Houseplants with pizazz

Turning your home into an indoor garden means that you can enjoy the benefits of being surrounded by plants whatever the weather and at any time of year. So, if you have a quiet sitting room that during the day is bathed in natural light, fill it with lush leaves and you’ll instantly create a sanctuary where you can sit and relax in peace.

Modern research carried out by NASA has proved beyond doubt, that houseplants eat toxins and purify the air by removing potentially harmful chemicals. This is great news if you have a computer and other electrical appliances in the room, which are noticeably draining your energy.

And, as houseplants pump oxygen into the air, it won’t be long before you’ll appreciate their other healing qualities and feel the benefits of being able to breathe more easily, an effect that will lift your spirits and calm your mood.

Foliage plants will give a room a jungle feel too and as plants come with leaves in bright colours and even patterns – blotches, speckles, stripes and swirls, as well as plain green, you can use your design skills to give your home a stylish new look.

My Favourite plants

Peacock Plant is a member of the Marantaceae family of prayer plants. This is one of the showiest in the clan; treat it right and you’ll watch it strut its stuff!

An excellent houseplant is the peacock plant Calathea makoyana, which is so called because it has deep green olive-striped leaves with touches of yellow-green and purple similar to a peacock’s tail.

The leaves of this beautifully patterned plant are paper-thin, almost transparent giving rise to its other name of Cathedral Windows and can reach 30cm long. Plants tend to grow in untidy clumps, about 60cm tall, and usually require staking. Take care where you place it in the room, as draughts and hot air will cause the leaves to discolour and curl along the edges.

For your plant to produce the best leaf colour it should be kept out of direct sunlight. The ideal temperature is 23C and provided there are no draughts it will survive at 18C.

Regular watering is necessary but wait until the compost feels fairly dry before re-wetting. Put the water in the top of the pot and let it drain through the soil, but do not leave the plant standing in the excess. Take care not to splash the leaves when watering otherwise they will become marked. Gently clean the leaves occasionally with a damp sponge to remove dust. Never use leaf shine

During the growing season, give the plants a half-strength liquid fertiliser when they are watered.

Known as the Zebra plant, the leaves of Calathea zabrina are held horizontally

Another of my favouries is Calathea zebrina, which is commonly known as the zebra plant. It has stripy, elliptic leaves of dark and light green, which are slightly velvety in texture and the undersides are rich reddish-purple.

The leaves, which in ideal conditions can grow to 60cm in length, are held horizontally on 23cm long reddish-purple stalks. Unfortunately, because it has a creeping rootstock and an untidy clump forming habit, I find that the leaves often require staking to see them at their best. For this I use green split canes, which are less noticable when placed amongst the leaves.

This plant thrives in shade to partial shade and must be kept in warm, humid conditions for them to put on any growth. Ideal temperatures are around 18C and plants will remain happy providing that the winter temperature does not drop below 15C.

As the plants is native to the steamy jungles of Brazil, it thrives on high humidity so plunge the pot into an outer container of moist peat. Mist the leaves regularly in warm conditions.

You may know Maranta as the prayer plant because at night the plant has the curious habit of folding and raising its leaves like hands held in prayer 

Maranta leuconeura Tricolor, also has beautiful leaf markings on its oval leaves, which look as if they’ve been hand painted. The veins are lipstick red on a green background with dark blotches and bright greenish-yellow markings along the midrib. The undersides of the leaves are light purple.

Plants are low growing, almost prostrate, and rarely exceed 20cm in height. In their native South American jungles you’ll find plants sprawling over the ground covering an area of up to 30cm.

This is a choice plant for a room that receives sun for only part of the day. It abhors direct sun, which causes the leaves to become papery and lifeless, and cannot stand draughts. It likes warm temperatures, ideally 15-18C all year, and higher if there is good humidity.

Vivid foliage colours give rise to the common name of Joseph’s Coat and the varied leaf shapes make crotons in all their different forms highly collectable

Bushy crotons or Codium variegatum var. Pictum are staples in my indoor garden. Be aware though, that the sap from this plant can be poisonous so wear gloves when handling.

It’s a fantastic variegated jungle shrub with leaves that range from yellow and green to pink, red or orange with mottled or striped yellow markings. Some, and especially ‘pictum’, have twisted and curly-edged leaves, while others are oblong and pointed or shaped like arrows.

Crotons enjoy high levels of light but can only tolerate some direct sun. A west-facing living room is ideal, bringing up the intensity of their leaf patterns

It needs a winter temperature of at least 13C and must be kept out of draughts and away from heating appliances otherwise the leaves drop off. Leaves will also drop if the plant is overwatered. Feed fortnightly with a dilute liquid fertiliser from April to August.

