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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 2, 2006

Orchids, palms, cacti good condo plants

By Heidi Bornhorst


Banyans and Ficus benjamina or weeping fig, both of which are ficuses, are two indoor favorites that live long if you follow two simple rules:

  • Keep them indoors in a bright but cool spot. They will drop leaves at first, but keep watering them. They will acclimate to the light and thrive.

  • Don't move them! Don't take them outside "for some sun." Ficus leaves adapt to the light they are in and don't like change. You can carry the plants to the kitchen sink or outside to rinse off pests, but bring them back indoors as soon as the water drains out.

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    Gardening is much easier in a yard, so don't blame yourself if you've had a few casualties since you've moved into a high-rise. Maintaining a garden in the sky is a trial-and-error process.

    If it's too dark, plants will barely grow and are more likely to fall victim to mealy bugs and aphids, which weaken plants by sucking their sap. Air conditioning and the strong winds that whip through some tower complexes also are tough on plants.

    Potted plants need watering more than plants rooted in the ground because of the restricted root growth. Most plants, especially orchids, also need good drainage.


    Orchids are gorgeous and inexpensive at farmers' markets, craft fairs, garden shops and nurseries. Because they're long-lasting, easy to care for and bloom multiple times, dendrobiums and epidendrums ("popcorn" orchids) are good choices.

    Anthuriums also do well indoors. These sturdy plants come in dozens of Hawai'i-bred varieties and make impressive flowering potted plants.

    Fragrant Spathiphyllums (peace lilies), related to anthuriums and taro, range from petite (6 to 12 inches with 2-inch flowers) to large (three feet). They can thrive without much sunlight, like the humidity of bathrooms, and can sit in a tray of water and pebbles for a while and be fine.

    Palms that are adapted to low-light rainforest conditions do well indoors. Consider the Raphis (bamboo palm), caryotas (fishtail palm) or chamaedorea (parlor palm). If you have a hot, sunny lana'i, the golden-fruited areca likes bright conditions.

    The new hybrid crown of thorns from Thailand is lovely and also will thrive on a terrace, as will the adenium (desert rose), an attractive plumeria relative that will bloom even in the dead of winter and very windy conditions.

    Cacti and succulents are other wonderful possibilities. Aloe is a winner in any home garden. It is pretty, can bloom in winter, and its clear, gelatinous flesh provides a soothing salve.

    Some herbs do well in condos, while others will grow for a while or not at all; it depends on the amount of light and wind in the environment. Some herbs evolved in a Mediterranean climate, which, with hot, dry summers and cool winters, is similar to Southern California. They do better in less- humid climates.

    Experiment with the herbs you love. Keep in mind that herbs need well-drained soil and as much sunlight as possible. A sun-splashed lana'i is best, but inside near a bright window is almost as good.

    Mint, rosemary, large-leafed oregano, basil, lemongrass and parsley are among the herbs that grow easily in Hawai'i. As a fragrant, artsy decoration, grow several herbs in a colorful bowl or pretty pot. Nice mixes are mint, basil and parsley; lemongrass, rosemary and lavender; mini wild cherry tomatoes, basil and chives; and arugula, basil and mesclun greens.

    You can sometimes find these ready-made combinations at your neighborhood nursery or garden shop. They make great gifts and live for a long time with the proper care. I bought mine three years ago, and it's still thriving.

    As you cultivate your apartment plants, keep notes, ask other condo gardeners about successes and failures, and consult professional growers and nursery specialists.

    Heidi Bornhorst is a sustainable-landscape consultant. Submit questions at islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com or Island Life, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Letters may be published or distributed in print, electronic or other forms.