Look at Life: Houseplants

21st June 2019

The Ambiguous Allure of Houseplants

By Deborah Mulhearn

I don’t like spiders and snakes. But I do like spider and snake plants. And so, it seems, do many others now. Sales of houseplants are increasing like a rampant vine, according to the Garden Centre Association. The main reason given for this healthy growth is that many more people are living in flats and apartment blocks, and young people setting up home regard houseplants as part of the décor, especially if they are in short term rentals or not allowed to paint and paper.

Plants provide a much-needed green ‘fix’ if you live in an urban area. People are increasingly concerned about pollution and air quality, and having lots of plants around has beneficial effects for psychological and mental health, say the experts. Scientific studies have shown that certain houseplants can absorb chemicals and particulate matter and are good for physical health, too.

In the 1980s a NASA study concluded that some indoor plants – including the humble spider plant – could reduce susceptibility to stress, allergies, asthma, fatigue, headaches and respiratory problems. I’m probably showing my ignorance of science by being surprised by this, not to mention failing to see why NASA was studying houseplants in the first place, but as someone who has always at least attempted to nurture them, it’s satisfying to know that they are officially good for you.

It’s a serious business. A garden centre in Dorset asks customers to fill in an ‘adoption’ form before they buy, akin to the papers at animal rescue centres, to ensure you can offer a suitable home and will be a responsible ‘plant parent’. Rehoming schemes are popping up, too. Wayward, a landscape architect based in London, has partnered with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to create the House of Wayward Plants to facilitate reusing indoor (as well as outdoor) plants at the end of the Chelsea Flower Show.

It’s not just in the home that houseplants are proliferating. One can barely negotiate certain retail stores without bumping into a large fig or fern. True to its name, the sensory overload that is Lush is a veritable rainforest. Indeed, the largest Lush in the world opened recently in my hometown of Liverpool and is profuse with vigorous and luxuriant trailing, hanging and robustly creeping indoor greenery. These plants aren’t for sale, but have a maintenance team to tend and water them. The shop assistants also seem to have had some kind of plant-based therapy, as they are vibrant and luxuriant too.

There are certain shops, alas, that clearly don’t care for the expensive plants they’ve invested in to green their shopping environments. They have carelessly allowed them to wilt and I’ve seen many that are desperately in need of a long drink and some tlc. It doesn’t really create the right vibe.

At this point I have to say that I’m actually not that green-fingered. My mother was, and it’s from her I get my love of plants but unfortunately not her talent to keep them alive. I’ve seen off most of mine, bar the odd dusty Christmas (or is it Easter? – I can’t encourage it to flower) cactus, plus a spindly aloe vera and a reluctant ivy. I still mourn a beautiful and ancient trailing plant (latterly identified as a string of pearls) that had belonged to my grandmother. It was doing fine, and then suddenly the pearls turned black and shrivelled like escapee frozen peas. I felt terrible. It had probably survived the war!

I admit to treating my houseplants with less than due reverence. I’ve shoved them into unsuitable pots, crammed then into dark corners and onto dusty shelves, with no light or too much light. I’ve overwatered, underwatered, and generally neglected them. Unlike a pet, plants don’t whine and scratch when they want attention, so are easy to forget to water. Or, in guilt, to water too much.

One plant I’m seeing everywhere is the fiddle-leaf fig, the ficus lyrata, with its swirling, folding, glossy leaves. I want one. Mindfully, I look into its care regime before I commit…

Demand is so great that they can’t be found for love or money. I don’t like the idea of buying plants online, but it’s the modern way, so there I go – and the online houseplant world is a revelation. There are categories of ‘trendy plants’. Can a plant be trendy? This implies that others are old-fashioned. Thinking about it, I guess aspidistras and Swiss cheese plants are redolent of the Victorian drawing room and the 1970s lounge respectively, although they are both now back ‘in’, along with aloe veras and figs of all varieties.

I’m going off the idea. They’re hard to keep alive. And expensive! Up to £300! I’d expect a live-in plant whisperer for that. £300 for a plant that will most likely die very soon? I decide it’s not worth the risk, not with my previous. I may care a fig, but not for a fig.

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