Here’s Your A-to-Z Guide to Common Houseplants

published Jun 3, 2019
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Credit: Bijou Karman/Apartment Therapy

Fiddle-leaf figs. Monstera deliciosa. Prayer plants and umbrella plants… or is it nerve plants and elephant ears?  

Whether through drop-shipping or subscription boxes, access to living plants has never been easier. But how do you keep them all straight? How do you know when to water what? Does anyone know exactly what “bright, indirect sunlight” actually means?

Here is your plant guide, from A to Z. And scroll all the way for some plant care basics, including water, light, and humidity. (Love the illustrations? You can buy them in mug-form at our Society6 shop.)

Plants A to Z

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Asparagus fern

A tropical plant hailing from South Africa, you might find asparagus ferns (Asparagus aethiopicus) hanging outdoors during the summer or soaking up the sun in a bright room in your home. These prickly-leaved plants can handle low to bright light and prefer to be watered twice a week.

Garden lifestyle expert Carmen Johnston adds, “Once she [an asparagus fern] is planted, she will love her home forever and does not like to be moved.”  

When tending to your asparagus fern, make sure to wear gloves, as the leaves contain tiny thorns.

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The Begonia genus has over 1,800 different species hailing from Mexico, Central and South America, Asia, and South Africa. They prefer light shade and high humidity, which makes them a great choice for a kitchen or bathroom plant. To care for your begonia, water them when you find the top inch of the soil dry to the touch.


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If you are feeling confident with your green thumb and are ready for a more intermediate level care-type houseplant, then try croton (Codiaeum variegatum).

These colorful plants are native to Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, and the Pacific Ocean islands. It is another plant that will thrive in a kitchen or bathroom due to its love for humidity.  

“To keep the best color of foliage, the plants should be grown in high light conditions. If they are grown in too shaded a location, the leaves will show more green, but if the plants are moved to high-light locations, the colors will return,” says Marc Hachadourian, Director of Glasshouse Horticulture and Senior Curator of Orchids at The New York Botanical Garden.

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Another humidity lover, dieffenbachia was born in Brazil and thrives best in a pseudo-tropical environment with bright, indirect light. To care for this plant, make sure to water it consistently, but don’t overdo it. The topsoil should be a few inches dry before watering.

Also, beware of its toxicity factor. Erin Marino, plant expert from The Sill, warns: “If ingested, this plant can cause temporary inability to speak, so keep out of reach of small children and pets.”

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Elephant ear

Elephant ears (Colocasia) are oversized plants named for their large ear-like leaves. Some tower up to 10 feet, so they’re sure to make a statement in your living room or common space. They like bright sunlight and prefer to be watered from the bottom of their pot via a saucer elevated by pebbles.

In addition to caring for your elephant ear, make sure to plant it in a pot that is big enough for it to grow into so that it does not become root bound.  

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Fiddle-leaf fig

The fickle fiddle-leaf fig! Everyone loves a fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) right now, but caring for a fiddle leaf is not necessarily a walk in the park. Originating from western Africa, this plant prefers to be watered when the top inch of the soil is dry. It thrives best near a window in indirect, bright light.

You can succeed at those basics and still find that your fiddle leaf fig is mad at you, though. Marino adds that stability is very important to this plant, so don’t switch it up too often while trying to make it happy. They also grow toward the light, so rotate it weekly to keep it from leaning heavily in one direction.

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A popular houseplant and a fun way to add color to any windowsill, geraniums offer a lot of personality with a pretty simple care routine. Originating from South Africa, these plants prefer lots of sunlight and need well-draining potting soil with equal amounts of soil, peat, and perlite. Allow the soil to dry completely between waterings.

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Talk about an easy plant! Originally from South Africa, haworthia is a pet-friendly succulent that loves humidity. Grouped in the same sub-family as aloe, they prefer bright, indirect light and only need watering every two to three weeks, when the soil is completely dry and the leaves start to curl.

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There are several types of ivy; the most common is English ivy (Hedera helix). This ivy hails from Europe (northeastern Ireland to southern Scandinavia all the way down to Spain) and from parts of western Asia and Northern Africa. This wide geographical spread says a lot about how easily ivy itself spreads. In some states, ivy has spread so much that it’s illegal to buy, sell, or transport it.

Although we are most accustomed to seeing it outdoors, indoor ivy loves bright, indirect sunlight and humidity. When caring for your ivy, make sure to put it in a pot with drainage, and don’t over-do it with your waterings.

“Ivy does not like wet feet and will drown if you over-water her. Always give her a break from the indoors and take her outside for some fresh air at least once a month in the summertime,” says Johnston.

