Why Indoor Plants?

Jay Johnson -- The title of this article is a bit misleading. I acknowledge that many plants live and do well indoors. I don't want my question to imply that all plants should be outdoors. I'm just asking a big WHY about indoor plants. I wanted to look into the phenomenon, particularly as it involves interior design.

solarium.jpgBringing a bit of nature inside has long been a part of many decorating schemes. There are a few books I ran across regarding houseplant history, but some sources I found told that the first indoor plant collectors had selected species as potential sources of food or medicine. Only later were plants appreciated for their ornamental value.

In the last century, the need to maintain plants in "unsuitable climates" led to Victorian innovations such as greenhouses and conservatories. It's been since the 1950s to the present day that houseplants have come full circle, and we choose plants to suit us and fit in with our decor. No longer do we create environments just to pamper plants -- unless you're a serious greenhouse person, and there are some lovely greenhouse and conservatory additions to homes.

Besides keeping plants for their good looks and interior design value, it appears houseplants can also remove some toxic crud from the air. Certain plant species are more adept at removing toxins from the air than others, but homeowners haven't latched onto the benefits or rushed out to nurseries to purchase air-purifying houseplants.

I found one research group reporting this Rather Silly and Obvious Finding:  "Plants don't produce anything that people do not like and people do not produce anything plants do not like." But maybe it's not too silly after all. If plants don't mind chain-smoking homeowners, then that's a bit of a headline.

I'm thinking a lot about bringing plants indoors these days. In the Northeast, we're facing the end of an unseasonably warm stretch of autumn days, looking at November, and remembering to do all the outside chores. This weekend we will blow the leaves off our lawn and gather them into bags. We will prune shrubs and shape them up for better growth next spring. And we will take a few plants that we like to see thrive during the winter months and transplant them from the ground into pots to beautify our backdoor/laundry room area.  

hibiscus-tree.jpgThe two primary transplants are a plant I call Nancy -- after a woman we know who has a plant just like ours -- and the hibiscus tree we bought this summer at Wal-Mart for $18. Both plants are too beautiful for words. They will join some jade plants that were housewarming and party gifts years ago. Now they're thriving SUCCULENTS, big woody-stemmed specimens.

I like it when plants get large enough to have real personalities and merit people names.

So Nancy and the Wal-Mart hibiscus (I fancy calling it Wally) will be my transplanting work this weekend. Which is a roundabout way of thinking about my career of caring for plants indoors. It has not been a stellar track record.

I used to be unlucky with houseplants. I remember a fabulous topiary, a wire confection in the shape of an obelisk. I found it walking on the East Side of Manhattan when I used to have an apartment near the United Nations. I was half a block from the U.S. Embassy, and we had the best security! My discovery was outside a florist shop, and the obelisk was completely filled in with English ivy. I was smitten, bought it on sight, and carted it home to my small apartment.

I was proud that I was bringing the outdoors indoors! I was greening-up my home, and that made me feel good. I was alone in the apartment at the time, and this living thing was my sole companion. I would talk to it, water it, dust it, and try out a few new jokes to see if it would react. It never did.

I was dismayed a month later, however, when I returned home from a business trip. I opened up my apartment door and immediately looked at Vicky. That was my name for the ivy topiary. Vicky looked odd. From a distance, she was vibrating. She flickered and wavered in subtle back-and-forth movements.

I moved closer to Vicky and gasped. She was alive with bugs! Creepy crawlies must have planted eggs in the soil when she was outside the florist shop, and they had hatched inside my warm apartment. Now their spawn was thriving on Vicky's tender green leaves. I had never transplanted her, but kept her in the original store pot. That was probably an error, but I was a plant novice.

Silk plants would have been far easier to care for, but through the years I never gave up trying to bring the real deal indoors. My thumb eventually turned a shade of green, and now I'm not half bad at helping things thrive around the house.

hyacinth.jpgRemember the British comedy Keeping Up Appearances? The central character was Hyacinth Bucket (she pronounced it "Bouquet"), hilariously played by Patricia Routledge. Hyacinth was always trying to put on airs with her special Candlelight Suppers. One variation on that theme was a memorable episode where she invited people to her Indoor/Outdoor Luxury Barbecue and Finger Buffet. Her dining room was filled with so many plants, her guests felt like they were marooned in a jungle! The guests couldn't see one another through the tangle of trees and potted palms.  

An easier way to bring the outdoors indoors, and you don't have to be a houseplant lover, is to place mirrors wisely. Feng shui experts advise that reflecting beautiful nature from outside your home through the placement of a mirror indoors is a great way to attract people into your home. That makes sense, particularly if you're facing beautiful trees or flower gardens. And reflections require no watering, pruning, pest removal, or the care you need to give houseplants!

In the 400+ video shorts contained in my Design2Share Video Library on YouTube, you will see examples where I have taken my video camera -- a sturdy palm-sized Radio Shack $99 camtastic Sanyo special -- and shot some videos of houseplants. I have hardly bested, however, a recent series of videos taken inside the Disney wannabe Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tennessee. Under a lot of glass, there are amazing gardens amongst the touristy shops, restaurants, and hotel rooms. I hope you enjoy watching Garden Conservatory & Hotel Rooms, and give some thought to all the incredible green thumbs and hours of work that have to be behind the maintenance of such extensive indoor gardens.

And I'll be lucky to keep Nancy and Wally alive all winter!  

Do you have a houseplant story you would like to share? Just add your comments here.


Photo credits: BBC, Solar Components Corporation, The Skinny Cook

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