Go­ing to pot

Steven Des­mond parts the fronds of our cur­rent ob­ses­sion with house­plants to find that we can take re­newed in­spi­ra­tion from our Vic­to­rian fore­bears

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Steven Des­mond re­veals why house­plants, beloved of the Vic­to­ri­ans, are en­joy­ing a re­vival

It’s come as some­thing of a shock to many of us to learn that, in re­cent times, house­plants have come back into fash­ion. I was never an ad­mirer of the dingy, brown-tipped spi­der plant sus­pended in macramé in the kitchen cor­ner or the gi­raf­fe­like wan­der­ing neck of the half-starved rub­ber plant cling­ing mirac­u­lously to life in front of the book­case. such sights be­long prop­erly to the dust­bin of his­tory, to­gether with flared trousers and the Austin Al­le­gro.

Nonethe­less, as so of­ten, a mo­ment’s re­flec­tion re­minds us that many lovely things have also faded with the years that might be wor­thy of re­vival. Ev­ery­where, I read of the de­sire for light and airy in­te­ri­ors, which might eas­ily be the home of hand­some and el­e­gant pot plants. Whereas, in 1975, it would have been a shock to en­counter an orchid on a kitchen win­dowsill, nowa­days, its ab­sence would be equally shock­ing. If we can do that, surely we can achieve many fur­ther won­ders.

It was our Vic­to­rian fore­bears who first be­gan to fill their homes with pot­ted plants. the con­tents of the con­ser­va­tory in­evitably fil­tered into nearby reception rooms, some­times el­e­gantly grouped, such as Chamae­dorea palms and bird’s-nest ferns around the pi­anoforte. In the right spot—a large north­fac­ing win­dow, for ex­am­ple—the cu­ri­ous mag­nif­i­cence of the stag’s-horn fern might be in­ge­niously tied to a moss-bound pil­lar or an oblig­ing ever­green climber such as Cis­sus Ellen Dan­ica trained around the frame.

The gar­den writer Shirley Hib­berd called this sort of ar­range­ment the hor­tus fen­es­tralis in his best-sell­ing Rus­tic Adorn­ments

for Homes of Taste of 1856. If you have the space and the right light con­di­tions, there’s no rea­son not to do this to­day.

The Vic­to­rian in­te­rior also had flow­er­ing plants, typ­i­cally brought from the kitchen­gar­den glasshouses for the week or two of their glory. It’s a lit­tle alarm­ing to­day to see images of 5ft chrysan­the­mums rear­ing their heads over the backs of arm­chairs, re­sem­bling what Regi­nald Far­rer called ‘a moult­ing mop dipped in stale lob­ster sauce’.

For those in search of some­thing less dra­matic, per­haps it’s time for the re­turn of the wax plant, Hoya carnosa, which lin­gered on in an Ed­war­dian con­ser­va­tory known to me 35 years ago. It’s never seen now, but is wor­thy of re­vival and easy enough to grow. Its flat cir­cu­lar in­flo­res­cences of star-shaped, fra­grant white flow­ers bloom all sum­mer and the ever­green shoots can read­ily be trained up a wire or pole.

The great dif­fer­ence be­tween houses of the past, large or small, and ours to­day is room tem­per­a­ture. Those who lived with open fires will re­mem­ber the one warm room sealed off by closed doors from its

It’s alarm­ing to see 5ft chrysan­the­mums rear­ing their heads over the backs of arm­chairs

neigh­bours. Nonethe­less, those fridge-like spa­ces of­ten con­tained happy pot plants, which would be even hap­pier liv­ing in a mod­ern stair­case hall or cor­ri­dor.

Chief among these is our never-for­got­ten friend the as­pidis­tra. With its long, dark-green leaves framed in a bur­nished cachepot, even the in­com­pe­tent and un­car­ing could grow one of those for years on end. Ev­ery­one knew what Gra­cie Fields meant when she shrieked about the one that stood ‘on the what­not near the hat­stand in the hall’. Nonethe­less, the as­pidis­tra, the cast-iron plant no less, brushed off these un­wor­thy re­marks and re­mains an ex­cel­lent choice as a fo­liage house­plant.

Not only does it tol­er­ate dingy cor­ners with equa­nim­ity, it’s un­con­cerned about cold and draughts, be­ing fairly hardy. It is, af­ter all, a ground-cover plant in gar­dens in the foothills of the Alps. Among its mi­nor plea­sures is its habit of flow­er­ing in the dead of win­ter, on the sur­face of the compost, deep down among those fa­mous leaves.

For those in search of rather more flo­ral drama, look no fur­ther than the genus Pe­largo­nium. The ubiq­ui­tous gera­nium of cot­tage-win­dowsill fame was de­vel­oped in many forms by Vic­to­rian hor­ti­cul­tur­ists and sev­eral of these com­mend them­selves as mod­ern house­plants. Groups of the scent­edleaved species and cul­ti­vars such Pe­largo­nium quer­ci­folium (Royal Oak is as good as any), P. Lady Ply­mouth (grey leaves edged with cream) and the small-leaved vari­ants of P. crispum, as well as many of their friends and re­la­tions, are easy and oblig­ing pro­vided their shoot tips are fre­quently pinched out to keep them bushy and they’re al­lowed the sum­mer out of doors.

For some­thing truly no­ble in that var­ied tribe, I pro­pose one of the Unique forms. These are al­to­gether taller and longer-limbed in habit, com­fort­ably reach­ing door-han­dle height and are blessed with the ideal com­bi­na­tion of lobed fo­liage of an in­de­fin­ably mys­te­ri­ous scent as well as flow­ers of sin­gu­lar beauty, fea­tur­ing that el­e­gant sep­a­ra­tion of up­per and lower pe­tals that char­ac­terises the wild species from South Africa.

