Move over avocado toast, tile floors and cats. Plants are the latest Instagram obsession, creeping into our mobile feeds for over half a decade now.
Out of the 6 million Americans who took up gardening in 2016, 5 million were 18-34 year olds, confirms the National Gardening Survey. City-dwelling millennials have been feverishly decorating their homes and workspaces with plants. But they aren’t just any kind of plants. These “jungalows” and “urban rainforests” abound with cacti, snake plants, spider plants, air plants, herbs and edible flowers. Young horticulturists are increasingly interested in potted plants that are long-lasting and easy-to-care-for.
Succulents, in particular, are thriving. A recent episode of NPR’s All Things Considered covered an ongoing succulent-smuggling scheme along the cliffs of the Northern Californian coastline. Poachers ship them overseas to China, South Korea and Japan, where housewives are as just as enamored with them as American hipster millennials. The native plant goes by many marketable names, so I can’t say I blame them. Who wouldn’t want to get their California cool on with the Dudleya farinosa, the bluff lettuce, the powdery liveforever?
This isn’t the first time a plant is trending. The international succulent heist is delightfully similar to the Dutch Republic’s tulip mania during the 17th century, and Texas’ rose rustling in the 1980s.
Big business is only beginning to catch up. Amazon has a Plants Store now that may as well be called Plantasyland for Millennials. The Paint Nite franchise has expanded to Plant Nite, a social group activity where participants create their own tabletop garden or terrarium at pubs. Skincare brand Boscia launched cactus water moisturizer this summer. Innovation studio Emerging Objects 3D printed a “planter tile” system for a garden shed to create a living wall of succulents.
Clearly easy gardening has graduated from a trend to a way of life. What makes it so popular? Why are houseplants – particularly the desert-friendly and forgiving kind – so hot right now?
Busy, always-on-the-go millennials with little time or attention for yardwork would probably make for bad houseplant owners, but succulents don’t need much to thrive. Forgot to water your micro-cactus for a week? No problem. The average succulent can withstand it all: droughts, storms, neglect, international shipping. Millennials may have killed every industry known to mankind, but they’ll find it really hard to kill succulents.
Today houseplants are more collectibles than commodities; they’re often traded like baseball or Pokémon cards. Plant enthusiasts in cities around the world regularly host “plant swaps,” where they exchange specimens, connect with other cash-strapped millennials and add an exotic plant or two to their collections. The enviable items they acquire can then be arranged throughout the house as conversation pieces.
The Instagram generation is single-handedly responsible for horticulture’s rise to cultural relevance. It helps that these ornamental plants look striking and unusual, their diverse beauty lending itself well to Instagram grids. Accounts like @succulentcity and @succulove alone boast 500,000 followers while over 800,000 photos till date have been tagged with #succulentlove, revealing just how many suckers for succulents there are out there. @plantsonpink and @boyswithplants are exactly what they sound like: the former is all about lush greenery against pink walls while the latter features males posing with plants. Hashtags like #houseplantclub, #crazyplantlady and #plantsagram are brimming with thousands of “plant shelfies” and pothos-lined staircases.
Even Twitter couldn’t escape the cult of the potted plant. Nicole He takes a picture of her fiddle-leaf fig at exactly 10:17am everyday and tweets it to @grow_slow, essentially inviting the internet to watch a plant grow. Other plant-passionate internet communities include The Horticult and nicehouseplants.tumblr.com.
Millennials have cultivated a reputation for being urban-dwelling, globe-trotting house-hoppers, which should make it harder for them to adopt a plant. But they do it anyway, perhaps to gain a sense of stability. House plants have become as much a marker of adulthood as marriage or children, but one that is well within reach. Witnessing a seedling sprout is like watching your kid graduate kindergarten. Sure, there’s a lot more pressure to keep a human being alive but the fundamentals are the same. It slows you down, keeps you grounded and teaches you patience. In the tiny, single-window apartments millennials rent and the exhausting digital lives they lead, a little self-care goes a long way.
The cacti craze aligns especially well with the current global dialogue about climate change. “The further we get into climate change and drought, the more glaring it is. Using plants that can take the heat is not only going to become more in vogue, it’ll become impossible to grow so many other things,” warns Cactus Store cofounder Carlos Morera. In a world that still struggles to be sustainable, Morera’s prediction holds water.
“Greenery” was declared the 2017 PANTONE Color of the Year, coming hot on the heels of the all-pervasive millennial pink. Industry players in home décor, horticulture and urban planning have already benefitted from the color trend but there is an even bigger opportunity for storytelling and branding the millennial gardening movement. Where are the evocative names? The community brunches? The interactive experiences and sold-out pop-up shops? As Deena Altman of Altman Plants rightly put it, “you can’t just sell a succulent, you have to sell that it’s a stone or an old man or a brain.”
Steve is a designer and millennial-gardener-in-residence here at ThoughtMatter. Growing up, he always had plants in the house, grew his own veggies in college and now maintains a rooftop garden in his Brooklyn apartment. Besides fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers, he cares for over 20 houseplants including Birds of Paradise, aloe vera, jade plant, Calathea Freddie, Rattlesnake Calathea, Bird’s-nest fern, ZZ plant, rubber tree, Trumpet Flower Cactus, regular cacti, and several types of Philodendrons.
He likes being surrounded by all kinds of foliage, but thinks air plants are pointless – “they just kinda hang out wherever collecting dust.” Aesthetically he digs online plant shop Rooted, coffee shop Homecoming in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and home goods store Coming Soon in New York’s Lower East Side.
Steve feels the same way about gardens as John Waters does about books: “a house isn’t a house without lamps or plants.”