Harness the Hidden Power of House Plants
by Rebecca Johnson
It’s only recently—relatively speaking, anyway—that humans have consciously reaped the aesthetically pleasing and subtly life-enhancing qualities of indoor plants. Around 1000 B.C., the novelty of an indoor plant was regarded as a symbol of wealth in China. Some 500 years later, legend goes, Nebuchadnezzar created the magnificently tiered Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for his homesick wife, Queen Amytis: a palace-bound arrangement of plants that evoked the lush valleys of her native country. Ancient Romans got into the game around year 0, bringing plants inside. Tamed and pruned, watered, drained, and appropriately sunned, the modern houseplant promises to be a mutually beneficial roommate, delivering infinite and unexpected healing qualities. Flip through your share of vintage plant guides, after all, and you’ll encounter self-help assessments like this one: “We may conclude that in collecting plants lonely people find consolation” (Cacti for the Amateur, copyright 1940) Emotional support plants, anyone? Here, as winter enters its final phase, our guide to choosing the perfect one for your space.
1. FLOWERING PLANTS
The jewel of the houseplant kingdom is that rare creature which occasionally bursts into bloom. Whether you prefer a bromeliad, like the one here, or a poinsettia or an orchid, wandering jews, even a hibiscus tree, the innate ability of flowers to brighten up a space is undeniable. Scatter petals with abandon, scent your apartment to your heart’s delight—and all, of course, while scrimping on the florist bill. Best for: Romantic aesthetes, dedicated gardeners, fans of color.
Can one be criticized for satisfying that most normal desire to grow plants?
Cacti for the Amateur, 1940
What could be more hopeful—in the dead gray of winter, to be certain, but honestly, at any time of year, than the sight of a profusion of green leaves? Practically impossible to kill, the philodendron wins popularity contests in this field, but the tropical foliage of a parlor palm or the unfairly named monstera (or its equally bizarre nickname, Swiss cheese plant) adds summery, lush appeal and architectural interest to an indoor situation. A simple, oxygen-generating plant of your very own is the ultimate symbol of a re-greening planet. Best for: Minimalists, environmentalists, aspiring green thumbs.
3. HEN AND CHICKS
The undeniably cute appellation of these delightfully fleshy, low-growing tufted plants alludes to their reproductive pattern: a larger rosette (the “hen”) propagates a flock of tinier rosettes (the “chicks”). Equally telling is their Latin name, Sempervivum tectorum, which means “live forever.” These succulents are not only self-replicating, they are remarkably resistant. And like their sister succulent aloe, they also soothe burns and cuts. Best for: Those who want to grow a little crowd of new plant friends; grown-up fans of sea monkeys.
Tamed and pruned, watered, drained, and appropriately sunned, the modern houseplant promises to be a mutually beneficial roommate, delivering infinite and unexpected healing qualities.
4. SPIKY SUCCULENTS
Spiky-leaved succulents may resemble punk rock haircuts and indeed these tend to be tough, low-maintenance sorts. They’re also accidental healers. Aloe, nature’s favorite burn remedy, falls into this category, but so does agave (the source of mescal, novelty bitters and, in nectarine form, an alternative sweetener). We also like the graphic and appropriately stripey zebra plant. Best for: The lazy and forgetful (or the simply very rarely at home) types; they rarely need any water!
5. MEDICINAL HERBS
Perhaps you’re well-versed in the art of smudging—that is, to burn sage to heal, bless, and cleanse; or to purify a space. The ritual use of sage has shared roots all over the world—in the Middle East and throughout Asia, in ancient Celtic tradition and in Native American and Amazonian ceremonies. Its Latin name, salvia, means “to heal,” and this hardy perennial does—intellectually, spiritually, physically (taken medicinally, its potential benefits run the gamut from cognitive enhancement to digestive treatment to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties). Not to mention, it also adds distinctive savory flavor to pasta, meats, soups, and teas. Best for: Healers and those desiring healing; gourmets; spiritualists.
The esoteric and elegant thousand-year-old Japanese art form translates roughly to this refreshingly straightforward phrase: “tree in a pot.” And yet that seeming simplicity, of course, is the product of years of precise, devoted practice (no wonder bonsai, which is rooted in its Chinese predecessor, penjing, has attracted Zen Buddhist followers). Proper instruction in trimming, training, wiring, and root-pruning bonsai plants will yield the desired miniature replica of a full-scale tree, and the process of cultivating yours delivers infinite meditative and contemplative benefits. Best for: budding artists, perfectionists, those desiring meditation.
Whether you choose a velvety rabbit’s foot, a bird’s nest, a maiden’s hair (like this one), an iconic Boston, or a coarse-leaved brake variety, living with a fern is a little like flinging open your door to the forest floor. One of the oldest plants known to the planet, the fern possesses an innate earthiness, a magical, fairy tale quality, and it remains hungry for humidity, sun, and shade. Best for: Fossil collectors, fantasy buffs.
A simple, oxygen-generating plant of your very own is the ultimate symbol of a re-greening planet.
Oh, the cactus: emoji, symbol of desert daydreams, secret water storage receptacle, delicious taco ingredient, stunningly various species, and yet, these prickly, bristly creatures were once widely maligned. According to Cacti for the Amateur, a vintage guide for cactophiles, the “grotesque yet beautiful plants” were not collected in the U.S. until 1830. Bonus, for those trying to redirect a cat away from a particular spot in a house, their spiny flesh will repel felines. Best for: Fans of eccentricity, infrequent maintenance, and those with high ceilings (the larger varieties will grow like indoor skyscrapers).