When will the houseplant craze end? It’s a question that’s been bubbling around for the past few years – and earlier this year, I read something that felt prescient.
There’s an article lurking in The New York Times archive. Published in 1979, entitled “The Boom in Blooming Plants” it outlines an uncannily familiar situation – of stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap plants dying in the corner of living rooms, of people getting bored of constantly misting them.
“And besides,” it continues, “everyone was doing it. Having masses of greenery was now a hit with the masses. So the indoor jungles disappeared, leaf by leaf”. In the end, “it was fashionable to have only one or two grand botanical plants”. Cue glance to the right, where a four-foot Ficus elastica adorns a corner – the only plant in the room in which I’m writing this.
Of course, we’re not there yet. Just yesterday I stood, mouth agape, as Victorian houseplant history tumbled out of The High Low – that most millennial of podcasts, which has 250,000 listeners every week. Three weeks ago I was even more overwhelmed to stand in the middle of The Garden Museum as thousands of people queued in the rain, for 90 minutes at a time, to attend a Houseplant Festival I curated. Students now fill their halls up with plants, rather than ashtrays. The RHS have found 80 per cent of 16-24 year olds have a houseplant in their homes – they’ve even set up an advisory group to serve those interests better. The phenomenon is real.
Which might be why it has also attracted a rather more cynical crowd. As someone who has been writing about this for a few years, I’m no stranger to a corporate greenwashing press release. The plants that can text you back! Houseplant pop-up hotels while you go on holiday! Botanically inspired members clubs! (I went, it was filled with plastic plants.)
The latest are “the UK’s first houseplant hotel suites” in a “design-led” hotel in East London. With of-the-moment promises of CBD oil and forest bathing, prices start at £208 per night.
Where to draw the line? My criticism lies not with the experts who have designed the suites (designer Oliver Heath, Grace and Thorn’s Nik Southern and commentator Michael Perry), who have brought interesting ideas to the challenge, but more with how tokenistic a lot of this feels. It’s just so evident that “houseplants” has become a buzzword bounced around in a boardroom meeting.
The best thing about the houseplant phenomenon is how it is encouraging so many young people to get into gardening who would never previously have considered it. When I started curating the Houseplant Festival, I wanted enthusiasm and education to be at its core – this was never going to primarily be about turning up to buy plants (although that did happen). We had experts explaining cures for spider mite infestations, staghorn ferns were mounted onto plaques and propagated-at-home plants were swapped with strangers.
It’s that same spirit that runs through the best parts of the movement – Jane Perrone’s On The Ledge podcast, which is near-single-handedly audibly educating a whole new generation of considerate indoor gardeners. Or Instagrammers such as Kimberley Aston, Hilton Carter (who, interestingly, is very reticent about the “more is more” notion of indoor gardening) and Laura Jenkins, who generously field questions about pests and care in their own time.
This new houseplant-obsessed generation are different to that written about by the New York Times in the Seventies. I spoke to Catherine Horwood, whose go-to houseplant chronicle Potted History is being republished next year in light of the new fascination, about how millennials differ from their parents in this respect. Turns out we’re more thoughtful as well as being better enabled: houseplants are simply cheaper these days.
“The idea of styling your home and then sharing it on social media is completely new,” Horwood says. But that wouldn't be possible without (relatively) cheap availability of houseplants. Micropropagation changed everything: now you buy your flatpack furniture at Ikea and then top up your trolley as you leave with cheap – and often impressively large – houseplants.
“The final decades of the twentieth century were all about cut flowers – tied bunches that you could drop into a vase were all the rage. Now, for the same price, you can buy a large houseplant which lasts longer and makes a bigger statement about bringing the outside indoors. These just weren’t available to the bedsit generation.”
Millennials, Horwood says, have “an increased awareness of the health benefits of plants in the home.”
It was inevitable that the corporate world would pick up on the phenomenon eventually. And it’s not all bad: gardeners need to pay bills too and a bigger platform for this stuff can amplify voices that promote considerate plant care regardless of whether growing is fashionable or not.
But I do wonder about what gets lost among all the clamouring of it all. The majority of serious houseplant gardeners I follow – and those aren’t always the people who have hundreds of succulents at home – couldn’t give two hoots about which corporate entity is pushing greenwashing this week. Instead, we’re more at risk of killing a trend that emerged out of something far more meaningful.
And as for what happened to the last indoor jungle obsession? It lasted roughly a decade, the New York Times claimed, from the late Sixties until “it peaked in late ‘76 or early 77”. Orchids flowered in its wake. Consider yourselves warned.