Potted history of houseplants in our houses and collections
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
The brightly coloured bracts of Bougainvillea, make it a popular houseplant for conservatories. It's seen here growing at Wallington in Northumberland.
Inside the glasshouse at Dyffryn in the Vale of Glamorgan, Agave Americana, with its fleshy, spiny-edged leaves, rubs shoulders with a collection of prickly cacti.
The snail vine (Vigna Caracalla), a vigorous annual climber, fills the conservatory at Standen in West Sussex with a strong honey scent in summer.
Pelargonium oblongatum, is dormant during summer, keeping its beautiful flowers for the winter months. It's one of over 100 pelargoniums in the collection at Stourhead in Wiltshire.
Cacti and succulents growing in the greenhouse at Mr Straw's House, Nottinghamshire. In May 1940, Walter Straw had a collection of 300 cacti and 'innumerable seedlings'.
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'.
'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.
" I resolved to obtain and to communicate such information . . . for the rearing and preserving a portable garden in pots."
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
" Streptocarpus are my favourite houseplants. They are beautiful, long-flowering and small enough to fit into any home."