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Bringing plants into the home is nothing new. It is a practice that has been with us for millennia. But the reasons and motivations for doing so have changed down through the generations. In the early days, academic researchers claim that it was a functional choice: a method people used to purify the indoor air and reduce smells. Only later did it become a symbol of status and wealth. For most of us, walking into a neolithic house at the advent of farming would be something of a shock. Despite being more than ten thousand years old, the interiors of these early dwellings may have appeared strangely familiar. There might be a reed mat on the floor – analogous to modern-day rugs. Stone etchings could have adorned the walls, coloured with ochre. And those early householders may have brought individual plants into their interiors to lighten them. It was all technologically feasible back then. And there is tantalising evidence that in ancient cities in the fertile crescent, like Uruk and Jericho, it may have happened.
The potential continuity between this image of a neolithic room and the modern-day equivalent is striking. Despite thousands of years of cultural change and technological progress, it seems that there is something fundamental in the human psyche that celebrates these elements. Collectively, there’s an impulse within us to place plants in our homes. It seems rooted deep within our souls. And it has been with us since the very earliest times. Intellectuals have tried to layer reasons on top of this to explain the underlying motivation for indoor plants. We’ve had every rational conjecture you can imagine, from masking the foul smell of sewage to helping people show off their wealth and power. But while these explanations are compelling, they’re also missing something: aesthetics. Modern construction techniques – and even ancient mud-brick methods – produce a clinical interior feel, divorcing us from the natural world. Walls are bare, geometric and, in some cases, claustrophobic.
Interiors are a world away from our evolutionary heritage in the savannah and the forest. They bring too much order and too little chaos. And we want a healthy mix of both. There’s strong support in modern science for the idea that we prefer living in the midst of plants. The “ forest bathing ” literature suggests that people prefer the surroundings of trees to walls covered in white emulsion. The foliage does something primal and unexpected to our brains, sending the activity of stress centres down while elevating mood. Further studies investigating office plants appear to lend credence to this hypothesis. We want greenery in the environment while we work. There’s something fundamentally uplifting about it. It evokes a kind of biophilia that transports us back tens of thousands of years to the time of our stone-age ancestors. All of this, therefore, points to the notion that houseplants aren’t just some random passing trend, like Tamagotchis or yo-yos. Plants, it would seem, can evoke emotions in us similar to that of art or music. There’s a symbiosis between them and us on an aesthetic level – and that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Many histories of indoor plants begin their story in the sixteenth or seventeenth century CE. But these bookmarked accounts miss something profound when they ignore the role that indoor plants played in prehistoric civilisation. Archaeological evidence from the neolithic – the period following the introduction of farming around 10,000 BCE – suggests that people were already becoming very interested in cultivating plants. Early human pioneers began to realise that you didn’t need to move around, looking for new sources of food continually. If you had fertile soil and the right grain, you could plant crops and live in a single location. During this time, people experimented with all kinds of plants, both food and non-food. In the early days, selective breeding would have been haphazard. Those crops that sustained people passed their seeds down to the next generation. Those that produced a poor harvest would not survive. Later on, farmers would breed plants for specific reasons, be it their beautiful flowers or their ability to yield more calories. The first written evidence of plants coming indoors comes from the ancient world. But notably, the practice appears to have sprung up independently across unconnected geographies.
In the near-East, the earliest example of indoor plants dates to around 600 BCE. Legend has it that King Nebuchadnezzar II commissioned the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the ancient wonders of the world – for his wife, Queen Amytis. Amytis wasn’t a native Babylonian. Instead, she came from a more verdant part of the world to the east, probably Assyria or Persia – kingdoms that occupied the modern-day location of Iran. The Queen, the story goes, loved her husband but missed the greenery of her homeland and longed for its recreation in the relatively arid environs of the Tigris. Encouraged by his wife, Nebuchadnezzar II thus began construction of the gardens, building a grand structure, and then adorning it with species able to thrive in captivity. Surviving records indicate the gardens featured cedars, date trees, palms and seasonal flowers. Around the same time, indoor plants were making an appearance in the Far East too. Between 1,000 BCE to 900 BCE, the concept of feng shui was beginning to take root in Chinese culture. Ancient orientals believed that they could harness “energy forces” to harmonize their minds with their environment. At a basic level, they seemed to understand that there was a connection between the way an individual felt and their material surroundings. The movement, therefore, sought to modify homes and palaces to better align with feng shui principles. Here, again, indoor plants played a role. Evidence suggests that various segments of Chinese society brought houseplants into their homes as much as three thousand years ago. Plants seemed to have a calming effect on their cohabitors – precisely what feng shui set out to achieve. The Chinese would typically use penjing trees for their ornamental features. The modern “money tree” continues this tradition to the present day. For this reason, there’s compelling evidence that indoor plants are, first and foremost, products of our aesthetic sensibilities. They appeal to something fundamental in our psyche. It is only later, with the advent of more complex societies, that people begin to use them as a symbol of wealth and status. The great classical civilisations of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, for instance, probably borrowed the idea of houseplants from pre-existing cultures in the fertile crescent to the east. Archaeological findings from 500 to 400 BCE reveal that the Roman nobility kept indoor plants in sprawling villas and estates to beautify their environments. They would keep house plants in terracotta pots and compete with each other to collect the showiest flowers. They loved violets and roses and began the multi-generational process to enhance their appearance. Meanwhile, in the Far East, things were developing fast. New indoor species still famous today, like the Vietnamese Hon No Bo and the Japanese Bonsai, began to emerge in the classical period between 500 and 200 BCE. The concept here, however, was slightly different. Instead of going for the most decadent flowers like the Romans, Far Eastern cultures appear to have had a penchant for rescaling plants. Indoor varieties looked very much like the full-scale trees you would typically find in the wild. Usually, they would take woody cuttings and then place them in a shallow container. The plant would later grow in miniature, reflecting the proportions of wild-growing trees. While flowers probably did make an appearance, the objective was to recreate the aesthetic of the forest.
