Millennials Didn’t Invent Houseplants

updated Jun 18, 2019
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Credit: From left: Aaron Lee; Marie-Lyne Quirion; Marisa Vitale; Naphat_Jorjee/Shutterstock

In the context of interior design, it’s hard to imagine monstera plants and fiddle leaf figs not surrounded by, say, marble coffee tables, neon signs, or millennial pink velvet throw pillows. For as much spotlight as houseplants have enjoyed in recent years, it’s almost tempting to think that millennials invented the things.  

Of course, certain lucky plants have gotten an Instagram-worthy glow-up in recent years (looking at you, pilea peperomiodies). But people have been bringing nature inside their homes long before #plantstagram and palm-printed iPhone cases existed. In ancient China, houseplants were a marker of wealth, and the Victorians’ notorious plant lust put millennials to shame. (Think it’s over the top to pay to ship a specialty variegated monstera to your apartment? Try dispatching your own personal orchid hunter into the tropics to retrieve undiscovered varietals.)

This contemporary L.A. home is Instagram famous, and perfectly on top of modern-day plant trends.

Houseplants have always been a part of people’s homes—they’ve seen their fair share of ’70s-era sunken living rooms, ’80s mall food courts, and midcentury modern setups. And just like any other consumer good, they’ve experienced mini bubbles of popularity, from disco-era spider plants to ‘90s orchid madness.

Let’s take a tour through those houseplant bubbles of yore:

Credit: Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
A 1977 living room from the H. Armstrong Roberts collection.

That ‘70s Grow

Millennials get credit for the modern houseplant craze, but it was baby boomers who most recently planted the seeds.

The decade, which began with the world’s first Earth Day in 1970, brought with it a groundswell of interest in all things green. “When I moved into the city, there were little tiny plant shops all over the place,” says indoor plant consultant Will Creed of Horticultural Help. “They were ubiquitous as Starbucks are now today.” Creed, who offers “plant doctor house calls” to New Yorkers, recalls seeing a lot of philodendron, tradescantia, Tahitian bridal veil, snake plants, and African violets in those days—along with their fair share of succulents and macrame hangers, of course. In 1971, Brooklyn even had its own houseplant boarding facility, where enthusiasts stashed their ferns and peperomias while traveling (for up to $1.75 per plant, per week).

Credit: Bethany Nauert
This modern-day L.A. home steps out of the past by capturing 1970s plant trends, and incorporating plenty of vintage furniture.

The houseplant explosion of the ‘70s can also be attributed to the prevailing architectural and interior design trends of the time. Mark Whittier, a buyer at Atlanta-based Pike Nurseries, has worked with plants for over three decades, largely supplying to homeowners and interior designers. He points out that certain reigning styles of the day, like open-plan spaces, wood paneling, geometric accents, and earth tones, made ideal counterparts to the vibrance and loose, organic feel of something like a hanging spider plant, or a trailing vine tumbling from a hanger. “All of a sudden, people had all this glass in their homes, and all these clean lines that needed some softening, and all the textiles were very neutral,” says Whittier. “And people were really getting into nature, too. So it makes sense that people wanted to bring plants into their homes.” A big, glossy-green tropical could divide up an open-format living room, add color to a sepia-toned color palette, and counterbalance the weight of a big, bulky sofa, in one fell swoop.

“Different types of ficus, the rubber tree, dracaenas, the mother-in-law’s tongues, the aluminum plant, palm trees… all that stuff was around back then, even the fiddleleaf,” says Whittier. “It’s always been the same kind of plant palette, but what’s happened since then is just the number of varieties within each category has just exploded.”

Credit: Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast/Getty Images
An overhead view of the living room of actor Joel Grey, from a 1981 issue of Vogue magazine.

‘80s: Specimen Plants and Mall Jungles

Then—insert record-scratch sound—the ‘80s happened. Interior decorators swapped out their wood paneling and shag for glass bricks, chintz, or all things all things Memphis. Somewhere along the way, the living-room-as-rainforest vibe receded. “There was a bit of a lull,” says Creed. “I suspect a lot of people who had bought plants [in the ‘70s] struggled to find good information and didn’t know how to take care of them… so the plants died, they blamed themselves, and they never went back to getting plants again.”

Credit: Emma Fiala
This "'80s flashback" Chicago apartment plays around with Memphis design and the sculptural plant trend of the '80s.

