Mark VowlesAglaonema, the Tropic’s luckiest plant

I’m not superstitious by any means but there are many who will adopt curious strategies in an endeavour to improve their luck. Mind you, good fortune is always welcome so I guess embracing the odd cultural idiosyncrasy couldn’t hurt. Aglaonema or the ‘Lucky Plant’ has for centuries been cultivated in China and other Asian countries as an indoor ornamental foliage plant and considered a bringer of fortune. Its longevity, ease of growth and striking appearance were thought beneficial to the well-being and financial success of the residents who grew it. So, I’m wondering if my new-found fascination for the Thai Hybrid Aglaonema is a subliminal bid to shape my destiny…

Colourful leaves of Aglaonema cultivars

Colourful leaves of new Aglaonema cultivars

Aglaonema originally gained a wider Western audience back in the 1960-70s when the fascination for indoor plants took off. New hybrids were developed from a selection of known species such as Aglaonema commutatum and Aglaonema nitidum, to produce an exciting array of cultivars that fitted the bill perfectly for domestic and commercial interior-scape cultivation. Indeed, many of the commercial growers back then struck good fortune themselves as sales of the new hybrids boomed.

Aglaonema ‘Silver Queen’

Around $4 million worth of the cultivar Aglaonema ‘Silver Queen’ sold each year during the ‘90s in Florida, USA alone. It is to this day one of the most popular indoor plants ever grown and sold, receiving the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Award of Garden Merit’ among others.

Aglaonema Image by GardenDrum.com

Aglaonema cultivar

Aglaonema cultivar

Then along comes a new kid on the block! Recent years have seen the introduction of an exciting range of new multi-coloured Aglaonema cultivars. The talent of hybridisers from Asia and in particular Thailand has resulted in an astounding pool of plants that, at first glance, bare little resemblance to the cultivars of the late 20th century.

Aglaonema 'Red Cochin'

Aglaonema ‘Red Cochin’

Species including Aglaonema rotundum from North Sumatra and Aglaonema marantifolium ‘Tricolor’ from New Guinea have formed the parentage. With colourful markings reminiscent of Codiaeum variegatum or croton, the Thai Hybrid Aglaonema represent an appealing new addition to our horticultural palette. Dazzling splashes of hot pink on a dark, glossy green leaf surface, diffuse scarlet-red midribs and orange veins or luminous lime green flecking are but a smidgen of the foliage colour combinations. From a collector’s perspective, one could expect a protracted period of obsessive fascination. I can almost hear the cries of “Oh great….. not another plant to covet”.

Aglaonema 'Red Valentine'

Aglaonema ‘Red Valentine’

However you might regard this garish new introduction, its potential in the home and garden does look promising. Although performing best in warmer climates, the new cultivars do emulate the older varieties in many respects. With their parents originating from dark, tropical forest floors, the Aglaonema Thai Hybrids’ tolerance of low light conditions is a big plus. I don’t know of many other plants as capable of entirely retaining foliage colour in a full shade or indoor situation. On the other hand, plants grown in tropical regions will actually stand some direct sun, although only in the morning or late afternoon.

Mixed Algaonema in a dark, shady part of the garden

Mixed Algaonema growing in the garden in heavy shade

A tolerance of dryer growing conditions is also worth noting. A respected commercial grower in the Australian tropics of Far North Queensland told me recently that she had not watered a group of potted specimens for three weeks and they looked perfect! Plants growing in indoor situations seem to prefer only minimal watering which will avoid potential root rots. Many growers use an open, free draining growing mix. In Thailand, using cocopeat or rice husks is popular, and some Australian growers are fond of a mix similar to that suitable for Cymbidium orchids.

Potted Aglaonema in the garden

Potted Aglaonema in my wet tropics garden

The plant is inherently slow growing but does respond to moderate feeding with a slow release fertiliser. A Thai collector mentioned he irrigated his plants with the water used by the family to prepare their fish for dinner! Higher ambient light and temperatures are beneficial with sub-tropical to equatorial regions being desirable environments for an enhanced growth rate.

Aglaonema 'Totol'

Aglaonema ‘Totol’

Aglaonema 'Hot Lady'

Aglaonema ‘Hot Lady’

Florists are finding the cut leaf makes a fine inclusion in arrangements. Leaves can be inserted into floristry phials or oasis wet floral foam and often outlast a majority of the other green components. Longevity of 8-10 weeks is not uncommon!

