Pot-et-fleur with Jacky Mills

The art of pot-et-fleur: combining houseplants with cut flowers

The Victorian art of pot-et-fleur, combining living house plants with cut flowers, is enjoying a revival and allows you to create beautiful and sustainable floral arrangements without the need for floral foam. Words Jacky Mills, photographs Jason Ingram

How to create pot-et-fleur with umbellifer, cow parsley and Adiantum ferns

I love using wildflowers in naturalistic floral arrangements and grow as many as possible in my own garden so that I am free to pick as desired. This arrangement was inspired by a walk down my local country lanes in May where the hedgerows are lined with billowing clouds of cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, exuding a light and airy feel. I’ve combined this iconic umbellifer with several Adiantum ferns and a trio of blues from the borage family to add some sparkle to the mix.

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Container display from Ben Preston with tulips and euphorbia
© Eva Nemeth

How to achieve the look

This handsome wooden crate houses ten chunky soda bottles, but for this display I replaced seven of them with maidenhair ferns in 1L pots and three with cut flowers in glass vases, anchoring the arrangement with a row of Victorian clay ink pots.

A selection of tall, cow parsley stems adds height, and I picked those with the darkest purple stems to match the rose-flushed buds of the Clematis montana. These provide a link to the almost-black stems of the maidenhair fern, whose fresh virescent tones add a sense of depth to the display.

Pot-et-fleur with Jacky Mills

Green alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens, and Siberian bugloss, Brunnera macrophylla, provide a drift of bright blue that is subtly enhanced by the chalkier blue of forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica. This arrangement will last nearly two weeks in a cool conservatory out of direct sunlight with regular misting and changes of water in the vases. The ferns appreciate high humidity and should be kept well watered during the growing season.

All the flowers used in this display are prolific self-seeders so need careful management to stop them taking over your garden. The hairy leaved alkanet can be found flowering along woodland edges so is happy in part shade while the bugloss makes a great groundcover plant. I cut both hard back in June and July, after their initial flowering to refresh and keep them in check. Myosotis sylvatica also copes well with shade, readily seeding about but is easy to pull out where not required.

Plants

1 Pentaglottis sempervirens A perennial herb. Flowers April to July. 70cm. RHS H6.

2 Anthriscus sylvestris Cow parsley.Flowers April to May. 1.7m. RHS H6.

3 Myosotis sylvatica A short-lived perennial or biennial. April to June. 3cm. RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.

4 Clematis montana A vigorous deciduous climber. March to June. 12m. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.

5 Brunnera macrophylla Siberian bugloss, a hardy perennial. April to July. 40cm. RHS H6, USDA 3a-7b.

6 Adiantum raddianum ‘Fragrantissimum’ Tender evergreen fern with black stems and lime-green leaves. 50cm. USDA 8a-11.

Equipment you need

  • Traditionally, ornate punch bowls or soup tureens were used to hold elaborate, pot-et-fleur designs but any container could be adapted for a more contemporary approach including terracotta and ceramic bowls, willow baskets, glass aquariums or metal boxes, but if it’s not water tight, you’ll need to take care to protect the surface it sits on.
  • Within the main container you can use any sealed vessel to hold the cut flowers but if it will be partially visible, opt for more attractive containers, such as old ink pots or vintage glass bottles that have a wide base and thin neck. Glass test tubes are a good option but take care when burying them in case they break, and always secure safely.
  • A pin holder is an excellent way of accurately securing heavy stems. These discs of metal spikes are much relied on in the practice of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, lending a more naturalistic feel to an arrangement. I also use several heavy, semi-spherical glass frogs to hold flowers and branch stems. Be sure to attach both of these securely to the base of the vase with floral putty or tape before arranging. A length of wide-gauge chicken wire scrunched into a loose ball will do a similar job. Sharp scissors or secateurs are also essential bits of kit; thorn and leaf strippers are useful too.
  • Before you start arranging your cut flowers, snip off the ends of picked stems and remove any foliage that will be below the water level and leave in deep water for up to 24 hours. Regularly topping up water levels or changing the water entirely every couple of days will help the arrangement last longer as air locks and bacteria will quickly cause a stem to wilt.
  • Houseplants are easily killed through overwatering, so using hydroleca clay expanded pellets will not only add an attractive finish to the container, they will also absorb extra water, slowly releasing it as the compost dries out. They help maintain a humid microclimate around the plants when wet and even out fluctuations
    in the surrounding temperature. Activated charcoal is another useful addition to the growing medium as it reduces the build
    up of impurities minimising odours.
  • Propriety brands of houseplant potting compost with an open, free-draining mix should be sufficient for most growing needs but you can improve drainage by adding perlite, vermiculite, horticultural sand or grit. A top dressing of decorative gravel, clay pellets or moss will also reduce water loss.
  • A slim watering can with a long narrow spout for small spaces is ideal for these displays, but misting is an excellent way to maintain the humidity around plant leaves.
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This was part of a piece that ran in April’s Gardens Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here