The Age of Houseplants
March 7, 2022 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Houseplants occupy a curious intersection of home and design and history: they are hobbies, and testimonies of skill (or lack thereof), and components of interior design. At the same time, they’re also artifacts of colonization and the controlling impulses that accompanied it, and quiet, nostalgic attempts to regain a steadily dissipating relationship with the natural world. A house plant is never “just” a house plant, the same way a couch is never just a couch or a movie is just a movie. Houseplants said something about the people who cultivated them in the early 1600s, which was different than what it said about something in the 1860s, or the 1960s, or today. To try and understand what, exactly, our house plants mean today — why we collect and display them the way we do, what they communicate, and how that might be in flux — we have to understand, even if just briefly, what they’ve meant before. [sl Culture Study Substack by Anne Helen Peterson]
posted by ellieBOA (25 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Lovely lovely lovely, thanks!
posted by infini at 8:56 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

She had a Twitter thread when she was researching this. lots of great photos of houseplants
posted by PussKillian at 9:30 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

I rewatched The Godfather for the nth time last night and noticed for the first ritmé ever the plants outside the café where Michael meets Apollonia's father.

There were a couple of ferns, really nice monsteras and other maybe araceae, and a ficus elastica. After that I noticed other tropical plants in outdoors but protected settings.

I’ve been wondering if it was some kind of statement or just the plants that happened to be on location. I spent too long last night trying to research the availability of these plants in Sicily in the years after the war. Was it common to have a potted rubber tree? A status symbol? What does it tell us about Apollonias family?

Maybe Coppola shares an interest in plants with Scorsese, or they hire the same people.

The article also taught me that I walk the line between the “feminized” plant person and the “rational” plant designer. My propagation room is upstairs and in a corner of the backyard. My curated collection is in the living and dining rooms.

And about empire and houseplants… I live in one of the regions with the most biodiversity in the world. I find it really sad that many of the currently popular collectors houseplants that sell for $$$ are from the region, but people are getting them from tissue propagators in holland and from nurseries in the US, while the locals live in poverty and deforestation.

I started a project to get plants from my region, and the only way I could get many cactus and rainforest plants legally (many are endangered or extinct in the wild, and most are protected) was to get seeds from Germany, Holland and surprisingly Singapore. My seeds originally come from European collectors from between the 1890s and 1930s.

Now whenever I get enough rooted cuttings or good seeds I give them away to anyone interested.
posted by Dr. Curare at 9:44 AM on March 7 [8 favorites]

This is really interesting. As a plant person - ~50 at home, including too many jade and dragon fruit with a combined volume larger than a couch, 10 at work that get a surprising number of comments in zoom meetings with new people, all entirely unpruned - I don't think I actually understand the social signals that I'm communicating. I just think they're cool and more fun to look at than empty windows. The description here is so far from the way I usually present that I find the idea quite fun. (Though, I have always been tempted to try making bonsai. . . )
posted by eotvos at 10:30 AM on March 7

Keep the aspidistra flying.
posted by atoxyl at 10:46 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]

This makes me feel even worse about my office plants.

My cactus might be dead and I don't know how I'd tell.

I got tired of the plants on my desk years ago but they're alive, so I can't just abandon them. They're my responsibility for life.
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 11:19 AM on March 7

I'm not sure the article convinced me of that houseplants are an artifact of colonialism. I can certainly see how exotic plants brought home from far reaches of empires would be a thing, but so would plants brought home by explorers and traders. I can imagine that the palaces of the Roman elite might have been filled with plants, some from far away, but I can also imagine that, from the time that clay pots were invented, some were found, if only by accident, to be perfect for holding plants and keeping them indoors. I imagine that the wealthy will have always used plants as decoration, and the not-so-wealthy, in turn, will have found similar inexpensive ways to play along.

I would be very interested in hearing about the deep history of the houseplant, because I too have begun the hobby. largely thanks to covid.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:06 PM on March 7

I blame the light in my home that I can’t keep plants alive. I basically only have north-facing windows. A couple have managed to hold on weakly but mostly I’ve come to understand that I’ve just been trapping plants in a situation that slowly tortures them to death and I feel guilty about it and after a couple years of trying to maintain new ones every once in a while, I am just going to stop and let them thrive elsewhere.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 1:08 PM on March 7

I blame the light in my home that I can’t keep plants alive. I basically only have north-facing windows. A couple have managed to hold on weakly but mostly I’ve come to understand that I’ve just been trapping plants in a situation that slowly tortures them to death and I feel guilty about it and after a couple years of trying to maintain new ones every once in a while, I am just going to stop and let them thrive elsewhere.

