It seemed like a simple question: What are a couple of standout houseplants to consider adopting before winter calls a halt to our outdoor plant engagement?
But when you ask the staff at the Steve’s Leaves Inc. greenhouses in Lewisville, Texas — where the collection includes somewhere “between 1,500 and 2,000” species and varieties — you can expect a good-humored answer.
“You’re asking us to choose among our favorite children?”
Yes, I am.
Even quantifying the exact number of choices was apparently not easy.
“We’re too busy to stop and count,” said Steve Rosenbaum, who started the business as a wholesale operation 45 years ago, then built a website and added retail mail-order about 10 years back. “We have so many hybrids we’re trialing that are as-yet unnamed, which probably adds many hundreds to the total.”
More than 900 orders go out most weeks, he told me, with over 1,000 during summer’s peak shipping season, all miraculously propagated and nurtured to readiness in just 12,000 square feet of greenhouse space. This is a place where innovation in growing plants is the signature, rather than automation.
“We still fill pots one at a time; there are no automatic flat-fillers on a conveyor belt,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “These plants are truly handcrafted.”
Adding the machinery would take up room, reducing growing space — and how could he choose which of the children would no longer fit? Impossible.
The More Colorful, the Better
Yes, “leaves” sits nicely with Mr. Rosenbaum’s first name, but there was more than that serendipity to the choice of what to call the business.
“I picked Steve’s Leaves as a company name because it rhymes, sure,” he said. “But I realized later that what I love most are plants with colorful foliage. Those provide color year-round — you don’t have to wait for flowers.”
Since he took up plants as a hobby at 13, Mr. Rosenbaum, 63, has had a thing for foliage, especially variegated and otherwise patterned. The more contrast, the better. Or as he put it, “Anything colorful and sparkly.”
So much so that he admits to having amassed a personal stash of a couple hundred Coleus varieties, which are more suited to the patio than indoors, in addition to the company’s staggering houseplant collection. Steve’s leaves, indeed.
Take the Syngonium called Marble (Syngonium podophyllum albo-variegatum Marble), one of his favorite houseplants, despite its recalcitrance. Adaptable from shade to partially sunny conditions, it has a bushy habit and will spill over a pot rim or fill out a hanging basket. The arrowhead-shaped foliage (its common name is arrowhead vine) is liberally marked with areas of white.
That distinction is also its drawback, driving up the price tag.
“It’s difficult in propagation, because you have to throw away a lot of material that isn’t good for cuttings,” Mr. Rosenbaum said of the either all-green or all-white growth that won’t make for Marble-like offspring. “A lot of Syngonium are easier, but I like the contrast of this one.”
A Begonia Hybridizer’s Choice of Begonias
Begonias, a company mainstay, certainly meet the colorful-leaf requirement. “There is a begonia for everyone,” Mr. Rosenbaum said, while acknowledging that many of these plants crave humidity, especially the Rex and rhizomatous types.
Two days a week, the team is joined by Mr. Rosenbaum’s friend of 40 years, Don Miller, the company’s resident begonia expert and a leading breeder.
Mr. Miller has introduced dozens of begonias from his own hybridizing work, and another breeder even named one named in his honor. But when asked to call out a special favorite, he didn’t hesitate — and it was not one of his own. He suggested the 30-year-old Australian introduction Flamingo Queen, an angel-wing type with cane-like stems.
“I love the whole package,” he said of Flamingo Queen, with its large, light-green leaves splashed with big white spots, and ample clusters of pink flowers.
Give it a spot near a bright window and an environment that’s not too dry, Mr. Miller suggested.
He recommends grouping houseplants — especially begonias — on trays filled with pebbles and a bit of water, to create a happier microclimate. Or run a humidifier, a boon to plants (and plant parents) in the ultradry indoor heating season.
Another tactic: Set up a terrarium of particularly humidity-dependent species, like Begonia pavonina, a Malaysian species sometimes called the peacock begonia. Its leaves take on an uncanny blue iridescence when lit by the flash of a camera or in certain other light conditions. Begonia melanobullata, from Vietnam, is also a terrarium type, a collector plant that always attracts attention. The species name speaks to its bullate leaves, referring to their distinctive blistered or pebbled surface.
