Book Review: Potted History, how houseplants took over our homes by Catherine Horwood

 As I sit here writing I can count seven house plants in the room I am sitting in and nearly every room in the house has at least one plant.  Despite this I have never really thought about the history of houseplants so when I was asked if I would like to review this book I quickly said yes as I realised that there was much for me to learn.  I have not paid for this book but my words and opinions are my own.

If ever there was a book who's time is now it is this book as houseplants are certainly deriguour.  Yet this book is more than that as this is a book before its time as it was first published in 2007.  It has been refreshed with new material added so that it is up to date in these pandemic days giving it added relevance to these troubled times.

This book is, as it says, a history.  It is not just a list of plants and when they arrived in the UK, it is about the historical and cultural significance of these plants.  As our homes and lives have changed, so have the plants we have been bringing into our homes.  Our use of plants has always been decorative, but also often it was functional as well: herbs and scented plants were used to cover the smell of living without bathing, drains and plumbed toilets.  Catherine talks about how the Great Fire of London led to planning changes that meant that our streets had more light and so growing plants indoors became easier.  Artificial light and central heating have changed the home environment and made it very challenging for some plants that we like to invite into our homes.  The history of houseplants is therefore the history of us and how we live.

Much in this book is about how our houseplants and our lives have changed, and yet at the heart of it there is a constant.  There are fashions in houseplants as there are fashions in all things.  If you want to buy the latest tip-top fashion must buy plant then you will pay a lot of money for it.  As ever the showing off of a plant collection is often more than just the joy of the plant, but the ability to possess one.  Plant collectors scoured the globe for new and unusual plants, many of which may have started off as being 'house plants' or plants for the huge conservatories that the rich could afford to show off their prized possessions.  

I have kept houseplants since I was a teenager.  I started with a spider plant I nicked as a trailing baby off a window ledge in a classroom at school.  I can now look you in the eye with a knowledgeable air and tell you that this plant was introduced to the UK from Japan in 1788.

I look up at the Aspidistra that sits just across from me in the lounge and I can similarly now tell you that this was introduced in 1823 from China.  The list of plants with facts of year of introduction and county of origin at the end of the book has the ability to soak up endless amounts of time as I wander checking through the plants I own.

I really enjoyed reading this book, what I thought was going to be an interesting book about houseplants is in reality a journey through our social history with the theme of plants being our guide.   Anyone who is interested in houseplants will find this book fascinating.  Anyone interested in social history will find this book equally impelling.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Potted History, how houseplants took over our homes by Catherine Horwood is published by Pimpernel Press