Is Your Plant Palette Looking a Bit Tired? Wake it Up with Zebras!

The knock against interiorscapers has always been that we aren’t really “landscape designers,” just specifiers. We’d take a corner or a tabletop or a filetop and plug in a safe combination of low-maintenance plants and humble containers and declare victory.

In the days of repetitive plant-in-pot interiorscapes, that may have been true, but nowadays we have access to plant cultivars that can bring the “Wow Factor” to even the most pedestrian small office installation.

Stromanthe sanguinea ‘Triostar’

Stromanthe sanguinea 'Triostar'My favorite plant for tabletop use to bring a splash of much-needed color to a drab office is Stromanthe sanguinea ‘Triostar’. In fact, it’s the only living plant in my office, and it has a place of honor on my desk right next to the computer monitor. It has spear-shaped leaves about eight inches long and two inches across and resembles a Prayer Plant from another dimension. Its color combination of rich green and white upper surfaces backed by reddish purple undersides make it a true star in the interiorscape. Many ‘scapers have bemoaned its apparent finickiness, but the simple solution to growing healthy, vibrant Triostars is subirrigation. Given the comfy confines of a CWI or Joey Pouch setup, these are long-lived, lively additions to any interiorscape setting that suffers from a bad case of the blahs.

Thai Aglaonemas

In recent years, I’ve become enamored with the so-called Thai Aglaonemas. These colorful but difficult Aroids look nothing like the shades-of-green Aglaonemas we’re accustomed to putting into every dimly lit corner of the universe, coming in almost infinite combinations of shades of pink, yellow, cream, red, white and green. Their preference for hot, humid conditions has limited their use in the trade, but hybrids in the “Jazzed Gems” series available from propagator Foremost Foliage seem to have the necessary vigor and tolerance to indoor conditions that makes them great choices for adding permanent color to the interiorscape. Of the four cultivars in this line (‘Etta Rose’, ‘Ruby Ray’, Sapphire Suzanne’ and ‘Sparkling Sarah’), we’ve had the best success with the latter two, mainly because their greater content of green chlorophyll seems to make them more vigorous and tolerant of lower light conditions. In brighter light, however, all four are stellar performers. These are modest-sized plants suitable for tabletop planters, planter boxes and as an underplanting in beds or treeplanters beneath larger specimen plants. They need a very well-drained medium that won’t stay wet between waterings; otherwise, they’re easy to maintain.

Cissus discolor

Cissus discolorIn the same vein as the Stromanthe and Aglaonema varieties discussed above, but suitable for use as a hanging plant or in a wall sconce planter, is the beautifully-hued Cissus discolor, a close relative of the common Grape Ivy. Its Rex Begonia-like foliage features a quilted texture and sophisticated color combination of deep green and silvery-white, backed with velvety purple undersides and reddish-purple trailing stems. The stems possess tendrils that help the vines attach to supports as they grow, making this a good subject for trellising. The plant isn’t fussy about growing conditions, but it does not tolerate direct sunlight for long periods and requires more moisture during spring and summer than in the winter. I’ve only seen the occasional mealybug trouble this exotic plant, and if you can provide it with decent indirect light or bright artificial light, it will thrive and light up any interior space.


Ficus lyrata 'Little Fiddle'Clients looking over our plant selection catalog almost always express a guilty desire for a Ficus tree. But as we all know, the locations that will support a healthy Ficus benjamina over the long term are not always plentiful in the office environment. That’s why I’ve become a fan of Ficus lyrata ‘Little Fiddle’. This fiddle-leaf fig cultivar has downsized versions of the conventional version’s violin-shaped leaves, making it easier to fit into the confines of a typical commercial office space, and giving it a more tailored, restrained appearance than its jungle-sized cousin. The leaves, measuring about six inches long as opposed to the 16-24” leaves of the standard F. lyrata, are displayed in a layered arrangement, giving the plant a distinctive columnar look in its bush form, and a neat, compact look when grown as a standard. When the plant sheds leaves, as all Ficus are prone to do under the best of circumstances, its appearance is not adversely affected, due to the larger quantity of leaves and the fullness of its canopy. ‘Little Fiddle’ also seems more tolerant of office light conditions, and when given some bright window light or artificial illumination, it will happily spar with your technicians in an attempt to avoid being restrained from its normally exuberant growth habit. But no worries: it’s easily shaped and contained with proper pruning.

Dracaena deremensis ‘Lauren’

Dracaena deremensis 'Lauren'And then there’s my newest “plant crush”: Dracaena deremensis ‘Lauren’, a newer cultivar of D. deremensis warneckii that combines the silvery-green variegation and lime-green edging of that workhorse variety, but has leaves that are nearly as wide as those of D. ‘Janet Craig’, giving it a fuller, more robust appearance. Originating as a sport from a branch of a Dracaena ‘Art’ plant in Costa Rica in 2006, this variety is already proving to be a favorite with clients of ours, taking the place of old ‘Janet Craig’ plants and lighting up those formerly dark and forlorn corners with a new sparkle of color. Care is identical to other dracaenas, and we’ve also noticed that the leaves of ‘Lauren’ are not nearly as brittle or prone to cracking at the stem joints as conventional D. warneckii. These are definitely worth a try to get some color and fullness into those boring low-light locations on your accounts.


I could go on, but let me just leave you with a teaser list of some other intriguing “zebras” for your interiorscape plant portfolio:

  • Tetrastigma voinierianum, another relative of the Grape Ivy, but more on the order of a gigantic, hairy, woody Grape Ivy, hence its nickname, “Java Man”. It can be contained to a hanging basket or trained up a trellis or pyramid or other form to make a truly unique and stunning specimen.
  • Dracaena ‘Anita’, a great alternative to the usual Dracaena marginata, with its graceful, slender green leaves weeping down from the top of a single trunk, makes a neat little tree for a modestly-lit office space.
  • Philodendron ‘Brasil’, a sport of the humble heartleaf Philodendron, glows like a swarm of fireflies with its bright splash of chartreuse on each leaf of a trailing plant, and it couldn’t be easier to grow in almost any environment.
  • Hoya carnosa ‘Tricolor’, with its thick, succulent foliage variegated green, cream and pink, will reliably bloom indoors in decent light once or twice a year, making it a great substitute for boring Pothos and ivy.

So when you (or, more importantly, your clients) are feeling a little bored with the plants you’re using in your interiorscapes, consider some of the above-mentioned cultivars to inject a little magic into your “specifications”. Life’s too short to get stuck in a rut.



Featured image by ScaarAT via

Cissus discolor image at

Dracaena ‘Lauren’ photo courtesy of Morning Dew Tropical

Clem Cirelli, Jr. is a career horticulturist and interiorscaper at Belmont Greenhouses in Belle Mead, New Jersey, with over thirty-five years' experience in all segments of the green industry. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Biology from Rutgers University, has written for Interiorscape Magazine, has spoken at TPIE and the Mid-Atlantic Interior Landscape Conference, and contributes regularly to the industry forums, and GreenChat.

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