Choosing and Buying a Houseplant

Choosing and Buying a Houseplant

The secret of growing houseplants successfully is choosing and buying a houseplant that suits the specific indoor environment. You will have lost the battle before you start if, for instance, you try to grow a cactus in the corner of a sitting-room that has only a north-facing window, because cacti need as much sunlight and warmth as they can possibly get in summer.

Dry deserts in hot climates are the homes of very many cacti, so coolness and shade are not for them. But if you put an ivy or an aspidistra in these conditions, they will grow and thrive, almost without any help from you.

The secret of knowing how to choose the right plant for the right place is knowing where it comes from-the kind of countryside in which it grows in its homeland.

Nowadays, when plants are discovered, great care is taken to record the terrain in which they were found growing. This was rarely noted by cactus the early botanists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They simply recorded the name of the country in which they found a plant which meant that discovering its needs when trying to cultivate it was a process of trial and error, even for professional growers. Some plants that were perfectly hardy were grown in warm conditions, and succumbed, and some that were tender were put outdoors and died rapidly in their first winter.

But although much information is recorded by plant hunters and botanists, it isn’t always passed on to the gardener or houseplant grower. It is also difficult to carry in your head all these details about each plant, its name, and the right growing conditions. However, plants can be very broadly grouped according to their needs and the members of these groups can be recognized by their type of growth and colouring.

For instance, most of the flowering houseplants will need sunlight (but not the hottest midday sun) or at any rate a good light. So if you want a plant of this type, think, before you buy, which way your windows face.

Cacti can also be grown on hot, sunny window sills, if your fancy turns towards those prickly charmers.

The glamorous houseplants with brilliantly coloured leaves in reds and yellows and oranges, like codiaeums and coleus, will also want as good a light as possible, though direct sunlight is best filtered through a thin curtain such as net. Quite a lot of the plants whose leaves are variegated with yellow, white or cream (the spider plant and the variegated ivies for instance) also need to be in a light position, otherwise their variegation fades and their leaves change to plain green.

Plants which will grow far away from windows, in dark halls, corners of the landing, or passageways, nearly always have all-green leaves, and quite often are climbing or trailing plants, though not with flowers.

You can also put bonsai in these conditions during the winter, particularly if the place is cold. These little trees need to be dormant at that time, otherwise they will not do well.

If you see a plant obviously grown for its pretty leaves, and they are thin and papery, such as maidenhair fern, and you have central heating, don’t buy it unless you have plenty of time to look after it – get a plant with thick fleshy leaves instead, one of the peperomias such as Peperomia magnoliaefolia. The thin-leaved kind will simply wither and drop their leaves in the dry atmosphere of central heating, unless you spray them several times a day, but the ones with thick leaves can store water in them. If you haven°t time to make their atmosphere humid artificially, they will survive for two or three days before they begin to turn brown at the leaf edges.

So, when you are choosing and buying a houseplant, or something catches your eye in a shop-window, in a nursery, or on a plant stall, think before you buy it whether you have a place in the house that it will be happy in.

When you have decided that a plant will fit in, have a good look at it. Like everything else plants cost money, and because they are living, they are changing all the time and their acquisition should be given thought. A pair of shoes or a new dress can be manufactured to a set design, which will not change between factory and purchase, but your life-containing plant is likely to be quite different by the time you buy it, from the way it was in the nursery. Neglect in a shop or garden centre can result in such a damaged or weak specimen that the plant dies quite quickly after you have bought it, in spite of all your care.

Signs of trouble to look for are leaves falling or fallen, leaves brown at the edges or with brown spots on them, or yellow where they should obviously be green, and leaves which are limp and hanging down. A wilting plant with a drooping stem will have been weakened and one which is tall and straggly and rather pale is another bad buy. If you turn the container upside down and there are roots coming out of the drainage holes at the bottom, the plant should have been put into a larger pot or other container long ago. It will be what is known as ‘pot-bound’, and you would find the roots wound round and round the outside of the soil»ball if you emptied it out.

A flowering plant which is in full flower, however pretty it is, is really not worth buying either. It is likely to drop most of its flowers within two or three days of getting it home, and then won’t flower again until the following year – this is a common problem when buying azaleas and African violets. Much better to buy a plant with one or two flowers out and lots of flower-buds all ready to open.

Stems which are completely broken off or injured in any way are a sign of a battered plant. Compost which is bone dry is another bad sign and the plant should be rejected. If you see any insects on the plants,.like greenfly or little white woolly creatures, or webs on the leaves, then you can be fairly certain that all the plants in that shop are infested, if not with adult insects, then with eggs waiting to hatch. Go to another shop. Grey, furry growths on the leaves or white powdery patches mean disease, so pass these by as well.

Look for a plant which fulfils the following conditions: strong and upright, glossy green, or otherwise well-coloured leaves, undamaged, moist compost, no roots coming out of the drainage holes, well-budded, with a few flowers fully open and no creepy-crawlies.

When you buy a plant, ask the assistant to wrap it up, if it has not already got a polythene sleeve around it. This will protect it from cold and draughts on the way home – very important, otherwise the leaves and/or flowers will drop.

At home, put it in a warm place, out of both sun and draughts – freedom from draughts is particularly important. Make sure that it does not need water in the compost, and give it a quick overhead burst with your plant mister. Leave it alone to settle down for a few days, giving it water when needed, and you should then be able to put it in its permanent place and enjoy it for weeks, months or even years, according to which kind of plant it is.

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