Succulents, fiddle leaf figs, the elusive variegated monstera: Ask proud plant parents about their collections, and they’ll gush with such enthusiasm that you’d think they were talking about actual children.
Jennifer Coates, a 33-year-old freelance writer in Los Angeles, has accumulated more than 110 houseplants since she began collecting in January. Today, they’re an integral part of her daily routine. Every morning, she rolls out of bed, heads to the living room and begins a 45-minute tour of all her plants. Even before brushing her teeth or feeding the dog, Coates inspects every leaf for signs that it’s thirsty or threatened by pests and tends to those that require her attention.
It might seem extreme, but Coates is just one of many budding plant enthusiasts who dedicate hours a day and thousands of dollars to cultivating plant collections in their homes. But houseplants are nothing new, so why are millennials suddenly flocking to this hobby?
A Trend Fueled By Social Media
American gardeners spent a record $76.3 billion on lawn and garden retail sales last year, according to the 2019 National Gardening Survey. A quarter of that spending was attributed to 18- to 34-year-olds, whose spending on plants has grown at a higher rate than any other age group since 2014.
Houseplants can thank visually driven social media for their resurgence in popularity. Instagram, in particular, has become a haven for foliage fanatics.
That’s how Coates was hooked initially. Her inability to keep plants alive had always been a running joke with her husband, considered the plant guru of the household. However, while scrolling through Instagram’s browse feature one day, Coates happened upon an eye-catching photo posted by a plant lover. She followed that account, along with several others over the course of a month or two, and her desire to grow a collection of her own intensified.
Soon, she was fully immersed in plant culture. Recently, Coates even attended her first local plant swap. “That’s when I really started to realize that these plant people aren’t just on the internet ― they’re real people. And there really is a pretty big plant community.”
One of those plant people is Jake Berkowitz, 39, who helped organize the LA swap. Somewhat of a local plant celebrity, Berkowitz is highly active in the community and a member of organizations such as the Los Angeles Cactus and Succulents Society and Los Angeles County Arboretum. He houses a whopping 400 plants in his East Hollywood apartment — many of which reside in a dedicated sunroom with precise temperature and humidity controls — and owns the Instagram account @keepyourplantson_la, which boasts nearly 15,000 followers. Because he works from home for a tech company, he’s able to spend several hours a day tending to the collection.
“I fell into it slowly, and then it does kind of snowball,” he said, explaining that it’s the intersection of the plants themselves and social media that’s fueling today’s craze. “In the ’80s, they didn’t have this way for collectors to connect with one another to both to share their collections, but also leverage the expertise of people with more experience and share notes.”
More Than Just A Fad
Though the plant craze might seem like a passing social media fad, the millennial generation is uniquely suited to maintain a long-lasting love affair with plants.
It’s no secret that millennials are delaying major life milestones such as buying homes, getting married and having children, largely for financial reasons. In Los Angeles, for example, the median home price hit an all-time record of $909,000 this past June, prompting an increasing number of millennials to remain renters. The cost of having kids is also higher than ever; the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates it will cost a middle-income family $342,273 to raise a baby born in 2015 through age 17. And millennials collectively hold about $1 trillion of the nation’s debt, a 22% increase over the last five years.
“People are designed for connection and nurturing, but with more millennials waiting until later in life to have babies and settle down, young people are turning to plants,” said Lily Ewing, a therapist in Seattle who also happens to be a millennial and plant enthusiast. According to Ewing, plants often require less attention than other living things, such as pets, but still provide the opportunity to nurture something. Plants can provide a greater sense of fulfilment and purpose, she explained.
“There is something that is just completely awe-inspiring about having a living organism that you maybe get with one or two leaves, that’s two or three inches tall, and you put it next to a window so that it gets a little bit of light, and you give it a little bit of water, and it literally turns into something else in front of you,” Berkowitz said.
Not to mention, plant owners don’t have to worry about adhering to landlords’ strict pet policies or arranging a sitter while on vacation. And a beloved philodendron will never cover the walls in crayon or soil the carpet.
