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A HISTORY OF HOUSE PLANTS

The appeal of houseplants goes back a long way. History is full of examples of humans taking plants and putting them into pots to keep around the house - whether for cooking or medicine, to add a splash of colour or act as a much-needed air freshener!

Black and white illustration of a lady with house plants and flowers

Illustration from 'Catalogue of Bulbs, Roots, Seeds and Garden Requisites' 1900 (N.Y.) - Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons

HOUSE PLANTS -  STATUS SYMBOLS OF THE SUPER RICH

As with so many nice things, it was the rich who started the fashion. Houseplants - like chocolate, spices, shoes, central heating, television and electric garage doors - were originally preserve of the super rich. Men and women who had the money and the time to waft around the house (or courtyard) admiring their pot plants.

Archaeological remains of a broken grey ceramic container amidst rocks in the ground

Ceramic container from Palace at Knossos - Moonik, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On the island of Crete in the Mediterranean, archaeologists have discovered fragments of ceramic flower pots used to decorate the courtyards of the Palace of Knossos in 1600 BC.

 

Unlike other ceramic pots from this period they weren’t designed simply to transport plants and break up as the plant grew, they were decorative and clearly made to be displayed above ground. 

Ancient Egyptian Pharoahs also built their own pleasure gardens. Some - like Queen Hatshepsut in 1500 BC -   sent delegations to bring back new kinds of trees and flowers discovered during their conquests.

 

Wall paintings show aromatic myrrh trees being brought back to Egypt and planted in pots in Hatshepsut’s palace.

Red wall painting of Egyptian people carrying trees in basket shaped pots

A wall painting showing Myrrh Trees being carried in basket-shaped pots in Ancient Egypt. Ismoon (talk) 22:02, 2 March 2020 (UTC), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In China around 600AD, the art of ‘penjing’ developed - growing plants and small trees indoors in ornamental pots (later known as ‘bonsai’ in Japan).

The earliest illustration of this art form is found in wall murals of a royal tomb in China dating to 706AD. Originating with Chinese royalty, 'penjing' became an increasingly popular hobby with the masses and by the 1700s manuals were being produced advising how to create these miniature landscapes in a pot.

Black and White Painting of Chinese Servant carrying small bonsai tree on a dish

Tomb Ilustration of 'Penjing' - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

HOUSE PLANTS AS EARLY AIR FRESHENERS!

Meanwhile in Renaissance Europe pots of herbs - such as basil and marjoram - were often kept indoors to perfume rooms. In a world before soap, toothpaste, baths or decent sewage systems, the benefits of a scented plant cannot be underestimated. Basil was also thought to cure a range of ailments - from diarrhoea and constipation to gout, impotency and nausea - not to mention tasting amazing in a spag bol! 

 

No wonder pots of basil were said to be in every home in Italy by the 1540s.

Painting of a woman resting her head against a large ceramic pot decorated with skulls holding a large basil plant

Painting by William Holman Hunt depicting the 14th century story of ‘Isabella and the Basil Pot’ - Isabella pines at the pot in which her lover’s head lay hidden.  Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pots of basil were also associated with love affairs  - a pot of basil placed on the windowsill would act as a signal to a lover or advertise a daughter ready for marriage. A pot of basil appeared in a famous 14th century Italian story about a young woman whose lover is murdered - she hides his head in a basil pot so she can visit it everyday and water it with her tears.

LET THERE BE LIGHT - HOW THE DEVELOPMENT OF WINDOWS CHANGED THE HISTORY OF INDOOR PLANTS

Away from the sunlit Mediterranean, people living in Northern Europe would have struggled to own house plants because of the dark, unheated homes they lived in. Until the 16th Century, windows were small and unglazed in most houses and people used materials like slate, animal hide and cloth to cover them. Not many plants could survive in these conditions and not many people wanted to block what little natural light there was with a house-plant.

 

This changed over the course of the 17th century as glass became cheaper and available in larger flatter sheets - windows in turn became larger and many homes began to be built with sash windows allowing in much more light. Windowsills and balconies became more common features in architecture and provided new places to put pots.