LED plant lights are now super cheap and available in every form imaginable from industrial grow lights to attractive single plant lights on poles you can stab into a single pot. They are even super energy efficient now. You can do this if you want to.
posted by srboisvert at 1:29 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]

I do have an LED plant light, it also hasn’t worked. I said I blame the light, but it may actually be me.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 2:13 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

We took advantage of an unseasonably warm day yesterday to go to the local non-profit botanical gardens, and I learned that people apparently pay $50 or $100 or more for a single orchid plant. The hundreds of orchids on display were stunningly beautiful, though. Even though it's the first week of March in Virginia, I was surprised at the number of plants that were showing signs of coming out of their winter doldrums.
posted by COD at 2:26 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]

You take a plant that has learned to live one way (quite well!) and take it to a generally hostile climate, rename it, keep it in a small area, and attempt to keep it alive.

This is gardening, even if you use natives in your yard. So yeah. Though renaming it often means giving it a people or pet name vs a scientific name.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:52 PM on March 7

Peterson points out the colonialism of conservatories in the article:

Conservatories and “glass houses” began popping up in the public gardens of major cities [...] they were also subtle demonstrations of empiric might: a means to display the more seemly components of conquest and containment to the public at large. Conservatories and botanic gardens were exquisite distractions from the actual wreckage and suffering of empire (look here, not there) just as the cultivation of interior beauty (concentrate here, not there) distracted women of the time from their own generalized subjugation — and, of course, the enduring hierarchies that kept one class of woman designing her sitting room and another class of women dusting it.

I'm looking forward to part two of this next week.
posted by travertina at 2:58 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

Best book on house plants is Darryl Cheng's New Plant Parent. Especially recommended for black thumbs like me.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:24 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]

I totally get that there are elements to the story of indoor plants that contain elements of the history of the cultures that display them. But the claim is that "houseplants" are an artifact of colonization. Conservatories and glass houses are different than an urge to go to the nursery and buy a plant to have in my living room, even a plant from the tropics. Zoos and Museums are far more "exquisite distractions...." than ornamental plants, which certainly predate European colonialism.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:25 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

I feel like people must have always been trying out new plants and exchanging them whenever they had the opportunity but I guess the scope for doing that inside the house in a lot of places would have been limited until fairly recently and at that point everything ends up intertwined with colonialism. Will need to see where she goes with this next week.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:13 PM on March 7

I was with my mother, shopping for various things at a local nursery, when a set of green leaves veined in lurid silver caught my eye. I was eight, not of an age to have a pet of my own, but the little pilea cadierei in the bright yellow plastic pot with matching drain saucer just spoke to me, and I carried it over to where she was shopping for chemicals for our azaleas and fluffed up my nerve.

"Ma," I asked, "Can we buy this?"

"Hmm," my mother said, taking the yellow pot and reading the little plastic spike that identified the potted object of my desire as an aluminum plant. "My, I've never seen a plant with silvery markings like that. It's pretty."

"Can you get it for my room? I promise I'll take care of it."

I'm certain my memory has long since filtered any look of skepticism on her part in that wash of nostalgia that one gets at the start of things, but I think my enthusiasm was compelling to her and, as an experiment in responsibility, it wasn't particularly costly or as much a source of chaos as my later adventures with fancy mice was destined to cause.

I named it "Herbie" and rode home with it cradled in my lap in our white '68 Volvo 144 with the oxblood vinyl interior like a new mother returning home from the hospital with a freshly minted baby in swaddling clothes, and gave it pride of place on the windowsill on my oddly shaped bedroom. I watered Herbie faithfully, turned the little yellow pot to make sure he got light on all sides, and, in accordance with the fad of playing music to make plants happier in those days, played Beatles records at him, over and over, though I never could tell if it did much.

Forty-six years later, as I've been very, very slowly moving in with my gentleman caller and quasi-stepdaughter, I started bringing in pot after pot from the apartment where I'd lived for the previous thirty-two years, building a little jungle of Herbies in the upstairs guest bathroom, though I've largely opted to call them all Herbert, as I'm a grown-up now and Herbert must be thousands of years old in houseplant years.

"It strikes me as odd, somehow," I said to my gentleman caller as I stood over the sink with the pointy scissors I've been using in the process of giving myself pandemic haircuts, pruning one of the plants, "That I'm dating someone slightly younger than my houseplants."

A pair of eyes rolled slightly behind me. I can't sure for sure they rolled, but I have a faith that they did. "That said," I added, "I'm more than perfectly safe in the half-my-age-plus-seven calculation, thank you very much." Again, I suspected eye movement.

