HOTHOUSE Episode 010: Houseplant Confidential with Jane Perrone
November 14, 2018
Copyright Leah Churner 2018
[MUSIC 1: Gracie Fields - “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”]
Jane: I love a plant with a bit of history. The Aspidistra has a great history. It's a cultural icon. And it's tough and it's long lived. It will outlive you. You just think, oh gosh, this is going to be here once I'm gone, this plant was still be going on.
Leah: This is Hothouse, a podcast about design, ecology, and the way we garden now. I’m Leah Churner, and today, we’re talking about houseplants with Jane Perrone, the host and producer of the podcast On The Ledge.
Jane is the former Gardening Editor of the Guardian—and she brings a seasoned journalist’s eye to the horticultural podcast scene.
Jane: I always say that I was a journalist first and a gardener second, although to be fair, I’ve always been interested in gardening and plants.
Leah: On The Ledge is a show about gardening indoors and also the people behind the plants: the botanists, the growers, and the stars of “houseplant Instagram,” who all have a role in determining which plants are hot, and which ones are not.
What you’re hearing in the background is “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World” by Gracie Fields. When this song was released, in England in the late 1930s, it was a novelty hit. The joke, apparently, is that aspidistras are slow growers, and wouldn’t it be funny if you could hybridize them and make them grow fast? That this song could be a commercial success points to just how familiar audiences were with this plant.
Today, though, it’s truly been demoted. inside boutique plant shops or the tropical house at your local nursery, you’ll find monsteras and pepperomias and cacti and pitcher plants and fiddle leaf figs — all the “status” houseplants of our day. But you probably will not find an aspidistra.
In Texas nurseries, at least, you’ll find the aspidistra outside in the shade perennials section, and it won’t be prominently displayed. They’re useful because they can survive in dry shade, and I’ve always liked the spotted variety called ‘Milky Way,’ but I’ve never seen anyone grow one as a houseplant.
Jane is on a mission to change that. She’s trying to rescue the aspidistra from the dustbin of history.
Jane: In fact I nearly called my podcast "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," and then I spoke to an American who said, "What? What is that about?" They didn’t know what an aspidistra was, they’d never heard of the book by George Orwell, and I just thought, No, this is a really bad idea.
Leah: It’s true that the aspidistra has a lot more cultural baggage in the UK than here in the States. Let’s hear an excerpt from that 1938 George Orwell novel, Keep The Aspidistra Flying.
[Audiobook excerpt: Keep the Apsidistra Flying by George Orwell]
As Gordon threw away the match his eye fell upon the aspidistra in its grass-green pot. It was a particularly mangy specimen. It had only seven leaves and never seemed to put forth new ones. Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it —starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem, even mixing salt wit hits earth. But the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence. Gordon stood up and deliberately wiped his kerosiny fingers on the aspidistra leaves.
Leah: I’ll get to why Gordon hates this plant in a minute, but first I want to tell you why I am fascinated by the topic of houseplants.
From an ecological standpoint, they’re really weird. By bringing plants out of their natural habitats, and into our homes and into the confines of pots, we make them completely dependent on us to provide them with light and water and nutrients and constant room for their roots to grow. they’re like the pets of the plant kingdom, but they aren’t really companions. Their function is mostly decorative.
Then again, houseplants don’t feel like accessories. The fact that plants are living things means that we can’t help but project our emotions onto them, as Orwell’s character does. This is one of the great literary examples of a man anthropomorphizing a plant.
[Audiobook excerpt: Keep the Apsidistra Flying by George Orwell]
The aspidistra stood in its pot, dull green, ailing, pathetic in its sickly ugliness. As he sat down, he pulled it towards him and looked at it meditatively. There was the intimacy of hatred between the aspidistra and him.
Leah: The common name ‘cast iron plant’ dates back to around the 1860s, when British botanists imported the aspidistra from its native home in East Asia, and introduced it to commercial cultivation.
As Catherine Horwood writes in her history of houseplants, Potted History, the aspidistra exploded in popularity in the late nineteenth century as one of the only houseplants that could cope with “the darkness and polluted atmosphere of Victorian homes.” Before electricity, people heated and lit their homes with oil and gas lamps— the fumes from these lamps killed of most plants, but the aspidistra was, as Orwell wrote, “practically immortal.” It was the plant’s “cast-iron” toughness that made it a staple.
Even if you weren’t wealthy, and couldn’t afford to build yourself a conservatory full of tropical plants, you could still afford to keep an aspidistra, no matter how dark and sooty your place was.
