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Boston Fern - Nephrolepis exaltata
I love my Boston fern as if it were a pet. It’s not quite in the realms of my golden retriever Harry – few humans make the cut either – but I check in with it every day, marvelling at its bushy aliveness, and prehistoric charm.
Evergreen, air purifying, it was discovered in 1894, and immediately prized for its emerald-green elegantly drooping leaves. Capable of reaching 90cm tall – mine is a good 60cm; I’m feeding it! – this fern brings the forest floor into my kitchen, where it seems to thrive, unfussed over, cheerfully sat on its bed of pebbles in a green ceramic planter.
A thirsty beast who loves humidity, the Boston is very at home in Oxford, just as it was in the damp Victorian houses of the 1890s, when pteridomania (fern fever) swept the upper middle classes. This plant always makes me think of my novel, The Glass House, since back in the day it was often grown in a Wardian Case – the first ground-breaking terrarium – to protect it from the cloying air pollution of 19th century London. Happily, it went on to colonise elegant drawing rooms in the US and Europe – and now my kitchen.
Kentia Palm - Howea forsteriana
The houseplant version of a holiday. During lockdown, I was grateful for the tropical glamour my towering Kentia brought to our east-facing sitting room. It reminds me of old tea rooms, elegant hotel lobbies and Agatha Christie-like parlours. And of exotic parrots: a parrot – a very talkative one, who overhears and, damningly, repeats human conversations – features in my latest novel, The Birdcage, its cage surrounded with Kentia palms to help the bird ‘feel at home’. (My house and garden plants usually work their way into my books, one way or another.)
The Kentia was discovered in the 18th century on Lord Howe Island in the Pacific. Meanwhile, in the twenty-first century, my teenage daughter has made more than one attempt to kidnap the Kentia and carry it away to her bedroom. I fear its days in the sitting room are numbered.
Pelargoniums - Pelargonium Attar of Roses
I have a soft spot for indoor pelargoniums. My beloved late grandma used to grow them in her lean-to conservatory, and they remind me of her. She loved the ones with gaudy lipstick-red flowers. I grow them for their leaves and perfume. I love the way pelargoniums come in all sorts of scent flavours. Rub their soft hairy leaves and they release perfume like a kiss.
I’ve had cola and lemon-scented ones, but my favourite is Attar of Roses, which I grew from a tiny plug plant. It now sprawls from its pot over my antique green dresser. (I have a thing about the colour green: more is more.) I find pelargoniums quite fussy and capricious, but, as with all interesting characters, I forgive them their flaws.
My new novel The Birdcage is about three half-sisters and their famous artist father, so oil paint features rather a lot. And this plant’s leaves could have been painted by an artist, a particularly rich shade, the colour of ripe aubergines.
The Calathea also seems almost spookily sentient, closing its leaves at night – one of the reasons it's known as the prayer plant – and constantly rustling and moving, re-angling towards the light. Us writers do much the same thing, fidgeting, shifting as we work, trying to find that shaft of illumination.
African Violet - Saintpaulia ‘Dark Blue’
Size really isn’t everything. This petite plant sits next to my computer as I write. I love its pillowy, fuzzy leaves, and the unpredictable random appearance of its rosette of negligee-silk flowers, the deepest grotto blue.
Also, in my experience, this is the flowering houseplant that just won’t die. I bought mine years ago from a down-at-heel newsagent, not expecting it to live long. But on the African violet goes. I’m guilty of forgetting to water it, partly because it looks so plump even when dehydrated, and yet it survives, thriving on a writer’s benign neglect. Perfect.
Eve Chase’s new novel, The Birdcage, is published 28th April by Michael Joseph
Say hello to Eve on Twitter or Instagram @EvePollyChase