The houseplant industry is one industry no one can accuse millennials of killing. Art by Chris Clemente
Culture Spotlight

Beyond taking the outdoors in: Why more young adults are getting into plant parenting

It could be a specifically millennial thing. Or it could be something more. Says one plant carer: “The reality is that in the current sociopolitical and economic climate we live in, many of us are hesitant in exploring our reproductive options”
Jam Pascual | Dec 01 2019

It was in 2015 when I first saw the proliferation of succulents as a product. I was in college and booths popped up on campus selling little cacti for cheap. It was the only other kind of plant life I’d see students buy besides fruits for lunch and roses on Valentine’s Day. I thought it was a fad—these prickly living things finding a market in people who get immense pleasure in caring for something extremely low maintenance. But apparently there’s more to it than that.

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Every plant carer has a different story of how they started going down the rabbit hole of plant parenthood. Tim, a graphic designer based in Manila, remembers his mom receiving a Bauhinia coccinea, a vibrant flower with red and yellow petals, as a mother’s day gift. He discovered that the same seller had stocks of vanilla vines (“Thought that was pretty cool because, vanillas grow in vines? And apparently they are orchids too?”), and vanilla became his gateway. 

 

Patis got into it September last year, moving into her first apartment in the United States with her husband. She purchased two Zz plants and two Chinese evergreens, partly as a way to make her new dwelling feel like an actual home. 

Ianna, an undergrad illustrator, was invited by a friend to a tree walk hosted by UP Wild and Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, and was hooked ever since. 

The dying plant that the author' nurtured back to life

I personally started a few months ago when I offered to nurse a girlfriend’s dying plant back to life, after months of bingeing wellness content on YouTube for no reason other than boredom.

 

A post by influencer Summer Rayne Oakes, considered an influencer in plant parenting.

 

It seems like everybody’s caring for house plants these days. A cursory search of the hashtag #plantparenthood will yield a whole ecosystem of green living things, from blushing Freida Hemple caladiums to tall monstera deliciosas. This nation-sweeping love for potted plants even has its own influencers, with content creators like Summer Rayne Oakes making their living as professional gardeners and plant care authorities. The houseplant industry is apparently one industry no one can accuse millennials of killing. So to what do we owe this recent, seemingly millennial fascination with plants?

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I know you still care

“I think so many are into plants especially in our age group because firstly, it unleashes our parental instincts to care for and see ourselves in other living beings,” Patis tells me. “The reality is that in the current sociopolitical and economic climate we live in, many of us are hesitant in exploring our reproductive options. It’s too heavy of a commitment given what our generation already has to deal with in order to live comfortably as independent people.”

This nation-sweeping love for potted plants even has its own influencers, with content creators making their living as professional gardeners and plant care authorities

The older I get, the more I believe that there comes a point in any young adult’s life where one seriously considers caring for a living thing. Some people are brave enough to have kids by choice, and take on all the financial obligations that come with it. Others prefer the love of an animal companion. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for some to dote on a plant—a thing you can’t pet or speak to—but it is nonetheless fulfilling to practically apply one’s knowledge of a thing to be able to care for it. Plant parents also experience the one-of-a-kind joy of rearing a seed into something that can stand tall.

“Developing a plant hobby allows us to be in touch with what it’s like to be human beings on this earth,” says Patis. Photo by  Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash 

One could argue that this isn’t a generation-exclusive fascination. Many millennial plant parents were raised by parents with gardens. “My mom has a bunch of plants at home, some she uses for her catering as decor and ingredients,” Tim tells me. His dad also once run a farm. “These I only really got to take notice of when I started taking care of the plants at home.”

Some people are brave enough to have kids by choice, and take on all the financial obligations that come with it. Others prefer the love of an animal companion. 

But ours isn’t the same vegetation fascination of Boomers, which aspired for manicured lawns and trimmed hedges. This brand of plant parenthood stems (pun shamelessly intended) from the precarity of the millennial condition. As Patis puts it: “I don’t think we can ever separate what catches our attention and the factors that push us into these activities.”