If spider mites are a problem for you, Johnston suggests placing the ivy in the shade for a few days to ward them off.

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Originating in southern Africa, the jade plant (Crassula ovata) loves a desert atmosphere (bright, direct light, dry humidity, and drought conditions). To keep your jade plant happy, it only needs watering every two to three weeks. Jade is also very easy to propagate from any part of the plant—leaves, seeds, and stems—so you can easily spread the love.

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Kalanchoe might be the most adorable succulent there ever was.

“If you have a brown thumb, this plant is for you. Her bloom power is prolific and comes in a rainbow of colors,” says Johnston.

Originally from Madagascar and tropical Africa, this blooming succulent is happy with weekly waterings in a sunny bedroom window. It needs a draining pot and a mix of 50 to 60 percent peat moss and 40 percent perlite.

If the conditions are right, kalanchoe can produce several blooms a year. “After each flush of blooms, remove the spent flower spikes to encourage new growth,” says Hachadourian.

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Lucky bamboo

Originally from southeast Asia, lucky bamboo (Dracaena braunii) has been used for more than 5,000 years in the practice of feng shui and is said to bring health, love, and luck to its owner.

Here’s how to not kill it: water sparingly (once a week) if you plant it in soil. You also have the option of growing it in a pebble vase with only water (simply change the water once a week). It likes growing in the shade, so keep it out of direct sunlight.

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Monstera deliciosa

Hailing from the tropical Americas (southern Mexico all the way down to Panama), monstera deliciosa—nicknamed the Swiss Cheese plant—sports beautiful, large leaves and is sure to make a statement in your living or dining room. It requires medium to bright indirect light and watering every one to two weeks. Allow the soil to dry completely in between waterings.

Since it’s from the tropics, it thrives in humidity—and for such a bold looking plant, it is relatively easy to care for.

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Nerve plant

Nerve plants (Fittonia albivenis) are safe, nontoxic plants that make a unique addition to any collection with their eye-catching white or pink veined leaves. Originally from Peru, nerve plants like to stay moist and humid in bright, indirect light.

“These plants are famous for ‘fainting’ (wilting) when underwatered, but perk back up after a good soak,” says Marino.

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Oxalis are magical shamrock plants that open and close with light. Native to southern Africa and South America, these low-maintenance plants are happy in a sunny window with waterings every other week.

Unlike most plants, oxalis go dormant in the summer, so don’t worry if yours is looking extra sad—you didn’t kill it! Set it in a dark corner and stop watering until it starts to bud again. Then, move it back to a window and resume your normal care routine.

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Prayer plant

“If you are looking to add some color and texture to your indoor plant haven, this plant is for you,” says Johnston.

Native to the Brazilian tropical forests, prayer plants, like Maranta leuconeura, make a striking statement with their white or red-veined leaves—but are most known for their “activity.”

“Prayer plants get their common name because of their unique leaf movements. They raise and lower their leaves from day to night as a part of their circadian rhythm,” says Marino. “This phenomenon is called nyctinasty.”

They are also non-toxic, so it’s a fun pet-friendly plant option for your home.

To care for your prayer plant, keep it moist, humid, and in reach of bright, indirect light.

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Queen’s tears

Hailing from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, queen’s tears bromeliads (Billbergia nutans) also appreciate a drought-type atmosphere. They function best in bright, indirect light with waterings every other week, when the top two inches of soil are dry. A great flower to give as a gift, many people discard them after they lose their star of the show, the bright center bloom.  

However, with a few simple steps, you can force an additional bloom or propagate new bromeliads.

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Rubber plant

Rubber plants (Ficus elastica) originated in Indochina and moved throughout Southeast Asia to Indonesia. But now, they like to stay in one place. When caring for your rubber plant, be careful not to move it between warm and cool rooms. It will surely be a focal point, so pick a place with medium to bright indirect light and water it weekly, allowing the soil to dry out in between waterings.

“The milky white latex of the Ficus elastica used to be used to make rubber. It’s toxic, so keep this plant out of reach of small children and pets,” cautions Marino.

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Snake plant

Deemed one of the easiest plants to care for, snake plants (Sansevieria) actually belong to the succulent family. Originating in southern and central Africa, they can tolerate most conditions, including low light, but they really thrive in medium to bright indirect light with waterings every two weeks. They also act as air purifiers by releasing oxygen at night, making them a striking and useful plant to have around that requires little to no effort on your part.

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Tradescantia hails from southern Canada all the way to northern Argentina, and is a common hanging plant found in homes and offices.

“Their ease of growth and durable reputation have made them long popular plants,” says Hachadourian. “Many of them have patterned or variegated foliage striped with purple, silver, cream, and white.”

