Politics of Nature: #MonsteraMonday in 1869, A Victorian Take on Today’s Houseplants

The following is the first piece in our new series, Politics of Nature. In it, contributors will explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series will showcase the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships. The EHN Team would like to thank Lindsay Wells for being the first to contribute her work for this purpose.

“The day is approaching when the value of graceful plants as house ornaments will be very fully recognised.”[1] So wrote Victorian horticulturalist William Robinson, whose confidence in the future popularity of houseplants was as keen as it was prescient. 

A quick scroll through Instagram, where hashtags such as #indoorjungle and #monsteramonday abound, confirms that “the day” of the houseplant has very much arrived. In the past two years alone, news outlets from NBC to The New Yorker have chronicled America’s growing enthusiasm for all things green, leafy, and succulent, particularly amongst millennials and people living in cities.[2]

One could argue, however, that Robinson beat us to the punch. Born in 1838, he was one of hundreds of nineteenth-century garden writers who shaped the rise of modern houseplant horticulture in Europe and America. In his handbook The Parks, Promenades and Gardens of Paris (1869), Robinson devotes a section to “The Plant Decoration of Apartments,” in which he chronicles Victorian society’s widespread obsession with potted plants. “Monstera deliciosa,” he writes, “was much sought after during recent winters,” as were dracaenas, dieffenbachias, caladiums, and marantas—plants that have, in our own time, acquired cult followings both on social media and in brick-and-mortar garden shops.[3] But besides the plants themselves, there are many other parallels between today’s “Houseplant Renaissance,” as one article has christened the phenomenon, and its Victorian precedent.[4]

People have been growing plants indoors for thousands of years, but it was during the nineteenth century that the houseplant industries of Britain and America crystallized into forms that we would recognize today.  Illustrated catalogues offering mail-order greenery, commercial nurseries with perfectly potted flora, and even the Victorian equivalent of “plantfluencers” all emerged around this time.[5] In 1857, the British science writer Agnes Catlow observed that “a greenhouse is now generally considered an indispensable addition to a garden of any pretentions,” while her American contemporary, Henry T. Williams, added that a “taste for Window Gardening and the plant decoration of apartments is becoming universal.”[6]  

My doctoral dissertation explores how these new horticultural trends transformed ecological thought in Victorian Britain, with a focus on the entwined histories of houseplants, industrialization, and colonial expansion. More specifically, I study artistic representations of houseplants, in everything from paintings and photographs to journals and prints. Relationships between people and plants are central to my research, and lately I have become interested in how the cultural narratives surrounding indoor gardens today echo those of the nineteenth century.

If you Google “millennials and houseplants,” the shape of America’s current horticultural landscape becomes readily apparent. Climate change and population growth, for instance, have been cited as contributing factors to the ongoing resurgence of indoor gardening in large cities. While some critics like to additionally insinuate that people my age (as in, a millennial) are substituting parenthood and homebuying with potted plants, I think there are far more intriguing stories to be told about houseplants in popular culture.

As an art historian, I am primarily interested in the role that visual culture plays in defining and mediating horticultural space. Recently, HuffPost called houseplants “a trend fueled by social media,” noting how image-centric platforms such as Instagram have helped to popularize this branch of gardening.[7] Robinson and his fellow Victorians may not have had the internet at their fingertips, but they did have books and periodicals, which they used to share not only gardening advice, but also lavish illustrations of potted palms, ferns, orchids, and other ornamental plants. “At the commencement of the century,” explained Lewis Castle in 1888, “there was not one periodical making horticulture its special theme; now there are no less than eight weekly papers, which collectively must have a circulation considerably over 100,000. 

Books also have multiplied.”[8] One such book was Edward Joseph Lowe and W. Howard ’s Beautiful Leaved Plants (1861), which featured 60 full-page plates of crotons, calatheas, and alocasias, colored in vivid detail by woodblock printer Benjamin Fawcett.  Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward—who invented the terrarium in the 1820s—similarly prioritized visual splendor in his horticultural writings by enlisting the marine painter Edward William Cooke to illustrate his treatise On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases (1852).  Sometimes entire books were even devoted to houseplant imagery, as in Clarissa Munger Badger’s Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden (1867). 

Some of the most aesthetically striking houseplant texts of the Victorian period came from the pen of Shirley Hibberd, a savvy horticulturalist who extolled the merits of conservatories, terrariums, and parlor gardens in a series of richly illustrated manuals, including Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (1856) and New and Rare Beautiful-Leaved Plants (1870). Hibberd was also one of the most widely cited garden writers of his time, with excerpts of his work appearing in Henry T. Williams’s Window Gardening (1875), Henry Allnutt’s The Cactus and Other Tropical Succulents (1877), and T.W. Sanders’s Window and Indoor Gardening (1911).

Another key figure in the houseplant communities of Victorian Britain was Elizabeth A. Maling, whose handbook on In-Door Plants (1861) remained a go-to source of horticultural expertise for decades after its initial publication. The detailed descriptions of window boxes, jardinières, flowerpots, and hanging baskets scattered throughout Maling’s text offer readers plenty of ideas for beautifying what she calls “a little corner devoted to treasured plants.”[9]

Though different in scale and scope, the exchange of images and information was just as vital to houseplant discourse in the nineteenth century as it is today.  My dissertation brings a critical eye to this material in order to scrutinize the environmental and political messages that horticulturalists like Hibberd, Maling, and Robinson perpetuated, and through my research, I hope to trace the long afterlives of Victorian houseplants. As Frederick William Burbidge observed nearly 150 years ago, houseplants “enter largely into the expression of the joys and sorrows, the light and shade, of our everyday existence.”[10] The plants we choose to share our lives with fascinate me, and I look forward to continuing my study of their histories and legacies.

[1] William Robinson, The Parks, Promenades and Gardens of Paris, Described and Considered in Relation to the Wants of Our Own Cities (London, UK: John Murray, 1869), 262.

[2] Taylor Davies, “Why More Millennials Are Buying into ‘Plant Parenthood,’” NBC, November 19, 2018.

[3] Robinson, The Parks, Promenades and Gardens of Paris, 276.

[4] Mackenzie Nichols, “Houseplant Renaissance,” The American Gardener (January 2019): 18-21.

[5] For more on today’s “plantfluencers,” see Penelope Green’s “Meet the Plantfluencers,” The New York Times, November 8, 2018.

[6] Agnes Catlow, Popular Greenhouse Botany (London, UK: Lovell Reeve, 1857), 2; Henry T. Williams, ed., Window Gardening, Eleventh (New York, NY: Henry T. Williams, 1875), preface.

[7] Casey Bond, “Why Millennials Are Suddenly So Obsessed With Houseplants,” HuffPost, September 18, 2019.

[8] Lewis Castle, Flower Gardening for Amateurs in Town, Suburban and Country Gardens (London, UK: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1888), 11-12.

[9] Elizabeth A. Maling, In-Door Plants, and How to Grow Them (London, UK: Smith, Elder and Co., 1861), 2.

[10] Frederick William Burbidge, Domestic Floriculture: Window-Garden and Floral Decorations (Edinburgh, UK: William Blackwood and Sons, 1874), ix.