By the 1930s, the plant had become something of a punchline. Gracie Fields’ song came out right around the same time as the novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. For Orwell’s protagonist, the aspidistra represents the sense of bourgeois conformity and crass consumerism he’s trying to escape.
[Audiobook excerpt: Keep the Apsidistra Flying by George Orwell]
‘What rot it is to talk about socialism, or any other -ism when women are what they are! The only thing a woman ever wants is money. Money for a house of her own, and two babies and Drage furniture and an aspidistra. The only sin they can imagine is not wanting to grab money…If you haven’t got money, you aren’t nice. You’re dishonored somehow. You’ve sinned. Sinned against the aspidistra!’
‘You talk a great deal about aspidistras,” said Ravelson.
‘Well, they’re a dashed important subject,’ said Gordon.
Leah: Already famed in literature and popular music, the image of the aspidistra was coopted by the military in WWII when British intelligence agents built a very large, high-powered radio transmitter and called it Aspidistra. Here’s a clip from a BBC radio drama called “Radio Aspidistra.”
[BBC radio drama]
Speaker 1: This isn’t one of your fifteen-kilowatt squawk boxes. It’s nearly three-quarters of a million watts! A raiding dreadnought of the ether, reaching into every occupied corner of Europe, firing massive electronic broadsides at the enemy, and blasting Dr. Goebbel’s eardrums! I’ve called it Aspidistra.
Leah: With this transmitter, they created a secret radio station to transmit ‘Black Propaganda’ inside Germany. This was very similar to Russian-style Facebook fake news today: misinformation campaigns meant to sow confusion and division among the German public.
[BBC radio drama]
Speaker 2: The proposed station will undermine Hitler by pretending to be all for him and his war.
Speaker 3: Oh really! I’ve never heard such an absurd idea!
Speaker 2: The German listener will be twiddling the dial on his radio, and suddenly find himself tuned into what sounds like a clandestine signal sending ciphered instructions to its secret cells all over occupied Europe…and all the time, the German listener will believe he’s eavesdropping on broadcasts not intended for his ears! [All laugh]
Leah: I find it amazing that an unassuming foliage plant can have such a huge cultural footprint. As I’ve said, we project a lot on our houseplants.
Anyway, let’s get on with the interview. I had sent Jane a list of questions the day before we spoke and one of them was about anthropomorphizing houseplants. I wanted to know if she ever named her plants or played music for them, stuff like that. Then about an hour before we got on the phone I was going back and listening to some of her episodes I’d missed and I came across an example of her asking that very question on her podcast.
So here’s a clip from On The Ledge, Episode 64, with houseplant expert Darryl Chang. I really liked how she phrased the question and how Darryl answered it.
[On The Ledge Clip]
As an engineer with your engineer’s approach to plants, do you become irritated by the anthropomorphization of plants. There is a bit of a cutesy plant thing going on where it’s kind of like, “Oh, I’m going to by this Monstera and I’m going to call it Dave.” It can be kind of endearing but sometimes perhaps, I don’t know if an engineer you feel like, “Hey, actually, that’s not how we should be viewing our plant collections. We should be having a different perspective on them than trying to make them into cutesy characters?
I guess sometimes when it’s so anthropomorphized that it affects the way people care for the plant, then yes, that does kind of irk me. Because if I keep teaching that, “You need to understand how plants work,” well, if some sort of thinking is “Oh, I don’t want to prune the plant because I’m hurting it,” Well, that’s not really the case because that’s not how plants work. Right? They are made to be broken in half and grow two new plants, which is amazing. It’s something that if we anthropomorphize, then we’re diminishing the plant’s special abilities that we don’t have.
Leah: On to my interview with Jane.
Jane: Well, I’m sorry that your anthropomorphizing question was preempted. It was funny. I read that, and then I thought, “I wonder if she listened to that episode? Because it came up,” and then I thought afterwards maybe I was a bit mean to people who give their plants names.
Leah: I loved it! In my question, I was trying not to lead in any way because I didn’t know how you felt about it. But I feel very much the same way as you do about it.
Jane: Yeah, as a parent, I do kind of feel slightly annoyed by people without children who call themselves “plant parents.” Maybe that’s completely unreasonable, but I think anyone who is a parent to an actual child as opposed to a plant will tell you that it's a different order. Like it's not, it's not really comparable. I know that's a kind of pathetic thing to say. But it does just make those of us who've gone through the blood, sweat and tears just kind of feel like, “You wait! You think looking after that Monstera is hard?” But yeah, I think it’s a personal preference thing. Who am I to criticize somebody else's plant choices? And if it makes you pay attention to a plant, then why not give it a name?
