Baked Earth

Beyond our common impressions of terra cotta

For centuries humans have used terra cotta to craft art, preserve history and hold plant life.The most commonly known historical use of terra cotta dates back to 246 BC, when the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang used the material to create a Terracotta Army to protect himself in the afterlife. The oldest known use of terra cotta has been traced as far back as 26,000 BCE during the paleolithic era, when ancient humans used the clay to create female figurines. European traders would use terra cotta vessels to transport valuable spices, agricultural plants and other rare plant specimens across trading routes. 

Today, experienced artisans continue to work the wet clay at a pottery wheel to create beautiful vases, pots and works of art. While terra cotta pots look beautiful in their natural rosy red color, they can easily be decorated with vibrant colored glazes. Choosing planting containers made from terra cotta over plastic and fiberglass materials is an eco-friendly option for your indoor and outdoor plants. 

The natural earthenware of terra cotta is a healthy container of choice for your potted plants. When terra cotta is fired at low temperatures the minerals are only partially melted creating a porous texture. The porous texture is ideal for allowing air and moisture to exchange through the pot, reducing the risk of soil diseases and root rot. This can be especially helpful if you live in an area with a colder climate. However, evaporating moisture also means that roots may dry out more easily. Plants that prefer dry soil won’t mind, making terra cotta pots an ideal home for cacti and succulents. If your plant prefers to stay moist you may have to water it more frequently. Always check the moisture levels of your plants to keep them in optimal health. 

The image of a terra cotta pot brings back memories of warm days when the sun heats the clay and soil of potted plants in the garden. Terra cotta is an Italian word meaning “baked earth” and refers to any type of porous clay that is fired in a kiln at low temperatures or baked in the sun. A garden filled with terra cotta pots will be decorated with the traditional reddish brown color of iron oxides in the clay. The natural minerals in terra cotta oxidize with exposure to the air to form what are called patinas, the colorful swirls of orange and pink mineral deposits. This character gives this earthenware a much desired rustic look. 

Carli Fobes
Botanist and Educator