Freaky Houseplants: The Top Ten Alternative Plants to Grow In Your Home

Posted by – February 10, 2011

Image: Mimosa Pudica, Pavan Srinath. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Mimosa pudica (Sensitive Plant)

No house is complete without houseplants. But why grow those old boring standbys, when you can grow mind-blowing, weird and beautiful plants like the following?

(Well OK, perhaps mind-blowing is going a bit far; I’ve left psychedelic plants off this list for legal reasons, but weird and beautiful I can definitely give you).

Looking for houseplants that move? Houseplants that taste good? Houseplants that reproduce faster than rabbits, disguise themselves as inanimate objects, grow without soil or cover themselves in fur? Look no further … Here they are, in reverse order of wonderfulness, my top ten weird and alternative houseplants.

10. Climbing Fig

The climbing fig is a relative of the fig tree and other rubber plants. It’s important, when assembling a truly strange collection of indoor plants, to have at least one plant that creeps up your walls and looks as though it might strangle you in the night. This one’s a popular candidate, although there are other possibilities too.

9. Tradescantia

So you’ve got your upward-creeping plants sorted out; now you need something that will cascade downwards when you grow it on top of shelves or wardrobes. Tradescantia’s what you need. Very easily grown from cuttings, tradescantia is often to be found on sale in such places as supermarkets and hardware shops. Once placed in a decent-sized pot and exposed to some sunlight from nearby windows, it will grow at a deliciously alarming rate — although maybe not till summer if you live somewhere like England. During a good English summer, a handful of two-inch cuttings can easily grow to cover an entire wardrobe in greenery.

8. Banana

Image: banana. Source: Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.); Flora de Filipinas [...] Gran edicion [...] [Atlas I]. License: public domain.

Various types of banana grow happily indoors, and may — just may — provide you with bananas. But the best reason for growing these plants is that they grow like crazy! So maybe you’ve got creeping plants and cascading plants covered; your walls are now totally hidden behind curtains of green foliage; what are you going to do about all that space in the middle of your room? Bananas are the answer! You can buy little banana plants, half-grown plants or else just grow them yourself from seeds. Provided you keep them in a big pot, let them get direct sunlight from a window, keep them warm and water them a lot with a high-nitrogen fertilizer (stuff sold for tomatoes is good), these beauties might easily put on eight feet in a year. Although considered by many to be a tree, really they are a sort of tall shrub. There’s no woody trunk as such, just a bunch of enormous leaves that wrap into a tube to form the trunk.

7. Old Man Cactus

Once your entire living room is packed solid with foliage, you’ll need some curiosities to liven things up a bit. That’s what this is; a curiosity. The Old Man Cactus is nothing other than a cactus that covers itself in fur; or, more precisely, wiry hairs. You can’t stroke it like a cat since it’s far too spiky and wiry, but it sure looks like you can. Along with most other cacti, Old Man Cactus is easily grown from seed. But be warned, it’ll grow at roughly one centimeter a year or so. You’d better start now!

6. Living Stones

Not a British rock group but a type of plant, the Living Stones have evolved to resemble stones, presumably with the aim of not being eaten in mind. And boy do they look like stones. It’s really quite uncanny. Makes me wonder if one day plants will evolve to resemble cigarette ends and discarded crisp packets. Their cover is broken only once in a while when they flower, the flower miraculously emerging from what appears to be a simple stone. Living stones are fairly easy to grow from seeds with a little attention to detail; read up on growing cacti — you need sandy potting compost and not too much water. The seeds are extremely small, so that for several weeks you’ll find yourself peering closely at them, trying to figure out if they’re sprouting yet or not. Once they get going, they grow slowly, so don’t hold your breath.

