How much do you know about the houseplant sitting on your windowsill? My returning guest this week, garden writer and houseplants podcaster Jane Perrone, is here to reveal the little-known histories of plants that have shared homes with us for generations.
Jane lives in Bedfordshire, England, where she is a freelance journalist who specializes in plants and gardens, and the host of the “On the Ledge” podcast. Her writing is regularly found in The Guardian, The Financial Times, Gardens Illustrated and Garden Design Journal, among other publications. Her new book is “Legends of the Leaf: Unearthing the Secrets to Help Your Plants Thrive.”
What I love about “Legends of the Leaf” is that it is full of information that you can consume plant by plant in a relatively short time. No one plant feature is overwhelming, but this book is packed with information, unknown stories about those plants, fun facts, scary things, and more.
“I did the hard yards reading scientific papers and looking back at newspaper archives,” Jane says. “… The amount of information that I’ve tried to squeeze into these chapters is quite immense, and there was quite a lot of stuff I had to leave out.”
Jane takes readers from the first recorded history of a specific plant through to the modern day.
She says you can read one of the chapters in a few minutes and really absorb some interesting stuff. “The ultimate aim is that it will help you look after those plants better, because you understand them better,” she adds.
For each plant, Jane gives readers all the plant care information that one needs to know on top of all the backstory information. It just makes you want to love that plant even more, and you will feel more invested in it because you know more about it.
The book is not available in brick-and-mortar stores in the United States but it can be imported. There is an e-book version available through online retailers, and she is also close to releasing the audiobook version.
Taking Houseplants Seriously
“Sometimes horticulture sees houseplants as kind of like a frivolous side note rather than as a serious strand of horticulture, and so that’s what I wanted to do in this book, was to really put the spotlight on houseplants and say, let’s take these plants seriously,” Jane says.
Jane collects houseplant books from all eras of history and says she felt there was a gap: There was no book that takes houseplants seriously not only in terms of a horticultural phenomenon but also in terms of culture, history, science, and even religion.
This book will answer questions you didn’t know you had about plants you’ve known your whole life.
“It’s kind of asking you to look afresh at your plants and really look at them properly,” Jane says. “And that way you really get a deeper understanding.”
She says she slightly shot herself in the foot because the book she set out to write required a huge amount of research. She also sought to bust myths about plants and ensured the book was well-sourced, with an extensive bibliography.
“I hope it’s not too geeky and that even if you don’t enjoy houseplants, you’ll find something in here of intrigue,” she says.
I found the book is just the right amount of geeky. It is conversational and a fun read.
The Secrets of Spider Plants
Spider plants have a long history as houseplants. For both Jane and me, spider plants were part of our early introduction to plants.
My family had spider plants in hanging baskets in our screened-in patio in Miami when I was 8 years old, the year I discovered gardening. Jane attended an idyllic primary school in a low-slung building set around a central courtyard, and she let herself get roped into watering the spider plants.
“That was partly how my obsession with plants began, experiencing these spider plants,” she says.
Until recently, she had not owned a spider plant for many years. “I think I’d almost kind of got too blasé about them,” she says. She picked up an all-green spider plant, which is less common as a houseplant than variegated varieties.
“Now that I’ve really delved into their history and all of the information about them, I think they’re actually really fascinating — and what a survivor this plant is,” Jane says. “It really is.”
Spider plants are notable for how they reproduce. They grow inflorescences that produce plantlets known as “spider-rettes” that create new plants when rooted. In fact, spider plants grown outdoors can become invasive and form huge clumps because of how they reproduce.
“They’re very, very tough,” she says of spider plants. “They can bind ground together. They have roots — very fat, juicy roots — which store a lot of water and nutrients. So when times are hard, that’s why it does well in a pot.”
The roots are storage organs that can retain an enormous amount of water, so they can survive if their owner forgets to water them for weeks.
“They’re very, very clever plants,” Jane says.
Spider plants originate in Africa, where it is unlikely to see stripey green and white spider plants. They are typically plain green. The variegation that is familiar to spider plant owners comes from many years of breeding. The two classic spider plant cultivars, Jane says, are Chlorophytum comosum “Variegatum” and Chlorophytum comosum “Vittatum.” One has a central green stripe and one has green stripes on the margins of the leaves.
“If you take care of them and water them regularly, they grow at an enormous rate,” Jane says. “… They are incredibly quick growing if you give them good conditions, but if you don’t give them good conditions, they’ll just stall and just sit there.”
If a spider plant has leaves that look dull and washed out, Jane advises dunking it in a bucket of water for half an hour and then draining it. It will perk back up.
A spider plant in a hanging basket with inflorescences hanging down in a chandelier effect can be quite dramatic, she says. “Lots of people say, ‘Oh, I just cut all those inflorescences off,’ and I think, well, that’s a bit of a shame, really, display-wise.”
Aspidistra, The Cast-Iron Plant
Aspidistra elatior, known as the cast-iron plant for its indestructible nature, was so popular as a houseplant initially that by the 1930s it was considered overused and became reviled.
