What to Look For When Buying Houseplants
Buying houseplants can be sheer joy, and studies prove that a few well-placed plants in your house can make you feel happier and healthier.
While the air-purifying qualities are a myth, there aren’t any bad reasons to have plants. In my opinion, the more, the merrier.
That said, there are a few common mistakes that people make, or red flags they don't know about. Here’s what to look for when buying houseplants.
A healthy plant is obvious to some people, but others need a little help determining what a healthy versus unhealthy plant is. Color is always very important, and anything that stands out with verdant, shiny, foliage, and bountiful blooms is likely a winner.
Stems should be firm and unbroken, leaves should be full and without holes or spots (unless they are supposed to have patterns). Blooms should be bright and full.
While beautiful blooms are enticing, remember that buds are better, as it means there will soon be a bounty of flowers. It also indicates that the plant is healthy and alive, whereas some plants have flowers even when they are distressed.
Most tropical indoor plants aren’t prized for their blooms so much as their foliage, so look for tiny leaf curls that indicate new, healthy growth is on the way.
On the flip side, drab coloring and sagging can indicate an unhealthy plant. Look for any brown or black spots anywhere on the plant, and take note of any wilted or yellow leaves.
Any of these things can indicate a variety of issues from under or over-watering, pests, and disease. Stay away from plants that look disheveled, have any broken or rotten parts, bugs in the soil or on the plant, or smell funky.
Spent flowers aren’t always a bad thing depending on the plant. It could mean it's merely done its bloom cycle, or has gone dormant, which is common in the winter.
Newly stocked plants always look good and well-cared for. They’ve just come in from a nursery or greenhouse that dotes on them until they hit the store. These plants will look healthy and are likely free from any disease.
Sometimes a grower doesn’t know their plants have been infected with something, so it’s important that you know how to spot different kinds of problems.
Root rot is a disease caused by over-watering. Check for soil that is overly saturated, or worse, has standing water. Certain species are less tolerant of having wet feet than others, and most plants will eventually die if over-watering continues.
Root rot is most commonly diagnosed when the soil of a plant is wet, but the plant looks like it's drying out. What you can't see are the dying, rotting roots at the bottom where standing water has caused a variety of fungi to emerge.
On the top, the plant may look and feel mushy, have yellowing leaves, or black and brown spots on their stems. Tops of succulents may look fine, but once you get them home, they will fall off because their root system has gone to mush.
Orchids, succulents, African violets, and Nanouk plants will not tolerate saturated soil, and are prone to root rot. Others that are tolerant of over-watering are pothos, spider plants, ferns, and dieffenbachia.
Fungus can cause other problems on a plant, and not just the root systems. Soil that is too wet is the main culprit of fungus problems, but spraying the tops of leaves and flowers can also be damaging.
Leaf spots occur when water gets on the whole plant. Proper watering should always be done directly into the soil, or from the bottom tray.
When water droplets stay on a leaf or flower and conditions are already damp, mold and fungus can develop on the foliage, especially at night when it's cooler and dark.
Spots can be any combination of black, yellow, brown, or even slightly red. The plant will drop these leaves where they can then infect the soil.
Blight is also caused by fungus, though the symptoms can travel from plant to plant through the release of spores. This type of fungus is gray mold which develops on wet, dead plant matter. As it dries, it creates a kind of dust that, when agitated, sends out the spores.
The symptoms to look out for are brown spots on leaves that get bigger. During a singular trip to the store, you won't be able to see if they are enlarging, so better to pass on any plant with spots, or blooms that die before they've flowered.
Once again, fungus is responsible for powdery mildew on plants, and these types also love wet soil, and dead plant matter. It will spread quickly through plants if they are overcrowded, and are lacking airflow.
This disease doesn't usually kill the plant, but if you see white dusty, powdery circles on distorted or dropped leaves, best to skip over that plant. The disease spreads through spores, as well, and who needs to bring that home?
Sooty Mold / Honeydew
This one actually combines pests and disease, which is kinda cool, but bad news for a houseplant. When pests like aphids or spider mites start sucking on stems and leaves, they leave a substance behind called 'honeydew,' and no, it isn't a nice substance.
A fungus called 'sooty mold' develops when honeydew is present. And while it can simply be wiped off, you can't fix the sooty mold problem unless you get rid of the pests, which will get rid of the honeydew.
The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to wipe off the sooty mold, pick up any dropped leaves (disposing of them in the garbage), and spray the plant with insecticidal soap or a blast from the hose to kill the bugs.
Bacteria will cause leaf spots and leaf drops for the same reasons: they love damp, cool environments and dead plant matter. Plants that have a lot of dead leaves and foliage around the pot should be skipped, especially if the debris is wet.
Not only has the plant been around for a while, it's likely breeding some nasty pathogens in the soil. Leaf spots caused by bacteria are usually all black and moist.
Plant leaves that are simply dead and dry in the soil may not be such a big deal, though. While it means they haven't been cleaned or watered in a while, it doesn't necessarily mean the plant is dying.
Most houseplants will get some kind of bugs eventually, but some are better than others, and it's good to know what you're getting into.
Most soft-bodied pests can be killed, but if you don't know you're bringing them home, all of a sudden you'll have an infestation, instead of being able to quarantine your plant (which you should do for a week anyway).
