How to Plant, Grow and Care For ZZ Plants
Thinking of adding a ZZ plant to your indoor garden? These hardy houseplants have surged in popularity for a number of reasons. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton walks through how to plant, grow and care for ZZ plants!
A tough houseplant that belongs top of the list of virtually indestructible indoor plants, you can’t go wrong with a ZZ plant. Short for Zamioculcas zamiifolia, ZZ plants have long stems and shiny green leaves that are thick and waxy, making them appear almost artificial.
Apart from the spectacular green of the original species, there are also cultivars that have variegated leaves or colors from maroon to black. They make fantastic houseplants – needing only a little light and happy with a bit of neglect – making them perfect for new houseplant parents.
They are also commonly called Zanzibar gems, referencing their origins in East Africa, or eternity plant and emerald palm. Whatever you call it, it’s a great plant to have in any houseplant collection.
ZZ Plant Overview
Plant Type Houseplant
Species Zamioculcas zamiifolia
Native Area East Africa
Exposure Low indirect light to bright light
Height 3 feet
Watering Requirements Low
Pests & Diseases Mealybugs, scale, aphids
Soil Type Well-draining
Soil pH 6.0 to 7.0
What Are ZZ Plants?
ZZ plants are part of the Araceae family, which includes plants like Peace Lilies and Philodendrons. Members of the Araceae family all have flowers that form on a spadix often enclosed by a bract, although your ZZ plant is unlikely to flower when grown indoors.
The genus name Zamioculcas was given due to the plant’s similarities to a cycad from the genus Zamia.
This plant was first named Caladium zamiifolium by George Loddiges in 1829. George was a naturalist and artist who also worked in his father’s nursery and illustrated nearly 2000 plant plates for the published Botanical Cabinet. He was known for his tropical plant collections – specifically palms and orchids.
The Austrian botanist later Heinrich Wilhelm Schott moved it to the genus Zamioculcas. He served as a royal gardener in Vienna and was known for his work on the Araceae family of plants.
The ZZ plant got its full name from Adolf Engler later in the century, Zamioculcas zamiifolia. Engler was a German botanist who worked extensively on plant taxonomy. He was considered an expert in many areas, including the Araceae family, and he traveled extensively including to Africa where the ZZ Plant comes from.
It was around 1996 that Dutch nurseries began propagation of ZZ plants commercially. Today, they are available at many nurseries and garden centers in the indoor or houseplant sections and online.
ZZ plants can be found in the tropical areas along the African East Coast, from Kenya all the way down to South Africa covering Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Unlike other tropical houseplants, it does not grow in typical forested areas. Rather, you can find this plant in the grassland and lowland forested areas with warmer wet summers and dry winters. This habitat is the reason it can go without water for a while and does not need moist soil like other tropical plants.
ZZ plants grow from rhizomes under the soil that look like potatoes. These thick roots or tubers can store water too, helping them survive dryer periods.
From these tubers, long stems about 3 – 4 feet long form that are similar to a cycad. The glossy green leaves grow around 20 inches long and their dark green color allows them to absorb light from low light sources, making them ideal for indoor growth.
They don’t often flower, but when they do, they form an inflorescence known as a cob. In the wild, they may bloom after 5-6 years, but its very rare that they will bloom indoors.
The inflorescence forms a spadix that contains pale cream flowers. The male flowers form at the top of the cob with the female flowers at the base and a band of sterile flowers dividing the two, making it almost impossible for the plant to pollinate itself. The flowers shoot from the base of the plant.
It’s possible with the best care that ZZ plants will bloom, but after 10 years, the plant needs to be propagated to create new plants to give it any chance of flowering.
How to Grow
The ZZ plant is one of the easier, if not the easiest, houseplants to grow and care for. They thrive on neglect and can grow in a wide range of conditions commonly found indoors.
Like most houseplants, ZZ plants will grow best in bright indirect light. However, they can also grow well in low light conditions, as long as you’re okay will minor stretching.
ZZ plants can even adapt to direct light, although out of all the lighting conditions, this one may cause the most damage and burn the leaves. It will also tell you that it needs to be moved by curling, yellowing or leaning away from the light source. Check for brown spots on the leaves which may be a sign of sun damage.
