Thursday, February 8, 2018

House Plants are back!

After many years of being seriously uncool, house plants seem to be back in fashion. My son, more in tune with the zeitgeist than I (after all he lives in Clapton in east London – Clapton-the-new-Brooklyn (but hasten to add is NOT a bearded hipster) has started to pack his windowsills. A few trendy looking books have started to appear as well, usually in furnishings and accessories outlets that don't generally sell books, which is always a sign that something is 'on trend'. 

I have long been puzzled by the lack of interest in house plants, particularly amongst dedicated gardeners. So many really good plantspeople seem to suspend all interest once they step inside the house. I am always slightly surprised that a lot of good gardeners and plantspeople don't grow their own veg, but then not everyone is a foodie and growing things to eat is very time-consuming and requires a lot of organisation, so I more or less understand that; to turn from weeding the Arisaemas to nipping down to the local supermarket to busy some packeted veg. is understandable. But not to grow anything inside? I am genuinely puzzled.

For myself, and I think for quite a few gardeners who started in their teenage years, the first plants we grew were indoor ones. Tropical stuff, cacti, orchids, insectivorous things, kinda adolescent slightly nerdy things. Most of us then soon moved outside, but the love of plants on windowsills or atop cupboards has never left some of us. 

Those who started as 'outside gardeners' don't often seem to be able to make the transition to keeping plants inside. One reason might be the sheer artificiality of keeping plants growing in what is, after all, a very alien environment. The quality of growth that it is possible to get from plants growing in the ground is so much more difficult to achieve from indoor plants. House plants are incredibly dependent on their owners and keepers for their most basic needs. Many plants also respond to seasonal changes, primarily to temperature, and since we humans seem happy only if we are kept at around 21ºC that limits possibilities. Small failures build up, and if things go slightly wrong, we are then stuck with a below-par plant which given the shortage of spaces to grow plants in most houses, is always on view. We are then constantly confronted with evidence of our own failure as gardeners in other words (and the horti-social embarassment).

The hard fact is that there are not very many plants which grow well inside. Light levels are generally too low; dry air is also often a factor that affects plants badly. Succulents do well, but only if they have really good light – so unless you have extensive sunny windowsills there is not much habitat for them. The range of houseplants which was developed during the 1960s, the high point of house plant history, was a pretty limited one. Essentially it built on what I call the 'aspidistra concept', the very idea being one which has been one of the factors which has limited interest in them over the years anyway. It was the Victorians who really were the pioneers in growing house plants, despite the fact that their homes were infamously dark, with big extremes of temperature and polluted (coal smoke pollution inside and out was horrendous in the 19th and much of the 20th century, making today's worries over diesel exhaust seem almost like minor niggles). 

Aspidistras survived the grim growing conditions of the Victorian home, along with a limited range of other, it-has-to-be-faced, rather dull plants. They grow incredibly slowly, with very long-lived leaves. They are as near to static and plastic as plants can be. The aspidistra is a plant of deep shade, where resource inputs are low, so it grows immensely slowly. Ivy (Hedera helix) will survive similar conditions, and of course if conditions are right, can move pretty fast, but if poor can just survive, for years; not surprisingly it too was common in the Victorian home. Much of the 1960s house plants were visually more exciting but in many ways not much better, many being tropical forest floor plants – happy at 'our' temperatures, but able to survive for long periods without growing much: Philodendron, Monstera, Aglaeomena, Anthurium – all tropical Araceae. If they do start to grow their new growth is often weak and unattractive. They are not really living plants, in the sense of something which grows and develops.

I did do a house plant book once – a long time ago. Unfortunately all packed up, which given my current peripatetic status is going to be the story of my life for some time from now on. So I can't share pictures, but will try to do so in a future blog. In researching the book, we did find a few people who had examples of the kind of plants I have been just discussing, but which had been cared for well and had actually grown pretty spectacularly. There was a Rhoicissus which had colonised the hallway of a substantial north London house (actually part of the family) and an enormous Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) in a Liverpool sitting room (ditto, belonging to the late Tony Bradshaw, the botanist and ecologist). 

The static nature of much of the conventional house plants flora must be one of the main reasons as to why few 'real gardeners' can be bothered with them. Plants which grow more vigorously, in particular those which flower, generally need more light than we can give them, or many of them. An exception might be orchids, which are relatively common as house plants now, all but unknown as such forty years ago. And of course, gesneriads: Streptocarpus, African violets, Achimenes. Small, relatively quite fast growing, not needing too much light (good indirect is best) and often usefully dormant for part of the year, gesneriads are an amazingly diverse and fascinating family. Their slightly hairy foliage and compact size give them a sort of cuddly, teddy bear quality too. When I'm in my dotage, I shall surround myself with them in the old folks home.

Our houses are actually very badly designed for plants – another problem facing the 'home' gardener. There were some attempts in the 1950s and 1960s in Sweden, a period and a place for particularly bold re-thinking of the domestic environment to create houses with small integrated growing spaces. The only one I have ever actually seen was, I think, at Beth Chatto's, a modernist 1960s design. I have often had the fantasy of designing a house around growing spaces for plants: light in just the right places at just the right amount, small planting beds strategically placed. There is a disadvantage perhaps to having too much vegetation around: the dead leaves, flowers, occasional insect pests, all add to a confusion of housework and gardening. I suspect it was this dislike of 'mess' which so restricted the use of plants in the conservatories of the 1980s conservatory boom. Victorians loved conservatories but had lots of cheap labour in the form of servants to attend to the cleaning, picking up and primping. 

So, its good to see house plants as 'back' but I can't help feel that we could do so much more.

Thanks to my son, Kieran Bradshaw. for the pictures.

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