Where it all began - an introduction to Legends of the Leaf
“When did you first get into plants?” visitors to my home often ask, usually while struggling to disentangle a trailing vine from their hair.
The simple answer is, I can’t remember when plants weren’t a source of constant curiosity and satisfaction in my life. Many people seem to latch onto plants when they move into their first home: before that, foliage of all kinds is often just a blur of greenery that means very little to them. Yet I have always had plants in sharp focus. I call it wearing my ‘plant glasses’: no wispy weed growing in the pavement, no pelargonium peeking from under a net curtain, no climber romping over a fence is too insignificant to escape my glance.
As a small child, I remember sowing parsley seeds in the bed under the kitchen window: I must have been quite young at the time, as came back an hour or so later to see if they had sprouted. I sucked the sugary nectar from the flowers of the London pride (Saxifraga x urbium) that grew by our tiny pond, and stroked fat bumblebees as they fumbled around in the ranks of African marigolds in the front garden.
But my heart really lay with houseplants. I was born in the 1970s, a period when indoor gardening was undergoing a renaissance. My parents grew prayer plants in a copper fish poacher and brought back ‘ti trees’ from foreign package holidays - a cylinder of seemingly dead trunk stuck to a card that sprouted into life when stuck in water. I started to build my own plant collection, using my pocket money to buy fat-bodied cacti that produced sudden and spectacular flowers that made me gasp, fleshy succulents that performed the wondrous trick of growing baby plants along their leaf edges, and softly hairy African violets glowing with pink or purple blooms.
Searching for the roots of my houseplant obsession takes me back to primary school. There was a library draped in yellowing spider plants festooned with babies. My friend Ruth and I must have shown some kind of flair for horticulture, or at least a passing interest, as we were let out of maths lessons to water the spider plants back to life. It may have stunted my understanding of arithmetic, but it did set me up for a lifetime of love for gardening. In turn, the spider plants responded to our care by producing many babies at the end of long stalks I later learned to call inflorescences.
That, and many other houseplant facts, I learned from my bible back then, The Houseplant Expert by Dr David Hessayon, published in 1980, is a book that remains a world bestseller to this day. I pored over its pages, circling plants I wanted to add to my collection. I still have that book now, and it doesn’t feel too much of an exaggeration to say holding it in my hands feels like a portal to take me back into my own childhood. I still frequently search through its dogeared pages in search of a particular plant whose name is eluding me.
Forty years on, and houseplants - for many years resigned to the attic of interior design history along with antimacassars and hatstands - are suddenly and spectacularly popular once more. The distinctive leaves of the swiss cheese plant, the purple shamrock and the pancake plant are all over Instagram, snake plants are on sale everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Tesco, and being called a ‘crazy plant lady’ is a compliment, not a slur.
Many other books on houseplants have been published since Dr Hessayon’s The Houseplant Expert, covering every aspect from propagation to styling. And yet most of most of them remain silent on the matter of where houseplants actually come from, and how they found their way into our homes. Why does this matter? Discovering more about the native homes of the plants we love fills in a rich backstory that links our specimens to history, culture, botany and horticulture. More than that, it deepens our understanding of their needs.
If you know, for instance, that the string of pearls (Curio rowleyanus) grows in dry karoo scrub regions of southwest Africa, as a spreading mat on rock ledges, this gives you a hint as to why your plant isn’t so chipper living in a pot of peat-based compost: the roots are used to subsisting on very little water, and what moisture there is drains away immediately. And those leaves, why round? Moisture is scarce, so the plant has evolved to reduce water loss by minimising the surface area of the leaf. If you’ve ever wondered about the darker stripe on the plant’s pea-like leaves, these are ‘leaf windows’ which help to control its exposure to the sun.
I hope that after reading this book, you’ll look at your plants in a different way: with renewed respect, deeper insight and an even greater passion for their incredible stories. So, put on your ‘plant glasses’ and let’s discover the incredible stories our houseplants have to tell.
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