Was it the Russians? The Saudis? Or Elton John, who once received a florist’s bill for £293,000? Someone’s to blame for having sacrificed Britain’s great floral heritage on the altar of bling. In days gone by, bunches of homegrown narcissi, gladioli and peonies would have been acceptable. But things have got out of hand, floristry has gone berserk and 90 per cent of cut flowers now come from faraway places like Kenya and Colombia. When I used to work as a florist in London, we would regularly make bouquets of 100 red roses for Arab businessmen. Occasionally they’d ask for two — one for their wife, one for their mistress. Next time you see a photoshoot in OK! magazine, look at the backdrop and you’ll see what I’m referring to: gargantuan displays of blooms, alongside the Botox and the Bentleys. London’s florists aren’t complaining when asked to festoon some Park Lane ballroom with obscene quantities of white hydrangeas to fit the ‘white tie and tiaras’ theme. But in their hearts they know — cut flowers have become painfully naff.
The Duchess of Cambridge understood this while planning her wedding. Instead of filling Westminster Abbey with flowers, as might have been expected, she went for an avenue of English field maples. Shane Connolly, who designed this display, describes it as ‘a dream commission, not just because of who it was but because of their desire to be environmentally thoughtful in all aspects of their wedding’. Afterwards all the trees were replanted or donated to charity.
Cut flowers are out of vogue, and plants, especially British varieties, are back in — roots and all. At the heart of this movement is Ken Marten, a designer from south London, who creates terrariums. He developed an interest in these miniature gardens after a number of years working as a florist at McQueens. He describes his frustration at working with cut flowers: ‘The whole aesthetic is that everything has to be at this perfect moment of bloom. It’s not real in a way. I wanted to get back closer to nature.’ He felt he had ‘nothing more to say through the use of cut flowers’.
As well as being simple to look after, they are also lovely to look at — a micro world that you can keep anywhere, so long as it has enough light and heat. ‘I wanted to change the way we think about houseplants,’ says Marten. While houseplants were once thought the height of sophistication, particularly during the 1920s and again in the 1970s, ‘their appeal died out as people began to spend less time at home’. As a result, indoor plants began to be neglected. When convenience became king in the 1980s and 1990s, the cut flower industry boomed. You could pick up a bunch of tulips at the supermarket together with a takeaway meal. Marten believes things are beginning to change, because modern technology is allowing us to spend more time at home again. But while the tech revolution has allowed us to shop for food, enjoy movies and arrange dates from the comfort of our home, urban living has reduced the amount of space available. A garden has become a luxury which plenty can no longer afford and terrariums are a ‘way to bring green indoors’, says Marten. Social media has also played an important role in generating interest; on Instagram, the hashtag ‘terrariums’ currently has over 182,000 posts. Interior design has been democratised as individuals round the world share their ideas about style.His background in gardening, prop design and floristry led him to found Hermetica London, a company that makes terrariums. Originally a Victorian concept, terrariums are experiencing a revival, as people begin to think more carefully about what plants they surround themselves with indoors. A terrarium can be either open or closed, depending on what plants are used. Ones that are sealed will create their own water cycle, meaning they barely need to be watered and can basically look after themselves. For those who are lazy, time-poor or hopelessly bad at gardening, a terrarium is ideal. ‘They thrive on neglect,’ wrote Anne Raver, the New York Times’s gardening columnist.
Hermetica terrariums are objects of great beauty. Some of the glass containers are designed specifically, some found at car boot sales or in junk shops. Marten studies the English landscape for ideas about what to fill them with, ‘to see where the unexpected happens’. He favours local and ‘found’ plants — things that often might be considered weeds, like Herb Robert, a member of the geranium family. During a recent walk near his studio, he discovered a type of plant called navelwort growing in the cracks of the pavement and included it in a design. He buys succulents from the ‘eccentric old men who sell them round the UK’ as well as plants from the New Covent Garden Market, which he then propagates so they don’t look ‘too generic’. His impressive knowledge of British specimens is the product of a childhood spent in the garden.
In many ways, Marten’s enthusiasm for terrariums and British horticulture harks back to the Victorian obsession with collecting. The botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward is credited with having invented the terrarium in the 1830s, which was known then as the ‘Wardian case’. This technology was used to transport plants around the globe, which helped generate interest in botany. Marten points out one plant he has propagated called rosebay willowherb, a herbaceous plant native to volcanic regions. Marten thinks it probably reached Britain in a Wardian case and colonised woodland areas during the steam age, because it grew in ash from the trains. During the second world war, it was known as ‘bombweed’ because it was often found in craters.
In the Victorian era, collecting plants was a cheap and healthy activity, and all sectors of society took part in amateur botany. ‘Such study must exercise an ennobling and purifying effect on the human soul,’ wrote one Victorian botanist. Ferns were particularly prized: in 1855, Charles Kingsley described how ‘Pteridomania’ — fern madness — had taken hold. Ferns were thought to be an acceptable plant for women to collect because they weren’t considered overtly sexual. In wealthy Victorian houses, Wardian cases filled with ferns would have been a common sight. But ‘even the farm labourer or miner could have a collection of British ferns,’ notes the academic Peter Boyd.
Victorian botany combined a love of collecting, a respect for nature, and an interest in preserving plants. It’s the reverse of today’s floral industry, with its addiction to quick fixes and flamboyant displays, all at great expense to the environment. But a resurgent interest in botany, encouraged once again by technological advances, means more of us are looking beyond the generic world of floristry. Leave the oligarchs to their opulent arrangements; the terrarium is the elegant — and easy — way to bring the British countryside inside.