Following the collapse of the classical world after the sack of Rome in the fifth century, there are relatively few surviving records recording the use of houseplants. Likely, the practice continued throughout the dark ages, but we can only speculate. For the most part, reports of beautiful houseplants disappear from the historical record. Monks grew functional plants that they needed to survive, such as fruit, herbs and garden vegetables, but the decadence of the classical era was gone.
During the renaissance era following the Reformation in the sixteenth century, though, indoor plants made a stunning comeback. And this time around, it was unambiguously about status. Philosophy had little to do with it. The reemergence of house plants at this time had a lot to do with the botanical context. Only a century earlier, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. And with it, he and other explorers introduced Europe to new species of tropical plants suited to indoor living. In many ways, New World plants were the ideal solution for culture hungry to bring foliage indoors. The newly-discovered tropical plants loved warm, dry, humid conditions – similar those in the typical Renaissance home. Many varieties had evolved struggling to economise incoming sunlight under the thick rainforest canopy. This feature meant they could survive long periods in the shade – ideal for the interior environment. The way plants made their way into the home, however, is indicative of how people perceived them. The Duke of Lauderdale, owner of the Ham House estate near Richmond, went as far as constructing an Orangery for his plant collection. In his 1682 inventory, he reveals that he kept eight large orange trees and lemon trees, twenty-two smaller citrus-bearing plants and numerous tubs of greens and myrtles. For him, it was a way to cement his status in high-flying circles and create a sense of beauty and lightness in the home. Around the same time, glass-making technology progressed to the point where it was finally possible for the wealthy to construct greenhouses. This innovation radically changed the game again. For the first time, the well-to-do could nurture plants that would not otherwise survive harsh European winters on their land. Greenhouses kept conditions warm and humid year-round, just like the locations in which many exotic species originated. English writer and inventor, Sir High Platt spoke about the basics of keeping plants indoors in his 1652 magnum opus The Garden of Eden . Soon after that, greenhouses began springing up all over the country, and people began experimenting to see whether they could grow plants that, up until that point, would only survive in the tropics.
A robust scientific theme accompanied the Renaissance experience of indoor plants. For the first time, conscious experimentation was beginning to influence horticultural efforts. People were trying out new things, often by trial and error, but with a view that they could overcome issues through rational study. Horticulturalists would regularly contribute to the scientific literature, speaking of their findings and sharing them with the academic community. It was the first inkling of a full-fledged biosciences movement.
The fashion for indoor plants reached its zenith in the Victorian era. Industrialisation, mass production, advanced shipping and larger, better-lit homes, all contributed to the broader adoption of indoor plants. For the first time in recorded history, the middle classes began to fill their homes with plant species brought via New World and Far East trading routes.
Aspidistra, for instance, first appeared in Europe in 1823 after merchants brought it from China. People nicknamed it “the Cast-Iron Plant” owing to its seemingly supernatural ability to survive harsh indoor conditions. Other plant species, popularized by the gardens at Kew, like spider orchid and palms and yuccas served to inspire a generation. By 1885, historians counted more than eight weekly gardening magazines circulating in Britain, and even more monthlies. Indoor gardening boomed as the increasingly fleshed-out rail network made it easy to transport fresh specimens rapidly from one location to another.
