House plants – the exotic within the home

Should African Violets have a conservation tariff to help protect their natural habitats? A new book asks some serious questions about the plants with which we share our homes.

House Plants, Mike Maunder, 2022. Reaktion Books.

Before reading House Plants by Mike Maunder [which book is here appraised] I thought that there was no such thing as a ‘house plant’: There were just plants – some of which had been brought from the wild into the home. How wrong was I? Very wrong, as Maunder makes abundantly clear in his superb book.

Mainly technical

The main text of House Plants – approx. 165 pages – comprises an Introduction, six numbered chapters, and a Conclusion. As is typical for a title in Reaktion’s Botanical series, House plants is lavishly illustrated – with 110 images of which 94 are in colour (per publisher’s words), which gives a pleasingly high ratio of illustrations to text. Beyond the Conclusion, the book continues with Timeline, References, Bibliography, Associations and websites, Acknowledgements, Photo acknowledgements, and concludes with approx. 4 pages of 2-columned Index.

The Timeline is a nice inclusion – and appears to be a standard feature of the publisher’s Botanical series of books. However, in House Plants it is unusually contracted into a mere 3.5 thousand years* (from 1500 BCE with Hatshepsut’s expedition to the Land of Punt, to 2050 CE, when it is predicted that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities).

The approx. 10 pages of References are a good mix of books [although – and somewhat curiously – without stating their publishers], journal articles, and web items [but – somewhat irritatingly – not providing the necessary URL to get to the cited source directly**]. The References listing also includes an “Email communication with Bill Rotolante,*** January 2020” (Note 3 on p. 179), in connection with the origin of the African mask plant hybrid Alocasia × amazonica, an aroid. Although it is always good to see the source declared, such evidence needs to be accessible to all – such as a reader who may want to know more about this particular point. By their very nature, eMails are supposed to be private communications, and not publicly-available for scrutiny by other parties; they shouldn’t be in a reference list (Jeff Hume-Pratuch). [In this regard an eMail has much the same value as a ‘personal communication’ in a scientific paper.] Generally, there is a high level of referencing throughout the book – which is always welcome. But, quite a lot of references are missing regarding the fascinating and futuristic material in Chapter 5 The house of plants, and the last 2 pages of Chapter 6 Wild and endangered relatives.

The Bibliography is a page-long listing of books (here also devoid of publisher details). Some of those titles are cited within the text, e.g. Patric Blanc’s The vertical garden, Catherine Horwood’s Potted history: The story of plants in the home, and Judy Sund’s Exotica: A fetish for the foreign), and therefore covered within the References section. Whether all books included here are also referenced elsewhere I couldn’t say. However, the purpose of the Bibliography isn’t clear to this reader, and some words of guidance on its role would have been useful.

The Associations and Websites section features many sites devoted to particular house plant groups (e.g. African violets, and Aroids), and more general horticultural societies (e.g. Royal Horticultural Society) and botanical organisations/institutions (such as Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Fauna and Flora International).

Mainly appreciative…

House Plants is full of very thoughtful, intelligent, and informative writing. It’s also very well written with some lovely phrasing, e.g., “Over thousands of years we have used plants … to honour the choreography of life” (p. 17); “Those we grow today are derived from the flotsam and jetsam of centuries of plant collecting” (p. 24); and “Aloe variegata (Gonialoe variegata), the ‘gateway’ succulent that can introduce susceptible innocents to the addictive world of cacti and succulent collecting” (p. 25). And that’s just in the first couple of dozen pages. The text also appears to be devoid of any ‘typos’. Because of the way it’s written, House plants makes for a not-overly-demanding read: Because of its subject matter – plants, and people – it makes for an interesting one.

