Houseplants are a big deal now. As the COVID-19 pandemic has altered how we engage with the world, plants have stepped in as companions in easing stress and boosting mental health. Moreover, plant corners of social media have bloomed into virtual global networks of plant collectors through shared hashtags, aesthetics, and even plant swaps. This botanic boom is far from novel. During the nineteenth century, horticulture and botany positively bloomed. A distinctly modern branch was indoor gardening (also called “window gardening” or “parlour gardening”), which focused on cultivating plants that could “live contentedly” alongside humans in “ordinary sitting rooms.”[i] Throughout his popular Window Gardening (1878), Henry T. Williams provides many illustrations of the forms these gardens could take, including a rather cozy one featuring plants nestled against towering bookshelves (Figure 1).
On a surface level, our current tastes in plants accord with Victorian ones, as we too covet the tropical foliage made available by nineteenth-century global plant hunting. While floriculture was a long beloved pursuit, the desire for imported “fine-foliaged” plants like Philodendron, Alocasia, and Anthurium was, as gardening expert Shirley Hibberd notes, a new and “distinct phase in the history of horticulture.”[ii] Beyond shared favorites, Victorian and contemporary houseplant enthusiasts alike frame their love of plants through a common language of family: plant owners become plant ‘moms’ and ‘dads’, the plants themselves ‘children’. This article uses common contemporary hashtags as starting points for investigating the Victorian roots of different family-centered plant people.
The 2021 plant mom grows plants as though they were her biological children.[iii] Her testimonials typically center on the responsibilities of full-time plant care, including choosing the correct substrate and establishing the best watering routine. As Robin Veder has wonderfully demonstrated, nineteenth-century gardening manuals tapped into the idiom of parenting for plant newbies, characterizing plant care as domestic work.[iv] Similarly, the opening pages of Andrew Fuller’s 1886 Flora’s Hand-book (sponsored by the Clarks Cove Guano Co.) visualize this suturing of plant upkeep and motherhood by positioning an illustration of a young woman cradling an infant in her arms next to an introductory page emblazoned with “Window Gardening.” Crystallising connections amongst houseplants, domesticity, and motherhood, a 1901 photograph of a self-satisfied Mrs. Bridget Bishop swaps out the baby entirely for a houseplant and an issue of The Lady of the House. (Figure 2 & Figure 3) By intimating that plant care approximated human parenting, horticultural publishing promoted potentially unrealistic standards of femininity. The emotional tenors of these writings tend toward sentimental and even melodramatic, as is the case with B.C. Ravenscroft’s humorously over-wrought Town Gardening (1883): “To be a successful gardener you must possess a real, active, unquenchable, and untiring love … you must have almost inexhaustible patience and perseverance.”[v] Amy S. Woods takes a different, more caustic, tack by unapologetically chastising “careless” houseplant parents who treat their plants “promiscuous-like.” Even when she offers advice, it is self admittedly “snappish” in its recommendation that women treat plants as “children needing to be fed and tended with unvarying regularity.”[vi]
Even though horticultural writing contributed to privileging a restrictive ideal of feminine domesticity, it also provided venues for women to express more ambivalent feelings toward motherhood and femininity in relatively untrammeled ways, often with humour. In Flora Domestica (1823), Elizabeth Kent adopts the perspective of the experienced but generous mother by confessing her greatest crime of “plant slaughter”: “Many a plant I have destroyed, like a fond and mistaken mother, by inexperienced tenderness.”[vii] Kent’s mock seriousness carves out a space acknowledging that plant parenting—and parenting generally— is neither natural nor effortless. Her comments also suggest that plant parenthood is not just a substitute or neat analogy for human parenthood, but rather a unique form of attachment in its own right. Similarly, the anonymous author of a brief article, “Gossip,” recommends that, rather than scrutinising our “neighbour’s affairs,” “let us talk of our work, our homes, our house-plants, our books, or our babies.”[viii] Mentioning houseplants (and books), the author acknowledges that women have interests outside of the experience of child-rearing. Houseplant care is not a synonym for motherhood, but one facet of a more well-rounded life.
