Old plants in general, or heirloom houseplants more specifically are a topic you might have heard me mention before. Quite a few years ago, I wrote about peoples’ plant stories – basically their connections with particular plants in their homes. After that, a group of us on social media started a group and a hashtag to celebrate these heirloom houseplants (#heirloomhouseplants), or plants with histories further.
In this two part blogpost, in Part 1 I’ll offer some tips on how you can go about acquiring some old/heirloom houseplants of your own. When welcoming these plants into your collection, they might require some care and attention to get settled in. I’ve gone through some key pointers to implement which will help with bringing such plants into your home.
In Part two, I will be sharing more about my own heirloom houseplants and the stories of the oldest plants in my collection. This will be up next weekend.
How to find old / pre-loved or heirloom houseplants
If you are new to the hobby of houseplants or don’t have any family that are into plant growing, fear not! There are other ways you can get your hands on some prospective heirloom plants of your own. These pre-loved, sometimes old plants, are a brilliant way to find plants with personality and often interesting stories to boot. Here are some tips:
Check out local newspapers
Newspapers (online or in print!) are an excellent way to find advertisements for all sorts of things people are looking to get rid of.
Create your own advert or notice
If you don’t find anything being advertised for a while, consider making your own advert. Aside from people looking to get rid of things, you can also write a listing ‘looking for…old houseplants’ etc.
Word of mouth
Before I moved last year, I had developed my own network of houseplant lovers through selling plants in the shop. Regular customers knew I was a fan of rescue plants or old plants and some would bring me cuttings or divisions!
Look for a community newsletter
The obvious aspect to note is that before you head online to widen your search, see if you can get in touch with the people that distribute a community newsletter. We get one through the door every so often and it’s an ideal place to connect with plant lovers in your locality. Local networks will mean that you’ll probably be able to pick up the plants too – so they won’t need to travel far!
Plant groups/societies, local allotments…
Following on from above, connecting with any local plant societies or gardening groups are a great way to give people a heads up that you are looking for old plants. Pop down to your local allotment too – there might be an opportunity to spread the word.
Botanic gardens sales
I have found some lovely plants in botanic garden sales, many of which are often divisions of their own plants growing in the glasshouses. Many of these will have been in situ for many years and looked after well. Spring and Summer are often the time these occur – my local one has sales a few times a month. The majority might be garden plants, but if you are eagle-eyed you can often hunt out the houseplant section! Here are two of mine that came from a glasshouse sale, an Aglaonema and Snake plant I’d been looking for:
A group of us started a website to facilitate the swapping of cuttings back in 2018: houseplantswap.com. Since then, plant swap events have also been growing in popularity over the last few years.
Online, there’s a wealth of places to look and I’ve found some great things on ebay over the years. As I also collect vintage furniture I’m quite used to scouring the internet to find what I’m looking for, but old heirloom houseplants can also be found online.
Estate sales/house clearance
Depending on your location, you could also keep a look out for estate sales and house clearances etc. as you might well find plants listed here.
University dorms/halls of residence notice board
There’s an ever-rising popularity of houseplants with students. Some of whom will have accumulated an abundance of plants and are soon to be moving away. Ask if you can pin an advert on the dorm block notice board towards the end of the academic year asking for any unwanted plants to come your way!
Things to consider when bringing old plants into your home
Here are some pointers to help make the transition as smooth as possible…
As with any new plant acquisitions, I always quarantine any new plants I’m bringing into my space. This doesn’t have to be anywhere fancy – I use my studio space for this. I do this for a few weeks before introducing them to my other houseplants without fail. In this time, I give the plant a proper inspection, under a bright light. If the plant has dense growth or crevices (like snake plants) I’ll also use a torch to check things over. These hard to see places are quite likely to be where pests congregate.
Aside from keeping new houseplant additions separate for a few weeks, being in a steady environment over this time period can also help the plant(s) acclimatise. Your home environment will probably differ to an extent from its previous place so it’s a good idea to keep your plant out of direct light + avoid heavy watering or repotting at this time. If the plant is excessively dry, incrementally increase watering gradually instead of drowning it all at once.
If you have collected the plant from someone who listed it online to ‘get rid of’, it might well be suffering from a period of neglect too. If someone has mentally parted with their plant – for example, if they knew they’d be moving soon etc., they might not have cared for it well for a few weeks. This will mean that a pep up is in order! Nothing fancy, but some diligent leaf cleaning can help revive a plant quickly. I’ve got a blogpost on that here FYI. Dust and grime can build up on foliage plants over time and be particularly aware of houseplants that have residue on the foliage as this might take a few sessions to clean up sufficiently. For example, plants that might have been in kitchens where grease built up could be clogging the plants’ stomata (pores).
If the old/heirloom houseplants are looking a little worse for wear and you suspect pest pressures, it’s important to ascertain what and where the problem is situated. Plants that have suffered periods of neglect, inconsistent watering, low humidities etc. can be prime targets for pests. When the plant is weakened in some way, you should proceed with caution and be vigilant for a few weeks. Keep your plant away from others in this time too – see Plant quarantine above. Determine the issue and keep it isolated as you carry out remedial treatment. Don’t be afraid to cut back damaged parts of the plant at this point. Also consider taking cuttings of healthy stems as part of the process – more on this in Pruning below.
With maturity, it’s common for old plants to have large root systems. Unless the roots have been regularly pruned, or the plant repotted, it’s common to discover that your plant is very root-bound. This means the roots will have ‘outgrown’ their current pot. You might notice they look confined and are circling the bottom of the planter, or might even be growing roots out of the drainage holes! Gently lift the plant by the base out of the pot to determine if repotting is needed. I prefer to wait a few weeks to let my plants acclimatise, as detailed above, before carrying this out.
The other aspect you will want to think about with your new (old) houseplants is the current potting mix. We all have our own preferences when it comes to potting mix – it can be quite a personal choice based on your environmental conditions. I’ve previously been given plants (very kindly of course!) that were just planted in ‘garden muck’! Depending on how long it’s been in the pot, it could very well be in need of a refresh. Especially if it’s been there a number of years! Over time, compacted earth will give rise to watering issues and the plant can begin to suffer. As above, I like to wait a few weeks for my plant to acclimatise before doing a soil change. I’ve got a blogpost on my houseplant potting mix here if you want to see the mix I like to use.
From the outset, it’s worth being prepared that you might need to do some chopping or propagating to revive the new (old) plant. If the plant is recovering from a pest problem, taking cuttings is an excellent ‘back up plant‘ strategy to implement. In any case, ensure the cuttings are healthy and always use a sterile blade. There’s a post here with more on taking cuttings. Succulents are particularly good at bouncing back and can cope with quite severe pruning and trailing plants can be transformed with a haircut! If you have inherited a severely overcrowded planter, propagating by division and separating the plant into clumps can give it a new lease of life. I did this with my nan’s Aspidistra whose roots were severely taking over its old jardiniere!
Gardeners and plant enthusiasts are notoriously generous so I encourage you all to continue to participate in that tradition too! Share cuttings and divisions as random acts of kindness – plants make great gifts (I’ll link my propagation guide here). Side note…this can also help to keep your collection manageable if you have lots! Also, if you see a bedraggled looking plant that looks like it could do with a helping hand, consider giving it a home. Or give it to a friend who would like it.
Hope you enjoyed celebrating some old plants with me in today’s post! I’ll link one of the related blogposts here if you fancy reading more about this subject. You might also enjoy another piece I wrote too – A mindful approach to keeping houseplants. Heirloom Houseplants Part 2 will be up next Sunday.
Here are some pins to save or to share with with someone that might enjoy it: