DESIGN AND DISPLAY OF HOUSEPLANTS

Decorating the home, to make it interesting, exciting and an extension of one’s own personality and identity, is an activity as old as recorded time. Early cave dwellers carved and painted walls, but today, as a result of modern horticultural techniques and the abundant variety of plants discovered by botanists during the last few centuries, it is possible to have a living décor. Furthermore. such is the extensive range of plants now available – as well as illumination aids – that most places in the home, however previously inhospitable to the growth of plants, can now be enriched and made interesting. The presence of living plants in the house oilers the constant ability to change the appearance of the home. The plants can be moved from one place to another, creating new and excitingly different and attractive focal points. Giving each room a new look every week or month can be easily achieved by swopping plants, and giving new introductions to the home the exact conditions they require. For instance, a cyclamen bought for Christmas decoration will need a cool place in a shaded position, while a poinsettia [Euphorbia pulcherrima) will need warmth and good light, but not direct sunlight. Plants help to create a peaceful and restful atmosphere in a home, aiding in the essential task of combating the hectic pace at which many people live. They also provide a useful foil to the home. helping everything to blend in together. Plants have a further benefit, in that they require personal attention, and therefore it is a welcomed feeling to be needed, an especially valuable and cherished feeling for anyone living alone. And. importantly, plants need attention on a day-to-day basis… even to being talked to. some people claim. Plant psychology is not a new Held of study suddenly discovered by a keen research academic. Since the turn of the century many people have investigated the sensitivity and reactions of plants. and there are clear indications that plants do have a form of ‘nervous system’. Experts suggest that the reason some people have ‘green lingers’ and the ability to make plants grow is because they strongly exhibit a sense of love and

understanding towards them. Plants have been known – through experiments involving lie-detectors – to react positively on the entry into a room of someone who damaged them on a previous occasion. Music is also said to influence them. It has been claimed that they react more favourably to classical composers such as Bach and Handel than modern rock-type music! Plants are especially useful in the sick room, offering interest for patients to look at. For anyone in a sick bed. a fresh plant can look very attractive and soothing, and many house-bound gardeners can pursue a worthwhile hobby. Most people have particular likes and dislikes, and this attitude is often extended to plants as well. But such is the range of plants for the home, that it is inconceivable that no plants could find favour. More traditionally-minded people might prefer the well-established seasonal plants, such as azaleas, cyclamen. hyacinths and poinsettias at Christmas and during the winter, primulas in the spring and early summer, with the home decorated with cut-llower chrysanthemums during the autumn.

THE HISTORY OF HOUSFPLANTS

Many of our world’s traditions can be traced back thousands of years to the Chinese, and this is also true with the cultivation of plants in containers. About 5.000 years ago palace gardens were filled with ornamental plants in earthenware pots.

The ancient Egyptians, about a century before the birth of Christ, used pot plants, and even commissioned people to venture into foreign lands to discover and bring back new specimens. King Nebuchadrezzar, a famous Babylonian, used ornamental trees in pots in his Hanging Gardens, and Solomon. King of Israel, employed potted plants in his temple.

The Greeks, in their turn, saw the possibilities of cultivating plants in containers. and used them to decorate their shrines and temples, often setting them in clusters. The early Romans were attracted by the possibilities of growing plants out-of-season and imported plants to be forced into bloom, and encouraged travellers to bring back

collections of plants from their journeys. During the Middle Ages in Britain and the rest of Europe the chief gardeners were the monks, who both studied and developed new techniques in growing plants and involved themselves in the searches for plants that would act as medicinal cures and culinary additives. Monastic gardens and, later, cottage gardens and the vegetable growing areas of large houses, began to display a wealth of plants, many of which were grown in containers. With the advent of easier and safer travel during the 1800s. botanists ventured abroad from England in larger numbers. and the transportation of plants back to England – if the plants were not imported in a dormant state- was aided by Dr Nathaniel Ward who in 1834 discovered that plants would travel well in an enclosed glass case. During the mid-nineteenth century, the mania for plants in the home caught the imagination of the people. Elaborate ferneries and palm houses were constructed. and fern-stands became a part of most parlours.

