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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Thursday - August 15, 2013

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Non-Natives, Container Gardens, Trees
Title: Arborvitae for house plant from Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I am a Northerner transplanted to Austin, TX. While I love Austin it feels like many of the plants & trees I came to love up north won't grow here at all. Could I grow an arborvitae in my home as a houseplant? If I kept it in a smallish pot would it stay a reasonable size and yet still live? How should I care for it indoors?

ANSWER:

As it happens, we have already answered a similar question about arborvitae for Texas, please read it first before we address the possibility of growing arborvitae indoors as a house plant.

If you follow the plant link Thuja occidentalis (Arborvitae) to our webpage on that species, you will find these comments:

"Eastern arborvitae can grow 40-60 ft. tall, but under cultivation will probably be no taller than 30 ft." and "Soil Description: Moist, well-drained alkaline soils." The soil in Austin is definiitely alkaline but often clay, which is not well-drained. Nor is it moist, ever.

Follow this link to Thuja plicata (Western arborvitae) and read these comments:

"The evergreen’s typical height is 50-75 ft., but it can grow to 200 ft." and "Native Habitat: Moist flats; river banks; swamps." Austin doesn't do swamps.

Now, granted, you want to grow these trees as an indoor house plant so you could control their soils with specially mixed potting soils, but what can you do about their growth? If you could somehow contrive a material for the pot that would not be burst by the roots, the plant would quickly wrap its roots around itself and strangle.

So, let's face it, you live in Texas now. We sympathize with your longing for a familiar plant for your garden, but you may have to think in different terms. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, home of Mr. Smarty Plants, is committed to the growth, propagation and protection of plants native not only to North America but also to the area in which those plants are to be grown. And very few native plants, whether native to the Northeast or Texas can survive as house plants. If a house plant is what you want, here is a guide to growing houseplants from Better Homes and Gardens.

However, if you are interested in evergreen shrubs or trees for outside in Austin, consider this: Juniperus ashei (Ashe juniper) which, while not a member of the genus Thuja, does join Arborvitae and Western Arborvtae as members of the Cupresseaceae (Cypress) family. It is very well suited to growing in the Austin soils and climate, although not always popular because of the allergenic pollens it releases into the air around Christmas every year and also its tendency to take over.

Still in an effort to help you garden in Texas, here are some more evergreen trees and shrubs native to Central Texas.

Hesperocyparis arizonica (Arizona cypress)

Ilex opaca (American holly)

Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon)

Maclura pomifera (Osage orange)

Follow each plant link to our webpage on that plant to discover growing conditions, sunlight requirement and water needs. If you wish to do your own search, go to our Native Plant Database, scroll down to the Combination Search, select on Texas, and either "tree" or "shrub" for Habit, the amount of sun you will have where you intend to put the plant, and "evergreen under Leaf Retention. When you click on Narrow Your Search, you will get a list of plants that fit your specifications. You can scroll down the plant webpage to Additional Resources and click on the link for that plant to the USDA Plant Profile. The state of Texas should be green on that map, clicking on the state will give you the counties (also in green) where that plant can be grown.

 

From the Image Gallery


Arborvitae
Thuja occidentalis

Ashe juniper
Juniperus ashei

Arizona cypress
Hesperocyparis arizonica

American holly
Ilex opaca

Yaupon
Ilex vomitoria

Osage orange
Maclura pomifera

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