax any bulb to produce its’ biggest leaves by having a TON of organic matter in the soil and LOTS of water.  This plant gets 5-7 gallons of water per day, and there is a mini compost pile at its’ base.  To water, I use a 5-gallon bucket with a small slit in the bottom which I sit near the base of the plant.  I fill that every day to slowly drip out and keep this plant moist.  They will make much bigger leaves when planted in the ground, although impressive and worthwhile results can absolutely be obtained from container plants.  May be stored where not hardy by bringing inside and withholding water after it goes dormant from being hit by frost.  Just small sips of water should be given until new growth emerges in the spring.  Put back outside when there is no longer frost at night.

Elephant ear leaf (Colocasia esculenta)

Elephant ears, Persian shield, Alocasia Hilo (the spotted elephant ear-looking plant)

Almost big enough to hide a man!

Dracaena marginata trees are easy to care for, have thin, beautifully striped leaves, come in several varieties, and are available in any size plant from a little 4″ pot to an older monster-size plant that you need a dolly to move around.   Although the tiny little ones will become much larger trees with time and adequate care, it’s understandable to want one that’s already large.  These don’t mind at all coming inside for winter.  Leaves will develop yellow tips if the roots are crowded or kept too moist, and may be affected by chemicals in tap water.  It’s worth making the effort to give these trees an ample-sized pot and water with rain, distilled, or dehumidifier/air conditioner condensate water whenever possible.  Fun and easy to propagate from growth tips and/or stem sections.  Hardiness varies by species but unlikely for those in the mainland US except for parts of the warmest states.

Dacaena marginata 'tricolor' are little trees with beautifully striped leaves

Dacaena marginata tricolor are little trees with beautifully striped leaves of green, pink, and white.

Dracaena marginata backlit.
Potted cuttings (tops) of Dracaena marginata on the left with green and red striped leaves, and D. marginata tricolor on the right.
Dracaena marginatas are trees.  Before the wind blew mine off of the porch and broke the main stem, there were a lot more tops/growth tips.  Those tips are potted and pictured above.  This tree is at least 20 years old.  The new stalk that sprouted near the base has some all-white leaves for some reason.  Interesting.

Dracaena deremensis is similar, with wider leaves.  The one below is called “Lemon lime.”  This plant can handle quite a bit of direct sun.

Dracaena deremensis Lemon lime

Dracaena fragrans is usually referred to as corn plant because the leaves resemble those of the plant that makes edible ears of corn.  This plant does best in bright, indirect light, mostly dappled shade under a tree.  If you are lucky, your plant may make a stalk of fragrant flowers.  A corn plant being repotted.

Corn plant

Dracaena warneckii is yet another small tree with beautiful, variegated leaves.  Mid-day sun will burn this one.

Dracaena warneckii

Dracaena warneckii

Dracaena surculosa is also called gold dust plant.  I’ve not had this plant long enough to say much about it, except it’s not the “regular tree” one would expect from the name Dracaena.  It looks/acts more like a bamboo, and is also referred to as Japanese bambooI love these leaves!

Gold dust plant (Dracaena surculosa)

Our grandmothers would likely have called these plants with beautiful leaves similar to Coleus, “calico plant.”  Although there were a lot of them then, there are even more out there lately, with with accurately descriptive names like “Purple Knight,” “Joseph’s Coat,” and “Raspberry Rum.”  These are much easier to keep inside for winter as a potted plant than Coleus, and not as thirsty while outside.  There has been considerable variability in the leaf color of this plant, which I’ve had in about 5 different places so far.  Very easy to propagate by cuttings, placed directly in soil.  I only remove leaves from nodes I want submerged.  Hardiness varies by species.

Alternanthera Josephs Coat

I like this little Alternanthera as a ground cover at the base of this Dracaena tree. Putting it there was as easy as snipping pieces from another plant and sticking the pieces in the soil. Very easy to propagate!

China doll tree (Radermachera sinica) is a fairly fast-growing tree with groups of attractive waterfall-like leaves.  Likes quite a bit of sun and is surprisingly thirsty when it’s hot outside.

China doll tree

China coll and Dracaena tree backlit.