5. Basil

Surprised? Well basil actually makes a great houseplant. It’s not hugely decorative but who cares — it grows fast and you can eat it. In fact it tastes really, really good when the leaves are young; later on they get bitter. You can easily grow it from seeds which are on sale all over the place. It’s not too fussy about soil; just buy a bag of potting compost from a large supermarket or wherever. Grow it on a windowsill, or a little inside your room if your windowsill is really, really sunny. Your entire room (which I trust is by now completely filled with foliage) will smell delightfully of basil — a clean, fresh, minty smell. When the times comes to eat it, I recommend either making your own pesto or else try that classic bourgeois meal or snack, the basil, mozzarella, olive oil and sun-dried tomato sandwich. Delicious!

4. Air Plants

The term ‘air plant’ covers a variety of beasts, united by the singular fact that they don’t require soil to grow. Tillandsia are probably my favourites. You can find these plants on sale in the sort of places that sell weird plants, such as houseplant shops and garden centers. Considered by some to be a little passé, maybe because you so often find them glued to tacky ornamentation, nevertheless there’s something majestic and striking about a good tillandsia. Airplants grow slowly and like to be fed via special food from a mister, but on the other hand you don’t have to mess about with pots.

3. Venus Flytrap

Image: Venus Flytrap. Source: Noah Elhardt. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Venus Flytrap

Well of course I had to include this little monster! Venus fly traps aren’t all that easy to grow; their native environment is the swamp (like you’d expect from such a creepy plant!) and consequently they tend to do badly in the dry air in modern houses. But they often do OK in bathrooms, and you can use various tricks to increase moisture in the air around them — consult a book on houseplants for details. The great thing about them is that they eat flies. You can trigger their elegant ‘traps’ yourself by touching the sensitive hairs inside them with a pen or whatever; but don’t do it too often or they’ll get exhausted. Some people also like to feed them little bits of meat ….

2. Mexican Hat Plant

Also known by various other names, the weird thing about this plant is that it continually produces hundreds of little plants on the edges of its leaves. The little plants will even grow roots, until they fall off and poison your pet dog, or alternatively, take root in the soil around the mother plant. The plant will also flower sometimes; the flowers are unspectacular tube-shaped affairs. From memory I think the flowers are followed by black seeds, but unfortunately I can’t remember that I ever definitely managed to succesfully produce mature seeds — or else if I did, I didn’t attempt to grow them. Which I regret, because you rarely seem to see seeds for this intriguing plant, and you don’t often see the actual plants in shops either.

1. Sensitive Plant

Some regard this plant as straggly and unlovable, but to me it’s magical. The Sensitive Plant is easily grown from its brown disc-shaped seeds; soak the seeds in water in a warm room till they start to sprout, then put them in soil. The amazing thing about sensitive plants is that, provided they’re warm enough (at least 21 celsius), they move when you touch them. Individual leaves fold up when you nudge them, and entire branches fold up and appear to instantaneously die if you gently shake them, only to recover fully twenty minutes later. Apparently lots of mimosas show some degree of movement if you look closely, but Mimosa pudica has really made an art of it. This strange (for a plant) behaviour probably helps them to avoid being eaten by insects. This plant’s flowers are also rather beautiful, to my mind. The plant itself tends to grow long, thorny and spindly, but you can make it less spindly by judiciously pinching out the growing buds if you want to.

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10 Comments on Freaky Houseplants: The Top Ten Alternative Plants to Grow In Your Home

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  7. Daniel says:

    Great read! Love the detail about the features of each plant. I personally enjoy plants with special features like the ones above.

  8. Samantha says:

    Great post. I am glad you picked the sensitive plant (we call it the TickleMe Plant) in our educators circle. I agree that TickleMe Plants are magical. They open their leaves when the sun rises and close their leaves when it sets. My students love their Pet TickleMe Plants. No plant has excited my students more about nature and gardening. They are so easy to grow and are available as kits and there is even the TickleMe Plant book which shows how to get your plant to flower even in winter.

    • Squiffy says:

      Someone (you???) has set up a website just selling these plants as “TickelMe” plants. I love stuff like this, so hats off to whoever set this up. I’d love to know how much cash this site makes too, speaking as someone who once tried to found a business selling these plants!! We need more sites selling kits for growing weird plants.

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