Despite the book’s remarkably downbeat opening sentence, on the first page of main text: “This is an exploration of an apparently mundane group of plants, the house plant” (p. 7), this is quickly followed-up by wise words by the end of the 1st paragraph: “Whether a thriving and diverse collection loved by its owner, or a chlorotic embarrassment, house plants tell us a complex story about how we live, why we need nature and how we take wild things and domesticate them” (p. 7). Which sets the scene for all that follows.

Although people have interacted with plants for millennia, our relationship with house plants is relatively recent, in reality only a few hundred years old [as a ‘tradition’ Maunder traces it back to 1608 in the West with the publication of Sir Hugh Platt’s gardening manual Floreas Paradise]. But even so, plants have not always been a welcome addition to the household: At one time bringing plants indoors was feared to be a source of “toxic effluvia that could harm sleeping victims” (p. 23). Sadly, considering the polluted atmospheric conditions within Europe’s urban communities and homes in the good old days, it was more likely the plant that would perish from being brought indoors.

Which consideration encouraged the hunt for, and selection of, plants that were hardy enough to tolerate “toxic growing conditions” (p. 23) of the domestic environment. All hail, therefore, the aspidistra, a tough species – also known as the cast-iron plant – that not only survived but thrived in “the toxic fug of a [Victorian] household” (p. 163). Another, plant seemingly created deliberately by Mother Nature to bedeck and beautify the homes of humans, was the Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana). Originally from Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific, it seemed pre-adapted to a life in a Victorian parlour or conservatory, as Maunder muses, “No plants are more easily grown and none are more tenacious to life than the palm, enduring alike dust and the hard knocks that house plants are apt to receive, the cold from open windows and the unnatural heat from furnaces and from gas” (p. 163). So popular and omnipresent did this house plant become that it “graced the palm courts of innumerable hotels, resorts and luxury liners (including the Titanic), and it provided the garnish to thousands of stiff and unsmiling Victorian family portraits” (p. 163).

The list of house plants since those early days has grown considerably, to include the African violet (whose ‘cult status’ has allowed it to “spread across the world” (p. 77), so much so that it is “on a trajectory to become perhaps the ultimate house plant” (p. 77)), Caladium (“one of horticulture’s great ‘Marmite tests’” (p. 50) with its spectacular leaf colours), Poinsettia (“one of the most important house plants in the global trade” (p. 51) (yet a member of a group of “throwaway seasonal house plants, residents of the house for few months only, and disposed of after the flowers are over” (p. 51))), and the spider plant, Chlorophytum comosum, (which, although it “may be the most widely cultivated house plant, … is perhaps among the least inspiring” (p. 58)). The list goes on, and all of the plants that could have been included in Maunder’s book have own their stories to tell. But, the tales associated with the several that have been selected for special mention in House Plants give a very good flavour of the importance of this group of plants, and the special place they have in the lives of people.

But, are we not missing something? In my keenness to share some of the contents of the book, I’ve neglected to say what a house plant is. Although Maunder tells us that the term ‘house plant’ was coined by Thomas Rochford in 1952, he recognises that such plants have also been variously described as indoor plants, pot plants, and foliage plants. The definition of house plant is therefore rather vague. And Maunder’s own house plant definition “has been kept loose and flexible, allowing for a reasonable amount of meandering” (p. 13). Which allows him to extend “the role of house plants to encompass moss, fungi and algae as growing components of the house” (p. 129). For that reason House Plants has probably the greatest botanical scope of any of the 30 or so titles in Reaktion’s Botanical series.

