Whatever happened to houseplants?

By Andy McIndoe

I grew up with houseplants. Despite that lack of central heating in the 70s few rooms lacked a grape ivy, a tradescantia or a spider plant. An African violet was an obvious Mother’s Day gift, inkeeping with the budget allowed by modest pocket money. Bizzie Lizzies were those bright pink leggy, fleshy creatures that were passed on by cuttings from one chilly front room to another.

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51osYl8gNOL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-078I started my horticultural retail career in a seed shop in Leamington Spa in the heart of England. Attached to a substantial florist’s shop, the seed shop sold grass seed, composts, fertilisers, chemicals, bulbs, seeds, bedding plants and yes, you’ve guessed it loads of houseplants. Throughout the year a vast array of green and flowering plants filled the window, clustered around a plastic pool complete with noisy cherub fountain. The House of Rochford was the main grower of the day, and all houseplants were labelled with their correct name and incomprehensible care instructions. No problem, most homes referred to their houseplant Bible: “The Houseplant Expert” by Dr Hessayon. Houseplants were a way of life and true aficionados possessed the correct little watering can, misty water sprayer, little flasks of houseplant food and leafshine and special pest spray just in case.


Even those African violets lived on from year to year, with their sad dusty leaves, and lack of further flowers. Cyclamen were kept from season to season, until their corms filled the posts, and Indian azaleas were cherished by the more adept at keeping plants alive. When I moved on to university few student bedrooms were without the obligatory swiss cheese plant, dusty rubber plant or leggy schefflera.

So what happened? Yes we found we could grow orchids in our new centrally heated, over furnished homes, but why did we give up on our houseplants? Magazines show images of beautiful interiors. Are there any good old green plants visible? Rarely!

A few green plants hang on in garden centres and supermarkets waiting for someone to buy them and love them. For most the wait is in vain. Is this the same everywhere? When I visit Europe, especially Holland I still find lots of old familiar friends: dracaenas, spathiphyllums, rex begonias, chlorophytums and hypoestes. For me these are almost memories of days gone by. Whatever happened to the colourful croton and the snake-like sanseveria?

Bromeliad 2

It’s not as if we never see plants like bromeliads. Now I know some of you in the southern States have bromeliad gardens. I had the pleasure of speaking to a group from Florida back in the summer, and several had bromeliad and orchid gardens. In England these easy to grow, long lasting plants form a substantial part of the tropical displays at the Kew Gardens orchid and tropical plant spectacular in February. Visitors marvel at their architectural form and colourful inflorescences. But you try and sell a bromeliad! These must be the slowest selling indoor plant in the UK, and always have been, despite acres of glasshouse production being devoted to them in Holland. They are obviously popular in Europe. I wonder why? Do you like them? Or maybe you find them stiff and impersonal?

SpathiphyllumGreen houseplants such as the peace lily, spathiphyllum, have been credited with improving the atmosphere in the home and office by absorbing all the nasties given off by new furnishings. They improve air quality, bring life into the environment and make us feel better. So what do we do? Get a dusty artificial specimen instead which just contributes to the noxious gasses given off by all the manufactured paraphernalia that surrounds us?

Come on folks this is supposed to be a new green world. Let’s bring a little horticulture into our indoor lives. Or maybe you’ve never given up on growing houseplants? I don’t just mean that you’ve still got your mother’s money plant in the downstairs loo. I mean you have a few real, permanent houseplants that you actually grow, look after and enjoy. If so I want to hear from you. I want you to be an inspiration to those of us that have given up on growing indoors. Between us let’s start a houseplant revival. Bring back the cheese plant – all is forgiven!

Andy McIndoe

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