The studio was filled with the rich odor of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn. […] The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
It’s not too difficult to understand why millennials have led the charge to a 500% increase in the sales of houseplants. Plants provide an alternative to increasingly digital realities; they exude cleanliness; the feeling of nursing new life; ‘wellness’; an alternative to pandemic disconnect; they are an antidote to most young people feeling like they will never own property with a garden. They bring nature inside and give it somewhere warm.
Also, they do look really nice.
The more I look at my monstera deliciosa, better known as a Swiss Cheese Plant, the more pride I feel. She wasn’t very big when I got her. She was merely a single stem with a couple hands in the air. For some reason, I decided to name her Norma, after the 60’s folk singer, Norma Tanega who, coincidentally, passed away 2 months after this strange beast took shelter in my home.
Two years, one degree, three homes and two cities later, Norma is a sprawl of arms and leaves inside a 53cm pot, clawing towards the sunlight, spreading herself before the lounge so that at least one person can never see the TV. Seeing as cheese plants can grow up to 20m in height, I fear that she will reach Little Shop of Horrors levels of immensity, looming over me, pointing a shining whip of leaves and demanding fresh rainwater. For now, I am safe.
But when I look at her, why do I feel pride? And why did I choose to name and gender a plant that is more object than organism? Maybe I needed the validation that I can care for a living thing, but after doing some research, I guess, reluctantly, it’s because I own her.
Fern crazy, fern mad
This sounds a lot more intense than it is and Norma, if you’re reading this, I care. But in a world where ownership is repeatedly bankrupt, plants allow us to take control of nature. It’s a byproduct of what makes us human. This is what motivated the French botanist, Charles Plumier, to discover the monstera deliciosa in 1693, alongside thousands of other plants. We are a species of collectors, cultivators and colonisers; more than anything, we are destroyers.
“In nature nothing exists alone”, wrote the environmentalist, Rachel Carson, and the collective surge in houseplant sales reflects that. Not since the Victorian times, or the Romantic poets, has western society seen more aesthetic fascination towards natural life. In 1855, the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley coined a term, Pteridomania, meaning ‘fern crazy’ or ‘fern madness’. In Victorian England, ferns were highly collectible; a symbol of status, intelligence and even sexual desire. Ferns pervaded fashion and interior design, showing that the Tiktok generation’s plant obsession is nothing new.
The great irony of the 21st century connection with plants is that it’s arrived as we stand on the precipice of environmental catastrophe. In the words of Aristotle, “Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”. Is plant ownership a symbolic relationship to the natural world or is it damaging the planet?
I have no idea, so I’m writing this article to find out.
So, first of all, houseplants do in-fact lower CO2 levels at home, but you’d need a lot of it to properly clean your air. It’s the transportation of plants, known as ‘plant miles’, which leaves the largest ecological footprint – with Indonesia providing a large amount of the UK’s plant ownership.
Saying that, with a lot of the UK being closer to Amsterdam, a big plant exporter, plants shipped from Holland can have milder consequences for any UK-based plant buyers. It’s not difficult to cut this down. You’ve just got to try and find out where your plants have come from before you buy them.
Another negative facet are the pots themselves. As Norma swells in size, I find myself wondering what to do with the residual pots. I’ve been lucky enough to reuse mine, but a lot of people end up chucking theirs out and leaving them to end up in landfill. There are approximately 500 million pots circulating in the UK each year. That’s a lot of plastic.
These pots can be difficult to recycle, with only 10% of local authorities accepting them. Because of this problem, more people are turning towards biodegradable pots, or ones made out of recyclable materials.
Waitin’ Around to Die
British ethnobotanist, television presenter and garden designer, James Wong, recommends avoiding plants that are designed to die, like poinsettias, chrysanthemums and sprayed cacti. The grower philosophy is that a short lifespan will encourage repeat purchases. He also encourages cultivating plants by using seeds and cuttings; a considerably less destructive cycle.
Everything we do leaves a carbon footprint, but it seems like our green friends are safe and happy in their new homes – for now at least. The aesthetic meaning we’ve given plants is clearly experiencing a renaissance and there are small steps we can take to ensure they live peaceful, happy lives.
It’s our own future we should be worrying for.