With the advent of large picture windows and double-glazing, the range of plants that can be grown in the home has widened tremendously during the last few decades. Improved mass propagation techniques have relatively reduced the cost of plants and increased their range. Brighter marketing has also made many people more aware of them.

THE MODERN HOME Plants have benefitted enormously from larger windows, central heating and double-glazing. As a result of double-glazing. the area close to the glass becomes habitable throughout the year for many more plants, and temperature fluctuations both on a daily and seasonal basis are reduced. However, the scorching of tender growth by hot rays of the sun through the glass is still possible during the summer, and at such times vulnerable plants should be removed and ventilation given to reduce the temperature around the plants.

Radiators are usually placed along the wall under windows, to compensate for the heat loss incurred through windows. and therefore the atmosphere around plants on a window-sill is likely to be dry. It may therefore be necessary to choose the plants very carefully, selecting those best able to tolerate these conditions. Setting the plants in a trough full of damp peat can help to produce a buoyant atmosphere. And remember to use plants which will not be damaged by curtains as they are drawn. Large picture windows bring both benefits and problems.

The obvious advantage has been a lot more light entering the room, reducing the problems of selecting plants for dark and dreary places. The difficulty with large window areas is that they need larger plants with which to frame them. This problem initiated the introduction of large houseplants. which by their size could be called small trees. Large rubber plants (Ficus elastica), Swiss cheese plants [Monstera deliciosa), Ficus ben-jamina, and various palms have been used very effectively in this manner.

Changing techniques

Alongside the changes in the home environment there have been radical changes in cultural techniques. The compost in which we grow our plants has been the subject of much research. In the early days of houseplant growing special recipes were evolved through trial and error and these became part of the mystique of growing pot plants. But the days of special soil mixes for each type of plant have long since gone and are now reserved for a [cw groups with specific needs. The John Innes loam-based composts became the preferred growing medium for the vast majority of houseplants for several generations. but these have gradually been ousted to a large extent by the newer peat-based composts. The convenience and cleanliness of peat-based mixes have had a particular appeal in the home. The desire to dispense with soil has been carried to a most successful conclusion with modern hydroculture unit. The technique has progressed from cumbersome systems totally unsuitable for the home, to sleek, compact and totally dependable units that will enhance almost any home. One advantage of hydroculture containers is that they are attractive in their own right and need no further disguise. Plastic pots have also helped to improve the appearance of many pot plants -they are easier to keep clean and free of green or white growths.

In the days of gas lights only the toughest plants could thrive – rooms were naturally gloomier and many suffered the efleets of coal-gas fumes. With natural gas. toxic fumes are no longer a major problem, but just as important is the role modern artificial lighting can play in growing and displaying houseplants.

Apart from light that can be used for display and effect, special fluorescent tubes can be purchased that closely match the quality of natural light. These make it possible to grow many plants in parts of the home previously unsuitable because of very poor lighting conditions.

THE RANGE AVAILABLE

A visit to a houseplant nursery, a florist or a large departmental store soon reveals the wealth of plants available for the home. There are plants to suit the tastes of everyone and the vogue and trends current at any time. There are plants with shapes and colours to blend with every conceivable taste in home décor, from the modern and often highly clinical feeling created by futuristic settings. to the warm and snug atmospheres engendered by cottages with exposed beams, and even to the bizarre and often eye-jolting colours employed by the improvisations of the youth of every decade. For instance, home settings and decors hoping to capture the atmosphere of the future might well use a few narrow-leaved foliage plants such as Cyperus alternifolius or dracaenas. While the more closed and often darker environs of an old cottage would welcome tougher green-leaved plants such as ivies and many of the Reus family.

Flowering houseplants As a result of horticultural techniques introduced during the past few decades. many flowering houseplants which were previously available only during their natural flowering period can now be bought in flower at any time of the year. Perhaps the plant to benefit most in this manner has been the chrysanthemum. which previously was autumn and winter-flowering. Nowadays, chrysanthemums are available the year-round. with compact growth and a neat head of flowers forming a balanced plant, ideal as a table centrepiece. The compact kalanchoe can also be bought throughout the year. The range of flowering plants is extensive , and many are trailing or climbing. There are even plants which have both attractive foliage and beautiful flowers, such as the exotic-looking zebra plant. Aphelandra squamosa.

