4 Low-Maintenance Exotic Plants You Should Grow (That Aren't a Succulent)
I'll admit it: I'm a negligent plant owner. Or at least, I don't fit the stereotype of a dedicated indoor horticulturalist.
Between grad school, running a small tech business, and working with a nonprofit I helped found, the time I have to fuss around with plants rounds down to zero. I also like to maintain some semblance of a social life, which takes my time into the red.
With that in mind, it seems unlikely that I would be able to maintain a household of exotic plants, particularly given the cloud of hype surrounding most of them. Take orchids as an example. If I say the words "Orchid Enthusiast", it most likely calls to greenhouses, eyedroppers, misters, and a level of unhealthy obsession rarely seen outside of true crime movies.
The truth, however, is that certain areas of my home are more rainforest than house. In fact, I've become an "Island of Misfit Toys" for orphaned plants, orchids, and air plants whose owners have convinced themselves that they just don't have the time to keep them happy and healthy.
To be blunt, they are wrong. They swallowed the hype.
And as a result, their indoor garden is as bland and dry as the cactus and succulents that infest every windowsill and corner in their house. I've decided that there must be some sort of Big Cactus Lobbying Group whose sole purpose is to make people so insecure with their gardening skills that they believe that's all they can grow.
Don't get me wrong, I've got my fair share of Pokeys and Squishys, but the aesthetic of an entire house of cactus and succulents is about as inviting to me as, well, a desert.
The alternative? A house of exotic, colorful flowers, scents, and foliage (and tropical fruit to boot!). And the reality is, they're even easier than cactus. In fact, they like being neglected. I think the vast majority of plant deaths are a result of over-fussing, when really all they want is a decent set of conditions and some peace.
If your indoor plant collection has an excess of stonecrops and spines, it's time to take another look at four dead-simple exotics to liven things up. They're only as complicated as you make them, and if a grossly-negligent plant father like me can make them thrive, you can too.
4 Easy-to-Grow Exotic Houseplants (That Aren't Succulents)
- Carnivorous Plants
- Dwarf Citrus Trees
Air Plants (Tillandsias)
We'll start with the main offenders.
The stereotype of the overly complex orchid cultivation is a result of the past, in which careful control of exacting environmental factors was the only way to get them to germinate and grow. At this point, new cultivation techniques have made propagating orchids a relative breeze (hence their relatively cheap prevalence in the flower section of every grocery store and flower shop around the country).
And it turns out, keeping them as house plants is a breeze, as long as you're not obsessed with getting them to bloom until they die. Most of the commercially available varieties are tropical epiphytes (plants adapted to grow on the surface of other plants without any soil at all). In terms of caring for them in your home, this translates into several crucial things to keep in mind:
- They are adapted to be watered in bursts (e.g. rainstorms, so think how long rain running off the trunk of a tree will last), and then rely on what they can pull from the air in between.
- They're almost all adapted to grow in the shady interior of forest, which means dappled/intermittent light and high humidity.
- Many are triggered to bloom by conditions that make them think they are about to die.
Put together, you couldn't ask for an easier plant to keep alive. The thing to remember is that orchids want to dry out. They don't want to be fussed over. And if you nearly kill them, they will often "punish" you by blooming, and send up a spray of gorgeous flowers that will last for months.
After all, they're adapted to grow on essentially nothing. Their thick "aerial roots" are mostly for anchoring them to a branch and pulling moisture out of the air. Putting them in a pot is mostly just convenience; they're usually just full of bark or peat moss to absorb water.
So to make an orchid happy, treat them as though they could stand up to a tropical deluge, go months without rain, and endure a lifetime of clinging to the side of a tree for dear life. Because, well, they can.
The thing to remember is that orchids want to dry out. They don't want to be fussed over. And if you nearly kill them, they will often 'punish' you by blooming, and send up a spray of gorgeous flowers that will last for months.
