Zamioculcas Zamiifolia, or ZZ Plant, is a fantastic, slow-growing, easy to care for houseplant known for its glossy, green foliage and its propensity for surviving even the most forgetful plant owners. Low-maintenance is great, but how do you turn your ZZ into a showstopper? Is it possible to shape it to look its very best?
How do you make a ZZ Plant fuller? Straighter? Taller? Bigger? There is some variation in answering each of those questions, but they all require controlling the plant’s access to certain growing conditions like light, water, or nutrients. ZZ Plants are slow growers, but with a little influence, you can help them achieve their most attractive shape.
I do want to be honest with you upfront. ZZ Plants live life at their own pace and are not quick to react to your manipulations of their environment, so patience becomes an important virtue when shaping these plants.
In this article, I’ll give you some tips and tricks that I’ve learned from experience that will set your plant up to grow into its best shape. I’ll also cover how to encourage the maximum amount of growth from your ZZ Plant and how to keep it to a manageable size for your space. If you’ve got more questions, grab a copy of our eBook Caring for ZZ Plants.
Quick Note on Toxicity
I’ll spare you all the crazy internet theories about how uber-poisonous ZZ Plants are and hit you with some quick facts about the plant’s toxic attributes.
Generally, ZZ Plants are considered toxic houseplants because they are known to contain a natural compound which is irritating to soft tissues, like your skin, mouth, and eyes. This compound is present in all parts of the plant, including its sap, and has been known to cause burning, sometimes painful, rash-like symptoms when it comes into contact with skin.
The severity of these symptoms is based on exposure, so I always recommend wearing gloves when handling your ZZ Plant. At the very least, wash your hands well with soap and water when you are finished. Avoid touching your face or mouth and keep your ZZ away from pets, who sometimes can’t resist a curious nibble from time to time.
Don’t let the word “toxic” deter you from this beautiful plant. If you take the proper precautions, you won’t have any issues.
What to Expect From a ZZ Houseplant
I say this with nothing but love for my ZZ Plants, but prepare to lower your expectations because you shouldn’t be anticipating much from your ZZ. I know, that sounds a little underwhelming, but hear me out.
ZZ Plants have evolved to become some of the best survivors in the houseplant world. They don’t require frequent watering or much additional nutrient inputs, and they can grow in a variety of different light conditions. They’re versatile, if not the flashiest of plants.
What you do get with ZZ Plants is a low-care, slow-growing, disease-resistant, attractive foliage plant that can live in almost any room of your house. The bright green, waxy leaves are consistent and exotic-looking and contrast well against many other types of houseplants. In short, they may not do much, but they sure are reliable.
With proper care and maintenance, you can expect your ZZ Plant to reach a size of about three feet wide and tall, possibly reaching up to five feet over many years. Growth tends to be slow, typically only putting out a few inches during a growing season under good conditions—less than ideal conditions slow growth considerably.
Personally, I love the fact that ZZ Plants are slower to grow because it means I can rely on them fitting a space for a long period of time without having to do the “houseplant shuffle” every few months as things tend to outgrow their spots in my home.
I also appreciate that the maintenance of this plant is nearly non-existent. Besides the occasional pruning or repotting every couple of years, I don’t fret over my ZZ and can just enjoy the greenery.
How Quickly Do ZZ Plants Grow?
Like I said above, don’t expect too much growth from your ZZ Plant, as you will often end up disappointed. Under stellar conditions, growth can be up to 12-16” in a growing season, although that is exceedingly rare.
More typically, you may notice six or fewer inches of growth in one season, and under less-than-ideal conditions, perhaps no growth at all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (you may want to keep your plant smaller), and it doesn’t mean your plant isn’t perfectly happy, but just know that to promote growth on a ZZ Plant, you need to make sure the conditions are optimal for it.
Also, you should consider the season when setting your expectations for your ZZ’s growth. Like most plants, ZZ Plants tend to go dormant in the winter months, so it’s unlikely you’ll see any growth, and the plant usually needs less water and nutrients.
ZZ Plant growth typically happens during its growing season, usually from early spring to fall, depending on the conditions in your home.
Pruning ZZ Plants
For obvious reasons, ZZ Plants typically don’t require a lot of pruning. I mean, who would ever want to get rid of that sweet, slow growth?!? Occasionally, though, pruning is a skill that comes in handy for the health and aesthetics of your ZZ.
You should consider pruning your ZZ Plant if you see any unhealthy plant tissue. Rot typically shows as mushy, brown stems. Old growth turns yellow and starts to shrivel and can easily be trimmed off.