They can tolerate a host of environments, but tradescantia does best in bright, indirect sunlight with regular waterings to keep them moist.

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Umbrella plant

Native to the forests of Taiwan, umbrella plants (Schefflera) can grow up to 10 feet indoors and reach much higher heights outdoors. They are low-maintenance plants that thrive in bright, indirect light, but also do well in direct indoor light. They need a good drainage system in place and only need watering when the soil completely dries out.  

To help your umbrella plant reach its full potential, use a liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks until it reaches its desired height.

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Venus fly trap

The Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) is actually native to North America! It was birthed in the low-lying flatlands of coastal North Carolina.

“The venus fly trap does not need to be fed flies! Just bright light and high humidity” says Marino.  

Instead of regular soil, a potting mix of one-third sand and two-thirds sphagnum peat moss makes for the best drainage system for this fun plant. Set it on your sun porch and enjoy its uniqueness.

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Wax plant

“The wax plant, known also by its botanical name of hoya, is a large genus of tropical vines with intricate and highly fragrant clusters of blooms,” says Hachadourian. “When in flower, they can perfume a room with their fragrance.”

Native to eastern Asia and Australia, wax plants are super easy to care for and can thrive in any light (low, medium or bright) with waterings every two to three weeks. The heart-shaped succulent you see when you take home a wax plant home is actually just a leaf taken from a larger vine of hoya.

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Birthed in Brazil, Xanadu (Philodendron ‘Xanadu’) prefers humid conditions with medium to bright light. Allow it to dry slightly before watering. This plant is the perfect compromise for someone who loves big, bold philodendrons but doesn’t have enough space to house them properly.

“The bright green toothed and textured foliage is an easy way to add a tropical accent to a small home or apartment,” says Hachadorian.

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Native to the hot and arid parts of the Americas and the Carribean, yucca trees are exotic statement plants that will quickly help add some personality to your bedroom or living space. They prefer a partly shaded location with bright, indirect light.

To care for your yucca, plant it in a three-to-one mixture of sand and peat. Make sure the mixture is strong enough to hold it upright. Be careful to not overwater; wait until the soil is half dry before watering.

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ZZ plant

“ZZ plants are one of my all-time favorites for those of you who want something green in your space. She loves to be neglected and works in almost any location in your home,” says Johnston.

Native to Zanzibar, Kenya, and eastern Africa, the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) is also known as the “easy plant.” It prefers medium to low indirect light, any humidity level, and watering only when the soil dries out completely.

So whether you pick up an easy ZZ at your favorite plant shop or have a fiddle leaf fig drop-shipped to your home, you now have the basics to start or enhance your plant collection—from A to Z. Here are a few general guidelines for taking care of plants more generally (no matter their letter).


“Watering is an art form, not a science,” says Johnston.  

She recommends always using the “finger test” instead of strictly sticking to a once-a-week or once-every-two-weeks watering routine.

“Place your finger in the soil at least one to two inches deep every time before you water. If the soil feels moist to the touch, do not water. If the soil feels dry to the touch, then water.”

Johnston also advises not to forget fertilizing.

“My secret tip to greening up any plant is to mix a teaspoon of Epsom salt in one gallon of warm water. Shake well, then water your plants. It’s like magic, and in a few days your plants will green up,” says Johnston. “Also, I love to use miracle grow sticks. Super easy and fuss-proof.”

Depending on the season, you might find yourself watering your plants more or less often. When the guide tips say to water weekly, it’s just a guideline. Listen to your plant.


It’s imperative to give your plant the right amount and the right kind of light. In general, south-facing windows offer bright light, east- or west-facing windows offer moderate light, and north-facing windows are for your low-light plants.

Hachadourian suggests doing a shadow test on your light conditions.

“During the brightest part of the day, hold your hand about one foot above your plants,” he says. “If the shadow of your hand is sharply defined, that’s bright light. If the shadow of your hand is fuzzy but still recognizable, that’s medium or bright diffused light. If the shadow of your hand is barely recognizable, that’s low light.”

Most common houseplants require medium light. Again, this is a guideline, and your plant will let you know if she is not loving the light.


How important is it to regulate the humidity in your space? Plants from tropical regions need lots of humidity, right?

“If you do want to provide your tropical plants with some extra humidity, you can do so by investing in a humidifier, grouping your plants together, or placing them in a room that has higher humidity levels, like a bathroom—provided you have a window in there,” says Marino.

She also cautions to keep your plant babies out of hot and cold drafty areas, such as open windows, air conditioning units or heaters.

“The more stable you can keep their environment, the better.”