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
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