A few years ago Horticulture featured an enticing Tom Fischer cover piece on lady's slipper orchids (Paphiopedilum spp.), extolling these beauties as “ultimate houseplants.” This well-meaning hyperbole immediately raised my regionalist hackles; in central Texas I rarely succeed with plants like lady's slippers. I can only envy windowsill gardeners in parts of the country not faced with alkaline tapwater or desiccating air conditioners that run much of the year just to hold temperatures in the 80s. Interior environments are not created equal, and our Texas home calls for regionally adapted plants inside the house, as well as out in the garden.
Before mass-marketed “lucky bamboo” invaded U.S. interiors, a different plant, the Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum), had long been considered to bring good fortune to its owners. Venerated in Asia as a subject for a glazed urn, this native of shady jungle understories grows wild in areas with a hot, dry season followed by an annual monsoon. In other words, it naturally endures dimly lit interiors, dry atmosphere, and overwatering. And, as much of southeast Asia is underlain by limestone, Chinese evergreens also accept alkalinity.
Yet both the common and botanical names of this heroic aroid pretty much say it all: it's plain (modest) green. And, yes, aglaonemas are the same dusty plants seen enduring slow torture under fluorescent lights in malls, offices, airport terminals, and hotel lobbies. But just because they are able to survive in unloved public spaces is no reason not to cherish them at home. The intriguing, uncommon varieties now available from nurseries are diverse enough to satisfy al most any aesthetic predilection.
Recent decades have seen major advances in Aglnonema, fueled by efforts of breeders and discoveries of new species from the wilds of Asia. Striking novelties have entered commercial horticulture from vendors at Bangkok's famed Chatuchak weekend market and hobby gardeners in India, Thailand, and the Philippines. The new aglaonemas offer leaves, stems, and petioles boldly splashed with cream, ivory, and pewter, as well as lush, dense branching that keeps plants full and pretty even in dark corners. Although older varieties suffer when exposed to cold drafts, several new ones are safe at temperatures barely above freezing.
No matter how able, no plant really wants to live indoors all the time. Our aglaonemas head outside in late spring to spend summer staged near a patio under the benevolent shade of a large oak. Repotted and fed with slow-release fertilizers, they produce many sets of handsome new leaves before we bring them inside in early fall, preempting a pelting from the oak's bulletlike acorns. Then their varicolored foliage brings jungle lushness to winter living spaces and frames views of the garden outside. When low-angled sun rays pass through the windows to catch their tender, mottled leaves and whitened stems, our aglaonemas become living lanterns. For our garden and our home, these handsome, nofuss plants have been good luck indeed.