Rise of the Houseplant

No one ever saw ‘overcrowding’ by plants in a room or ward…the carbonic acid they give off at night would not poison a fly. Nay in overcrowded rooms, they actually absorb carbonic acid, and give off oxygen.

Early Premonitions of Photosynthesis

To understand the history of houseplants, it is important to understand the early origins of botany that shaped how people viewed plants in the past. Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), Belgian chemist, physiologist, and physician was one of the first natural philosophers to take an interest in the element of air. He was a keen observer of the natural world and was sought to dispel false knowledge. To test his theory on how plants gather mass, he carefully grew a Willow tree in a potted container for five years. He took exact measurements of the weight of the tree, the soil, and water to quantify his experimental observations. From this experiment, he refuted the notion that plants enlarge their critical mass through soil alone (a previously held hypothesis). He deduced that plants receive their volume from water and not from soil. This discovery was a breakthrough in the origins of photosynthesis. Early science sought to uncover the mysteries behind plant reproduction, growth, and symbiotic relationships with other organisms. Nature has many hidden secrets and it would be foolish to assume that there aren’t elements of plant physiology that remain unknown to us today. Early theories of photosynthesis evolved and shaped how the Victorians viewed plants in their homes.

Victorian Plant Hysteria

By the 1840s, it was common knowledge that plants transpire through photosynthesis but the details were still foggy. Young Victorians knew that plants absorbed carbonic acid gas and released oxygen into the environment, however they believed that mass amounts of carbonic acid gas were released from the leaves at night causing headaches, stupor, and even suffocation. Victorians thought that keeping plants in the bedroom at night was unhealthy and even at its worst a cause of sudden death. They simply did not understand the science behind photosynthesis and this caused an odd display of mass hysteria surrounding plants in the bedroom. Every night housekeepers would move houseplants out of bedrooms to other parts of the home in a state of full paranoia. If they had considered that houseplants release oxygen into the air and not volumes of toxins, it would have been a serene and peaceful sleep. This was gently touched upon by Florence Nightingale,

Urban Development

The history of plants in the home is vast and multi-dimensional. It is a pleasure to share even a minute chapter of its story though it deserves volumes of literature to fully illustrate its magnitude and impact on art, history, architecture, and culture. Plants are our passion and this fervor was seen best in Great Britain in the 1800s when urban development exploded onto the scene. Newly built homes boasted regular water supplies and improved sewage controls. The gentle doctor, Nathaniel Ward and British gardener George Loddiges, advocated for the abolition of the Glass Tax which allowed for an increase in windows and more plants in the home. Plants were sold in exotic nurseries, out in the open, and even in the streets. Plants gained a revival of public interest and in response to the toils of plant care a genre of literature grew specifically on the care of plants.

Publishing houses provided literature and magazines on gardening and included topics such as, hot-houses, stove-houses, greenhouses, exotic plants, foliage, and ferns. Plants were no longer a symbol of combined admiration and hysteria nor were they a luxury reserved solely for the upper class. Plants were a sought after and revered household living fixture that provided beauty, pleasure, and great interest among the British. Today plants remain a part of society and thrive in our everyday lives. We continue to learn about the latest technologies in horticulture and plant physiology.

Houseplants are an evolving hobby and growing industry that draws and compels us as a human species. Our connection to nature has been deeply ingrained in us throughout human history and our evolutionary origins. Can you compare the value of a living plant to an inanimate object? You cannot. There never will be be any comparison.



Potted History: The Story of Plants in The Home, Catherine Horwood (2007).

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