I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my peace lily. Ditto my Christmas cacti. And the small fern that died. Are they growing? Do they have enough water? Or too much water? The latter was definitely the case with the small fern that lived on my bedside cabinet. Are any of them still alive?
I’m not alone in my fascination with houseplants. Horticulture Week recently noted that the booming trend for all things botanical has seen some garden centres report a year-on-year double in sales. IKEA, which according to interior garden designer Ian Drummond is “the most popular retailer of houseplants in Britain”, is expanding and revising its range in August, while stores such as Urban Outfitters have begun selling them too.
Predictably, Instagram has been key in popularising this phenomena. Hasthtag #succulents has well over 3.25 million posts; the Geo-Fleur account featuring indoor plants boasts 105k followers. Botanical stylist and Geo-Fleur founder, Sophie Lee, has even published a book, Living With Plants: A Guide to Indoor Gardening.
This considerable growth reflects changes in housing, what with garden sizes shrinking and apartment living taking over. With the age of first time home buyers having increased to thirty two, and more of us living for longer in rented accommodation, we are looking for simple ways to personalise our living spaces and spruce up surroundings. However this green-finger craze extends beyond interiors. It is part of the broader contemporary fixation with wellness, and the equally hazy term wellbeing. Plants and botanicals are the ingredients du jour in the beauty world, in our smoothies and even in our clothes (think hemp as a fabric). Earlier in June, for instance, Liberty ran a campaign on ‘The Power of Plants’, promoting their newly stocked facial serum from Vintner’s Daughter, which they describe as using ‘a blend of active organic and wild-crafted botanicals’. In fact, a lot of skincare brands are emphasising the connection, Aurelia, for instance, provides an A-Z of botanical ingredients on their website.
Although this specific vogue for verdure is new, the world of beauty and fashion has long been obsessed with the natural world. The V&A’s ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’ exhibition includes a pink evening dress made for actress Ava Gardener in 1965 and named ‘La Tulipe’, as the shape takes inspiration from the flower of the same name. Internationally acclaimed photographer Nick Knight supports the theory, quoting “Flowers have always been a huge influence and inspiration in the art of fashion and design”. The evidence sits in the forty fashion illustrations that he commissioned for the current exhibition at SHOWstudio in Belgravia. Running until 22nd July 2017, ‘Fashion Flora’ explores the use of flowers as a motif in fashion throughout the decades and celebrates pivotal moments in this relationship.
Another well-known fashion figure who cites flowers as a source of inspiration is hair stylist Sam McKnight, who recently spoke at the Chelsea Psychic Gardens on this subject. McKnight, whose work has appeared on over a hundred Vogue covers, commented “My work definitely influences the way I look at my garden. There’s something about colour, shape and form that runs through what I do for a living”.
The garden features prominently in many artists’ work from around the globe. Claude Monet, the most well-known painter of gardens (particularly his own in Giverny, France) said that he owed his painting “to flowers”. Yet despite being a widespread – arguably universal – theme, are the garden and flowers particularly significant in the English cultural imagination?
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest this is the case. According to the Royal Horticultural Society head of gardening advice, Guy Barter, although tending private plots is a commonplace hobby here, this isn’t the case in elsewhere; speaking in 2009, he stated “Because of our climate and our culture we do garden very enthusiastically in a way that is not duplicated in other countries”. At the same time, Harvard professor Maria Schwartz argued that we as a nation express our individuality through our gardens and harbour “romanticised ideologies” about these spaces. This bond, of the Englishman and his garden, weaves its way through our language too. Historically the archetypal national beauty, with creamy skin and pale hair, was known as an ‘English rose’.
The popularity of English blooms reaches beyond our shores, with our brand of supremely English floral fashion exported globally. Once this was pioneered by Laura Ashley but now Cath Kidston, whose international retail franchise sales reached an estimated £144 million in 2014, offers a nostalgic vision of English life in which flowers are central. A quick browse of the company’s website reveals thirty one floral patterns in their women’s clothing range, with names such as ‘Regent’s Rose’, ‘Daisy Sprigs’ and ‘Oakwood Bloom’.
Whatever form they take, flowers and plants are as central to our wardrobes and bathroom cabinets as much as they are our homes and gardens. Poppies, peonies and other posies continue to thrive in perfume and prints, while as botanicals and succulents have their moment in the sun. Even IKEA, the firm that that famously enjoined us to ‘Chuck out our chintz’ back in the mid-1990s, are getting in on it.