My Book of the Week: Legends of the Leaf

Jane Perrone

Published spring 2023 by Unbound

Hardback. £14.99. Also available as an e-book

ISBN 978-1-80018-200-4

Review and book giveaway. Please leave a comment at the end of this review to take part in a prize draw for one copy.

When I look at my dismal collection of much-loved but slowly-dying houseplants, I just want to jump on the phone and ring horticultural expert Jane Perrone. We would be talking for hours! Overwatering and lack of knowledge are the two reasons my sorry subjects look so poorly. Now, luckily, Jane has saved the day by publishing an entertaining and easy to read book, Legends of the Leaf.

Jane focuses on 25 popular houseplants, unearthing the hidden histories and journeys they’ve taken to becoming prized possessions in our homes.

Kentia Palm

My favourite story relates to the Kentia Palms which stood on either side of Queen Victoria’s coffin as she lay in state. Jane writes: “When Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, her staff enacted a twelve-page set of funeral instructions she had compiled ready for the occasion. Many of her requests broke with traditions of the time, and some certainly seem peculiar to modern readers. The British monarch had been wearing black mourning dress for four decades since the death of her husband Prince Albert, but she insisted on being buried in a white dress, with the white lace veil she last wore at her wedding over her face as a shroud, and she stipulated that mourners at her funeral should not wear black. Tucked around her body were many surprising items, including a plaster cast of her late husband’s hand and his dressing gown. But the Kentia palms which stood at either end of the coffin would have been a surprise to no one.

“These large palms dominate the photographs of Queen Victoria’s coffin lying in state in the Albert Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle. Their fronds arch over the bearskins of four Grenadier Guards who stood on duty, heads bowed, but they are not noted in many newspaper reports of the scene. I suspect this was because palms in general were such a fixture of upper class life at the turn of the twentieth century that they did not warrant a mention. As professor of design history Penny Sparke noted, palms acted as a frame for the cluttered interior of Victorian homes. ‘They introduced an exoticism of the tropics, as well as memories of empire and of an untamed world in which nature held sway over culture,’ she wrote. Queen Victoria grew Kentias at her royal residences, Society weddings were held underneath living arches made of two Kentia palms, and Kentias filled the lobbies of luxury hotels.”

There were Kentia palms on the Titanic when it sank in April 1912, Kentias in the palm court at the Ritz hotel in London when it opened in 1906, and potted Kentias for sale in the famous Harrods department store. This was a worldwide phenomenon rather than just a British penchant: a report on Kentia palms in the Los Angeles Times in 1929 noted: “They are used in hotel corridors, on banquet tables and for gala occasions – in Tokio (sic), Manila, Singapore, Suez, Cairo, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, london, New York, and Los Angeles.”

I shall have a new respect for my slow-growing and small Kentia palm. I had never heard of the royal connection before or the fact it was held in such high esteem all over the globe. I might not be having any banquets or gala events, but my palm will be moved to a more prominent position than in it’s former corner in the dark spare room.

Care instructions
How to care for Kentia palms

Jane’s beautifully written and entertaining histories are accompanied by a care guide outlining the amount of light plants require, temperatures they prefer, watering, humidity, substrate and a section on pest and diseases, propagation, feeding, ideas for display, and most usefully, ‘danger signs’ to look out for when things are starting to go wrong. In my case, blackened leaves are a sign of overwatering and leaves turning straw-like can be a sign of sunburn. You can put plants outdoors in summer, but start them in deepest shade and gradually increase the amount of light. I probably go from one extreme to the other, from indoors in a dark place, to straight outdoors in full sun.

The other plants I have in my collection include the quirky-looking Lithops, or living stones. I also have the Ceropegia woodii, or string of hearts, the jade plant, Begonia and Monstera. And there’s an Aloe vera, for burns, on the kitchen windowsill.

My pot of Lithops or ‘living stones’ in the greenhouse

Jane’s book is beaufully-illustrated by Helen Entwistle. And a word must be said about the quality of the publishing. The cover is glorious, and the silky paper is a beautiful thickness. I’ve never thought to consider these things until this year, when I received several books which were not well put together. A well-made book, as well as a well-written book, is a joy to read.

