Last week I listened back to episode 46 of on the ledge podcast episode 46 of on the ledge podcast with Wisley curator Mathew Pottage. I was hoping for a bit of inspiration on my plans for exotics on the patio. During the episode, they discussed the idea of why foliage houseplants are more popular than flowering houseplants.
I can think of quite a lot of reasons. Foliage has a longer period of interest than flowers. The Instagram houseplant trend tends to favour photos of leaves and variegation. Many flowering houseplants take a lot of care with long periods in between flowering. However, it did get me thinking. I pretty much only grow kalanchoe for flowers indoors. A number of the plants I grow do flower. A couple of my cacti have quite nice flowers actually, but I don’t grow them for the flowers. The kalanchoe I buy is the standard supermarket varieties. I don’t actually like them very much, but Amy does, so I buy one and they last on average about 4 months before I replace them. The spot Amy likes for them is a kitchen windowsill where they gradually become scruffy from leaf burn. Essentially we buy them as a longer lasting form of cut flowers. Before any one comments I am aware there are lovely forms of kalanchoe, but I’m not keen on the standard supermarket varieties. They look like plastic plants to me. I’ve never bothered with orchids or bromeliads or any of the other. I have done quite well with cut flowers from my garden this year. Ox-eye daisies, cosmos and sweet peas have filled many vases over the Summer.
So in an effort to branch out, I have bought one of the ever-present Christmas amaryllis kits from Aldi. For £2.50 I’m willing to take a chance. The box did say pot included. This was just the plastic drainage pot to pot the bulb up in. I had a bit of an issue finding a pot to fit over the sleeve as it was quite a short wide size. But I did locate a suitable size that isn’t too hideous.
The bulb sits on the pot with its neck out of the soil, then pushed firmly down to ensure contact with the soil. Until the stem starts to get going it doesn’t need much watering. It should take about seven to ten weeks to flower. So it may flower ready for Christmas.
So wish me luck as I venture into growing a houseplant with flowering in mind. Who knows? After this, I may even branch out to buy an orchid for the first time. What flowering houseplants do you all recommend?
This week I bring you a houseplant horror story W.F. Harvey. William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) was a writer best known for writing horror and macabre stories. Born into a wealthy Quaker Yorkshire family he trained in medicine. He served during WWI in various medical roles. He suffered lung damage during the war that caused issues for the rest of his life.
After the war, he worked in adult education until ill health forced his retirement. During his lifetime three short story collections were published. Then after his death, in 1937, a posthumous collection was published following the 1946 film release of his best-known work, the beast with five fingers.
Harvey’s horror stories are interesting as they don’t follow one theme or formula. Many horror writers write one story in different variations, but Harvey’s follow different directions.
The story today is in the open domain now for copyright purposes. It offers a warning to abusing your houseplants, particularly that stuffy symbol of the Victorian middle class, the aspidistra.
The man who hated Aspidistras
The earliest memories of Ferdinand Ashley Wilton were green memories—of aspidistras. The aunt with whom he lived at Cheltenham was fond of the plants. As you entered the hall of Claremont Villa there was on the right an upturned drain-pipe painted a sage green and decorated with arum lilies. This contained Miss Wilton’s umbrellas and her father’s walking-stick. Projecting into the hall on the left a fretful erection of mahogany supported a mirror, hooks for cloaks, and two shelves. On the upper shelf was a porcelain bowl that contained the cards of callers; on the lower, in a sea-green earthenware pot, precariously rested the first of the aspidistras. The second stood in the dining-room—in summer in the fireplace, in winter on the ledge of the window that faced south. In the drawing-room was the third, raised high above the ground on a fluted wooden pedestal. The fourth and last aspidistra stood on the round table by the couch in Miss Wilton’s bedroom. At night it was carried out on to the landing, for Miss Wilton, remembering something that her doctor had once said about sick-rooms and flowers, thought it on the whole wisest that she should sleep alone.
