"I can't leave a bodega without buying a cactus," admitted a co-worker, only half-kidding, when she found out the premise of this story. It's one of those things that's funny because it's so true. Think about it: What do your flat, your friend’s flat, a stereotypical Pinterest board, and even a recent runway show by an ultra-hip fashion brand have in common? The answer — naturally — is plants.
Whether it’s some kind of delicate, exotic orchid or just a little succulent that you sometimes forget to water, a houseplant feels like a rite of passage for anyone attempting to create a stylish and inviting environment. And like tattoos or swipes of lip balm or crisps, plants seem to be the kind of thing where you can’t have just one. For many, the low-maintenance rubber plant someone gave you as a housewarming gift soon becomes a lush garden sprawling from your windowsill outwards. Before you know it, you’re naming them, you’re talking to them, you’re spending Saturdays trawling local plant stores for new friends. You’re a full-on Plant Lady. And like the Cat Ladies of yore — kooky single women living with a cohort of felines and often no one else — you’re totally embracing it, despite any furrowed brows you may receive.
"It's so easily addictive," Christan Summers, cofounder of the Brooklyn-based plant emporium Tula, tells Refinery29. "You get to know them," she continues. "It’s kind of awesome when you give them what they want and then they grow and give you flowers and new leaves."
Summer Rayne Oakes, a model, author of the forthcoming book How to Make a Plant Love You, and the instructor of an online class called the Houseplant Masterclass, should know. She currently houses over 700 plants — with 400 distinct species — in her 1,200-square-foot Brooklyn apartment. "I got my first plant in my apartment around nine years ago now... I’m always acquiring new specimens to see if I can push the boundaries on what can grow indoors," she tells Refinery29.
The popularity of houseplants has even made an impact on the ever trend-conscious fashion world. Gypsy Sport, the zeitgeisty unisex label helmed by Rio Uribe, showed a model carrying a planter-slash-handbag made out of a football during its spring/summer 2018 show.
"Plants are fashion," designer and plant-centric interior design expert Olivia Rose (alias Bodega Rose), creator of the eye-catching planter, tells Refinery29 via email. "I’m trying to foster the voice of these plants and express the hype I feel for them. My dream is to see a huge line outside of a plant store wrapping around the block, with security to the nines. It’s 7am on a Thursday and a new rare cultivar of an anthurium just dropped, and everyone needs to cop."
Lest you think this is just a fad among a certain subsection of apartment-dwelling millennials, there’s plenty of hard data that proves otherwise. According to a 2017 survey by Mintel, 52% of homeowners use houseplants to counter pollution. Pinterest reports that while searches for pet-related information on the platform have remained stagnant this year, searches for plant care have been increasingly on the rise, growing by 97%. Which may explain why an Instagram account called Girls With Plants has a substantially larger following than one dedicated to Girls And Their Cats (sorry, kitties). And, of 4.8 million Pinterest searches on how to decorate small spaces so far this year, plants were among the top search terms.
This recent boom in popularity has led to a niche market that's not only thriving, but surprisingly diverse. There are books and online classes like the ones Oakes has created; there are plant doctors and consultants who make house calls. Companies are even making slightly dead-looking fake plants with just the right amount of decay so you can trick your guests into thinking they’re real. And while there are plants for purchase at corner shops, grocery stores, and hip specialty shops that dot cities like LA and New York, plenty of people are making their plant purchases online, too.
Cactus Store founders Max Martin and Christian Cummings tell Refinery29 that shoppers coming into their Los Angeles store and New York City summer pop-up "aren't disproportionately one demographic." Though plants do seem to have a special appeal for millennials — who are famously doing things like getting married, having children and purchasing property later in life than previous generations, if they’re doing them at all.
My dream is to see a huge line outside of a plant store wrapping around the block, with security to the nines. It’s 7am on a Thursday and a new rare cultivar of an anthurium just dropped, and everyone needs to cop.
Summers says that for many women she’s encountered through Tula, plants can become a vessel for pent-up maternal energy, or a cure for feelings of listlessness. She recalls one exchange in particular that she recently had with a client in her mid-30s whose Brooklyn home she was visiting for a private consultation. "She basically was like, 'I'm not financially stable enough to have kids'," she says. "I think for a lot of people, the financial stability and finances is number one. Also just the commitment. We just live in a new society where we have a lot of options, we have a lot of choices. We can travel a lot and we can make money a lot of ways, and we can do so many things. Having kids is not the only thing."
Even pets, the traditional alternative for people waiting or choosing not to marry and have children, can carry a prohibitively high degree of financial and physical burden, especially for people who work long hours or travel a lot. Sure, you might have to cajole a neighbour to come over and water your plants while you’re away, but it’s not the same as needing to find and possibly pay someone to care for your dog or cat every time you want to skip town. There’s a reason the stereotypical Cat Lady rarely leaves her feline-filled house, and it’s not just because she prefers kitties to people.
As the Washington Post and other outlets that study millennial habits with a similar curiosity have noted, plants provide a manageable taste of what it’s like to be responsible for another living thing. "I’ve seen so many articles that read 'plants to fill gap in millennial's heart', which is really just a jab at our generation," Rose laments. But it’s hard to deny that houseplants reveal a Goldilocks-style level of maturity that many young people crave. Healthy houseplants say that you have your shit together enough to take care of something, but that you could still take off for a spontaneous music festival or weekend camping trip at the drop of a hat. And isn’t that the exact kind of vibe a lot of us are trying to cultivate? Comedian Aparna Nancherla summed up this phenomenon perfectly in a recent tweet, writing: "The pressure being put on young succulents these days to convey our lives are going well is toxic."
Indeed, Taryn Tavella, an associate editor specialising in lifestyle and interiors at the trend forecasting firm WGSN posits that the uptick in interest in "self care" — arguably the buzzword of the year — also factors in. "Self-care has become increasingly important to consumers, and their surroundings play a big part in that," she shares via email. "Research has shown that houseplants help air quality and make us happier by reducing stress levels, and increase concentration and productivity."
But as anyone who has accidentally neglected their in-home vegetation knows, killing a houseplant is an awful feeling. Not only are you responsible for the demise of a living thing, but it doesn’t exactly bode well for those future commitments, like children or pets, for which you may be viewing your plant as a test. Luckily, these days, there’s practically an overabundance of people ready to help you avoid that scenario.
Summers says the best way to ensure you’re properly caring for your plant is to ask those at the place you purchase it from what kind of plant it is and what you need to know about it. "Anybody can keep a plant alive. It's just taking a little bit of time beforehand to learn about it." And be prepared to go from nervous plant newbie to full-fledged Plant Lady in the span of just a few short years. After all, as Rose says, the best thing about plants is "they don’t talk back".