Houseplant Containers and Display

Most of us start to grow house plants in the same way — by putting a potted plant we have received as a gift on the window-sill. To this we add a second, then a third, and all of a sudden we are faced with the problem of where to put the next. Besides, though flowers in themselves are beautiful, this rather arbitrary grouping on the window-sill has not really added to the interest or attractiveness of the interior décor. What then is the answer? How should we display our house plants to achieve maximum effectiveness?

The simplest and often the most attractive solution is to group carefully selected plants in a ceramic bowl. This may be 14 glazed, so that there is no danger of water condensing on the outside and marking the furniture on which it stands, or unglazed, and with or without a drainage hole (in the latter case, take care not to overwater). Many attractive bowls and dishes are available, but certain principles must be observed when selecting one. First of all the shape and size must be suitable for the assortment of plants. In the case of plants that are of sculptural interest the bowl should be as simple as possible. The same applies to decorative foliage plants. Only in the absence of any distracting elements will the full beauty of the plants be appreciated. Another thing to remember is to leave room around the plants for growth, so do not fill the bowl from the start. Also, remember that plants do not all grow at the same rate, so select ones that have a similar rate of growth, otherwise the slower-growing species will be crowded out by the more vigorous plants or may even die. Most important, however, are the conditions required by the various plants for good growth. Choose only those plants that have the same light, temperature, moisture and soil requirements. Species with decorative foliage are particularly suitable for this will make the arrangement attractive throughout the year, but the choice and how you arrange them depends really on your taste and experience. Remember, however, to try and keep it looking natural. A good arrangement in a large bowl, for instance, is Dieffenbachia x bausei (as the highest point), Aglaonema oblongifolium or A. modestum (as ‘shrubs’) and the rewarding Maranta leuconeura cv. Massangeana ‘Tricolor’ (as ‘undergrowth’). It is also possible to use plants of approximately the same height with a large stone added for interest and to break up the uniformity; the stone may also be covered with plants (such as succulents).

The Vietnamese are masters of the flower arrangements generally known as ‘landscapes in a bowl’. The dishes they use for the purpose measure up to 1 m (3 ft) in diameter. In these they put pieces of travertine 70 to 80 cm (28 to 32 in) high, sometimes even higher, surrounded by a ‘lake’. Miniature copies of these can be made at home. Drill holes in water-absorbent rocks in appropriate spots, fill them with a handful of potting compost and either sow seeds or plant seedlings in the pockets. The compost provides nourishment for the first plant roots. Later roots, however, grow down over the rock into the water that fills the bowl, where other aquatic and bog plants complete the arrangement. Woody plants that can be shaped well, such as ficus, tieghemopanax, aralia, schefflera, adenium and bauhinia are recommended for growing on rocks. Growth of the roots may be promoted by temporarily providing the rock with a light cover of moss which is then gradually removed. The growth of woody plants cultivated in this manner, of course, is not very rapid but patience will reap its rewards.

The rock can be supplemented by small species of bamboo, to give a particularly striking effect.

A similar arrangement may be fashioned with a piece of tree trunk or attractively shaped old tree branch placed in a bowl of water. Hard wood that does not rot is the most suitable. Plants that are otherwise difficult to grow can be put on these, such as certain species of the family Melastomataceae, plants of the genera Bertolonia and Sonerila, and even peperomias or the minute Anthurium scandens.

Very similar to this type of arrangement is the art of Japanese bonsai. Here, the aim is to create in miniature, within the confines of a small bowl or dish, what appears to be a landscape with a centuries-old tree stunted by time and weather.

Ceramic bowls and troughs used as containers are not only suitable for use indoors but also outdoors, in gardens, on balconies, or on window-sills. In these situations the containers, which must be well drained, are usually filled with rock garden plants to which a few small woody plants may be added.

Another type of arrangement that is rarely used despite its evident advantage is a moss cone or moss panel. A moss cone is really a supplementary feature of the bowl in which it is placed, and its construction is very simple. Select a round wooden stick of the desired length, singe it so it will not rot (or use a plastic rod instead), and wrap sphagnum moss round its entire length. You can also put a little nourishing soil between the stick and layer of moss. Fasten the moss to the stick with a 2- to 4-cm- (¾- to 1-1/4- in) -mesh wire or nylon netting. Then place the cone (or pillar) in the dish and anchor it with a few large stones, which will form part of the layer of drainage material (gravel). Top this with a layer of the required growing 16 compost and put in the plant, for example monstera, philoden-dron or syngonium, tying it in with wire so that it will grow up the moss cone. As the plant starts to grow, it sends its roots into the moss pillar and anchors itself there. The arrangement can be supplemented by plants that will cover the surface of the bowl or ones that will hang over the rim. You can also put various smaller species on the cone where they will be attractively offset by the leaves of the main climber. Ferns, smaller species of the Gesneriaceae family (episcia, hypocyrta, columnea) or small species of pilea are particularly suitable.

