Garden Detective: Plants to dress up cubicles

The pothos has long vining stems with glossy, The pothos has long vining stems with glossy, heart-shaped leaves. Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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Jessica Damiano

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print ...

DEAR JESSICA: Do you have any suggestions for plants that would be suitable and manageable for an office cubicle? I have heard of an air fern but am not sure it's a real plant. -- Chris Wales, Mineola

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DEAR CHRIS: I can tell you about some plants that will thrive in an office cubicle, typically a space subjected to fluorescent lighting, dry air and sometimes even neglect, but first I have to address the "realness" of the air fern. Is it for real? Well, sort of, but it's not a real plant.

Air ferns are billed as plants that never require water or sunlight. It's true, they don't require any care. It's the "plant" part that isn't true. Air ferns actually are colonies of the skeletal remains of the Sertularia argentea, a sea creature related to the jellyfish and coral. The skeletons look like ferns with fine foliage, so someone with a macabre sense of entrepreneurial ingenuity thought it would be a good idea to preserve these corpses with chemicals, dye them green and pass them off as plants that don't need water.

They actually would look nice in your cubicle, now that I think about it, and they won't mind the lack of sunlight or care. And if you're not grossed out by, say, dried starfish or sea horses, then you won't be bothered by air fern. But if you want a real plant, I have a few other suggestions:

POTHOS (Epipremnum aureum) has long vining stems with glossy heart-shaped leaves that trail over the side of the pot and can grow up to 8 feet long.

ZZ PLANT (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) has glossy foliage and an upright habit that can reach 3 feet tall.

FLAMINGO FLOWER (Anthurium) sports big red bracts that serve as flowers.

CHINESE EVERGREEN (Aglaonema) has smooth, glossy, sometimes variegated or mottled leaves.

DEAR JESSICA: I was given a gardenia plant as a gift, and it has buds on it, but they drop off before opening. I do not overwater but keep the soil moist. I put it near the sun on the south side of a room for a little while. What am I doing wrong? -- Iris A. Jenney, Ridge

DEAR IRIS: Gardenias can be quite finicky: They will drop buds if they're overwatered, and they'll drop buds if they're underwatered. They require a lot of light, but perform poorly if placed in direct sunlight. They also don't appreciate rooms that are too warm -- or too cool, but instead need warm (68-74-degree) days coupled with cooler (60-degree) nights. You might call them the Goldilocks of houseplants. Relocating them "for a little while" also could spell trouble: They're very sensitive to being moved and respond by -- you guessed it -- dropping buds.

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