Predicting a shift toward a more minimalist approach, the New York Times wrote in 1979 that homeowners had grown tired of the upkeep involved in maintaining dozens of foliage-heavy plants. Those “indoor jungles” had begun to disappear, the Times says, “leaf by leaf, until it was fashionable to have only one or two grand botanical plants. A ficus, a yucca, a ming tree or two, standing like sculpture under spotlights installed to dramatize their solitary beauty.” (Malls, however, did not get that memo. Indeed, the greenery situation inside some malls in the ‘80s verged on Jurassic Park levels… if Jurassic Park had Tape World and Orange Julius.)

Living rooms were no longer the lush shag jungles they’d once been—perhaps, as the Times hypothesized, because “everyone was doing it,” thus it was time to move on. Or perhaps it was in part because all that chintz was doing plenty of work on the floral front.

Credit: Marie-Lyne Quirion
This modern Montreal home is influenced by a mix of 70s and 80s style.

‘90s: Orchid Mania (and That NASA Study)

Tray ceilings, crown moldings, heavy drapes—for a lot of homeowners, the ‘90s brought with it a much more traditional, formal sensibility. The plants, Whittier explains, had to blend in. “We kind of went back to more classic, elegant plants,” he says. “Orchids really exploded during the ‘90s, because people wanted that really elegant look—very straight, simplistic lines, because there was so much else going on with the home decor.” (Also because, thanks to advancements in breeding and cloning, they were now affordable for the very first time.)

In 1999, the Dallas Morning News ran a feature on orchids’ popularity, puzzlingly attributing the flower’s mainstream success to what they described as “the current Asian trend,” citing Madonna wearing a kimono in the music video for “Ray of Light,” the novel “Memoirs of a Geisha” topping bestseller lists, and the popularity of fusion cuisine. “It’s hardly surprising that a plant long associated with the East would find its way into Western households,” the reporter concludes. (For the record, orchids are cultivated all over the world and can grow pretty much everywhere except glaciers.)

Then, there was the elusive yet enticing promise of clean air. On the eve of the ‘90s, NASA scientist Bill Wolverton released a report suggesting that houseplants could filter pollutants from the air. His findings were widely overstated by the press, but that didn’t stop consumers from buying in, especially some of the lower-maintenance plants listed in Wolverton’s findings. The corn plant, a Dracaena variety lauded for being low-maintenance, was among them (along with philodendron, spider plants and golden pothos). Creed remembers seeing corn plants everywhere in the ‘90s. “It reached the point where people kind of hated them because they’d seen so much of them,” he says.

Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
In this 1997 photo from the Los Angeles Times, an Orange County homeowner is reflected in a mirror between cascading ivy and a coffee table arrangement featuring pothos, boston fern, and dracaena.

Another home and horticulture expert who lived through the heyday of the ‘90s: my mom, Cindy. While my contemporaries and I were decorating our spaces with clear plastic phones and glow-in-the-dark star stickers at the time, a lot of the grown-ups were looking to the English countryside for inspiration. Cindy remembers indoor topiaries as the houseplant du jour at one point in the ‘90s—it was, she says, an architectural, tailored contrast to all the busy, frilly patterns flooding living rooms at the time.

Woefully, the ‘90s also brought a wave of consumer interest in artificial plants, and not very good ones. I’m pretty sure those baskets of shiny fake ivy, plasticky potted ficus trees, and limp silk roses didn’t fool anyone.

Credit: Naphat_Jorjee/Shutterstock

The Aughts Get Bamboozled

At the dawn of a new millennium, America witnessed what the South Florida Sun-Sentinel described as “the most sought-after accessory since tabletop fountains splashed their way into home interiors”—lucky bamboo, whose arrival on the houseplant scene was announced with splashy headlines all around the country. One 2001 trend report from New Orleans’ Times-Picayune included a home decor retailer claiming the plant had “basically paid our rent,” and cited it as one of Smith & Hawken’s bestsellers.  

Perhaps fueled in part by America’s obsession with feng shui, which had taken root stateside in the ’90s, these geometric Draecena roots (read: not bamboo at all) grow in water, appealing to black-thumbed consumers—even more so than the corn plant, according to the Sun-Sentinel. One seller cited in the story offered up this time capsule of a tip: “You can leave the verticals closed and it still grows leaves.” The verticals, as in, the vertical blinds everyone had. What a time to be alive!

A very Instagram-era NYC apartment.

Of course, only a few years later, lucky bamboo would be dethroned, and succulents would rule the headlines as a new and peculiar trend popularized by a wacky generation of young people—you know, the very same generation that brought us right back to the jungle vibes of the ‘70s. Time is a flat circle. My mom agrees: “I look at catalogues like West Elm now and think, I was making that macrame in art class! Not again.”