Foliage houseplants Before the 1950s, the houseplant chiefly grown to provide a display of foliage would have been the often despised aspidistra, when it was given comic-song importance which undervalued its tolerance to dark conditions and cold and dreary places, the legacies of so many houses built during the Victorian era. Nowadays, as a result of better home conditions and an increased awareness of houseplants. the range available has widened enormously and there are plants to suit all places in the home. I3ecau.se they do not rely on a single flush of colour to provide a display, but more on a continuous array of attractively shaped and coloured leaves, they become permanent features in the home, only being moved or pruned to shape when they outgrow their allotted position. Most foliage houseplants live quite happily in normal interiors, while some, such as the palms and ferns and aspidistra, tolerate shady positions (and there are many other possibilities). Others, such as the shrimp plant and cacti and succulents. thrive on sunny windows, while the Dizijifothvca elcijantissima (often called Aralia elegantisslma), prefers a less shady spot where it can be syringed to give a higher level of humidity.

Small trees

Because so many of the foliage house-plants introduced in recent years are. in their natural environment, large trees or shrubs, it is inevitable that sooner or later they will outgrow their position in the home. Often, they can be moved to an area affording more headroom, such as a stairway, or they can often be sold as mature houseplants to offices wishing to have ready-established large plants. Large plants demand large pots and amounts of soil, so do remember to place them on a solid-floored base which is well structured to support the plant. ‘Trees’ add a new dimension to rooms. and that is one of height, and as such affects the overall design concept of a room. A high-ceiling Victorian-type room lends itself to a houseplant with tree-like proportions, but many modern rooms or cosy old and beamed ones would not.

Some trees are symmetrical in shape. while others are trailing and adaptable to corner positions. The beautiful and symmetrical Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophytta syn. /. excelsa) produces tiers of attractive branches full of pine needles, and as such must be viewed from all sides – as well as being given equal light all round. It is often impossible because of their weight to rotate large plants, so that all sides are in turn given equal amounts of good light. In such cases, it is best to select and buy plants that do not require turning, and have a ‘face-side’, such as Monstera deliciosa.

The weeping tig [Ftcus benjamina) is another face-sided plant, with shiny and pointed leaves that cascade down in branches. It can be pruned to lit a corner of a room.

A succulent with tree-like proportions, and well suited to a modern home setting is Crassida arborescens. It is sensitive to draughts and needs a relatively cool position – perhaps in a hallway but away from the door. By the time many of our houseplants reach tree-like proportions they become highly treasured specimens, but if as such they dominate a room and become obtrusive, it is best to sell them or to propagate from them.

Above left: Kalanchoes flower throughout the year and as they do not have a ‘face’ side look splendid on ;I table. All the plants – even those on the window-sill – should be given a quarter of a turn each clay to prevent the foliage turning towards the light and producing unbalanced growth. Left: Fieus benjamina eventually grows into a small tree. It looks best when left in one position and will often grow to suit a specific corner.

Palms

Of all houseplants, the palms are among the most elegant, creating an atmosphere of calm and tranquility. They are plants that demand the correct settings and room proportions to be appreciated to the full. Often they look their best when set in an ornamental pot placed on a plant stand, perhaps 60-90cm (2—3ft) high. At such positions, however, like many other similarly placed plants, they are likely to be knocked over by children or large dogs. Nevertheless, they can be placed in safe positions, perhaps on a shelf or in an alcove. One of the smallest and easiest palms to grow is Chamaedorea elegans, otherwise known as Collinia elegans or Neanthe bella. It does well in a dry atmosphere,

and is therefore suitable for centrally heated rooms. A stately palm, ideal for the corner of a room, where perhaps it is set against a white wall, is Chamaerops humilis, with fan-shaped leaves. There are many others to choose from, all stately and offering elegance to the home.

Ferns

These are exceptionally graceful plants. with a variety of leaf shapes. The bird’s nest fern with its long and strap-shaped leaves looks superb on a plant-stand, whereas the more normal ferns with delicately shaped and cut fronds do well in hanging-baskets. Also. they can be set in an empty lireplace during the summer. Although not true

ferns, the asparagus fern and Asparagus densiflorus, with long stems covered in fern-like foliage, bring calm and a sense of restfulness.

