When his girlfriend at the time asked him to buy plants to spruce up the patio at their North Bethesda condo, Graham Phillips headed to Home Depot to pick up a few. For Phillips, 36, now of Aspen Hill, that first step into “plant parenthood,” as millennials say, has since branched into tens of thousands of foliage-loving Facebook friends and a side gig raising and selling tropical varieties (he co-owns Live to Die Tropicals in Baltimore). His romantic relationship didn’t last, but he now hosts tents “full of plants throughout my entire house,” he says (the tents provide humidity for the sometimes finicky flora). Like many in his generation, he’s hooked on plants.
Millennials, in fact, purchase more plants than any other generation, according to a recent study by North Carolina State University assistant professor of horticultural science Melinda Knuth and two colleagues. Plant parenthood, a term that developed before the pandemic, is still a booming concept. It’s a source of inspiration on social media and for local vendors who cater to this influential crowd and want their plant children to be happy. And 93% of millennials “believe houseplants make them happier,” according to that same study.
In recent years, plants have served multiple purposes for their owners, whether newbie or seasoned. “During the pandemic, people really needed friends,” says Agnes Traynor, 42, the owner of Indigro Plant Design, a cute, compact shop that opened in Takoma Park in February. “They knew they wanted the living things in their homes. Sitting at your desk all day, then taking time to water your plants is a nice break, and it’s meditative.”
At Indigro, Traynor pairs the plants she sells with bright pots, so many customers leave with their greenery ensconced in an attractive container to accent their personal spaces. As a savvy businesswoman who had to pivot during the pandemic from office plant care to selling plants online from her home, Traynor also does pop-up events at farmers markets and other gatherings. And she posts colorful plant shots on the store’s Instagram account to entice and inspire customers, particularly millennials and younger.
Plant parents who made that initial investment and stepped up the botanical learning ladder continue to be spurred on by social media. Gorgeous plant-accented interior design photos, plant portraits and urban jungle shots first invigorated plant sales in 2011-2012, says Erin Marino, the editorial lead at The Sill, a New York City-based plant storefront and delivery company that launched in 2011 and is slated to open a Bethesda location later this year. Previously, many apartment dwellers and homeowners couldn’t imagine large plants—particularly the popular fiddle-leaf fig or monstera—in their spaces. Social media helped them to envision “how to get this beautiful look in my own home,” Marino says, and also to easily purchase plants.
Among its in-store foot traffic and 831,000 Instagram followers, The Sill is seeing more interest in gifting plants, Marino says, possibly to share the joys of plant parenthood. She also sees a continuing interest in large plants. Customers are asking: “What can I have in my space that looks like I pulled it from the backyard?” she says.
Across the generations, plant enthusiasts are onto something. Multiple studies show that having plants nearby contributes to our overall mental wellness. “Natural environments [are] found to have a medium to large effect on increasing positive emotion and decreasing negative emotion,” according to a 2022 meta-analysis of 49 separate scientific studies. The meta-study sought to prove or disprove biologist E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis that “posits an innate biological and genetic connection between human and nature, including an emotional dimension to this connection.” Interacting with indoor houseplants may also reduce psychological and physiological stress, according to a study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology in 2015.
Recently, many urban landscape designers and homeowners have embraced the concept of biophilic design to welcome more plants and trees into their homes, offices, parks and other settings. With seven in 10 millennials owning at least one plant, according to a 2020 study by OnePoll for Article, a furniture retailer, this group has gravitated toward using plants to enhance their physical spaces and psychological health.
“The planet that we live on is pretty precarious,” says Natalie Miller, 44, a master certified life coach who cares for 150 plants in her Cape Cod-style home in Silver Spring. “It’s very clear now that the traditional way of moving through life—like, get a job, raise a family, retire, you’re done—is not really the way the world works anymore. Millennials are so creative in finding other ways of making a rich life and making, tending and caregiving in ways that are creative and different. [During the pandemic], plants helped us to nurture growth in a moment that felt so unsteady. It’s pretty healing to watch a plant grow and move through its natural cycles, to remind us that we grow in cycles as well.”
In the houseplant space, social media is a thriving builder and connector. The pandemic initially walloped Jeff Kushner’s business, Plants Alive! in Silver Spring, which primarily sold and cared for office plants and rented them for events. Through mutual friends, Kushner, a baby boomer, connected with Amari Hemmings, a millennial who’d started Appoline Co., a marketing agency in D.C.
“I had told [Jeff] a bunch of times that millennials love plants, and it’s one of the fastest growing spaces for millennials,” Hemmings, 31, says. “All my friends are very into the rare plants and taking care of their plants.” Kushner and Hemmings tested out this new business strategy of marketing to millennials by doing a few local pop-ups, and they “were very successful,” says Hemmings, who now does all the marketing, social media and event planning for Plants Alive!
The next evolution for Plants Alive! was to retrofit 12,000 square feet of a greenhouse from a plant growing and rental space to a browser-friendly retail venue, along with amping up its social media game for the millennial market. In their posts, Hemmings says, they seek to be as “helpful to our demographic as possible.” Appearing often in Instagram videos and reels, Kushner offers tips and tricks for your plants, things to look out for and other educational tidbits.
