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A Potted History: How Houseplants took over our Homes and our Hearts

Updated: Feb 23

If you’ve ever wondered when houseplants first shared our lives then read on…

The Beginning

Interwoven with the evolution of container gardening, the history of the houseplant is unclear with hardly any historic documentation. Some experts believe that indoor gardening and the practice of keeping potted plants can trace its origins to the early Greeks and Romans circa 500 to 400 B.C. They argue that older civilisations such as Ancient Egypt and China were also enamoured of potted plants but tended to use them in outdoor spaces such as courtyards. However, others believe that plants and trees were so symbolic for the ancient Chinese of around 1000 B.C., symbols of wealth and prosperity, that they must have used them to decorate their homes. The Chinese had a unique method of dwarfing trees for ornamental purposes known as Penjing – to which they would add decorative rocks and water features to replicate natural vistas. The Greeks, as with many cultures, preferred terracotta pots while the chic Romans adored marble, filling them with showy and vivid flowers, roses being a particular favourite as well as hyacinths and violets.

The Legend

Greek and Roman texts depict the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as a luxurious oasis amid the hot, arid landscape of ancient Babylon. Verdant foliage cascaded like waterfalls down the terraces of the 75-foot-high garden while exotic plants, herbs and flowers overwhelmed the senses, their fragrances drifting between the pillars and columns of the towering botanical edifice. Reportedly this was one of the first custom gardens, said to be constructed within the palace walls of king Nebuchadnezzar II for as a gift for his wife, who was yearning for the mountains and vegetation of her native Media (the north-western part of modern-day Iran).

It's such as beautiful story: but is it true? Did the Hanging Gardens of Babylon ever exist or are they a figment of the fervoured imaginations of classical writers? One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world, no archaeological evidence in Babylon has ever been found to confirm their existence nor are there any first hand accounts or mentions of it in existing Babylonian texts. One theory is that the gardens were not in fact located in Babylon at all, but over 340 miles away in Nineveh (Modern Iraq). Dr Stephanie Dalley has spent two decades researching the Hanging Gardens and argues that Assyrian king Sennacherib, rather than Nebuchadnezzar II, built the wonder in the early seventh century B.C., a whole century earlier than scholars had previously believed. According to Dalley, the confusion arose due to the Assyrian conquering of Babylon in 689 B.C. Following the takeover, Nineveh was referred to as the ‘New Babylon’. Recent excavations around Nineveh have uncovered evidence of an extensive aqueduct system that could have been used to irrigate the gardens via a series of canals, dams and water-raising screws to lift water to the upper levels of the gardens.

A colourful artists interpretation of the ancient gardens of Babylon.

The Boom

In the 16th century the aristocracy of France and Englanddeveloped an interest in exotic plants, with inventor Sir Hugh Platt releasing Garden of Eden in 1660, a treatise describing how to cultivate plants in the house. However, the world of houseplants was still very much closed to all but the wealthy – although botanical gardens became ever more popular. It was the Victorian era, however, that saw the boom in houseplants, with the middle classes utilising them as symbols of social rank and moral value. Plants that were popular were those that could tolerate the dark and cramped conditions often found within Victorian homes: kentia and parlour palms, ferns and aspidistras. The development of the Wardian case started a trend for terrariums to decorate the home too.


A black and white photograph of a woman lying on a bed surrounded by houseplants in her room.

And after the Boom…

Perhaps because they had been so popular, cluttering every corner of Victorian homes, houseplants fell out of favour in the early 20th century. They became mainstream again in the 1950s and 1960s with favourites being spider plants, African violets, golden pothos and monsteras.

In the 1970s garden centres became increasingly widespread thus assisting in the trend for foliage-rich interior jungles within homes. Fashionable plants included snake plants, philodendrons, string of hearts, umbrella trees, syngoniums and weeping figs.

The 1980s knocked the lush trend on the head preferring a glossy minimalism with sharp lines and bold colours over naturalism. When plants were featured, the preference was to keep their numbers low and select large dramatic varieties such as palms. Flashy and exotic flowers were also on trend – such as bromeliads and strelitzias (bird of paradise).

An orange and purple flower from a bird of paradise plant.

The 1990s were eclectic times with boho fashion and interiors taking cues from the fetishization of other cultures. Calligraphy tattoos and dragon-print dresses coincided with the popularity of bamboo in the early part of the decade while the re-imaging of 1960s hippy culture (remember all the tie dye little dresses? I do – I’m showing my age!) in the later years embraced a trend for cacti and succulents. Meanwhile, the Orchid Thief (1998) by Susan Orlean helped to reignite the mania for orchids.

The cover of the book ' The Orchid Theif'.

Apart for a brief trend for Tuscan style, the 2000s were not a great time for houseplants. However, they made a comeback in the 2010s when we were all bored by minimalism and wanted to get a bit messy. Upscaling was very much in vogue meaning all sorts of unusual items became vessels for plants. Cloche gardens were popular as were many types of terraria. Fashionable plants included silvery-green toned eucalyptus, the fiddle-leaf fig and the ubiquitous moth orchid.

Now

Trendy plants are those that are foliage-heavy with strong structural lines – big, bold plants that can be grouped together to bring the wild jungle into your home. Alocasias, monsteras, strelitzias, philodendrons. But what will the future bring? What’s your next plant purchase?


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