Bulbs

There are many bulbs which can be used as houseplants, including hyacinths. tulips, daffodils, crocuses, lilies and lily-of-lhe-valley which can be ‘forced’ so that they are in flower out of their normal flowering period. Many small bulbs can be grown in pots, such as snowdrops and bulbous irises, but they do not respond happily to too much heal and therefore are best grown in cool places and brought indoors to some cool position to flower and brighten the room for a limited period. With all bulbs, never give them warm conditions when in flower, as the flowering period may be greatly reduced.

Cacti and succulents These tend to be slow-growing and therefore permanent members of the home. Although they are often grown solitarily, grouping them into a trough or large container helps to create a more spectacular display. They thrive in the hot and sunny conditions of window-sills. although during the winter care should be taken that the low temperatures experienced there, especially if the room is single-glazed and with no central heating, do not damage them. Large specimens look distinctive, but take care to set them out of the reach of children or animals – the spines can be very painful and difficult to extricate from animal flesh.

Orchids

These delightful plants have a mystique which has grown around them and prevented many people trying them in the home. It is trae that many require exacting conditions, but there are a few that will live in the home if given the right conditions. Principally for good growth they require to be placed where they can receive good light but not direct sunlight, which could damage the leaves.

DISPLAYING PLANTS IN THE HOME

Houseplants require the right setting to display them to perfection. There are many different ways in which to arrange and display plants: all have advantages and disadvantages, and much depends on each plant’s habit of growth, whether flowering or non-flowering, size, and so on. Fqually, the shape and size of the room into which they are to be placed has an influence.

Grouping plants

By setting plants together, it is possible to create, on a miniature scale, the appearance of plants outdoors. A single plant on its own has architectural value, and is certainly a focal point of interest, but by grouping plants a micro-climate and miniature garden can be created.

plants with totally green leaves are not at their best.

By setting plants in groups, the transpiration of water from their leaf surfaces create a micro-climate that makes the area more acceptable to all of the plants.

Individual specimens Solitary plants can be used in all room settings, from the clinical and futuristic to the Elizabethan style. Elegant palms. such as Howeia forsteriana, form focal points, and a mature Dracaena fragrans will be a talking point in any modern setting. Ferns on plant stands or in an empty fireplace can give interest to Victorian-type high-ceiling rooms, while trailing and variegated ivies look at home in low-ceiling and beamed homes.

There are, clearly, plants for everyone’s taste, and only a limit to one’s imagination reduces their use. Remember that the height at which a plant is seen is very important. Obviously. those with long stems are best placed on the lloor, while bushier and trailing plants will look much more attractive if placed on a table or plant stand.

Architectural’ plants

There are some plants which are so distinctive in shape and size that they need to be displayed on their own or as an integral part of the décor of the house. A large Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) with its remarkably-shaped leaves forms an ‘informal’ shape that will blend well in most settings that are not strictly symmetrical, while the formal outline of the Norfolk Island pine (Arauairid heterophylla, syn. h. excelsa} needs a more symmetrical room. The long-stemmed cdrdyline reaching perhaps 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) and with long leaves, can provide a focal point and afford space for young children and animals to walk close to the base.

Screens

Plant screens can be formed from the lloor upwards and from the ceiling downwards. Traditionally, a screen of plants would comprise plants on the floor with the foliage trained up an openwork screen. However, it can also be formed of plants growing in troughs a foot or so off the floor, with the foliage then interlaced in a screen, or from hanging indoor baskets, well secured from the ceiling, with attractive foliage or flowers cascading towards the lloor. Or all three types of screens can be used together.

Plants in troughs

Setting a few plants in a trough is an excellent way in which to reduce the amount of daily attention required for watering. The plants in their pots can be set as they are in a 10-15cm (4-6in) deep trough with moist peat packed around them. This helps to keep the soil in the pots both cool and moist, although individual plants will still have to be watered. Groupings of plants like these are ideal for setting in hallways or on landings, where the floor space is often limited. By setting small plants in troughs which are themselves 30-45cm 12-1 5in) above the floor, an added dimension can be given to the plants and the room.

