Image 01. Mature specimen of Ficus lyrata displaying multi-branched shape.

How to explain how a plant looks? With more species (and various forms within) being included in Conservatory Archives' online store, our team began to contemplate how to categorise plant shapes.

Conservatory Archives houses all the available stock at the London stores so each plant can be viewed in person or specimen photos can be sent on request. As even plants that grow in a consistent manner can display some natural variation from their neighbour, our glossary on plant shapes is intended to help navigating the options within the more diverse species.

Image 02. Outdoor plant collection at Middleton Mews.


Online, floor-standing plants are now described with several key terms; listed as a general guide, these labels broadly categorise similarities between genera in terms of basic physical shape.

1PP, 2PP, 3PP etc

One or more plants potted together within one nursery pot. PP is an abbreviation for 'plants per pot;. Although they are young plants usually with supports, they can be very large in size. The stems have leaves along the entire height and usually have very little or no branches. 1PP are often chosen to grow into other shapes, whereas 3PP are common in offices for their lush yet compact look.

Image 03. Dracaena fragrans 'Burundii' in a 3PP shape.

Image 04. Winding stems of Dracaena marginata, grown out from a standard PP shape over many years.

D. marginata and D. fragrans are frequently found with a 'PP' form, often with stems of differing heights and maturities within one container. Individual specimens are fairly uniform at first, though very old, untrained specimens of D. marginata orginally planted in this way exemplify the certain elegeance and unruliness that can only happen over time; trunks develop less upright and rigid growth, contorting as they reach for natural light.

Branched stem

A single trunk specimen with young branches. Often the branches are towards the top, creating a lollipop shape. The woody trunk and branches differentiate this from a 1PP.

Image 05. Forest of Ficus in varying forms at Middleton Mews.

Image 06. Branched stem Ficus lyrata.

With many tree-growing species we keep inside our homes, it is important to remember that size is not always an indicator of age or maturity. Choosing a young plant, such as a specimen listed as 1PP, in the hopes it will become the larger, tree-like version with a thick stem within some years is unlikely. Growing plants within containers in our homes is very different to the equivalent years of growth the same specimen would experience outdoors planted in the ground.

Image 07. Comparative specimens of Ficus microcarpa, showing the variation in form despite both being categorised as 'Multi-branched'.


A single mature trunk and several longer branches starting from the middle to the top of the trunk. The most 'tree' shape of all with a notable canopy. This is usually the most sought after and are chosen for their individual shapes.

Image 08. Branched stem Ficus lyrata.
Image 09. Sparmannia africana, a fast-growing species that quickly forms multiple branches as per its growth habit. Plants can double in height within two years if provided ample light and space for root growth.

Twisted/braided stem

Multiple young stems that are twisted/braided together by human interference, with the purpose of looking like a single tree with a larger canopy. The overall look resembles the one of a lollipop but the trunk is made of multiple younger trees.

Image 10. Detail of braided stem Pachira aquatica.

Numerous mature stems starting from the base of the pot. The stems may consist of separate mature plants or a single plant whose branches start very low. They feature a notable canopy which appears to be supported by separate trunks or stems, differentiating them from other categories.

Image 11. Dypsis lutescens, in the common 'multi-stem' form.


Characterised by the shape, this can be applied to plants of varying height and pot size and describes young plants with mainly green stems that have yet to mature into a woody trunk. The shape is bushy rather than slender and compact, with a wide spread; leaves begin from the base of the nursery pot and continue up the stem. The number of stems within the pot can vary.

Image 12. Varying forms of Schefflera arboricola 'Compacta', with the youngest specimen in the foreground displaying a 'Tuft' shape.

A mature, branched plant that is completely unique in shape. Although no plant will be identical, most will come in standard shapes as described above. Specimen plants are one of a kind.

Image 13. Group of Brachychiton rupestris; no two specimens are alike.


Image 14. Branched canopy of Brachychiton rupestris.

Image 15. Succulent collection within the Mirabeau glasshouse at Middleton Mews

As mentioned, many of the key terms listed can be most closely applied to 'tree-growing' species, and how various stages of maturity or cultivation methods present different types of appearance. 'Specimen' can be applied much more widely, from strange succulent plants to grown-out, plants that are scarcely seen, or those with fasciated or monstrose growth that cannot be replicated or reproduced.

Image 16. Specimens of Lophocereus schottii f. crestata.


Image 17. Aged specimen of Euphorbia ramipressa.


The following terms better describe 'leafier' plants, such as genera within the Araceae (like Monstera or Philodendron). Characterised by naturally creeping stems, these plants cling to elements of the forest and require support if upright growth is desired within an interior space (usually supplied as grow poles, wire support or bamboo canes).

Image 18. Overgrown, crawler Monster deliciosa, planted within our Lower Clapton Road store.

The fundamental, unsupported shape; plants naturally grow very wide, with an uncontrolled habit. Over time, the plants will lean or arch over the pot because the stems do not have support to grow upright. Plants appear very bushy with many leaves, but with less fenestrations than larger specimens.

Image 19. Close-up of mature Monstera deliciosa, with 'large leaves' shape.
Large leaves

Characterised by particularly large, fenestrated leaves, plants in this category can vary in size and maturity. The size of the nursery pot will often be small in comparison to the overall size of the plant; typically these plants are well-rooted cuttings from an aged or 'mother' plant. Their leaves can be very mature (and often less leaves overall) but the pot size will be smaller due to the smaller rootball.

Image 20. 'Climber' Monster deliciosa, tied to central grow pole support.

In their natural habitat, Monstera are climbers and cling to branches or trunks of other plants as they grow. In cultivation, plants are trained from a young age to grow upright, requiring a support to maintain upwards growth. Often supplied with a moss pole (usually with coconut coir), stems are tied to a central support as they develop. The overall shape is much more contained than 'crawler' or 'large leaf' plants, and the plant height will be taller.