Leah: Jane, you bring a real journalistic sensibility to the subject of houseplants. That probably comes from your background in news journalism, am I correct?
Jane : That's right. Yeah. So I always say that I was a journalist first and a gardener second, although to be fair, I've always been interested in gardening and plants on an amateur layperson kind of basis. But my professional training was in journalism and I started off in local newspapers and did a qualification in the UK that kind of qualifies you to be a local newspaper reporter. And then I worked at the Guardian for many years. The first half of that, back in the day, when the web was a bit of a new thing and nobody knew what a blog was, I was working on the website of the Guardian. And the second half of my time there I was Gardening Editor, mainly working on the glossy Saturday magazine. So I saw the both sides of that. I think I'm one of these people, I'm a bit of a modernist, like I believe that we can all get better at things by learning about stuff. And so I'm very, I love the idea that people listening to my show are gonna get concrete knowledge out of actually listening as well as all the fellowship and fun that comes with being a houseplant enthusiast.
So I started the podcast in February last year and I left the Guardian in July. I'm sad to say it wasn't like the podcast had made my fortune and therefore I could go off and do my own thing. But after being at the Guardian for a really long time — and it was my dream place to work, it was a paper that I read and I was a loyal reader before I became an employee, and I couldn't imagine working anywhere else for a long time. But like anything in life, one becomes a bit bored over time with the same old same and I felt that I needed to kind of spread my wings. So I left in July, just as the podcast was really finding its feet. Now I write for lots of different publications, mainly in the UK. So things like the magazine Gardens Illustrated. I still write for the Guardian quite a lot, so a lot of people don't even realize that I'm not Gardening Editor anymore.
I also edit part a section of the Garden Design Journal, which is the Society of Garden Designers here in the UK. That's their monthly publication. And I edit the “Industry Zone” pages. So dealing with garden designers, profiling garden designers, and that kind of thing. So that's another aspect of what I do.
Leah: And then you also do, you do talks and presentations and stuff quite frequently. It seems.
Jane : Reasonably often. I get asked to do talks at gardening societies, usually roughly around in the area around where I live, which is north of London. So I travel to different gardening clubs and do talks on everything from composting to behind-the-scenes at the Chelsea Flower Show, to houseplants, obviously. And I really love doing those talks because I think it's the real-life gardeners and they tend to be a different demographic to my podcast listeners. So on the whole my podcast listeners, I would say, demographically are 20 to 40 or so. Probably at most gardening societies, sadly, there is probably nobody who's under 40 or 50, just a very different demographic. Even though I think, "Gosh, I'm in my forties," I sometimes I turn up and I think they kind of look at me and go, "Oh, what does she know?" And then you have to kind of prove yourself that you do actually know something because the average age is around 65.
But I love talking to those groups because you get the real-life questions about stuff. So you know, I went to give a talk about composting and I had a question from somebody going, "Oh, I've been throwing my grandson's dirty nappies" --- Well we'd call them nappies, you'd call them diapers -- "onto the compost heap. Is that okay?" And the blood drained from my face. So you get to see real gardeners and with real questions. And so it's fascinating to see what people know and what people don't know and, and so on. So that's really fun. And there's always one person in the audience who is either asleep or on the edge of being asleep, which I always find hilarious. I'm always looking for that one person and you're thinking, yeah, it's 8:00 o'clock on a Thursday night, you really need to be tucked up in bed, but actually you're here. And then, it's my challenge to keep them awake.
But it's just a sad reflection of the fact, perhaps it's the same in the U.S. gardening societies, the demographic is getting older. Younger people are not joining. So that's something I always urge my podcast listeners to do is join the plant society for the plants that you're interested in, because they need new blood desperately and they need to adapt to the kind of the modern age and get on board with social media and stuff which many of them are doing, to be fair. But it's definitely something that, that needs some work. But it's great fun.
And is occasionally good to be stumped by somebody's question that comes completely out of left field that you don't know the answer to. Often it's about house plants, but I have got a big, big composting obsession. So that's my other favorite talk to give.
Leah: Sometimes with the garden clubs you can find people who have really amazing plants and they will give you cuttings or divisions of it and sometimes you find such great stuff that you wouldn’t find in a garden center, but that person has been growing this thing for a long time and knows was all about it.