Fungus gnats are the most common infestation, and sometimes a whole shipment from a nursery, or grower is full of them.
These tiny, black flies are the bane of plant-lovers because they multiply quickly and are hard to get rid of. Disturb the soil of a plant you are thinking of buying. If there are any gnats, they will fly up at the slightest movement.
There may be eggs waiting to spring up underneath the soil, but that’s next to impossible to see with the naked eye. Test all of the nearby plants to see if they have gnats. If any do, it’s likely they all do.
Aphids can be black, green, or red, and you’ll notice them clumping in groups along stems and underneath leaves, where they can suck on the plant’s juices. These guys will do more damage than fungus gnats, which are more of a nuisance.
Aphids are like plant vampires, but you can’t kill them with a tiny stake, you’ll need to either spray them off with a strong hose when you get home, or use an insecticidal spray.
These pests are so miniscule, you often don’t see them until it's too late. If you notice any webbing on any plants you are looking to buy, that’s a good indicator it has mites.
While these bugs normally set up shop long after you’ve taken a plant home, sometimes they infiltrate stores and garden centers, too. They can also be taken care of with several doses of insecticidal spray.
Scale appears as tiny little bumps along the main stems or veins of plant leaves. These bumps are actually groupings of small bugs that come either armored or un-armored. Yep, they mean war.
You can scrape most of them off, but better to skip the plant, as scale can be very difficult to stop once it's taken hold. FYI, mealybugs are a white, un-armored variety of scale.
These pests are not really flies, though they will flutter away when disturbed, and are white, hence the name. They act more like aphids, and gather on the underside of leaves so they can suck on their sap.
They can be eradicated with insecticidal spray, but reproduce quickly, so once again, leave the bugs and the plant where they are, and don't bring them home.
Like aphids and white flies, thrips can be found on the undersides of leaves and on new growth (it's the tastiest). These ones are a little harder to spot, as they mask themselves as common dirt and debris on plants.
You'll be able to spot them by knowing the symptoms, instead. Any dull leaves that look dirty should get closer inspection. The silver or brownish dust might be thrips. Another tell-tale sign is distorted and curled leaves.
If the soil is very dry and you see that parts of the plant have turned completely brown, it’s better to pass on that plant. Even if extra watering might bring it back to life, if there are any parts that crumble when you touch them, or stems are brown, the plant has suffered extreme stress.
Plants that won't come back from extreme neglect are orchids, African violets, and some palms. If any part is crispy, that plant is a goner. Even though orchids don't need a lot of water, once they're crispy, they're too far gone.
Other plants like succulents, which include cacti, aloe, and jade, prefer to have very dry soil, so don't worry if you see them in a desert-like state. Bromeliads and orchids come in soils that are mostly bark, which doesn't retain a lot of water.
Before you go splurging on a tray full of cute succulents, ask yourself, does your home have a lot of bright, indirect sunlight coming in? Do you have enough space to fit all of them?
While I’m a fan of buy-the-plant-figure-it-out-later, there are certain requirements that shouldn’t be overlooked. Succulents like echeveria and aloe vera need a lot of sunlight. You can use grow lights if your house is shady, but perhaps there’s another houseplant that won’t be so needy (and draining on your electricity bill).
Pothos, spider plants, snake plants, and cast-iron plants all perform well in low light conditions. There are more than enough varieties to keep you interested, so better to save your money than buy yourself that tiny, brightly-colored, blue cactus (I know it’s hard).
Space is another thing to consider, although maybe you just need more shelves. Or bookcases... to fill with plants.
There are ways to get creative at making room for more plants, but the next question is do you have the time to keep up with all of them? Can you handle another four plants added to your watering and care schedule?
If you don’t want to add more to your plate, consider some of the easier ones to care for. Orchids and succulents don’t need to be watered as regularly as others, and are great plants if you travel, or are away from home a lot. They don't take up a lot of space, either.
So you love plants, but do your furry friends also love them? If you aren’t sure, test the situation out by bringing home a pet-safe plant, and see if your fur-babe has any interest.
Cats are notorious plant-killers, often playing with dangling foliage, or eating things that look like grass. Not all of them are smart enough to stay away from the poisonous ones, so make sure you only buy non-toxic varieties.
Not only can you find plants in garden centers and nurseries, there are now boutique shops that sell interesting varieties, big box stores that have indoor plant sections, and a multitude of places to find plants online.
Each one will have different quantities and quality of product, so do some homework before you buy online and price check before you head out the door.
Keep an Eye Out
Stores have sales all the time, and getting to know each place will help you stay in touch with their offerings. Most stores have websites and newsletters you can subscribe to. That way if you have your eye on something, it might be worth waiting for.
Join local plant groups in your neighborhood or on social media, as members are always discussing the best shops, where to find rare plants, and any sales going on in your area.
It’s hard for me to say don’t buy too many plants, but if you are heading out to buy some, have a budget in mind.
Maybe this has some wiggle room if there are sales or you find something rare that's been on your list. Allow yourself to buy more if there’s a good reason to. I believe if a plant speaks to you, that’s a good enough reason.
When you can, try your best to support local growers, and always read the plant tag before buying—that way you know what you're getting into. Make sure you know what the warranty is, and be skeptical if there isn't one.
The longer you do it, the better you'll get at knowing what to look for when buying houseplants. Just don't bring me shopping with you.