As if he cannot get enough of begonias, Mr. Miller also volunteers every week at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, which houses North America’s largest begonia collection.
And at home? He confesses to having about two dozen plants. “I try not to count them,” he said.
Is a Hoya in Your Future?
A friend who has long grown hoyas, or wax plants, has tried to convert me to this variable-looking genus with succulent leaves. But maybe Ryan Wilhelm, the operations manager at Steve’s Leaves, has finally succeeded. A representative of this tropical member of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae), the same family as milkweed, may be destined for a sunny window here.
One caveat, Mr. Wilhelm said: Be careful with the water — as their succulent leaves are trying to tell you — because “they can crash quickly, if overwatered.”
He has been on a binge, building up the company’s assortment of the genus Hoya, one of the trending genera during the recent houseplant craze. To Mr. Wilhelm, the boom’s catalyst is obvious: “It’s social-media-induced purchasing. People see a photo and go searching for it.”
And search, therefore, he does, on customers’ behalf — not just for Hoyas, but also for aroids, members of the Araceae family that includes Syngonium and Monstera, among other current social-media darlings. Mr. Wilhelm is just back from the 44th Annual International Aroid Society Show and Sale, at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami, looking for the next best thing in that world, too.
Of his beloved hoyas, Mr. Wilhelm is currently fascinated with “the one that doesn’t look anything like a Hoya”: the oddball H. spartioides, which he acquired recently. It is upright and linear, resembling a giant spray of succulent pine needles.
As with any new acquisition the team is just starting to propagate, the first plants will go on the Steve’s Leaves auction site until enough of a supply is built up for regular mail order.
So maybe I will start with something else, like Hoya kerrii, with its thick, heart-shaped leaves. Or Hoya curtisii, a miniature whose stems look like strings of hearts because they hold mottled, olive-green, heart-shaped leaves.
Patience is required, however.
“Hoyas are so slow,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “But I get pleasure growing things that my team gets excited about.”
Something else to get excited about is the possibility of otherworldly Hoya flowers, often clustered in umbels and sometimes even fragrant.
Making Houseplants More at Home
There is no universal houseplant-care manual that can substitute for closely observing your plants, in your particular conditions.
“I look at the foliage and give them a shot of diluted fertilizer if they look like they need it, if they are a little pale,” Mr. Rosenbaum said. “But people misuse fertilizer.”
They think it’s a pick-me-up, he said, to counteract poor plant care — like leaving a plant sitting in a saucer of water, decaying. No such luck.
“The plants are living light meters, if you know how to read them,” he said. “If it’s stretching, it’s not getting enough light. If it’s scorching — too much.”
We need to experiment, to find the subjects that match our light, our humidity and our level of care commitment.
At home, Mr. Rosenbaum is experimenting, too — this time with a self-watering system hack learned from Summer Rayne Oakes, the creator of the popular YouTube Channel Plant One on Me. The hack is based on simple ceramic cones from Blumat, inserted into the soil surface and connected to tubing that draws from a nearby water vessel.
“One downside of self-watering is that I have always been an advocate of letting the soil surface dry before watering,” he said. “This system keeps it evenly moist instead — which fungus gnats like.” More tinkering is required.
As for me, I keep browsing. Sure, I love my big old Clivias, Sansevieria and fancy-leaf begonias. But like many people — especially with the pandemic’s imprint never far from mind — more company this winter sounds good. Whom shall I invite in?
Based on name alone, for a lower-light spot I’m thinking about Peperomia Fuzzy Mystery, a plant whose bright-green, textural leaves have dark ridges and are covered in tiny hairs. And the arrowhead-shaped leaves of Syngonium podophyllum Pink are glowing pink — hard to resist.
Also appealing and true to its common name, but for brighter light: string of pearls, Senecio rowleyanus, a South African species with succulent pea-sized and -shaped leaves that cascade over a pot edge.
Clearly, I need supervision, or it’s going to get pretty crowded in here.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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