5 Steps to Styling a Fireplace Mantel with Plants

updated Jun 18, 2021
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Even on its own, a fireplace serves as a focal point of a home. But a statement-worthy one almost always features a cluster of thoughtfully placed items that tell a story — for example, maybe a mix of ornate candleholders with colorful tapers, a ceramic vase, stacked art or a mirror, and various trinkets to tie it all together. 

If you’re looking to take your fireplace a stylish step further, though, consider adding some live greens to that recipe. Plants are one of the more versatile decorative elements of a home, and as long as you have the proper setting (lighting being the key here), they can go just about anywhere, the fireplace and mantel included. We turned to a plant pro and interior designer for their tried-and-true fireplace plant styling advice. 

A quick heads-up: Note that any specific plants mentioned in this story or any others may be toxic to pets or humans. “Toxic” plants can induce symptoms that range from mild (upset stomach) to severe (possible death). If you have a cat, dog, or kid, make sure you research the plants ahead of time on a reputable site like ASPCA.orgPetPoisonHelpline.orgPoison.org, or by calling your vet or pediatrician.

Step 1: Size up your surfaces. 

For Decorist designer Alison Leigh, the size of your fireplace is what should determine your approach to decorating it — whether you’ll want to opt for daintier greenery in this space or an alternative with large, dramatic leaves.  

Also, make note of the actual surface area available to you. Does your mantel have enough depth to accommodate a plant? If so, what is the max size you can work with? “Start by measuring the length and depth of your mantel,” says Leigh. “The average shelf depth of a fireplace mantel is 10 inches, so you want to keep the diameter of the pot size under 9.5 inches.” Think about how many pots you can fit on the mantel without it looking crowded, as well. Leigh suggests using the “odd rule” by planning to arrange plant pots in an odd number — groups of three or even five or seven — to make the display feel balanced and more pleasing to the eye. 

Don’t feel discouraged if your mantel isn’t spacious — there’s always the floor! You can flank either side of a fireplace with plants, says Leigh, to create symmetry and balance. And if you have a faux fireplace, the inner opening can make for the perfect display nook for greens as well. 

Step 2: Consider the light. 

One more step before you start choosing greens: Look for the light source in relation to the fireplace.

“The best plant varieties for the mantel will depend on where it’s situated in the room and how much light it’s receiving,” says Jarema Osofsky of Dirt Queen NYC. “If the mantel is further into the room and receiving indirect light, plants tolerant of lower light conditions, like Philodendron cordatum, Scindapsus pictus (satin pothos), ferns, and Aglaonema, are great options. If it receives bright light, then a collection of sun-loving plants, like Ficus elastica variegata, Pilea peperomioides, and interesting succulents, like Rhipsalis and burro’s tail, work well.”

Speaking of light/heat sources, a note: If you have a working fireplace and plan on adding plants to your mantel, you’ll want to be vigilant about the varieties and immediately remove greens that appear to wilt from the heat. 

Step 3: To add a mix of greenery, begin with an accent plant. 

Once you have a solid grasp on the type of plants that will fit and thrive in and on your fireplace, you’ll have an easier time further narrowing down to the specifics. The key to styling a design-forward fireplace with plants is diversification, so you’ll want a robust collection that features a mix of sizes and shapes. “A mantel is usually in the middle of the room and exists on a flat plane at eye level, so varying the heights of the plants is more dynamic and pleasing to the eye as you scan the room,” says Osofsky, adding that you should also pay attention to the direction that plants’ leaves and vines grow in. “Ideally, you will create a look that incorporates several shapes and structures, while also considering how the foliage works together.”

To put this tip into action, Osofsky suggests starting with one plant that will be the focus of attention and then thinking about complementary pairings. For example, maybe you begin with a plant with cascading vines, such as a Scindapsus pictus ‘Exotica,’ placing it at one end of the mantel. Next up, says Osofsky: “Add in another cascading vine with smaller leaves (like a creeping Ficus repens), along with more upright varieties like ferns (asparagus or maidenhair), Homalomena ‘Emerald Gem,’ and Begonia maculata (angel wing begonia) to balance it out.”

You’ve got a variety of houseplant sizes? Check. And an assortment of shapes? Check. Now also make sure you harness the power of color. “Ultimately, it’s about creating balance,” says Osofsky. “Choose leaf colors and patterns that go well collectively. A mix of variegated and non-variegated plants look good together. If all the plants are variegated or have patterns on the leaves, it could start to feel busy.” 

Consider the finish of your mantel here, too. “If it is dark wood, the pop of color in a lemon lime cordatum will contrast well. If it is white marble, the rich purple of an oxalis will be eye-catching and elegant,” Osofsky says. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Step 4: Add even more interest with vessels. 

While it’s easy to get caught up in the greens, don’t forget that the vessels they live in can also make a big statement. 

Think about how the planters you choose will interact with each other. “Use pots that speak to each other — that could be either color, texture, or type,” says Leigh. For example: “Neutral earth tones or monochromatic hues (like gray, black, or white) draw attention to the plants while still celebrating the fireplace as a focal point,” she says.

The sizing of these vessels all depends on what will serve as the center of attention, says Leigh. “If you have an oversize piece of artwork over the fireplace, then you want to use smaller vessels to complement it. If you’re using a simple mirror, then a large vessel paired with a Licuala grandis centered in front of the mirror can be striking.”

And of course, also consider how the forms and materials of the planters will play up the plants within them. “Choose planters that work well with the foliage, either contrasting or complementing the tones of the plant,” says Osofsky. “I love varying shapes of terracotta and ceramic planters with earthy hues.”

Here, too, let the composition of your fireplace be a guide. If you’re working with a reclaimed wood mantel, for example, a sleek planter may offer too much contrast, while a terracotta one could clash with it. A neutral-toned, matte ceramic vessel, though, could be just right. 

Step 5: Fill in the gaps. 

After all is said and done and your houseplants are firmly in place, it’s time to add in the other decorative accents that will take your fireplace mantel to the next level. “Vintage finds, found objects, and strange curiosities look amazing with live plants,” says Leigh. “If you snagged cool objects from the thrift store and don’t know what to do with them, just style them with plants to create a beautiful living treasure.” 

You can think about the composition and colors of your plants now, as well. For instance, Leigh recommends placing a fishhook succulent in a black urn on one side of the mantel and carrying the hue over to the other side by way of black candleholders (that can double as mini plant stands). 

If you prefer a large-scale element, place a mirror or oversized art print in the middle of the mantel — and yes, you can go for both, all you have to do is hang one on the wall and stack the other against it. Position your plants so that they’re flanking the frame and add a few smaller pieces in front to tie it all together.

And if you still have a bit more space to use up, follow Osofsky’s lead and double up on the flora by adding a vessel of dried flowers such as eucalyptus, craspedia, or pampas grass. Complete the scene with candles and a piece of art. 

Apartment Therapy’s Styling with Plants vertical was written and edited independently by the Apartment Therapy editorial team and generously underwritten by Greendigs.