2021 is also the year of the plant dad. Sporting the ubiquitous “COVID beard” and often found in the wilds of their patios tending to succulents, cacti, and vegetable seedlings, the plant dad would seem like a new type of plant lover.[ix] Yet we can trace his predecessors back to the later nineteenth century, when men also started participating in indoor gardening. One type of plant dad in particular took his love of plants as an opportunity to maximize his rugged and worldly demeanour, as he came to embody the imperialist foundations of plant collecting. Debuting in 1853, The Field was a newspaper geared toward the “country gentleman” interested in hunting, fishing, canine breeding, and shooting. One of its regular columns was “The Garden,” which provided gardening tips, presided over debates between indoor and outdoor gardening, and chimed in on plant trends. A December 1867 installment focused on a new indoor gardening lover apart from the usual “ladies [and] invalids”: “He is known to be great at dogs and guns and horse, and all of that ilk; but, unless you saw his drawing-room, you would never suspect his weakness for Dicksonia.”[x] In this specific iteration, the outdoorsy plant dad is an embodiment of normal—and ideal—Britishness that would resonate with The Field’s desired readership. Even though he indulges in a pastime typically considered feminine, this type of plant lover communicates his rugged masculine sensibility through fern-filled interiors. Euphemized as “Fern Land,” England was thought to be the special home of ferns, even if many of them were actually transported from other countries. The Dicksonia itself would seem to be an ideal expression of British masculinity. “Man Fern,” as it is colloquially known, was prized for its “hearty and “handsome” qualities.[xi] Much like its father, perhaps? Beyond ferns, plants imported from Mexico, India, South American and continental Europe populated British drawing-rooms, rendering them lush, vegetal worlds in microcosm. From the perspective of the plant parent, the home is a space of imperialist world-making: as horticulturalist E.H. Hitchings speculates, “perhaps it is the sense of absolute control and delightful ownership which lends this added charm” to houseplants.[xii] However, their vegetal children could also bring about various domestic rearrangements.
In Window Gardening (1889), Samuel Maynard orients new plant owners by comparing their leafy greens to children: “In many respects plants are like children. They must be properly fed, housed, and protected from the enemies which would destroy them.”[xiii] Because the plant trade was an expression of imperialist expansion, plant children were described as having differing temperaments depending on their origins. Some of the most successful plants for window gardening were actually imported ones, like the Aspidistra (“Cast Iron Plant”) that could thrive under the less-regulated environments of inhabited rooms. B.C. Ravenscroft explains to readers that “many exotics … will grow and flower as well as if they were in the country.”[xiv] Consequently, imported plants were fantasies of what the ideal colonial subject could be: fascinating in their difference, but readily pliant to British authority and environs. Through these “children,” houseplant collecting promoted an insidiously imperialist mindset founded on the unquestioned benevolence of the British parental figure. Plants indigenous to England, especially ferns, were another story. These representatives of “Nature’s Children” actually preferred England’s outdoor soil and humidity over the love and “fostering care” of a plant parent, suggesting a headstrong heartiness of spirit that would potentially be recognized as desirable qualities of the British subject.[xv] While imported and British houseplants usually lived harmoniously, Reid Mayne’s The Plant Hunters (1859) recounts some plant sibling rivalry. Feeding into British anxieties over immigration, Mayne frames the readily adaptability of imported plants in nativist terms with imported plants waging “contest with our native species [to] the right to our soil.”[xvi]
Just as houseplants were children, children were also houseplants. Young women especially elicited comparisons to blooming flowers and greenhouse plants.[xvii] The popularity of at-home gardens also produced a new type of young man: the “indoor plant” recognizable by “buckish dress, jaunty air, and embryo mustache.” Beckoning to the flair of prized exotic houseplants, these “indoor plants” were distinctly modern—“fast young men,” charming and flashy.[xviii] While their appeal is undeniable, for more conservative voices such young men also caused concern. The “indoor plant” was unapologetically uninterested in conforming to more normative avatars of young masculinity popularized by Muscular Christianity, a cultural movement that linked patriotism, duty, discipline, and athleticism. An 1897 article on global rugby cultures hints at this by denouncing “house-plant[s]” as “boys pampered at home” whose bones and personalities were unfit for rough and tumble sporting cultures.[xix]
Not all plant lovers express their love of plants in parental terms. Alongside contemporary plant parents are the “plant ladies” who live plant-centered lives proudly described as “obsessive” or “kooky”; if plant moms are all about care, plant ladies shift the conversation to the immeasurable joys of collecting.[xx] Victorian plant ladies provided colourful points of contrast to the family-dominated houseplant landscape. Including both men and women, these tireless plant collectors also loosened houseplant cultures from more restrictive economies of gender and sexuality represented by the family unit.
