Thursday, January 14, 2010

Without plants, a dull and lifeless home

A housewife discussing with her servant; flourishing plants form a suitable background depicting a happy household... 'Husmoderns rådgivare' by Kerstin Wenström, Stockholm 1923.

Potted plants are a symbol for a happy home. Think about all pictures in books and magazines: even the most streamlined modernist interiors have something live and green, preferably with a striking, architectural form. They gratify our need for a bit of nature midst our busy, often urban lives, and give us the joy of experiencing the miracle of growth.

In Scandinavia, plants seem to have a special place in peoples hearts as carriers of hope during the long, dark winters when nothing in the nature seems to be alive. Nowhere is this love for potted plants more visible than in Carl Larsson's paintings about his wife Karin's flowers filling the windowsills, adding to the charm of the home of these two, prolific artists. Even today, an average Swedish home has between 20 and 40 houseplants, many of which start their lives as cuttings from friends and family.
Azalea, by Carl Larsson (1906), shows Karin Larsson with her flowers. The handloom that she used for her textile designs is in the background.

Most of us never give a second thought to why we grow potted plants. But Clas Bergvall, an ethnologist at Umeå University, was so intrigued by how much joy his wife got from plants, that he dedicated eight years and his doctoral dissertation to the subject. In Life, Mood and Meaning, Bergvall researches the relationship between indoor plants and their owners, looking at how potted plants affect the way they view their lives, their identity, and their space. By interviewing hundreds of plant owners, Bergvall found out that the satisfaction of seeing plants grow and change over the seasons and time was as important as the aesthetic reasons for having them. While attending to their plants, the owners felt that they got their own space for thoughts and reflections, undisturbed by other people or daily chores. Also, being able to nurture the plants was a confirmation of their capability to create a real home; many thought that a home without indoor plants is dull and lifeless.
A selection of indoor plants from 'Husmoderns rådgivare'. Roses 'Hermosa', 'Marechal Niel' and 'Gloire de Dijon', which are still available from some growers, are given as examples of reliable choices for forcing in pots.
Bergvall tells also the history of potted plants in Sweden. First, they appeared in the orangeries of the nobility during the 17th century and were symbols for wealth and status. From there they slowly spread to the houses of the new and affluent middle classes of the 19th century. By the end of that century, even the modest homes had potted plants, often grown from cuttings taken by people who worked as servants in the wealthier households. By the first half of the 20th century potted plants were a given part of a home.
In my life, I've gone through periods of having many plants and absolutely no plants. Some of them I still miss, like the lemon tree that I grew from pips that came from a huge Meyer lemon tree in my garden in Melbourne. In only five years, it shot up to over two meters, showing clearly its genetic parentage. It felt like a living, direct link to our wonderful life in Australia, and I spent many times contemplating how to take it with me to the US. Fortunately, my mother with green fingers is babysitting it now. The lemon tree seemed like an exception to my success with indoor plants in general. I've always doubted the link between successful indoor and outdoor gardening; I seem to be much more capable of nurturing plants in the open, somehow forgetting about the poor indoor ones until their wilting leaves nearly shout out their need of water. But with or without plants, I've luckily still never thought of my home as dull and lifeless...
'Husmoderns rådgivare', a book about housekeeping by Kerstin Wenström was published in Stockholm 1923. It was hugely popular; eight editions came out during its first year in print.


Arboarkticum said...

Love this text. Indoor plants really have a special place in our hearts here in the cold parts of the world. It's like they represent the dream we all nurture of spring and summer during all the dark months... and also so vulnerable and in need of our care.

And by the way - we love all your posts ;-) Always well-written, full of knowledge and combined with a personal view on things.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Thank you, Arboarkticum, for your kind words! I was away for a couple of days, and coming back and seeing your comment made me very happy indeed. I wish you a lovely weekend in the cold North of Sweden!

NinaVästerplana said...

I have followed in Arboarkticum´s footsteps and found a lovley blog.... Men jag såg att du skrev på svenska i din kommentar där så....
Vilken kunskap du sprider i dina inlägg! Har tragglat mig igenom Martinsson o snödroppar, vad som växer i din trädgård o dina citronsådder på engelska o njutit trots att jag är urusel på språket ;-)
Men när jag kom till Kalm o inlägget om hans hem gav jag upp o översatte via Google. Din engelska är lättare o förstå än översättningen ;-)
Tack för trevlig o varierande läsning o
ha´t himla gôrgôtt

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Tack, Nina, det var roligt att höra från dig också! Google översättningar är lite si och så, några gånger får man ett riktigt bra skratt, när man läser dem.... ha en trevlig helg.