I can't help but think of the Ship of Theseus question, as well—the little yellow plastic flower pot with the matching drain saucer got knocked off a windowsill whilst I was opening the blinds sometime near the end of the eighties and broke, but even before that, I'd developed the habit of pruning Herbert and then sticking the pruned-off sprigs in whatever bottles I had, rooting them, and starting new plants until my apartment was full of the offshoots of aluminum plants from 1976, the chlorophytum comosum (spider plant) that was hanging in the window in my father's office in 1978 when a woman who'd had too much to drink at the B&E Tavern overshot her turn at 3 AM and drove through that wall of the office in her Chrysler Cordoba, parking it inconveniently on Dad's desk with the spider plant splayed across the windshield, and the dracaena that my boyfriend found by a dumpster where he worked in 1986 and brought home in an attempt to bring a little sophistication to our rather grim apartment.

Are any of these things the real thing? Are these still Herbie?

Herbert's been at the edge of extinction a time or two, down to one last surviving sprig rooting in an old root beer bottle, after which I've revived him and made sure to propagate as many offshoots as possible, down to the point of surreptitious bioterrorism on my part, in which I snuck Herberts into the homes of friends and loved ones all around the country as a sort of genetic insurance policy against a deep-seated fear that there will be a time when everything I've touched and nurtured will be gone, and will any of it have mattered?

My father's office spider plant's had close calls, too, like when I had all of its various offshoots on the porch a little too early in the spring and a cold snap seemingly wiped them all out, right down to the soil, but after I kept them watered and patiently watched over them, they sent little whorls of green back up, tentatively and then aggressively, as if to say "Hey, we got hit by a fucking Chrysler—you really think we're gonna go that easily?" Even my dracaena had its moment, when the new puppy I adopted after deciding that I was ready to have a dog, twenty years after getting Herbie, dashed into my house with wild puppy energy and promptly bit it in half, as well as a still-plugged-in extension cord, but that ended up with me having two dracaenas.

Lately, I've been finding myself outliving people, from friends to family and people I work with, and I have this enduring thought that is simultaneously a knot of sadness and a sense of peace that all things have their time. There will be a day when the dracaena dies for good, and when whoever inherits my spider plant forgets to bring it inside at the end of fall, and when the last sprig of an aluminum plant that first showed up in my life in a little yellow plastic pot with a matching drain saucer dries out and that's just it.

Like so many of the things in my life, I inherit and accumulate things by way of those around me, and when the 99-year-old nun who was my gentleman caller's great aunt and my best advocate in the family despite her grand-nephew's seemingly freshly unleashed love for another man being not entirely popular with her faith was compelled to move from her little apartment in the convent home to a hospital-like room in the care wing, I brought a Herbert to her in hopes of bringing her spirits up.

"What a pretty little thing," she said, with a warm smile. "The silver markings are just lovely. Isn't it wonderful, what can exist in the world?"

"I think you were just fifty-seven when I got the plant this one came from."

"And you've kept that little spark going for forty-two years?"

"With difficulty," I said, with a little sheepish furrow in my brow.

"Don't sell yourself short," she said, and reached for my hand. "That's a beautiful thing."

She and I would talk about art and music for hours, and I introduced her to Brian Eno, whom she loved, and made her CDs of gamelan music and Bach in the original tunings, and Herbert sat on the sill there, a little flash of life in her room.

"Make sure you take that little plant back when I go," she said, and I felt the urge to deny what she knew, because that's what we do, but she'd never have stood for it, having already decided, after being told that the extended family was going to throw her a full-tilt, singing-and-dancing, party-hats-everwhere cententary party, that she was going to make sure to return to her source before that, since it just sounded like a dreadful sort of party.

"I might give it to Sister Diane," I said, and she smiled. "I think she'd like it."

I reclaimed Herbie just before a dreadful sort of party was canceled, and sadly reclaimed Herbie from Sister Diane a year later, bringing him back to sit on the bathroom sink with all the others. Lately, I've been hatching a plan, seeing as my gentleman caller is a NASA rocket scientist who frequently travels around the world, and researching just how illegal it is to sneak plants native to China and Vietnam back into their native land, just to get a few of them back into the soil where they just just be there, not in a house or bound up in a pot, just out there in the sun, soaking up the rain and sending little tendrils and rhizomes into the land where they came from in a ridiculous sort of poetic attempt at decolonization. My gentleman caller peered over my shoulder at the page open on my laptop and I had that old familiar sense that he was looking at me with bemused concern.

"Are you seriously going to try to smuggle houseplants back into Asia?"