Crotons also come with long ribbon-like leaves

Known as freckle face, the polka dot plant or Hypoestes phyllostachya has downy, oval-pointed olive-green leaves that are heavily marked with pale pink spots.

When buying, look for new and improved varieties, which also have pink, white and red spotting. Small lavender flowers appear in summer but are of little consequence, so I usually nip these out.

Plants can grow quite tall, up to 60cm high, but will soon become straggly unless growth is limited by pinching out the growing tips. For maximum impact, I like to group plants together in a shallow bowl on a low table.

In a well-lit room the leaf colouring is most vivid. Plants thrive when given plenty of warmth and humidity. A year-round temperature of 18C suits them best but they will settle for a temperature 13C in winter. Do not stand plants close to heating appliances or in a draught as this will cause the leaves to shrivel.

In a well-lit place the spots and leaf colouring of hypoestes will be vivid

Most begonias are grown for their striking flowers but Begonia rex is marvelled at for its exotic, patterned foliage, which comes in colours that are bright and sharply contrasting that include metallic markings plus pink, purple and cream.

The leaves are an off-centred heart-shape and puckered or corrugated. The under sides are mainly reddish-brown. They have a dense coating of fine hairs and are approximately 25.5cm across and 20cm long, held on fleshy and hairy pink-red leaf stalks.

Begonia rex detests overwatering – the compost should be kept moist from spring through to autumn and the surface layer allowed to dry out in-between watering. Water sparingly in winter, giving just enough to stop the leaves from shrivelling as the thick rhizome will store water, so the plant can endure short periods of drought. Maintain vigorous growth by feeding once a fortnight during the growing period.

The variety Escargot takes its name from the snail-like curl pattern at the base of the leaf

As well as Escargot, which has leaf edges that spiral, look out for the variety Silver Queen that has green and silver leaves, Fireworks that has raspberry and silver leaves and Merry Christmas, which has crimson and gold markings in the heart of the leaf to add to your collection.

Begonia rex enjoys the occasional steam bath and especially in hot weather – stand plants in the bathroom whilst running a bath or put a plant on an upturned pot in a bowl of steamy water.

Some leaves may fall off in winter but are quickly replaced in spring and especially if plants are given a boost with additional artificial lighting.

Begonia rex com various forms but all have dramatic, brightly coloured leaves with bold patterns of silver, purple, green, or red – often accessorised with colourful hairy stems

Aspidistra elatior was a Victorian favourite, mainly because it’s as tough as old boots and copes well with dust, fumes and general neglect plus extreme conditions including poor light. These features have lead to it being known as the Cast Iron plant.

In late summer, you might find on well cared for plants, uninteresting dull-purple, star-shaped flowers appear at soil level on mature plants.

I like the striped version, Aspidistra elatior Variegata, which has wide patches of cream and white running vertically along the deep green leaves. These however, tend to fade when light is poor.

With both types re-pot only when the roots fill the existing pot. If you don’t want to move an older plant into a larger pot top-dress instead. Use loam-based compost.

Mist the leaves occasionally during the growing season and especially in high temperatures. And, clean the leaves with a damp sponge. Do not use leaf shine products.

Water plants by immersing the pot in water for about 10 minutes and then drain well. Never let the plant stand in water otherwise the roots will rot.

Aspidistras can withstand neglect so are often stuck in a dark corner of the room. The variegated form however, needs good light to make the most of the special effects

The fabulous Chlorophytum comosum is quick and easy and the perfect choice for a hanging basket. It will also make an imposing sight on a plant pedestal positioned so that the waterfall effect of the leaves and arching stems can be viewed from all sides.

Wiry arching stems topped with delicate rosettes of starry white flowers in spring and summer, are followed by ‘spider’ shoots or young plantlets that have the same striped green and white leaves as the parent – these can be removed and grown on individually.

It’s one of the few houseplants that will not object to bright hot sun, making it ideal for growing in a south-facing window. It prefers however, subdued light and will even tolerate some shade, though in deep shade the decorative stripes will fade. The minimum temperature required for healthy growth is 7C and plants will cope with temperatures as high as 27C

Spider plants or chlorophytums is so called because in summer the cascading wiry stems produce small white flowers followed by tiny plantlets

In spring and summer, while the plant is growing and producing plantlets, water freely, allowing the compost to almost dry out before re-wetting. In winter reduce the amount of water, keeping the compost almost dry in low temperatures. Feed fortnightly from spring until late summer, using a half-strength liquid fertiliser. Without feeding, the tips of the leaves will quickly turn brown, marring the plant’s appearance and retarding its growth.

