The popularity of houseplants has surged in recent years, causing many to question not only the impact of our plant obsession, but its origin. When did we start bringing plants inside, and why? As it turns out, the answer takes us a lot further back in time than you might expect, and reveals a fascinating truth: our indoor plant obsession isn’t new, and it might not be a fad either.
Before houseplants were a victorian status symbol, or staples of Greco-Roman fashion, our Neolithic ancestors were already developing profound relationships with plants. The multi-generational domestication of crops laid the groundwork for our plant obsession as early as 10,000 BCE, when we began to select which plants we did or didn’t cultivate. The result was agriculture, and subsequently human civilization as we know it.
While there is little conclusive evidence that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon actually existed, the myth has captured the imaginations of painters and poets for millennia, and in so doing became an important milestone in understanding our relationship with plants. Built around 600 BCE by King Nebuchadnezzar II, as a gift to his homesick wife, the fabled city-wide garden is perhaps the first and most noteworthy record of decorative plant cultivation.
Following the fall of Babylon, the cultivation of potted plants can be traced in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Far from the West, other plant trends emerged in the first Centuries CE, including Vietnam’s miniature landscapes, known as Hòn Non Bô, Japanese Bonsai, and more. Separate from the European counterparts that followed, the goal of many gardening practices in Asia were historically to create replicas of natural scenes, hence the pruning and shaping of plants and environments to resemble life-size trees, rocks, and waterways. These practices are still highly valued, not only in their native cultures, but around the world as the popularity of houseplants has grown more global.
Early Modernity & Imperial Influence
In the 1700’s, as Imperial Europe’s influence extended across the globe, the cultivation and collection of plants made a prominent reappearance. While the term ‘houseplant’ can refer to an enormous variety of plants, it came to refer specifically to plants of tropic or subtropic origin, imported most voraciously to Britain, whose appetite for the exotic was enabled by footholds in Asia, Australia, Africa, and North America.
Fragrant flowering plants were often brought indoors during this period, prized for their aromatic qualities. The arrival of citrus trees elevated private plant collection to the realm of the elite, where the maintenance of beautiful enclosed gardens became a status symbol. This led to an explosion in the popularity of greenhouses and conservatories, which provided the light and humidity required to sustain these plants year-round, allowing them to bloom throughout the winter.
By the end of the 1700’s, the popularity of bulb-flowers such as hyacinth led to the mass-production of decorative flower pots, but another botanical invention changed the landscape of amateur horticulture completely: the Wardian Case, a glass terrarium capable of maintaining the environmental needs of sensitive tropical plants. Not only did the Wardian Case provide an elegant display for rare plants, it also provided means for transporting them. Many of these plants were native to the dark floors of rainforests, and were right at home in musty Victorian homes.
The 1800’s saw several noteworthy changes in houseplant culture, including an increased emphasis on naturalism and botany, which was only beginning to take shape as a popular science. The style of the day began to shift from luxurious excess to more tasteful collection and cultivation; as such, plants began to be displayed in cabinets or racks made specifically for them and occupied more prominent places in the house.
In the middle of the century, orchid-fever swept across Europe. This fad led to the total eradication of many orchid species in the wild, and established a black market for rare orchids that still exists today. Orchids weren’t the only plants to generate such fervor – ferns also captivated European interest. In 1855, naturalist Charles Kingsley even coined the term ‘Pterdomania’ to describe the upper-class craze of funding orchid and fern-hunts abroad.
Another plant category that fascinated Europe were the pelargoniums, a beautiful genus of flowering plants from South Africa. While the social elite competed in contests to produce visually striking hybridizations, the widespread propagation of these plants made them available to the middle and lower classes as well, and began to bring about the houseplant age of ubiquity. Pelargoniums, often mistaken for geraniums by botanists of the time, could be grown in windowsill gardens, and even in pots that could be brought indoors, allowing everyday people to care for flowering plants of their own.
20th Century Shifts
The 20th century caused a number of dramatic shifts, especially following World War I. The crowding and excess associated with Victorian style was now seen as old fashioned, which allowed for the rise in popularity of cacti and succulents, which were prized for their geometric elegance.
Nature and architecture blended to suit modern fads, stoked by the circulation of fashion and design magazines, which moved houseplants from the realm of the horticultural elite into the reach of the everyday consumer.
The 20th century also brought about increased urbanization and the emerging influence of the middle class. People were living in smaller spaces without access to gardens. This, combined with the rising popularity of Scandinavian interior design in the 1950’s, put new emphasis on houseplants. Gone was the era of Victorian lavishness—greenhouses were still only accessible to the elite—but since the 1950’s, houseplants have remained an accessible piece of our interior design and cultural mindset.
Where Are We Now
Nowadays, people’s stylistic tastes are incredibly varied. On the one hand, the minimalism popularized by Scandinavian functionality and Japanese modernism has reached peak popularity, while maximalism, and the newfound obsession with the urban jungle, are having a heyday. More people than ever are living in small spaces and close proximity, and yet a surprising return to Victorian excess has emerged, especially among young, urban plant enthusiasts. Once more, plants crowd our surfaces and dangle in front of every window.
Perhaps this stems from an increased affection for nature, brought about by the increased separation between urban culture and our agricultural origins, or perhaps it is due to an unconscious sense of symbiosis. After all, without plants, our planet would not be habitable to humans. Without agriculture, human civilization may never have happened in the first place.
There are also the innumerable benefits of plants to consider. Not only have they been proven to purify our air, but plants have also been shown to improve focus, quality of sleep, and our overall attitudes. The full extent to which we are psychologically intertwined with plants is not yet understood, but it is obvious that we have always treasured plants in one way or another. With that in mind, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that wherever we go, we’ve brought them with us—even inside!