Jane: Oh my gosh. Yes. In fact, I am a member of the British Cactus and Succulent Society and the meetings in my region are on a Friday night, which is not the easiest night to get out for me. So I haven't actually made any meetings yet, but I'm desperate to do so because I know they have these incredible sales where they're selling stuff that it's just really hard to get hold of anywhere else. And so yes, I could pick up some wonderful things there if I could ever make the meeting.
Leah: You mentioned composting being a large passion for you. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Jane: Yeah. So back in the day, when I worked for a local newspaper, I did lots of crazy things when I was — I think you call them a "cub reporter" in the U.S., — a young trainee reporter. So I did things like dressing up as a clown at the local circus, and there is a long story involving that experience which I won't go into now. But if you ever meet me in a bar, I can tell you about that. The story behind one of the other clowns I worked with that day and what happened to him. A long story.
But anyway, so cub reporters, you do lots of crazy things, going up in balloons, being a clown. I'm one of the less crazy things I did, but very monumental for my future life, was I got a compost bin. Over here we have a council. Most councils have a scheme where you can get a discounted bin from the local government organization for not very much money. And so I decided to try this out. I'd always been into gardening, but I hadn't had my own compost bin. And it was like some kind of, I don't want to overblow this, but it was a kind of a revelatory moment when I kept putting stuff into this bin, kept putting things in, and it wasn't getting any higher. It was all just breaking down really quickly. And at the end of it I had this wonderful stuff which was great for my garden and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. So I've always had, for the last 20 or 25 years, I've always had compost bins of varying types. I've had ones on my allotment, but I'm very happy with my current compositing setup. We use a new double-binned wooden system and it's just so nice. It's so exciting. My husband just thinks I'm hilarious because I get so excited to go and turn my compost and find out what's going on. But I think for me it's, you know, there's a lot of talk about, you know, zero waste here in the UK. I'm sure it's the same where you are. Everyone's trying to slim down there bin and just kind of crying out going, "Composting, it's the answer!"
Leah: And one question I've been wanting to ask you for a long time, why don't you put crocks in your pots, Jane?
Jane : Ahh. Have I mentioned this on the show? I probably have. So yes, this is a very widely spread, sort of a belief that we all must be putting crocks in the bottom of our pots. And I did for many, many years. But I've read enough research from venerable horticultural resources such as the RHS, the Royal Horticultural Society, here in the UK. Basically saying that if you look at the physics of it, crocks don't actually help improve drainage. And I am not a physicist and I don't pretend to understand the physics of it, but basically putting a load of large grain kind of material or crooks or gravel or whatever in the bottom of a pot of potting soil, doesn't actually help the water to drain away. In fact, it may actually do the opposite. So what I tend to do is I just put something in the bottom of the pot to stop the potting mix falling out the bottom.
Jane : Like it's usually a strip of a brown paper or sometimes a coffee filter or something like that. Or a piece of kitchen towel. What do you call it? Kitchen roll? We call it kitchen roll here.
Leah: Paper towels. But coffee filters work really well.
Jane: Yeah, so anything like that you can just shove into the bottom to stop the soil from shooting out initially. The only trouble with that is then it's harder to see when the roots are growing through, but that way you keep the soil in and you don't damage the drainage. If you want good drainage for something like a cactus or succulent, then it's better to actually mix the grit or sand or perlite into the actual compost mix itself and that aids drainage far more effectively than having a layer of something at the bottom of the pot.
Leah: Yes. I used to always put crocs and things and then I heard you mentioned that on your show. And I was like, oh my gosh, like someone's been researching this, this is brilliant. And then, and then I started to notice, I would keep seeing these pots that were having drainage issues and they always had tons of crocks in the bottom. And then there was always like a layer of mushy, consolidated, compacted potting soil at the bottom that was kind of soggy and wasn't draining well at all. And in the case of something like a bougainvillea or where good drainage is really crucial, this was actually hurting the plant.
Jane : Yeah, I think it might be one of those things where people wanted something productive to do with their broken bits of terra cotta pot, so they wanted somewhere to put them. So the bottom of the pot was somewhere they could go and feel like they are being useful. But yeah, as I say, I haven't done it for awhile now. Then again, it's still often often you'll see in the gardening press and advice will say to put crocks at the bottom. So the myth is still out there, but it's like a lot of plant myths, you know, they go on and on. You have to keep repeating yourself and say, that's actually not a good idea. Um, you know, you get lots of people wanting to shine their house plant leaves with coconut oil and you're just like, okay, it's going to look shiny for about two minutes and then it's going to start attracting dust like fly paper. It's just not gonna work.