Painting of men in black cloaks and white neck ruffs around a table with an ornate red tablecloth with a large glass window in background

A large indoor plant pictured against a large window at the Somerset House Conference 1604. Painting by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With these changes, came a growing interest in keeping plants indoors - as seen in Sir Hugh Platt’s 1608 publication of ‘Floraes Paradise’ which included advice on how to grow “a garden within doors”.

 

Platt wrote “I hold it for a most delicat and pleasing thing to have a faire gallery…to be inwardly garnished with sweet hearbs and flowers, yea and fruit if it were possible”. He  went on to recommend endlessly inventive ways to keep plants indoors - including pulley systems, indoor window boxes, internal sprinkler systems and stove heating for winter.

By the end of the 17th century ostentatious collections of citrus trees and other shrubs were overwintered in stove-heated greenhouses and orangeries across Europe.

Black and white woodcut of rows of trees in pots in a large hall

Orangery at Leiden Botanical Garden in 1676.

Illustration by Jan Commelyn, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Painting of a young child in costume holding orange next to a small tree in a pot with a small dog

Painting of William III as a child munching on an orange from a potted orange tree - a luxury increasingly available to the rich of Northern Europe by the 17th Century. Painted by Adriaen Hanneman (1654). Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As more plants made their way inside, homeowners looked for more decorative ways to display them - indoor plant pots weren’t exposed to the ravages of rain and frost, so could be more ornately designed with colourful glazes and delicate gilt details. Chinese porcelain was pouring into Europe via new trade routes and Dutch potters were creating blue and white ‘Delftware’ to compete in the growing market. 

 

A 1728 English gardening book contains and early reference to using a ‘cachepot’ or decorative pot in which to ‘hide’  the plain terracotta plant pot:

 

In order to truly execute this work in the best manner we must first be furnished with beautiful flower pots of Dutch Ware, China etc wherein other garden pots must be placed, in which our flowers are to grow

Blue and white oriental style square flower pot with saucer

An 18th Century Delftware flowerpot - Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

A TASTE FOR THE TROPICAL - EXOTIC HOUSE PLANTS AND THE AGE OF EXPLORATION

Throughout the 18th century, the market for house plants grew as maritime expeditions brought new knowledge about tropical and semi-tropical plants which could be made to grow inside.

 

Botanists brought over 5,000 species to Europe from South America, Africa, Asia and Australia and nurseries began to flourish, stocking new types of plants: the Jade Plant came from South Africa in 1739, the first Cordyline from China in 1771 and the Umbrella Plant from Madagascar in 1781.

Watercolour painting of large green leaves of plant with roots
Watercolour painting of cactus plant with pink flowers
Watercolour painting of plant with triangular green leaves and bark and fruit

18th Century Watercolour Botanical Illustrations of (L-R) Caladium, Melon Cactus and Philodendron - Joaquim José Codina & José Joaquim Freire, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Georgian drawing rooms began to fill with plants. Stands of wood or wrought iron (often with practical removal metal trays) were created to display groups of plants and placed next to French windows for maximum sunlight.

Painting of a man and two women in costume in a red ornate living room

The Afternoon Visitor by Frederic Soulacroix - showing a Bird of Paradise potted plant standing proudly in the corner. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 18th Century saw potteries like that of Josiah Wedgwood in England and Sevres Porcelain in France take advantage of the growing fashion for houseplants to produce increasingly ornate pots for indoor plants. When Wedgwood opened his showroom in London in 1774, there was even a dedicated ‘flower pot room’!

Ornate blue and gold antique Sevres plant pot with picture of pheasants and other birds

Sevres Cachepot c.1771 -  Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Orange and white striped antique Wedgwood Flower Pot

Wedgwood flower pot c.1800

Rijksmuseum, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

HOUSE PLANT FEVER IN THE VICTORIAN PERIOD

House plant ownership reached new heights in the 19th century - across Western Europe and America, the Victorians went crazy for foliage including ferns, palms and orchids.

The invention of the ‘Wardian Case’ - an early form of glass terrarium or miniature greenhouse - in the 1830s, greatly improved the survival of live plants being transferred across the globe.

