A Growing Obsession: A History of Houseplants and Colonialism

Since starting college, I’ve had an unsatisfiable urge to collect houseplants. While I’ve (unfortunately) killed a few off and had to give others away, my collection has been growing since then. What started as a simple succulent has grown into African violets, pothos, pepperomias, pileas, spider plants, and snake plants– just to name a few.

And I’m not the only one to take a liking to houseplants in recent years. A quick scroll through Pinterest shows trendy, beautifully decorated spaces complete with an array of potted plants.

Searching “bedroom decor” on Pinterest shows many results featuring houseplants as essential decor

House plants have come in and gone out of style regularly for the past few decades. I started to wonder recently, where does our fascination with houseplants come from and how did these plants, originating from all over the world, become a part of our households.

Some beginning searches reveal the complicated origins of plant collecting and its ties with European imperialism and colonialism. The origins of cultivating plants for aesthetics goes as far back as c. 600 BCE with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Queen Amytis. There is evidence for wealthy citizens in Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece caring for plants in the luxurious estates, though houseplants fell out of fashion in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. . There is also the art of Bonsai, which began in China between 100 and 400 CE.

Victorian Era Illustration of a woman reading near her houseplants.

When European explorers encountered the Americas in the 1400s as Europeans began colonizing the globe. They brought back with them botanical specimens from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The richest Europeans began showcasing by growing exotic and tropical pants in elaborate greenhouses. According to Lauren Camilleri and Sophia Kaplan (authors of Plantopedia), the fashion of keeping houseplants came to a peak in the late 1800s to early 1900s when tropical plants became more accessible to the middle class. After a period out of fashion, the end of World War II saw another boost in the popularity of houseplants.

At the root of this story is European colonization. Exploitation of land and indigenous people facilitated the rise of indoor gardens and houseplants in Europe, bringing in hearty plants that assimilate well to indoor environments.

I propose a digital history project which features a map showing where different types of houseplants originate, paired with a discussion on the relationship between the world of botany and European colonization. In the pursuit of collecting plant specimens for both production and for display, Western scientists often exploited people indigenous to colonized lands, ignoring and, even, erasing the knowledge held by indigenous people.

Beginnings of a map showing origins of popular house plants using ArcGIS StoryMaps

A resulting project using this idea would likely utilize ArcGIS StoryMaps because of the available features and ease of use. The above screenshot shows a precursory map showing the origins of popular house plants, though much more research is needed. The project could situate houseplants and botany within the history of commodities and trade during the height of European global empires. I believe ArcGIS StoryMaps will be a useful tool for this project, allowing for both mapping and interpretation side by side. I hope to include compelling photos and feature important research by scholars, while also being an accessible resource for the average person.

4 Replies to “A Growing Obsession: A History of Houseplants and Colonialism”

  1. Emily, this project is fascinating! I think it contributes to important conversations about historical memory. Very excited to see how it turns out.

  2. I didn’t know botany and history was the crossover I needed but I hope that you stick with this! I think it would greatly benefit a lot of people who are unsure of the origins of the everyday things within their households.

  3. I love this idea! I was gifted my first house plant (a ZZ plant) recently, and I’ve become more involved with the world of house plants since taking care of it. Your post definitely made me think to look up the origins of my plant as well as the plants that my friends have. For such a common object, I never really considered how it has its own origins rooted in global empires. I’m sure it would help other people think more intentionally about their own plant collections!

  4. Great concept for a project. I very much appreciate the way that you have picked identified how the topic connects to broad current interests in houseplants and engages directly with significant scholarship on botany, plant collecting, and colonial empire. Makes a lot of sense to produce an engaging narrative with story maps. All of that is to say that you are off to a great start. If you do run with this, I think one thing to consider is what a communication plan in support of the project might be. That is, how can you get the word out about this to your intended audience. In that context, it might be worth thinking about or considering ways that you could use social media, like twitter or instagram, to promote the resource you produce out to some places where folks interested in house plants might find it and engage with it. Great work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *