The beautiful Chinese evergreen must be one of the easiest pot plants to grow

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Aglaonema 'Silver Queen'Aglaonema 'Silver Queen'Lush and tough, these tropical plants not only clean the air, but also look stunningly beautiful in your living space or garden. Learn how to care for them in this guide.

These leafy tropical plants with their attractive variegated foliage are easy to care for indoors, and in frost-free regions can be grown in the garden. Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema) are native to the warm, moist, forested, tropical and subtropical regions of Asia and New Guinea. They have been grown as luck-bringing plants for centuries by Asians, and were brought to the lauded Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London by plant explorers in the late 1800’s. 

Whether you believe they bring luck or not, they are certainly worthwhile growing for their lush, tropical foliage.  Some varieties have solid green leaves, but most cultivars have interesting variegation in shades of silver, grey, or light green. They range in size from compact 20 to 25cm tall plants to larger varieties that will grow 45 to 60cm tall.

In their natural environment, they flourish beneath the shade of tropical trees, where they get very little direct sunlight, and for this reason they are renowned as low-light plants, and thrive indoors as long as there’s some light. For this reason they remain popular potted plants for windowless offices where they grow happily in artificial light, and because they also love high humidity are highly recommended for bathrooms.

Aglaonemas also grow together in the same pot with other indoor plants which have the same growing requirements. For example, to spruce up a ficus, try adding a few aglaonemas to the base of the tree, or combine them with red bromeliads around a Kentia palm.

Because of the plant’s natural ability to remove benzene and formaldehyde from air sources, NASA has placed the green-leaved Aglaonema modestum variety on its list of top ten plants to clean the air indoors, and for this reason, aglaonema may one day be grown in space!

Aglaonema 'Maria'Aglaonema 'Maria'Cultivation:

Indoors:

Chinese evergreens will grow in most indoor spaces where there is moderate light. However, they are sensitive to cold conditions and struggle if placed in a room where the temperatures drop below 15°C.

Although they do not like to be overwatered and are tolerant of low water conditions, you should never allow them to be dry for long periods of time. Ideally, the soil should be allowed to dry out to about 25 to 30% of the way down the pot before you give your plant a deep watering. If you find watering your potted plants a bit of a guessing game, it would be well worth investing in a moisture meter from you garden centre, as most potted plants are killed by incorrect watering.

In their natural environment humidity is high enough to allow the plants to absorb some moisture from the air, and in the home it is very beneficial to ‘mist’ your plant occasionally with water to bring up the humidity level. Placing the pot on top of a tray filled with small pebbles is also a great way to increase humidity, but always ensure that the pot stands above the water level to prevent root rot.

These plants do not like to be placed directly underneath an air conditioning vent or where there is a draft.  Also, in winter, do not place them close to a heater or fireplace, which will cause the soil to dry out too rapidly.

Chinese evergreens love to grow in well-drained soil but it must still be able to hold some water, enough to stay lightly moist. However, excess water should be able to drain off quickly, or there could be a risk of root rot damage.

Lightly-acidic soil with a pH range from 5.6 to 6.5 is ideal, so a peat-based potting soil with extra perlite is recommended. You can also consider blending in a bark-based orchid mix. The soil itself should be reasonably nitrogen-rich, but should be loose and not densely-packed.

Chinese evergreens require some nitrogen for foliage development, but it is easy to over fertilise them because many houseplant fertilisers tend to carry a lot of salt deposits which can build up in the soil. If you use a conventional pot plant feeder, mix it at half the recommended dosage, or consider using Nitrosol which is an excellent feeder to use on almost all foliage plants, and well worth investing in for you aglaonema.

Potted plants like to grow in small pots and should only be re-potted when they have outgrown their original pot, and when you do repot, select a pot one size larger the one it is currently growing in.  The plants should be re-potted into fresh soil every two years. This not only replenishes the soil, but it also allows you to divide your plant if you wish to, or to increase the size of its pot.

