Potted history of houseplants in our houses and collections

Jacq Barber, Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online Jacq Barber Assistant Editor, Curatorial Content Online

Air purifiers, stress busters, mood enhancers - it’s easy to see why houseplants are having something of 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 today’s millennials. Fern fever gripped the Victorians, while other houseplants that we now think of as ubiquitous, such as orchids and pelargoniums, were once the preserve of an elite few.

Here we explore the history of houseplants through objects in our collections and in National Trust gardens across the country.

Houseplants found in our gardens

17th-century power 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 noxious 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 during winter. By happy coincidence, this is also the time of year when their fragrant flowers are especially abundant.

An ostentatious collection of citrus plants and other shrubs was grown for the Duke of Lauderdale at Ham House, near Richmond. The 1682 inventory lists: ‘8 large orange trees and lemon trees, 22 smaller orange and lemon trees in tubs, 32 orange and lemon trees in potts, (sic) (and) 11 great tubs with myrtles and several pots with greens'.

The interior of the greenhouse at Dyrham Park, near Bath. 'Greenhouses’ were so named as they were places to overwinter tender, evergreen plants. They were also an important element of the winter garden experience
The interior of the greenhouse at Dyrham Park, near Bath. 'Greenhouses’ were so named as they were places to overwinter tender, evergreen plants. They were also an important element of the winter garden experience
The interior of the greenhouse at Dyrham Park, near Bath. 'Greenhouses’ were so named as they were places to overwinter tender, evergreen plants. They were also an important element of the winter garden experience

 

'A portable flower garden', 18th-century innovations

Flowering spring bulbs, such as narcissi, hyacinths and tulips, grown in pots, could easily be brought indoors when in flower. By the end of the 17th century, these were being ‘forced’ to flower early in winter by starting off the bulbs in the warmth of indoors. Hyacinths, with their heady fragrance were particularly popular. 

The 18th century saw a burgeoning in the market for and production of a wide range of decorative containers to display plants indoors. Josiah Wedgwood was among the first of the English manufacturers to produce versions of the French cache-pot, 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.  

Crocus pot with lid made by Barr, Flight and Barr, Worcester, early 19th century, on show at Blickling Norfolk

Bulb pots

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

A very large Chinese porcelain bowl, painted in brilliant famille rose enamels, Qianlong period (1736-95). On display at Wallington in Northumberland

Bowls

Large, decorative bowls also made perfect cache-pots. At Wallington in Northumberland, the Trevelyan family put this 18th-century Chinese porcelain bowl, designed to hold fish, to a variety of different uses. During the 1850s it was planted up with calla lilies, a southern African plant which is still a popular houseplant today.

 

" I resolved to obtain and to communicate such information . . . for the rearing and preserving a portable garden in pots."
- Elizabeth Kent, 'Flora Domestica, Or The Portable Flower-Garden', 1823

Nature indoors

During the 18th century, as informality took over the garden, so did a more natural form of arranging and displaying plants indoors. Cabinet makers produced tiered staging and stands to display plant collections. These were often arranged asymmetrically and placed next to French windows to maximise their exposure to light. Wire and iron plant stands were made in a range of styles, usually with practical, removable metal trays.
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Indian ink silhouette, painted in 1783, and ascribed to Francis Torond (1742-1812), of the Parminter family in their London house

Staging plants

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

Some of the twenty two watercolour cut-outs of plants in terracotta pots, that line the Print Room at Uppark in West Sussex, date from the early 19th century

Trompe-l'œil pots

In the Print Room at Uppark, West Sussex, cut-out watercolours of flowers in pots were affixed to the walls, probably in the early 19th century. Letters and diaries of the period describe real flowering pots kept in dressing rooms in the house.

Tropical delights - 19th-century houseplant heyday

The fashion for houseplants reached its peak in the 19th century as increasing numbers of tropical and sub-tropical plants were brought back from across the globe. The aspidistra, first introduced from China in 1823, soon earned its common name of ‘Cast-Iron Plant’, capable of surviving the darkest, most fume-polluted Victorian homes. 

Algerina Peckover in the conservatory at Sibald's Holme, close to Peckover House, Cambridgeshire. The mop-head chrysanthemums, aspidistras, palms and yuccas were typical houseplants in the late 19th century
Algerina Peckover in the conservatory at Sibald's Holme, close to Peckover House, Cambridgeshire and also once owned by the Peckover family. The mop-head chrysanthemums, aspidistras, palms and yuccas were typical houseplants in the late 19th century
Algerina Peckover in the conservatory at Sibald's Holme, close to Peckover House, Cambridgeshire. The mop-head chrysanthemums, aspidistras, palms and yuccas were typical houseplants in the late 19th century


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

The spider orchid, Brassia maculata 'Tessa', growing in the Orchid House at Kingston Lacy in Dorset
The spider orchid, Brassia maculata 'Tessa', growing in the Orchid House at Kingston Lacy in Dorset
The spider orchid, Brassia maculata 'Tessa', growing in the Orchid House at Kingston Lacy in Dorset

Orchid mania

The orchid family is huge, numbering around 28,000 species. 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. As orchid fever spread, plant hunters 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, whilst still a student at Oxford, he sponsored an orchid plant hunting expedition to the north coast of South America. Of the 60 species brought back to Britain, 20 were new introductions.