A moss panel is in fact a cage filled with sphagnum moss. The walls of the cage are made of wire or nylon netting stretched to a frame of metal or wood. The best way to put plants in the moss is to wrap the roots in sphagnum moss first so they will not be damaged during insertion. A metal or plastic trough should be attached to the bottom of the panel to keep water from dripping on the floor. If you wish to hang the moss panel on a wall put a sheet of polythene behind it. However, it is better to hang it freely in space and put plants on each side of the panel. Both sun-loving and shade-loving species (put on the appropriate sides) can be used for the purpose. Suitable plants to choose from include aeschynanthus, anthurium, begonia, ceropegia, cissus, columnea, dischidia, episcia, small species of ficus, hedera, hatiora, hoya, hypocyrta, lycopodium, mikania, peperomia, pothos, rhipsalis and remusatia.

When growing plants in moss, it must be remembered that the moss itself contains no plant food and thus it is important to provide fertilizer as well as water accordingly. Liquid fertilizer is the easiest to apply, and a weak solution should be used as required, always applying it from the top. The advantage of moss cones and moss panels is that not only do many plants seem to grow better under these conditions, but they also flower more freely, for example hoya. At the same time moss arrangements also act as efficient humidifiers, greatly increasing the amount of moisture in a room.

In recent years the cultivation of plants in demijohns has become particularly popular. Very delicate and rare plants that require constant humidity thrive in demijohns and fish-bowls. Once established, such a ‘garden’ requires the minimum of care. Pour soil into the demijohn with a funnel, tamp it down with a cotton reel on the end of a bamboo cane, insert the plants with the aid of a spoon and fork, also attached to canes. Water them very carefully, and supply feed with subsequent applications of water, which should not be too frequent. The microclimate in a bottle, demijohn, large brandy glass or fishbowl makes it possible to grow plants that are otherwise very demanding, for example, small carnivorous 17 dionaea, cephalotus or heliamphora. This environment is also suitable for small, rare ferns and begonias.

It is only a step from these half-closed containers to indoor plant-cases and glasshouses. Features common to all indoor ‘glasshouses’ — be they next to a window as the main source of light or plant-cases dependent solely on fluorescent lighting — are bottom heating by resistance wire (located in the double metal bottom of the case); fluorescent lamps in the top; various forms of ventilation (a hinged strip of glass near the top or a battery- or motor-powered ventilator); a deep camouflaged dish (or submerged flowerpots) at the bottom to hold plants, and a sliding front glass panel. Equipment should also include a thermostat to regulate the temperature, a thermometer and a hygrometer. It is recommended to purchase such a glasshouse from a specialist dealer rather than run the risk of being injured by faulty electrical installations in a homemade glasshouse.

Almost ideal growing conditions can be provided in a plant-case, thus making it possible to grow successfully even rare species of orchids, delicate nepenthes and other plants, particularly epiphytes, which otherwise cannot be grown indoors.

Other containers are terrariums and aquaterrariums, which are similar to but smaller than plant-cases. As a rule, these are not described in gardening publications, for they are primarily enclosures for keeping small animals, but they can also be used for house plants. In fact they are aquariums with a glass cover or top with fluorescent lighting. The bottom is covered with a layer of peat or sand and part of it may form a pool (aquaterrarium). The selection of plants depends on the temperature, light and moisture conditions, and also on the animals inhabiting the enclosure. If these are turtles or large snakes then it is better to omit plants. Small lizards, geckos and tree-frogs, however, will do no harm to plants. An ideal plant for the terrarium is Ficus stipulata, which quickly covers the walls even under poor light conditions, thus providing numerous places of concealment for its inhabitants. Also very good for terrariums are sansevieria (dry sandy terrariums), Philodendron surinamense, P. scandens, aglaonema, syn-gonium, peperomia and many species of , which should be planted close to water. Recommended aquatic plants include small species of cyperus, cryptocoryne, aponogeton and spathiphyllum.

