Decorating the nursery is one of the most exciting moments before a baby arrives. Unboxing the crib and painting the walls makes the upcoming wild reality, well, real. But as with anything baby-related, all decor choices—including houseplants—need to be vetted (practically everything is a potential hazard).
Take my curious, rambunctious, and fearless toddler for example. There isn’t an item that he hasn’t pulled down from a table, or a small object on the floor that hasn’t gone into that mouth. (Why doesn’t he show the same enthusiasm during meals?!) So when it came to picking out the right greenery for his tiny room, I knew I’d have to research the safest options. But all the “best plants for children” lists I read online featured the same generic non-toxic houseplants. Surely there had to be something more interesting than a spider plant?
To help find a non-toxic plant that matched my aesthetics and would be safe for both my toddler and 6-year-old, I turned to Rebecca Bullene, founder of botanical design firm, Greenery NYC, and mom to three-year-old, Maximilian, for help. Here, the expert, who also launched a new plant boutique and delivery service, gives us sensible mom advice, tells us the plants to avoid, and suggests ones that are the safest— and prettiest—to have around kids. Read on to create a happier, healthier environment for your little one.
It goes without saying that toxic plants are a no-no. But while most merely cause minor tummy troubles if ingested, a small number, like the very cool-looking pencil cactus can do serious harm. “The sap in that plant is highly toxic,” warns Bullene. “Even getting it on your skin can cause a mild sunburn-type reaction.”
The expert actually advises against most cacti in general. “It’s not even because of toxicity, but just because of the aggressive nature of the plant," she explains. “I avoid anything that’s sharp in my son’s room because he is so tactile. So I don’t put anything in there, like the cacti or even the sansevieria that have those sharp points on the leaves.” And although the airy Boston Fern is on most lists for nurseries, Bullene doesn’t recommend it, for different reasons. “It’s a high-shedding plant,” she says, “and the last thing you need in the nursery is more of a mess.”
Bird’s Nest Fern
If you’re looking for a beautiful plant for a tabletop or changing table, Bullene loves the fountain-shape bird’s nest fern. “It is non-toxic and really easy to care for,” she says. “For a nursery, I want a plant that’s going to be beautiful and lush without me having to invest a ton of energy into it.”
Bird of Paradise
The bird of paradise, with its large sculptural foliage, is an amazing plant to captivate kids. “I have one in my son’s room and when he was a baby it was over his crib area and he would get to look and see the light dabbling through the leaves,” says Bullene. “It made me really happy that he was able to see that connection with nature.” Another reason she recommends the plant is its large size. When paired with a bigger vessel, it would be virtually impossible for a little one to knock down. Plus, it’s a resilient plant. “They can pull on the stems and not do a lot of damage to the plant,” says Bullene. If you’re worried about the plant getting too big, Bullene says it’s all about where you place it. “The more light you give it, the bigger and crazier it gets,” she says. “But if you put it in medium light, it’s a slow, controlled growth.”
Calathea Beauty Star
If you’re a seasoned plant parent, plants in the calathea family like the calathea beauty star or calathea lancifolia would be perfect for you. “The reason I love them so much is because they're a way to bring color into a space,” says Bullene. A lot of times calathes have pink in the foliage as well as some pattern on them.
Neanthe Bella Palm
If you don't have a ton of light in the nursery, a neanthe bella palm is for you. The cheery tropical plant grows well in low light, is easy to care for, and is the perfect size for a tabletop. Another bonus: It can take a beating. “If it gets dropped to the floor, it will survive,” says Bullene.
Those with an older child should consider the pilea peperomioides (also called the friendship plant, pancake plant, ufo plant or Chinese money plant). “It propagates so much that making new plants can actually be a cool family activity to involve an older child in,” says Bullene. Pair it with a sleek planter for a modern or mid-century nursery.
If you’re tight on space, a plant in a hanging basket is a great way to bring in greenery. “I’m always thinking about how I can get a huge impact in the nursery rather than having a couple of small plants in small containers that a child can easily topple over,” says Bullene. For hanging baskets she loves the hoya kentiana, which has a cascade to it. “Hoya are completely non-toxic and have the most wonderful flowers (they need high light to bloom),” she says. “And although they are a very resilient plant, they appreciate regular watering, so best to not let it dry too much.”
“The Ponytail palm is actually one of my personal favorite plants,” says Bullene. “It has an incredible form; lots of folks liken it to a "Dr. Seuss" plant—how apt for a nursery!” The key to a happy ponytail palm is to not over-water. “This is a plant used to very dry conditions in its native Mexico, so put it right in a bright window and water very sparingly.”
Repot Your Plant in Organic Soil
As soon as he was mobile, one of the first things Bullene’s son did was grab handfuls of dirt out of one of her big trees and shove it in his mouth. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ but at least I knew it was organic dirt,” she says. Soil is important to think about when you have small kids running around. “If you keep the plant in the same pot it came in, you really don’t know what’s in the soil,” says Bullene. “It could be peat moss with some kind of fertilizer chemical mixed in.” In general, her policy is to replant all her plants in organic potting soil, such as the one from Fox Farm. “It’s healthier and happier for the plant, too.”
Pick the Right Planter
To avoid disasters, "don’t put anything on a plant stand in a child’s room,” says Bullene. In fact, she suggests you focus on vessels that are wider at the base than at the top, contrary to the typical terra-cotta pot that is narrow at the bottom and wider at the top. “I usually go for planters that are really sturdy at the bottom so that even if a child is using it to pull up, there’s no way that thing is going over,” she says.
What child-friendly plants do you have in your home? Tell us in the comments.