The wild indoors: At Christmas, we fill our homes with fresh flowers and pot plants. But why not enjoy their beauty all year round? By Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online

Did you know (geeky fact coming up) that the retail market for cut flowers and indoor plants in the UK is worth more than the entire music recording industry? Although British pop stars are hugely hyped, endlessly written about and constantly exposed to the cruel limelight of the television studio, our outlay on azaleas, yuccas, cut stems of iris and sweet smelling narcissus now runs at £2.2bn a year.

And we splash out almost 10 times as much on cut flowers as we do on houseplants, though if we were being serious about trying to save air miles it should be the other way round. Less than a third of the cut flowers we buy will be home grown. Roses come furthest, flown in from Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Israel, Kenya, South Africa, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. But half the pot plants on sale in this country will have been grown here: African violets, azaleas, begonias, potted chrysanthemums, fleshy kalanchoes and a wide variety of potted bulbs grown mostly in Lincolnshire, where growers can still hold their own against the more heavily subsidised nurseries of Denmark, Belgium and The Netherlands.

Most indoor plants are sold through supermarkets and DIY superstores. Marks and Spencer started offering them in the late Seventies and their market has been increasing ever since. But like everyone else involved in the potted plant business, supermarket buyers wonder why we in Britain spend an average of just £36 each a year on flowers and indoor plants, when consumers in Germany or Holland spend between £60 and £100. Is it because so many of us have gardens, and spend more on outside plants than inside ones? Or is it, as the Flower and Plant Association suggests, because 'the British like to hang on to their houseplants when they are past their best, instead of treating them as a disposable item to be enjoyed and then discarded, like fresh flowers'. If that's true, I think it an admirable trait. You can't just chuck something that's alive in the dustbin. Think of it, fighting to survive, screaming to be saved.

Supermarkets, of course, are notorious for the tight specifications they lay down for their products: so many millimetres in the shirt seam, so many buttons on the skirt, so many currants in the bun. This is more of a problem if you are supplying plants, but the specifications are laid down in just the same way. Poinsettias, a speciality at this time of the year, must be between 22-30cm tall, with five red bracts showing on each head. Nature does not always oblige, although automated glasshouses now provide miracles of control.

A great deal of research goes into selecting plants which, as supermarkets put it, will stand a certain amount of 'customer abuse'. That means choosing things which, in the store, do not mind having their leaves poked and pinched a hundred times a day and which, once out of it, will not keel over and die if their new owner forgets to water them once in a while.

They must also be plants which people find attractive, though here mistakes are sometimes made. The peacock plant, Calathea makoyana, looks as though it should be a winner: it's tough and it has showy oval leaves dramatically marked with herringbones of silver. It's been tried, but it's never got anywhere near the top ten. Of the hundreds of species that could technically be grown as houseplants, only about 50 are grown commercially in any quantity. Of those, only about 12 make the first division - plants that are bought on a significant scale.

Stores and DIY sheds are not ideal places to stock house plants. The atmosphere is very dry and there is little natural light. At this time of year, though, the greatest danger plants have to face is the journey home. In the winter months, the wind chill factor can be enough to kill a plant reared in the sybaritic heat of a greenhouse. That's why supermarkets designed special cone-shaped carry-home bags to keep off the wind.

About a fifth of all house plants are bought in the frenetic couple of weeks leading up to Christmas. These basic guidelines will help to ensure that they last more than a couple of weeks afterwards: Houseplants are more likely to die from too much water rather than too little. Do not expect them to conform to a regular watering schedule. In winter they need less than in summer. Stick a finger into the compost to check whether it is damp before adding more water. When in doubt about feeding, remember that most plants will thrive on a simple three times a year dose of liquid fertiliser given in mid-March, mid June and mid-September. Plants growing in loam-based compost will not need feeding for about three months after purchase or repotting. Those growing in soilless composts will need feeding after six weeks.

All plants need light to thrive, though some, such as the rubber plant ( Ficus elastica) and the aspidistra ( Aspidistra elatior), can do with very little.

Central heating keeps plants warm, which they enjoy, but dries out the air, which they do not. The humidity level in the average centrally heated sitting room is 15 per cent. House plants do best in a humidity of around 60 per cent. Try to create a humid atmosphere by grouping plants together on a tray of pebbles which can be damped down whenever necessary. Spraying the leaves daily also lifts the humidity level.

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