Historically, Houseplants Were For Rich; Now, Chinese Money Tree Purports Wealth


The Chinese money tree is popular because it's easy to care for and is important in feng shui, as a symbol of wealth. Sean Justice/Getty
The Chinese money tree is popular because it's easy to care for and is important in feng shui, as a symbol of wealth. Sean Justice/Getty

Chinese New Year is Monday Feb. 8, and the Chinese money tree (Pachira aquatica) is a popular gift for those celebrating. Who doesn't want a little good luck, especially of the cash-related kind?

“The belief around this plant is that it can bring luck into your life, especially during a big life milestone, such as opening up a new business,” emails Rebecca Lee, registered nurse and founder of natural health resource Remedies for Me. “They are also given to friends or to new neighbors as a symbol of friendship,” she says of the plant, which features coin-shaped leaves.

“This plant is actually a Malabar chestnut tree that in the wild can get to be 50 feet [15 meters] tall, but in the houseplant world we usually see them as desktop plants of maybe a 4-5 foot [1.2-1.5 meter] specimen,” explains Rebecca Bullene with Greenery NYC via email interview.

The Chinese money tree is one of the most popular houseplants in the world according to Lee. "They are very easy to care for and can last for years. They are widely used in the Chinese culture during feng shui, the cleansing of your house in order to live in harmony with the surrounding environment."  

History of Houseplants

We take it so much for granted now, it's hard to imagine that there was once a time when houseplants were a status symbol, reserved for those with lots of expendable income. “In the Victorian era, ferns, palms and other ‘exotics' were a big deal for the wealthy class,” says Bullene. “If you had plants it meant you were a person of means, so it was something to aspire to.”

Not many indoor plants could withstand the fumes from coal fires and gas lanterns, so the Aspidistra elatior  (which could) was extremely popular with Victorian households. No wonder people nicknamed it the "cast iron plant."

An Edwardian-era family is photographed surrounding their Aspidistra
An Edwardian-era family is photographed surrounding their Aspidistra
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The modern houseplant era really began to boom in the 1970s; indoor plants fit in with the whole back-to-nature décor ethos of the time. Growers responded by making new varieties of plants available to the masses, says Bullene. However, “the 80s saw a big decline in live plants — people starred using faux foliage more and focused on other areas of décor,” she explains. “Since about 2005 we've started to see a big resurgence of interest.”

Indeed, indoor plant popularity has typically waxed and waned with the economy. “Until recently, the popularity of plants has slowly grown as prosperity and security grew in society – two steps forward, one step back as economies went through boom and bust cycles – as we felt we could afford to invest in luxury,” explains Sean James, master gardener and president of Fern Ridge Landscaping & Eco-consulting.

But as any seasoned gardener knows, you don't need a ton of money to buy a houseplant. You can always get a cheap one or free cutting from a friend. So even in an economic downtime, many people will turn to indoor plants to reconnect with nature. “The more someone stares at a screen, the more they crave some kind of natural interaction — hearing the trees rustle or watering their house plant,” explains Bullene.

Which Plants Are Best?

Maybe just reading about rustling trees has put you in the mood to get a few plants. Here are some selections, which might not portend financial windfalls à la the Chinese money tree, but do promise to bring a bit of the outdoors inside:

Nearly impossible to mess up: People who travel frequently or tend to forget about their floral friends for long stretches of time might opt for low-maintenance varieties, like corn plant, Chinese evergreen or Benjamin fig, all attractive but easy to care for, according to James. He also suggests alii fig (ficus alii) tree and cast iron plant, noting that these two are “practically bomb-proof.”

Exotic, but affordable: Moth orchids have recently exploded in popularity because they've become far more affordable (breeders have figured out how to produce them in mass quantities). Hardier than many other breeds of orchid, they're known for their unique, colorful blooms. Although you hardly need to be a master gardener to get them to bloom again, they are definitely not as easy to care for as other houseplant options.

Old faithfuls: If you're looking to dip your toe in the houseplant pond, you might want to stick with some of the most popular types, which Lee says are golden pothos, spider plant, snake plant, peace lily, rubber tree, bamboo palm, herbs and the aloe plant. "These plants are all easy to care for, do not require constant sunlight, come with great health benefits, and all have the ability to purify and oxygenate the air."

Ahead of the times: “If I had to pick the next big plant I'd probably choose the Ponytail palm,” Bullene says. “It's very resilient and with a Dr. Seuss-like shape, it's a great conversation starter and easy to care for.”