Plants breathe life into spaces. To decorate with houseplants successfully, you need to consider the creative possibilities of plant shape, texture, colour and size. Which houseplants you select and how you arrange them will affect the dynamics of your space and create different moods.

Shape

Spiky Agave plants

Houseplants come in a myriad of shapes and understanding how these shapes function in space both alone and in tandem with others can help to make our selections more considered and effective.

Plants with hard, angular shapes such as the spiky Agave create drama and dynamism. Tree-like houseplants such as Yuccas and Dracaena have bare stems which form vertical accents that punctuate and structure space. These architectural plants are good at forming the backbone of an arrangement, framing doorways and other architectural features and moving the eye up and around a room. But too many of them and the display can become chaotic.

To balance these angular shapes, add houseplants which form restful domes or hummocks such as Begonias. Many succulents, such as Crassula, grow into neat cushions whilst others exhibit rounded leaf shapes such as Calatheas and Chinese Money Plant (Pilea Peperomiodes).

Begonia ‘Rex Tiger’
Many succulents, such as this Crassula, form neat hummocks.

These rounded forms soften edges and link plants together. They create a relaxed and harmonious mood. However, a houseplant arrangement which only uses these shapes will lack interest and energy. A balanced arrangement of soft and hard shapes is usually the most effective.

A balanced arrangement of houseplants:
Tree-like Dracaenas elegantly frame this fireplace, their upright forms echoed in the spiky shapes of the smaller Aloe and Sansevieria in front. These vertical accents mirror the architecture of the mantlepiece.

Texture

Bold textures jump forward in space, fine textures recede: Clockwise from top left: Alocasia x amazonica, Ficus lyrata, Ficus elastica ‘Robusta’, Sedum morganianum, Rhipsalis baccifera, Asparagus setaceus.

Although we don’t often use the word ‘texture’ to describe plants it is an important attribute which creates visual interest and affects our perception of space. Fine textured leaves such as the stringy threads of Rhipsalis and the feathery fronds of Asparagus Fern don’t demand attention and recede into space. These tactile plants invite close inspection and touch.

Bold textured plants like Alocasia jump out of space. The large simple leaves of Ficus elastica cut a clean and elegant silhouette, whilst the wavy leaves of Ficus lyrata make a solid mass with indeterminate outlines. These plants also have shiny leaves which reflect light and it pays to regularly clean the leaves to show off this quality.

Juxtaposing different types of textures will highlight textural qualities, provide interest and manipulate the perception of space.

Colour & Pattern

Clockwise from top left: Calathea zebrina, Alocasia zebrina, Caladium ‘Fast Flash’, Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum ‘Mrs Iceton’ , Begonia maculata, Begonia ‘BeLeaf Inca Night’

Houseplant foliage offers some extraordinarily patterned and coloured leaves in a range which is not available amongst outdoor plants so it makes sense to exploit it.

Resembling exotic animal prints, the zebra stripes of Calathea zebrina and Alocasia zebrina plunge us into the jungle whilst the  funky spots of Begonia maculata add some fun. Turning up the tropical heat are Caladiums, flashing foliage splashed with shocking pink and decorative veining.  Begonia ‘BeLeaf Inca Night’ creates purple depth in the jungle undergrowth whilst the glittering speckles of the polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) flash brightly. The cockatoo of this indoor tropical rainforest is Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum ‘Mrs Iceton’ with its technicolour foliage in red, green and gold.

If you prefer a cooler palette, then plump for the metallic tones of Calathea picturata ‘Argentea’ or the hanging Tradescantia zebrina. Many succulents such as Pachyphytum oviferum have attractive, glaucous foliage offering a sophisticated colour palette which works well in modern homes.

Size

This large Ficus lyrata actually makes this small corner seem larger

Playing with scale and selecting plants of different sizes prevents arrangements from becoming uniform.  Don’t be frightened to use large plants in smaller rooms. In fact, one or two large scale plants such as Monstera can actually make a room look bigger, whereas hundreds of small pots distract the eye and will reduce the sense of space.

Repetition versus Variety

An arrangement composed of lots of small pots can make a space appear smaller but it’s also a lot of fun!

Being aware of plant attributes such as shape, texture and size allows you to play with repetition and variety and create different moods. The balance between unifying, repetitive elements and eye-catching variety is up to you, depending on the type of look you wish to achieve: Serene, classical and spacious or a joyful jumble of eclectic clutter!

Uniting arrangements by a theme, whether that be species, habit, colour or style, makes for an interesting but coherent display.  

This themed collection of cacti and succulents invites us to observe detailed variations in form and colour.

Next Up On Houseplants!

Having looked at houseplants in terms of shape, texture, colour and size, you’ll need to think about where and how to arrange them in your home. Next time I’ll be looking at the living conditions which plants require to grow happily – starting with light!

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