I killed another one. As I scrubbed my latest victim’s remains from the edges of its terra cotta pot, I reflected on how my thumb, covered in dirt and circled by gnats, was not turning out to be the green thumb I’d hoped it would be. Rattlesnake plants, peacock plants and spider plants — I managed to kill them all. I drowned some and scorched others. I discovered fungus and rot taking over over the roots of a few.
I reflected on how my thumb, covered in dirt and circled by gnats, was not turning out to be the green thumb I’d hoped it would be.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. To keep my leafy friends alive, I’d subscribed to an app that uses my phone camera to scan plants and diagnose ailments. I also watched hours of YouTube houseplant tutorials. After delving into the plant care tips I bought insect and anti-fungal spray, powder vitamins and liquid food. I invested in a special mister and watering can with a long skinny spout. I spent 20 bucks on a tiny humidifier, to try and make my tropical plants feel more at home, and bought gallons of distilled water because apparently they can be finicky about that too.
I bought hanging planters, wall-mounted plant displays, black-and-blue ceramic pots, and a tiny clay Einstein who looks adorable with leaves sprouting from his head. Sometimes I add $3 succulents to my cart at Trader Joes. I’ve also spent $100 on Etsy ordering Prayer plants, Zebra plants and my personal favorite, pink-speckled Chinese Evergreens delivered to my front door.
This houseplant hobby has become expensive, time-consuming, demoralizing, fulfilling and uniquely compulsive. And I’m not alone in my plant curiosity. Fueled by polished Instagram oases and the need to channel care and attention… somewhere amid Covid-19 lockdowns, pandemic plant parents are filling the voids in their social life — and apartments — with an influx of flora.
Oregon plant mom Melody Stizzo worked as a preschool teacher before the pandemic. She had six or seven house plants. But when schools closed last spring and she found herself stuck at home, the collection quickly grew to 50. “I’m a good plant mama. It’s purposeful figuring out the perfect care each plant needs to survive, especially in a cold and wet city like Portland,” Stizzo told me as we messaged on Facebook. “Relaxing on my jungle-like balcony is the best part of my day.” Stizzo said her house became covered in plants. Every room, every shelf, everywhere. Then she and her ex split up and they had to divide their assets — mainly, their plants.
It’s not a coincidence that pet adoptions have also soared this past year, while house plants are flying off the shelves (and through the mail) in an unprecedented fashion. California Tropicals is a family-run online business operating out of Southern California. According to company representative Gerardo Marin, plant sales were low when they first opened up shop in 2019. After the pandemic hit, sales boomed and they went from processing 10-20 orders a day to selling nearly 200 plants a day. “We get hundreds of messages daily from new plant parents asking about plant care,” Marin told me over the phone. “We always try to respond within 24 hours; we want our plants to thrive and grow and they really can under the right care.” Many of the California Tropicals employees are aunts, uncles and cousins of Marin. Their Etsy shop alone has over 67,000 sales to date. And they’ve done all of this without a physical store.
Businesses aren’t the only people cashing in. Houseplant savants are taking to social media to teach viewers how to care for plants and showing off their extensive collections in the process. Christian Esguerra, who uses the Instagram and YouTube handle @CrazyPlantGuy, has over 150 plants at home and nearing 350,000 followers on YouTube and Instagram combined. He’s just one of many plant influencers that have garnered hefty audiences on social media platforms.
Esguerra caught my eye with his plant-themed “Bachelor” parody video series, “The Plantchelor.” “My plants have kept me sane. I get up and have a purpose right away: I need to water, prune and propagate. I think it also allows people to reach a community online. In the plant community we talk about plants, share photos, support each other,” Esguerra gushed while we chatted on the phone. “The other plant influencers have become my friends. It satisfies my need for social interaction which really helps me cope with the pandemic. With the plant community, I feel like I belong.”
This dovetails with something my therapist, Rebecca Deighan, told me about the trend. It’s about a lot more than aesthetics (or money).. “I’ve seen an increase in substance abuse, couples counseling and anxiety, it’s been profound,” remarked Deighan when I asked her why plants might be appealing for people coping with the pandemic. “A lot of people don’t have friends and family with them, a lot of people are quite alone. We’re in unusual circumstances and people are having a hard time feeling grounded. Plants are grounding.”
Delving into the emotional appeal of houseplants, Deighan pointed out that plants are a metaphor for the overarching beauty of life. They come down to nothing in January, then they start to bloom. Many of them look stunning and smell inviting, and yet they may be covered in thorns or spines. You can read into that whatever you want — but there’s a lot to unpack if you’re so inclined. The pandemic has made many of us suddenly more aware of our vulnerabilities. We want beauty in our lives, but we’re also looking for stability and protection. You don’t get the beauty without weeding out things that aren’t useful; pruning back the old and making space for the new.
Pallavi Yetur, a practicing psychotherapist who recently moved from Jersey City to Los Angeles agrees. Candles and picture frames are out — all her friends are gifting her houseplants. “For me, I’m in my 30s and I can see how spending money on plants rather than clothes or other obsession worthy things can be fulfilling. It’s a form of nesting and it brings life into your home in an aesthetic way and an emotional way. With plants, they don’t take care of themselves, so the stakes are high.” When I hung up with Yetur, she text me a photo of another gift card she had just received in the mail from a friend, this one for PLANTA, a Los Angeles nursery.
Confined to our homes more than ever before, we’re looking for ways to take back control. And an apartment full of plants appeals both to our desire to beautify our environment, while also feeling like we’re needed. More than a candle or other decorative trends, plants give us purpose, however small. They need nurture and care or they will die — believe me. I’ve mourned the plants I’ve lost, but always feel compelled to try again, to get it right. Each time I’m a little more thoughtful, their care pulling me away from the chaos outside my window. Sure, houseplants have the simple appeal of satiating the thirst of something pretty. More than that though, they give us a personal stake in their mortality, and in facilitating their ability — like ours — to live and thrive.
Emily J. Sullivan
Emily J. Sullivan is a Los-Angeles based freelance writer covering relationships, addiction, culture and entertainment. She’s contributed to The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Los Angeles Magazine, Vice and The Hollywood Reporter. She tweets @MissEdSullivan.