Low-Maintenance Orchid Care
Unless you're getting deep into their cultivation, most of the orchids you see around are Phalaenopsis orchids, or "Moth/Butterfly" orchids. There's a good reason for this, as they bloom prolifically and for months at a time, thrive in the general conditions of an average home, and are now a snap to propagate.
Regardless of species, let's cut through the thousands of orchid books, articles and advice, and reveal how you grow these mythical, "complicated" exotics:
- Fill a dish or tray about 1" deep with gravel.
- Put the orchid on top of the gravel, and put the dish somewhere near a window that doesn't face south (if you're in the northern hemisphere).
- Pour a cup of water on it once a week, or even every other week, and let it drain into the gravel tray.
That's it. Seriously.
This method gives orchids all they need, namely indirect sunlight, a simulated regular rainstorm every once in a while, and a tray to catch runoff and create a bubble of humidity around them as it evaporates. Going on vacation for a couple weeks? Water them before you go and make sure there's water in their dish (but they're not actually sitting in the water), and forget about it. That's all they want, and anything else is almost certainly overkill.
When It Comes to Fertilizer: 'Weakly, Weekly'
And before you reach for the fertilizer, remember these plants grow in the wild on the side of a tree. Not a fertile or particularly welcoming environment. As a result, they're used to functioning with almost no nutrient input. So if you absolutely must, the motto is "Weakly, Weekly". In other words, fill a gallon water jug, and sprinkle in a few grains of Miracle Grow, just enough to turn the water the faintest blue.
If you overshoot, you will kill them. Quickly. It's like force-feeding a whole turkey to a toddler. It's cruel and dangerous. Better not to chance it. Just leave them be, and they're likely going to get plenty of nutrition from the decomposition of the peat moss in their pot.
You probably don't need to worry about your water's pH (they get a lot of it from the air).
You will also read a fair bit about water pH, chemicals, etc, and how you need to use nothing but pure distilled water to prevent mineral build-up, blah blah blah . . .
If you live in an area with super-hard water, or contamination, or lots of chlorine, this is supposed to kill the sensitive little creatures if you stoop to using tap water. Where I live, the water is hard enough to skate on in summer, but I've been watering directly with tap water for years with no visible ill effects. Orchids are in much more danger of dying from an excess of water and poor drainage, regardless of what's in the water.
However, if you have reason not to trust your water, you can definitely invest in distilled water to water them. Or just pour the water you want to use into a container that's open to the air for a few hours before you use it, and the chlorine will evaporate off.
Regardless of what's in your water, remember that one of the functions of your orchid's aerial roots (those thick, tentacle-like thingys that make it look like the orchid is trying to escape its pot) is not only to attach it to the side of a tree, but to absorb water from the air. Since water leaves everything else behind when it evaporates, the water your orchid pulls out of the air is essentially pH neutral, mineral-free, and exactly what they want. Keep water in their gravel dish, and you'll be "watering" them just right.
Generally, this system will produce a bloom stalk or two every year, assuming you live in a climate that gets cooler in winter. The natural decline in sunlight and temperature often triggers blooming. But each plant is on its own personal rhythm, so don't count on it. If you think of them as a lovely low-maintenance foliage plant, any bloom is just a bonus.
But if you forget them for a couple of weeks, I'll bet they end up surprising you.
2. Carnivorous Plants
I gravitate towards oddballs in general, and in terms of plants, carnivorous plants are as odd as it gets.
Biologically, this diverse group is just adapted to living in places with almost no nutrient input from the soil. Usually this means a bog or swamp, but can also mean habitats with little to no soil, or super-acidic conditions that break down most nutrients.
In any case, they all have one thing in common: they eat animals. Usually insects and other small arthropods, but they're hardly selective.
The structures they grow in the name of capturing this "moving fertilizer" are truly remarkable, graceful, and just a little scary to see in action. Some create inescapable deathtraps (pitcher plants), some rely on sticky secretions to glue their victims in place (sundews), and some simply just grab their food when it wanders by (flytraps).