So you have to kind of fight through these misconceptions. But you find out by trying these things out and if it works for you, then go with it. I mean, I recently switched over to having a milkman delivering actual bottles of glass bottles of milk to my house and I have taken to rinsing out the bottles of milk, so that basically you end up with a bottle of slightly milky water and I've taken to pouring it out onto my house plants. It may well be a really bad thing, but you know what, all my Streptocarpus are looking really happy. So for the moment I'm going to continue until someone tells me that's a really bad idea.
Leah: I'm sure it's fine. It's a little bit of organic material.
Jane : Oh yeah. It's a bit of bit of calcium, you know. But the other one I have done some research into is -- I don't know if this is going down a road you weren't expecting, but -- people using menstrual blood as a fertilizer for house plants. I don't know if you've heard of this.
Leah: I haven't! No, tell me about that.
Jane: This is probably not something I've discussed on On The Ledge, but it's been something I've looked into.
Leah: Sounds like a good Hothouse topic, actually.
Jane: Yeah. So, so the idea is, is that we feed our plants with blood, fish and bone, right? So surely menstrual blood, if you're using something like a moon cup or you're using those Thinx underwear, which soaks up the menstrual blood, and you're rinsing them in water or whatever. Could you use the water or use the contents of the moon cup as a fertilizer on your plants? Now, this is one of those things. I brought it up in a [couple of] Facebook groups, in my own Facebook group [for On The Ledge] and all the people in my own group were kind of like, "Huh, interesting. I'm not sure I'd try that, but you know, that's an interesting thing. Do you think it works?" But in this other group, it was just one of those things where I was quite shocked by how terrified people are of their own bodily substances! As I say, my conclusion, actually when you look at the science of it, it's not a good idea.
It possibly works, but actually from a hygiene point of view, it's probably not a very good idea. So I'm not saying, Oh, let's, let's make this a thing, but I was quite shocked by how icky people find their own bodily processes. I'm thinking, "Gosh, have none of you..? You know, 50 percent of the population is going through this, for part of their lives. and anyway, so it was just this really strange thing. There may be women out there who have been doing that for generations and it's working for them and they haven't got sick as a result of it. I guess the only other thing is the number of medicines and drugs that are being consumed. We also have to think about that. Is any of that going to be going in, and do we want that in our plants? But yeah, it's an interesting one. I find it shocking how unaware people are about the functions of their bodies.
I find this also with plants, where people find something in their [potting soil] that's alive and the reaction is, "Oh my God, quickly repot it immediately," without actually considering, well, what is it? Is it actually something that's harmless that's not causing any problems or is it actually something that's going to be damaging your plants? People seem horrified by the idea that there might be anything alive in their house plants, which is a bit unfortunate, seeing as you know, we're surrounded by plants with amazing microorganisms and invertebrates going on all the time. So I tried to sort of be a little bit tolerant about, you know, what's going on in our [potting soil] because not all things that are in there are bad.
Leah: This is more of an outdoor container gardening thing, but I know some people put screens. I've heard people say, "Put a screen in the bottom of the drainage hole so that worms can't crawl up inside of it. And I'm like, why wouldn't you want worms to be up in there? They're doing great stuff!
Jane : I mean going back to the composting point. This is the thing that I sort of try to say to people: If you're going to have a wormery or you want to compost, you are going to have to get over squeamishness. There are going to be things that will, if you're that sensitive, will gross you out. You know? I mean, anyone who's ever had a wormery will have had the experience of taking out the bottom tray. And then discovering in the brown goop at the bottom, there are loads of white things, maggoty things floating around in the water and they are probably, well here in the UK anyway, they are usually hoverfly larvae, which are, which are a great thing. Not something to worry about. But they look kind of gross in the larval form and people are like, Oh my God, what's happening? It's like, It's OK, it's just hoverfly larvae. Don't worry about it. It's fine. They love stagnant water, therefore they love hanging out in the bottom of wormeries. And actually hover flies are in decline, so this is a good thing. But people get very freaked out by any kind of a creepy crawlies. So I guess it's another indication that we've separated ourselves off from nature. Whereas years ago children would, would be really aware of things like woodlice and ladybirds and all kinds of beetles and things. Some children now just have no idea what they're looking at when they do get introduced to that kind of stuff. That's why I love a compost heap. Every school should have a compost heap so the kids can go out there and have a check of the of all the different things that are crawling about.
Leah: I agree. What you're saying about some of the squeamishness that we have around things like the idea of using menstrual blood for your fertilizer, what I thought of when you were talking about that was how, you can buy bone meal or blood meal and it comes in a plastic bag and it's very sanitized and you don't know really what's the story behind this. And I've never even, I never even wanted to look it up. I was like, okay, I'll get this bone meal. I don't know where it came from. I don't know what kind of bones it is because it's been, it's been packaged in a way that makes it not gross for us.