Kushner, 64, who has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, “wanted to make plants fun again,” he says, so the tone is usually light. In November 2020, Plants Alive! had about 400 Instagram followers; it now has over 12,000. Nearly 90% of them and their on-site shoppers are women ages 25 to 40, Kushner says, adding that Instagram has “been a vital part” of their growing connection with younger generations.
“People come in here—they have a thirst for knowledge,” says Kushner, who makes himself available for questions in an “Ask Jeff” feature on Instagram and also shares his cellphone number with clients. Plants Alive! hosts monthly Makers Markets on-site for 50-plus local vendors in an effort to draw more millennials and potential plant shoppers to its location. The plant craze has “just taken on a life of its own, and it’s all millennial driven,” Kushner says. “They’re so enthusiastic.”
Phillips, the plant parent from Aspen Hill, has also found this assessment to be true online in both Facebook groups and markets. “There’s probably hundreds of Facebook groups for every plant genus,” he says. Through his social media connections, he was invited to co-administer an international tropical plant sales group with nearly 38,000 members, mostly millennials, he says. The group focuses entirely on buying, selling and trading rare tropical plants, and he’s seen one then-rare plant, Monstera obliqua, sell for $20,000, due to its eye-catching perforated foliage. Anthuriums, a species often bred for bright colors, and variegated plants that sport multiple-colored leaves are particularly popular these days, Phillips says. His current favorite is the Anthurium ace of spades, which he describes as “a really cool collector’s plant.”
Initially, consumers were “buying the fiddle-leaf figs, monstera, birds-of-paradise and snake plants,” which populated most social media sites and were relatively easy to raise, Hemmings says. During the pandemic, though, “people really got confident with what they were able to take on.” Lately, some have sought rarer, pricier plants, such as the Philodendron red moon, which has pale green leaves with red streaks and is $2,000 for one in a 6-inch pot, Kushner says. Plants Alive! has started offering classes to meet this expanding demand, such as how to build an indoor greenhouse from a Milsbo Ikea glass cabinet, or understanding humidity, which is vital to “keeping a rare plant alive,” he says. The Sill has seen a similar uptick in rare plant interest, Marino says.
This millennial subset (those born between 1981 and 1996)—and a growing Generation Z contingent (born between 1997 and 2012), according to these experts—wants “the exclusive, the new, the cool, the different plants with the new leaf they’ve never seen before,” says Emily O’Gwin, 28, the retail manager at American Plant’s Bethesda location near the Beltway. Although O’Gwin, a millennial, has worked at garden centers off and on since she was 19, she now sees varieties of species she’s never encountered in any storefront.
This booming interest in unusual plants also crosses generations. Glenn Milano, 49, of Chevy Chase, traveled frequently to Africa for his government job, where he was enchanted by the indigenous plants, including the baobab tree, the largest-growing succulent in the world. The one he bought without soil at the airport in Senegal and transported home in 2019 is now a foot tall but grows very slowly and can live more than 1,000 years. It needs water only two times a year, he says. During the summer, he puts it outside with his other succulents.
Milano’s passion for indoor plants started in 2016, when he transformed most of his yard to focus on “adding and encouraging native plants” to support biodiversity. He enjoyed that interaction so much that he “wanted to bring it inside,” and now has 75 plants in his home. He often rescues curb-find plants that others have discarded, and also propagates plants from small cuttings shared by his plant-loving friends.
“I find plants to be as beautiful or more beautiful than most things you could possibly put on your wall,” Milano says. “It’s always been a rewarding effort. You get a lot of juice for your squeeze.”
While millennials and Gen Zers may look to tech and social media to solve their plant parenting issues, local experts warn against using plant apps, which often misidentify plants and share faulty advice on care. “It’s like having an app to feed your child,” Traynor says.
“The app does not have a relationship with the plant,” says Emma Hough, the houseplant manager at Good Earth Garden Market in Potomac, who often fields questions and offers repotting and watering advice. On watering, she suggests that plant parents lift up their plant once a week over the first month of care to see how light it is when it needs water. She also encourages plant owners to check on the soil and roots, touch the plant often, and not be afraid “to get their hands dirty” in order to know their plant better.
Plants Alive! offers classes to become a “certified plant parent.” It’s this kind of mutually nurturing relationship with their plant children that many across the generations seem to be looking for.
3 hot houseplants
This fragrant plant flowers prolifically and likes to dry out between waterings. It prefers bright indirect or medium light, which fits most settings and experience levels, Traynor says. There are many varieties available. Hoya carnosa is pictured.
This standout has “green, white and purple-striped leaves with cute little flowers that grow from pink buds,” Traynor says. In bright direct light, its colors are more vibrant, and it prefers drying out between waterings.
For the experienced plant parent, this watermelon-like beauty prefers bright indirect light and drying out between waterings, Traynor says.
Based in Arlington, Virginia, Amy Brecount White is the proud plant parent of a reblooming orchid, several fiddle-leaf figs, several scheflerra and many others.
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.