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Why Victorian People Loved Posing Next to Aspidistra Plants

Aspidistra victorian photographs

Potted plants have been a part of households for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all kept houseplants in their sprawling estates. The Romans, in particular, were fascinated with showy flowers and often decorated their homes with the largest and brightest variety of roses and violets.

After the fall of the Roman empire, decorative gardening largely disappeared from Europe, and was replaced by a more utilitarian approach of growing herbs, vegetables, and fruits. Houseplants did not become fashionable again until the European Renaissance, when the wealthy and the affluent began to see them as a symbol of social status. Exotic varieties such as nasturtiums and sunflowers were shipped from the New World to Europe and gifted to monarchs. These delicate flowers required special environments similar to their native climes in order to bloom, that could only be created inside orangeries and glasshouses.

Those who couldn’t afford a glasshouse and the army of servants needed to look after the plants often borrowed plants from nurseries when they had guests coming over for dinner. Others would send their potted plants to the nurseries for the winter where gardeners would take care of them for a fee.

The most difficult times were the 1800s, when many Victorian homes began to have indoor lighting powered by gas. Gas lights produced toxic fumes that induced headache and nausea, blackened ceilings, discolored curtains, corroded metals and left a layer of soot on every flat surface. Flowers and most houseplants wilted. Only two particularly hardy plants managed to survive the dismal environment of a Victorian home—the Kentia palm and the aspidistra. These two plants, especially the aspidistra, became a mainstay of every Victorian parlour, drawing room, lobby and upscale ballroom.

Aspidistra victorian photographs

A bride and her guests surrounded by potted aspidistra and Kentai palms. circa 1897.

Aspidistra is an interesting plant. Native to Japan and Taiwan, this slow-growing, evergreen perennial plant with glossy dark green leaves, was brought to Europe during the 1820s where it quickly earned the nickname “cast iron plant” because of its remarkable tolerance to neglect and abuse. The plant can survive extreme temperature fluctuations, withstand drought, most pests, and even thrive in low light and the poor air quality of a Victorian gas-lit house. The aspidistra became such a popular houseplant in Victorian Britain that it came to represent—as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it—”a symbol of full middle class respectability.”

George Orwell, in his satirical novel Keep the Aspidistra flying, published in 1936, used the aspidistra as a symbol of the stuffiness of Victorian middle-class society. The plant also appeared in music hall routines, such as Gracie Fields' The biggest aspidistra in the world, which in turn inspired the British Secret Service to name its 600 kilowatt transmitter, built during World War 2 to disrupt enemy communication, Aspidistra.

Aspidistra victorian photographs

Another plant that became popular among Victorian households is the Kentai palm (Howea forsteriana). The Kentai is native to Lord Howe Island of Australia, from where seeds were brought and cultivated across Europe and the United States during the late Victorian period. Like aspidistra, the Kentai can thrive in conditions where other plants cannot such as low light, low humidity, poor air quality and cool temperatures. Queen Victoria absolutely loved them. She grew Kentai palm in all of her homes, and this association with royalty gave those who could furnish their homes with them a certain prestige.

Many Edwardian hotels like The Ritz Hotel in London or the Plaza Hotel in New York featured Kentia palms. They continue to be used in many modern hotel lobbies, casinos, and shopping malls.

Aspidistra victorian photographs

A family poses around their aspidistra in front of their house in Hellidon, Northamptonshire. c1896-c1920.

Aspidistra elatior

Aspidistra elatior. Photo credit: Furiarossa/Shutterstock.com

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