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A potted history of houseplants

Interior of a greenhouse with pelargoniums, succulents and other plants potted on a bench, and other larger houseplants on the floor
Houseplants in the greenhouse at Goddards, North Yorkshire | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Air purifiers, stressbusters, mood enhancers – it’s easy to see why houseplants are enjoying a revival. Interest in greening our interiors is nothing new. City-dwellers in the 1700s were as attuned to the fashion and benefits of indoor gardening as we are today. Fern fever gripped the Victorians, while houseplants we think of as commonplace were once the preserve of an elite few. Explore the history of houseplants through the collections and gardens in our care.

17th-century citrus pots

Across cultures and over millennia, humans have brought plants into their homes. Before they were known as houseplants, scented and flowering plants were taken indoors so that their fragrance and blooms could be enjoyed, while also masking bad smells.

By the 17th century, citrus trees were a status symbol among the wealthiest in society, and greenhouses and orangeries were built to protect these highly coveted specimens in winter.

8 large orange trees and lemon trees, 22 smaller orange and lemon trees in tubs, 32 orange and lemon trees in potts, [and] 11 great tubs with myrtles and several pots with greens.

A quote by Ham House1682 inventory of the ostentatious collection of plants grown for the Duke of Lauderdale

18th-century innovations

Spring bulbs grown in pots – such as narcissi, hyacinths and tulips – could easily be brought indoors to flower. By the end of the 17th century, these were being forced to flower early in winter by starting off the bulbs indoors in the warm. Heady-fragranced hyacinths were particularly popular.

I resolved to obtain and to communicate such information... for the rearing and preserving a portable garden in pots.

A quote by Elizabeth Kent Flora Domestica, Or The Portable Flower-Garden, 1823

The 18th century saw a growing market for a wide range of decorative containers to display plants indoors.

Josiah Wedgwood was among the first English manufacturers to produce versions of the French cachepot, literally a pot in which to hide another. With his finger on the pulse of fashion, Wedgwood adapted many of his innovative ceramics to appeal to the market for indoor flowers and plants.

A crocus pot with lid. Demi-lune shape with 3 circular raised gilt-rimmed nozzles for planting crocuses, and 11 small holes in shape of a W for inserting cut flowers. Grey-marbled ground with gilt rim.
A crocus pot at Blickling Hall, Norfolk | © National Trust Images/Robert Morris

Crocus pot

Made in Worcester around 1804–7 in the Barr, Flight and Barr factory, this pot is in the collection at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. It forms part of a garniture de cheminée, designed for a mantelpiece. Nozzles in the cover support the bulbs and the small holes hold wooden sticks to support the plant stems, preventing them from toppling over and smashing the pot.

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Nature indoors

During the 18th century, as informality took over the garden, so did a more natural form of displaying plants indoors. Cabinet makers produced tiered staging and metal stands with practical, removable trays to display plant collections. These were often arranged asymmetrically and placed next to French windows to maximise their exposure to light.

A piece of silhouette art showing plan pots on stands, with a woman watering them. Others are reading or playing the harpsichord.
Francis Torond's silhouette of the Parminter family in 1783, in the collection at A la Ronde, Devon | © National Trust Images/David Garner

Staging plants

This 1783 silhouette by Francis Torond shows the Parminter family in their London house in Greville Street. On the left, Miss Jane Parminter is depicted watering a stage of plants. From the collection at A la Ronde in Devon.

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19th-century houseplants

The fashion for houseplants peaked in the 19th century as plant-collectors brought back increasing numbers of tropical and subtropical plants from around the world.

The aspidistra – introduced from China in 1823 – soon earned its common name of the cast-iron plant, capable of surviving the darkest, most fume-polluted Victorian homes.

By the mid-19th century, the nursery trade was burgeoning and public botanical gardens, such as Kew’s Palm House (opened in 1840), inspired visitors. Gardening books and magazines flourished alongside home decoration advice manuals, where houseplants increasingly played a role in interior design.