Unless you live in a completely sterile laboratory, you probably have at least a few bugs flying/wandering around your home. Assuming you don't want a home infested with six-legged squatters, carnivores have the added bonus of "earning their keep" by taking these pests out of circulation for you (one industrious sundew cleared up a persistent fruit fly problem in a week). This also means no more fussing with fertilizer, which is more dangerous for plants than most people realize (they feed themselves!).
As if that weren't enough, many species have exotic patterns and colors on their foliage, and put up some of the most elaborate, exotic-looking blooms in the plant kingdom. They won't be upset if you decide to clip the blooms off though, and it's not really the reason to grow them anyway.
Note: If your goal is the lowest-maintenance bug munchers possible: don't start with flytraps. Venus Flytraps are fun, given that they move and look scary, but they can also be finicky, thus defeating the main goal. Stick to pitcher plants and sundews, and I promise you'll be happier.
Assuming you don't want a home infested with six-legged squatters, carnivores have the added bonus of 'earning their keep' by taking these pests out of circulation for you, thus totally eliminating the need for fertilizer.
Low-Maintenance Carnivorous Plant Care
Most species of carnivores want two things:
- Lots of sun.
- Wet feet.
Remember, these plants are adapted to areas few other plants can tolerate, and are therefore not used to growing with competition. Give them all the sun you can.
They're also generally impossible to overwater, as many of them are from bogs and swamps. Few of them like being hit by a heavy deluge from above, however, so the watering needs to take a slightly different form. With that in mind, here's carnivore care in a nutshell:
- Fill a tray or flat-bottomed bowl about 2" deep with water.
- Put your carnivore in it, and put it in the sunniest place in your house (bonus points for being near a garbage can/source of bugs).
- Pour water in the bowl when it gets low.
Flytraps and Nepenthes Require a Bit More Care
The exception to this are some sensitive species, such as flytraps and Nepenthes pitcher plants. Flytraps like very particular conditions that can be tricky to accomplish, and Nepenthes are hanging rainforest vines, so they need good drainage.
My recommendation: start with cape sundew and any variety of pitcher plant. They look cool, keep your house free of flying insects, and take no more than a passing dump of water into a dish when it gets low.
If you insist on making things more complicated, Nepenthes are happiest in a hanging basket with excellent drainage, and you can basically treat them like an orchid. A good, heavy watering once every other week is plenty.
Fertilizer Is the Enemy
They will feed themselves, so don't even think about giving them "plant food". They're too easy to burn, and they don't want/need it. If you absolutely must, buy some dried mealworms, and toss one into a pitcher every month or so. Or leave a banana peel in a cup near your sundew for a week. They'll do the rest.
3. Potted Dwarf Citrus Trees
Of the groups in this article, these are probably the closest to "traditional" house plants, in terms of care at least. They still don't have to be over-complicated, but if you're looking for a more-traditional aesthetic, dwarf citrus trees are a fantastic option.
For one, they produce fruit. Obviously. For another, they produce wonderfully fragrant blossoms and will make your house smell like Tropical Magic in the depths of winter when you need it most.
Most fruit trees can grow in pots for a few years, but they will get sullen and die if not planted eventually. Not so with certain varieties of dwarf citrus, and although the fruit they produce will be more or less normal-sized, the tree itself is totally fine being in a pot indefinitely.
That said, the bigger the pot you put them in, the bigger they will get, and the more fruit they produce. Depending on the constraints of your living space, a pot at least 1' in diameter and 1' deep is a good starting point. Go bigger if you want to, but remember that makes a bigger (and heavier) tree.
The More Sun the Better
The main thing these plants need is sun. The more, the better. They take a little extra care if you are trying to maximize fruit production. But if you think of them as a low-maintenance ornamental plant, you'll be delighted by their happy-go-lucky attitudes and delicious-smelling flowers.
In terms of picking the right one, it really only depends on the fruit you want. Most citrus will accept being grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock, so just ask your local nursery. Other than that, my easy favorite is Calamondin oranges, for the fruit quality, bloom fragrance, and general ease.
Then again, if you're a tequila drinker, I'd look into dwarf lime trees.
