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.
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.
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.
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.