Jane opens her chapter on Aspidistra by describing a 1920s newspaper advertisement she found for a boarding house that touts having hot water — a luxury at the time — and also notes “No Aspidistras!”
“They have become the butt of this joke about Victorian sensibility, and people just didn’t want to associate with that anymore,” Jane says. “And yet, they are a plant that has survived. People were very commonly still growing them on their window sills because essentially, although there may be fashions that come and go, people’s houseplants often don’t change.”
One reason Aspidistras were so popular was they could survive the air pollution in homes caused by gas lighting.
“It could cope with low light,” she says. “Also, it could cope with a lot of cold, and Victorian homes were quite cold and drafty.”
They do less well in a home with the dry, warm air of central heating, she notes, which could have contributed to them becoming less popular. “But if you’ve got a drafty space, a relatively shady room, they are still a really, really great plant to grow,” she adds.
I see Aspidistras growing outdoors in shady spots, where they get beat up and don’t impress me, but they shine indoors. Although, Jane says when grown outdoors, variegated cultivars will show off more variegation than they do indoors.
Aspidistras can withstand cold down to -4° Fahrenheit, possibly dying back to their rhizomes, but surviving.
“Probably the main way of killing it would be just putting too much water around those roots,” Jane says. “As long as you’re not leaving it absolutely waterlogged, it’ll be fine. It grows onto trees in nature and around tree roots, so it’s used to having moisture sucked out of the soil by those tree roots, and therefore it’s adapted to surviving drought conditions.”
Dieffenbachia, the Leopard Lily
Dieffenbachia, the leopard lily, is a houseplant you’ve seen a million times, and you may have one in your own house. It has a surprisingly dark history, which is revealed in Jane’s book.
Jane started the Dieffenbachia chapter with a trigger warning because the history includes domestic abuse, Nazis and slavery. “It’s not a happy tale,” she says.
It’s been grown as a houseplant for many years and is still sold in shops and included in gift baskets. “It’s a pretty good houseplant. I would say it’s probably not the easiest houseplant to keep long-term, but it’s very popular,” Jane says.
From a health and safety point of view, it’s important to know that if you cut the plant while handling it and get its sap on your body, you’ll have an unpleasant experience.
Another name for Dieffenbachia, which Jane chooses not to use because of its association with slavery, is “dumb cane.” She explains that on plantations, enslaved people were forced to eat Dieffenbachia canes as a form of punishment.
“It makes your whole mouth swell up,” she says. “It rarely kills you, but it’s a horrendous experience. It stops you from speaking, hence the name dumb cane.”
If you have pets or small children who like to nibble things, this is probably not the plant for you, she says.
Adding to the horrendous history, during World War II, Nazis experimented with using Dieffenbachia extracts for sterilization.
In the wild, Dieffenbachia collects rainwater at its leaf joints, which act like little bowls. These mini-ponds, called phytotelmata, are where the mimic poison frog deposits its tadpoles.
Aloe vera is the only houseplant to also be part of a multibillion-dollar industry. As a raw commodity, aloe vera has all sorts of uses, Jane says.
The jelly-like substance in Aloe vera can be used to soothe sunburns and moisturize skin, among many other applications, in addition to its beauty and simplicity as a houseplant.
“There are probably other Aloe species that have the same qualities as Aloe vera,” Jane says. “It just kind of happened to be in the right place at the right time to be picked up historically for this use.”
Jane hears from some people who say Aloe vera is very simple to grow with no care, and others tell her they struggle with it.
“It’s been ascribed many different medicinal powers, and you can really go down a rabbit hole with this one,” she says. “It’s in many different cosmetics products and food products. … Don’t believe everything that you read, but it is an enormously popular plant, and you can’t deny this multibillion-pound industry that surrounds it.”
Venus Fly Traps
Venus fly traps are carnivorous plants, meaning they eat flies and bugs. Kids find that appealing, so it’s no wonder that Venus fly traps are how many children get their start with houseplants.
Less than 2% of the original population size of Venus fly traps are still in existence today due to a number of factors, including urbanization, poaching and climate change.
“It’s a plant that’s under tremendous threat in its native range, but strangely is hugely popular around the world and is sold in every big box store and garden center,” Jane says.
In North and South Carolina, native Venus fly traps grow close to sea level, which makes rising sea levels a threat to their survival. They also are dependent on fire.
“They’re growing in an environment where they need loads of sun from above, and as soon as they start to be covered over with other vegetation, they’re not going to survive,” Jane says. “So they have relied historically on fires that will come and burn off the other vegetation.” Their foliage will burn, but their underground rhizomes will survive.
Venus fly traps can be propagated via their flowering stems and are also easily grown from seed. “They are very generous with seed,” Jane says. Leaf cuttings also work, and they grow in clumps that can be divided.
To stay healthy, Venus fly traps require loads of sun. “As much sun as you can possibly throw at them, or a grow light,” Jane says.
She says they also need a “cool break” in winter rather than being kept in a balmy room. And they hate mineral salts. Use soft water, collect rainwater or treat tap water with a reverse osmosis system. The growing medium should be kept more or less continuously moist.
In nature, Venus fly traps don’t eat many flies. The traps are at ground level, so the traps catch crawling insects more than flies. They also need to be stimulated to start the digestion process. A piece of hamburger will just rot and kill the plants; a crawling insect will stimulate digestion.
“If you are convinced that your fly trap has not caught a single fly all year, then you could give it a very dilute dose of foliage houseplant feed,” Jane says. “But remember, these plants have evolved to cope with a low-nutrient environment. So you don’t want to overdo it.”
To control flies such as fungus gnats, Jane advises getting a Pinguicula (Mexican butterwort) or a Nepenthes sanguinea (pitcher plant) instead.
Monstera, the Swiss Cheese Plant
Monsteras, native to Mexico, are one of the most popular houseplants today. The holes in the leaves that give Monstera its common name, Swiss cheese plant, are a source of debate. Researchers can only theorize as to why the holes exist.
“The holes are the reason why these leaves are so iconic and so fascinating for us to look at, and we don’t fully understand what their purpose is,” Jane says. “There have been many theories over the years that they are to do with allowing water to pass through the leaves and the foliage and reach the base of the plant, which actually kind of makes sense because this is a plant that grows in a very adaptive way.”
A Monstera will seek out things to climb. When it’s a seedling, it is skototropic, which means it grows toward darkness.
“Darkness is telling it that there’s a shadow of a tree,” Jane explains. It will then grow up into the canopy of trees.
Another theory is that the holes help the leaves cope in high wind conditions because the holes prevent the large leaves from being torn apart. The most popular theory today concerns surface area and light absorption. In a Mexican forest, the light will be variable, with strong shards of light penetrating a canopy that casts lots of shade. Holes allow for bigger leaves, giving the plants more chances to be hit by light.
Sansevieria, the Snake Plant
In addition to the spider plant, the snake plant is one of the memorable houseplants of my childhood. Until 2017, it was known as Sansevieria trifasciata, but now the scientific name is Dracaena trifasciata.
Native to West Africa, it is a tall, spiky, yellow and green horizontally striped sword-looking plant. There was one in my grandmother’s house, thriving on neglect in a dimly lit room.
In Jane’s book, she quotes American nurserywoman Hermine Stover’s introduction to her out-of-print book on snake plants, “The Sansevieria Book.”
Hermine lays out a series of instructions for replicating her mother Mildred’s so-called Sansevieria ashtray. “First, find yourself a small, dim apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and a glazed pottery container with no drainage holes. Then dig up some soil from the nearest car park, adding lumps of concrete and asphalt. Add the plant, firm the soil until it is rock hard and provide a trickle of water every two months.”
That speaks to how much abuse snake plants can take.
“This is a great plant, and again, like the spider plant, one that’s so overlooked, and we just don’t realize what an absolute trooper it is,” Jane says.
It has a history as a fiber plant. In the 1950s, America was becoming concerned about sourcing fiber from other parts of the world in adequate quantities. However, the snake plant was soon eclipsed by man-made fibers such as polyester.
Due to modern sustainability concerns, the snake plant is making a comeback as a fiber plant as it simultaneously returns to popularity as a houseplant.
There are various cultivars of Dracaena trifasciata to try out, and various species within the genus — which Jane still prefers to call Sansevieria.
The Boston Fern
I see the Boston fern everywhere. In fact, it seems to follow me. Though whenever I have brought one home, it has begun turning brown and shedding fronds immediately.
“Whether you are good at looking after that plant or not, there is definitely a need to have a dustpan brush at hand because they very readily shed those fronds,” Jane says. “It’s not a plant for everybody, that’s for sure.”
Boston ferns can also get big for a houseplant, so having adequate support for the enormous rootball and fronds is necessary.
Jane’s book quotes humorist Erma Bombeck as saying: “You have to know that from the moment you take it out of the nursery, it turns hostile. It doesn’t want your water, it doesn’t want your sun, it doesn’t want your fertilizer or your Willie Nelson records. It just wants to die.”
Jane doesn’t grow Boston ferns. “I love looking at them when other people are growing them successfully, but they’re just not my friend,” she says.
“When you go on Instagram, I think you get this idea that everybody who’s into houseplants lives in an actual jungle,” Jane says. Now, I live in a house with three other people — the other members of my family, my husband and children — and they aren’t into plants.”
She says she does have a lot of houseplants but her home is not a “mad jungle.”
“Other people have to live there, and they are not interested in my plants,” she says. “So I have to kind of bear that in mind. And I’m sure one day when I’m retired and my children have left home, maybe I will become that sort of jungle nurturer.
Released last month, Jane and illustrator Cody Bond created Houseplant Gardener in a Box, a set of 60 houseplant cards that comes with a booklet about houseplant care.
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Jane Perrone on the secrets of houseplants, you can listen to this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What secrets do your houseplants have? Let us know in the comments below.
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“Legends of the Leaf: Unearthing the Secrets to Help Your Plants Thrive” by Jane Perrone
“It’s time to weed out snobbishness about houseplants and those who grow them” by Jane Perrone | inews
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