James Bateman's orchid book

At the age of 26, James Bateman commissioned probably the greatest orchid book ever published, ‘The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala’. It earned this prodigious title in weight and size alone.

Measuring 30 x 22 inches (76.2 cm x 58.8 cm) and weighing in at 38lb, it’s one of the heaviest books ever produced. Costing 20 guineas, is was issued in parts, on subscription between 1837 and 1843. The subscribers list included Royalty, the aristocracy and wealthy orchid collectors. 

Only 125 copies were printed and 55 are known to survive, including this example at Tatton Park in Cheshire. William Tatton Egerton was a keen orchid collector and Bateman was a close family friend, providing many orchids, housed in special orchid houses at Tatton Park. 

Bateman was something of a snob, believing that orchid cultivation would and should remain the preserve of the upper echelons of society.

He went on to create one of the most extraordinary and important gardens of the 19th century at Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire.
 

Fern frenzy

From the 1850s, fern fever gripped Victorian Britain and much of the English-speaking world. Naturalist and author Charles Kingsley even coined a name for it in 1855 - ‘Pteridomania’.  Numerous books were published, aimed at and avidly read by young, amateur naturalists. Fern hunting became an engrossing hobby and ferneries sprang up in gardens.

The limited number of native ferns led to sponsored plant hunting 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.

The fernery at Tatton Park, Cheshire was designed by Joseph Paxton for the 1st Baron Egerton in 1859

Fernery

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.

One of three Coalbrookdale cast-iron benches at Kingston Lacy in Dorset

Fern bench

Fern frenzy spread into the decorative arts from wallpaper designs to dinner services. The Coalbrookdale ironworks produced a wide range of decorative garden benches. The best known is probably this 'Fern and Blackberry' pattern, one of three examples at Kingston Lacy in Dorset. The original design was registered and patented in 1858.

A passion for pelargoniums

Pelargoniums are one of the most floriferous and popular pot plants, filling millions of window boxes, balconies and containers each year. Most wild species of 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.

By the early 18th century, pelargoniums were growing in botanical gardens and in the private collections of wealthy collectors throughout Europe. When plant breeders realised that they hybridized very easily, competition to produce the most interesting blooms and unusual leaf patterns developed, reaching zenith point in Victorian England. By the end of the 19th century, pelargoniums were being used as indoor plants and were so widely propagated that almost everyone could afford one.
 

Terracotta pots of pelargonium 'Scarlet Unique', first bred in the early 1800s, displayed at Hidcote in Gloucestershire
Terracotta pots of pelargonium 'Scarlet Unique', first bred in the early 1800s, displayed at Hidcote in Gloucestershire
Terracotta pots of pelargonium 'Scarlet Unique', first bred in the early 1800s, displayed at Hidcote in Gloucestershire

Before botany became a science in the 18th century, it was common to give similar looking plants the same name. When they were first introduced to Europe, pelargoniums were thought to be a type of geranium. Although the plants belong to the same botanical family, Geraniaceae, pelargoniums are distinctly different from their geranium cousins, from the shape of their flowers and leaves, to the fact that they are tender. The name pelargonium was given to these plants in 1738 but almost 300 years later, they are still often erroneously called geraniums.  

The 20th-century houseplant revival

The start of the 20th century saw a shift in attitudes towards houseplants. 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 more architectural shapes fitted the style of the day. These were the plants which Walter Straw was collecting at his home in Nottinghamshire and that Leonard Woolf grew at Monk’s House in East Sussex.  

John Nash’s lithograph of 1945, ‘Window Plants’, in the collection at Scotney Castle, in Kent shows amaryllis, Christmas cactus, aspidistra and pelargoniums, among a range of houseplants
John Nash’s lithograph of 1945, ‘Window Plants’, in the collection at Scotney Castle, in Kent shows amaryllis, Christmas cactus, aspidistra and pelargoniums, among a range of  houseplants
John Nash’s lithograph of 1945, ‘Window Plants’, in the collection at Scotney Castle, in Kent shows amaryllis, Christmas cactus, aspidistra and pelargoniums, among a range of houseplants


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 sixty years but today houseplants are firmly back in fashion.

The plethora of plants found in Victorian houses are now mostly confined to heated glasshouses and conservatories, perfect conditions for many houseplants. Our gardeners across the country grow an inspiring range of tender plants, some well-known and others far more unusual but all equally interesting. Visit some of the gardens featured here and discover them for yourself.

Container display in the Plant House at Hidcote in Gloucestershire, including a large agave, orchids and aeoniums

Houseplants to explore in our conservatories and glasshouses 

As houseplants enjoy a renaissance, there’s never been a better time to get indoor plant inspiration from National Trust gardens.