Jane : Yeah. I think this is true. Come the apocalypse, we're all going to need to become much more aware of all this stuff. We have a sort of blindness. We would just want something to come in a bottle that's going to fix the problem we are having in the garden. And we're gonna spray it on and it's going to fix the problem and that's going to be the end of it. And in gardening generally nothing is like that. Anything that you need to do is generally a combination of hard work and repeating. So often times I get questions from people about, "Oh, I've got spider mites on my calathea and what do I do?" And they want something that they can just spray once and then it'll be gone. And you're like, No, it doesn't work like that. Every day, or every few days, you need to wipe the leaves and then wipe the leaves again and wipe the leaves again and again. And the same with things like mealybugs and so there's that feeling that we want a quick solution and generally speaking, that there aren't many quick solutions. It's usually persistence, elbow grease, or a combination of both.
Leah: And diagnosing what condition is leading to the problem too. I heard someone give a talk recently about the triangle of pathogens or something like that and it was like you need three things for a disease or an infestation or something to happen like that to a plant you need, you need the pathogen, you need the host and you need the like environmental conditions to make it happen. And so if you get rid of any one of those three things, you're not gonna have that infestation of insects or disease or whatever. And it's usually a condition specific agent that is causing that a problem I guess.
Jane : Yeah, I guess it's all about balance, isn't it? And oftentimes in our gardens, we've kind of got out of balance and we've let, we've let things get to the point where we, we're, we're short on, on things like printed things that would be predating on, on pests and therefore we've got a problem. I mean, I never forget that the Guardian, I remember getting a couple of emails that just made my heart really sink. One was from a listener who had a terrible infestation on her cherry tree or maybe a plum tree is this terrible infestation there all over the place. What am I going to do this horrible past. And she sent the photo and I looked at the photo and I just burst out laughing because the terrible pest was in fact ladybirds various larval stages, either larvae or pupating. And I just wrote back and I said, you're lucky you, you've got a lovely population of ladybirds going there, so don't panic. This is a good thing.
Leah: They can look a little scary in their larval state.
Jane: I guess I was fascinated by the fact that I guess in a way I'm probably being a bit of a bubble in the because because I. my day job is doing the gardening stuff and my hobby is gardening stuff. I'm so immersed in this. I forget that not everyone knows what a lacewing lovey looks like in at late spring. Love is quite terrifying to look at actually. But there's all these kinds of fears about, oh my gosh, what is this?
I got another message from somebody and they had this terrible disease on their tree and it turned out that looking at the picture that it was lichen growing on the tree. And again, I had to write this email saying this is a good thing. It probably means your air is quite clean and it's fine. It's not going to damage your tree in any way, shape or form. And it's all good, but you know, it's just that. And that knowledge is a wonderful thing.
Hopefully both of those people went away and did a little reading about the different things and they went away with a little bit more, a bit more useful information out there about what's going on and I think that's the. The other thing to emphasize is despite my sort of despair at people not being able to towards for. I liken actually that if they're asking the question, then that's a good start. If somebody is wanting to know what's going on is better than somebody who's completely blind to everything that's in their garden, which, which happens also.
Leah: And that can be a way to discover some cool things about the natural world, too.
Jane : Yeah, exactly. As soon as somebody starts opening their eyes to this stuff and you know, I find this with listeners, or they'll say, oh, you know, I got my first plant last year and my collection exploded since then because they've suddenly woken up to this whole world of plants that they want to buy and must have. And sometimes it's a kind of a collector's vibe, but oftentimes it's just, oh my gosh, this is another really cool plant by. Must have in my collection. So that's how you get sucked in.
Leah: So, do you bring your plants indoors and outdoors with the seasons, or do they live inside most of the time?
Jane: Well, this is a good question. So this time of year, it is a concern. After this interview I need to go move something from my patio into my potting shed. I have a potting shed which has a glass roof on one side. That's kind of my “greenhouse." It’s unheated. The only things I keep out there in the winter are things like sweet pea seedlings and some very, very hardy succulents like the lace aloe, Aloe aristata. And I will also leave my agaves out there. Everything else comes inside. I’m going to have to have a bit of a cull because I’ve got too many plants, particularly succulents. So I'm going to have a cull and get rid of some stuff which is a very necessary thing.
