No one is exactly sure who brought the first plants indoors or why, but archaeologists have discovered artwork dating back thousands of years depicting houseplants in Egypt. The ancient Greeks and Romans were also known for their love of houseplants and often build atriums in their homes.
In the 15th century, the popularity of houseplants escalated in Europe as Europeans began exploring the New World. Exotic plants were shipped back to kings, queens, and other upper class noblemen and women who had special houses known as organeries to house their palms, figs, citrus fruits, orchids, and many other tropical plants. We now call these structures greenhouses and conservatories.
During the Victorian times, growing and caring for houseplants became a more common hobby. This is when many of the houseplants we know and love came into existence. During this time period, the houseplants were taken from their native landscape and shipped back to Europe. Many of the plants perished during shipping as they journeyed from the New World to England. In 1833, Dr. Nathaniel Ward created a glass case to help solve this problem. At that time, the case was known as the Wardian Case. Today, we call it a terrarium.
Here in America, houseplants became popular in the '50s and '60s. Before then, the lack of precise temperature control in most homes made the climate unsuitable. Two of the most popular houseplants of the time were Swedish ivy and philodendron. Almost every home seemed to have at least one.
Their popularity increased in the '70s with the arrival of plant hangers and poles, and of course, that '70s mainstay, the macram holder. Rubber plants also gained popularity, especially in offices and public spaces. By the 1990s, more exotic houseplants such as orchids enjoyed a new popularity as they became available in home centers and nurseries.
Anne Lenox Barlow is the horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. CCE offices may be reached in Clinton County at 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; and Franklin County, 483-7403. E-mail your questions to askMG@cornell.edu.