An east-facing window is a good choice for morning light, or you can try a north-facing with lower light conditions. Otherwise, filter the direct light from a south or west-facing window with a curtain to prevent damage.
ZZ plants are highly prone to problems caused by overwatering. Its storage tubers under the soil are packed with water, allowing the plant to go without water for a long time and making it sensitive to excessive moisture.
But that also doesn’t mean it needs no water. A good soak every few weeks is ideal, making sure the soil dries out between watering. The time between watering will also depend on the amount of heat and light the plant receives.
As a general rule, if you’re uncertain about when to water, rather leave the watering for a few days than overwater. If you allow the underground rhizomes to start rotting, it’s going to spell disaster for your plant. Never leave the plant sitting in water and drain thoroughly before placing back on trays or saucers.
Well-draining soil is essential for these plants. A combination of high-quality potting soil and sand will provide the right conditions, or you can simply use a succulent potting mix. This ensures there is enough air around the rhizomes to prevent rotting.
You can also substitute the succulent mix with a houseplant potting mix with added perlite. This combination will hold water for when the plant needs it but also allow enough oxygen to reach the roots.
Temperature and Humidity
ZZ plants are tropical and do best in warmer climates. They are happy in temperatures between 60F and 75F and cannot handle temperatures below 45F. Aim to keep temperatures above 65F throughout the year for the strongest growth, keeping them away from cold drafts.
These plants are not too fussy about humidity and are generally happy in most indoor environments. If your air is very dry, consider investing in a humidifier to improve conditions for your ZZ plant and all other houseplants.
ZZ plants don’t require much feeding. They are happy to grow in the same soil for a few years without any additional nutrients. However, if growth is slow or you think your plant needs a boost, you can apply a liquid fertilizer every 6-8 weeks during spring and summer.
Use a balanced liquid houseplant fertilizer for quick nutrient uptake, applied according to the instructions on the packaging. Never apply more than is recommended and stop fertilizing in the cooler months when growth slows.
Adding to their low-maintenance nature, it’s not necessary to prune ZZ plants. You only need to cut them back if you’re looking to propagate. You can also cut off any damaged and brown or yellowing leaves or trim back if the stems are getting too long.
When the leaves become a bit dusty, wipe them down with a damp cloth. This improves light absorption, especially for plants placed in low light.
Zamioculcas zamiifolia can be propagated by leaf cuttings, stem cuttings or by dividing. Dividing is the most successful type and the quickest to get a plant that’s just a smaller version of the whole, but the others can also lend you brand new plants with some more patience.
Start with a big, healthy plant that needs repotting. Make sure your plant is at least 2-3 years old before dividing or it may not survive the shock.
Depending on the size of the plant, you can split it into sections with at least 3-5 stems each. Count up how many there are and prepare the correct number of new containers before you begin. Fill each new pot with the soil mix mentioned above.
Once the pots are ready, carefully remove the plant from its container and gently loosen the roots, removing any excess soil. You can wash the rhizomes under water as well.
Sometimes, the plants may be rootbound, making it difficult to remove the plant from the pot. In these cases, don’ pull the plant out by its stems, but rather loosen the plant around the edge of the pot with a knife, just like you would a cake. If that doesn’t work, it may be necessary to cut off the pot or break it if it’s ceramic or terracotta.
Once the plant has been cleaned off, study it to see where it can be divided easily. You may need to use a utility knife to divide the smaller roots and to cut off any damaged or dead plant material.
Split the plant into sections and plant each one into the fresh potting soil mix in a new, clean pot. Water well and care for as you would a mature plant.
To propagate from stem cuttings, start by choosing a healthy-looking stem. Cut at the base of the plant with a clean and sharp pair of secateurs. As the stem won’t grow back from the cut, remove as close to the soil as you can to stop the plant from looking untidy.
You can then cut the stem into sections around 4 inches long or leaves it as a long cutting. Remove the bottom leaves so that you have enough stem to add to soil or root in water. Don’t throw away the leaves, you can use them for leaf cuttings too.
The next step is to decide which method you want to use to root your cuttings. To root in water, simply place in a glass of water, making sure the leaves are not submerged, and wait for the roots to develop. Top up the water every so often and replace the water every week.
You can also plant your cuttings in a pot filled with a moist propagating medium of equal parts coconut coir and perlite. Make a few holes in the mix and plant the cuttings straight up in the pot. Keep moist until you see signs of new growth. Then the plants can be transplanted into new pots.
