Historically, Houseplants Were For the Rich

By: Alia Hoyt
Edwardian family, Aspidistra
An Edwardian-era family is photographed surrounding their aspidistra. English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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 Western culture, when Europeans started exploring the globe and bringing back plants from around the world [the 1600s], the elite started building conservatories (orangeries) to show off these plants ... and probably their own wealth. Before that, people needed to be too practical to allow for luxuries which offered nothing of tangible use," explains Sean James, master gardener and president of Fern Ridge Landscaping & Eco-consulting.


Fast forward to the Victorian age. "Ferns, palms and other 'exotics' were a big deal for the wealthy class," says Rebecca Bullene with Greenery NYC in an email interview "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 Aspidistraelatior (which could) was extremely popular with Victorian households. No wonder people nicknamed it the "cast iron plant."

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," says James.

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," says Bullene.


The Easiest Houseplants to Grow

Maybe just reading about rustling trees has put you in the mood to get a few plants. Here are some selections that 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 the alii fig (ficus alii) tree and aforementioned 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," she says.

Pothos plants are very easy to grow.
C.O.T/a.collectionRF/Getty Images

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."