Low-Maintenance Potted Citrus Tree Care
The basic care for these functional beauties goes like this:
- Put in a big pot with slow-release fertilizer built in.
- Place in the sunniest place in your house.
- Every time you pour yourself a glass of water, dump half of it on the tree.
If you're trying to crank out as much fruit as possible, then you may have to feed them extra when they're flowering and fruiting. Assuming you don't care how much fruit they make, they should be fine without it.
But if you need the vitamin C, think about a flowering/fruiting plant as a though it's pregnant and eating for two (dozen). They can take a good shot of fertilizer about once every other week, if you're really trying to become an orchard. You can also get better fruit (but fewer) by picking half of the young oranges off halfway through development.
Lemon and Lime Trees Need More Attention
If you go with lemons or limes, they will most likely need some additional attention to survive the winter, as they're generally not too happy about being inside for their whole lives. If you have access to a sunporch or greenhouse with extra lighting, you can take this road, but that's an instant dealbreaker for me. I stick to Calamondin oranges for this reason; they're perfectly happy being inside in the same place all year long.
Personally, I prefer to just put them in autopilot and get what I get. Plus, if you get in the habit of pouring yourself a glass or two of water a day, you and your tree will both be healthier. Win-win!
4. Air Plants (Tillandsias)
Air Plants are perhaps the pinnacle in low-maintenance gardening.
As the name suggests, these little cuties don't even need substrate to grow in, let alone actual soil. This affords all sorts of cool display options, as you can literally just leave them laying around. Tie them to a string and hang them from the ceiling, glue them to a board, put them in a blown-glass ornament, whatever. They're happy as can be almost anywhere.
In the wild, these plants are adapted to the same thing as many orchids, namely growing on bare tree trunks/branches/power lines/wherever. They are therefore expecting to dry out, even more so than orchids. Not having roots, they generally absorb water from the atmosphere or through their leaves themselves.
This makes them not only incredibly hardy, but extremely versatile for use in home decor. They come in an infinite variety of shapes and forms, and if they're really happy, mature ones will produce some pretty wild-looking flowers. They also produce little clones ("pups") that can be separated and turned into unique, Pinterest-worthy gifts for even the most murderous of plant owners.
How you use them is up to you, but in terms of minimizing input to grow plants, this is the mountaintop.
Low-Maintenance Air Plant Care
As you can imagine for something that's used to hanging out on a tree branch all the time, care for this beautifully simple group of plants is almost impossible to screw up:
- Find any location in your house with at least partial sun.
- Display them in some interesting way in that location.
- Dunk them in water for 15 minutes once a month.
- Forget that they are even plants at all.
Given their ability to absorb water from the air, they will be even happier in areas that are not only bright and sunny, but humid, at least in their immediate vicinity.
Easy solution: put them near your orchids or carnivorous plants. Remember that they don't want to be wet, so not actually touching standing water. But above/nearby/sitting on top of the gravel you have your orchids sitting on is perfect.
Keep Them Humid, But Not Too Wet
The major hazard here is actually rotting. If you water them too often, or don't place them somewhere where they can dry out between waterings, they will just rot from the base where mold and moisture collect.
You can resolve this to some extent by putting them somewhere with intermittently-good ventilation. They like humidity, but an occasional breeze to keep the air from stagnating is best. The easiest solution is to just put them somewhere you are going to walk by frequently, or a door that will be opened once in a while (as long as it has a lot of sun).
Outside of that, air plants are easy to dial in, in terms of their individual needs. If one starts looking pouty and unhealthy, pick it up and move it somewhere else for a week or two until it looks happier. In dry climates, you may need to water more often, but that's as simple as taking them to the sink and running water over them for a few seconds.
You Have Excellent Non-Cactus Options
Regardless of what plants you choose to live with, if you're anything like me, you will figure out what combination fits your busy lifestyle pretty quickly. Just remember that you have some excellent, exotic, non-cactus options.
Being busy doesn't mean your home can't be a rainforest instead of a desert.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.