I've got other things like Coleus, which I grew from seed; I'm going to select the best ones and take cuttings. It’s an awkward time of year for houseplant lovers, as the heating starts to go on and the air becomes drier. It’s the beginning of a bit of a battle for some of us. We'll see how it goes.
Leah: Yeah, I mean our, our seasons are so different. As you know, I'm in Austin, Texas. It's still pretty warm here.
Jane: I did my master's degree in Louisiana, so I remember. I loved the fact that apart from of July and August, when it was just too darn hot and humid, the rest of the year was just so pleasant. But I wonder whether I would miss the seasons here. I do hate the winter in the sense that I really am not keen on the freezing cold and not being able to do stuff outside so much, but the spring is just, it's such an exciting moment when everything really changes. But I do sometimes yearn for that warm and balmy [weather]. I remember seeing lots of “frost warning” signs on the roads in Louisiana and thinking, what are you talking about? Or “Ice warning!” and thinking, “You’re never going to need to worry about that.”
But you know, that’s the interesting thing. Lots of my listeners are in parts of the world where they've got very different climates. Then again, lots of us still have the same kinds of problems ultimately in terms of keeping our plants happy. We do all suffer from the same issues about watering and humidity. I do have a whole Instagram obsession though with people who are in Thailand and Indonesia and their amazing Instagram accounts where they've basically got a whole balcony full of amazing plants living in this humid environment, which we would only be able to grow inside. So I do like to go and pretend sometimes that could be me.
Leah: That's one cool thing about doing a houseplant podcast like you do. You are really talking about mostly the same plants as everybody else who has houseplants all over the world. You know, because there are only so many [types of] houseplants.
Jane : Exactly. I'm always banging on about this. My listeners bored of this, I'm sure, but the first houseplant book I got was The Houseplant Expert by Dr David Hessayon. I think it first came out in the sixties. It's still the best houseplant book and when I look back at my edition, which came out in the eighties, there's not actually that many plants that aren't listed in there that we grow today. Probably one of the few that is not in there is the Chinese money plant, Pilea peperomioides, and there's a few others, but really the palette of houseplants that we're growing has remained pretty much the same over the years.
Jane : Possibly things like Nepenthes and orchids have become more widely available just because of micropropagation. But generally speaking it's the same. You know, you look at the Philodendron page and it's the same Philodendrons that we're growing today. I guess we've found most of the house plants that are that are available to grow and that can be propagated easily and raised on a mass basis by nurseries, and therefore those are the plants we can grow. But always, whenever I see a botanist, I'm always saying, "What do you wish was available as houseplant?” To see if we can find some new and interesting things to grow.
Leah: I was trying to think about, Okay, what are houseplants? I guess they're mostly like tropical understory plants and maybe like high desert plants. How would you define what, what kind of growing condition in nature would create a good houseplant? Something that likes go grow at "room temperature”...
Jane : That's a really good question. Certainly for things like cacti and succulents, and things like Gesneriads, it's things that will grow and be happy in the limited root confines of a pot. So, you know, lots of Gesneriads grow in kind of clefts of soil with not a huge amount of soil. Similarly, cacti and succulents, they get by on not much. So therefore when they're confined to a pot, they don't tend to find that too problematic. Any plant that's gonna, you know, and I guess the Aroids are probably the one group that you do have to bear in mind that you need to repot regularly. They kind of disprove the rule, but you know, they get to a certain size and then you can root-prune them and still keep them happy. I would guess there are some plants that you just couldn't keep in a pot because they wouldn't be happy with that kind of a limited root system.
Jane : I think the other characteristic is plants that will either survive periods of not much water or will bounce back when watered after a long period, rather than dying, I think make a good houseplant. But that said, most house plants die from overwatering. So things that grow in bog conditions, like Papyrus. They make really good houseplants if you're somebody who overwaters because you literally can keep just pouring the water on and they'll be quite happy. So, I think that is really crucial, to find out how the plant grows in the wild. That will inform how you treat it in your home.
Leah: When we were talking about anthropomorphizing your plants, I was trying to get to the idea of, I want to know how you think about your plants. You definitely don't think about them as children, or animals, or as people. But do you think about them as individuals? How do you kind of metaphysically think about them?
Jane : Yeah. I do definitely think about them as individuals with their own unique qualities and characteristics. I mean, I have houseplants that I absolutely hate. The only house plant that is theoretically my husband's is a dragon tree, Dracena marginata, and I've been trying to limp it along for years now. I just don't like this plant. I don't like the species, not just this specific plant. I haven't watered it in ages and it will not die. I've actually chopped it back, but it regrows and I just really wish I could get rid of it and have something nicer. But I kind of feel like, as the only houseplant that's officially his, I can't really do that, do that. So yeah, I know when I don't like a houseplant because I will literally just let it die.
