We’ve had frost and feel the outdoor growing season closing. Tovah Martin, author of The Unexpected Houseplant: 220 Extraordinary Choices for Every Spot in Your Home reminds us that we can now concentrate on the indoor growing season.
I confess that I have never been much of a houseplant person. In the past I have grown spider plants, asparagus fern and grape ivy in pots hanging by holders I macramé-ed myself, supermarket cyclamen, avocado pit seedlings and occasional begonias. Currently, in the house, I only have a 25 year old jade plant, two Christmas cactuses and a huge orchid cactus that I pay so little attention to that it blooms inexplicably on some schedule that makes sense only to itself.
Earlier this year I became newly fascinated by succulents and planted a succulent bowl, and two hypertufa troughs. These spent the summer outside on our Welcoming Platform, but will come in to spend the winter in our unheated, but very sunny, Great Room. Succulents are great plants for those who fear they have brown thumbs or who know they are not always attentive to the living creatures on their windowsill.
Though my passion for houseplants has always been limited, The Unexpected Houseplant may change all that. Martin has enough passion to convert the whole country to houseplants and she makes suggestions that will tempt the new, as well as the experienced indoor gardener.
Martin’s prose is a delight and she paints a gloriously verdant picture of her own home. “Basically, if you don’t like plants, don’t bother to enter. . . within that unassuming exterior resides a wonderful world of roaming vines and hairy stems. Leaves of all shapes, sizes textures, scents and combinations of colors are given free rein. . . Watch how you angle the groceries around the kalanchoe, because clumsily maneuvered baggage will bring it down. Only dogs with short tails are allowed in.”
Martin divides her book into seasons, beginning with autumn which is when many often start thinking about houseplants. In her charming style she touches briefly on basic concerns like temperature, light, pot and saucer size, location with regard to heat sources, watering, and aesthetic arrangements, but goes into all these important issues with more comprehensive chapters towards the end of the book.
I was a bit alarmed to see that the table of contents lists many plants by their genus name, cissus (grape ivy), plectranthus (Mexican mint), selaginellas (Irish moss), etcetera, but each genus section does give the species names, common names and specific cultivar names. Martin describes the appearance and needs of several species and cultivars that are desirable as houseplants along with directions for their care.
Many of the plants she describes are familiar, hens and chicks, orchids, a whole variety of herbs, as well as bulbs that can be forced in the winter. Others are not plants I would have considered as houseplants. Calla lilies! I checked and found that I can buy bulbs for calla lilies from Van Engelen now even though it will take them 14 weeks or so to bloom. They can then be carried over from year to year.
Neither would I have imagined primroses as a houseplant, but the cover photo of Primula denticulatas ‘Confetti Blue’ and ‘Rubins’ is truly unexpected and equally irresistible.
The name Anigozanthos favidus would have scared me off but it is another of Martin’s special enthusiasms. Even its common name. kangaroo paws. wouldn’t have excited me. Do I know what a kangaroo paw looks like? No.
Martin says Anigozathos flowers in fall and sporadically all year, with “flowers that are long, fuzzy tubular affairs groping out in elongated clusters. Each flower is only the size of a tootsie roll, but the tip opens up into something that resembles groping animal claws (without the barbs). The interior is green; the exterior might be golden, orange or pink . . . The blossoms are brandished on strong foliar spikes, which do not need staking, held above clumps of leathery pointed leaves that resemble fuzzy grass. . . . Who doesn’t love an oddball, especially in spring?” Surely, all of us.
The photographs by Kindra Clineff, all of Martin’s own plants in her own house, are gorgeous and as seductive as Martin’s prose. An element of that seduction is in the choice of plant containers. As Martin says, you don’t need to look far for wonderful plants. Think of the supermarket cyclamen. Our task is to “jazz it up.” Certainly the photos of plants in antique pots, bowls, urns, jars, tubs and vases are enough to send us on a hunt through our own cabinets for some long forgotten item, or a ramble through an antique shop or even a second hand shop.
This book is just a lovely long conversation with a knowledgeable, but candid friend who doesn’t want you to get into something you can’t handle. She shares her enthusiasm for certain plants, like the calla lilies, but also warns you about the particular problems she sees in abutilon, bougainvillea, heliotrope and hibiscus. I know I finally gave up my abutilon which is a beautiful ever-blooming plant, but the bugs finally did me in, even though the abutilon limped along.
This is a book to use now, and a book to put away in the gift drawer. The gift giving season is drawing