Anne here, and today I'm talking about growing plants inside, in pots. Even though I've always had an outdoor garden, I've still loved growing pot plants indoors. And every winter, the cheerful splash of color from indoor flowering plants makes me smile. The color here is from a cyclamen, and each year I buy one or two that are about to start flowering, and their vivid blooms keep me feeling cheerful all through the gloom of winter. (This photo was taken last winter.)
For centuries people from all sorts of cultures have valued scented and flowering plants —Hanging Gardens of Babylon, anyone?— and bringing them indoors so that their fragrance and blooms could be enjoyed, perhaps also masking unpleasant smells.
From the 15th century, European explorers and colonizers brought home all kinds of "treasure" from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania — including botanical specimens — though few of these survived except under special conditions.
But as technology advanced to the point where whole buildings could be made of glass and steel, plants unsuited to cold Northern European climates — plants such as oranges, lemons, pineapples, and other delicate fruits — could be grown under glass.
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. They might be called conservatories, orangeries, succession houses, or ferneries, depending on what they were growing. (The photo on the left is a gorgeous modern version of the Victorian style conservatory, from this site.)
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.
In Anglo/European society, the keeping of indoor plants really took off in the Victorian era, when houses were built with larger windows and higher ceilings, and most importantly, with efficient heating — as long as you were lucky enough to be in the middle or upper classes. These warmer, lighter living conditions allowed people to keep plants inside. At the same time, global trade (and colonization) enabled the mass importing of exotic plants, at a price that the middle classes could afford.
Indoor plants became wildly fashionable and people proudly displayed their multitudes of ferns, palms, aspidistras and more. The maidenhair fern in particular, but ferns in general, were so popular that a new word was coined to describe the craze: pteridomania (fern mania).
Such was the demand for ferns that a black market in fern collecting flourished. 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 Wardian case was a small, portable glasshouse, also known as a terrarium. Scroll down to photo below right.)
Victorians didn't only grow them — fern motifs appeared on "pottery, glass, metal, textiles, wood, printed paper, and sculpture, with ferns appearing on everything from christening presents to gravestones and memorials".(Wikipedia)
No respectable Victorian home would be without an aspidistra, also known as the ‘Cast-Iron Plant’. First introduced from China in 1823 it quickly proved itself capable of surviving the darkest, most fume-polluted Victorian homes.
Pottery makers designed pots especially for growing and displaying plants. 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.
This Barr, Flight and Barr-factory bulb-pot was made in Worcester, around 1804–7 and was 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.
By the mid-19th century, the nursery trade was booming 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.
After World War 1, houseplants had become so associated with the Victorian era that they were considered old fashioned, and started to fall out of favor. In the 1930's cacti and succulents became the houseplants of choice as their more architectural shapes fitted the style of the day.
As urbanization increased, and more and more people lived in flats and apartments without gardens, indoor plants came back into fashion. Their popularity has waxed and waned over the years but today houseplants are firmly back in fashion, possibly encouraged by CoVid and Lockdown.
My mother loved her indoor plants, even though she and Dad had a large garden, and I picked up the love of them from her. As she did, I grow begonias and saxifragas (strawberry begonias) and I particularly enjoy propagating plants, which she taught me to do as a child. She also had hundreds of cacti, which I don't have — she ranged them on every windowsill whenever she and Dad went travelling, her theory being their spines would deter burglars. <g>
At my old house I had to leave behind a huge philodendron that had grown through its pot and into the ground, and almost reached the roof. I'd had it since I was a student and it was a little plantlet bought at the market.
I certainly get a lot of pleasure out of my indoor plants. I'm lucky because my new house is even lighter than my old one was. I'm particularly happy with this maidenhair, which I forgot to water last year and all the fronds died off. I thought it was dead, but I kept watering and hoping — and look at it now.
Do you keep any indoor plants? What are your favorites?