Outdoors:

In tropical, sub-tropical and frost-free regions the Chinese evergreen looks beautiful growing in clumps in the shade of trees. Choose a warm sheltered spot in the garden that receives bright, indirect sun and has well drained, slightly acidic soil.  Dig a hole in the prepared area slightly larger than the root ball. Remove the plant from the container, and position in the hole and backfill with soil, gently firming it down. Water in well, and keep the soil slightly moist thereafter. Feed in spring and autumn as for potted plants.

Pruning:

These low-maintenance plants don’t really need pruning and it is mostly done to remove dead leaves, which are pruned out from the base of the plant  using a pair of sterilised pruners.

However, if your plant is growing tall and ‘leggy’ do not prune it down right to the base, rather trim off some growth from the very top to encourage the plant to bush out. Leggy growth is an indication of too little light, so move your plant to a brighter location.

Most gardeners recommend pruning out any flower stalks which may appear because the flowers are not very attractive and once the bud opens the pollen is very messy. Flowers also use up the energy your plant should be devoting to growing fresh new leaves.

Propagation:

Chinese evergreens naturally propagate themselves via suckers beneath the soil’s surface, and a pot can rapidly fill up with young sucker plants. The easiest way to propagate them is to split and divide overgrown plants.

Gently remove your plant from its pot, and lightly dust or shake off any loose soil. Provided that the plants are not too root bound and tangled together, you should be able to gently pry your aglaonema apart with your fingers into smaller sections for replanting. If your plant is root bound, you will need to use a sharp, sterile knife to cut the root mass into multiple sections for replanting, but be sure to leave an even number of leaves and stalks on each section.

Keep the new pot size proportionate to the plant itself as aglaonemas like to have secure, dense root structures, and do not need a lot of extra soil, which can hold too much moisture. Always replant your plant at the same height as they were originally planted, as planting too deep will cause problems.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If grown correctly aglaonemas are surprisingly free of pests and diseases, but as with all plants, problems may occur.

The most common issue for these plants is yellowing of the leaves. Older leaves will naturally turn yellow before dying, but if yellowing is overall, it is a sign of either under or over watering, usually the latter. Be sure you maintain a moist but not wet soil to ensure dark green leaves.

If yellowing still occurs despite maintaining optimal watering conditions, your plant may be suffering from a copper deficiency. This is surprisingly common in this type of plant, as it’s a heavy feeder on copper in the soil. Your plant may be lacking micronutrients and should be fertilised appropriately. Trelmix is a great product which contains all the micro-elements required for the healthy growth of trees, shrubs, pot plants, lawns, vegetables and seedlings, and it’s always good to have a bottle handy for garden use.

Browning tips can be cause by a lack of humidity around the leaves, but is usually caused by a build-up of salts in the soil, chlorine, or fluoride from tap water. To remedy this, you can either leach the soil of its mineral deposits by thoroughly watering and draining it using distilled water, or you can simply repot into fresh soil. Using rain water is often the best for potted plants.

The most common pests are mealybugs, which attach themselves to the leathery leaves and cause damage to the plant by sucking the sap. Other scale insects may also make an appearance.

Less common but still possible are spider mites and aphids, which also suck the sap of plants.

All of the above can be handled with a light spray on all the surfaces of the plant with an insecticidal soap, like Biogrow Neudosan. This organic insecticidal soap should be applied in the evening or when the plant is less likely to be exposed to light prior to the mist drying, so as to avoid burning the foliage.

Aglaonema is susceptible to anthracnose and myrothecium leaf spots, which are both fungal. These can discolour your leaves and cause holes or patchy, dry brown areas which can slowly develop over time and cause severe damage. Treating these requires a light misting with a liquid copper fungicide such as Biogrow Copper Soap. Apply this product at dusk so that it can dry on the foliage surfaces overnight. Your plant should appreciate the extra copper, as well!

If your plant is frequently overwatered, it may develop fusarium root rot. This is generally fatal, so your best protection against this is prevention. Do not overwater your plant!

Warning:

Aglaonema is toxic to cats, dogs, and horses, and if they do eat it, get them to the vet immediately!

In addition, the sap can cause dermititis, and can create skin irritations and skin rashes. Keep this plant away from children.