The aspidistras dominated Ferdinand’s life. They were always liable to be upset, so that he was not allowed to run about in the hall or dining-room. When he was very small he had a fancy that they repeated to Miss Wilton the many things that he had done amiss, and especially did he distrust that fourth plant, which stood at night, a sleepless sentinel, on the landing close to his bedroom door. As he grew older he learnt, reluctantly, how to sponge their leaves with soapy water. When a gentle rain was falling he would carry them into the garden in order that they might enjoy what Miss Wilton called a thorough soaking. But if Ben, the poodle, were in the garden he had to be brought in straight away and dried. The laws governing the vegetable and animal worlds seemed to Ferdinand strangely different. In very dry weather the bath would be half filled and the four aspidistras would stand in a row for hours partially submerged. Ferdinand was not allowed to sail his boat among the gloomy islands of this archipelago, but if his conduct had been satisfactory he was permitted to pull the plug before going to bed. Ferdinand was still a very little boy when he was sent away to school. He was constantly ailing and even when he was well he received more than his due share of kicks and bruises. In the matron’s room he felt as if he were back again in Cheltenham, the pot of aspidistras reminded him so much of his aunt. On it he vented the hatred of his schoolboy world. When the matron was called out of the room he would share with the aspidistras vegetable laxatives and iron tonics, or impart to their leaves an unnatural glow of health by polishing them with Scott’s emulsion or liquid paraffin. A vertical section of the pot illustrating Ferdinand’s activities would have shown a thimble, three hairpins, a number of needles, the case of a clinical thermometer and, an inch below the surface, an almost complete tessellated pavement of sugar-coated pills. When, however, in a rash moment, Ferdinand, in applying the contents of a bottle of tincture of iodine to the leaves, found to his alarm that the black stains were irremovable, the fat was in the fire. The matron made a formal complaint, but nobody owned up. The ten more or less ailing boys who had visited the room on that fatal morning were indiscriminately punished. To them it was known that Ferdinand was the delinquent. He did not escape. Like the aspidistra he was poked and prodded and shaken to the roots. Boyhood passed. At the university Ferdinand achieved a certain success. He published a volume of verse and was founder and secretary of the Mid-Victorians. He only met two aspidistras during the whole of the time he was up, one in the porter’s lodge whose leaves he would absent-mindedly trim with pocket scissors, and the other in a dentist’s waiting-room. Miss Wilton died. She left to her nephew the villa at Cheltenham and four hundred pounds a year. Ferdinand was able to devote himself to literature, and from Bloomsbury lodging-houses wrote his first series of Antimacassar Papers. It was at this period of his life that he found himself once again under the influence of aspidistras. He began by nagging them, treating them as ash-trays, pen-wipers, and cemeteries for safety razor blades. He ended by torturing them. One, he slowly did to death with weedkiller; into another, following the example of the Good Samaritan, he would pour in oil and wine. A third he garrotted with rubber bands; a fourth, slowly succumbing to a solution of bath salts, filled his room for weeks with the faint perfume of lavender. A horticultural detective would, of course, have quickly got on the track of the Bloomsbury murders, but no suspicion ever fell upon Ferdinand. He was so inoffensive, so subtle, so respectable, and in his own way so quietly ornamental. His requirements were so few and he needed little looking after. His landladies were always sorry when he went. The aspidistras never got over his departure.
Ferdinand, of course, should have realised that it is dangerous to indulge in hatred. The man who hates open spaces as likely as not will be killed when crossing a square. It isn’t the motor car but the square that kills him. Ferdinand had his warnings. Once on a wet morning a pot of aspidistras fell from a third-storey window ledge on to the pavement at his feet. On another occasion when travelling by train a sudden stop brought down from the rack a heavy and bulky package that indubitably involved risk of injury to passengers. If Ferdinand had not been sitting with his back to the engine he would have been struck on the head by the most monstrous aspidistra he had ever seen.
He was smoking one day in a despondent mood when his friend Basset Tankerville chanced to call. The Blue Review had noticed his latest volume of essays with less than its usual appreciation. ‘Listen to this,’ said Ferdinand to Basset. ‘“We begin to be conscious of the limitations of his point of view—the interstices of a Venetian blind. He is the embodiment of the aspidistra.” And then,’ said Ferdinand, ‘they have the impertinence to give half a column to a review of Gertrude Stein.’ ‘Glorious jingles,’ said Basset. ‘You should really try your hand at them yourself. “Ferdinand Ashley Wilton with his dashed aspidistras that wilt unless fertilised. With black tobacco ash. Ad astra Aspidistra.” But seriously, you do remind me of the plants. You are becoming more and more green with envy, more and more pot-bound. And, by the way, have you ever thought of how applicable to aspidistras is St Paul’s description of charity? That specimen which I see before me suffereth long and is kind. It vaunteth not itself, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. And the same, Ferdinand, in a large measure is true of you. You and the aspidistra are one.’ Those light words of Basset Tankerville, spoken as they were in jest, marked an epoch in Wilton’s life. They stirred the vegetable fibres of his being. His conversation became more and more torpid. The wit that had enlivened the Antimacassar Papers vanished and though from time to time he still wrote, his style—polished and stately as it was—became dull. He left London to live once again in Cheltenham, but it was as an invalid that he lived. Though he took the waters regularly his skin acquired an unmistakeable greenish tinge which the dark green cloak he always wore made all the more noticeable. A little odd, his housekeeper thought him, and very old-fashioned, but Mr Wilton gave next to no trouble. On sunny days she would pull up the Venetian blinds and place his chair in the window, where he would sit quietly for hours occasionally sponging his long leaf-like hands with soap and water. He was happiest, however, when the faintest of drizzles was falling. Then the man who hated aspidistras would be wheeled out into the rain to enjoy a thorough soaking.
