Plantfluencers - and the perennial appeal of the houseplant.
‘In Cacti We Trust’ is the motto of one of the many passionate plant lovers to be found on social media. In fact, according to a survey by HomeHow, the cactus is the most Instagrammable houseplant by far, with an extraordinary 23 million posts dedicated to the spiny plant. Following in second place is the photogenic Hoya, and then the Monstera, also known as the Swiss Cheese plant.
And not forgetting the also popular air-purifying plants, notably the Snake plant, the Chinese Evergreen and the Spider plant.
This overwhelmingly Millennial and Gen Z obsession has exploded in recent years. But why do these particular generations love tending plants so much? It’s a question explored in British author Alice Vincent’s recent book Rootbound: Rewilding a Life. A ‘nature memoir’, which follows real events in the life of the author during her mid 20s. “When a lot of things took different directions in my life to that I had expected, I found solace in gardening and plants,” she says.
The author says she has a “strong emotional connection” with plants. “There’s something deeply moving about seeing something germinate, flower or even go to seed,” Vincent tells BBC Culture. “There’s a real joy to be found in new growth or the return of a favourite perennial plant through the soil after a long, dark winter. I find the seasonal change of plants and the wider natural world around is something that helps to guide me in my everyday life. Gardening is also something very meditative for me.” And Rootbound struck a chord with readers of around her age, who, she says, “found resonance” with her experiences of “finding the life they were told to achieve and expect to be somehow lacking”. Vincent says she also received feedback from many readers who found her book “a solace and a calming read” during lockdown.
Both Millennials and Gen Z grew up in a landscape that was increasingly obsessed with living online, and the introduction to Rootbound recalls a clear memory of Windows 95 arriving in Vincent’s family home. “From then on we clamoured for technological advance - Gameboys, Tamagotchis, mobile phones, MSN messenger. Everything was expected to be faster, slicker, more connected than its predecessor.” This then continued into adulthood. “We took jobs that were increasingly online, and expected instant gratification from apps on our phones: dating, takeaways, cabs, handymen - everything could be gleaned swiftly.”
And the antidote to that fast and furious digital life? Tending houseplants and gardening, according to Vincent. “With gardening, nothing is instant. Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing can be tapped on a phone. It is a slow, physical and patience-testing activity – all of which I personally find hugely relaxing when the rest of my life is so rapidly paced.” And of course there’s also the ecological dimension too. “We're a generation increasingly conscious of the planet we exist upon and in, and how we need to connect and look after it. Gardening is as much part of climate consciousness as using a refillable water bottle.”
Paradoxically, although tending plants acts as an antidote to digital life, it is the online world that has helped the plant-tending Millennials and Gen Zers find each other, and to form their own global community. Vincent was self-taught, but says that she learned from more experienced growers and gardeners on Instagram. In 2015 she started her own account @noughticulture. And there is a whole world of so-called ‘plantfluencers’ like Vincent. Notable among them is Baltimore-based Hilton Carter who has written several books on the subject of houseplants. His latest, Wild Interiors, is a lavishly illustrated volume that showcases how plants can enhance the home.
Carter has been called a “plantfluencer”, “the plant daddy” and “the plant doctor”, he tells BBC Culture. Any home, he says, is “more calming and inviting” with plants in it, “particularly in a space that has a lot of hard edges, it makes it more breathable and airy having green life around”. Featured in his book are the homes of, among others, an Antwerp-based couple Sofie Vertongen and Yannick De Neef (“they do an amazing job connecting design with plant life,”) and Joel Bernstein in London (“he’s a maximalist when it comes to art and objects, but a minimalist when it comes to plants”).
In a sense, having plants is like having pets – they bring you joy, but they also need love and attention. “Plants are not a prop,” agrees Carter. “They need light and food. You have to be ready to commit to something that’s living. It’s like if you visit an animal shelter, you don’t bring home every puppy or kitten, you bring one dog not 10 dogs. If you get a ton of plants not knowing how to care for them, you end up very sad, and wasting a lot of money.” Carter points out that plants “make gestures to you, if they have zero light for instance”. And if he had to give one bit of advice for tending plants? “Follow the light, and it’ll be easier to become a plant parent.”