Everything You Need to Know So Your Plants Can Outlive You

Follow these tips to create a heirloom collection

Mature spider plant with pups


Dorling Kindersley: Rob Streeter / Getty Images

When we think of family heirlooms, things like jewelry, quilts, and books come to mind. But what about plants? Currently, the oldest living houseplant is a 242-year-old Eastern Cape cycad (palm) located in London's Kew Gardens

Under the right conditions, many houseplants will grow for a very long time. I have a neighbor who had plants for well over 30 years, but does that count as an heirloom if she passes it onto her kids or grandchildren? Absolutely!

Author and founder of The Houseplant Guru, Lisa Eldred Steinkopf, shares her thoughts on heirloom plants and the most common varieties that live the longest. 

What Qualifies a Plant as an Heirloom?

The definition for heirloom plants isn't concrete. "An heirloom is a plant that means a great deal to you and has been in your collection for a long time," explains Steinkopf, "If it is passed down from a grandparent, great-grandparent, or another family member, all the better, but I don't necessarily see that as a prerequisite to it being an heirloom."

It can be a rare or expensive plant, or it can be an inexpensive, common variety. The bottom line is that any plant can be an heirloom, but some varieties are known to have long lives.

Popular Heirloom Plant Varieties

"Probably the most common heirloom plant that is passed down through a family is the true Christmas cactus," says Steinkopf. Schlumbergera buckleyi is an epiphytic plant that blooms during the holiday season.

"It is hard to find one to purchase as they have been hybridized extensively," explains Steinkopf. Most plant shops now sell the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) because they bloom earlier and have more color variety. "I have seen Christmas cacti on houseplant Facebook pages that are upwards of 100 years old," says Steinkopf.

Other plants known for their long lifespans include ferns, sansevierias, dracaenas, spider plants, cacti, succulents, and ZZ plants. "It really boils down to how well you care for the plant, prune it, and often propagate it to extend its life," says Steinkopf.

Christmas cactus

Clara Nila / Getty Images

Tips To Help Keep Houseplants Alive for Years

Starting an heirloom plant collection begins with proper care. Steinkopf has many heirloom plants in her collection and three that are over 35 years old. Her heirloom plants include a ponytail palm she purchased in 1984 while at college, a fern her mother gifted her for her wedding in 1985, and her mother's fern originally purchased in 1957. What is her secret to keeping her plants that long? Here are Steinkopf's top tips:

  • Lighting. Pay attention to your plants' needs, especially making sure your plant is in the right light conditions. "Your plants will send you signals if they are unhappy, such as excessive amounts of yellow leaves, drooping, or brown leaves or leaf tips, and more," says Steinkopf. 
  • Check for pests often. Try to eradicate them when there are just a few instead of waiting until the entire plant is covered and not salvageable. 
  • Don't water on a schedule. A plant's water needs will vary throughout the year, and each plant has different water preferences. The best thing to do is to check your plant often to see if it needs it or not.
  • Water every plant thoroughly. "When you do water, water until water runs out of the drainage hole," says Steinkopf.  
  • Avoid Soggy Conditions. Never leave a plant standing in the water longer than an hour or so. Some people prefer to bottom water, which is suitable for some plants like African violets. However, don't overdo it—once it has taken up what it needs, empty the rest out of the saucer.
Heirloom pony tail plam in a terra cotta pot.
 Lisa Eldred Steinkopf

Building an Heirloom Plant Collection

Starting a collection is the easy part. Most plant parents love to share cuttings and it's a wonderful way to collect plants from established species.

"I have a fern that was passed down from my great-grandmother to my mother, to me, and now to my daughters," says Steinkopf, "Each of us has a piece of the fern."

If you see a lovely plant at a friends' or neighbors' house, ask them about it. Learn how they received the plant and how long they have had it. You'll be surprised how willing they are to share the story and a cutting. 

Heirloom fern on a pedastal.
 Lisa Eldred Steinkopf