The full-plant takeover; a dystopian dream fueled perennially by humanity’s twisted obsession with our own apocalyptic demise and watered every so often by Hollywood studios. There would be something poetic in a classic revenge saga where Mother Nature finally claps back. But here’s a twist to chew on: What if humans participated in the great, green takeover? Could we M. Night Shyamalan the hell out of this?
Maybe this plot is already underway. We might well be into the narrative arc. After all, monsteras already seem to be lurking around every corner. Snake plants have been sneaking inside. Succulents, too, loiter atop our cinder-block shelves, basking in our indoor light. Ficas and dracaenas, parlor palms and aloe plants, open your eyes, people! They’re all vying for our attention in the modern jungle: the Instagram feed.
That’s where hashtags like #plantshelfie, #fortheloveofplants, and #plantladyisthenewcatlady are taking users on virtual vacations to apartments furnished by folks with enviably green thumbs. And while viewing plants through a screen isn’t exactly saving the world, social media is surely playing a vital role in perpetuating what’s fast become a millennial-led phenomenon.
The National Gardening Survey reported that 18-34 year olds spent $52.3 billion dollars on lawn and garden retail sales in 2019. Millennials, for their part, spent more in the garden-industry than any other group has since 2014. The Huffington Post, New York Magazine, the New York Times, Bloomberg, Business Insider–to name a few–have all chimed in on the booming-houseplant and sustainable gardening business, which has since stolen the Instagram spotlight (sorry, cats).
It’s seriously engrossing content. For example, while researching this article, I clicked on an ad, perfectly curated, that took me down the rabbit hole into delicately simple ceramic planters, overpriced just enough to make me feel special. I was transfixed, and I nearly parted with $150 before I came to.
As the hashtags, the grid-content, the websites selling ceramic pots took hold, trend watchers and journalists pinned it all on millennials, often in mocking terms, insisting the generational affection for greenery must somehow be linked to participation trophies, helicopter parents, Total Request Live, or whatever else might have rendered them less capable than previous generations.
I’m a millennial and I am not ashamed. We’re a generation that values wellness and quality of life, no matter the cost. Is that bad? We saw greed destroy the economy before we even had a chance to be a part of it. We’re witnessing greed destroy nature. So we pursue passion and sustainability. And we spend money–not always for our own best interests, but our #plantgang is definitely not hurting anybody.
Ironically, I suppose, living the #plantlyfe starts with murder. So if you, like many of the folks I talked to here in Jacksonville, are thinking, “I want happiness, but I can’t even keep a cactus alive,” you’re in good company.
“I got it, and then it died,” Plantaja Jax cofounder Aja Jackson told me of her first plant, a flowering kalanchoe. Jackson got back into houseplants roughly ten years ago, but even then, she says, “I killed stuff.’
Located on the Northside (and, of course, on Instagram @plantaja_jax) in Jackson and her partner Jerri Orr’s home, Plantaja Jax is the first Black-female- and queer-owned nursery in Duval County. After being furloughed from her corporate gig, Jackson decided to leave her old life behind and pursue her passion—something she has more control over.
“Plants are my solace, an escape,” she says. “[Plants are] our mental health medicine.”
Early in Jackson’s plant revival, Orr gave her a rubber tree to look after while she went out of town. When Orr returned, Jackson admitted that the rubber tree had no leaves, but she nursed it back to health. Now, some years later, they have a half dozen, grown and cloned, ready for sale.
Orr, known professionally as Chef Onyx, was once a juvenile corrections officer. But after an injury on the job, she, like her partner, also reassessed her priorities and ultimately decided to pursue her own passion: baking. Now she’s a certified pastry chef growing her own business: made to order baked goods (@thesweetandsavorychef) with a green thumb.
“My first plant was a pothos,” she tells me. “As a kid I was really into plants. My grandma had a whole bunch, so when I told her I wanted to plant she said, ‘Well you better get you a plant ‘cuz you can’t have any of mine.’ I got a full-grown pothos from a man right down the block. When I brought it home, after I planted it, my mom’s dog dug it up. There was dirt and pothos everywhere. My Grandma said ‘throw them in some water and they’ll be just fine.’”