Indoor hanging-baskets

Hanging-baskets, as well as string-made holders for supporting a traditional houseplant. are excellent for displaying some plants. The traditional outdoor hanging-basket, which dripped water everywhere, has now been updated and modified with a drip-tray to prevent water falling on carpets. They are modern in appearance and long-lasting. The vogue for macrame hangers has highlighted the advantages of using what would otherwise be un-utilized space. The woven strings look attractive in their own right, and blend well with many foliage plants. Baskets or macrame holders if suspen-

ded from the ceiling should be attached by fixtures screwed into the joists, and not merely into the plaster-board. The weight of both the plant and wet soil or compost can be very heavy.

Using decorative pots The range of decorative pots in which to display the clay or plastic growing pot is extensive. Equally wide is the range of colours and materials from which they are made. Imitation pewter and copper. glazed china and earthenware pots. plastic and woven wicker-work baskets with plastic drip-trays, are just a few of the many plant holders available. Each can be selected to suit the texture and

colour of the plants, and to blend with the surroundings.

Junk shops and jumble sales often produce excellent holders which in their previous life may have had a more utilitarian existence – from casserole dishes to chamber pots.

Plant pedestals

Both compact and trailing plants can be used on these stands, although trailing plants often look best, such as the spider plant (Chlorophytum comosun). Ferns such as Aspleiiium bulbifernm are also suitable. The history of these stands can be traced back to the aspidistra of the Victorian era.

Glass cases

The fashion for growing plants in an enclosed environment, like a sealed miniature greenhouse, originated in the mid 1800s with Wardian cases. The moisture given off by the plants condensed to provide water for the roots, and it proved possible to keep quite exotic plants this way. Today, the same principle has been extended to terrariums, flasks, bottles and carboys. Terrariums look very much like fish tanks filled with small plants. The word terrarium. of course, is used for a tank used to house small land animals. These small cases are ideal for growing ferns, mosses and small woodland plants. If a high temperature can be given, subtropical and tropical plants of all kinds can be grown.

Large flasks and bottles, such as a large carboy, well established with plants, makes a spectacular focal point in any room, especially if small spotlights are used to highlight the display. Because the carboy will be extremely heavy when planted and established, it will need a lirm base, either on the floor or, best of all, on a rigid, low table.

DISGUISING BAD FEATURES

Within every room there are good and bad features: those which are best covered up or disguised and others which can be highlighted. Stark outlines can be softened by climbing and trailing plants such as ivies, Cissus antarctica, I’icus pumila, tradescantia, and so on. While arching windows are best highlighted and filled with ‘spot’ plants that lill the space and at the same time trail to blend the window with the rest of the room. The blue-flowered Campanula isophylla or white C.I. ‘Alba’ could be used, according to the room’s décor. Ferns are ideal for covering unused fireplaces, which can look deadly dull when empty. If a small trivet is not available to stand the pot on, use another pot upturned as a base. This will allow the foliage to hang down around the pot and not be damaged. Piping, for gas or water, which often adorns the walls of bathrooms and kitchens. can be covered by trailing plants.

However, if the pipe is for hot-water, either lag it or allow a space for air circulation between it and the plant, which could become scorched. Windows which overlook dreary and dismal places can be improved slightly by setting attractive plants around them. Trailing plants on a ledge above the window and a trough of plants on the windowledge detracts from the view outside. And if the view is that bad, net curtains completely over the window and with an additional shelf for plants halfway up the window and completely across will really produce a barrier of colour and interest. The shelf should be removable to enable the window to be cleaned occasionally. In the same way that bad features can be disguised, the penetration of kitchen smells can be reduced by placing a

fragrant plant at a strategic position. And remember that a sweetly smelling plant placed near the front door always welcomes visitors and gives a good impression.

The delightfully fragrant Jasminum pohj-anthwn is ideal for a cool position. It Bowers during the spring and can be grown in a quite small pot and trained over thin split-canes. Citrus niicrocarpa (better known as C. mitis) has strongly fragrant white star-shaped flowers, and has the additional benefit of producing attractive small oranges. The gardenia is exquisitely scented, but is not easy to grow.

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