Garden History Houseplants

The Victorians

Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This article was originally published in Gardens West in October 1991.

Victorian era photo of woman with her houseplants
Ida Saxton McKinley in the conservatory of the Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., 1900. Photo: Boston Public Library.

Potted plants go back to the very origins of civilization. The Egyptians, the Chinese and the Mayans all grew plants in pots, as did the Greeks and the Romans. And in North America, it has been a tradition since colonial times to take “slips” of favorite tender plants in the fall for growing indoors in the winter.

Potted Plants First

That doesn’t mean that man has been growing houseplants as we know them today since he first moved in out of the rain. In fact, growing plants in pots was at first a practical idea. Potting made plants easier to transport for peoples living a nomadic lifestyle. It was a means of keeping plants alive that could not survive under harsh outdoor conditions. In fact, some plants have been growing in pots for so long no one really knows where they originated.

The medicinal aloe is a case in point. Aloe is undoubtedly of African origin, as all its close relatives have been found there. It has never officially been found in the wild. It is believed to have been first discovered growing indoors in pots in China, many thousands of kilometers from its original home, where it had been used as a burn remedy for countless generations. Chinese legend has it that it was sent as a gift from the gods… already in a pot!

Victorian greenhouse
Construction of this greenhouse began in 1848, in what is now the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland. Photo: .

Plants for the Masses

It wasn’t until the 1700s that the decorative value of houseplants was first recognized in Europe, and even then, they were strictly for the aristocracy. It took the growing democratization of the Victorian era for houseplants to go from expensive toys for the elite to becoming decorative elements for the masses. At that time, costly private greenhouses run by staffs of paid gardeners, with the purpose of keeping the main house filled with flowers and fresh fruit, began to face serious competition from florists.

Although bouquets of cut flowers (“posies”) had long been sold in public markets and florist shops, they were, in themselves, nothing new.

Living Plants

Florists of the time began to innovate by selling living plants. And the public, ever eager to imitate the upper classes, wasn’t long in adopting the now affordable indoor plants being offered.

These florists of the past were also horticulturists; they generally grew all the plants and flowers they sold.

My great-grandfather was a florist in Toronto in the late 19th century. I still recall his daughter, my great-aunt, telling stories about the shop and how it was run. She especially remembered the time one of his agaves flowered, making the front page of newspapers throughout eastern Canada. He had to knockout a panel of glass in his greenhouse to let the giant flower stalk unfurl.

At the time, it was believed that the agave, or Century Plant, as the newspapers called it, only bloomed once every 100 years! You can bet that was quite a feather in his cap!

Archive photo of florist's shop
Florist in Bridgeport, Connecticut, circa 1885. Photo: Internet Archive Book Images.

Old-fashioned florist’s shop

Many of us can still remember the old-fashioned florist’s shop with its hardwood floors and its greenhouses outback. They didn’t, after all, disappear overnight upon the death of Queen Victoria. In fact, some still exist to this day, holdovers from the Victorian era. Most modern florists, though, buy cut flowers and plants for resale rather than grow their own.

But at the time, with no access to modern shipping methods, the combination of gardener and florist was a natural one. And for a few cents, anyone could go in and pick out a blooming plant to decorate their home.

Archive drawing of dracaenas
Dracaena Lindeni and Dracaena Fragrans from Floral Catalogue : Illustrated (1899). Photo: Internet Archive Book Images.

Foliage Galore

It was also during this period that it first became accepted for non-flowering plants to play a decorative role in the house. And foliage plants, unlike the temporary bloomers the richer classes brought indoors for display, could actually be grown and even propagated in the average home.

So, with cuttings and divisions that didn’t cost a cent, and a firm Victorian belief that growing plants was good for the health, plants began to move indoors on a permanent basis. Surprisingly enough, many of those same early houseplants are still grown to this day.

What did the Victorians grow?

Popular favorites we still know well include dracaenas, ivies, rubber plants, dieffenbachias, and syngoniums. Others are now less current: aspidistras, aucubas, beefsteak begonias and pond lily begonias, eucalyptus, and pandanus.

Archive drawing of Boston fern
Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Rooseveltii’. Photo: Internet Archive Book Images.

Particularly popular were ferns and anything that resembled a fern – palms, cycads, and even asparagus. The Boston fern, although firmly linked to the Victorian era in our collective memories, came relatively later to the houseplant scene. It was only discovered 1894 and didn’t become popular until the early 1900s.

Many Victorian houseplants, while rarely available commercially, are still being grown by homeowners who originally got them as cuttings or divisions from other homeowners.

A case in point is Dieffenbachia seguine, the giant dumbcane, which commercial growers long ago replaced with smaller, more manageable dieffenbachias. We’ve all seen this plant in a living room or a doctor’s office, yet have you ever heard of anyone actually buying one?

Archive ad showing houseplants on sale 3 for 97 cents.
1956 ad from Woolworth retail store. Photo:

End of an Era

Where houseplants are concerned, the Victorian era didn’t really end until the Roaring Twenties. That’s when the Woolworth five-and-dime chain first introduced a radical new concept: mass-marketed houseplants. Yes, for a nickel, you could buy a plant without even going to a nursery or a florist. The popularity of the cheaper, mass-marketed plant, combined with the disastrous effects of the Great Depression, was such a blow that many florists closed up shop for good. It also dealt a near death blow to the often slow-growing Victorian favourites.

The heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium, a new introduction at the time), which rooted at every node and which was ready for sale in a matter of weeks, not months, was soon the most widely grown houseplant in the world, and many Victorian plants were edged out. The jade plant (Crassula ovata) was another plant that never caught on until Mr. Woolworth discovered it could be so rapidly propagated. To be successful, any houseplant worth its salt had to be suited to mass production methods … and so began a new era which continues to this day.

Modern houseplant shop
Could we be on the verge of a new era in houseplants? Photo: Oleksandr Sapaiev.

New Winds are Blowing

But new winds are blowing, and people are turning once again to specialists when the time comes to buy their plants. Although the new term is “garden centers” (remember when we used to call them nurseries?) and florists themselves haven’t seemed able to capture their share of the new market, many department stores (the modern version of the old-fashioned five-and-dime) have closed or reduced their “plant departments”, unable to compete with professional growers who not only sell better quality plants, but can actually tell you how to care for them. And several once popular Victorian plants, like the Boston fern and the aspidistra, are making a timid but nonetheless notable comeback.

Could we be on the verge of a new era in houseplants: one we might call neo-Victorian? Only time will tell!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

2 comments on “The Victorians

  1. I love the story about the great grandfather making the front page news with the once in a hundred years blooming agave How exciting!

  2. Interesting article. It is heartening to see young people and other newbies take a renewed interest in growing houseplants. Hope the trend for professional growers and nurseries continues over box stores. Have seen too much plant torture in those. However, having said that, I occasionally find a treasure and rescue it from certain death.

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