The great indoors

Don’t scoff at the fad for houseplants says Hephzibah Anderson

Root and Branch

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Just as there are pictures that can’t be unseen, so certain phrases leave you wishing you’d never encountered them. One that I’ve been trying to forget ever since stumbling over it is “plant parent”. It refers to the care of houseplants but manages to summon up freaky images of flora-fauna hybrids, sinister in ways as ancient as the Green Man legend and as futuristic as Margaret Atwood’s more dystopian conjurings. To think we once rolled our eyes at “pet parent”.

The notion has been popularised by the current fad for indoor foliage, a trend rooted in turn in the relentlessly self-absorbed phenomenon that is “wellness” culture. As any gardener will tell you, there is ample restorative balm to be had from the physical labour of helping plants to flourish. It can also be an aggravating, heart-breaking, plain old back-breaking business, but the cult of wellness holds no truck with any of that. Instead, there’s an upbeat yet neurotic focus on the moisture-regulating properties of the spider plant, the oxygenating effects of succulents, devil’s ivy’s ability to take pollutants out of the air. Call me a cynic, but I think you’d need to be truly plant-ignorant to have your concentration sharpened or your stress levels lowered by the mute suffering of a pot-bound, dusty-leafed Ficus elastica.

There is of course nothing novel about the desire to bring inside some of the outdoors

The houseplant’s lot is often a desultory one. Overwatered, sun-scorched, cosied up to a feverish radiator as if to soothe its genetic homesickness for tropical climes — even with the best of intentions, there are endless ways in which to mistreat a houseplant. While I’ve yet to lose one, I don’t think any of my own could be described as thriving.

There’s the peace lily I bought while in the nesting phase of pregnancy (it’s flowered precisely twice since, and my daughter has now started school), a Wandering Jew (above) that was gifted to us and shows no inclination to roam from its bookshelf shtetl, and a money plant whose lack of growth seems laconically symbolic. The newest addition, an air plant, is most flummoxing of all, seemingly held in a perpetual state of suspended animation.

There is of course nothing novel about the desire to bring inside some of the outdoors — especially the far-flung outdoors. In its current iteration, houseplant-mania pays aesthetic homage to the 1970s, echoing mid-century motifs lately embraced by interior designers and making a millennial icon of the trusty monstera, but it goes back centuries.

Like so much of today’s mass culture, from travel to dining out, it has filtered down from the elites. Just think of the orangeries that began springing up on country estates in the late 1600s, or pteridomania, the term that author Charles Kingsley coined to describe the Victorian obsession with fern collecting.

Plant accoutrements have always been big business, too: in the eighteenth century, Josiah Wedgwood started making French “cache-pots”, while cabinet makers produced tiered stands to better display plant collections. In the nineteenth century, plant hunters returned with specimens such as the aspidistra (nicknamed the Cast Iron Plant for its near-indestructibility), and Kew’s Palm House opened in 1840. (Today it houses the world’s oldest potted-plant, an Eastern Cape giant cycad nearly 250 years old.) As it turns out, the concept of “plant parenthood” isn’t a millennial invention, either. In Flora Domestica, an 1823 primer on how to look after plants in pots, Elizabeth Kent confides: “Many a plant have I destroyed, like a fond and mistaken mother, by an inexperienced tenderness.”

There are plenty of reasons to resist scoffing at a new cohort’s embrace of gardening. After all, this is Generation Rent and houseplants offer a way of reconnecting with nature when home is urban, cramped, transient. In some ways, all that Instagram showboating isn’t entirely dissimilar to signing yourself up for the National Open Garden Scheme.

Likewise, everyone expects some return from their green-fingered labour, whether it’s food for the table or succour for the soul, though the “plant parents” don’t much help their cause with books bearing titles like How to Make a Plant Love You. Ultimately, it’s hard not to conclude that a window box might off er a fuller form of gardening, more generous to passers-by and pollinators alike.

As for my Crassula ovata, I don’t need it to love me but my parenting has perhaps been a bit remiss of late. It’s easy to forget that even indoor houseplants are affected by the seasons. At around this time of year, for instance, as heating gets switched on and days dim, a plant will often need moving to another room for a more level temperature or better light.

Then again, you might also look to Barcelona’s Liceu opera house, which in July staged its first post-lockdown performance for an audience of 2,292 potted plants seated in the auditorium, who were aptly treated to the Uceli quartet’s rendition of Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums).

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