Mister Swiss was dropped off in the foyer of my building on a Thursday in early spring. He traveled in a huge box, at least three feet tall and weighing about 35 pounds. I carried him, still inside the box, up the four flights of stairs to my apartment. I guess you could say this was my first act of love for him.
Mister Swiss is a rather gigantic and vibrant Monstera Deliciosa, sometimes affectionately known as a Swiss cheese plant. (Get it?) I ordered him from Bloomscape, a direct-to-consumer, online-only plant retailer. After just a few days out of the box, positioned in a sunny corner of my living room, he began to stretch his big tropical leaves, sprout new ones and generally establish his domain.
Tending to Mister Swiss — watering him every week, dusting his leaves, rotating his pot so that one side doesn’t get too much sun — makes me happy. I worry about him when I travel. I talk to him. And in return, I get healthier air and a living, growing subject for my Instagram feed. Over text and in person, I trade stories with friends about their own adventures in house plant care. It seems we’re all slightly obsessed.
With the millions of Instagram posts tagged #plantsofinstagram, #urbanjungle and #plantlife, it’s obvious we’re not alone. But unlike other consumer trends, like those in fashion and beauty, the cultivation and care of houseplants has benefits that far outweigh the likes we might accumulate on social media. Plants improve the air around us and they also improve our moods, help us think more creatively and disconnect from the technology that might have motivated us to buy one in the first place.
It’s an escape from our screens, and something we can take care of outside ourselves. When it’s all self driving cars and data in our contact lenses, we’re still going to want plants.
“Plants resonate with millennials as an antidote to this insane connectivity,” says Eliza Blank, founder and CEO of 6-year-old indoor plant retailer The Sill. “Americans spend 93 percent of our time indoors. It seems somewhat counter and somewhat intuitive because it’s an escape from our screens, and something we can take care of outside ourselves. When it’s all self driving cars and data in our contact lenses, we’re still going to want plants.”
And Blank has the receipts to prove it: The Sill just closed a $5 million round of funding in August, and the company boasts more than 290,000 followers on Instagram. People like me — a millennial, living in a rental in an urban area, not ready for pets or kids (financially or otherwise) — are buying houseplants at a record pace. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the sale of seeds, flowers and potted plants have increased since 2016, and the 2017 National Garden Survey found that five of the six million Americans who took up gardening in 2016 were between the ages of 18 to 34. But why are millennials so drawn to the pastime?
The proclivity humans have towards plants is certainly not unique to the millennial generation: Houseplants are a concept that is believed to have originated in ancient Greece and Rome as early as 500 BC and in China as early as 200 CE. After all, the first imagined paradise on Earth was the Garden of Eden.
If you’re scratching your head wondering how such an ancient concept can be considered “trendy” — and why young millennials without access to outdoor space have embraced houseplants so passionately — it helps to look back a generation, to the parents of the young people driving up sales around the country. Caring for Mister Swiss (and his friends, a Calathea Freddie from The Sill and a Golden Pothos I picked up at Home Depot) takes up about ten minutes of my time each week, which feels like a nod to, but a far cry from, the hours upon hours my parents would spend tending to our yard and garden when I was growing up.
The yard of a home that they already owned when they were the same age I am now, which is amazing when you consider that, according to Neilson, two-thirds of millennials are renters, and they’re more likely to live with roommates or family members than on their own.
“I was inspired to start the Sill in part because I grew up in a very green town and our home was filled with plants and we had a beautiful garden,” Blank reflects. “But the way my mother uses time is very different from the way I use time, and the way the next generation will too. No 25-year-old that I know has six hours on a Sunday (or a backyard) to spend gardening, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an interest in plants! We’re helping to usher in this new way to garden that reflects the way millennials want to use their leisure time.”
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Jessie Artigue, a California-based entrepreneur, also says that her inspiration to start a home garden — that also includes an outdoor menagerie of lime trees, bougainvillea, dahlias and a rose bush named Barbra Streisand — comes from her mother. “My mom has always had the most beautiful gardens, so I’ve been helping her since before I can remember,” she says. “Watching my mom from such a young age and seeing the joy that [gardening] continues to bring her, it just seems to make sense as to why I’d (at least try to) follow in her footsteps.”
Beyond the nostalgia, millennials may be drawn to greenery because of the mental health benefits that come with fostering our green thumb. Blank points out that this is one social media trend that has IRL (or “in real life”) benefits. Unlike other decor purchases that also make great social content — like candles, throw pillows or art — plants are alive and require ongoing care. That sense of responsibility, the joy we feel as they grow and thrive, even just being around plants, is uniquely healthy for our physical and mental well-being in ways that may be particularly intriguing to the millennial generation.
Plants are stress-busters.
With jam-packed schedules and around-the-clock connectivity, caring for a plant forces us to slow down and be mindful, which is proven to reduce stress. A study from the American Psychological Association on Stress By Generation found that young people report higher stress levels than older generations, and on top of that also admit that they are not managing it well. The study also found that millennials and Gen X-ers were more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors because of stress. So turning to plant care, as opposed to, say, heavy drinking or gorging on unhealthy food, could have real therapeutic benefits.
