Early American homes were too cramped, dark and cold to support any greenery, but this began to change in the 1800’s as homeowners gained access to more affordable window glass, and replaced their open fires with warm stoves. The Age of Technology meant that more people were living in cities and working long hours indoors, prompting a back-to-nature movement. Additionally, plant exploration was at its peak, as adventurous plantsmen scoured the globe for tropical rarities which were then propagated and sold by mail order. In “The Era of Palms and Ferns”, Tovah Martin points out that even Victorian domestic architecture reflected the period’s fascination with indoor growing, since houses featured sun porches and recessed bay windows which offered ideal mini-climates for plants.
Here are five “parlor plant” favorites:
Its Victorian nickname was the parlor maple, but it is also known as the flowering maple, Chinese lantern, or Chinese bellflower. Although Abutilon has five-lobed maple-shaped leaves, it is actually in the hibiscus and cotton family, Malvaceae, and is believed to be native to Brazil. There are variegated types whose coloring is due to a plant mosaic virus which does not harm the plant in any other way. Some can grow quite large and shrub-like; others work well in a hanging basket. Though Abutilon happily survives indoors, it enjoys spending the summer outside where its bell-shaped flowers are attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.
The name “Jerusalem Cherry” may be derived from the fact that the plant was popular at Christmas in Victorian times. This native of Peru makes a bushy shrub-shaped houseplant whose white flowers turn to small round reddish-orange berries. Jersalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) requires bright light and high humidity indoors. Like some other members of the nightshade family, the fruit of the plant is somewhat poisonous, so today garden centers often sell ornamental pepper in its place.
The Victorians loved collecting ferns, and used them to decorate all sorts of items-- pottery, metal, wood, paper, even gravestones. The craze was dubbed “pteridomania”, since ferns are in the phylum Pteridophyta.The sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) is native to Florida. Its erect 3- to 4-foot fronds were a common sight in the Victorian parlor. Upon receipt of a shipment of sword ferns in 1894, a Massachusetts florist discovered a sport with more gracefully arching fronds, and thus was born the familiar Boston fern. Its popularity remains undiminished more than 100 years later.
Palms were another enthusiasm of Victorian gardeners, and can be seen in the background of many photographs of the era. The elegant Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) was commonly grown in parlors. It reaches 5 to 12 feet indoors, and has arching dark green leaves. Because it does not have a tap root, it does well in a container. Though it grows from a single trunk, several of the plants are often planted together to give the appearance of a clumping palm. Kentia palm prefers some direct light from a window; the more light it receives, the more fronds it produces.
Just like today’s busy gardeners, the Victorians often opted for a low-maintenance house plant that would guarantee success. The Aspidistra (Aspidistra elatior), nicknamed the “cast iron” plant, is close to indestructible and can survive neglect and low light. A native of eastern Asia, it grows in large, leafy clumps, with glossy, dark green corn-like leaves reaching up to 2 to 3 feet. It is an extremely slow grower and occasionally produces small purple-brown flowers near the base of the plant. A variety called ‘Milky Way’ is speckled with yellow flecks and has narrower and longer leaves.
Resources: Tovah Martin; "The Era of Palms and Ferns"; 1988
Photo Credits: Giant Fern Frond by Just Chaos; Abutilon ‘Bella Coral’ by Kell; Solanum pseudocapsicum ‘Red Giant’ by JerusalemCherry; Nephrolepis exaltata by Gabrielle; Howea forsteriana by palmbob; Aspidistra elatior by southrngal