Victorian innovators also experimented with new business models. Nurseries began to spring up all over the country where people could go and buy pre-potted plants – a progenitor to the garden centre. These outlets sold the lilies, aloes, agaves, myrtles, jasmines and bays to their keen audience.
Floral services began to offer plants for hire too. People could pay specialists to come and make arrangements and displays in their homes for events like parties or wedding receptions. These professionals would arrive, set up the plants, and sometimes maintain them over several weeks.
The turmoil of the early twentieth century brought the heyday of the indoor plant to and end. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that anything of the scale of the Victorian era would re-emerge.
The history of indoor plants, of course, continues to the present day. Just like people in the eras that came before us, we have our own set of fascinations – the plants that inspire us.
Perhaps the most prominent and successful among these is the Fiddle Leaf Fig – a rather unassuming houseplant that can grow up to ten feet tall. Fiddle-leafs are a hot trend in popular culture right now. Chief editor of the ever-popular horticultural blog, Gardenista, likens the species to the houseplant equivalent of a newborn – a reference to the dedication they inspire in their owners. Blogger Daniel Kanter calls it a “statement plant” – something that immediately transforms a room. But what is it that makes this particular variety such a hit?
Fiddle Leaf fig – Latin name Ficus lyrata – is a native lowland rainforest plant that hails from West Africa. The rise of the plant appears to emanate from its unique ability to create a striking appearance. When the species first appeared in interior design magazines, designers it struck designers with its spindly trunk, deep green lush leaves and volume. Aesthetically, it seemed to have everything that you could want from an interior house plant.
The Fiddle Leaf fig got the balance right in a way that other similar plants did not. The leaves were shiny, but not too waxy. And they offered sufficient “negative space” allowing them to blend into the background in practically every style of interior. They also provided effortless volume. You could just as quickly place them in an office hallway as you could a private cloakroom and the effect was just as vibrant and lush.
Interior designers began adopting them in their droves. The plant seemed to have the ability to transform the atmosphere of any room, not as a centrepiece, but as a warming background feature. An interior might look dead, but add Ficus lyrata, and suddenly you could lift the entire space.
According to some designers, that’s what fundamentally sets the plant apart from its seemingly similar rivals, like ficus and palms. Fiddle-leaf fig has that dramatic volume and “pop” that many homeowners want. It offers both size, verdancy and texture in a way that few other species do. With it, designers could quickly transform what was otherwise a dull room into something that appeared to have character and dynamism.
What’s so funny about this plant, though, is how difficult it is to keep alive versus popular house plants from the 1960s and 1980s. Unlike its rivals, it is a sensitive organism, requiring continual care from its loving owners. After spending a few weeks with it, it feels more like a temperamental pet than a part of the furniture. Fiddle-leaf figs can burn if left in direct sunlight and wither and shed if you put them too close to a radiator. They need regular care to keep them happy and soothe their emotions. Even experienced gardeners can struggle to keep the darn things alive.
The Fiddle Leaf Fig, however, isn’t the only plant to have had an outsized impact on the culture. By 2018, it had been joined by the positively Jurassic Monstera Leaf – sometimes called the Swiss Cheese Plant, owing to the giant holes in its leaves.
At first, the notion that westerners would want to include a plant that hailed from the Central American jungle in their homes seemed a little strange. The plant looked more like something you’d see on an Um Bongo carton than a demure abode. But, as so often happens, the tropical aesthetic seemed to pair surprisingly well with interiors. Monstera Leaf, however, wasn’t just another massive green thing that you put in the corner to add a bit of “pop”: it was a giant statement.
Again, it was a case of practicality be damned. Unlike the houseplants of the Victorian era and 20th century, Monstera Leaf doesn’t want to grow indoors. It needs to be outdoors in the sun. Its features, however, are so alluring that it makes people go to extremes. Owners succour their specimens with Miracle Grow-laced water and tend them day and night, like a helpless, wailing infant.
Monstera Leaf’s surge in popularity comes from its heavy use in advertising . Fashion brands such as Boohoo, Alice and Olivia, Forever 21, and Old Navy all feature the leaf either on their clothing, in their stores, or on commercials. Luggage companies, like Away, have also taken advantage of the plant for its unique tropical vibe. There are even now social media fan groups on social media, extolling the benefits of the species and how it has transformed their interior spaces.
Monstera Leaf, however, isn’t new to the culture. During the 1970s, it enjoyed a brief spell of popularity in the US after the popular NBC show Golden Girls featured a large version of the plant as part of the set. It seemed to just jump out at you, especially in the context of shaggy brown decor from the era.
The effigy of Monstera Leaf also features heavily in the modern Etsy-driven handcrafting movement. You can find depictions of it on ceramics, woven baskets, placemats and wallpaper.