If you notice your plant looks a bit leggy and sparse, typically due to low light exposure, consider pruning the worst of the leggy stems out and moving your plant to a brighter location. Yes, it sucks to trim away otherwise healthy tissue, but for the long-term look of the plant, you’ll be glad you did.
Lastly, you may notice one stem of your ZZ Plant shot up and is much taller than the others. Feel free to trim the wayward stem back, so the plant looks symmetrical and balanced. I should say that trimming healthy stems back does not ensure that new growth will push from the rest of the plant, but at least the plant will be even, and it won’t be wasting additional energy on an extra-tall stem.
Regardless of why you are pruning your ZZ Plant, be sure to only use clean, sharp scissors or garden shears to make even cuts in the stem. Dull blades tend to crush rather than slice, and dirty instruments may introduce disease.
It’s also typical for ZZ Plants to lose leaves as they grow old, so the occasional dried, yellow leaf can be removed just by pulling it off or clipping it with scissors.
For more information on why, when and how to prune a ZZ, click here.
ZZ Plants are tough. They can survive a range of conditions and require little input from us. But if you want your ZZ to thrive, you'll need to know a thing or two about what they need and love. Get our 80+ page care guide and you'll be on your way to a very healthy houseplant.
How to Make a ZZ Plant Fuller
Generally, ZZ Plants tend to fill out their pot well on their own, without a lot of manipulation from us. If you own a ZZ, you might already notice that the typical shape of the plant is mainly defined by how many stems are protruding from the rhizome and how many leaves are on each stem. The stems curve gracefully from their own weight, giving the plant a full bouquet look.
To achieve a fuller look with your ZZ Plant, start with plant care. Obviously, you’ll want to make sure the plant is healthy and has proper water and nutrient inputs to optimize growth. However, the most critical factor here is light exposure.
Like other plants, ZZs can get leggy and sparse if they aren’t exposed to the proper amount of light. They are able to survive in low light conditions, but if you want your ZZ to have that full, tightly-compacted leaf structure, you need to be sure it has lots of indirect, bright light at its disposal.
Alternatively, you might have one or two stems that have grown above and beyond the rest, giving your ZZ Plant a stretched, lopsided appearance. If this is the case, consider pruning back those stems to match the others. Yes, it’s more of an optical illusion, but your ZZ will look fuller than before.
How to Make a ZZ Plant Grow Straight
Again, let’s start by setting our expectations here. Regardless of what you do, ZZ Plants will never be fully straight. If you are hoping you can get them to look like a snake plant, you’re better off just buying a snake plant.
ZZ Plant stems all usually follow the same pattern. As they start to grow from the rhizome, they typically grow straight up into the air. They then start to grow leaves on them, and over time, as they continue to mature, they gently arc over, both from their own weight and because they are always leaning towards a light source.
Now, if by “growing straight,” we mean we don’t want our ZZ Plant stems crisscrossing over one another or having them all leaning to one side, causing the plant to look lopsided, this is just a matter of rotation.
As I said, ZZ Plants are always searching for a light source, so when we set them and forget about them, we often discover all their stems have leaned toward a window. To fix this, simply rotate your plant a quarter turn every week, so each side gets equal sun exposure. This will help avoid the lopsided look and should keep your ZZ stems from crisscrossing too much.
How to Make a ZZ Plant Stay Upright
I’ve run across a few questions people are asking about why their ZZ Plant won’t stay upright or is drooping. For such a tough plant, to see droopy stems is really a sad sight. Typically, though, the reasons why a plant isn’t staying upright are easy to fix.
The most common cause of drooping stems is due to overwatering. ZZ Plants are susceptible to overwatering and hate it when they are sitting in soggy soil. This leads to root damage or rot, which then starves the plant of oxygen and nutrients necessary for proper growth.
If you fear you’ve overwatered your ZZ, first allow it to dry out, making sure the top two inches of soil are completely dry before you consider watering it again. You will also want to ensure the plant has good drainage. This includes making sure the container has a drainage hole and that the soil is porous and quick-draining.
Adjust your watering habits so that your ZZ only gets a drink when you’ve confirmed the soil is dry enough. For more information on saving an overwatered ZZ, read this article.
Another reason for drooping stems is the lighting exposure of the plant. Remember how I said ZZ Plants need a lot of indirect, bright light to put on that compacted leaf growth? Well, that same type of growth is also creating strong cell walls in the stem, so as the plant matures, it won’t bend as easily under its own weight. Consider your ZZ’s location and move it to a brighter spot if you think low light might be an issue.