Jane : Like I had a plant on top of the bathroom cabinet and I just thought, I just don't care enough to get it down and water it once a week. And that's okay. I don't feel bad about that because it ended up on the compost heap and it was all good. I know which plants I love the most because they tend to be in the most high-profile places where I'm looking at them the most. So on my windowsill, I have all of my Streptocarpus. Those I do I do feel most protective about. I got very angry this summer when some kind of flying insect flew in and laid its eggs and started eating my Primulina and I was just so gutted. So I do have a real connection to certain plants and there's certain plants that I've had for a very long time. So I have a lace aloe that was given to me about 20 years ago by some friends when they moved away. And that is just a really important plant because it's been with me for so long through thick and thin, I'd be very sad to lose that plant. But some other plants, it's more easy come, easy go. Because once you've got a big collection of plants, you cannot be super precious about everything. You can't be naming every one and going into mourning when it needs to go onto the compost heap.
Jane : And even with plants that I really love, if I get a plant that I just think, gosh, this is not working for me. I have on the occasion taken some leaf cuttings and the whole of the rest of the plant has gone on the compost heap. Because I think, I'm done and I'll start again. So I try to not be too precious about these things. Plus, you know, apart from anything else. I’m quite busy. I've got two kids, I've got a dog, I can't be spending months and months trying to nurse an ailing plant back to life so it's a bit brutal in my house sometimes.
Leah: One last thing, could you give a quick pitch for why we should grow Aspidistras as houseplants?
Jane : Oh my god, yes. It's a wonderful plant that is super tough and is just as architectural and attractive as so many of the other foliage plants we're really into. If you're into variegation, there are lots of variegated Aspidistras. And it's tough and it's long lived. Sadly, they're quite expensive to buy, so it's not something that's going to be sort of taking over the garden center too soon, but if you can get your hands on one, they're wonderful plants.
Leah: It's so funny because they are actually pretty common landscape plants in the South. They do pretty well. They're tropicals, right? So I've seen them frequently used in landscaping and I've planted them and divided them but I've never seen anyone grow one as a houseplant.
Jane: They've got a real sort of history in this country. People do use them outside here as well, but they're not half as popular. So yeah, I'm doing a one woman mission to get people to grow them as houseplants. I'm not sure if it's gonna work, but it's worth a try. And you know, I'm always a sucker for an interesting name and there's a North Wales nursery called Crug Farm who grow a lot of Aspidistras that the owners have collected from wild-collected seed in places like China, and they have one variegated Aspidistra that has the varietal name "Uan Fat Lady." I'm just a sucker for a silly name so, you know, I've got to have one of those. I like to have things that other people consider to be, well, we'd say in the UK, naff. I don't know if that's even a word that you'd us. Like "naff plants," I think Gesneriads probably fall into this category as well. A lot of people think, oh, Gesneriads and flowering plants. Sometimes people are a bit snotty about. But I love them.
Leah: Sometimes the underdog plants have so much more character.
Jane : Yeah. Well I'm documented in having dissed the fiddle-leaf fig in a recent episode to the horror of some people. Somebody on the Facebook group is going, "Look, there's this cute little bambino one, would you not even like this?" And I was like, "Nope." But that's the wonderful thing. You don't have to like all the plants. If you don't like a plant, you don't have to grow it. It's a personal preference thing and it'd be really boring if we all grew exactly the same thing. That's my policy.
[Music: “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”]
Leah: Thanks for listening to Hothouse, and thanks so much to Jane for coming on the show. If you would like to find out more about On The Ledge, visit janeperrone.com. You can find Jane on Instagram @j.l.perrone or @janeperrone on Twitter.
Darryl Cheng, who you head a clip of earlier in the episode, is on Instagram @houseplantjournal, and he’s got a really cool account. He takes time-lapse photos of plants in motion and he has over a quarter-million followers on Instagram.
We have outtakes from this episode: Jane and I discuss growing houseplants from seed, which is something that she’s very into on her podcast. If you would like to hear that you can visit the blog at hothousepodcast.com and sign up for the newsletter while you’re at it. You can find me on Instagram @hothousepodcast and if you would like to email me, please do: info@hothousepodcast.
Our transition music in this episode is “Kid Kodi” by Blue Dot Sessions and “Rite of Passage” by Kevin Macleod. Both are licensed under Creative Commons and linked in the show notes.