What’s interesting about this Monstera Deliciosa trend is that the plant itself is quite visually simple. Each shrub grows as a series of stalks, supporting a single, giant leaf than fans out on top. There’s nothing intricate or detailed about the structure of the plant. It is fundamentally basic.
That, however, may explain its extraordinary popularity in advertising. The current trend in commercial style is profoundly minimalist. Companies like to keep things basic and simple, removing clutter from their visual messages. Monstera Leaf maintains this theme. It is simple, yet evocative, and speaks the same visual language as modern brands.
If you go exploring on Instagram and Pinterest, and you’ll find an abundance of trendy indoor plants on display. Millennials – the primary users of these platforms – don’t seem to be able to get enough of them. But why? Why is it that this generation is so much keener than the last to ram their homes with succulents, Monstera Leaf and Fiddle Leaf Figs
Two things: growing urbanisation and social media.
You only have to stumble upon an interior design account on Instagram, and immediately you have a fly-eye view into the homes of thousands of plant enthusiasts all over the world. They are making their craft known through these visual platforms and inspiring others to hop on the bandwagon.
For many, the love affair with plants begins timidly. Millennials experiment with the odd chilli plant on their window sill or cactus on the mantelpiece. Over time, though, plants become a ritual, and many find themselves addicted to their quiet, charming, relaxing qualities. Burnt-out young workers come to appreciate them as a form of solace in their otherwise hectic and highly-strung lives.
Indoor plant trends aren’t just a passing affair, though. Many commentators put forward good reasons to believe that they are here to stay.
The life trajectory of Millenials is very different from the generations that preceded them. They’re waiting much longer to own a home, settle down, have children and raise a family. The reasons for this phenomenon are many. Part of it has to do with the dominant culture of partying first and then worrying about life milestones later. But there’s also an economic element: house prices are so high that it is impractical for most Millennials to settle down, even if they have high incomes (especially in Sydney!!). Many are unable to fulfil their biological drive to have a family, so some see the abundance of plant life on social media as an effect of broader life circumstances. Millennials can’t have families (or pets if they live in rented accommodation), so they’re turning to plants to fill their primordial void.
Millennials are also more urban than any generation before them. The vast majority of Australians live in large cities, such as Sydney or Melbourne, where the only sign of life is pigeons releasing droppings unceremoniously on their heads. Their biology, however, hasn’t changed, though. They still want nature to surround them, given a choice.
Plants also attract Millennials because they tie seamlessly into notions of wellness. As a generation, Millennials are more interested in topics such as mindfulness and self-care than any before them. Themes regarding diet, physical fitness, and mental wellbeing dominate social media. Thus, there’s a desire for things in the environment that affirm life – or at least make it more bearable. And plants fit the bill.
Plants also seem to encourage some Millennials to slow down as well. Instead of immediately getting out of bed, checking the phone and rushing to the bathroom, indoor displays support a more meditative rhythm to the day. Many avid pot plant enthusiasts use their early mornings as an opportunity to tend their indoor gardens before rushing off to meet the challenges of the day. It is an entirely different ethic and homage to the past.
While the burgeoning houseplant scene is a welcome adaptation to the modern world, it also has a dark side. Just as in the Renaissance era, there’s a competitive streak that runs through the entire endeavour. Everyone is trying to construct the most opulent and fantastic displays – and they’re spending inordinate sums of money to do so. Rare, exotic species are not cheap. And millennial incomes, already low relative to prior generations, are suffering.
So are we in a position to answer the question of whether indoor plants are a trend or just trendy?
What’s interesting about the human experience with plants down the ages is how they reflect fundamental aspects of our nature. In the early days, bringing plants into the home was very much related to our primal desire to be surrounded by nature, even as humanity urbanised. That impulse never disappeared but was eventually superseded by other notions. Plants, for instance, became a status symbol. Kings, queens, and the wealthy landed elite would use them as a projection of their power in much the same way that they would art and architecture. The sight of fresh plants on display, blooming in greenhouses, was once a rarity.
With the wealth brought by the industrial revolution, though, the masses began to develop an affinity for houseplants. Part of their motivation was to emulate the rich, for sure. But many just appreciated lightness and beauty indoor plants brought to their lives. Some just wanted to show off to their neighbours. Throughout history, therefore, indoor plants were about wellness, status and aesthetics.
In the very recent interaction of indoor plants with the culture, however, we see a new trend emerging. As in the past, plants are still sources of beauty, reflection and relaxation. But now they are also tools for connecting with others. Never before has it been possible for the average person with interest in indoor plants to reach out to millions of people via social media and share their story. But that’s precisely what’s happening. And it is leading to the formation of brand new relationships. Indoor plants, therefore, have become a new medium through which we can relate to each other.