Other factors may be contributing to your ZZ Plant’s drooping stems. Check the temperature to make sure your plant lives in a spot that is between 65-75° and doesn’t drop below 45°. If it’s been a while since you’ve fed your ZZ Plant, it may be suffering from a nutrient deficiency and can’t put out quality growth to support its structure. Consider giving it a dose of fertilizer.
If you notice your plant starting to droop, always check the water first, as it is almost always the culprit. Regardless of the reason, give your ZZ some time to recover from whatever actions you take and then reevaluate to make sure there isn’t anything else going on.
How to Encourage a ZZ Plant to Grow Big
I talk a lot about how ZZ Plants are survivors and can handle just about anything we throw at them, but just like with most other plants, there is a big difference between surviving and thriving.
If you truly want your ZZ Plant to grow big, know that you’ll need to start paying attention to the factors that have the biggest impact on its growth. There are five main things you should account for to set your ZZ up for its highest growth potential.
Of course, every plant needs water to survive, but when it comes to ZZ Plants, proper watering is the best thing you can do to promote growth. Since almost all ZZ Plant care problems are due to overwatering, making sure your watering game is on point will ensure your ZZ is healthy and able to utilize its resources to add growth.
So, get the watering schedule just right. Regularly check your plant’s soil to see if the top two inches have dried out. Only then water thoroughly before allowing it to dry out again.
Underwatering can be an issue, too. Even though ZZ Plants can survive weeks without water, they certainly won’t be pushing new growth if they sense they’re drying out. For more information on watering ZZs, click here.
Another major factor in how big and tall your ZZ Plant will get is light exposure. While ZZs can tolerate a wide range of different lighting, they prefer lots of indirect, bright light.
To encourage healthy growth, you’ll want to make sure you give your ZZ a prime spot in a bright room. Ample light will encourage strong, well-structured growth, as opposed to sparse, leggy growth typical of plants stuck in darker corners. This article has more information on the ideal type of light for ZZs.
ZZ Plants typically don’t require a lot of extra nutritional input aside from what they are planted in, but consider feeding every so often to ensure they have what they need to thrive.
Many houseplants come pre-potted in a soil mixture that is charged with a slow-release fertilizer. So for the first 3-6 months, your plant doesn’t need any additional feed. Over time, however, as these nutrients get used up, the soil may become depleted of easily-absorbable nutrition, which could become a limiting factor in your ZZ Plant’s growth.
To avoid this, plan on giving your ZZ Plant a dose of quality, well-balanced liquid fertilizer every other month during the growing season (Spring-Fall). Something like 20-20-20 works well for this.
If it’s been a long time since you’ve applied fertilizer to your ZZ, start by giving it one feeding and then wait a few weeks to see how the plant responds. Most likely, you won’t see much aside from perhaps a little growth. This is good, though, because at least you know you applied the right amount without overfeeding.
If you fear you’ve accidentally overfed your ZZ Plant, perhaps seeing signs of nutrition burn on the leaves, flush the soil out generously with plain water to remove excess feed, and then allow it to dry out properly. Moving forward, dilute your fertilizer by half before applying the next time. For more info on fertilizing ZZ Plants, read this article.
There seems to be some debate across different blogs about whether or not a ZZ Plant prefers a tighter, more rootbound container, or one with a little more room to spread out. In my own experience, I’ve always found that ZZs tend to push new growth right after they’ve acclimated to a new pot I’ve planted them in.
It is true that ZZ Plants will do just fine confined to a tighter container. More than anything, this is because there is less chance that it can be overwatered, as the root to soil ratio is in the plant’s favor.
However, at a certain point, the rhizome and root system get too bound up in the pot, and things like proper watering and nutrient absorption become factors that hinder your ZZ’s growth. At this point, it’s time to pot your plant up to the next size of container.
Typically, you want to give the widest part of your root system, usually the thickest part of the rhizome, plenty of space on all sides. Aim for a pot that allows one to two inches of space all around the rhizome. This gives your plant room to spread its feet without worrying about having too much soil in the pot, which could retain excess water and could hinder growth.
The last thing to consider for your ZZ Plant’s growth is temperature. ZZs prefer temperatures between 65°F-75°F, a common range found in many households. In this range, ZZ Plants will be most efficient at pushing new growth, as long as the other conditions above have been sufficiently met.
