Buying plants is a specific type of retail therapy. This is especially true for millennials who didn't invent the concept of houseplants, but, like we do with anything we get into, have made it A Thing.
And who can complain? Unlike loading up an online shopping care with yet another overpriced candle, buying more houseplants for your growing home collection can feel like a healthy act of self-care.
"People want to have living things in their homes like plants because there also is an emotional attachment," says Patty Cassidy, a registered horticultural therapist, Master Gardener, and vice president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Anyone who's felt emotional gazing at a thriving snake plant, or looked forward to coming home to their plants after work can absolutely relate.
There's a reason for this. We've long known that being around plants is good for us: studies suggest that just looking at green plants reduces anxiety and has a calming effect. Other research has shown that indoor houseplants can act as natural air purifiers. Beyond that, the act of taking care of and tending to plant life provides a unique set of other mental health benefits. Although watering, trimming, and fussing over finicky houseplants might seem like yet another household chore to avoid, for many plant owners, that's actually part of the appeal.
Horticultural therapy, as they call it, is a kind of technique that uses plants and gardening to help people struggling with depression or addiction, survivors of abuse, and the elderly who may have memory disorders, explains Cassidy. The idea is rooted in a psychological theory called "biophilia," which suggests that humans are genetically and instinctively connected to the natural world and plants. The goal of horticultural therapy is to get people outside and in nature. And research has shown that people who have plants tend to be more compassionate and empathic towards others.
"We know that nature is life-giving, so there's that kind of survival instinct that we know nature is really important to us," Cassidy says. The beauty of horticultural therapy is that it gives people who may not have access to nature — such as those living in cities or apartments — the opportunity to engage with plant life.
A horticultural therapy session can be formal or informal, take place in a variety of settings, and utilise all different kinds of plant material. Some people might join a gardening group that meets regularly at a public garden, while others may need one-on-one therapy sessions for their specific goals. Schools, prisons, and assisted living communities also typically have horticultural therapy programs available for people to utilise, Cassidy says.
"When we work with residential facilities, houseplants are a big medium for us, because many of those people really can’t get outdoors — but they can work with plants and soil," she adds.
For young people living in cities, houseplants are a way to foster a connection with nature, which can have profound effects on our sense of belonging. That's why seeing new growth on your monstera plant, for example, makes you feel inexplicably tickled. "When we have it, we feel better," Cassidy says. "Although we may not know why we feel better."
Although the horticultural therapy crowd is "a pretty old group," as Cassidy says, millennials have recently rebranded the concept — perhaps unintentionally. "I am thrilled that younger people are becoming more in tune with knowing that they need to be around something living," she says. "A green plant is a great way to do it."
Gardening is also a hobby and skill, which we know is good for your mental health. The physical act of using your hands can distract from your worries or anxieties and has a soothing effect. Over time, it can be rewarding to see your plants evolve and take in the fruits of your labour. "It's a process of experimentation and getting experience," Cassidy says. And even when your plants don't thrive or straight-up bite the dust, gardening can cultivate patience.
So, while this might not explain why you can't stop killing your succulents, it can shed some light on why you can't stop buying plants. And Cassidy's advice for those of us who want to reap the benefits of houseplants, but don't have the skills yet? Start with a plant that's easy to take care of. If that's too challenging, consider taking the truly millennial approach and surrounding yourself with photos of plants, which can have a similar effect. "There's so many ways now that people can become successful with plants," she says.