Black and white photo of a woman in a glasshouse, surrounded by flowering plants and palms
Algerina Peckover in the conservatory at Sibald's Holme, in the collection at Peckover, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust/Sue James

The arrival of the orchid

During the second half of the 19th century, orchids were valued above all other flowers. But this was also the beginning of an ecological disaster. Plant collectors wiped out entire collections in the wild – and an illegal trade in rare orchids still exists today.

James Bateman, the son of a wealthy industrialist, had the time and money to indulge in his passion for plants. In 1833, while still a student at Oxford, he sponsored an orchid plant-collecting expedition to the north coast of South America. Of the 60 species brought back to Britain, 20 were new introductions.

An opened book showing a colour illustration of a pink orchid, with a green stem.
A colour plate from Bateman's Orchidacaea (1843), in the Library collection at Tatton Park, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

James Bateman’s orchid book

At 26, Bateman commissioned one of the greatest books published on orchids, The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala. Measuring 30 x 22 inches and weighing in at 38 pounds (17 kilograms), it’s one of the heaviest books ever produced. Of 125 copies, only 55 are known to survive, including one at Tatton Park in Cheshire. William Tatton Egerton was a keen orchid collector and Bateman – a close family friend – provided many orchids for the special orchid houses at Tatton Park.

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Why were ferns popular?

From the 1850s, fern fever – coined ‘pteridomania’ by naturalist and author Charles Kingsley in 1855 – gripped Victorian Britain and much of the English-speaking world. The limited number of native ferns led to sponsored fern-collecting expeditions across the world. Such was the demand that a black market in fern collecting flourished.

All these tender ferns needed winter protection and glasshouses, known as 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 indoors.

Tall, green tree ferns with smaller ferns around them, reaching up to the glazed roof of the Fernery at Tatton Park
New Zealand tree ferns and other specimens in the Fernery at Tatton Park, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/Clive Boursnell


The fernery at Tatton Park in Cheshire was designed by Joseph Paxton for the 1st Baron Egerton in 1859. It housed the family’s collection of ferns and tree ferns, many collected from New Zealand and Australia by Captain Charles Randle Egerton. It is still home to some of these original ferns, alongside many others.

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A passion for pelargoniums

Most wild species of the popular pelargonium come from South Africa. The first record of a pelargonium in cultivation dates to 1631, in the collection of John Tradescant, the celebrated gardener.

From the appearance of these plants, they were initially thought to be a type of geranium and were named as such. It wasn’t until 1738 that they were identified as distinctly different from their geranium cousins – with different leaves, flowers and hardiness – and were named pelargoniums. They’re still often erroneously called geraniums today.

By the early 18th century, pelargoniums were growing in botanical gardens and the private collections of wealthy collectors throughout Europe. Realising that the plants hybridized very easily, breeders competed to produce the most interesting blooms and unusual leaf patterns.

By the end of the 19th century, pelargoniums were established indoor plants, and so widely propagated that almost everyone could afford one.

Display of Pelargonium 'Scarlet Unique' in terracotta pots in the Italian Garden at Hidcote
Pelargonium 'Scarlet Unique' in the Italian Garden at Hidcote, Gloucestershire | © National Trust Images/Jonathan Buckley

Modern renewal and revival

After the First World War, when modernity entered the home, plant-infested interiors seemed very old-fashioned. Cacti and succulents became the houseplants of choice as their architectural shapes fitted the style of the day. These were the plants which Walter Straw collected at his home in Nottinghamshire, and that Leonard Woolf grew at Monk’s House in East Sussex.

By the 1950s, people were increasingly living in flats and fewer had gardens. This and the popularity of Scandinavian design – including the Swedish passion for indoor plants – saw a revival in houseplants. Their popularity has waxed and waned over the past 60 years, but today houseplants are firmly back in fashion.

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