However, think about nighttime temperatures, as well. A house that is a pleasant 72° during the day might easily drop to 60° or below at night. While typically not detrimental to the plant, it certainly will slow the growth process. Definitely avoid exposing your ZZ to below 45°F, as they can be severely stunted and may not fully recover.
Be mindful of drafty spots in your house. Check to see if your ZZ Plant lives in a spot that is too close to an AC vent or next to an exterior door. Temperatures can significantly fluctuate in these spots regardless of what your thermostat says.
With any temperature change, be aware that if it gets too low for too long, you could accidentally trick your ZZ Plant into thinking it is time to go dormant. If this happens, you won’t see any new growth until you get the plant back into its optimal range and your plant “wakes up” again.
Although simple and fairly straightforward, making small changes to these factors will have a huge impact on your ZZ Plant’s ability to push growth. Remember, though, ZZ Plants are very slow-growing by nature, so even if you’ve devised the perfect spot for your plant and have watering and feeding schedules dialed in, you may only see moderate growth from your plant.
Don’t take it personally…your ZZ Plant will get there eventually. On its own time, of course.
How to Keep a ZZ Plant Small
Perhaps you’ve found the perfect spot in your home for you ZZ Plant, but if it gets any bigger, it’ll outgrow the space. Well, you may want to discourage additional growth to keep it the ideal size. But how does one achieve that?
If you just do the opposite of the growth tips above, you’d certainly stop your plant from growing, but you’d also risk neglecting it to the point of killing it. So, what can you do?
First, you still need to water the plant properly and ensure it has good drainage. It doesn’t really matter if your ZZ is big or small if it is unhealthy, so don’t mess with your good watering habits. It’s the same story with feeding. Plants use nutrients for other things besides growth, so withholding fertilizer from them can have a negative impact on their health.
As long as your plant is healthy, here are a few different things you can try to keep your ZZ Plant on the smaller side.
ZZ Plants have a large tolerance for different light exposures, so by moving them to a darker corner of the room, you can effectively slow their growth substantially. If your ZZ is in a prime spot with lots of ambient light, try moving it deeper into the room or to a darker hallway.
This does come with the caveat that if your ZZ is getting too little light, you run the risk of it getting leggy as it puts out weak growth to find a new light source. Try to find a balance and observe your plant to make sure it tolerates its new light level.
ZZs are totally fine with the occasional haircut. While I recommend you use this tactic sparingly, you are perfectly welcome to trim back any uneven or lanky stems. Remember to use clean shears and make an even cut. Don’t take off more than 1/3 the length of a stem at one time. For additional reading on pruning ZZs, click here.
Temperature can be used to slow the growth of your ZZ Plant, to a certain extent. I do not recommend you keep your plant in an overly air-conditioned room, but generally, the cooler the indoor temperature, the slower your plant will grow.
Again, be mindful that ZZ Plants do have an optimal range, so you don’t want to get too far outside of it. Pick a cool spot in your house and let it acclimate. Watch your ZZ over the next few weeks to ensure it’s not too cold.
As I mentioned, you run the risk of tricking your ZZ Plant into dormancy if it stays too cold. Sure, it won’t grow, but ZZ Plants need their growing season to effectively shore up their support structures, maximize nutrient production through photosynthesis, and push new growth to replace aging tissues.
Did you know that it is relatively easy to divide ZZ Plants? This is an excellent option in controlling the size of your plant, as you are literally cutting the bulk of the plant into two or three pieces to start as new, smaller plants.
You should consider division if your plant is getting too big for its pot, you’ve already planned to repot your ZZ Plant into a different container, or if you feel like it has gotten too bulky to handle as one large plant.
To divide your ZZ Plant, you will want to remove the plant from the pot and wash away all the soil around the rhizome and roots. Carefully consider where you might want to cut. I always suggest looking at the stems to determine your cuts to end up with groups of 3-5 stems. It makes for a more visually pleasing start.
Be sure that with each portion, you are getting stems, a part of the rhizome, and some roots. Once you’re ready to cut, use a clean, sharp knife to make your cuts through the rhizome, being careful not to nick the stems. Allow the pieces to sit on the counter for an hour or two, so the cuts lightly callous over before potting each piece in its own container.
Each new piece of your ZZ Plant will continue to rely on the current stems for photosynthesis, but soon new stems will start pushing from the rhizome.
Because ZZ Plants are slow-growing and low-maintenance, you don’t typically need to spend a lot of time worrying about their shape. As you can see, there are times when a little shaping and encouragement will help maintain your ZZ Plant’s size and form. I hope this article has prepared you with strategies to keep your ZZ happy, healthy, and looking its very best.