Aglaonema 'Siam Aurora'

Aglaonema ‘Siam Aurora’

Varieties such as Aglaonema ‘Red Valentine’, Aglaonema ‘Legacy’ and Aglaonema ‘Siam Aurora’ are now in large scale commercial production, so buying these plants is now easier than ever. Many new tissue-cultured cultivars are being exported around the world and will no doubt become available in the near future.

Aglaonema 'Legacy'

Aglaonema ‘Legacy’

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Mark Vowles

About Mark Vowles

Mark Vowles is a landscape designer and horticulturist based in Freshwater, on the north side of Cairns in Queensland's Wet Tropics. His own garden at 'Tabu' has been featured on TV and magazines and is also now a popular garden stay B&B. Mark works on both residential and commercial design projects throughout the tropics.

18 thoughts on “Aglaonema, the Tropic’s luckiest plant

  1. Daphne Ludwig on said:

    Where is one able to buy the new ones please as I have about 20 now and would love some of the very new ones. Thanking you. Daphne.

    • Mark Vowles on said:

      Me too Daphne!. Unfortunately, as far as I know , the available range of cultivars outside of Thailand is limited. You might consider applying for a “Nursery Stock Import License” through the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service ( AQIS). Then it would be possible to import Tissue Culture Flasks of selected cultivars. There seem to be quite a few overseas growers offering some amazing new plants! Otherwise , keep a lookout at local garden centres. All the best, Mark

      • Rob Pilling on said:

        A great informative write up on Aglaonemas. ePlants Sunshine Coast stock some nice new cultivars of Aglaonems.

  2. Regan on said:

    What great looking plants. Like that they will stay those colours in the shade. Do you think I’d be able to grow them in south east Queensland? (I live in Bli Bli)

    • Daphne Ludwig on said:

      I grow them at Caloundra and Brisbane.

    • Mark Vowles on said:

      Definately possible to grow them in South East Queensland, Regan. In fact, some cultivars will grow outdoors as far south as Sydney, Australia (Latitude 34 S) if positioned in a warm, protected spot. Growth is slower the further one moves away from warmer zones and ensure an open, free draining growing medium.
      Regards, Mark.

  3. Polly on said:

    What a great blog on some pretty fantastic plants! Their cousin ‘Croton’ (multiple varieties) are available in the states – either as annuals or house plants. I’m hoping to find some of the cultivars you mention above now too! Particularly drawn to the Red Cochin, Rotundum, Siam Aurora, and Hot Lady. Wish me luck! 🙂

    • Mark Vowles on said:

      I think you are in luck Polly! There are now quite a few varieties available in the US. I’ve even seen some very nice cultivars available on Ebay. Certainly , Hawaii and Florida have very good climates for growing Thai Hybrid Aglaonema and the plant seems to be popular with collectors there.
      All the best, Mark

  4. Arno King on said:

    Hello Mark

    Thanks for a great article on these plants. When they first came on the market, I thought they might be more tropical or demanding than the traditional Aglaonema cultivars we were familiar with. However this has proved not to be the case at all. All the cultivars I grow have been incredibly easy to grow in my western Brisbane garden. They don’t miss a beat in winter. I have even bought plants at the Queensland Garden Expo at Nambour, in July, our coolest month. These plants have come directly down from tropical Cairns and have shown no damage or any impacts from their rude ‘welcome’ to south east Queensland.

    I look forward to future articles.

    Arno

    • Mark Vowles on said:

      Thanks Arno!
      Isn’t it great to discover that a plant you find attractive has a wide climatic range with regards to its cultivation? So many exotic beauties are frustratingly specific when it comes to cultural requirements. Saying that, there is often a great deal of pleasure derived from discovering how to grow a plant that might be regarded as “difficult” when out of its prefered environment.

      Mark

      PS Will also be keen to see seasonal updates of your Vege garden. So nice to see new and interesting culinary delights!

  5. hazel c. dumalagan on said:

    i want to know the names of each variety

    • Mark Vowles on said:

      Hi Hazel, thanks for your inquiry. If you have a look at the images in the article, you will notice at the bottom left-hand corner there is a name for each of the cultivars.
      Regards, Mark

  6. Margaret Smallwood on said:

    Hi, I’m new to this species & am trying to develop a tropical themed garden. Which cultivars would do best in Sydney? We are in a protected spot on the coastal Central Coast just north of Sydney with a little warmer, less severe winter.
    Thanks
    Margaret

    • Mark Vowles on said:

      Hi Margaret. The best advice I could offer is to visit your local garden centre. They should only stock those varieties that are suitable for your conditions. The Thai Aglaonemas are relatively new to cultivation so we are still establishing which cultivars are suitable for different climate zones. The varieties in the article seem to be popular around Sydney and I have heard of gardeners having success with them, if they are given the correct conditions,
      All the best ,Mark

