Insider Guide: History of houseplants

January 25, 2017 / DECORATING, Insider Guides

A potted history of houseplants


The instant way to bring the outside in, houseplants have been decorating our homes for centuries. From sunflowers to succulents, here’s our brief history of changing horticultural tastes.


The Tudors use potpourri to evoke the sweet smell of roses indoors and, inspired by theories of garden design in Renaissance Italy, the size and splendour of a home’s garden becomes a signifier of social status.

Plants such as nasturtiums and sunflowers are shipped from the New World to Europe and gifted to monarchs – who soon realised that delicate flowers demand conditions similar to their native climes.

Orangeries – elegant single-storey edifices defined by a south-facing wall of windows (such as Kew Gardens’, opened in 1761) are built by wealthy landowners to house citrus trees from the Mediterranean.

The trend for florals in fashion prompts a Victorian enthusiasm for houseplants. Fumes from coal fires meant that only the toughest of shrubs could survive, such as Aspidistra, known at the time as ‘the cast-iron plant’.

Early 1900s
The decorative potted fronds that frame Edwardian hotels’ palm courts (which were designed to screen the orchestra from afternoon-tea-goers without affecting the sound) make their way into fashionable homes.

Sturdy statement shrubs become a signature part of interior decor: Sansevieria (known as ‘Mother-in-Law’s Tongue’) enjoys a reputation for being marvellously indestructible.

From being a bloom for the specialist grower only, the orchid goes mainstream. Rumours of the spider plant’s ability to purify air are confirmed by a scientific study, which sees
them arrive in offices throughout the UK.

Windowsill herb pots surge in popularity across the country, fuelled by the rise in apartment living and trend for growing your own. Avant-garde gardeners also start to keep potted lemon or olive trees indoors.

Stylish design stores begin decorating Japanese sprouting mud-balls (kokedamas), and a trend for terrariums arrives – glass bowls acting as microclimates for artfully arranged moss, succulents and cacti.

‘Cube’ terrarium by West Elm

‘Cube’ terrarium by West Elm

Supersized plants and small exotic trees are the greenery of the moment. Thomas Broom, head gardener at Petersham Nurseries, cites the Virginia Blue Fern (Phlebodium Pseudoaureum) as his plant pick for this year.

The Virginia Blue Fern (Phlebodium Pseudoaureum)

The Virginia Blue Fern (Phlebodium Pseudoaureum)

Picture: Grace & Thorn