The plates of cork oak bark that often form the rear wall or sides of a terrarium are good for growing delicate epiphytes, such as small orchids or moisture-loving bromeliads. Best, however, are trailing species, particularly of the genera Aes-chynanthus and Columnea, and climbing plants such as Hoya.

A paludarium provides another possibility for growing plants that are not commonly found indoors, namely bog plants. The material of which the container is made is not important. It may be of glass, ceramic ware, metal or plastic. Before making a paludarium, however, go out and get some ideas from nature. Take a look round the shore of a lake and note in particular the diversity of the site. Cover the bottom of the container with a thin layer of well-rotted compost mixed with peat. How much space is covered with water, where to put stones and branches, and where to leave spots of ‘dry land’ — all that is a matter of personal choice. On top of the compost put a 10-cm (4-in) layer of washed river sand and then add water. Wait a few days to let the substrate settle before planting, the same as in an aquarium. A paludarium can also contain potted plants (particularly larger and more demanding species), the pots being masked with gravel and sand if desired. Water plants may include the water lily Nymphaea x daubenyana, the lotus Nelumbo luteum ‘Mikado’, cryp-tocoryne, yallisneria and aponogeton, and floating aquatics that will do well include Pistia stratiotes and Eichhornia cras-sipes (water hyacinth). Suitable bog plants for the ‘shore’ include typhonium, sagittaria, spathiphyllum and pontederia, and recommended for ‘dry land’ are ferns, selaginellas and many aroids.

A paludarium greatly increases the humidity in a room and plants that require a particularly moist atmosphere for good growth do well in its vicinity. Caring for a paludarium is simple, consisting merely of adding water to replace that which has evaporated. Occasionally a liquid fertilizer is added instead.

The following text deals with epiphytes, which deserve particular attention because of their diversity and the wide variety of arrangements they afford. Epiphytes, as has already been stated, are plants that grow on other plants without doing them any harm. The host plant, usually a tree (the scientific name for such a plant is phytophore, meaning bearer of plants), is merely the habitat of the epiphyte, affording it nothing more than a dwelling place. Similarly, the epiphyte merely holds on the bark, its roots in no way damaging the inner tissues of the tree. That is why some epiphytes, such as orchids of the genera Anguloa, Clowesia and Catasetum, even grow on dead trees.

Mention has already been made of the adaptations plants have made to the epiphytic form of life, such as the funnel or cupped leaf base formed by the leaves of bromeliads; the absorbent layer of velamen covering the aerial roots of certain orchids; the humus-catching, ‘brush-like’ root system of other orchids; and the scales on the leaves of bromeliads that serve to absorb moisture from the air and pass it to the tissues inside the leaf. There are, of course, many more. Take, for instance, the ferns of the genus Platycerium. Note that these have two kinds of leaves, one fertile (carrying the spores), divided and upright, the other sterile, flat and undivided or differently shaped and pressed close to the ground. Platycerium and drynaria are epiphytic ferns that grow on tree trunks. The base of the sterile leaves is pressed to the bark from an early age and the upper end extends outward, thus catching leaves shed by the tree, dust and mineral particles carried by insects to the crown of the tree, as well as rotting wood. In time this forms a sufficient quantity of humus for the fern’s growth.

In bromeliads we can observe a different form of adaptation. The marginal leaves of the rosette often curl and die. These are naturally removed by gardeners, for they add nothing to the plant’s attractiveness. In the wild, however, where bromeliads often grow on dry, slender twigs, the layer of dry leaves plays a vital role, for as it slowly decomposes it forms a substrate in which the plant roots, thus feeding itself. Removal of the leaves in collections and botanical gardens prevents thorough acquaintance and understanding of the life of the plant.

Epiphytes are ideal for growing in the modern home. They are both warmth- and light-loving plants which can withstand lengthy periods of drought and which require the minimum of care. A total of about 28,200 species belonging to 850 genera of vascular plants have been described to date; in other words a full ten per cent of all higher plants are epiphytes. Among them are true gems of the plant realm such as bromeliads and orchids, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. The choice of bromeliads offered on the market, how- 19 ever, continues to be rather unsuitable. One of the commonest, for example, is Vriesea splendens and its hybrids, a plant that is far from being a good subject for growing indoors for it is indigenous to Guyana where it grows in the tropical rainforest by the Kaieteur Falls and requires constant moisture and warmth. It does well in a glasshouse but in the home it will last only a few months, or rather weeks, unless kept in a plant-case.

15. November 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles | Comments Off on Houseplant Containers and Display


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