Southern Roots

Bringing Nature Inside

Story and photography by P. Allen Smith

Houseplants liven up rooms, improve air quality, and keep us connected to nature, especially during times like these when many of us  are housebound.

The present state of affairs has virtually crept into every aspect of life except for my gardening. Like many, I’ve carried on with abandon, finally taking on projects that have long needed doing. Both inside and out of my home my plants and gardens have enjoyed more of my attention and focus. As a result, I have been the beneficiary, having spent more time among them. I cannot imagine a life without plants near me where I can interface with them daily.

Without question, my favorite rooms at Moss Mountain Farm outside Little Rock, Ark., are the back porches. These spaces allow for an interface between inside and out and foster a closer communion with nature among the creature comforts and conveniences of home. These north-facing porches afford even light, cooler temperatures, and a constant breeze from the river valley below. The east and west areas allow generous amounts of light for the sun lovers.

Over the years, I’ve seen my houseplants thrive in this environment, and in part thanks to them, so do I. They are as important as the furnishings themselves and I consider these living additions as pets or old friends (some even have names). Each spring, after the danger of frost has passed, I look forward to appointing these spaces with my old and reliable standbys, some of which I’ve had for decades or more. It’s like sending them off to summer vacation where they can enjoy their time in the sun.

Olive trees flank one end of the downstairs porch, adding much needed height while the unique pencil cactus’ chartreuse color offers a bright addition. I love bringing in and integrating oddities such as agapanthus and variegated agave, too. They are some of the easiest house guests I know. Some are less so, such as citrus and hibiscus which regularly shed their leaves. But, they all enjoy being rotated weekly and sprayed for spider mites.

Blooms are always a delight. After all, who can deny their beauty? Orchids, begonias, gardenias, and the list goes on. For me, interesting foliage and textures tend to drive my choices. Eugenia are naturally given to clipping into submission, and succulents, amidst their myriad of shapes, colors and forms, are a delight left to their own burgeoning, spilling from their containers. The bromeliads, exotically stunning, are second only to succulents as the most forgiving houseplants of all.

I’m always taken aback when I hear someone say that they can’t grow anything. Seriously? Clearly, they haven’t tried or are simply feigning a lack of expertise that isn’t there. Sadly, they are the lesser for choosing not to engage in one of the most fulfilling interests imaginable — nurturing another living thing.

We’ve all certainly seen our share of soulless rooms and I’ve often thought what a few houseplants could do to improve a stale environment and improve even the most inhospitable rooms. My definition of a houseplant is broad, so “anything goes” — blooming mandevillas, herbs, and shrubs like azaleas and gardenias all can bring life into a space.

When I was growing up, my choices of available houseplants were few by today’s standards. It seems that members of my grandparents’ generation had pothos, sansevierias or Mother-in-law’s tongue (as I learned to call it), the devil’s backbone, and African violets in the windowsill. Most were “pass-along” plants, pieces or cuttings shared from one person to another. These plants then, as they do today, improved the air quality, ushered in life into otherwise dull rooms, and brought joy to those of us who care for them.

The pandemic has helped me reunite with and appreciate houseplants all over again by recognizing the beauty and style they can so effortlessly bring to our homes. I simply cannot imagine a world without plants by the very way they help ground me and keep me more deeply connected to nature.

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