Bringing kids into a wretched existence seems morally dubious, houses and condos are expensive as hell, and capitalism alienates us from our work, ourselves, and others. Plants can, among other things, make you feel less lonely. But it’s not just pots and flowers watching over you.

 

Community service

You don’t have to look very hard to find plant care communities on social media. Facebook has tons of groups for that. You’ve got groups like Philodenderon Philippines, Philippine Ornamental Plants Enthusiasts, and Co’s Digital Flora of the Philippines, where people can post progress pictures of plants, build their reputations as trusted buyers and sellers, and ask for kind advice on plant care and actually receive it.

The community doesn’t disappoint in real life either. “The plant community is filled with the kindest, interesting and most passionate people I’ve ever met,” Ianna enthuses. “I remember going to Mindanao Ave. with the original intent of buying a succulent. Me and my friend came across an orchid expert who was like ‘Why are you buying succulents?! They will die because they’re not made for this climate.’ And long story short she gave us an amazing lecture about tillandsias, as well as showed us her different prize winning plants.”

It’s always comforting and exciting to be in spaces with people who care about the same thing as you do. It seems the nurturative aspect of plant care pervades into the way these communities behave, and this is what compels its members to be so sensitive and welcoming. “There’s just a lot of positive energy from enthusiastic people going around in these communities that I try to absorb,” adds Ianna. 

Understanding the community aspect of plant care also means recognizing that there are many kinds of plant-heads. You’ve got people raising specifically ornamental plants. You’ve got aspiring urban gardeners honing their green thumb for horticulture purposes. You have people specializing in succulents. You even have terrarium enthusiasts! In every group, you have people who are acquainting themselves with nature in their own ways. It’s all different ways of satiating a need, but it’s a common need.

Plant care is how many young adults are reestablishing a meaningful relationship with nature. Photo by Kyle Ellefson on Unsplash

Nature and nurture

We are living in a time defined by great ecological ruin and metropolitan malaise. Trees are routinely toppled to make way for some new mall or condominium. The threat of climate change is capitalism’s logic of resource-extraction manifesting. Both issues are contingent from a kind of separation from nature. As such, plant care is how many young adults, it seems, are concurrently coping with these overwhelming forces and reestablishing a meaningful relationship with nature.

“The plant community is filled with the kindest, interesting and most passionate people I’ve ever met,” Ianna enthuses. 

“Developing a plant hobby allows us to be in touch with what it’s like to be human beings on this earth,” says Patis. “With climate change in mind, we begin to understand how conditions must be perfect for any living being to thrive—including us!”

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call this trend of houseplant care a kind of soft green activism. Those raising ornamental plants will still likely mention some of the practical benefits of keeping them, like getting clean air, or having a green home in a drab grey city. Amateur horticulturists might invoke self-sufficiency. If our climate emergency really does get worse than it is now and droughts take place, knowing how to grow one’s food would be a useful skill. Even if starvation isn’t on your mind, being able to grow your own ingredients can give you confidence in the kitchen. “I love to cook, I thought caring for herbs indoors would be perfect,” Patis tells me. “I immediately ordered a bunch (rosemary, lavender, thyme, piccolino basil) and placed them on the ledge of our north-facing kitchen window.”

One could also call this fascination with plants an offshoot of the wellness movement, a movement that espouses pursuing psychological health through the consumption of the right products. But buying superfoods and signing up for yoga classes isn’t the same as taking a plant home from Quezon City circle.

Caring for a thing feeds into being needed, being needed feeds into finding one’s place in a community, and being a part of something larger than you can make you cognizant not just of nature’s grandness but also your worth—and knowing your worth circles back into honing your ability to help a living thing grow. When was the last time you came across a trend that represented a holistic way to care for yourself and others?

Tim sums it up poignantly. “I think caring for any kind of plant is learning to appreciate growth and development. Be that a new shoot in your snake plant, or if your cactus grew by a centimeter, progress is progress to the plant. Progress that we helped it get to in our own little way. Plants don’t really care about how far they can go, or being enough for themselves or for anyone. When they’ve grown, they’ve grown, and we’ve been given a great honor of celebrating that growth with and for them.”