Our fascination with indoor potted plants has a long and colourful history

Would you pay £100 for a hyacinth bulb? Roam the countryside looking for ferns to dig up? Build a glasshouse just so you could grow orange trees?

These might sound like extreme measures, but the relationship between Brits and their houseplants used to be somewhat more dramatic than it is today. How many of us have wandered round a garden centre and plonked a houseplant into the trolley, never thinking about where it comes from and who discovered it?

Professor Catherine Horwood is a cultural historian at Royal Holloway College, University of London. She is also an avid gardener and author of a new book, Potted History – a study of plants in the home that spans several centuries and uncovers all sorts of interesting tales. So why did we first start bringing plants indoors? It seems it was not for their appearance but rather for their ability to mask the side-effects of living in an era with basic sanitary arrangements. "It was the earliest reason I could track down and it was so important," says Horwood. "They were strewing herbs on the floor, doing anything to get rid of the smells."

And so it seems it was practicality rather than any interior design trend that started off our relationship with indoor plants. But as times changed and new plants were discovered, their ornamental value would soon come to the fore. The 17th century saw explorers opening up new continents, bringing back tender plants which were much admired but woefully ill-equipped to survive the British winter. One of the most popular trends was for citrus trees – among the wealthy these were the ultimate status symbol, providing a means to curry favour with members of the royal family by presenting them with out-of-season fruits. Growing these fruit trees required heated glasshouses and an army of servants to maintain them. "The idea of plants as a status symbol really started in the late 16th century and didn't die out until the start of the 20th century," says Horwood. "It was all very well having these marvellous plants, but you did need plenty of help to look after them."

Although not everyone could afford a glasshouse, the fashion for indoor plants was growing. By the start of the 18th century, nurseries were booming and stocked thousands of plants, including citrus, jasmines, bays, myrtles, agaves and aloes. Forcing plants to flower in winter and early spring became all the rage and hyacinths were the most prized of all – the King of Great Britain variety had a price tag of 100 a bulb. In tandem with all this came a new business opportunity for ceramics manufacturers. Josiah Wedgwood was one of the first off the mark, and when the gardening public became obsessed with a plant called the mignonette (loved for its heady scent), he quickly re-labelled his myrtle pans as "mignonette pans".

For those looking to make a splash in society, plants could be hired to ensure your dinner party was awash with foliage. "The nurseries did so well because they not only sold plants, they leased them too," says Horwood. "And they provided winter hotels for plants – a lot of the royal palaces used these nurseries to look after plants when they were dormant and they didn't want to have them taking up space and looking rather pathetic."

By the dawn of the 19th century, indoor gardening was experiencing a boom. Railways allowed goods to be transported faster than ever before and plant-hunters were reaching ever more exotic destinations. In 1818 one William Swainson packed up a number of exotics to send back from an expedition to Brazil, using some less interesting plant material as protection. When this green "packaging" was removed, a man named William Cattley decided to grow it on. The resulting flowers were so impressive that they triggered the orchid fever that gripped collectors.

There was a downside to these fashions. "Although there are still tens of thousands of different types of orchid, quite a few have been lost because of the Victorian plant hunters," says Horwood. "And then there were the poor ferns – people would go off for the weekend on fern-hunting expeditions, stripping the countryside." Plants were not helped either by the conditions people kept them in; Victorian homes were dark and smoky from the gas lamps inside and coal dust outside. It was in these circumstances that two particularly hardy plants thrived – the Kentia palm and the aspidistra – and as a result they were found everywhere. Even poorer Victorians got into the craze for houseplants, buying cheap geraniums to brighten up window ledges.

As the century progressed, more and more advice was made available to gardeners, helping them to understand their plants. By 1885 there were eight weekly gardening magazines and several monthlies. Then along came the 20th century and modernist style and all that Victorian clutter began to look horribly dated. If homes had any houseplants, it would most likely just be a cool cactus or rubber plant. But by the 1950s houseplants were welcomed back as a cheap and easy way to introduce greenery into the smaller houses and flats of the postwar era. In the 1960s, looking after these plants became much easier with the introduction of plant care labels, with information on watering, position and temperature.

"Now we are very aware of the benefits of bringing plants indoors," says Horwood. "And luckily the plants that have got the health-giving properties and are great mopper-uppers of air pollutants are ones that are pretty easy to grow, like the peace lily, or spider plant."

Our motivation may have changed, but it seems that having greenery and flowers in our homes is just as important for us today as it was for our 16th-century forebears.

Potted History by Catherine Horwood is published by Frances Lincoln, priced 25.