  7. Anton on said:

    These plants fascinate me suddenly. It all started a month or three ago when I drove past a dumpster where someone had dumped an entire batch of them still in their pots. I took three home with me, feeling sorry for them. They weren’t in the best shape. I pulled off the damaged leaves and planted them in a raised stone bed in the shade and they’ve delighted me ever since. Not sure of the variety but they are very splashed bright pink at the moment with the cutest hooded flowers. Im hooked. I never thought they would grow here so more or less ignored them, even at the plant markets in Thailand. However yesterday as I was walking down the street at the night market in Mongkok I happened to look up into the sky at the rain falling through the neon lighting as you do and there was a rooftop covered in them, a different one, mostly very vivid bright red streaks. Beautiful and shiny wet reflecting all the colours of the light too. All rather pretty and very Chinese. They had spilled out of someones planter and were tumbling down over a lovely awning into a gutter. I didn’t know they “crept” like this. These were well established. We aren’t as cold as Sydney and warmer than Brisbane, lots of rain and steam and a cool dry season. The interesting thing is these were in full half day sun (well full rain at night time, at the time) on a very exposed roof top amongst sky scrapers. So im guessing with high humidity they can take a fair bit of sun too. Im all rearing to collect me some next week when I go to Bangkok. Are some colours or varieties easier or more tolerant of sun? Do they all keep there colour in the deep shade? Im thinking I might have stumbled onto a entire new palette for the garden I didn’t know would thrive! Thanks for the tips. Only a few of the Codiaeums keep their colour well in the shade so this is terrific news.

    • Mark Vowles on said:

      How lucky you are Anton, to live near the epicentre of where these wonderful new plants are being developed. You ,of all people, will probably be the first to see some of the best new cultivars being developed. You are spot on about them tolerating shade too. Iv’e seen some growing in low light conditions and holding the same intensity of colour as those in high ambient light. Lets us know how you go with regards to certain varieties tolerating more direct sun. They are fairly new to me also so I’m keen to learn which ones are more resilient.
      All the best, Mark

  8. Anton on said:

    Will do Mark. Im going to Bangkok next week so I should get a good look see what’s available. Quite daunting, looks to be hundreds and hundreds of cultivars, though which are garden worthy or not Im not entirely sure as the growing of these things looks to have long entered the esoteric realms of the hibiscus beauty pageant. Anyway I have three nice large pots immediately ready for a bunch in the shade outside my window. Thinking red with all the heavy green going on. We shall see. All very exciting! Eat dust Kaempheria….Ooops LOL just joking.

  9. Anton on said:

    Well Mark as I had my niece with me on her very first Asia trip to Hong kong then Bangkok and despite her genuine botanic keenness we spent rather a lot of time partying rather than horticultural things. However I got lucky and managed to get some real beauties in the Aglaonema department from Chatuchak market from a specialist grower.

    The one I’m most fond of is a stunning luminous chartreuse green, three of them. I planted in a large dark glistening glazed pot standing in deep shade where they brighten the gloomy wet rainy season like nothing else. The colour is so unusual I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they haven’t introduced the fluorescent gene from a jelly fish. The thing positively glows in the dark! Absolutely love it. As a filler I’ve used that blue/green, iridescent fern like Selginella wildenowii that grows wild in our damp woods. It cascades softly over the sides, setting of the Aglaonema wonderfully. The whole is quite perfectly Hong Kong.

    The pot looks like a glorious neon temple to the night but Im not entirely sure it will do the same in our cooler dry season. Heres hoping anyway. My first foray into Aglaonema.

    The other two I got three each of was one with a heart shaped leaf in a nice shiny Granny Smith apple green with a shockingly bright pink stripe down the middle that broadens slightly as the leaf matures creating a yellow halo on its margins. This might have been the nieces influence as I’m just not sure how I’m going to work that into my planting exactly….yet. Wonderful plant anyway, I could quite easily have an entire bed of these. On the reds I was a little more stressed. I just didn’t see anything that made my heart flutter quite like it did when I saw them at the night market growing wet on the rooftops of Hong Kong. I couldn’t find anything to match as it’s probably quite an old selection by now. However the third selection is still a stunner, completely red with small flecks of the same apple green shadowed by chartreuse. The last was the only one with a name, I forget what it is now but something like “million bucks” or “get rich quick” and the price certainly did reflect that even in Thai Baht.

    Im going try the red in the sun in stages, in our humidity I’m sure it will thrive but if it doesn’t its going to work in the shade I’m sure of that.

    Great fun was had by all so thanks again for inspiration!

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