Pa­ton’s Unique is one of the loveli­est and most oblig­ing plants I know, hap­pi­est in that in­ter­me­di­ate zone where the back door leads into the gar­den.

There are cer­tain other flow­er­ing pot plants that re­mained res­o­lutely pop­u­lar from their golden age in the 19th cen­tury into rel­a­tively re­cent mem­ory, yet which have in­ex­pli­ca­bly fallen from favour in the past three decades. Fash­ion be­ing what it is, it can only be a mat­ter of time be­fore we thrill to their re­turn.

The glox­inia is surely one of these. Read­ily raised from seed un­der glass, its richly vel­veted trum­pets in dra­matic colours al­ways draw ad­mir­ing re­marks and half its charm to the grower is the knowl­edge that it is by no means dif­fi­cult to cul­ti­vate.

Another distin­guished flow­er­ing plant worth a re­vival is Aech­mea fas­ci­ata, an epi­phyte that sprouts from mossy tree branches in its na­tive Brazil. Its stiff, pale­green fa­rina-banded tubes of leaves, down which it’s watered, pe­ri­od­i­cally pro­duce flow­ers of con­sid­er­able style in de­li­cious com­bi­na­tions of pale blue and pink.

It is, as are the best house­plants, not par­tic­u­larly de­mand­ing. I grew one on an east-fac­ing win­dowsill in the un­heated hall of a Yorkshire cot­tage in—you’ve guessed it —the 1970s and it per­formed with­out un­due fuss. Its form would please the tra­di­tion­al­ist and the rad­i­cal alike.

How­ever, al­to­gether the most princely of flow­er­ing pot plants is that ex­cep­tional crea­ture Me­dinilla mag­nifica. Its com­mon name, the rose grape, makes it sound dull, but, for­tu­nately, no­body uses it. The botan­i­cal name, po­et­i­cally mel­liflu­ous, is much more the thing. I’ve never re­cov­ered from the thrill of see­ing it on a ta­ble in the sa­loon of Hare­wood House many years ago, where it drew all eyes in a big room full of lovely things. Its el­e­gant bluish-green leaves are the ideal back­drop to the su­perbly semipen­du­lous, dusky-pink flow­ers. The whole thing is large, but not dom­i­nant, how­ever, its no­ble bear­ing ra­di­ates dif­fi­culty of cul­ti­va­tion, so I was amazed to see sev­eral spec­i­mens in full flower for sale at a plant fair in a field in Hamp­shire re­cently.

Me­dinilla is one of those plants that should be brought into a room when it flow­ers, and re­turned to a suit­able glasshouse when the per­for­mance be­gins to fade. This is a good rule of thumb for all pot plants, es­pe­cially those that flower, oth­er­wise the joints im­per­cep­ti­bly lengthen daily and the plant’s dis­com­fort soon be­comes vis­i­ble.

An un­der­stand­ing of pho­to­syn­the­sis, the process that sep­a­rates plants from an­i­mals, is the key to suc­cess and no do­mes­tic light­ing can ever com­pete with the power of the sun.

Any plant dis­played in the home should be af­forded the simple dig­nity of a de­cent pot to com­ple­ment it. The clay pot came back into fash­ion a few years ago just in time to save the best ex­am­ples from the scrapheap and big ex­am­ples, some­what weath­ered but kept free of ex­ces­sive gunge by pe­ri­odic steep­ing in wa­ter with a squirt of le­mon juice, al­ways look well. Less at­trac­tive con­tain­ers can al­ways re­ceive the as­pidis­tra treat­ment by be­ing dis­guised within a dec­o­ra­tive cachepot.

And let us not al­to­gether de­spise Our Gra­cie’s what­not. The auc­tion rooms of this coun­try are crowded with sur­plus jardin

ières in var­i­ous forms and ma­te­ri­als, de­signed to per­form that use­ful func­tion of pre­sent­ing pot plants to the eye at a de­cent height and away from the eter­nal win­dowsill. The jar­dinière has its lim­i­ta­tions, par­tic­u­larly in a room con­tain­ing a bump­tious dog, but it has its flex­i­ble uses, too.

We need not live like Vic­to­ri­ans, or in­deed like our­selves 40 years ago, but nor should we con­sign all they loved to the at­tic of mem­ory. These simple—and more chal­leng­ing— plea­sures await our re­newed at­ten­tion.

A se­lec­tion of pelargo­ni­ums in the green­house at Arun­del Cas­tle in West Sus­sex and, just vis­i­ble on the right, the al­most black leaved suc­cu­lent Aeo­nium Zwartkop. Bring plants in­doors to flower, then re­turn them to the cool green­house to avoid over-stress­ing them

A cool, well-lit porch, such as this ex­am­ple at Chastle­ton House in Ox­ford­shire, is the ideal spot for house­plants to flour­ish in

Half the se­cret of a good house­plant dis­play is the stand. This 19th-cen­tury wire ex­am­ple at Dun­ham Massey Hall, Al­trin­cham, sets off the pelargo­ni­ums to per­fec­tion

Back in the day: par­lour palms in the Great Room and the White Draw­ing Room at Wim­borne House, 22, Ar­ling­ton Street, St James’s

Above: A themed col­lec­tion of small pots cre­ates a big im­pact on this crenel­lated ta­ble. Above right: Me­dinilla mag­nifica, the rose grape, per­haps the most im­pres­sive of all house­plants

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