"I prefer not to say," I said, and he leaned down to patiently kiss me on the head and headed off to find his banjo, and I get his reservations, but a pilea cadierei really is a lifetime commitment, and when I told my mother that I'd take care of it, all those lifetimes ago, and after countless centuries of houseplant years have rushed by me, I think maybe I'd meant what I said.
posted by sonascope at 7:30 PM on March 7 [55 favorites]

Aaawww, sonascope, your comment made my day much better already.

Thanks for posting this article too, ellieBOA, I learnt a lot from it. My roomies are all mad for plants, I feel like my apartment has become a botanical garden. Since I come and go in unplanned ways, my own room just has two fake flowers, but I wish I could have old-timey plants like oleanders and geraniums.
During corona lockdown, I had orchids at our farmhouse, and I think they could have survived, if it weren't for a power outage while I was away that left the whole house very cold for three weeks while I was away.

Anyway, she mentioned the Villa Tugendhat, and I looked at images on the web, and I can see what she means. But I have a book with b/w photos from the Tugendhat family album, from when they lived there, and it was filled with plants, inside and out. Very enchanting, as if they were living on an open terrasse in the middle of a dense grove, with views over the city below through an opening in the trees. I'm sure this was intentional, but obviously the architectural photography that was used for publication was made just after the end of construction.
I feel I have seen similar photos of the Eames house, though I don't remember where.
posted by mumimor at 12:23 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]

Thread would not be complete without The Toast's The Ubiquitous Roving Plants of the Starship Enterprise.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:25 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]

My great grandmother brought a begonia with her when she moved from New York to Missouri to marry my great grandfather. (That’s the story, and I’m sticking to it.) She gave a cutting to my grandmother, her daughter in law. My mother took a cutting from that. And, you guessed it, here we four siblings are, desperately trying to keep our plants alive, getting fresh cuttings from whoever has the best plant at the moment, celebrating when one blooms, and vowing to never let the heirloom begonia die out.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:10 PM on March 8 [4 favorites]

jeweled accumulation, on the off-chance that you're going to check back into the thread:

I do have an LED plant light, it also hasn’t worked. I said I blame the light, but it may actually be me.

It's probably a combination of the light and the plant, in all honesty -- a number of popular houseplants need a lot more light than is easy to provide artificially, especially since most LED plant lights sold in big box stores or their online equivalents don't put out enough light over a wide enough range. And even when the light is strong and wide enough, it's set on a high arm, so that it ends up far away from the plant, which is no good.

Also, just because you kill plants, that doesn't mean you're barred from being a plant person.
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:02 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]

> I do have an LED plant light, it also hasn’t worked. I said I blame the light, but it may actually be me.

It could also be the plant. Some of the plants sold as "houseplants" are essentially impossible to keep going for very long indoors and are probably better thought of as unusually long-lasting cut flowers.[1]

Killing plants absolutely does not keep one out of the "plant person" club (at least not in the same way killing lots of dogs would keep you out of the "dog person" club). Some time ago, I had to start a spreadsheet for my plants so I would be able to keep track of which ones had been watered. (The spreadsheet happened because a few had been behind a bigger pot and I didn't notice them when I was watering; the spreadsheet gives me a checklist so I at least look at every plant on a regular basis.) Since I had a spreadsheet anyway, I also kept track of the numbers of dead ones, why they died, and so forth.

As of right this minute, I have 1281 houseplants, I've given away or sold 1448 houseplants, and I've killed 3961.


[1] I won't name specific plants because in the past when I've done so, someone invariably pops up to say well that's bullshit; anybody can grow ____. My aunt had a very happy one for 25 years; all you have to do is perfectly replicate the humidity, light intensity, light duration, soil moisture, air temperature, water hardness, water temperature, fertilizer levels, soil mix, and air circulation under which it evolved in your kitchen windowsill, and then hold that absolutely consistent for years at a time, no matter what else is going on in your life: how dare you say people shouldn't try to grow them.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 10:42 AM on March 9 [4 favorites]

More on topic, there's a good book about the history of houseplants through about 1900 called Once Upon a Windowsill, by Tovah Martin (Timber Press, 1988), for those who are interested in this sort of thing.

(Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Powells)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 11:11 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I sent this article to my sister and she sent me an interior design podcast she listens to, Dear Alice, who just did an episode on houseplants she liked (link to Google results for the episode so you can choose your player).
posted by ellieBOA at 12:47 AM on March 10

I have to recommend again Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf. While not about houseplants so much, it is a fascinating account of plant collecting in the age of empires period the author connects as part of the history of indoor gardening.
posted by blue shadows at 7:39 PM on March 12

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