House plants are endlessly varied and can add a really natural feel to your living area — as long as you remember to cater for their individual and seasonal idiosyncracies, writes Kya deLongchamps.
The green party
When we were young, the Irish home without at least a small foresting of dying house plants would be considered positively suspicious.
You could not get through the front door without tripping over a crated huddle of over-wintering geraniums, a throng of infant tomato plants and pale aspidistras sentried in every corner.
Strangled horticultural victims were cheerfully littered from the gloom of the outer hall to the ghastly tiled metres behind the downstairs loo.
Those plants spoke (supposedly) of a civilised, nurturing environment, softening those hard domestic surfaces with their dropping leaves, and shaking hands symbolically with the horticultural defences of the garden.
Dusty spider plants were abandoned on cliff faces of 80s Ladderax shelving, and hairy skinned little African violets were doomed, in pathetic corp-de-ballet, to freeze behind the front room curtains.
Still more exacting adoptees, the zebra plants, with their sappy, striped leaves as generous as dinner plates, and scent-drugging, Madagascar jasmine, drew enquiries from visitors with the same genuine compassion aimed at the fate of the family children.
Healthy green living
Having fallen from favour in our minimalist, crisp surroundings for the best part of 30 years, a new generation has rediscovered the joy of house plants.
However, for many the selection of type has been scaled back to acknowledge a more urbane aesthetic, and the distractions of a 21st century lifestyle.
There is emerging scientific research pointing to plants as positive influences on everything from the reduction of volatile organic compounds to the lowering of blood pressure and the relief of mental illness.
The living wall (cheat and use Green Pockets to start) demonstrated that well-chosen and cared for, domestic hydroponic planting can also answer new, invigorating decorative and culinary questions.
Now, woven mid-century hanging planters, Moroccan baskets, cheeky plastic handbags, zinc buckets and sophisticated copper orbs are everywhere from wedding receptions to spa hotels, staging sculptural, stiff little succulents, drifting clouds of perfectly manicured ferns and architectural specimen-sized palms.
Still, looks aside, these are tender, living things.
We should be sympathetic and considerate in our choice of inhabiting plant life.
Your house is not the desert or rain forest floor, and it’s vital to remember that the environment your plants have to cope with is likely to be compromised by the daily round of central heating, airborne pollutants, reduced humidity and seasonal lighting changes.
The vast majority of house plants are tropical or semi-tropical in character, sun and heat-loving exotics who can (with some intelligent compromise) cope with our pampered, human climate.
Presuming the plant arrived in a suitable soil type with a care label, you’re off to a good start.
Choose a container that can cope and drain with a wet bottom.
Sunshine is a variable of duration and intensity depending on the season, and it’s important to help even your robust air plants and stalwart ivies to react to those changes.
Natural light refracted through glass can be scorching for tender species placed on or near windowsills, and inadequate for the chlorophyll in their leaves to perform photosynthesis if set at too great a distance from the window.
As it becomes duller over the winter, with the sun lower in the sky, consider moving your plants closer to that natural light source, and similarly in the summer ensure you are not cooking them with powerful solar gain 18 hours a day.
With some exceptions (there are plants that need climatic change to propel their growing cycle along) spikes of temperature and cold draughts are bad news for plants that come from sparsely lit, hushed jungle floors.
Pick locations with as constant a temperature as possible. Keep them away from fires, hot and dusty ranges and radiators.
If you decide on tropical plants intended for moist, warm conditions of 60% to 80% humidity, daily misting will be vital to their survival — easier in a tiled inside/outdoor room like a conservatory or sunny outside hallway or in a bright bathroom where the moisture produced from showering will be enjoyed by tropical dandies and ferns.
Do some research before being caught up with an already flowering plant glimpsed in a lifestyle store and buy something that will thrive in that spot.
Woodland toughies like cyclamen and winter cherries can take banishment to a poorly insulated, cold conservatory for example.
Don’t fall for fragile beauty of the Phalaenopsis (the moth orchid) at any price, unless you are prepared to pamper and carefully guard its watering (it’s a phellogen that irrigates through the atmosphere) and to learn how to cut it back gingerly to a jointed stem to encourage flowering.
Low-maintenance leafy lovelies
Priced from about €6 to €15 from any good garden centre, these plants are tough contenders for the absentminded.
Keep in mind that no plant, even a cactus, will live without any watering whatsoever or the odd feed here and there.
Spider plant (Chlorophytum)
The loose-leafed hippy favourite of the 1970s, the spider plant has a pretty variegated leaf that is softening without being fussy. It grows quickly.
They don’t mind a cooler spot, making them useful in an unheated porch.
Flowers and new plants on aerial shoots (pot directly, leaving attached to the mother ship) — create lovely cascades of shaggy tiers.
A favourite all over the world for its easy care and gentle medicinal properties.
This spiky succulent grows naturally in desert conditions, so keep it on the dry side but out of direct sunlight to avoid scorching those gel-rich leaves.
Cooled water from the kettle is lower in lime and better for your little healer. The bottom leaves have the richest properties.
Money tree (Crassula ovata)
The sunset variety of this happy succulent takes on spectacular colours in the autumn and it’s trending with the outdoor/ indoor fashion as it can migrate out onto the patio when you do in the warmer months. Water sparingly. Laughingly easy to cultivate from a leaf cutting.
Flowering all year, the peace lily looks like one of nature’s divas but is a modest girl accepting of moderate neglect.
Water only when it starts to droop, and don’t be tempted to over-fertilise it, a sure way to kill it off. Yellow leaves signal outgrown pot, green blooms — the plant is being over-fed.
Air plant (Tillandsia)
Poised in a shell, a divot in a lump of lava rock, or springing from a dedicated upside-down holder, air plants don’t even need soil to survive and have an Area 51 charm.
Hang them in shifting sunlight and give them the occasional soak and a misting and they will take care of themselves.
Mother in laws tongue (Sansevieria)
As tolerant, durable and un-shifting as your mother in law, it takes a lot to kill this one off, and like your in-law, it can thrive in the dark.
The spear-shaped leaves give this plant a nice architectural presence used with furnishings. One of several plants identified by Nasa for their air-purifying character. Cultivate by dividing.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
This plant touches on a native note, and scores highly for removing formaldehyde from the environment and can soften up the harder angles and boundaries of a terrarium.
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