Now that we intentionally share our homes with these botanics, increasing urbanization and indoor-dwelling [NB, 70% of the world’s population is anticipated to be living in cities by 2050…] means that house plants will assume an even more important role in our lives. And, importantly, “continue to represent a large part of our daily dose of nature and contribute to our health and well-being through providing an outlet for our emotions and creativity” (p. 24). These aspects of more futuristic house-plant-and-people relationships are covered in Chapter 5 The house of plants, which touches upon: co-evolution between people and house plants; Bio-Intelligent Quotient – the first algae-powered building in the world in Hamburg; the “transgenic petunia carnage of 2017” (p. 140); 7K, the Seventh Kingdom concept; plant nanobionics; and the recreation of the scent of extinct plants. As Maunder notes, “this co-evolution with the plants that we invite into our homes will keep shifting as ecology, ethics and the economy change” (pp. 143/4). Having taken root in our homes, and in light of such futuristic phytological flights of fancy, we might reasonably wonder if plants will eventually take over…

But, Maunder also recognises that all is not necessarily well in the world of house plants; not only is there a plant in the room, there’s also an elephant as well. And that particular problematic phytological pachyderm paradox relates to the origins and associated history of house plants. On the one hand, we are rightly reminded that the house plant favourite dieffenbachia (commonly called ‘dumb cane’) was used “as a brutal punishment in the Caribbean for enslaved peoples” (p. 25), and its toxicity “led to proposals that it could be used by Nazi authorities for the mass sterilization of prisoners deemed racially inferior” (p. 25) (should you want to read more on this, see here, and Joseph Arditti & Eloy Rodriguez article (Journal of Ethnopharmacology 5: 293–302, 1982; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-8741(82)90015-0 (which item is cited by Maunder)).

And on the other it has to be acknowledged that many house plants were originally collected from the wild to grace the interiors of houses often very far removed from the plants’ original homelands. That raises two important concerns. There’s the moral issue that owners of patented new cultivars owe no duty to recompense countries from which the wild ancestor plants were collected; “for example, Tanzania gets no funding from the cultivation and sale of African violets in Europe and North America” (p. 85). And a conservation concern where many house plants have been sourced from so-called biodiversity hotspots (Christian Marchese, Global Ecology and Conservation 3: 297-309, 2015; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2014.12.008; Melanie Merritt et al.; and Norman Myers et al., Nature 403: 853–858, 2000; https://doi.org/10.1038/35002501). “For instance, the Atlantic Forest Biodiversity Hotspot of southern Brazil is the source of the domestic gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa) and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) … African violets are a case in point; they are endemic to a series of forested mountains that stretch between Tanzania and Kenya, the Eastern Arc Mountains, a biodiversity hotspot that sits above the dry lowlands and provides refuge for extraordinary numbers of endemic species of bird, reptile, mammal and plant” (pp. 146/7). Which prompts Maunder to ask: “Is it time for a conservation tariff to be added to the purchase price of African violets, to fund the field conservation of the species and their forests?” (p. 166).

Furthermore, although the book’s emphasis is primarily – and rightly – upon the flow of plants into the house, there is the possibility of their movement out of the house. Or, to put it in the author’s own words: “Traditionally, the house-plant trade has brought plants from the wild into cultivation. We are now seeing a reversal of that flow. Sometimes house plants escape the veranda or home and become established away from their natural origins, and some of these have the potential to cause serious ecological damage” (p. 164). The whole concept of house plants is complicated.

In addition to topics specifically mentioned above, this slim volume touches upon a very broad range of plant-related subjects, including the phenomenon widely-known as ‘plant blindness’ (Kathryn Parsley, Plants, People, Planet 2(6): 598–601, 2020; doi: 10.1002/ppp3.10153) (which is not only addressed in the first page of main text, but is to some extent countered by Maunder in recognising that widespread house plant ownership is evidence that “a large proportion of our species is not plant blind” (p. 7)), exoticism,**** plant-hunting, obsession, labour-intensive plant culture, horticulture, plant breeding, genetic modification and CRISPR, human wellbeing (in several respects living amongst house plants provides the indoor equivalent to forest-bathing (Qing Li)…), and the future of homes and buildings (and of plants – in the broadest sense of the word – therein).

With House Plants, Maunder has given us a book that packs a great deal into its pages, and considers a group of plants that are easily overlooked. But, they shouldn’t be ignored; after all, “…house plants will continue to be valued inside the house – they may be manipulated as agents of a managed microbiome, or engineered to capture more pollutants, but fundamentally they will be loved because they delight, and they look wonderful” (p. 104).

