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The History of Houseplants

While Instagram might make you think the #houseplantgang is a new trend for the cool kids of social media (e.g. @potsbyslugg), houseplants have actually been around for a very long time.

The history of houseplants starts in the 17th century, where indoor plants were not only a stylish feature but also helped mask unpleasant smells. Citrus trees were a status symbol among the wealthy, with greenhouses and orangeries built to protect these fruit trees during the winter.

The 18th century saw the rise of decorative pots for displaying plants indoors. Josiah Wedgwood, one of the first English potters, created versions of the French cache-pot, which literally means a pot used to hide another pot. This clever design likely considered drainage for the plants! During this time, cabinet makers also produced tiered staging and stands to showcase houseplants, often arranged asymmetrically next to French windows to maximize light exposure. Wire and iron plant stands were also popular, usually with practical, removable metal trays.

Excitement around houseplants reached new heights in the 19th century as more tropical and sub-tropical plants were brought back from across the globe. The Aspidistra, commonly known as the Cast-Iron Plant, was named for its ability to survive in the darkest, most polluted Victorian homes.

By the mid-19th century, the nursery trade was booming, and public botanical gardens, such as Kew’s Palm House (opened in 1840), became sources of inspiration. Gardening books and magazines flourished, and houseplants increasingly played a role in interior design.

Fever hit Britain and much of the English-speaking world during the 1850s. Fern fever, that is! Naturalist and author Charles Kingsley even coined a name for it in 1855 - ‘Pteridomania’. Fern hunting became an engrossing hobby, and ferneries were popping up everywhere. The limited number of native ferns led to sponsored plant hunting expeditions across the world, creating such high demand that a black market in fern collecting flourished. Just like orangeries in the 17th century, ferneries became the latest horticultural fashion among the wealthy. For those without the income or space for a fernery, ornamental Wardian cases were perfect for displaying ferns as houseplants.

The start of the 20th century saw a shift away from lush plants towards more architectural shapes like cacti and succulents. This trend didn’t last long, though, as the 1950s saw the revival of statement houseplants. With the popularity of Scandinavian design and a rise in apartment living, it was time to bring the garden inside.

Just like every other form of design, the popularity of houseplants has seen many changes over the years. Every stylish home in the 70s had a fern or two, most likely hanging in macrame. Flash forward to 2015, and you’d struggle to open a magazine without seeing a Fiddle Leaf Fig in the latest home spread. In 2022, houseplants are all about #MonsteraMonday