Houseplants are helpful in many ways. In Maine and other cold climates, avid gardeners grow plants indoors to lessen the pain of temporarily losing the outdoor garden.

For some people growing houseplants is a challenge, especially getting a plant to rebloom year after year, not merely to survive. For other gardeners, plants are just small decorations – like a living sculpture.

Houseplants also can improve people’s health. They take carbon dioxide out of the air and release oxygen. They add water to the atmosphere, which is arid in heated winter homes in cold climates. Some plants even remove poisons (such as formaldehyde and benzene) that products can release into homes.

Today I’m going with easy plants – so everyone can have a little success and in future winters move on to something more challenging.

Aloe, especially aloe vera, is attractive, useful and virtually impossible to kill. It is a succulent, so it doesn’t require a lot of watering and actually likes the dry atmosphere of homes. Aloes do like bright light. They aren’t expected to flower, so you won’t stress about that.

You probably won’t have to buy an aloe, although they are widely available and inexpensive. But aloes create a lot of baby plants as side shoots, so a friend who already has one will likely be happy to give you one of the babies.

Aloe also is good medicine. If you cut the stems and rub them on burns – including sunburn – the pain goes away.

Aloe

The peace lily (spathiphyllum) is another easy plant, because it tolerates both low humidity and low light. It isn’t a true lily, but is related to philodendron and dieffenbachia – other easy-to-grow plants.

The peace lily produces shiny, dark green leaves, so it is attractive even without blossoms. It gets a large white spathe – which many people call a flower, but technically it contains the much smaller flowers within each spathe – that lasts a long time.

The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is the first houseplant I ever grew on my own. It ended up in my room at college when someone moved out and left it. It has attractive variegated leaves, but what makes it exciting – at least for a non-botanical college student – is that it sends out shoots at the end of which baby spider plants appear and move in the breeze – and my college room had a breeze.

Spider plant

These baby plants can be pinned to a pot of planting medium, and you get new spider plants.

For its name alone, the cast-iron plant (aspidistra), which has large, upright leaves, has to appear in a column about tough houseplants. Buy this one large, because it is slow growing. Though it will survive in a dark corner of room and can go a long time without watering, it will look better with medium light and regular watering.

Most of the plants I’ve mentioned so far are grown for their foliage. Deep down, though, I think most of us want flowers.

One of the easiest flowering plants to grow is the shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana). I bought my first shrimp plant at the Mass Hort Flower Show in Boston years ago, and it lived for years, through several house movings. The bracts, or modified leaves, give this plant its name. They are curved and shaped and colored (pink) like shrimp. The flowers are small white tubes that come out between the bracts. To ensure shrimp plants bloom, give them medium to bright light, and keep them evenly moist.

Shrimp plant

These are just a few easy-growing plants. There are hundreds more, so you have plenty of choices, but I don’t have space to list them all.

Because the blossoms are so striking, many people want to grow orchids. To get a blossom, simply buy an orchid that’s already in bloom, but here’s a pro tip: look for a plant with unopened buds. Its bloom time will be longer because it’ll take a while for all the buds to open. Those blossoms will then last eight weeks or more, and by the time they’re gone, a hint of spring will be in the air and you can then start planting vegetable and flower seedlings.

You can get orchids to rebloom, but don’t expect a second round of blooms this winter. The orchid must rest six months or more after blooming – showing nothing but its leaves and the spent stalk. Move the non-blooming plant, with the stalk intact, to a cooler area of the house, with temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees and lots of light. Water it at most every other week, when the plant seems dry, using a half-strength solution of liquid fertilizer. Be sure that all the water drains out of the pot. Leaving water inside the pots will rot the roots, which is what kills a lot of orchids. If all goes well, you will get blossoms again.

For an even better chance, try the slipper orchid, or Paphiopedilum. In “House Plants: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing and Caring for Indoor Plants,” author Lisa Eldred Steinkopf describes the slipper orchid as “good for beginning orchid growers.” The leaves are either solid green or mottled; the mottled sort do better in warm house temperatures. They like medium light – such as an east-facing window – and they need to be watered regularly, but not overwatered.

In addition to flowers, the slipper orchid also produces offsets, or baby plants.

So grow some of these to help you escape winter doldrums.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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