Doom and Bloom: The Growing Millennial Obsession with Houseplants

Young adults are turning into plant parents as a manifestation of deep mourning over the planet they are inheriting

TThe droughts were so bad that Western Australia’s vast Wheatbelt region was blowing away. This wasn’t a fluke; it was the new norm. By 2014, the area’s winter rainfall had declined 20% since the 1960s. Dry periods had grown increasingly severe — the winds, unrelenting and erosive.

Neville Ellis, a local environmental psychology researcher, set out to gauge the changing climate’s impact on regional farmers, criss-crossing withered croplands with parched terrain billowing underfoot. As expected, he found landowners experiencing total financial panic. He also encountered a far deeper sorrow. Separate from the hardship of economic losses, farmers were reporting similar patterns of what could only be described as ecological mourning: intense sadness and a lost sense of place in their ruined surroundings. A deterioration of personal identity, and a shattered illusion of safety.

Multiple subjects told Ellis that the climate upheaval in their midst felt “worse than the death of a family member.” Another said it “almost physically hurts.”

“There’s nothing [that] makes me more depressed than to see the place — dust lifting off the place. It’s really terrible,” one farmer told him, an account that ultimately appeared in a 2017 collection of case studies published in Social Science & Medicine.

Ellis, now a research fellow at The University of Western Australia’s School of Agriculture and Environment, observed the emergence of a clear coping mechanism, as well. While some farmers seemed to shut down emotionally in the face of ecological grief, others busied themselves in it — and continue to do so — by cultivating plant life on a smaller, scrappier, symbolic scale: through gardening.

“Some Australian family farmers go to great lengths to maintain a green space around their home, even when the rest of their farmland has dried up,” Ellis, who has since teamed with researchers in Canada and elsewhere to chart the manifestations of ecological grief, tells Elemental. “For these farmers, the garden provides an oasis of green in an ocean of brown, and in doing so, acts as a place of emotional refuge.”

Fast forward a few years, and that same crisis-response pattern — cultivating leafy asylum in the face of eco-annihilation — seems to have mushroomed over U.S. millennials, as well. Young adults are building their lives around plant care, and not just because baby jades look cute in a Brooklyn studio.

It’s easy to poke fun at millennials and the cohort’s well-chronicled houseplant obsession. The National Gardening Association recently reported that U.S. sales of indoor greenery have soared almost 50%, to $1.7 billion, since 2016, with adults under 40 driving much of that market growth.

Scroll through a millennial’s Instagram today, and you’re about as likely to see adoring portraits of peace lilies and fiddle leaf figs as you are to see pics of weddings or babies. A February Pew report looked at marriage data on five generations and found that today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings are far less likely to tie the knot than their parents and grandparents were at the same age. So it wasn’t exactly surprising when CDC data released in May showed that U.S. births hit a 32-year low last year.

In pop psychology circles, this demographic drift from conventional milestones has instigated snide speculation on what those ’80s and ’90s kids are even doing with their lives.

“There seems to be this idea out there, like, ‘Oh, millennials — they’re so obsessed with plants,’” says Erin Marino, the 29-year-old director of brand marketing for leading online plant retailer The Sill. “It’s like, ‘Oh, she’s thirty-something and she doesn’t have kids? She must be filling that void with plants.’”

Indoor vegetation can do plenty, research suggests, from soothing stress to sharpening focus. But Marino rejects the mocking notion that millennials are nurturing potted companions as a delusional replacement for human relationships.

Marino scoffs. “I think that’s totally not it.”

Indeed, Ellis’ research suggests that confronting reality is exactly what the most ardent millennial plant fanatics may be doing right now.

As conversations around the global climate crisis ratchet up in urgency, it’s understandable that those poised to inherit our endangered planet would be adopting some of the instinctive mourning practices first seen in front-line farm workers, he says. At this point, can you fault anyone for wanting to control and cultivate a nano-sliver of the natural world?

Even in regions where local effects of climate change aren’t yet crushing or obvious, younger adults in general may be more likely than their elders to develop such signs of mourning — because for them, climate convulsions feel personally dangerous.

