x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A little attention makes a big difference to houseplants

Regardless of the heat outside, plants can be nurtured - and thrive - indoors.

The Peace Lily, or Spathiphyllum, can thrive in difficult interior conditions.
The Peace Lily, or Spathiphyllum, can thrive in difficult interior conditions.

The first plant that I ever had to care for professionally was a houseplant. Like some unloved botanic Shrek, my Begonia rex was livid green and metallic purple, with prickly, hairy stems and distorted leaves. I remember thinking at the time that it seemed a less than auspicious start to a career in horticulture; however, several years and many thousands of plants later I was surprised to find, when I actually bothered to stop and take a second look, that I was utterly delighted and captivated by the little brute and that over time it had quietly grown on me.

This, I believe, is one of the main problems with houseplants. Unless they are our own we rarely give them the second look they deserve and yet we expect them to work harder and to withstand more abuse than any other type of plant. As soon as we put them in our shops, offices and homes, we expect houseplants to become static things, like ornaments to be dusted, able to survive without the light, food, water and air that we immediately associate with their outdoor cousins. Our mysterious and dysfunctional relationship with houseplants even extends to their common names; Dumb Cane, Devil's backbone, Cast Iron plant, Mother-in-law's tongue.

And yet, given the right conditions and a modicum of care, houseplants are capable of remarkable things. While it may come as no surprise that indoor plants will make a room feel more homely and pleasant, recent research has shown that they can also remove toxins from the air, assist in convalescence and reduce stress levels and absenteeism while also increasing creativity and productivity in the workplace. Luckily, once you've decided to allow houseplants into your life, there's plenty of help available that should allow you to make your indoor planting schemes a success. The UAE is full of offices, malls, hotels and shops where professionally maintained displays exist that can be matched to the conditions you have at home in order to give you a clue about what plant to put where.

And what better time to consider your indoor options; the summer's heat is forcing us indoors, where we can nurture relationships with plants that we can tend to all year long, regardless of the weather. Miraculously, my first living room in Abu Dhabi shared something in common with the cafe area at the Emirates Palace hotel. Unfortunately that was the low level of light and not the acres of luxurious space. However, I was soon able to create a further similarity by noticing that Zanzibar Gems (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) were thriving in the most unpromising circumstances. Lush, architectural and glossy with muscular stems like chicken drumsticks when they're established, Zamioculcas is one of those plants that can make even the most junior of indoor gardeners look like a professional.

Another is the Cast Iron plant, Aspidistra elatior. Satirised by George Orwell as a symbol of middle class respectability, Aspidistra's reputation has undergone something of a rehabilitation in recent years. As with all houseplants, the choice of pot can make or break a plant; however, when it's partnered with the right container and planted en masse, Aspidistra can create a chic and contemporary display with sleek, racing-green leaves that can be polished to a lacquer-like gloss with the gentle and judicious application of olive oil.

Other tough-as-old-boots old timers for the beginner - or if you're cursed with difficult interior conditions - include the Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum spp.), Mother-in-law's tongue or Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata and Sansevieria trifasciata laurentii), Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa) and members of the Philodendron family, which can be grown either as hanging and trailing plants or trained up a moss-covered pole or other support to create a column of greenery.

When buying for indoors, the same rules apply as when buying plants for your garden; how much light will they get, how often will you be able to water them, how hot or dry is the room? Light is obviously a key concern because without it your plants will die. This is often a problem with rooms in the UAE where the sun is so strong that blinds and curtains are frequently left closed for most of the day. I find the presence of plants in rooms that are permanently gloomy distinctly odd and would advise that you not waste your money (and the life of a perfectly good plant) but suggest that you buy a lamp or ornament instead.

Many houseplants will come with labels indicating how much light they will need and are categorised as requiring anything from full sun to light shade. Placing anything in a window with full sun here will result in your luscious plant soon withering into a gnarled vine so I would not recommend it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best rooms for plants are usually the best rooms for people, being airy and suffused with bright but indirect sunlight for most of the day. If you're lucky enough to have one of these the houseplant world is your oyster.

garden@thenational.ae