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Gardening : Branch Out by Bringing Trees Into Your Home : Many varieties will thrive inside; some preferring sun and others, shade.

August 13, 1989|JOEL RAPP

Many people begin their adventure into the world of plants as a fairly inexpensive means of home decoration. And the use of indoor trees is a particularly striking way to liven up any room in your house or apartment, a terrific method of "bringing the outdoors in."

A variety of indoor trees are available in better nurseries all over Southern California, some of which will do very nicely in a shady location--a corner in your living room, an entry hall, a bedroom or even as a lovely accent in a large bathroom--and all of which will thrive in a bright, sunny spot.

Easily the most popular of all the indoor trees is the Ficus benjamina, or weeping fig. This plant owes its appeal, I think, to the fact it looks so much like an outdoor tree with its shiny, little dark-green leaves that spring from woody branches.

If you keep your Ficus benjamina in a bright location--at least an eastern exposure, and don't water until the soil begins to feel dry to the touch--it should last practically forever with an occasional repotting into fresh soil (every couple of years) and regular fertilizing during the spring and summer.

This tree also makes an excellent container plant for a patio or sun porch. One problem with the weeping fig: This plant tends to drop leaves every now and then--especially while it's acclimatizing after you first bring it home from the nursery or garden center. But don't despair. This is a perfectly natural process, and the leaves should grow back within a couple of months.

Favors Kentia Palm

My favorite indoor tree is the kentia palm (Howeia forsteriana). There are lots of varieties of indoor palms commercially available, including:

-- Areca catechu or betel nut palm, which is very inexpensive--a large Areca palm can be purchased for under $25, but like anything else, when it comes to indoor plants you only get what you pay for. This plant does not adapt well to being confined in a container and will only last for about a year inside at the most.

--The date palm (Phoenix robelini), a very reliable indoor tree if given good, bright sunlight and kept moist.

--The bamboo palm (Chamaedorea erumpens), which does well in medium light if the soil is kept moist.

-- Raphis excelsa, often called "Slender Lady palm," a durable plant with bamboo-like canes matted with coarse fiber and leathery glossy-green leaves that resemble open Japanese fans and requires filtered light and moist soil to do its best.

Will Live for Years

But I prefer the kentia palm because I like the way it looks with its thick, graceful dark-green fronds, and I like the fact it will live for years and years with minimum attention, even tolerating relatively shady conditions.

Kentia palms are expensive--a 6-foot tree with four stalks in the pot can run in the neighborhood of $100 or more--but if you keep it in a location where it gets no more than filtered eastern light and water only when the soil begins to dry out, you won't regret the extra investment.

Many beautiful and very useful indoor trees are found in the family Dracaena, among them D. massangeana, or corn plant, with its tall, cane-like stalks toped by tufts of wide, green, chartreuse-striped leaves and often seen in banks and hotel lobbies; D. marginata, another sculptured stalk-plant with thin, dark-green, red-edged leaves; D. Warneckii, whose long, flat, pointed olive-green leaves have white or creamy-yellow borders, and D. craigii, whose leaves are solid dark green.

All Dracaenas will tolerate shade and need only be watered when the soil is dry, but beware of brown tips that develop from lack of sufficient humidity. This problem can be solved by frequent misting.

Shape of Open Umbrella

Another very popular indoor tree is the Australian umbrella tree or schefflera (Brassaia actinophylla). This plant is a great choice for a bright, airy location where an outdoorsy, tree-like look is called for. Its woody branches hold rosettes of dark-green, leathery leaves that form the shape of an open umbrella, thus its nickname. Let your umbrella tree dry out between waterings.

Always popular among indoor gardeners seeking a tree-like plant to place next to a window that gets bright, filtered light is Dieffenbachia , or dumbcane.

This plant's name reflects the fact that the leaves and stem of the Dieffenbachia contain toxins that, if ingested, can temporarily damage the larynx and leave you literally speechless, so be sure to keep this plant away from young children and pets that tend to nibble on the plants.

But the dumbcane is a very rewarding plant to grow, because all the varieties (D. amoena, D. roehrsii, D. picta, D. oerstedii ) are very glamorous with unique and splashy patterns and designs.

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