In a 2018 national Gallup poll of more than 4,000 respondents over age 18, 70% of adults under 34 reported worrying “a great deal or a fair amount” about global warming, while only 56% over age 55 agreed. Most of the younger group — 51% — also felt that global warming would pose a “serious threat” within their lifetimes, whereas just 29% of the over-55 crowd said the same of themselves.

“Ecological grief can be anticipatory,” Ellis says. “People may grieve for losses in the natural world that have not yet occurred but are thought to occur in the future.”

For 25-year-old Stephanie Garces, a plant enthusiast and data analyst who lives in Queens, climate-driven despair has become a persistent workday distraction.

“Doing data entry, I’m like, ‘What does it matter? If humanity’s gonna be gone in a few years, how is this going to stop the planet from dying?’” she says of her office gig. “That’s the main thought that goes through my head. Sometimes I just have to get up from my desk and go for a walk.”

She’s explaining all this on a humid, 92-degree day in October. Weeks into fall, New York City is literally steaming.

Back at home, Garces says her indoor plant family forms a self-care heat shield of sorts. She’s the doting “mama” to a rooted clan of 27, comprising 11 cacti, three orchids, a bamboo stalk, a snake plant, six houseplants of unknown species, and five succulents (“my babies”), whose given names — Gertrude, Eldridge, Gemma, Eloise and Ellis — are handwritten on tiny toothpick placards plunged into their soil, so visitors can address the plants properly in conversation.

“I want people to know who they are, of course,” Garces says.

She’s a funny person, the first to admit that this form of anthropomorphic plant parenting is perhaps a bit much. At the same time, similar to the stricken farm families in Western Australia, Garces explains that her DIY jungle provides crucial solace as the planet’s actual forests go up in flames. “I like the idea of maintaining some green in a world that’s burning,” she says. “It makes me happy to look at something that’s not dying.”

Marino of The Sill adds that many city dwellers who fill their apartments with greenery seem to carry outsize guilt for being less-than-perfect consumers.

“We are overwhelmed with what is happening to the world outside our doors, and we’re stuck in this urban environment where there’s a ton of concrete, a ton of cars,” she says. “You’re constantly aware of the amount of pollution — and the ways you’re probably contributing to that pollution.”

Hectic city life often nudges us toward unsustainable conveniences, Marino says. Think of the takeout curry you scarf down at your desk from a greasy single-use container, or the gas-guzzling Uber you hail during a torrential downpour, or the polyethylene plastic bag that holds your bodega snacks and toilet paper because you’ve been working 60 hours a week and have zero time to stop home for a cloth tote bag.

“You’re constantly reminded of what you’re contributing and what you’re doing wrong,” Marino says. “So I think there’s some connection there about wanting to cultivate inside your space whatever kind of natural joy you can.”

Guilt emerged as a theme in Ellis’ findings, too. “The farmers I interviewed held a deep sense of responsibility and care for their farmland,” he says. “When it became degraded, they would blame themselves, even though there was very little they could do. Feelings of shame and guilt seemed to compound the psychological distress experienced as a result of the dry and variable conditions.”

San Francisco-based online plant retailer Léon & George launched in 2016 with an environmental mission geared to those precise planetary anxieties: For every potted beauty purchased through its trendy online store, the startup donates enough proceeds to plant one new tree through a partnership with the National Forest Foundation.

“I think for these young people, gardening is a defiant act of resistance. I would imagine that many perceive a world in crisis — but a crisis over which they have little say or control.”

“Millennials are our largest customer segment,” says 28-year-old company co-founder Ron Radu, whose “personal passion” for plants led him to leave a career in software development. “This is a portion of the population that grew up in a world where global warming and climate change were big parts of our everyday lives. There’s an awareness of how different choices can contribute to that and what we can do to change it.”

Older generations enjoy gardening, too, of course; the difference may be that they view the pastime as a straightforward hobby.

“I think for these young people, gardening is a defiant act of resistance,” Ellis says. “I would imagine that many perceive a world in crisis — but a crisis over which they have little say or control. Gardening, no matter the scale, affords young people a sense of control and a vehicle through which to express their nurturing for the world.”

Garces, who also volunteers as a grassroots political organizer, agrees. “I feel better about things when I see my plants survive and thrive,” she says. “It’s not a big impact; it’s something small. But it’s something.”

Freelance journalist and editor

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