Ten months ago, Tommy Engstrom quit his job in ad sales, packed up his apartment in Chicago, Illinois, and drove to Los Angeles.
He rented an apartment in Culver City that was so desolate, it echoed. “It was me, a suitcase of clothes and an air mattress,” Engstrom says.
He purchased a trio of cactuses and a chair at the Target department store chain to liven up the place. When he stumbled upon Rolling Greens nursery, he bought a low maintenance rubber plant, or Ficus elastica. That led to a staghorn fern he found at Grow in Venice, a trendy fiddle leaf fig from Home Depot, multiple air plants known as tillandsia, and 20 other species.
“I found myself gravitating toward plants,” says Engstrom, who is 30 and works at a marketing agency.
“Everyone made fun of me because I was sleeping on an air mattress and buying plants. But having living things to care for soothed me.”
Engstrom is not alone. While houseplants have never gone out of style as low-budget home decor, sales of flowers, seeds and potted plants have increased since 2016, according to the US Department of Commerce. The recent surge coincides with the fact that some millennials, defined by the US Census Dept as “America’s youth born between 1982 and 2000”, are delaying home ownership.
“A lot of millennials live in apartments and don’t have gardens,” says Annette Gutierrez, co-owner of the Atwater Village garden store Potted. “They don’t come in and buy US$300 (RM1,200) pots unless they are actors. They buy a lot of succulents, hanging plants and airplants.”
Gutierrez stocks about 100 tillandsia per week and says the majority are purchased by young people. She even had to change the store’s credit card policy because millennial customers seem to rarely have cash. “We used to have a transaction fee for purchases under US$10 (RM40),” she explains. “But so many customers were spending US$4 (RM16) we decided to change it.”
In Los Angeles County, where the median home price just hit US$615,000 (RM2.5mil), the cost of living has put home ownership beyond the reach of many millennials. Without the obligations of children and mortgages, millennials are finding solace in their Sansevieria and Monstera deliciosa and cultivating a sense of homeownership with plants.
From Pasadena to Long Beach, independent nurseries Folia Collective, Peacock & Co, and Sanso have opened recently and gained a foothold in the market by targeting millennials, even while many nurseries struggled to stay afloat during California’s drought that began in 2014.
If there is any barometer of millennial plant enthusiasm, however, just look to Instagram where philodendron-draped selfies populate accounts such as Boys With Plants and hashtags #plantmama and #plantdad connect #plantlovers.
Justina Blakeney, a designer and online influencer with more than 980,000 followers on her Jungalow Instagram account, thinks the fascination with plants is also a response to urban living.
“I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they have a new obsession with plants,” says Blakeney, 39. “Whenever I take a Lyft and tell them what I do, the drivers ask me for tips on their ficus.”
To Blakeney, plants are about “bringing life into your home”, she says. “People are looking to be close to nature. You can come home and be surrounded by greenery. It’s a respite to be surrounded that way.”
Food and wellness blogger Lee Tilghman, 28, who has lived in her Koreatown apartment in Los Angeles since moving there from New York three years ago, agrees.
“I live in the centre of the city, and it’s loud and hectic,” Tilghman says. “It’s nice to have a piece of outside inside. I used to struggle with anxiety and I found that having plants calms my anxiety and naturally brightens my space.”
Millennials are drawn to plants because they “don’t know what the future will bring”, she says. “We are always moving. You can bring them into your home without worrying about what comes next.”
It’s not surprising that someone – actors, comedians and self-confessed plant junkies Brooke Trantor, 28, and Erin McDonnell, 26 – turned the trend into a narrative, the comedic YouTube show Botanical Baes.
“It’s hard to be a millennial and an artist in this town,” says Trantor, who rents an apartment in Hollywood. “It feels great to come home to my plants and see their growth. That’s tangible. It reminds me that life is so much more than the day-to-day experience. In this apartment with these plants, I feel grounded. This is my sanctuary.”
McDonnell grew up in South Pasadena, California, and went to college in the eastern state of South Carolina. “Brooke and I connected over our plants,” says McDonnell, who also rents in Hollywood. “We have friends who can buy homes and have gardens. I can’t have a pet. We can’t re-landscape outside. It’s a nice creative outlet in a smaller way. We can take care of something and nurture it and watch it grow in a way that is accessible for us.”
The comedians insist they are not making fun of today’s plant parents.
“I learned at Second City (an improvisational comedy enterprise) that you don’t have the right to make fun of other people until you make fun of yourself,” adds Trantor. “I looked in the mirror and thought ‘We talk to our plants. We are ridiculous.’ And we ran with it.”
As a health insurance sales rep, Anthony Gulino, 33, often works from his Los Feliz apartment. For him, creating a healthy work environment is not about ergonomics but environment.
“There is not an empty horizontal surface that doesn’t have a plant,” Gulino says. “I have fun watching them change, cultivating them and taking care of them. I like to see new growth and watch them do unpredictable things.”
The plants are part of what makes his apartment so compelling. “I have been in the market to buy a house or upgrade,” he says. “Sunlight for my plants is on my list.”
Adds Engstrom: “It’s a fun passion. So I’m obsessed with plants? It could be a lot worse.” — Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service