 

Wardian cases became features of drawing rooms - protecting plants from the polluted air of Victorian cities.

Hundreds of specialist books were published offering advice on indoor or ‘window gardening’ and evermore elaborate displays of house plants were created and copied.

Black and White Drawing of Wardian Glass Case on Legs with Ferns and other House plants inside

Wardian Case 19th Century - Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Black and white drawing of house plants in two troughs against a large bay window
Black and white drawing of a sofa surrounded by house plants and climbing plants

Illustrations showing the spectacular interior plant displays that could be achieved for the ambitious indoor gardener by the 19th Century - from  ‘Window Gardening - Devoted Specially to the Cultivation of Flowers and Ornamental Plants for Indoor Use and Parlor Decoration’ by Henry T. Williams - 1884. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

By the end of the 19th century, the industrial revolution ensured an endless supply of decorative plant pots for the home. By 1895, the trade journal ‘Pottery Gazette’ noted that the British pottery Thomas Forester & Sons “claims to be the largest in the world for turning out art flower pots, their capacity running to a thousand dozen per week, one machine being able to produce two per minute”.

Painting of Family in a Conservatory in Victorian Dress with lots of plants and flowers

The Family of Mr Westfal in the Conservatory - Eduard Gaertner 1836

Eduard Gaertner, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jumping on the trend for the exotic and colourful, the Minton potteries launched their ‘Majolica’ ware at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Majolica became a global hit and majolica flower pots graced the houses of everyone from Royalty to the expanding middle classes.

Ornate Dark Blue and Green Glazed Ceramic Plant Pot with leaf and flower decoration

Majolica Cachepot - Minton 1880. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

CHANGING TASTES - HOW THE FASHION FOR HOUSE PLANTS CHANGED IN THE 20TH CENTURY

Houseplants briefly lost their lustre in the early 20th century as interior designers rejected the clutter of Victorian parlours and embraced modernism. But by the 1950s, house plants were back in fashion as a way of decorating interiors. This time though - with more women entering the workforce and servant numbers dwindling - easy-going ivys, philodendrons, monsteras, spider plants and succulents became mid-century must-haves: bringing a pop of green or a sculptural twist to minimalist interiors.

Old photo of a mid century living room with large glass windows and House Plants including a large monstera

Large Monsteras are used as statement plants in the Eames House in the 1960s

Edward Stojakovic, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Plants began to be used to decorate not just homes, but hotels, offices, banks and restaurants. Atomic style plant furniture was designed to fit in with the new futuristic decor and larger plants used to divide up open plan living spaces.  Sir Terence Conran’s first manufactured piece of furniture was a long planter.

 

Houseplant ownership boomed once more.  In Brooklyn in 1971, there was even a houseplant boarding facility where plant parents could book in their plants while they went on holiday for up to $1.75 per plant per week!

Seventies photo of a brown and yellow kitchen with hanging plants

Hanging plants feature heavily in this kitchen design from 1979 - 'Planning and Remodelling Kitchens' (1979)

Minimal Living Room with rubber plant

After another brief lull in the 1980s and 1990s, house plants are once again gaining massive popularity - boosted by research that they can improve everything from mental health to air quality. They have once again become status symbols and an intrinsic part of interior design.

 

An RHS study in 2019 found that three-quarters of adults in Britain have a houseplant in their home. As fewer and fewer young people have access to a garden or even a balcony, bringing nature indoors has become more important than ever. 

Tastes in pots and plants may have changed dramatically over time and as fashions changed, the appeal of houseplants may have risen and fallen - but they've been a part of our lives and homes for longer than many realise and long may it continue!

SOURCES:

C. Horwood - 'Potted History' 2020

J. Day - 'Flower Lovers - Reconsidering the Gardens of Minoan Crete'

S. Weber - 'Majolica Mania: Transatlantic Pottery in England and the United States, 1850–1915'

'A Pot of Basil in Every Household' - Biodiversity Library 2017

M. Willes - 'The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1560-1660'

J. Barber - 'Potted history of houseplants in our houses and collections' National Trust

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Vintage brass planter

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