House Plants from the Rain Forest
House plants from the rain forest seems an unlikely scenario.
But, after a recent visit to Central America I discovered that this is just where many of the plants that we have in our homes started out!
Under and on the canopy of massive forest trees grow many of the plants that we have in our bathrooms, halls and front rooms.
Hiking through coastal, inland and cloud forests in Costa Rica, I kept bumping into plants that are the mainstay of indoor plants in Europe.
Almost every tree is clad with climbing plants.
Whilst many are varieties of lianas that we do not put in our homes, the ones that I kept seeing were the all too familiar. They were cheese plants, devil’s ivies or goose foot plants.
But this is just a start since almost everywhere I looked there were house plants growing in the forest!
Many were scrambling up trunks or simply growing on the tree’s branches.
However, they have one thing in common and that is a tolerance to low light and shade.
This lends them especially well to growing in our – by contrast to the tropical light – dark homes!
Philodendron was the most common house plant growing in the rain forest that I came across.
Most trees had this climber on their trunks. I also to found by walking suspension bridges at tree top height, many had grown right to the very top!
Perhaps knowing the meaning of its name this should come as no surprise! In Greek ‘Philo’ means love and ‘dendron’ is of course tree!
But one thing I had not appreciated was this plant looks very different when on the ground and when starting to climb a tree, to the way it looks when it moves from the juvenile to the mature form. The first leaves are circular and lie as flat as they can against the trunk. It isn’t until higher and when each plant is mature that the characteristic large pointed spade shaped leaves appear.
Three other familiar climbing house plants were spotted in the rain forest.
The first is very similar to the Philodendron and indeed could easily be confused with it. This is the cheese plant [Monstera]. It has huge leaves with all the holes in them that remind us of Swiss cheese! I’m told that these trade mark holes are there to allow light to filter through the upper leaves to reach its own lower leaves.
Both Philodendron and Monstera produce the equally familiar long thick fleshy roots that reach down to the forest floor. These are less for support or to get food and water from the soil but more to extract essential nutrients and water from the air.
The goose foot plant [Syngonium] was less common. Because of its smaller stature it was hard to find. However the flattened protrusions on each leaf stem gave it away!
Of course the most popular creamy variegated form was nowhere to be seen. That is almost certainly a selection that has been made by a grower in their nursery. Syngonium is such an easy and tough indoor plant.
The devil’s ivy [Scindapsus] grew up trunks in much the same way. I noticed it often flourishing in very dark shade too. Supporting itself it steadily climbed in search of light. Scindapsis may now be found under the name Epipremnum.
This, Monstera, Philodendron and Scindapsus are often grown on moss covered pole supports as a pot plant in our homes and work places.
Not every house plants from the rain forest climbed trees.
Some simply grew on the trees and this is especially so in cloud forests.
Plants that grow on the branches of others are called epiphytes.
The high elevation and high rainfall of the cloud forest means that there is always a very plentiful supply of water for plants. Consequently there is no need to have your roots in the forest floor.
Costa Rica and Central America forests has epiphytic plants by the thousands!
Some trees have been found to support hundreds of different plant species. Orchids and Bromeliads are the dominant species.
All these flourish in the high temperatures and very high humidity getting their water and nutrients from the air around them!
Of course, a good degree of the nutrients come from the detritus of other plant materials up there in the tree canopies. Surprisingly these epiphytes are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow since they have to put up with large fluctuations of wet and dry.
Growing on the Forest Floor
Down on the forest floor and where jaguar roam it is not hard to find other plants that we have in our homes.
The peace lily [Spathiphyllum] were plentiful.
Those familiar white hooded blooms shine above glossy leaves.
Less common is another plant with a showy hooded flower. I spotted the occasional Anthurium. This plant is known also as the ‘flamingo flower’ but perhaps this common name is more appropriate to the cultivated pink and red varieties rather than the pale coloured ones that I saw in the rain forests of Costa Rica.
Less known for their blooms, Maranta or prayer plants abound here too! I saw several species of greatly varying size. They are called prayer plants since, as evening approaches, the leaves move from a
horizontal plane to the vertical. This mimics hands being put together in prayer.
During the day the leaves catch as much of the light that gets through the upper canopy as they can. But at night and when it’s dark those leaves stand vertically.
Other forest floor house plants
Dieffenbachia, another excellent foliage plant for European homes, appeared here also. Once more the very showiest variegated selections we love were absent. Those more decorative forms have been bred from their rather dull looking parents that I saw in the forests.
Several species of Begonia, which is another important indoor plant, were growing in the shade of the rain forest trees.
Begonia is a very big family and the plants that I saw, without some hybridizing, would barely warrant a place on our windowsills. These were subtle plants that hid among others, often close to gushing waterfalls.
Here too I found tiny leaf Pileas; another large family that has produced several useful indoor pot plants.
Away from streams and in drier places I found Aphelandra with the characteristic yellow and white cone-shaped blooms atop each stem.
The Middle Canopy
Finally, although these are plants more often used in public buildings than our homes, I must mention the middle story of the rain forest canopy.
Here dramatic leaf Heliconias and wild bananas were everywhere! These giant leaf plants look fantastically lush and dramatic.
By contrast growing among these were plenty of feathery leaf tree ferns from the Cyathea genera.
We tend to think of palm trees as coming from the desert but these dramatic palms were everywhere and thriving too.
All of these feature from time to time in office atrium, public buildings and shopping malls.
Here the low light and constant warmth allow them to grow thousands of miles away from the tropical rain forest!
I also spotted familiar yellow flowered Allamanda bushes which is always a cheery pot plant to grow with some warmth. Strictly speaking this is a native of Brazil.
Read here about other familiar indoor plants that I found growing in forests on a trip to Brazil.
On this trip I was also impressed by the use of what in the UK we would regard as tender exotic plants being used as we would use annual flowering bedding plants. You might find that interesting. Read about it here.
Costa Rica is a very well organised, fascinating and very stable country to visit. More details can be found here.
Perhaps you too will visit and find lots of house plants from the rain forest on your trip!