This method is good for reducing transplant shock in plants. It will take a few months for the plants to root, so patience is required.
For leaf cuttings, remove healthy leaves from the plant, taking with it as much of the petiole as possible to ensure the cutting has the right tissues to develop roots. With this method, it’s a good idea to propagate five leaves or more at a time to make sure that at least one of them roots properly.
You can also root these in water, but it’s a bit tricky in a glass. The water needs to consistently cover the base so that the leaf is mostly water-free. Small shot glasses are ideal to keep the leaves erect in the glass.
The more efficient way to propagate leaf cuttings is to fill a tray or pot with propagating medium (equal parts coconut coir and perlite) and place the leaves upright in the medium about a quarter of the way up the leaf.
Keep moist and move the tray to a warm area for the roots to start developing. It may take a few months, but once you give them a gentle tug and they hold fast, they have rooted and can be transplanted to a new pot.
Repot in spring if your plant is not performing at its best. It could be root bound or not getting enough nutrients in the soil to perform as well as it could be. Repot only every 2-3 years to avoid stressing the plant too much.
Get a pot one to two sizes bigger than the pot the plant is in and prepare it with fresh potting medium. Gently remove the plant from its container. With plastic pots, it’s easy enough to squeeze the plant free.
Tease the roots carefully at the bottom and cut off any dead or damaged roots with a clean pair of secateurs. Make a hole in the potting soil in the new pot and plant filling in with potting medium if necessary and securing well.
Water well and let the plant settle in. Follow the usual care advice and the plant should start shooting new stems of bright green leaves.
There are a few things that affect the ZZ plant, mostly due to too much light or too much or too little water. If your plant has yellowing or browning leaves it may be a sign you are overwatering or underwatering. If your plant has scald marks from the sun, move it to a darker more filtered area.
It is not often that ZZ plants succumb to any pests and diseases, but if they do, these are the ones to look out for.
These brown little insects form pinhead dots on the leaves, especially on the underside, and then suck the sap out of them, marking the leaves and eventually killing it off. The leaves will droop and become yellow, then drop off the plant.
They also excrete a sticky substance that could attract a sooty mold. This mold doesn’t harm the plant much but could inhibit the photosynthesis process.
To treat a scale infestation, act quickly and wipe away the insects with warm soapy water or with isopropyl alcohol. Check every few days until the problem is solved. If you have a light infestation, you can prune away any damaged plant parts and keep an eye out for any further insects.
Sucking insects like aphids can attack at any time, so it’s good to check your plant often for the signs of these destructive insects. Aphids suck the life out of leaves, causing marks and distortions.
Remove the plant from its spot and take it outside to spray vigorously with a jet of water. Once most of the aphids have been blasted off the plant, carefully wipe the rest off with soapy water and keep an eye out for any more developing over the coming weeks.
Another sap-sucking insect is the mealybug. They stunt growth and cause the leaves to turn yellow by sucking on the sap of the stems and veins of the leaves. Wipe away with soapy water or insecticidal soap. They look like white spiders and leave behind a powdery substance that you can identify them by.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are ZZ plants poisonous?
ZZ Plants contain calcium oxalate which is a crystal-like structure that has sharp edges, known to cause stomach issues if ingested. It can also cause skin irritation to those that are susceptible. Keep your ZZ plant away from pets and children to prevent ingestion and contact.
Are ZZ plants low maintenance?
This is a very tough plant, considered low maintenance and a good plant for new plant parents because it can grow well with a little neglect. If you want to go away for a few weeks, you can simply leave your ZZ plant and when you come back, it will likely look the same as the day you bought it.
How fast do they grow?
It will take a few years for a ZZ plant to reach its potential size, so it’s not really a fast grower. During winter it will be dormant. You can expect about 6 inches of growth per month in the growing season of spring and summer.
The ZZ plant is a must for every houseplant lover. It’s easy to look after, doesn’t get many pests and diseases, and it looks good in any room in the house. In fact, it’s not often that you can find a decent bathroom plant that will survive in a bathroom’s environment, so just for that, it’s worth it.
Look out for the beautiful dark green cycad-looking leaves and also for the black, maroon, and variegated varieties, and get them all.