During the nineteenth century, plant collecting moved past love into obsession. Botanist William Robert Guilfoyle cautions houseplant neophytes that, once acquired, “the taste for plant-collecting … grows insensibly; and those who commence by selecting a few desultory specimens, are very likely to end by possessing a fair collection.”[xxi] Characterisations of the collectors followed similarly zealous paths, materialising the fraught pleasures of prizing plant-human relationships above all else. One of the more infamous plant collectors was actually fictional one: Jean Des Esseintes, the eccentric, reclusive main character of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À Rebours (1884), which became an emblem of literary Decadent movements. Although the novel is French, by the early 1890s, mentions of the dandified Des Esseintes peppered British periodicals in book reviews, connections to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, or allusions to uncontrollable collecting. Arthur Symons’s discussion of the novel coaxes out a darker, but still intriguing, side of at-home horticulture in which Des Esseintes becomes an overly doting parental figure, effectively distancing the houseplant’s ties to staid domesticity: “Des Esseintes nurses his sick and craving fantasy [on] monstrosities of nature, the offspring of unnatural adulteries … the plants with barbaric names—morbid horrors of vegetation chosen, not for their beauty, but for their strangeness.”[xxii] If households rendered plants more familiar, palatable, and even loveable, Des Esseintes’s reaction to his new vegetal roommates confuses this dynamic. No longer under control, “the vegetable tide” leaves Des Esseintes feeling both threatened and captivated, which he sums up in the single, breathy statement: “’These plants are amazing.’”[xxiii] This literary moment expands the available emotional registers that houseplants provided people while shifting the well-maintained indoor garden into a confused mass of plant lives.
The desires young women collectors had for houseplants hinged on similar, but more quotidian, domestic rearrangements. A satirical article, “Rules for Ladies Traveling Alone,” instructs would-be travelers to “stand your four house-plants on the window-sill” of the train, recasting the railcar as a domestic space.[xxiv] While this article intimates that women are potentially mindless in their houseplant devotion, for women, plant collecting provided opportunities for intellectualism and innovation. Geared towards “lady-collectors,” women-authored plant manuals, like Margaret Gatty’s British Sea-weeds (1863), would offer readers blueprints for physically re-arranging their homes in order to accommodate plant collections: “Some little contrivance is necessary, however, to avoid annoying other people and injuring furniture.”[xxv] Though she does note the presence of other humans, Gatty’s good-natured advice also gestures to the increasingly common possibility that women were choosing lifestyles centred on longstanding plant-human relationships. Visually depicting the closeness women could share with plants, an 1861 photograph features a young woman, Kate Dore, surrounded by a border of plant fronds. The experimental image was created by both Oscar Rejlander who took the photograph and Julia Margaret Cameron who created the fern wreath through the camera-less photogram technique (Figure 4). Plant collecting also invited women to establish enduring relationships with books, binomial nomenclature, and bipinnate leaves—a frightening prospect for some. According to an anonymous “Male Sufferer”, a woman’s responsibilities to sewing, philanthropy, “households,” “family,” and children good and naughty” might soon be disregarded in favor of plants, throwing cosy, heteronormative domestic arranges in utter disarray.[xxvi]
One goal of the language of plant parenthood may be to make plants feel familiar to us. But, as philosopher Michael Marder posits in “Vegetal Friendship,” friendship is the “willingness to share a world … across unavoidable differences in perspective between and I and the other.”[xxvii] With this in mind, our language of plant love, both contemporary and Victorian, offers us opportunities to open ourselves forms of attachment to non-human parts of the world, and to express love and care for things profoundly different than ourselves.
