I was recently looking at old family slides, and found this photo of my mother’s apartment from 1968. Houseplants! And lots of them! I started to wonder what houseplants were stylish back in 1968, and beyond. So let’s take a romp through history, and look back at some houseplant trends that swept us off our feet, and why.
Houseplants first started to crop up in Victorian times, as the romantic language of flowers gave super-repressed people a much-needed chance to flirt with one another. Travel was becoming easier, and plants from far-off places were novel and exciting. One could show off their wealth, education, and leisure by traveling the world and collecting exotic botanicals to bring home. Homes were dark, formal, and cold, which limited the choice of houseplants to show off in their ornate sitting parlors. Boston Ferns placed on grand pedestals, large Majesty Palms, Parlor Palms,
Monstera, bowls of African Violets, Cast Iron Plant, and hanging Fuchsia were popular. Poinsettias were brought back from Mexico and became a holiday craze. Maidenhair Fern was given as a salacious gift to suggest not head hair, but, ahem — other kinds of body hair. English Ivys were a common sight and symbolized marriage, fidelity, and friendship. Rex begonias were discovered in Assam, India, and became all the rage.
In the 1930s, as the Great Depression took hold, people moved away from plants of beauty and focused on plants of necessity. Culinary and medicinal herbs were grown on windowsills from cuttings shared among hard-up neighbors.
In the 1960s, the Space Race and all things vinyl and plastic led the wave of the future. The Jetsons told the whole story,
with futuristic fantasy leading fashion. Homes became more angular, design-focused, and automated. The clean lines and plastic sheens of Snake Plant, Fishbone Cactus, Prayer Plant, Philodendron, Swiss Cheese Plant, and Rubber Plant became popular. An Irish Ambassador gifted President John Kennedy a Swedish Ivy plant, which quickly became the hot houseplant to have. And in fact, Swedish Ivy is still featured in the White House’s Oval Office to this day. And also, not unlike the repressed Victorians of the 1800s, we were shocked and scathed (but also pretty delighted) by Georgia O’Keefe’s suggestive paintings of Bromeliads, Anthuriums, and other plants. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962 and freaked everybody out.
In the 1970s, we wanted to reject the plastics of the ’60s, and return to our roots, man. Environmental concerns were
becoming more widely discussed and legislated. The very first Earth Day was celebrated in 1971. People wanted to return to the ways of Mother Earth, and keep it real groovy. Marijuana became a VERY popular houseplant, if you know what I’m saying. Homes and cars invited natural elements into their design, and were decked out with wood paneling, wicker, ceramics, tiles, feathers, leathers, stones, jute, and beads. Prairie dresses, ponchos, beards, cowboy boots, and peasant blouses played with being retro. Pre-Fab and contemporary-style homes incorporated sunny windows, skylights and meditative views, and people jam packed their houses floor to ceiling with houseplants. At one point, every single home and office in the United States had a Spider Plant in it — I kid you not. Hanging macrame planters infiltrated the home, showcasing messy, unruly, relaxed houseplants weaving through banisters and ceiling beams. Ivy, Golden Pothos, Tradescantia, Swedish Ivy, Arrowhead spilled from hanging planters. A hint of modernism and minimalism appeared on the horizon, needing softening touches from towering floor plants like Jade, Umbrella Plant, Dieffenbachia, Rubber Plant, Dracaena, and Schefflera. Snake Plant continued to be very, very cool. Dried Eucalyptus sprigs passed through as well, as did very hip colored glass terrariums.
In the 1980s, business was booming, and people decided – you know what? We liked all that plastic stuff after all. Anything BIG AND FANCY became trendy, including cars, diamonds, hair, egos, and houseplants. Florida, Hawaii, and Tropical Islands still enticed us with tv shows like Fantasy Island, Miami Vice, and Magnum P.I.. Florida and California’s Spanish Colonial furniture and Mediterranean-inspired tiles crept into homes. Anthuriums, Flowering Ginger, Majesty Palm, Bird of Paradise, Banana Plant, Primrose, Begonia, Pothos, and Ficus dominated the home, shopping mall, and corner office.
In the 1990s, Amaryllis broke onto the scene and became a hot ticket
item for holiday shoppers. Calla Lily wowed us in Robert Mapplethorpe’s challenging, gender-bending art, and became a hot fad. And as we traded more internationally with Japan and China, Asian influences popularized Bamboo, Money Plants, Jade, Bonsai, and the art of Feng Shui in our homes. Martha Stewart encouraged a return to antique trades, traditional decor, crafts and vegetable gardening, igniting farmy fantasies in even the most urban homes.
In the 2010s, houseplants exploded as never before. Even more than the Cabbage Patch Kids craze, if that puts it in perspective for you. Fiddle-leaf Figs and mixed succulent containers blew people’s hair back. People felt nostalgic for their mother’s macrame planters and spider plants. They began referring to themselves as ‘plant parents’ and posting photos of their ‘plant babies’ on exploding social media. People joined online groups, and followed hashtags and plant celebrities to learn more about caring for their plants, and to lust after new varieties hitting the hungry market. Variegated houseplants made people go gaga. And a desire for clean country living filled the media. In reaction to a struggling economy, environmental concerns, and Joanna Gaines, we wanted Modern Farmhouse everything. Tin can patinas, farmhouse sinks, and — dare I awaken the sleeping giant again by saying it —
Mason Jars. And Martha Stewart said, “See? I told you so.”
Now, in the 2020s, what’s old is new again. Palm, Monstera, Snake Plant, and Fern continue to lead in houseplant popularity. Cottage-core and prairie chic continue to influence our homes. Martha Stewart is out of jail and still leading trends. Our great grandmother’s African Violets are back in
fashion. We still love Fiddle-leaf Figs, Orchids, and mason jars, but we’ve regained our composure and don’t freak out as much when we see them. Predictors say Mediterranean plants, wicker, Greco-Roman decor and Hellenistic Revival will become trendy this year. Ecofriendly and water-wise plant care will continue to become more and more
important. People still lust after rare, hard-to-find, designer houseplants to add to their collections. We design our porches and patios to feel like outdoor living rooms. People still find windowsill herbs very comforting, and still love to share money-wise clippings with neighbors. Unexpected patterns and variegation, golden hues, and white, orange and pink plants wow people, like pink-stemmed Alocasia, Angelwing Begonia, or Tineke Rubber Plants. Online plant shopping and plant ID or houseplant care apps are becoming more and more effective and in demand. And ultimately, it seems the past and the future are the same if we just wait long enough.
And that brings us to today… What plant trends do you predict for the coming years? What plant trend did you love or hate? What houseplant do you hope makes a comeback? We’d love to hear from you.
Allison Levy/ 26 Jan 2023
I love this article and photos are amazing!!! So interesting how houseplants have evolved. Thank you for this deep dive!!
rgnursery/ 26 Jan 2023
So glad you enjoyed! It was a pleasure to write!