Decorate With Nature: How to Use Plants in Interior Design

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Photo By Rosemary Kautzky
Place decorative plants such as this orchid (Cymbidium Magic Mountain 'Valentine') in front of a mirror to enhance their gorgeous blooms.

Well-chosen plants–artfully displayed–enhance your home’s unique look and make it feel healthier and more connected with nature. When selecting indoor plants, plan where you want to display them and what look you hope to achieve.

To get started, explore your home for special niches where plants can serve more than one purpose. Like furniture and other fixtures, every plant in your home should have a job it does well. Indoor plants can define spaces, soften the lines of angular furniture and bridge the transition between the indoor and outdoor worlds.

Energized entryways

Feng shui practitioners often suggest placing a plant in your home’s main entryway to help pull in natural energy, but you don’t want it to add clutter. Upright plants that don’t mind cold drafts are ideal; snakeplant (Sansevieria trifasciata) and cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) top the list of easy entryway plants. (See “20 Indoor Plants Even You Can’t Kill.”)

To keep the plants beautiful and healthy, trim blemished leaves with pruning shears, wipe leaves clean with a damp cloth and slip the plant into a décor-friendly container. If you and the plant are happy after a month (the time it takes for a plant to adjust to a new site), repot it into a slightly larger container where it can stay at least two years.

Many entryways include a mirror–an instant way to double a plant’s presence while adding light to the scene. Beautiful bloomers such as orchids (Orchidaceae spp.) and cyclamens (Cyclamen spp.) make wonderful looking-glass plants, or you can opt for dependable, easy-to-please foliage such as Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum). The mirror trick works well in any room. In a small bathroom, mirrors can make one small rabbit’s-foot fern (Phlebodium aureum) look like three.

Softening hard lines

In living and dining rooms, high shelves or tall pieces of furniture will appear less blocky and imposing if you soften upper corners with cascading plants. Heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron cordatum) is ideal for spots with limited light, pothos (Epipremnum spp.) works well in brighter spots, or you can try rattail cactus (Aperocactus flagelliformis) where sunlight rules. Cacti are hands-off plants, but rambling vines need trimming back once or twice a year.

Choose low, wide containers that won’t raise the already high vertical profile. This is one place where the pot should play a quiet supporting role. If the container matches the wall color, for example, it’s easier to achieve a feeling of unity between the furniture and the plant.

Empty corners or long, linear walls come to life with the help of tree-form floor plants such as palms, weeping fig (Ficus benjamina), rubber plant (Ficus elastica) or Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Study the site’s available light and shop around for containers before making your final plant selection. These big botanicals are usually happiest when they’re kept in one place and gently rotated every few weeks, so regard the container and the plant as semipermanent furnishings. For nighttime drama, try uplighting a large floor plant with a small spotlight hidden behind the pot.

In a small room that would be overwhelmed by an indoor tree, you can gain vertical interest by pairing an upright plant with a tall urn. Or, train a climbing philodendron to cling to a post using secret twists of florist wire.

Working with indoor weather

Plants’ leaves serve as solar collectors: Those that can adapt to low light often have broad, thick leaves and grow slowly, whereas the best species for sun-drenched windows have thinner leaves and continuously produce new growth. The large, south-facing windows used in passive solar design create sunny conditions that support indoor citrus such as calamondin orange (Citrusmadurensis). Or, you can put that light to work producing color. Angel-wing begonias (Begonia coccinea) or fancy-leafed zonal geraniums (Pelargonium xhortorum) bloom intermittently year round with casual care. In sun strong enough to fry other plants, reblooming cacti or succulents develop into living art.

Dim rooms that have only one north- or east-facing window can host living things–as long as the walls are painted a light color. Dozens of foliage plants (but few bloomers) can adapt to low light when given a few weeks’ time.

You can use the plant’s form and texture to strengthen the room’s style. For example, the symmetrical silhouette and waffled leaves of peperomia (Peperomia spp.) bring a lush touch to bedrooms intended to feel soft. To offset any potential gloom in a quiet reading area, consider a nicely variegated prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura). At night, as you turn on the light to read, the prayer plant will open its folded leaves, making it an endearing companion.

Strategic Staging

Decorating with plants can be a source of endless fun. Tablecloths, runners or woven mats can help showcase a holiday cactus or other beloved bloomer at its peak, or you might position a cascading plant so it directs interest toward a treasured photograph or seasonal decoration.

When you shop for containers, many pots labeled as “planters” have no drainage holes, so they are really cachepots–outer containers that hold slightly smaller ones, usually thin plastic nursery pots. Cachepots are chosen for their looks alone, so they
can be anything from collectible porcelain pieces to brass or copper buckets.

Buy distinctive cachepots in a mix of rustic, festive, neutral and formal pieces. Should the rim of a pot show after a plant is placed in a cachepot, hide it from view with moss or another natural material. You can dress up the soil’s surface with glass marbles or polished stones; dress it down with moss, bark or pebbles; or simply refresh it with a thin layer of new potting soil from time to time. Fine gravel or sand spread over the surface can accentuate the clean lines of cacti and succulents, making them look grounded and tailored, and fossil-laden river stones can achieve the same effect when arranged around the base of an indoor tree.