Dan’s Definitive History of Houseplants

Jul 7, 2017 · 4 min read

Ever wonder how the idea of indoor plant ownership became rooted in our culture?

Curious, I performed a few pointed Google searches and found that the origins of houseplants date back to early human history! Houseplants were once status symbols of wealth and luxury meant to impress; only recently have they become more accessible for all people. For today’s Friday Unwind, I’m sharing my very brief, highly annotated history of houseplants!

Neolithic Origins

Humans in the early Neolithic period (about 10,000 BCE, long ago!) began domesticating crops. The process of domestication was an incredibly slow process, where over generations humans selected plants that had traits favorable for human cultivation and consumption. Plant domestication allowed early humans to move from hunter-gatherer settlements to permanent cities and towns. So really, plants were a major factor in the creation of human civilization.

Hanging with Babylon

One of the earliest records of houseplant ownership in human history (that I could find) can be traced back to the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon . While there is still a question if these gardens actually existed, I happen to fancy the story and will share it. Around 600 BC, in the city of Babylon (located in Modern Day Iraq), King Nebuchadnezzar II commissioned the gardens for his wife, Queen Amytis. The queen was born in a different land (scholars speculate she was from Assyria or Persia), and she missed the foliage and rolling hills of her birthplace. Moved by his wife, the king led the construction of one of the great wonders of the ancient world, complete with massive hanging displays of palms, dates, cedars, and bright flowers.

A 19th century drawing of the Babylonian hanging gardens. Illustration by Dutch artist Martin Heemskerck.

Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans

After Babylon, houseplants arrived to the major Mediterranean powers between 500 and 400 BC. Wealthy Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans are all documented to have kept houseplants in their sprawling estates. While all three cultures kept plants in terracotta pots, the Romans, preferred marble. The Romans were enthralled with showy flowers and went to great extents to collect the largest and brightest flowers possible. Favorite Roman houseplants were large rose and violet varieties.

An Egyptian Pharaoh and his queen clearly arguing over houseplant varieties. (Photo in Public Domain)
Romans clearly overcome with joy are traditionally flailing about their new houseplant. (Photo in Public Domain)

Miniature Potted Plants

The Vietnamese Hòn Non Bộ, The Chinese Penjing, and the Japaneses Bonsai are all forms of miniature gardening that appeared between 200 and 500 CE. These displays mimic a full size tree or forest in miniature. Woody cuttings or seedlings are placed in a shallow container and with constant leaf and root pruning are transformed to reflect the growth form of much larger trees.

Renaissance Resurgence

After the fall of the Roman Empire, decorative houseplants largely disappeared from Europe. Monks kept the only houseplants and favored functional plants like herbs, vegetables, and fruit. Houseplants only again became vogue during the European Renaissance. The wealthy again wanted to showcase their vast assets through plants (clearly, they understood how many benefits plants offer and why they’re so valuable!).

Famously, wealthy individuals created orangeries, which were early greenhouses that allowed the growth of citrus during winter months. After Christopher Columbus and his explorations, wealthy individuals wanting to showcase exotic plants from across the oceans found that the humidity of the orangeries suited their plants well.

Renaissance still life by Hans Memling

Victorian Growth

The Victorian era saw the first use of houseplants by the middle class. The industrial revolution coupled with advancements in architecture allowed for better heated homes and more natural light. No longer the cold dingy recesses of the past, the Victorian home provided the proper climate for hardy houseplants. Books and guides on gardening and houseplants also became available, further increasing the desire for houseplants.

A heated Victorian debate on their favorite houseplants. Credit: Public Domain

Modern Era

Houseplants really didn’t become so mainstream until after WWII. The rise of the modern office and work day spurred the development of indoor plant use. Hardy plants, resistant to low light and drought, were used to liven up often sterile workplaces. From the workplace, these plants naturally migrated to homes. Today, modern propagation and breeding techniques have greatly increased the diversity of houseplants available, while at the same time decreasing the cost of purchasing one.

No longer a status symbol only for wealth, the houseplant has now become a symbol of beauty, wellness, and clean living. At Welltended, we believe everyone should have houseplants, and we’re working to remove the hassle and stress of acquiring and caring for your home and office plants.

Do you have more information about how we came to love having plants in our homes and offices? Email dan@welltended.com with more info, we’d love to refine this overview of the history of houseplants.


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