I have turned into Prince Charles, during lockdown. Well, not literally turned into the Prince of Wales – but I have adopted his oft-joked-about habit of speaking to my plants. This is obviously because, save for my husband (who I thank my lucky stars I was able to be locked down with), I have really only had my houseplants for company. And boy, have we been getting on well.
Now, I’m perfectly well aware that there is a houseplant frenzy gripping the nation. (Anyone who spends more than two seconds a day on Instagram realises that; it’s right up there with avocado toast in the hashtag popularity stakes.) And I was pretty late to this party, actually, despite being a keen (outdoor) gardener – scarred by the memory of murdering too many plants during my flat-sharing days. (Although I’ve never felt quite so guilty about killing plants since I learned that Vita Sackville-West – of the legendary Sissinghurst Castle garden, no less – once compared her own plants’ death rate to infant mortality in the Middle Ages.)
It was Craig (aforementioned spouse) who first brought a houseplant home with him, about a year ago. ‘The air in this house needs improving,’ he insisted. I countered by saying that the rattly windows and floorboard draughts in our old house ensured we got plenty of fresh air, but the plant stayed. And then came another. Soon after, not one but two beautiful local shops opened within walking distance of our house in Hastings (Reste and The Clockwork Crow, if you’re interested), and lo and behold, it began turning into a jungle in here.
And instead of sulking and turning brown, as I’d expected, almost everything grew new leaves and really brought our house to life. (I have stopped short of marking their advancing height on the walls with a pencil, as for a small child – but it’s tempting.) What’s more, they’ve been making us healthier, with it. Many studies exist about how plants counter indoor pollution, essentially air-scrubbing it to counteract toxins like formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and more; plants absorb these toxins, breaking them down into harmless compounds in the soil which then feed the plant later. They’re also good for humidity levels – which in turn is good for skin: one study found that a collection of spider plants – almost impossible to kill, BTW – raised the relative humidity in a bedroom from 20% to a more comfortable 30%.
But those aren’t the health benefits I’m so interested in. Because over the past few months, I’ve realised that caring for my plants has been a grounding, steadying activity that has enabled me to build a ritual in my life at a crazy time when most parts of my day-to-day routine have frankly gone out of that rattly window. Fact: plants are good for mental health. It has been found, for instance, that employees who work in offices with plants tend to feel better about their jobs, fret less and actually take fewer sick days off.
Students in classrooms with three or more potted plants performed better at spelling, reading, science tests and maths than children in classrooms without any greenery. Surgical patients recover faster when they have plants in their hospital rooms, with reported lower blood pressure, pain and fatigue levels. (Ironically, despite that research, most hospitals won’t even let patients have flowers on the bedside now, never mind plants on the ward.)
Now, I’ve long supported horticultural therapy charities like Thrive (and my local Friary Gardeners charity, which gives vital employment to disabled people). But – duh – I hadn’t really twigged how houseplants could do that for moi. Tending for plants is the most miraculous way, I’ve discovered first-hand, to take my mind off all the bad stuff (of which there has been way, way too much) and to lower my stress levels. And while I’m lucky enough to have an actual outdoor garden (something I will never, ever take for granted after the last few months), I have found just pottering with my houseplants incredibly therapeutic.
Fact: when you’re tending your Swiss cheese plant or your rubber plant or your begonia, you can’t really think about anything else. And I can’t tell you how much, over the past three months, I’ve wanted not to think about anything else at all.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, who are very picky about the research they publish, the psychological benefits of indoor plants have been shown as: ‘Improved mood; reduced stress levels; increased worker productivity (adding plants to office environments in particular); increased speed of reaction in a computer task; increased attention span’ – ‘in some scientific studies, but not all’, they point out, in an RHS-y sort of way).
Meanwhile, one of the reasons my success rate with houseplants has been so much better this time around is, quite simply, Google. When I bring home a new plant, I quickly research online to make 100% sure that I’m giving it the right level of light and water, and feeding it (or not feeding it) enough. I really try NOT to venture too far down the rabbit hole by looking at videos of how to propagate it and make lots of gorgeous new baby plants to give away – but it has been known.
And just to confirm my nerd-dom, there’s even an excellent podcast about houseplants that I’ve become slightly addicted to, which glories in the name of On The Ledge (available on podcasts platforms like Apple podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher). Presenter Jane Perrone is UK-based – which means her advice is much more relevant than US houseplant podcasts, with our climate and light levels. And if you don’t know your amaryllis from your elephant’s ear, it’s a great listen.
But what’s really helped my indoor jungle to thrive, I reckon, is that I’ve been talking to my plants. I dread being overheard doing this (although um, who by?) because it sounds embarrassingly like I’m cooing at a new baby. But the Prince of Wales has been doing it for years, of course – and if it’s good enough for Charles. To cement his status as a visionary – the man who ‘wittered on’ for decades about climate change, organic farming, biodiversity, carbuncular architecture and so many other things that the world has slowly woken up to – it seems that HRH was spot-on about conversing with his flora, too.
Because none other than the aforementioned, august Royal Horticultural Society itself carried out a month-long study into ‘talking’ to plants. They made recordings of ten people, women and men, reading from literary or scientific works, then played them to tomato plants. Each plant got to listen to one person’s voice, via a set of headphones attached to each pot. (Two plants didn’t get read to, poor little darlings, as a control.) At the end of the month, the plants which had ‘listened’ to female voices grew an average of an inch or so taller than those which were spoken to by a male voice. So clearly, this is where I’m going right.
And if you still think our future King and I are bonkers, chatting to our plants? I’ve got a thriving begonia (or seventeen), who’ll beg to differ. And far from being a sign of madness, it’s keeping me sane.