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes)  has cute little leaves of medium to dark green with (of course) polka dots (and other shaped spots) in white, light pink, dark pink, or red.  This plant needs to be trimmed, pinched, and pruned often, and not that great for being ignored or left unattended for long periods.  It does not make good decisions about its’ shape and has a tendency to make lanky, flowering stems if left to its’ own devices.  Colors are best with no direct mid-day sun.  The tiny flowers of this fairly thirsty plant are beloved by bees and butterflies, but the plants are mostly unable to hold the stems up for insects to access them, so I remove most of these stalks.  This plant almost didn’t make the list because of this, but it’s a good match for those who like to fuss with their plants often.

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes)

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes)

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes)

Polka dot plant

Purple perfection is a lot easier to say than Pseuderanthemum atropurpureum, the botanical name of this lovely plant.  Unfortunately this little guy was not treated well at the store, full of water in a pot with no hole in the bottom, but it is recovering and will soon outgrow these ugly leaves, which can then be removed.  Little if any direct sun for this one.

Purple perfection (Pseuderanthemum atropurpurea)

Same as previous.

Beautiful new leaves on "Purple perfection."

Alocasia x amazonica could use a common name, but this hybrid is easily recognizable with its’ zig-zag edged dark green leaves and prominent white veins.  This plant likes plenty of direct sun, and should not be allowed to become completely dry.

Alocasia x amazonica

Dieffenbachia have interesting splotches of cream and white in the center of their leaves. Any significant direct sun except very early or late is likely to burn these plants, which can get quite large.


Mix it up a bit!

There’s no reason to have just one plant, or kind of plant, per pot.  The classic thing to do is to pair an upright plant with one that trails and hangs down.  Your decision may not be viable long-term, but there’s no reason not try try whatever companions you would enjoy seeing.  If they need to be separated  or trimmed later, that’s fine if you appreciate the opportunity to change it, or have fun propagating the trimmings.  There are a ton of ‘creeping’ plants that are perfect for draping the edges of pots containing something like a small tree.

Short plants can go at the base of taller plant

Begonia coccinea at the base of NOID palm tree.

Same as previous.

Cuttings potted about 3 weeks ago.

The light-colored leaf POPS in the shadows.

Perilla Magilla, Persian shield, Coleus

Same plants as previous pic, getting more sun.

Coleus & Caladium

Coleus, Persian shield, Caladium, Perilla Magilla, Polka dot plant, misc garden plants.

Various Coleus, Perilla Magilla, Persian shield

Various Coleus, Persian shield, Perilla Magilla

Various Coleus, Persian shield, Perilla Magilla

You dont need large plants to make a focal point. This grouping is mostly plants much shorter than 12 inches, and is a mix of Coleus and "house plants."

Please feel free to ask if I’ve caused you to have a question.

Slideshow of images used in this post:

* Coleus, Persian shield, Perilla ‘Magilla’:  All of my pictures are from this year and I did not save any potted plants over winter except one Persian shield, which I always do to see if it will make one of those dumb little flowers (which is a pretty exciting event while plants are inside for winter.)  Nor did any survive in the ground outside except 2 Persian shield.  My pots and ground displays were made from cuttings saved in water over the winter.  See the Coleus section for more details.

* Soil:  The quality of the “dirt” in a pot can make or break a plant’s success.  Please don’t grab a shovel of dirt from your yard or a bag of “potting soil” that is mostly peat.  If it’s not heavy, it’s not good stuff.  There’s far too much written on the internet about water drainage and potted soil textures that it would be silly for me to try to cover that, either in a separate post or in this footnote.  If you can’t find an answer to your questions by googling, the forums suggested in the paragraph below are recommended.  Forum categories include “house plants,” “containers,” and “tropicals” that are usually applicable to such questions, or you may find answers to your questions in existing discussions.

** Before going back outside in the spring, last year’s plants are much more likely to thrive if they are re-potted.  Generally, one would remove the plant from its’ pot, remove as much old soil as possible, trim any extra-large, spiraling, rotting, or otherwise unhealthy or unproductive-looking roots, then replace in the same pot (if desired) with fresh new soil. I have posted a repotting tutorial here.  If you are still unsure about re-potting a particular plant, a garden forum is a great way to solicit advice.  If you take a picture of your plant to add to your question, the advice will be better and more specific.  Two garden forums that I think are outstanding are GardenWeb and Garden Stew.  Both are free to register and use.

Repotting, Corn plant, Begonia, wandering Jew examples

If the roots of your plant look like this, it’s time to repot!  Plants grow their best when their roots are growing.  To do that, they have to have “room” in which to grow!

Too many roots in this pot, and they are in an unhealthy, tight tangle.