A warning to plant keepers. Have you become the plants you look after? Hope you’ve enjoyed the story. Are there any plants you need to ask forgiveness from? For more houseplant conversation check the twitter hashtag #houseplanthour A fortnightly conversation on Tuesday all about houseplants.
Having written about why you should buy houseplants it seems worth looking at a few places you can buy houseplants and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each option. I haven’t tried all the options, some will depend on your geographic location of what you will have access to.
Garden centres and nurseries
Within most garden centres there is almost always a section dedicated to indoor plants. The variety varies massively from garden centre to garden centre. You may only find a handful of succulents, an orchid and a spider plant. These days you will probably find a bit more. If you look around your local garden centres you’ll find one that probably has more choice. Within my locality one has more bonsai, while another has a good orchid range. Generally, garden centres will look after the houseplants well, with the exception of a few specialist plants with more particular needs. The price is usually reasonable for a good quality plant. You can see the plants condition and take it out of the pot to see if it’s pot bound or infested with any pests.
Alternatively you may be fortunate to have a specialist nursery. These may offer you a better range. The advantage of a specialist nursery is that the plants will probably be a passion of the owner and at there best. Most of our plants including houseplants come from Holland, but you may be lucky and have a source closer to hand. Attending local plant fairs can put you in touch with local sources.
You may also have small greenhouse businesses. Near my in laws is a sign outside a driveway that takes you to a specialist cacti greenhouse. The money raised goes to help children in the third world. Plant sources like this often don’t advertise. You just need to keep your eyes peeled as walking and driving through areas.
Supermarkets and high street shops
It has become the norm now that supermarkets stock a number of houseplants as gifts. The variety is often limited to succulents and orchids, but it gives a cheap source of windowsill plants. The little Tesco succulents currently sell for £1.50, but they quickly establish and grow giving you a decent plant. The supermarkets vary in quality. Many of the plants will be left to die slow painful deaths with no one assigned to look after them. So it’s worth keeping an eye on supermarkets for when new deliveries come in. Alternatively, watch for when the plants have been taken to the point of death and have been reduced. I’m a sucker for a rescue project. Much of the lavender in the garden started as bargain rescue plants. Succulents will usually recover with a small amount of care. Even if they don’t you’ve got a spare pot for dividing plants.
As said supermarket plants are often over or under cared for leaving them in bad states. They are also often filled too heavily with the particular plant. Calla lilies and sansevierias are prime candidates for this in the supermarket. They can then be divided to give you multiple plants. Supermarket plants tend to be potted in coconut coir, whether it’s appropriate or not, so often good to re-pot in the correct compost.
In my experience Morrison’s seems to look after their plants the best. They appear to have people assigned to look after and give them the occasional water. Tesco and Asda offer about the same level of care. The plants are delivered and put on a trolley. If you get them on delivery day the plant will be in a good condition. If it’s been a week or more into its stay it will be looking the worse for it. The succulents often suffer from being picked over by customers and losing leaves. Aldi and Lidl offer quite reasonable plants, particularly ferns, but suffer from just being labelled foliage plant. Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s have the highest price tags, as expected, but are, ultimately, the same plants in a nicer pot.
High street shops such as Next and homeware shops such as IKEA have also got on the houseplant wagon and are currently stocking quite good varieties. The last trip to Next saw a better range than many of the local garden centres. However, many of these did come with high price tags. That said, the plants did look healthy. But, if you’re paying top money for a lifestyle accessory it should look good to start with. I imagine many will not look as good after a few weeks in their wannabe designer homes when people realise they need care.
The internet opens up more range to plant buyers. While people can be stung by buying online there are a lot of reputable sellers. But even the best seller will occasionally have delivery issues with plants getting delayed fatally in the mail. However, for the range of choice, the risk seems worth taking. Be careful when buying to check postage. While the plant may be a reasonable price, with a pot the weight goes up and the price of postage goes up.
A cheaper option online is to buy cuttings. eBay has many cuttings available. Buying on ebay has risks, but you can leave negative reviews if and paypal offers some protection if you get poor service. Many houseplants grow well from cuttings giving you a cheaper option for postage. I’ve only grown succulents bought this way, but it is rewarding. The care you put in initially means the plant means more to you and is more likely to be looked after than the quick easy store option.