That early lesson in plant propagation, a technique of making more plants from the ones you have, has served Orr well. But plants have more sage wisdom to disperse.
“The plants are teaching you how to be patient, teaching you how to be kind, teaching you how to be open,” she says. “You have to be an open minded person to understand the transitions of a plant.”
The duo doesn’t keep typical shop hours, they’re open by appointment (book through IG), or you can find their bimonthly, plant- porch pop-up in Springfield. You can also take advantage of their plant-sitting services (once traveling is a thing again), or make use of their minute-clinic if you inadvertently try to murder your little green friend.
They’re keen to relay what they’ve learned to potential nature nurturers.
“We’ve experienced the back end of what plants can do for you, so now we are able to offer that same experience to people who are just now wanting to get into plants, or who have already been into plants but struggle,” Orr says.
Even Nathan Ballentine aka Man in Overalls (@man.in.overalls) admits he’s killed more plants than 99% of the people he talks to have. He’s also worked with 99% percent more plants than anyone he’s talked to.
“You can’t expect to be the next piano protégé after playing for a day. It’s the same with plants,” he says. “You learn.”
A staple in the Springfield community, Bellentine specializes in growing, and educating people on edible gardens, something he took an interest in during the Great Recession of 2008. “I grew up on stories about my Grandma during the Great Depression who kept a garden and animals to get by. For me it’s about personal self-sufficiency and community resilience.”
Bellentine’s been featured on discussion panels around town, including a media roundtable with WJCT’s Mellissa Ross during which he gave free on-air advice to manage the delicious, albeit finicky tomato plant. His website (overalls.life) also offers a wide array of free resources for the aspiring gardener.
Bellentine’s story echoes a common refrain among plant people–a strong sense of community and an eagerness to share the benefits of plants.
“This might be too hippie, but sometimes there’s bad energy, and plants? They take it away,” says Yhang Quintero, owner of Wildcrafters, a Kava Bar in Riverside that looks very much like an indoor jungle and also sells plants. He describes Wildcrafters as a place for people to come and connect with nature and decompress. As much as he tries to uplift the energy, he says the plants inside his business also take it in. He recalls a day after getting assertive with an unruly customer, finding a plant above his bar looking wilted and tired. “He was sad.”
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Quintero moved to Jax in 2001 from Venezuela, where his grandmother, an avid orchid collector, kept 50-plus plants in her home.
“She had so many plants and I had to water them! I hated it,” he remembers. “She was so proud of them but I was the one taking care of them.”
With his new business, Quintero’s going back to his roots. “I looked around and said, this is my house where I grew up. I realized this and almost cried.”
Quintero’s plants are mostly sourced by Foliahōm, a recently opened rare plant and homegoods store in San Marco. Foliahōm’s owner and plant curator Sonja Sorenson is no stranger to the plant scene in Jacksonville. She started her plant career slinging cacti and other succulents under the name Pedal and Stone, a staple at the Riverside Arts Market.
“I always wanted my own business and had lots of ideas. I loved plants but wasn’t necessarily good at taking care of them,” Sorensen says. “My husband said, ‘Do not bring any more plants home, you’re just going to kill them.’”
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She formed Petal and Stone as an easy way to start trying something with low risk. Now her shop is filled with rare varieties of durable greenery she handpicks from nurseries and greenhouses all around the state of Florida. Even though they’re rare, she picks plants that even novices would be able to handle.
“The plants are just a means for me to get to you.”
She spends lots of time looking at pictures of clients’ spaces, helping them bring their burgeoning plantscapes to fruition. “I love when people leave here with that huge smile on their face. You watch them change and that’s why I do what I do.”
Sorensen says her business has been growing steadily. She’s not sure if it’s the latest instagram trend or just a human desire to be in nature, but admits she’s now able to joke with her husband, “Hey honey, you want me to take you to dinner with my plant money?”
This feature originally appeared under the headline “#Plantparenthood” in Void Magazine’s winter 2020 issue.