Feb. 15th, 2020

The Complex Lives of Houseplants

Text & images © Julka Almquist

Symbols of Wellbeing and Cultural Capital, Houseplants are Also Living Beings Existing Within an Opaque Industrialised Market

Over the past decade, there has been a major resurgence in the popularity of houseplants. With our increasingly technologically-centred lives and the rise of social media, they have become symbols of wellbeing, status, and cultural capital. Having them signals our ability to care for something. But despite all the positive feelings surrounding plants, something feels amiss in this botanical movement. The current conversation about them has primarily centred around how they are good for us, but without acknowledging their origins or the systems we have created to grow and sell them.

Bringing plants into the home emerged from imperial legacies which celebrated having the “world in your garden” and created botanical gardens to show off these trophies. Our current treatment of houseplants maintains this underlying belief that plants are objects meant for our pleasure and are kept as trophies in our homes. To date, the value of their life has not been part of the larger cultural discussion. In her work, American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer points out that in the Anishinaabe language* there are pronouns for living beings that aren’t humans. Their language distinguishes beings like plants from objects like tables. In English (and many other languages), plants are referred to as objects – we use the same pronoun “it” for plants and tables. In turn, plants are treated as objects.

Inspired by both the cultural excitement around plants, and the desire to critique it, I curated a series of learning events. One of them was a plant cutting exchange. During the event, I was moved by the community engagement that took place through sharing stories and the enthusiasm for nurturing cuttings into full-grown plants. I also realised that with their cuttings, people would be participating in a more holistic experience with the plant’s life trajectory.

Photo © Kara Larson
This experience opened up a new line of inquiry that had me asking: “Where did my houseplants come from?” I had recently purchased a silver snake plant, and I decided to investigate its origins. I went back to the store and asked if they could tell me more about where it came from originally and where it was raised. The staff could not sufficiently answer either question, so I did a bit of internet sleuthing and found out that the plant is called Sansevieria Guineensis Manolin and originated in Thailand. My investigations on where it grows up were a different story, though.

Commoditised as a result of their inherent ability to grow and adapt, plants are propagated and grown in some mysterious ways. It is complicated to recover any public information about a specimen’s journey within this industrial system. There is little transparency, and the plant market seems to be where food and coffee were 20 years ago. Today, if I go to a coffee shop, for instance, I can easily learn the entire life story of a single-origin coffee. With plants, I am unable to determine that.

I have no intention of making you feel guilty about your collection of houseplants (I am writing this deep within a Minnesota winter when I am especially grateful for mine), but rather to be more aware that they are complex and whole beings with a life’s journey. Maybe the time has come that we start asking the question: “What did my houseplants go through to get here?”

* The Anishinaabe is a Central Algonquian language spoken by the Anishinaabe people throughout much of Canada from Ontario to Manitoba and US border states from Michigan to Montana. See source


Simon Usborne, "How to grow a 'house jungle: Why millennials are looking for something to nurture", September 10, 2017, The Guardian
Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life”, February 25, 2016, On Being
Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (ed.), Botanical Drift: Protagonists of the Invasive Herbarium, Sternberg Press, 2017

About the author
Julka Almquist is a designer, researcher, and the founder of Field Experience. Her work aims to inspire curiosity, creativity, and a sense of reciprocity through the exploration of nature. Previously she was a design researcher at the human-centred design firm IDEO from which she has evolved her practice to think about a broader more ecologically-centred design. She is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA). www.fieldexperience.co / @field_experience


Plant Fever is a project curated by d-o-t-s and produced by the Belgian museum CID Grand-Hornu. Visual identity by Matthieu Visentin. Exhibition scenography by Benoît Deneufbourg