Back cover
Illustrations from the book

Jane Perrone is host of the popular podcast, On the Ledge. She also writes for the Guardian, the Financial Times, and Garden Illustrated. Over the years, I’ve looked to Jane for good, sensible advice and always found her writing to be a level above others. I can highly recommend her latest book, Legends of the Leaf. I found it an exciting read, discovering how my favourite houseplants made a leap from the wild to the windowsill. I literally couldn’t put it down once I’d started reading it, and now I know the background stories to my houseplants, they are receiving the care they richly deserve.

Please leave a comment in the box below and a name will be randomly selected for the prize draw. Thank you for reading my blog. You are amongst the 200 people who take a look each day and I’m very grateful for all your support and comments.


19 thoughts on “My Book of the Week: Legends of the Leaf

  1. I love the illustrations for this book, Karen, and it sounds as if it is a really intersting read. I am wondering if the ‘palm’ I have is actually a Kentia palm, as it wasn’t labelled when I got it – perhaps I ought to have a pair of them?! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Cathy. The illustrations are really lovely. The artist has captured the essence of the plants. I’m going to see if I can make this one thrive before I buy another to make a pair 😅. Karen x

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Completely agree about the quality of books themselves. Unfortunately, many so-called hardback books today are no more than paperbacks with cardboard ends and will last no longer. Then there is the curse of stinky printing, which affects many magazines and low budget publications. But back to happier houseplants, which I am all in favour of! Victoria’s subjects favoured the aspidistra and dubbed it the ‘cast iron plant’. Well, mine had a bad summer and I am treating it to some deep shade and rain showers in the hope of recovery. I could do with any help Jane’s book might provide …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true Peter. I’ve been quite disappointed with the quality of some of the new books in terms of the binding, paper and photographs. Happily, Jane’s book is an exception and a joy to hold in the hand. I had a cast iron plant for many years and it lived completely outdoors in a very sheltered spot. Sadly a tree fell on it and that was the end of it. Good luck in the prize draw and thank you for reading my blog and getting in touch. All the best. Karen.


  3. Hi Karen! I find it hard to believe your houseplants are not perfect, with your green fingers! 😉 I have similar problems, assuming my houseplants will just look after themsleves and ask if they want water, but just recently I have actually started giving them a little liquid feed every week. This book sounds lovely and I would love to be entered in the draw if postage to Germany is an option – my large Kentia Palm was repotted this spring after struggling all winter and now I am wondering where I will put it if it gets any bigger! Thanks for the nice review. If I don’t win, I will put this on my list wish anyway. 😃 Hope all is well with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Cathy. I think I only notice my houseplants when they start to sulk and flop. Then I overcompensate by overwatering them! With Jane’s book, I’ve made a list of to-dos for each plant. Some really are very pretty, I can’t think why I neglect them so much. As you know, im always happiest outdoors, so that’s probably the reason. I’m always eager to get out in the garden! Good luck in the draw, and thanks for reading and getting in touch. Have a happy gardening week. Karen x

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m terrible with house plants TBH but should really try harder and this lovely book might be the way in. thinking back to childhood there really weren’t many houseplants, they’ve become so popular now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too. I look at them and can’t understand why they look so miserable. However, I seem to get everything wrong. I’ve got plants in full sun that should be in shade and vice versa. The potting compost they arrive in is often too soggy, and really, now I know the difference, I’ll always repot straight away adding drainage materials to help. I think the problem is, outdoors gardening seems intuitive. Indoor gardening doesn’t seem to have the same clues as to what to do. Plants look as if they will thrive in the sun, then don’t!


  5. I was riveted to the details of Queen Victoria’s funeral wishes and the elevation of the kentias to such high status positions. It’s a care of plants advisor with a fascinating twist of history, stirred and not shaken!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, me too. And I wondered how I’d never heard of it before. It’s a super book with all sorts of revelations. Jane is excellent at researching and the writing is intelligent but accessible, if you know what I mean. Highly Recommended.


    • Thank you Denzil. Thanks to Jane’s book, I feel more confident looking after my houseplants. Although I’m a keen gardener outdoors, the rules are different for indoor plants and I never seem to get it right. I’ve moved several to positions of more light and I’m changing the substrate as nearly all were soggy when they needed to be free-draining. Thanks for reading the blog. All the best. Karen

      Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. It's nice to know I'm not talking to myself on here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s