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Make Peace with This Plant

Spathiphyllum are so carefree that even bungling non-gardeners can make them thrive.
They give joy freely, even to those who might withhold light and fertilizer.

By Adele Kleine

Sometimes a black thumb grower, through a serendipitous combination of circumstances, grows a plant really well. This was true of my sister Phyllis, whose Spathiphyllum sat in a corner and grew and grew and occasionally sent up a white flower. A non-gardener, Phyllis claimed a kinship with the Spathiphyllum because they shared part of a name. But my mother preferred to call the plant by its common name “peace lily,” which reflected mom’s role as family peace-keeper.

Hers was an enormous plant, beloved because it was big and green and alive. In the house, its purpose was to lend tropical ambiance, which it did admirably. Its long-lasting flower, comprised of a spadix (a small yellow spike) and a spathe (a white oval “leaf”), gave it dignity, while its name brought hope. Not a bad combination in a strident world.

Phyllis grew her peace lily in a tub perched on a pedestal, which added to its height and grace. Located next to a leaky northern window, it received bright light (but no sun), along with ample humidity and fresh air. It seemed happy with casual watering. Altogether, hers was an ideal growing situation for this plant.

“Spathiphyllum is a staple. It’s easy, and that’s why people like it,” stated Susan Izenstark, tropical plant specialist at Jamaican Gardens, Morton Grove. Once considered stodgy, the peace lily is changing as scientists propagate it into a super breed through the science of tissue culture, says Izenstark. No longer in the “one size fits all” category, plants may be dwarfs with petite 2-inch leaves or giants whose whopping 18-inch leaves make them fit for hotel lobbies. Other cultivars boast variegated, white-splashed leaves. Before being shipped to garden centers and florists, plants are forced into flower with ethylene gas. With their appealing, long-lasting, shade-tolerant flowers, they are popular choices, whatever the size.

Spathiphyllum is a well-mannered, durable, long-lived, non-demanding houseplant of easy culture once you fulfill its needs. It is almost impossible to over-water, thanks to its origin in the bogs of Central America as a genus with 35 species, says Bill Welter, grower at Victor Hlavacek Florist and Greenhouses, Winnetka. It also needs no sunlight, only bright light, and a reasonably warm room in winter. “If you don’t want plastic, it’s a great plant,” Welter jokes.

Culture

For best results, grow Spathiphyllum in a slightly acidic, all-purpose loamy mix with good drainage. Add coarse humus such as fir bark or chopped Osmunda fibers to the mix in large containers. You can fertilize with a houseplant fertilizer at half-strength every two weeks during the growing season, but my sister Phyllis never fertilized her plant, and yet it thrived.

Flowers that resemble those of its relative the Anthurium appear on long stalks in the brighter light of spring and summer. Flowers appear most often when the roots are crowded in their pot. If the plant is too wet, or if the light is either too low or too high, it may not bloom. The appearance of flowers signals a contented plant.

Problems

The peace lily holds its spoon-shaped, shiny leaves on long, drooping stems that lend a graceful aspect. Brown leaf tips indicate insufficient water, too much light, or too much fertilizer. Wash the leaves occasionally with tepid water to protect them from the usual houseplant thugs: mealy bugs, white flies, scale and spider mites. Groom by removing any yellow bottom leaves. Grasp each leaf at the base and pull downward in order to avoid pulling out roots.

Propagation

If you want to propagate your plant, do so by dividing an old specimen in the spring, when roots occupy more than three-quarters of the container. Cut the rhizomes apart and replant. Or not. Author and houseplant guru Elvin McDonald has grown a specimen of Spathiphyllum x clevelandii in the same 10-inch clay pot for 10 years. It holds court perched atop a 42-inch pedestal where McDonald keeps it in good light, well-watered and well-fed. That’s even longer than my sister kept hers.

Growing tips:

  • If you have a plant with variegated leaves and the variegation turns dull, fertilize to restore luster.
  • Keep your plant evenly moist. Reduce watering and avoid cold drafts in winter.
  • Excess fluoride in water or soil can cause marginal leaf damage.
  • The higher the humidity, the better your plant will grow.
  • Spathiphyllum can be placed outside for the summer once the temperatures have stabilized. Place on a shaded, protected terrace or porch.

Choice Spathiphyllums:           

  • ‘Petite’ is the smallest cultivar and
    blooms readily. 6 inches tall.
  • ‘Viscount’ has narrow glossy leaves
    with abundant small white flowers. 12 inches tall.
  • S. x clevelandii has glossy, narrow
    leaves. 24 inches tall.
  • ‘Tasson’ has deep green foliage.
    24 inches tall.
  • ‘Domino’ with white-splashed leaves
    is the showiest and most popular cultivar.
    24 inches tall.
  • ‘Mauna Loa’ is a bushy plant with large leaves.
    Its creamy spathe and spadix turn green as they age.
    24 inches tall. ‘Mauna Loa Supreme’ is a taller version.
  • ‘Sensation’ is the biggest cultivar. It is sold in 14-inch
    pots with 18-inch leaves, and can reach 5 feet high
    and wide. It has unusual, heavy-ribbed green leaves
    but not many flowers. ‘Sensation Mini’ is a smaller
    version with similarly ribbed leaves. Up to 3 feet high.
  • ‘Cupido’ has a tall slender leaf and is very free
    flowering. 12 to 18 inches tall.
  • S. wallisii needs to be kept cool in winter, around
    50 degrees F. 20 inches tall.
  • S. cannifolium has unusual ribbed leaves that
    are black-green on top and pale underneath.
    18 to 24 inches tall.