The millennial love of houseplants also has a lot to do with the self-care and wellness movements. Known as the “wellness generation,” millennials are big spenders when it comes to everything from boutique fitness classes to athleisure wear. So it makes sense that they’d fully embrace the physical and mental health benefits offered by plants.
“The main reason why I really enjoy plants is because they encourage me to slow down,” Coates said. Her mornings, she explained, used to begin by immediately picking up her phone and checking emails, often even before getting out of bed. “Now I can do something else that’s not work or staring at a screen, and appreciate the little details,” she said. “It’s a running joke in the plant community that plants are a cheaper form of therapy.”
Ewing agreed. “Keeping plants around the home or office allows people to bring nature to their immediate surroundings when it can be hard to find time to get away from the day-to-day hustle and escape to the outdoors,” she said.
A Like-Minded Community
Perhaps the most compelling benefit of plant collecting is the incredibly active and supportive community that exists behind the scenes.
Naomi Painter, a 37-year-old mental health counselor in Portland, Oregon, began collecting plants after losing her job in early 2017. “Suddenly, no one needed me at all, which was kind of awful,” she said. So one day, she popped into a local florist shop to buy herself consolation flowers. That’s when she saw that they had a living stone plant ― an unusual type of succulent that resembles rocks or pebbles ― and decided to bring it home.
As she began to accumulate a few more plants, Painter turned to Instagram to connect with other plant collectors, find information about care and post a few of her own pictures. Soon, her personal feed was filled with all things plants.
“It was like cracking a code or learning a new language,” she said. Eventually, Painter decided to create a separate Instagram account under the handle @NaomiPlanter. She posted one plant photo per day, along with information such as where she got it and how she cared for it. After one year of diligent posting, she amassed more than 20,000 followers (recently, her followers topped 30,000).
“I didn’t know that I had anything to offer,” Painter said. “I’m not a botanist. I don’t have a greenhouse. I’m just a regular person that has some plants.” It turns out, there are a whole lot of regular people with plants who want to connect with each other. In fact, Painter says she gets 30-50 Instagram comments and messages each day and replies to every one of them.
“You get to know people,” she said. “I know who’s leaving her husband, whose best friend just died, who’s getting married ... you get to know all these people all over the world and then you’re all friends.”
In addition to social media connections, getting involved in the plant community also provides countless opportunities to meet up in person. Besides plant swaps, enthusiasts of particular varieties can attend shows throughout the year. This coming weekend, thousands of plant lovers will descend on Miami for the International Aroid Society Show and Sale, which the community has dubbed the “Coachella for plants.”
That’s not to say there can’t be a dark side to plant collecting. Some plant parents get wrapped up in hunting down super-rare species, adding too many to their collections and spending more money than they can realistically afford. Like any type of collecting, it’s possible to compromise your quality of life and go overboard.
“There always seems to be an ‘it’ plant,” Berkowitz said. Lately, for example, it’s been the variegated monstera, a coveted variety of the monstera deliciosa that has stunning marbled leaves. “Over the last six months, I have watched variegated monsteras going from being sold for about $200, to $300, to $500. Now I’m seeing these plans being sold for $750 or $1,000.”
Painter pointed out that collecting anything can become an obsession if you aren’t careful. And considering the visual nature of social media, especially Instagram, it’s easy to get wrapped up in what other people have. But you don’t necessarily know the other side of their lives when the camera is down.
“Just consider your life and your environment when you’re collecting plants,” she said. “And if you see other people’s plants that you really like, you can just enjoy them on Instagram.”
Ultimately, the millennial obsession with houseplants is a healthy one. Not only does it encourage nurturing, patience and self-care, but it fosters community in a world where people can feel otherwise isolated.
“Even if I got rid of all my plants tomorrow, I would still have all these really cool friends that I’ve made, that I would never have met in any other way,” Painter said. “I’m really surprised every day by how supportive everyone is of each other … I think if there’s a positive corner of Instagram, I found it.”