GAR­DENS

The Observer Magazine - - THIS WEEK'S USSUE -

If you are look­ing for easy but ex­cit­ing house­plants, here are a few su­perquirky al­ter­na­tives

There is no rea­son why the on­set of au­tumn needs to stop you get­ting your hor­ti­cul­tural fix thanks to the won­ders of house­plants. But if you’re look­ing for re­silient, easy­care species just a bit more ex­cit­ing than the bor­ing old as­pidis­tra or san­se­vieria, here are a few su­perquirky al­ter­na­tives.

Ant plants are a group of bizarre species from south­east Asia that have adapted to grow on the branches of trees, baked by sun and lashed by mon­soon winds. Be­neath a neat crown of emer­ald leaves lies a mas­sively swollen, bulb-like stem, cov­ered in spikes in many species, like some­thing straight out of The

Flint­stones . They get their name as in the wild their cu­ri­ous swollen stem, full of a hon­ey­comb of wind­ing pas­sages and air pock­ets, pro­vides a home for trop­i­cal fire ants.

It’s a mirac­u­lous evo­lu­tion­ary strat­egy to help en­list an army of in­sect de­fend­ers to ward off pests – but don’t worry, UK ants won’t be tempted to set up home in them. All the plants need is a bright win­dowsill pro­tected from freez­ing draughts and to dry out a lit­tle be­tween wa­ter­ings. Treat them like a cac­tus or suc­cu­lent.

Hydno­phy­tum ‘Trea­sure’ and Myrme­co­dia ‘Ad­ven­ture’ are va­ri­eties which per­form well in in­door con­di­tions in tem­per­ate climes.

On the sub­ject of suc­cu­lents, Mother of Thou­sands, aka Kalan­choe

dai­gre­mon­tiana, is real show-stop­per. This pre­his­toric-look­ing plant from the deserts of Mada­gas­car pro­duces fleshy, grey-green, tri­an­gle-shaped leaves, splashed with tiger-like stri­a­tions. A real beaut. But what makes it so fas­ci­nat­ing to me are the rows of tiny baby plants that are pro­duced by the hun­dreds, quite lit­er­ally, along the edges of its leaves. Th­ese have evolved to fall off even­tu­ally, act­ing like self-sow­ing cut­tings – mean­ing you will al­ways have plenty to give away to your mates. The va­ri­ety ‘Pink But­ter­flies’ pro­duces lit­tle bright pink ba­bies like lace around its sil­very leaves and even rosy flow­ers in win­ter, just when you need them most.

If your home isn’t all that sunny, the mir­a­cle of na­ture that is

Bio­phy­tum sen­si­tivum is a must have. Like a bonsai co­conut palm just 10-15cm high, its canopy of ferny leaves held up on lit­tle pen­cil-thick trunks will close each night and even when touched, much like the sen­si­tive, spec­tac­u­lar Mi­mosa pu­dica . They pre­fer fil­tered light and moist, yet well-drained con­di­tions, sim­i­lar to ferns. In trop­i­cal green­houses th­ese cute mini “palms” are so easy to grow they of­ten be­come weeds, self­seed­ing ev­ery­where. I grow mine in a dish filled with moss and gravel to make a table­top “palm is­land”.

I sourced all of th­ese through the cool, house­plant-fo­cused N1 Gar­den Cen­tre in Lon­don, but you can also buy them on­line.

Off the wall: (from top) Hydno­phy­tum ‘Trea­sure’; Mi­mosa pu­dica; and Kalan­choe dai­gre­mon­tiana

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