An inside job: gardening for people without an outdoor space

No garden? No problem. We run through 11 of the best plants to pot up indoors.
Phalaenopsis, also known as the moth orchid, was first propagated domestically by the English in the late 1800s.
Phalaenopsis, also known as the moth orchid, was first propagated domestically by the English in the late 1800s.

Not everyone has the luxury of a garden. But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice having greenery in your life. Indoor plants are a great way of improving air quality in your home and are a calming, aesthetically pleasing addition to any space.

Plants, like interiors, clothes and certain foods, are subject to the vagaries of fashion – what’s popular one year may not be in botanical vogue the next. Nonetheless, there are always the classics – guaranteed to stand the test of time, much like a navy blazer or a little black dress. They do the job and they do it well, with minimal fuss. Below is a selection of species that have been tried and tested for indoor environments, and you won’t need green fingers to keep them alive – just feed and water occasionally. Do remember that for many plants over-watering is as unpalatable as being left thirsty.

Most plants will come with a label of care (like washing instructions) if you purchase them from a nursery or garden centre. If not, you can check the genus and species name for top tips and optimum performance – does it like a bright sunny window or would it prefer a more secluded corner? Could it survive a two-week holiday or should you get a plant-­sitter to drop by? Remember that the genus name is the family that your plant comes from and is used in the classification of all living things. It’s followed by the species name, which (in plant terms) indicates exactly which type of plant you have.

• Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) is native to large swathes of Asia, including southern China, South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. This particular genus has approximately 60 species and was first propagated domestically by the English during the late 1800s. These plants will give months of exquisite colour, with flowers that range from all-white and hot pink right through to speckled peach. They hate being overwatered, so it’s best to run the pot under a tap once a week and let the water drain before you put them back on display.

What it says about you: Elegant, cultivated and refined, you have an eye for form and an appreciation of the exotic.

• Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant) is a native of both southern and tropical Africa, and an emblem of the 1970s, as it was a feature of most classrooms, homes and offices during this time. It’s a winner of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, bestowed on plants considered “worthy of display”. It sits at the spectrum of care that doesn’t require a degree in horticulture – in other words, keeping this baby alive should be child’s play. While the spider plant doesn’t grow much more than 60 centimetres in height, it will sprout off tendrils (and baby spiders) that dangle from the pot.

What it says about you: Dependable, placid, peace-loving and just a little bit groovy.

• Sansevieria trifasciata (mother-in-law’s tongue) is native to tropical West Africa, and an easy houseplant that’s tolerant of low light levels and irregular watering – but it will rot if the soil is too wet. Mother-in-law’s tongue has also been found to improve indoor air quality via the elimination of toxins, in research conducted by Nasa. It’s also an RHS award-­winner.

What it says about you: Straight-talking, to the point and self-sufficient, you also look after those who are closest to you.

• Aspidistra elatior (cast-iron plant) is a native of East and South East Asia. It will grow in areas of low light and withstand some neglect. The Aspidistra became popular in late Victorian England, where it came to epitomise the values of the respectable middle class. It was immortalised by George Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The Japanese have made use of its leafy form to keep differing food items separate and fresh in bento boxes.

What it says about you: Traditional, conservative, practical and ­orderly.

• Spathiphyllum (peace lily) is native to tropical regions of America and South Asia, with proven air-purifying properties. It likes shade and humidity, and will be happy at home without bright light. The best care you can give your peace lily is to water it attentively when the potted soil is getting dry, adding just enough water to make it damp. It’s best to keep it out of range of curious cats and chewing dogs, as it can be toxic if ingested. There are about 40 species, with flowers ranging from yellow to green and white.

What it says about you: Idealistic, intuitive, diplomatic and a potential eco-warrior.

• Aloe vera is a great little houseplant, with the potential to become a great big house plant (it can grow to one metre tall in a large enough pot). A succulent that’s found growing wild in the southern areas of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, for centuries aloe vera has been reputed to have medicinal properties and is used in the treatment of burns and in moisturisers. It likes light and its soil should be kept moist. It’s another winner of the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

What it says about you: Resilient and assured, you’re a devotee of the “less-is-more” school of style.

• Ficus robusta (rubber plant) is a native of South East Asia, and is the plant that keeps on giving, potentially reaching a height of one to two metres. You should aim to water once a week, not letting the plant stand in water thereafter. Ficus elasta, on the other hand, grows much larger. I know of a specimen, given as a wedding gift, which thrived for more than 20 years.

What it says about you: Outgoing, dependable and generous, a larger-than-life character who enjoys being the centre of ­attention.

• Crassula ovata (jade plant or money tree) is grown for luck and attributed with feng-shui qualities in China and elsewhere. It’s a succulent that’s native to South Africa, and will live for 50 years or more (longer than any pet, except perhaps a tortoise). It likes a lot of light and doesn’t appreciate being overwatered. The money tree can reach several metres in height, but as it doesn’t grow quickly, you have many years to prepare for this ­eventuality.

What it says about you: Optimistic, astute and disciplined, you take the long view when ­investing.

• Ficus benjamina (the weeping fig or Benjamin’s fig) is native to Australia and southern Asia. Another air purifier and RHS award-winner, this Ficus won’t require much watering, but keep it out of cold drafts. You may see some variegated varieties, as well as specimens where the nursery has trained the lower part of the trunk by “weaving” or twisting it.

What it says about you: ­Expressive, poetic, romantic and ­whimsical.

• Dypsis lutescens (bamboo palm) is a native of Madagascar, and is a popular larger specimen. A 1.8-metre-tall plant can expire a litre of water per day, which can be useful in controlling domestic humidity levels. It likes a bright room, but not direct sunlight.

What it says about you: A balanced and happy hedonist.

• Zamioculcas zamiifolia (Zanzibar gem) was a relatively late entry to the domestic arena. A native of eastern areas of Africa, Dutch nurseries began large-scale commercial propagation about 20 years ago. It can be deciduous if left to dry out (which rather negates its purpose as a houseplant), but if watered appropriately, you should never see your Zamioculcas naked. This plant prefers it bright, but can also manage in less light.

What it says about you: Urbane, chic and trendsetting.

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Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM


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