Growing “Housetrees” (and Other Houseplants) from Seed
Copyright 2006 by Larry Lack and Lee Ann Ward
We really enjoy having plants in our house. They clean and freshen the air, they’re beautiful, they remind us of our bond with nature many times each day, they cheer us up. Where long winters and dark days are part of life, or for people in such artificial, built environments as city apartments, indoor plants provide an indispensable link with living nature.
We have a Norfolk Island pine and a couple of other plants we’ve purchased or received as gifts, but most of the two dozen potted plants in our house are young trees we’ve grown from fruit pits or other seeds. Our propagation methods and our fertilizer (mostly compost) are strictly organic, and our mini-orchard is as pleasing and exotic as some of the best collections of houseplants we’ve seen.
It all started with an avocado, most likely, or maybe a lemon, a grapefruit or a pomegranate. We grew a few of each of these easy-to-start plants for fun and managed to mature some into healthy and appealing little trees. These successes whetted our appetites, and we experimented with other kinds of trees, soaking, sprouting and otherwise trying to coax roots and shoots from a variety of pits and seeds. Some were soaked and then planted directly in potting soil. Some were frozen for a week or more, or lightly sanded with fine or medium sandpaper, and then soaked and planted.
We need plants that can thrive in a cool house with limited direct light. We’re also penny-and-kilowatt-pinching environmentalists and are willing to provide only a very stingy bit of supplemental light in winter. One 40-watt fluorescent tube from October to April is our limit, and that light is switched off whenever winter sun falls on the plant stand through our south-facing upstairs window.
This self-imposed limit on artificial light means we don’t get much in the way of flowers on our indoor plants. Christmas cactus, a spider plant, rosemary and a potted pepper plant or two provide some fall and winter flowers, but in the dark months we settle mostly for the graceful stems and spritely foliage of miniature trees.
With the help of a couple of good reference books, we’ve produced some very pretty indoor plants, for ourselves or for friends. Healthy, hand grown “housetrees” are welcome gifts that can share their recipients’ homes for many years.
Our top performing homegrown “housetrees” include date palms grown from date pits; coffee and pomegranate trees; oaks; and a beautiful mango tree grown from the pit of one of those delicious fruits.
Avocados, miniature citrus trees, and some vegetable plants, such as peppers and tomatoes, are easy to start any time of year, but sometimes indoor specimens of these flora can have serious, even deadly infestations of aphids, scale insects, wilts or fungi.
Oaks and mangoes are hardier, but we’ve found that some are challenging to propagate. Their grace, beauty and striking colors, however, more than compensate for the effort required to get them started. White oak acorns (Quercus alba) don’t need any special treatment; just collect and sow them in the fall; red oak acorns (Q. rubra) need to be kept at 41 degrees F. for 30 to 45 days before they’ll sprout.
To grow a coffee tree, you’ll need dry but otherwise unprocessed “beans” from coffee growing country, or fresh, unroasted beans from a roaster. Soak them for a day or two, then plant them to see if they sprout.
The last stage of processing most commercial coffee is done in big, industrial processing plants and involves big, expensive equipment. The resulting export/roast-ready beans are referred to as "oro" (gold); we think these will sprout, but we're not sure, since the beans we used to produce our trees had not been processed into “oro.”
We got 13 viable sprouts from 35 or 40 unroasted coffee beans when we started our trees five years ago. It's possible that bean viability could be further reduced by that last ("oro") stage of processing. Whether your beans have been processed into “oro” or not, we'd suggest planting seven to 10 beans for every tree you want. If you're lucky and get more sprouts than you need, you can always stick them in individual pots and give them away.
We’d love to hear from MOF&G readers about their experiences with propagating housetrees and other houseplants from seed. You can contact us at 17 Parr St., St. Andrews, New Brunswick E5B 1K4, Canada; 506-529-4982; email@example.com.
Houseplants for the Purple Thumb, by Maggie Baylis, 101 Productions, San Francisco, 1973--A humorous, spare, very practical handbook; used copies are sold on the Internet.
Secrets of Plant Propagation, by Lewis Hill. Subtitled “Starting Your Own Flowers, Vegetables, Fruits, Shrubs, Trees and Houseplants,” this wide-ranging, well-organized manual, first published in 1985, is available from Storey Books in Pownal, Vermont, for $18.95.