Following on from buying cuttings there are a number of options for obtaining cuttings through swaps. House plant swap group on facebook and houseplantswap.com offer online options.
Organised events to physically swap plants do also take place. Obviously, certain plants that are readily available will turn up in abundance, while rarer plants will be snapped up fast. In my local area plant and cuttings, swaps do take place as part of a number of the plant fairs, but it’s mainly garden plants rather than indoor plants. The Instagram indoor plant trend not having had any major impact on sleepy North East seaside towns. But if you are in bigger cities I imagine these may be an option for you.
I have however ended up with cuttings through open gardens. Open gardens are good events in general for seeing what will work in your area in your gardens. But they also put me in touch with a number of local gardeners with wonderful knowledge. From the front of their houses, I wouldn’t have known the wonders existing behind.
Friends and family are also options for taking cuttings. My mum donates lots of cuttings and seedlings for my garden. In return, I have given her a few seedlings and chicks off my sempervivums. Always ask first though before cutting or they may not remain friends with you.
Florists and boutiques
As well as your high street shops selling houseplants florists and boutique shops often stock a limited range of houseplants. I’ve found this to be one of the most expensive routes. The florists usually stock a limited number of houseplants ready as gifts. The boutiques usually stock for gifts and for the designer houses. The plants I’ve bought in this way have usually been good quality, but amongst the most expensive I’ve bought for what they were. Annoyingly, many will have no labels either of exactly what they are. For cacti or succulents this is an irritation, but for other plants, this may prevent you from looking up the proper care they need. This is a common issue with the supermarket purchases as well. My local florists do normally have them nicely displayed though, so you get an idea how they may look at home.
As with garden plants, there is the option to grow your houseplants from seed. Growing the window box of herbs from seed has been a popular choice for a long time. Aldi has recently offered a cacti seed mix as a project for children. Although I can’t say I’m convinced by the combination of children and spikes. Growing fruit from pips is a nice windowsill project. Avocado’s seem to be a popular choice at the moment (RHS podcast). Many seed companies offer seed mixes for a number of house plants. Sutton has a good range of indoor seeds, although many are flowering and like foliage for indoors more than flowers.
While it might seem an odd concept buying plants by subscriptions, but there are quite a few companies offering just this. My Facebook and twitter adverts clearly feel I need these in my life as they come up regularly. Geo-Fleur offer a plant subscription service where you relieve a plant and pot and details of the care the plant need. They also offer a subscription to receive cuttings of larger plants. Bloombox offer the option to have a plant every 3 months so you can slowly build a collection. Or replace plants as they die, which might be the case for many people. They also offer a cheaper subscription for plants with no pots, but their pot choices do look good. I’d be tempted with the more expensive option. Sprout London offer an interesting option to have coffee and a plant delivered. However, as a coffee hater, I’m glad to see there is an option to subscribe for the plants without coffee.
While some people will like the surprise of getting a plant with no choice for some people this will just be impractical. All of the three I’ve listed do sell the plants separately giving you the freedom to choose exactly what you want.
It seems a good time to do a shout out for geo-fleur. Geo-fleur is a subscription company mentioned above. They have started a kickstarter campaign. For those of you who don’t know kickstarter, it is a website where people fund money to help projects. It has become a popular format for funding game development and gadgets. People pledge money and if the campaign is successful they gain rewards. The company sets a target of how much money they need for their project. If they get enough pledges they receive the money. If they don’t get pledges up to the target you don’t pay anything and the rewards don’t go ahead.
Geo-fleur are looking to expand the business. They are looking in invest in a larger greenhouse and develop a collection of rarer plants. In exchange for funding these improvements, you can choose from a number of rewards. There are a number of lovely looking handmade pots up for grabs. There is also a reduced price available for you to get a plant subscription. So if the concept interests you it’s a chance to buy in cheaper. Make your pledge if interested and share on your social media of choice.
While not one for scaremongering, it seems worth noting we have no idea how Brexit will run its course. But seeing as the majority of our houseplants come from Holland it seems a good time to buy that plant you’ve been pondering or become more familiar with UK sellers who may be able to put their prices up.
Hope you’ve found this weeks blog useful. While writing this blog I found Jane Perrone’s blog on the same subject. She’s covered almost exactly the same material I had planned. Worth a read here for some extra links. Also, keep an eye out for Gardener’s World magazine feature on houseplants next month.
Leave a comment if there is anywhere you’ve found useful for houseplants.