Environmental psychologist Sally Augustin, Ph.D, suggests that caring for plants really is a healthy option for stress relief, and could explain why so many millennials are so drawn to the hobby. “As long as people aren’t fanatically concerned with the health of your plants, and it remains a hobby rather than an obsession, relaxation will ensue.”
We saw that our customers were calling their plants their ‘babies.’ A lot of our customers have plants before they have pets or kids. It’s easy to draw life lessons from your plants and apply them to your life.
In fact, horticultural therapy has been in practice and recommended by psychologists and therapists since the 19th century to improve mental (and physical) health. Practitioners believe that interacting with plants can improve your mood and well-being. While horticultural therapy is largely centered around working in greenhouses and outdoor gardens, the same general practices and benefits can be gleaned from indoor houseplants, too.
Taking care of something gives us a bigger purpose.
Many young people who cultivate indoor plants liken themselves to parents. “[The term] ‘Plant Parenthood’ was born out of the customers mouths,” says Blank, of the trademarked phrase you’ll find throughout The Sill’s cheerful website. “We started calling it that when we saw that our customers were calling their plants their ‘babies.’ A lot of our customers have plants before they have pets or kids. It’s easy to draw life lessons from your plants and apply them to your life.”
That’s not to say that millennials are eschewing marriage and kids all together, we’re just waiting longer. The decades of transition that put more and more women in the workplace pushed the median age of marriage from 20.8 for women and 23 for men in 1970, to 27.4 for women and 29.5 for men in 2018. Younger generations feel more pressure to have their lives figured out, so to speak, before getting married or having kids, so supplementing the need to nurture and care for someone or something with plants feels like a step in the right direction that won’t drastically change our lives, our homes or our budgets.
Dr. Augustin echoes Blank’s observation about the effects that caring for plants can have on our well-being. “It brings out and creates a habit of thinking of other living things, and what they need to survive,” she says. “People form an emotional bond with plants because plants have these beneficial psychological effects. Ultimately, we develop a desire to optimize the life of a plant and to keep it alive.”
We are creating a sanctuary at home.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, humans are wired to respond positively to plants and nature (as well as other forms of life). “Green, leafy plants are good for our mental outlook,” says Augustin. “Something about the colors and the shapes helps our brains think more creatively, cut stress levels, and get along better with others.” The hypothesis is part of a concept known as biophilia, which explores the idea that we (humans) are naturally drawn to other living systems like plants and animals, and have an innate desire to connect with and care for them.
Artigue, who often works from home, says that houseplants are essential to her work life. “My environment has always been very important to my overall mental health, but also my creativity and productivity,” she says. “Working from home (and being a visual and design-oriented person) means that my surroundings are a priority for me and plants just seem to make any corner or surface a lot more appealing.”
“It’s because [plants] affect our mood,” says Augustin. “When our mood is more positive and we’re happier, our brains start to work in a different way. We think more broadly and creatively, which makes us better at problem-solving and getting along with others.” For this reason, Augustin suggests placing green, leafy plants with curling, relaxed shapes (like pythos, ferns, and geraniums) around your home and office environments, too.
Plants foster sense of pride and accomplishment.
Artigue also notes that she gets to know each of her 15-plus house plants, and that she feels a sense of pride in tending to their specific needs, like you would for a pet or a child. She even sings to them while she waters them. “The house plants are my responsibility and my joy. Caring for them brings me a lot of happiness because there is a sense of accomplishment in keeping them alive. I like learning about each of their needs and preferences and watching them thrive when I do the right thing is weirdly very rewarding!”
According to Augustin, those rewarding feelings are great for our sense of self. “Keeping a plant alive can definitely be an achievement that is consistent with a positive self-concept,” she says.
And for the sharing generation, displaying our plant “parenting” on social media is something that actually feels good. “The share-ability of plants isn’t just because they’re visual — our social channels are a reflection of ourselves,” says Blank. “It’s like a badge of honor, being a plant owner. Like, ‘I’m succeeding at something that’s not tacky!’It’s not a humble brag, it’s something to really be proud of and that other people can be genuinely supportive of, too, like, ‘Hey! You kept that plant alive!’”
A well-cultivated plant can far outlive even our beloved pets, and can propagate more plants and literally grow alongside you and your family. “I think about the plants that are in my childhood home, and most of them are actually older than I am,” Blank reflects. “Plants have a weird connection to time. There’s a plant in my parent’s home that was propagated from my grandparents’ home and that plant has given life to plants in my friends’ homes, and there’s something so magical about that. This is why I find plants so compelling.”
While I initially put my green thumb to work in response to the beautiful potted plants I saw popping up on my Instagram feed, they’ve quickly earned a place in my heart. The prospect of having Mr. Swiss and his friends long after I’ve moved out of my funny East Village apartment — and perhaps even after I’ve left New York — is both exciting and a little too big to dwell on for long. I don’t have a car, or kids, or even a cat, and I have no idea if or when I ever will. But I’ve got a large and cheerful Monstera Deliciosa that needs me, and as Jessie Artigue put it, caring for him really is my joy.