For plants with big, hard, woody roots:

With a tree-ish plant that makes huge woody roots, this procedure is the one to follow. More below about plants like Tradescantias, Begonias, Philodendron, that are transient in regard to their roots and can be handled much more roughly, and repotted much more quickly.

My Mom let me borrow this plant so I could repot it.  The root ball had gotten so tight (which is common when a soil containing mostly peat is used,) that this plant was never getting a good drink of water (or any air) in the center of its’ root ball.  I had watered this plant well twice before removing it from its’ pot.  I watered it about 4 hours before, then again about an hour before removing it from the pot but the center of the soil ball was still bone dry, and you can see above that the leaves are wilty. 

The outer roots have left the soil area in search of more desirable conditions.  In doing so, they have tangled into each other, and some have become quite large and woody, circling the pot and literally strangling the other roots.  This is what the roots looked like before doing anything except laying the plant down, with the roots hanging over a cart.

Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans) has so many roots in the pot, it has no room to grow.

It’s time to do some serious trimming of these roots.  The first step is to remove the old soil and untangle the roots so we can see what’s going on here.

Corn plant potbound root ball.

Starting to remove the old soil.  I’m reaching my hand in and wiggling the roots and soil loose, and untangling the roots as much as possible.  Don’t be afraid to yank on them, and try not to until you’re ready to cut, but do not panic or even worry if you break some.  If you have a spray bottle of water, you can periodically moisten the roots as you work.  Always try to repot plants in the shade if at all possible.  Direct sun on roots can have bad consequences for your plant.  (And these dirty hands are why the pics aren’t as clear as if I had used the real camera, I used my phone.)

Root ball is more like a sphere, with very few roots in the center.

At this point, I found where the root ball reached the bottom of the pot before it was repotted last time.  There was some rock-hard peat wedged in the center of this.  I could have continued removing that central ball but it was not very big and there were ample roots past that point, so unlikely that it would cause problems for this plant in the future.

Soil removed, roots untangled.

Once you’ve removed as much soil as possible, and untangled the roots to a reasonable degree, you can begin trimming.  Remove most of the length of the largest ones (to a few inches,) and any that are circling.  That should leave a huge mass of smaller roots which can be trimmed like hair, left slightly longer than the large roots, about 3-7″ in the case of this plant.

Roots trimmed, ready to go back in pot.
Bottom of trimmed root ball.

In the above pic, you can see the old bottom of the root ball.  Putting this plant into a bigger pot without trimming these roots did not give the older, woody roots a chance to make newer, more useful roots in the center of the root ball.

Pile of removed roots.
Corn plant is happy, shown about 10 days after repot.

For plants that don’t have woody roots:

This is a much easier way to repot, and won’t hurt anything.  The plants seem to really like it, usually found in hanging baskets, and will respond with lush, new growth.  If you find this in your pot, with no large roots, it’s time to repot and, in the case of easily-rooted plants, to discard most of the old roots.  This will allow you to put the plant back in the same pot with plenty of new soil in which the roots can grow. There is no need to discard your pot to get a new one, as long as what is growing in your pot is truly a perennial, not an annual.

Begonia coccineas roots with nowhere to go/grow.

Combo pot of Begonia and Tradescantia, smothered in a rock-hard, bone-dry ball of peat.

After removing the pot, chop the root ball in half (from top to bottom) with a shovel.)

Chopped root ball of Tradescantia / Begonia combo pot isnt a root ball at all, theres nothing on the inside.

When we realize how little of the space was actually being used in this pot, it’s no surprise that it wasn’t growing anymore.  It had stopped flowering and was in a state of suspended animation.

Tahitian bridal veil with no roots in the center of the pot.

Now it’s time to remove as much of the remaining soil from the roots still attached to the plant as possible, especially around the edge where most of the roots are.

Layers of repotting are evident.

The lighter colored soil in the middle has a higher percentage of peat and is so dry it’s become hydrophobic, meaning it is no longer able to accept moisture.  It looks like this is where this plant was put into the hanging basket for sale.  (Purchased as just the Begonia, I added the Tradescantia.)  Remove as much of this as possible.  It’s just taking up room in the pot.

Trimmed root ball, ready to go back into the pot.

You can see that all that is left is about the top inch.

Tradescantia / Begonia combo pot immediately after repotting.

If you are unsure which method to use, go with the first, for woody-rooted plants.  Although there would have been nothing wrong with starting with a shovel chop on the corn plants’ roots, it takes much more force, and often more than one chop.  The violence of the blows can be unnecessarily jarring to the plant.