Summary

House Plants by Mike Maunder is the latest title in publisher Reaktion Books’ Botanical series, and I’m very pleased to say that it maintains the extremely high standards that are a hallmark of that plants-and-people collection. Intelligently and well-written, it’s an important read – a ‘must-read’ even [not too soon to begin a Christmas reading list..?] – for any and all who have an interest in people’s relationships with plants in the home environment.

* More typically, where the book considers a much-more-narrowly constrained plant group, the timelines go back tens of millions of years (e.g. Anna Lewington’s Birch, and Fred Gray’s Palm) – or even 500 million years in the case of Ash by Edward Parker).

** E.g. “Devastated Woman Discovers Plant She’s Been Watering for Two Years Is Fake, http://www.mirror.co.uk, 3 March 2020”, Note 33 (p. 178), and “James Wong, ‘Gardens: All Hail the Vulcan Palm’, http://www.guardian.co.uk, 10 January 2016”, Note 14 on p. 186. The former article I couldn’t find at The Mirror newspaper’s internet home, and the site didn’t appear to have a search option. I did succeed in getting to the article by ‘googling’ (Suzanne Choney) the item’s title, and found it here. James Wong’s article is accessible at, which I tracked down by searching for the article’s title at The Guardian newspaper’s site.

*** We are told very little about this eMail correspondent, except that Bill Rotolante is one of “many friends and colleagues [who] provided guidance” to the author [p. 192 in Acknowledgements]. Curious to know a little more, some internet searching suggests this individual may be William Rotolante, an ‘aroider’, who grows and sells plants for a living, and is President of Silver Krome Gardens Inc. All of which suggests he has credentials of relevance to house plants.

**** Like the phrase ‘plant blindness’ (Kathryn Parsley, Plants, People, Planet 2(6): 598–601, 2020; doi: 10.1002/ppp3.10153), the word ‘exotic’ has problems associated with its use (e.g. Bill Poser; Jasmine Thompson; Dana Brownlee). However, as Maunder reminds us, “the word ‘exotic’ is ultimately derived from the Greek exo (outside), and refers to those artefacts or products from another place or culture” (p. 17). Importantly, it was first used by John Gerrard in print – as exotick – in his Herball of 1597, for uncommon and cold tender plants such as those then recently introduced to Europe from South America. Notwithstanding legitimate concerns over political correctness (Cynthia Roper), here, in House Plants, the word is used in its original sense to mean tropical. And exotic has great relevance to house plants since many have their origins in those latitudes, and Chapter 1, The gathering of the exotic, is devoted to this important aspect of house plantery.

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities. [ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

2 Responses

  1. Pat Collins says:

    The Oxford English Dictionary has:

    1824 H[enry] Phillips Flora Historica II. 276 The Fuchsia is found to grow with greater luxuriance in the open air, than when nursed as a house plant.

    Though from context (the book is available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library), we might suppose that it is referring to a green- or stove-house plant. The OED has greenhouse plant from 1763 and hothouse plant from 1771.

    In 1828 we have Green, Roland “A treatise on the cultivation of ornamental flowers: comprising remarks on the requisite soil, sowing, transplanting, and general management: with directions for the general treatment of bulbous flower roots, green house plants, &c” (1828, Boston, published by John B. Russell, and G. Thorburn & Son):

    Of Hydrangea hortensis “It is a house plant ; will bear some frost ; but must be kept during the Winter in a green house, sitting room, or cellar into which some light is admitted.”

    When the distinction arose would take a while to research but it was certainly often used to mean a plant for indoors by the 1880s.

  2. Nigel Chaffey says:

    Hello Pat,
    Thank you for taking the trouble to comment on this blog item.
    I hope my revierw was useful to you.
    Cheers,
    Nigel Chaffey

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