Zanzibar gem is a tropical plant that grows across the grasslands of Eastern and Southeastern Africa. Its leaves are firm and fleshy, and so glossy they look like cabochon emeralds. Undisturbed, it can reach a height of 3 feet or more. Between mid-summer and early fall, white spadices occasionally bloom at its base. It thrives with little water and even less sunlight. The ZZ plant, as it’s more commonly known, is built to survive. So much so that it flourishes — albeit a few feet shorter — in dingy apartments, on dusty windowsills, and stuffed into terracotta planters, where droves of young professionals have been domesticating the African flora.
Over the past few years, the U.S. houseplant industry has grown like a fertilized ficus — with sales up almost 50% by estimates from the National Gardening Association — and it shows no signs of slowing down. One of the largest demographic groups driving that growth is millennials between the ages of 23 and 38. You know millennials: They live in densely populated urban areas where space is limited and the air is smoggy. They eat avocado toast for breakfast and they don’t own can openers. They’re college educated and strapped with alarming levels of student debt. They are, by the calculations of several research institutes, more likely than generations before to be depressed, single, and childless. And apparently, they’ve been filling the void with lots and lots of greenery through a lifestyle popularly known as plant parenting.
“I think different generations gravitate toward plants for different reasons,” says Meg Gallagher, the merchandise manager for English Gardens, a nursery and landscaping center with six stores across metro Detroit. She has noted a 37% increase in houseplant sales over the past two years. “Baby Boomers, like me, are proud homeowners, so we’ve always been into gardening. Same with Gen X,” Gallagher says. “For millennials, I think it’s because they want the responsibility of caring for something outside themselves.”
The Netherlands — a country about one-fourth the size of Michigan — is one of the world’s leading purveyors of all types of houseplants. In 2018 alone, it grew 1 billion of them. The Netherlands has long been the epicenter for greenhouse technology, and its gigantic greenhouses are how it produces such a gigantic number of houseplants. Fortunately for us, that Northern European horticultural savvy has made its way across the Atlantic and is now available locally by way of online plant retailer Bloomscape.
A fifth-generation descendant of greenhouse growers from Rotterdam, Grand Rapids-bred Justin Mast started Bloomscape in March 2018 to bring the gezellig he derives from plants to others. It’s a Dutch word that doesn’t have an exact translation in English but conjures images of “coziness” and “warmth” and convivial family gatherings. “Pretty much every Dutch home has some great plants in it. So, there is a really amazing plant culture there,” Mast says. “But Americans are getting into it, too. There’s been this big movement recently not just to have some plants around, but to get into the whole lifestyle that goes with integrating them into your life.”
With its greenhouses located just outside of Detroit, Bloomscape is a signpost of the viral plant parenting movement. It operates solely on the internet but ships its plants across the country. To which Gallagher says, “I’m a little baffled. A lot of people still like to touch and feel what they’re buying.” But millennials like to purchase things from the comfort of their home.
The site allows users to filter its options by size, light level, pet friendliness, air cleaning potential, and most important, difficulty of care. “They thrive on neglect, adapt to low light conditions, and they do not like to be overwatered,” reads the description for the $195 Dracaena Jade Jewel.
For those who are especially botanically challenged, the Bloomscape site includes a wealth of inherited plant-rearing advice from “Plant-Mom,” Mast’s actual mother, Joyce, whom he turns to whenever he has pressing questions. She was initially introduced as an on-demand care consultant but was quickly inundated with questions from fanatical buyers.
When asked about some of his crazier customer stories, Mast mentions a celebratory party thrown by a customer who wanted to show off all her houseplants to her friends, and a frenetic cactus hoarder with a home collection of some 40 different species. “I think ‘enthusiastic’ is a great way to put it,” he offers.
That enthusiasm has already been trickling down to an even younger generation, Gen Z. Gallagher says she’s been helping 12- and 13-year-olds who are coming into the store looking for planters to hang above their beds, plants they’ve seen on Instagram, and even indoor trees to help them turn their rooms into pseudo-Amazonian rain forests. “Then, of course, I ask them how they’re going to water everything and then they realize they don’t know,” Gallagher laughs.
Millennial Horticulture 101: The fundamentals of “unkillable” houseplant species
Jade Plant (Crassula ovate)
Those with already busy schedules but a desire for more responsibility are encouraged to opt for the jade plant. Just talk to it on occasion.
Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Newbies with a penchant for funky pillows and pizza-scented candles would be best off with this motley little green companion.
Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera deliciosa)
According to Bloomscape “plantrepreneur” Justin Mast, “they’re big and they’re lush and they grow fast.” Good for impatient plant parents.
ZZ Plants (Zamioculcas)
This layered leaf export from East Africa is not only hardy and photogenic, but removes formaldehyde from the air. It’s a budget-friendly two-in-one.