Dr. Ann Garascia (www.anngarascia.com) is a lecturer in the English department at California State University, San Bernardino. She is also a full-time plant lady who enjoys taking the occasional family photo with her leafy companions. Ann’s research focuses on Victorian archival and book histories of science with published work appearing in Victorian Literature and Culture, Journal of Victorian Culture, and other venues. You can find her twentieth-first century takes on nineteenth-century houseplants on Instagram as @earnestfernist.
Notes & references
[i] “Our Ladies Column,” West London Observer, 1 March 1890
[ii] Shirley Hibberd, New and Rare Beautiful- Leaved Plants (London: Bell and Daldy, 1870), p. vii.
[iii]See “latimesplants,” Los Angeles Times, 22 February 2021
[iv] Robin Veder, “Mother-Love for Plant-Children: Sentimental Pastoralism and Nineteenth-Century Parlour Gardening,” Australasian Journal of American Studies vol 2, no. 2 (2007), p. 20-34.
[v] B.C. Ravenscroft, Town Gardening: a handbook of trees, shrubs, and plants suitable for town culture in the outdoor garden, window garden, and greenhouse (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1883), p. vii-viii.
[vi] Amy S. Woods, “Concerning the Care of Houseplants,” Mothers’ Companion, 4 September 1896
[vii] Elizabeth Kent, Flora Domestica, or the portable flower-garden, etc. (London: Taylor & Hessey, 1823), p. xiii.
[viii] “Gossip,” Buxton Herald, 10 October 1878.
[ix] “Plant Dads Need Love Too: 5 Plant Dad Accounts to Follow,” Wild Interiors, 8 June 2020
[x] “The Garden,” Field, 21 December 1867.
[xi] Edward Joseph Lowe, Ferns: British and Exotic (London: Bell and Daldy, 1872), p. 123.
[xii] E.H. Hitchings, Window Gardening (Boston: Massachusetts Horticultural Society 1893), p. 5.
[xiii] Samuel Maynard, Window Gardening (Boston: Bowker Fertilizer Co 1889), p. 4.
[xiv] Town Gardening, p. 6.
[xv] Francis George Heath, The Fern Paradise: A plea for the culture of ferns (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875), pg. 18.
[xvi] Reid Mayne, The Plant Hunters (London: W. Kent and Co., 1859), p. 3.
[xvii] See Amy M. King, Bloom: the Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Deirde Lynch, “Young Ladies are Delicate Plants”: Jane Austen and Greenhouse Romantcism, ELH vol 77, no. 3 (2010), p. 689-729.
[xviii] “Torrington Fair,” North Devon Journal, 13 October 1853.
[xix] “Sporting Comment,” The Toronto Saturday Night, 27 November 1897.
[xx] Cait Munro, ”Plant Ladies are the New Cat Ladies,” refinery29.com, 22 August 2018.
[xxi] William Robert Guilfoyle, Australian Botany: Specially Designed for the Use of Schools (George Robertson: Melbourne, 1884), p. 70.
[xxii] Arthur Symons, “J.K. Huysmans,” Fortnightly Review, 1892.
[xxiii] Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against the Grain, trans. John Howard (New York: Lieber & Lewis, 1922), pg. 142.
[xxiv] “Rules for Ladies Traveling Alone,” The Star, 10 November 1881.
[xxv] Margaret Scott Gatty, British Sea-weeds (London: Bell and Daldy, 1863), p. xxi.
[xxvi] “The Female Fern-Mania,” Worcestershire Chronicle, 6 April 1864.
[xxvii] Michael Marder, Grafts (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p.27.