Plants, plants, plants: The social media plant craze

This is an installment of Pandemic Purchases, a special series of personal essays about the items bought in the last year that brought the most value and joy to our lives and work while living in lockdown.

When the pandemic hit, I didn’t buy a pressure cooker, or a bicycle, or a mega-pack of toilet paper. I didn’t buy a single thing.

Instead, over the course of a year of lockdowns, I bought more like 200 things.

I’m talking about plants—small, cute, pink-and-white-and-green plants, big leafy plants, plants with patterned leaves, odd-looking plants, fuzzy plants, variegated plants, vining plants. In today’s era of social media overuse, there is no shortage of plant-y inspiration to drain your bank account.

I’d always had a thing for plants. My best memory of my long-departed Opa is of traipsing through the garden together, him picking baby carrots for me to happily munch on. In one of the few photographs I have of me as a toddler, I am gleefully holding a bright orange daisy. My oldest plant—one I bought as a neglectful university student and which has survived the darkest of apartment corners—is a long-leafed dracaena from Ikea that is thriving today, 15 years later. 

I’d acquired a couple of plants in the few years before the pandemic too: my five-year-old philodendron (heartleaf) cordatum sits on a shelf above the desk where I am writing this article, its long tendrils hanging down next to my screen.

But at the start of 2020, I made a conscious decision: I wanted to be a plant lady, living in an indoor jungle. And then the pandemic hit a month later—and my plant collection exploded. If I have to spend all of my time inside my home, I thought, I may as well make it green.

A selection of the author’s budding plant collection.
Tracey Lindeman

I’m not alone in this line of thinking. In 2020, garden centers, plant shops, and plant exporters around the world saw an incredible spike in business. Anecdotal evidence reported in the countless articles about this trend show some businesses that pivoted to online sales with delivery or curbside pickup witnessed sales figures multiply by the hundreds. Instagram is rife with plant accounts, plant giveaways, plant exporters, plant influencers—all singularly focused on showing off their greenery.

“I consider the plant business more lucrative than drugs,” says Jorge Midencé, owner of the Feathered Serpent, a Toronto-area e-commerce plant shop that ships plants across Canada. He’s even heard of plant exporters and cartels partnering to ship together globally.

Midencé recently partnered with a Toronto plant influencer to host a giveaway on Instagram for a monstera Thai constellation and an anthurium clarivernium; they received more than 12,000 entries.  

It didn’t start out this way for the Feathered Serpent. He spent 2019 doing all of his business at weekend flea and farmers’ markets and local fairs. Now he’s doing live unboxing videos on Instagram, and he has had to stop advertising his on-sale times to help cope with the crush of inquiries.

“For a whole year [in 2019], I did the rounds every weekend, but in that whole year I didn’t sell one thing online even though I had a website and was paying online fees, about $100 a month,” he says.

It wasn’t long after returning from a two-month-long vacation in Nicaragua in January 2020 that he got a notification that someone had bought something from his website. “The next day another one. I thought, ‘Holy shit, this is my lucky week.’ The next day two more. Five, 10, 20, 30, 40, 100,” says Midencé. “This is in the span of just a few weeks.”

One of those orders, surely, was mine. I had discovered Midencé’s business on social media. I was part of the machine, sucked in by pretty plants on Instagram.

There are consequences to the plant boom. Plant poaching in the jungles of Thailand, Indonesia, and Latin America is growing more rampant, leading to deforestation and loss of wild animal habitat. But the allure is incredibly strong. As Midencé notes, selling just one $200 plant to an American on the Internet can yield several months of wages.  

Having worked for years on Chanel’s pro makeup team, Midencé compares the plant craze to luxury goods: Plants—especially rare plants costing hundreds and even thousands of dollars—have never been a commodity like they are now, he says. “From my perspective, it’s absolutely wild.”

With spring here and summer shortly arriving, Midencé, who runs the business out of his southern Ontario home along with the help of his mom, and who can only ship when it’s warm enough to do so, is buckling down for another busy season. 

As for me, well, the plants have taken over. I started a local peer-to-peer plant swap and sales group last May; it now has more than 3,500 members, all of it organic audience growth. I like to tend to the plants, inspecting them for signs of distress or, hopefully, signs of growth. This was a particularly therapeutic activity as I prepared for, underwent, then recovered from a long-awaited surgery for my stage 4 endometriosis. I was an avid traveler prior to the pandemic, and these beauties did, and still do, remind me of some of my favorite places.

But it can be tedious to have such an overpowering collection. In my recent winter move, I had to bring the plants over in multiple carloads, stuffing them into large Rubbermaid totes. It takes me at least an hour to water them all—which I do with a 1.3-gallon sprayer—and I have a closet full of soils, pots, fertilizers, and other plant accessories. I have two Ikea glass cabinets I converted into greenhouses. My long-suffering partner knows better than to say anything at this point.

It can be a lot. Sometimes I wish I had a quarter of the plants I have now; I get so tired of the upkeep, these needy babies shriveling up at the slightest suggestion of neglect. Other times, I impulse-buy a new cactus, or syngonium, or pothos, the allure of the quick hit stronger than my willpower. I know I can always trade or sell them; after all, the plant craze is much bigger than me. And I know at least a few thousand people who might want to take them off my hands.

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