The fleshy roots soon become congested in a small pot so it’s best to over pot, giving the plant plenty of root room to develop. Pot on when the plant is starting to lift itself out of the pot and allow 2.5cm space at the top of the pot for the development of the fat roots. When planting up baskets put several young plants together in one basket for maximum bushy effect.

The soft leaves are easily damaged so display them where they won’t become bashed and bruised through touching surrounding walls etc.

Zebrina is closely related to Tradescantia but is more colourful. The glistening leaves are multicoloured above and purple below

Closely related to tradescantia, Zebrina pendula is also referred to as a Wandering Jew. It is highly decorative with colourful leaves with a striped silver and green, iridescent upper surface and a rich purple underside. It makes a fine display in hanging baskets and when used to trail over the edge of a large container in a mixed planting.

A warm and well-lit spot is ideal but bear in mind that when exposed to direct sun leaves become less lush and fleshy, often becoming curled around the edges. Extreme temperatures should be avoided, but anywhere between 13-18C is suitable.

Regular watering is essential, and often those planted in hanging baskets tend to get neglected. The compost must be kept moist but never too wet otherwise there is a risk that the roots will rot. Feed every two weeks during the growing season.

A relative of the philodendron, an unusual feature Syngonium are the dramatic three or five-lobed leaves that become more distinct as the plant matures and are responsible for its common name, the Goosefoot plant. This plant grows best in good light but should be shaded from direct sunlight. It copes well with ordinary room temperatures of 15C or more and is tolerant of central heating and low humidity.

Keep the compost moist throughout the growing season – the compost should never be allowed to dry out. Feed every two weeks with a general houseplant fertiliser.

The leaves on mature plants are about 20cm long and borne on slender leaf stalks up to 60cm long. It does not branch freely, and the leaf stalks all develop from the central growing point. The variety Albolineatum is the most popular plant, as once established it produces two types of leaves, the juvenile, which are arrow-shaped and dark green to the adult forms that have striking silver markings.

The goosefoot plant has a lax habit and is often grown as a climber up a moss-covered pole, make sure that you mist the moss-covered poles daily to ensure that the air is humid enough for aerial roots to grow, or grow it in a hanging basket

Mother in law’s tongue or Sansevieria trifasciata Laurentii is a tough plant and almost indestructible. It will grow almost anywhere and withstands neglect like no other houseplant.

It has sword-like leaves that are zoned with horizontal silver markings on dark green background and have distinct butter-yellow edges. In good growing conditions sprays of small fragrant flowers will sprout from the crown of the plant. A healthy plant will grow slowly but last for years.

From spring to autumn water moderately, allowing the compost to become truly dry between waterings – this plant can withstand long periods without water.

In winter keep the compost barely moist and avoid allowing water to accumulate in the centre of the rosette of leaves.  Plants should not be overfed – a weak dose of foliage houseplant fertiliser once a month

An essential ingredient for group plant arrangements, the statuesque leaves of sanseviera have a dramatic sculptural effect and contrasting well with ferny foliage and flowers in a group arrangement. It makes a bold statement in single pots and large specimens can be effectively displayed in troughs to make a room divider

The variety Moonshine has tall pale green leaves, which are edged with a very dark fine line. Plants thrive when pot bound so rarely need repotting. When adding to a mixed plant arrangement, combine with plants that like similar conditions and always use gritty, well draining compost. Potting is best done in spring.

When buying Sanseviera look for plants with strong, stiff leaves that are sturdy in their pots – if a plant is not well rooted it’s likely to topple over in its pot.

Sanseviera Moonshine has impressive leaves in a light silvery-green colour with faint lines and a narrow dark green margin

Gynura is grown for their distinctive tooth-edged, velvety, purple leaves, which are most colourful when they first open. They can be grown as a climber up canes or trellis but I like to grow it as a trailing plant in a hanging basket. As the plant matures, growth becomes more erect and the leaves are larger.

The shiny purple hairs are especially striking when caught by the light so position against a sunny window for impact. It’s a great plant to colour match with richly coloured fabrics. Watch out for the small, orange dandelion-like flowers in spring as they have an unpleasant odour so are best nipped off in the bud.

In a warm room, stand the pot on a tray of moist pebbles to raise the humidity. Pinch out the growing tips to keep the plants bushy and encourage new leaves, which are the most colourful when they first unfurl.

Re-pot in spring putting several plants together in a hanging basket for best effect. Water plants from below and take care not to splash the leaves. Do not mist the leaves. In hot, dry conditions plunge the container in an outer pot filled with peat or moist sphagnum moss.

Gynura has no special needs but for the brightest colour, the foliage which is covered with shiny puple hairs requires good light

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