Terrarium Plants Flourish in the Garden

By Virginia Hayes

I recently was looking for information on the Internet about a
plant and realized that most of the entries listed it as a
terrarium plant. It was pretty widely available, but only from
growers who saw it as a tender subject suitable only for hothouse
culture. The interesting thing was that I’d just walked by a
robust, blooming colony of it in a garden setting. It was listed
along with a number of other plants we take for granted here,
adding more proof that our outdoors is just as congenial a habitat
as a glass bowl on someone’s countertop in many other parts of the

The plant I noticed as I made this observation was Ruellia
makoyana. It is commonly known as the monkey plant or trailing
velvet plant. Its leaves are a deep green with a white midrib and
it flowers profusely in shade or partial shade with bright pink,
trumpet-shaped flowers. The plant itself clambers along the ground,
never getting taller than a foot or so in height, but making a nice
dense mound that can eventually cover quite an area. It is not
common yet (although I suggest it should be), and you will still
probably have to buy it from a purveyor of greenhouse subjects.

Other plants that fit this category are a little better known as
houseplants, but their use in landscape is still somewhat limited.
One familiar terrarium plant is the bird’s nest fern. In that
environment, it sports a clump of undivided, shiny green leaves
usually a few inches across with fronds from 3 to 8 inches in
length. While it may seem perfectly happy in its terrarium, this is
one plant that has a big potential in the garden. In the ground
here it grows a dozen or more fronds that are as many as 8 feet in
length, so it is no wonder that when a person familiar only with
its diminutive juvenile form sees it fully grown they have to ask
what it is.

Another genus of plants that is often seen in pots on
windowsills, but not often in the garden, is Calathea. Often called
maranta, these plants have paddle-shaped leaves growing in a clump
and often have beautiful stripes of pale green, gold, and even
pink. Many are too tender for the outdoors, but several will
survive easily and become much larger than their potted

One of the most prolific species, whether you grow it indoors or
out, is the spider plant (Chlorphytum comosum). Best known as a
hanging-basket subject, it is quite adaptable to gardens in our
mild climate. This shade-loving plant is most often seen in its
variegated form with grassy leaves striped in green and white.
There is also an all-green form and both of them reproduce by
forming little plantlets at the end of their flower stalks. These
root easily wherever they touch down on the ground, making this a
fast-growing groundcover. Beware of snails, but growth is so
prolific that the damage will disappear quickly once they are
picked off. Another hanging-basket plant for indoors is Swedish ivy
(Plectranthus australis). This trailing plant with glossy green
leaves is adaptable as a groundcover in moist, shady spots.

Begonias are another group of plants often seen on lists of
terrarium plants. Only the fussiest ones, like the Rex cultivars,
find our climate a little too rigorous. Many others of the cane and
rhizomatous types grow readily in our shade gardens. Which brings
me to another topic: Not only are these plants pretty tender and
not suited to outdoor culture except in warmer zones, they are also
mostly denizens of the shade. If they weren’t they wouldn’t thrive
in our houses, no matter how warm they were. Many also do best in
higher humidity, so place them in protected shady areas and plan to
mulch to retain moisture and water often. Since they don’t have
deep roots, frequent irrigations of short duration will provide the
humidity and not waste too much water.

One of the joys of living and gardening in such a benign climate
is seeing the wonder (and even envy) of visitors from colder
climes. You can just imagine their expressions as you stroll with
them through a landscape they’ve only ever known in miniature under
glass. A groundcover of baby tears punctuated by gigantic ferns and
billows of begonias is indeed magical.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska
Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to
Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send
email to vahayes@lotusland.org.


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