The one thing millennials haven’t killed is houseplants

Record demand for Instagram-ready flora has sent ‘plant parents’ scouring the web for fiddle-leaf figs

By MATTHEW BOYLE / Pic By BLOOMBERG

Aisha Richardson, a 34-year-old designer living in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood, started buying plants a few years ago to relieve job stress. Before she knew it, Richardson was hooked. She now has about 30 plants — minus one that her cat ate — and follows dozens of plant-focused Instagram feeds. How much does she spend? “I don’t want to think about it,” she says.

Richardson now has about 30 plants — minus 1 that her cat ate — and follows dozens of plant-focused Instagram feeds (Pic: Bloomberg)

American millennials have been accused of dooming all sorts of things: Beer, golf, cereal. But the cohort is credited with reviving the once-moribund market for houseplants. In the past three years, US sales have surged almost 50% to US$1.7 billion (RM6.99 billion), according to the National Gardening Association. With many millennials delaying parenthood, plants have become the new pets, fulfilling a desire to connect to nature and the blossoming “wellness” movement. For a group that embraces experiences and travel, moreover, plants give Gen Yers something to care for that won’t die — or soil the rug — when they’re not around.

Most plants are still purchased at garden centres or big-box retailers like Home Depot and Walmart, which mainly carry inexpensive, hardy varieties tailored to novice buyers. But a host of upstarts are targeting millennials with strategies straight from the playbooks of Warby Parker and Glossier. The Sill, for example, sells most of its plants online and offers care advice, free returns and the newbie-friendly slogan: “Can’t Kill It. Just Try.” Small brick-and-mortar plant shops with names like Tend, Tula and Soft Opening are also proliferating in Brooklyn and other hip precincts.

“We are talking about an antiquated industry that hasn’t changed and a consumer that has,” says Eliza Blank, The Sill’s 33-year-old founder. “Millennials don’t want to go to Walmart to buy their plants.”

Cultivating indoor plants dates back to the ancient Chinese and the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The development of home heating systems in the 1800s made growing indoors much easier, and the Kentia palm, a favourite of Queen Victoria’s, became the must-have plant to own.

 

With many millennials delaying parenthood, plants have become the new pets (Pic: Bloomberg)

The houseplant business boomed in the 1970s, when hippies snapped up spider plants and crafted macrame hangers for them. Then, sales wilted as a minimalist, IKEA-inspired ethos took hold. Today, in the Age of Instagram, the Swiss-cheese-leafed monstera deliciosa and trendy fiddle-leaf fig have become such objects of affection among millennials, they’re half-jokingly considered children and given names.

“I know what people who buy plants feel like,” says Darryl Cheng, whose House Plant Journal on Instagram has gained a following (and a book deal) by reassuring skittish owners that not every plant will look perfect and to accept whatever surprises Mother Nature throws their way. A Toronto native whose time-lapse video of his snake plant growing over 80 days has garnered more than two million views, Cheng has answered thousands of questions on plant care. Another popular hashtag, #plantsofinstagram, boasts as many posts — 2.7 million — as one for the New York Yankees.

Social media has fuelled the current craze, sending buyers to e-commerce sites like Etsy Inc, better known for handcrafted items, and EBay Inc. Even Amazon.com Inc jumped in last year with a dedicated site for plants. Instagram could be next, as it recently added a shopping feature to its app. Searches on Etsy for “live plants” increased 82% year-over-year.

The supply chain for live plants hasn’t changed much in the last half-century, and the industry is ripe for disruption. Growers, mostly based in Florida with operations throughout Latin America, work with a vast network of wholesalers, brokers and retailers. They have no direct contact with consumers (some don’t even own a cell phone). As a result, it’s hard for them to detect new trends, and when word does trickle down about a hot new plant, it can take several years before it’s readily available.

Some of the most sought-after plants are difficult to grow commercially, like the variegated monstera, a mutation whose leaves are a blend of green and ghostly white. Some big growers like Costa Farms, whose plants are found everywhere from Amazon to Walmart, employ “plant hunters” who scour far-flung locales like Tanzania to find new varieties. But growers simply can’t chase every new plant fad that pops up on Instagram, breeding frustration among sellers. “It’s hard to convince a grower to do something new,” says Kay Kim, co-founder of Rooted, a plant company based in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighbourhood. “It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.”

When a trend ignites, demand can quickly outstrip supply, pushing up prices. Variegated monsteras can go for US$200 on Etsy (if you can find one); monstera deliciosa seeds, meanwhile, have more than doubled in price in the past year after only minimal increases over the past two decades, according to Florida grower Matt Metzler, who says he’s “never seen anything like this”.

McLaughlin, a former bartender from Oregon, at her Brooklyn store soft opening (Pic: Bloomberg)

That’s convinced some plant parents to go into business themselves. Kristin McLaughlin, a former bartender from Oregon, once sold various items from local artisans along with a smattering of succulents from a Brooklyn storefront, but last year she decided to open a new location focused primarily on plants, called Soft Opening. She also charges US$50 and up for on-site home or office consultations, fielding often-inane questions like “What plant will go in my bathroom?” (Answer: If there’s no window, none.)

Despite millennials’ growing ardour for plants and well-known aversion to brick-and-mortar stores, many plant merchants avoid the Internet like a spider mite infestation. Some fear getting caught out of stock, or having fragile stems damaged during the shipping process; others simply find the process too impersonal. Less than 10% of all lawn and garden sales happen online.

This has created an opening for start-ups like The Sill. Flush with US$7.5 million in venture funding, the New York-based company hopes to solve the supply problem by moving into the growing business itself eventually, much the way Warby Parker manufactures its own eyeglasses and Harry’s makes its razors. Also like those so-called digital natives, The Sill has started opening stores, with two in New York, one in Los Angeles and three more coming this year. In-store cocktail parties and “Plants 101” workshops help lure and educate new buyers, but 70% of transactions happen online. Founder Blank says sales quadrupled last year.

Joe Ferrari opened his store, Tend, in April 2018, and before every weekend, he drives out to nearby nurseries to fill his Subaru Impreza with as many plants as it will hold. “If we don’t have a fiddle-leaf fig, it’s a missed sale,” he says. To distinguish their storefronts from generic garden centres, Ferrari and others build online communities of owners, who need a steady stream of advice on the correct amount of water and light for each plant. A plant store’s Instagram feed often requires as much cultivating as the plants on the shelves.

Some companies are using technology to improve the plant-buying experience. Digimarc Corp, which makes invisible identifiers for a wide range of products that are more reliable and efficient than traditional bar codes, wants to embed its digital watermarks onto plant tags, labels and other types of packaging. Customers scan them with their phones and call up care advice, videos and additional information on the plant.

Such innovations could help modernise a supply chain that Digimarc CEO Bruce Davis deems “archaic”. Still, things are improving: The Sill is redesigning its packaging to use less material, a common complaint among environmentally minded shoppers. Etsy and Amazon have provided growers with a window on what’s popular that they never had before. A few growers are even considering opening their own digital storefronts to sell directly to consumers, some of whom have moved on from fiddle-leafs to chase trendier items like the hoya compacta, known as the Hindu rope plant for its twisted, waxy leaves.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear, says grower Maxwell Sherer: “It’s a good time to be in plants.” — Bloomberg