As the temperature drops, the skies darken, and the winter landscape turns to brown and white, there’s nothing nicer than a cheerful plant or two in the kitchen to remind you that spring will in fact one day return, especially if that plant adds a bit of color or fragrance to your culinary prep work. The problem however is that the kitchen is a tough environment for plants: under-cabinet areas that are most in need of a bit of decoration are generally too darkly lit for many species, kitchen temperature and humidity fluctuate wildly, and the demands of kitchen life mean that whatever plant you choose needs to be neat and compact, and preferably, easy to care for. Yes, combining all these qualities into a single specimen is a tall order, but here are seven candidates that fit the bill.
1. Madagascar Jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda)
This is a new plant to my collection this year, and I love it. As the name implies, the species is native to the island of Madagascar, but contrary to the nomenclature, it is not in fact a jasmine, but rather a relative of the milkweed, which you’ll discover if you accidentally break its thick, succulent stems and reveal the sticky white sap. A vine in its native habit, as an indoor plant I grow it in a big wicker basket, allowing the stems to twist and turn around and over the handle. This plant covers itself in spring and summer with incredible musk-scented flowers—a fragrance deep and rich, like expensive perfume. Its other common name, wax flower, aptly describes its glossy, dark green leaves, which are handsome year-round. (Madagascar jasmine reminds me in a way of another houseplant favorite, the hoya, though much prettier.) Two cautions here: This plant needs regular watering, and prefers partial sun and cool 60-degree indoor temperatures—a north-facing window is ideal. Summers outdoors are also beneficial.
2. African Spear (Sansevieria cylindrica)
This wonderful relative of the old-fashioned Mother-in-law’s Tongue is rapidly becoming one of my favorite plants for indoor use. As the name implies, the leaves of this species are almost cylindrical, forming smooth, pointed spikes that take on the appearance of abstract sculpture. Tolerant of very low light conditions, these plants are almost impossible to kill—except with kindness. Their ancestors originated in warm, dry Angola, and cold temperatures and overwatering will lead to rot and death in short order. My sansevieria sits next to the sink and thrives on under-cabinet mounted light alone. I water it maybe once every two or three weeks, as the lower its light conditions, the less water it needs.
3. Winter Jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum)
Without a doubt, winter jasmine is the best indoor flowering plant for the cold months. A vine by nature, it’s known for its vigorous growth and ease of culture, plus an astoundingly delectable scent. What’s required is a sunny, cool window during fall and winter for optimum growth and bud set. (Note “cool”—the dropping light and temperature trigger the winter bloom.) I grow mine on a metal topiary form, where the flowers last for well over a month, filling the house with fragrance. This is definitely a plant for your east- or west-facing kitchen window. For the temperate months, place your jasmine outdoors in filtered light, with normal water and fertilizer requirements.
4. Goldfish Plant (Nematanthus hybrid)
This little gem blooms year-round with minimal care, though mid-winter is when it really shines, covering its lustrous succulent green leaves with pumpkin-colored, goldfish-shaped flowers. Preferring partial sunlight, this is a great plant for the countertop, where its beauty can be appreciated close-up. Let dry between waterings, and fertilize once a month with a liquid plant fertilizer for optimum bloom.
5. Calamondin Orange (Citrofortunella microcarpa)
I purchased two of these miniature oranges about a decade ago, and they are now about 3′ tall, and as I write, loaded with ripening fruit. Citrus prefer cool temperatures (50 degrees) and some humidity in winter (a partially heated sunroom is ideal), so this pair I rotate in and out of the kitchen over the holidays, when the little ball-shaped trees are loaded with orange fruit—the essence of holiday abundance and cheer. The oranges are indeed edible: The skin quite sweet and the flesh quite sour, often eaten whole in Asia for a surprising flavor sensation. The flesh also makes excellent marmalade. My favorite use, though, is to harvest these quarter-size oranges, throw them into the freezer, and use them as surprise ice cubes for holiday seltzers or cocktails. I should mention, too, that the flowers, which form intermittently throughout the year but especially so in late winter, are extremely fragrant and will turn your home into a scented orange grove for a few weeks each season.
6. Purple Rubber Tree Plant (Ficus elastica decora ‘Burgundy’)
Here’s a real winner: What other plant do you know that tolerates (in fact prefers) low light, stays compact, barely needs to be watered (once every few weeks) and keeps lustrous, deep purple foliage all year round? This updated version of an old standard is great for a variety of uses indoors. I keep mine on either side of the kitchen television stand to hide all the unsightly cords that dangle off TV components these days. The only thing this species can’t tolerate is cold: Given repeated temperatures below 60 degrees, it sulks and loses leaves. Move outdoors in summer for a real splash of color in the partially shaded flower border.
7. Heartleaf Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum)
OK, I can hear you saying, what’s new about a philodendron? My grandmother had those! And yes she did, with good reason: They are almost indestructible houseplants that thrive on low light, adding a bit of greenery where almost nothing else will survive. To me, the cheery green heart-shaped leaves take me back to my childhood—a dime store philodendron formed my first-ever foray into houseplant care, and a direct descendent sits on my desk to this day, 40 years later. Many people complain that philodendrons get lanky, and they do after a time. Take a tip from my favorite ’60s garden guru, Thalassa Cruso, and simply twine the vine around the top of the pot and fasten the stems down with hairpins (if hairpins are still to be found!). It works wonders, keeping this plant looking full and lush all year round. For those of you with a taste for something new, there is now a variegated variety as well that’s equally undemanding.
Note: While many of these plants can be found at local specialty nurseries, a great mail-order source is Logee’s.