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10 Fussy Houseplants and How to Keep ‘Em Alive (or What to Grow Instead)

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Ever bring a houseplant home with high hopes…only to watch it struggle? And struggle some more? Yeah, same. But this is a no judgment zone, and you’re not a bad plant parent if your greenery withers away. Even the plant pros among us have an occasional flop. The truth is some plants need a little more TLC than others, and the most Instagram-able houseplants often aren’t necessarily right for everyone.

To be totally fair, there are no “bad” houseplants. “It’s not that the plant itself is difficult,” says Justin Hancock, horticulturalist with Costa Farms.  “It’s that it’s not well-suited to the conditions in your home. The plants we often call ‘fussy’ have a narrow zone of environmental conditions they’ll tolerate for light, moisture or humidity levels.” In a nutshell, there’s less wiggle room for errors with these plants.

However, you can grow these plants if you do your homework. First, understand a plant’s needs, says Hancock. For example, before you buy on a whim, learn what kind of light a plant requires, then figure out where you’re going to put it. And be honest with yourself: If you’re forgetful about watering, maybe you should pass on the plant that needs consistent moisture.

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The 10 Most Difficult Houseplants (And Less-Fussy Alternatives)

1. Calathea

Calathea has gorgeous foliage, so it’s easy to see why it’s skyrocketed to fame. But it’s what Hancock jokingly calls a “Goldilocks” plant: It doesn’t like to get too dry or too wet, and it loves humidity; if anything is out of balance, it will start getting brown and crispy leaf edges.

  • What it Needs: Give it bright, indirect light and plant it in a self-watering pot, which will allow it to take up the exact amount of water it needs.
  • Alternative: Aglaonema, which has dramatic coloring but is much more forgiving about humidity levels and will tolerate low light levels. It also can dry out between waterings.

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2. Alocasia

Striking alocasia has a dramatic form and eye-catching coloring, but it can be a real diva. It is often susceptible to spider mite invasions. Some varieties, such as Amazonica, may go dormant if it’s too cool, too dry or if it’s not getting enough light, causing the leaves to drop off one by one so that you think it’s dead.

  • What it Needs: Provide bright, indirect light, and water it when the top inch of soil feels slightly dry.
  • Alternative: Philodendrons such as Birkin, Red Congo and Moonlight have striking foliage and are more tolerant of medium light.

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3. Ferns

With their graceful, wispy fronds, many ferns make pretty hanging baskets. But some, especially favorites such as Boston fern and maidenhair fern, get annoyed in a dry indoor environment. They start browning, dropping fronds, and making a huge mess.

  • What it Needs: Ferns need tons of bright light and light, consistent moisture. It’s difficult to provide what they want indoors, especially in winter when the furnace is going full blast.
  • Alternative: Bird’s nest ferns, such as Hurricane, have thicker, almost leathery fronds that are sturdier and more tolerant of dry indoor conditions. They’ll take medium light and are more patient, too, if you occasionally forget to water.

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4. Peace Lily

Though often mentioned as an easy-to-grow plant, peace lily can be a disappointment to some plant parents. It will start wilting if you don’t keep it consistently moist. Plus, in low light, it will maintain its glossy foliage but will not bloom.

  • What it Needs: Peace lily likes constant light moisture, so check it every few days to make sure the soil surface still feels damp. It also needs bright indirect light to form the pretty spoon-shaped flowers.
  • Alternative: Tiger tooth philodendron has long, strappy leaves reminiscent of peace lily but with serrated edges. It tolerates medium light levels and can dry out between waterings so it’s less needy.

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5. Fiddle Leaf Fig

Yes, it’s been a social media star forever. But it needs high light, or it will drop leaves and look sad and scraggly in no time.

  • What it Needs: Because it’s a full-sized tree that grows in full sun in its native habitat, give this plant high light levels. Water when its top 2 inches of soil feel dry.
  • Alternative: If it’s the big, bold foliage you love, opt for rubber tree, which has also has a tree form and tolerates medium to bright indirect light. Let it dry out between waterings.

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6. Majesty Palm

These palms tend to be a magnet for spider mites, and they also demand lots of light. Otherwise, they tend to drop fronds and look sparse instead of lush and tropical.

  • What it Needs: Majesty palms need bright direct light and light constant moisture because they’re native to riverbanks.
  • Alternative:White bird of paradise is a handsome plant with the tropical flair of a palm, but it’s more forgiving about care requirements. It prefers medium to bright light levels; water only when the pot is halfway dry.

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7. Croton

The super-bright foliage is the draw here, but croton needs full sun, so it often fades quickly indoors. It also doesn’t like cool temperatures.

  • What it Needs: Bright, direct sunlight, warm temperatures (not below 60 degrees F), and let it get slightly dry before watering.
  • Alternative: Maranta mimics the bright colors of croton but with striped foliage; it needs medium to bright, indirect light and constant light moisture, though it will tolerate drying out occasionally.

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8. Holiday Cactus

Christmas cactus—and its relatives Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus—bloom in response to day length. These plants can live for decades, but they can be iffy about reblooming if you don’t give them enough hours of darkness overnight starting in the fall.

  • What it Needs: Bright, indirect light until fall; then in September, place it in a spare room with no nighttime lights so that it will set buds for the holidays (each type of holiday cactus blooms closest to the holiday after which it’s named). Water well, and let it dry out in between waterings.
  • Alternative: Ric Rac cactus has fun textured foliage that looks exactly like ric rac trim. It rarely flowers, but its unique stems make it worth growing. Give it bright, indirect light and water when mostly dry.

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9. Stromathe Triostar

This trendy darling of social media has eye-catching pink variegated foliage. But it’s another Goldilocks plant that doesn’t like it too wet, too dry or too dark (it’s a relative of calathea, so its fussiness should be no surprise). If it’s too dark, the variegation will not be as intense.

  • What it Needs:Bright, indirect light, and water so that the soil stays lightly moist.
  • Alternative: Aglaonema is much more low-key on its needs, yet it still boasts pretty foliage, tolerates low light conditions, and doesn’t mind drying out a bit between waterings.

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10. Citrus Trees

Citrus trees are not exactly fussy—unless you don’t give them the right lighting conditions. If they get insufficient light or water, they’ll drop leaves and look bad in a hurry.

  • What it Needs: Give them 8 or more hours of direct light— after all, they grow in full sun in the wild—and they’ll reward you with blooms and fruit. A grow light is a good option if you don’t have the right spot in your home. Let them dry out slightly, watering when an index finger pushed into the soil feels dry.
  • Alternative: Stick with calamondin oranges if you’re a new plant parent; they’re the easiest indoor citrus tree to grow.

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