The Resilient Beauty of ZZ Plant

By Lee Patrick | February 23, 2016

My Brooklyn apartment was in dire need of some greenery. Three years had passed since my wife and I moved in, and amidst the chaos of a newborn, a new car, and changing jobs, we were still searching for misplaced items, like that elusive box of picture frames. Our apartment had limited natural light, with north-facing windows that offered a moderate amount of brightness. Initially, this worried me. I craved instant success to bolster my confidence as a houseplant enthusiast. That’s when I discovered the ZZ plant.

“ZZ” is short for Zamioculcas zamiifolia. The ZZ plant has been a staple in the houseplant world for about two decades, but in recent years, it has gained newfound popularity and recognition. It first caught my attention when I stumbled upon a list of foolproof, low-light houseplants on bbg.org.

Described as foolproof, attractive, and tolerant of low light, the ZZ plant seemed like the perfect fit for my apartment. However, as a graduate of BBG’s horticulture certificate program, I firmly believed in “knowing your plant.” So, I embarked on a journey of research to better understand this enigmatic plant.

What People Are Saying

Most people seem to adore the ZZ plant, but amidst the sea of positive comments on garden blogs and other platforms, a few snarky remarks stood out. Some likened the ZZ plant to an office or waiting room plant, while others complained about its lack of excitement and claimed it only thrives on neglect. Several sources even mentioned the outrageous notion that the ZZ plant could survive in a closet. I couldn’t discern if these comments were genuine criticisms, ironic jokes, or misinformed encouragement for inexperienced gardeners.

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Personally, I wasn’t interested in neglecting a plant nor did I have ample closet space to conduct an extreme hardiness test. I wanted a plant that could withstand some work while displaying its resilience. The ZZ plant’s aesthetics appealed to me, so I decided to bring home two of them. After a few months of caring for them, I have grown to adore these hardy plants. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

The Natural Story Behind ZZ Plant

Zamioculcas zamiifolia is indigenous to East Africa, thriving from Kenya to South Africa. It belongs to the Araceae family, alongside the well-known peace lily (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum). If the ZZ plant flowers, it produces inconspicuous spadix-type blooms, similar to the peace lily. However, these flowers are not easily visible. What sets the ZZ plant apart from other arums is its unique reproductive strategy. The fallen leaflets of the ZZ plant can actually take root and grow into new plants.

The ZZ plant’s scientific name is derived from its resemblance to certain types of cycads, ancient plants that existed before the time of dinosaurs. (You can catch a glimpse of true cycads at BBG’s Steinhart Conservatory.) In nature, the ZZ plant can be found in grasslands, along riverbanks, and in dry forests. It possesses potato-like rhizomes that store water, enabling it to withstand drought conditions.

Nurturing a ZZ Plant

It is true that ZZ plants have gained popularity due to their ability to thrive in various conditions. They are well-suited for low-light environments and do not require frequent watering. In fact, it’s best to avoid overwatering them. I water my ZZ plants every three weeks, ensuring not to saturate the soil or let them sit in standing water. These plants can tolerate dry soil for extended periods.

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I purchased my plants from a large home improvement store. They came in six-inch pots, costing approximately $12 each. Interestingly, the pots seemed to be from different suppliers, and the plastic plant labels contradicted each other. One label indicated “low light,” while the other suggested “bright light” combined with an “easy to grow” tagline. Most sources advise avoiding direct sunlight and instead opting for indirect or filtered light, as ZZ plants can tolerate low-light conditions, albeit with slower growth.

Here’s what I do: I alternate moving my plants between a windowless foyer space (to showcase their beauty when guests enter our apartment) and a north-facing area that receives indirect light. However, if I occasionally forget to move them, I don’t panic, as I know these plants are incredibly resilient. In fact, I’ve even noticed new growth lately.

So far, my ZZ plants have remained pest-free, and I haven’t had them long enough to require repotting.

Propagation: Expanding the ZZ Plant Family

For those interested in propagating ZZ plants, there is an abundance of detailed information available online. Two common methods are dividing the plant, essentially splitting it in half, or using leaflet cuttings. (An entire stalk, including the leaflets, is considered one leaf.) It can take several months for cuttings to sprout. Interestingly, my plants came with pre-inserted cuttings, which may explain how the suppliers propagated them.

Why I’m Enamored with the ZZ Plant

The ZZ plant has proven to be an excellent choice for me as a budding houseplant enthusiast. After a few months, both of my ZZ plants are not only surviving but thriving in their own subtle way. I find their cycad-like appearance captivating, setting them apart from other houseplants. I particularly adore how their smooth, glossy green leaflets emerge close to the soil and gracefully extend along both sides of the upright leaf stems. Recently, I’ve even witnessed new growth unfurling, adding a delightful two-tone effect to the plant. While I’m uncertain how much they will change over the next year, I am confident that if you’re seeking an unfussy, reliable houseplant with a touch of exotic allure, the ZZ plant is an excellent choice.

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