Welcome to the jungle - the benefits of a plant theme in your house
The plant theme not only looks nice - it has psychological and productivity benefits too
In the 1970s, a substantial minority of people used to talk to their house plants. Most of them had read The Secret Life Of Plants (1973), by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The book, now largely discredited, was a glorious mishmash of pseudo-science and fantasy. Its main claim was that plants had feelings.
The theory that plants were sentient beings came from the experiments of Cleve Backster, a former CIA polygraph expert. One day, in 1966, Backster hooked up a house plant in his office to a lie detector. He found that merely imagining the dracaena fragrans being set on fire caused a surge of electrical activity on the polygraph machine. He inferred that the plant not only felt stress but could read his mind.
Further experiments found that a plant that had witnessed the murder of another plant (by trampling) could pick out the murderer from a line-up of six suspects. When the plants were watered, he claimed they experienced happiness.
Legitimate plant scientists attempted to reproduce Backster's experiments without success and went on to distance themselves from his work. There's little evidence that plants feel happiness, but plenty to show that they cause it.
Having plants and flowers around the house not only looks nice, it also helps improve your mood and reduce the likelihood of stress-related depression. That's according to research from the Texas A&M University. A plant-rich environment can also help concentration, creativity and memory.
As someone who works at home, I find this one especially interesting! There seems to be solid science behind it too. A recent University of Michigan study showed that being "under the influence of plants" can increase memory retention up to 20pc. An eight-month study at the Texas A&M University found that people "demonstrated more innovative thinking, generating more ideas and original solutions to problems in an environment that included flowers and plants".
Interestingly, the men in the study generated 15pc more ideas, while the women came up with "more creative, flexible solutions to problems when flowers and plants were present". It's enough to send you scurrying down to your local garden centre.
Once you've got your plants home, the stylist and floral designer Jette Virdi has some ideas on how to place them. "In my own house, none of the fireplaces actually work, so I've filled them with plants. The tallest is elephant's ear, that's quite gangly, and I've got a Christmas cactus, and non-blooming orchids. I've a few little ferns hanging over the mantle and their fronds draw the eye down to the larger plants in the fireplace."
Other plants, like her flowering orchids, need a bit more natural light. She's placed these in front of the kitchen window to catch the sun.
Cut flowers have some, but not all, of the benefits of living plants. Talking to them won't help (they're dead anyways) but if you treat them well, they will last for longer. "I'm amazed people don't know to trim the stems," says Virdi. "They just bring them home and plonk them in a vase!"
If flowers are out of water, even for a 10 minutes, the stems seal up and they can't absorb water. But don't cut them too short! "As a rule of thumb, the flowers and branches should be one and a half times the height of the vessel," she says. "Short flowers look crowded."
She doesn't use vases, preferring old milk bottles and Kilner jars, or the little ceramic beakers (€16) that she sells in her online shop Created+Found.
If you're one of those people who can kill a house plant by looking at it, there is a theory that you can accrue some of the benefits of real plants by using fake ones. A good faux plant or plant-print triggers the same set of signals in your mind as a real one. "I'm terrible for keeping plants alive but I have a few faux ones that I love," says Sarah Drumm, interior designer with Dust.
If a real greenhouse isn't an option, foliage-inspired wallpaper can lift the spirits. My absolute favourite is the Greenhouse Wallpaper designed by Erik Gutter for NLXL in the Netherlands. The wallpaper, which has no repeats, has a background of soft, subtle trailing plants. It's divided into a framework of greenhouse windows, which create the illusion of looking through panes of glass. It's not a cheap product and costs €209 for a 10 metre roll from Dust.
Among cheaper options, the Clarke & Clarke Feather-Filled Monkey Cushion (€53) from Next is good fun, as are the Urban Jungle Accessories which include Palm Tree wallpaper (€19.50) and Loreto Palm leaf print curtains (€46 to €153). Use them sparingly, preferably interspersed with plenty of real plants.
And don't forget to talk to them! Some people still think that talking to plants makes them grow better. Others say the plants respond to the carbon dioxide in your breath, rather than what you actually say. If that's true, giving out to them should have the same effect.
Jette Virdi is leading a series of floral design workshops at Arran Street East Studio, Dublin, on April 29, May 27 and June 24. They cost €60 each, with all equipment and flowers provided, see arranstreeteast.ie. See also jettevirdi.com, createdandfound.com, next.ie, and dust.ie.