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More Than Pretty Leaves

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Hilton Carter has taught millions of people how to grow where they are planted. Over the last few years, the Baltimore-native turned international houseplant influencer’s informational social media posts and three books on home decor have made keeping plants alive possible for former plant killers everywhere. Born in Baltimore and raised after age 10 in Essex, Carter is the embodiment of a hometown hero. It’s a trademark approachability that skyrocketed Carter to icon status with multiple book deals and a sold-out Target homewares line, but it’s his solid information about the care of plants, much of which he shares for free with half a million social media followers, that keeps him revered.

Yet, a movement is not a single person, and Baltimore’s houseplant community is actually as wide and diverse as our city, ranging from internationally recognized players like Carter to newcomers who just bought their first snake plant. In this group, serious collectors help one another, sharing cuttings and “chonks” (pieces of a plant that, with time and correct care, will become a full plant), and sourcing harder-to-find desirables, most frequently in specialty Facebook groups. Whether under Carter’s influence or completely independent of it, the collectors and shopkeepers that comprise this ecosystem are a passionate and growing collective finding solace, connection, and beauty in the natural worlds they build indoors.

Houseplants have been a part of middle-class American life since the Victorians first started bringing plants home as trophies of colonialism, and have enjoyed waves of increased popularity in the aftermath of national tragedies and social strife, ranging from world wars to the Trump presidency. We can loosely tie historical booms in growing things at home with moments of nesting and nurture in the culture—times when people retreated in response to traumatic events.

Already on the uptick after the 2016 presidential election, the collecting of plants both common and rare has climbed considerably throughout the pandemic as people seek comfort at home. Like art collectors, plant aficionados are collecting more than stuff; they’re actually collecting stories about history, race, and culture—and finding ways to connect with other enthusiasts, both in-person and online despite a shifting national landscape.

What Carter has done for widely available cultivars, environmental scientist Ryan McGehee is doing for rarer varieties in Baltimore. Rare plants carry a steeper price tag than the relatively affordable species found at grocery and big-box stores. They are typically more recent imports from the Southern Hemisphere that require more regimented care routines of food, humidity, and light, but McGehee says that plants have become an outlet for sanity for many during the pandemic.

 

Stem and Vine Owner Quincy Goldsmith and Kendrea Clark Goldsmith's hands with a Ficus benghalensis
Mia Smith's plant collection
Nijol Benjamin holding an Anthurium magnificum
The Greenhouse at Good Neighbor's Alyssa Zygmunt examines a Stromanthe Triostar
Like art collectors, plant aficionados are collecting more than stuff; they’re actually collecting stories about history, race, and culture—and finding ways to connect with other enthusiasts.
Suzy Kopf

McGehee recently joined Matthew Wittek of Walther Gardens to reimagine the greenhouses on the property, with the twin goals of making coveted plants more accessible for Baltimoreans and also educating customers that many plants we now consider part of the American landscape are indigenous to other places. “That piece is lost a lot of the time,” McGehee says. “We see these rare plants and we think that they’re beautiful, but we’re not thinking so much of where they’re coming from— Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand. All are incredibly beautiful, biodiverse, rich places that I feel are not necessarily getting the appreciation that they should.”

Quincy Goldsmith, owner of Mount Vernon’s new shop Stem and Vine, shares this sentiment, but is focused on providing an environment curated specifically for Black people to connect with plants from their ancestral homelands. Goldsmith’s intention with the shop is to give people whose lineages are linked to the same places as the plants “a chance to connect with their culture, and to provide an education to those who are not from those cultures that these plants are more than pretty leaves.”

For centuries, many houseplants have come from regions where resources have been extracted and humans exploited and enslaved. Goldsmith was inspired by origin stories of the Fiddle Leaf Fig, which, he says, “might be more popular than the country it is from” (Cameroon) and the Parlor Palm, which was first taken from the subtropics by Victorians to populate their dark parlors, among many other varieties he sells.

That most houseplants began as imports to this country is essential to remember, but what about indigenous plants? The Herring Run Nursery, operated by the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore, sells plants that are native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Over the last five years, assistant nursery manager Mary Lewis has noticed an increased interest in local plants as public consciousness about the threatened bee population grew, inspiring people to put in pollinator gardens.

Greenery can signal a sense of home, appealing to a desire to nurture or reminding us of positive childhood memories. Ike Luu is a Parkville-based collector who, with his partner Caitlyn Kibler, started buying about four years ago, but has now entered what he calls “the deep end” two years ago; Luu and Kibler purchased a home during the pandemic specifically with a room that has ideal natural light for their plants. “Growing up Vietnamese, a big part of Vietnamese food is freshness,” Luu says. “My family always had an herb garden, so I was really into outdoor gardening. I’ve always been the type of person that would say, if you can’t eat the plant, why are you paying $200 for it? But now, here I am.” He gestures to the plant wall behind him and laughs. “Obviously, times have changed.”

 

Rob Ferrell
Mia Smith

Stem and Vine customer and Goldsmith’s friend Carol Bonner is a Canton-based collector with over 200 specimens. She says she inherited her passion from her mother, a “self-taught horticulturalist” who grows thousands of plants in and outside her Caribbean home. Growing up in the tropics where many ornamentals thrive, Bonner used to think of plant care as an endless chore. But as she grew older, she realized how much they mean to her. “I believe when you go deeper into caring for a plant, you find an unimaginable joy,” Bonner explains. “I wake up and I talk to my plants—Hey guys, how is everybody doing?—I learned that from my mom.”

Until the last few years, rare plants were collectibles that interested a relatively small percentage of buyers. But as interest has increased, prices have skyrocketed, and as a result, both legal and illegal means of procurement have ramped up. Stories about poaching now appear in the New York Times with a similar frequency to art heist stories. The same way an art collector asks for provenance prior to purchasing, serious collectors want to make sure their rarest plants were come by honestly.

In Baltimore-area Facebook groups, individual enthusiasts regularly host “purges,” listing pictures and prices for whole plants and parts for sale. In the largest groups, numbering in the thousands, people generally offer for free or under $50 common varieties, and participants negotiate clipping trades. In smaller rare plant groups, a universally accepted lexicon enables one to encounter postings that are entirely abbreviations, such as “ISO PPP” (in search of a Philodendron Pink Princess) or simply “PoO chonk Purge” (someone is selling parts of a Philodendron Prince of Orange). Prices hover closer to the $150–500 range for plants that collectors have coveted for some time.

Luu explains he will both grow and then chop up other plants to trade or sell to obtain a plant he really wants. “Every plant person has a wishlist that you always have at the back of your mind. If it’s on that list, chances are I’ll fight for it.”

 

Nijol Benjamin's collection
Carol Bonner
People are asking more educated questions about care before they bring things home. It’s more thoughtful now, as people are thinking more about longevity rather than just amassing things.
Alyssa Zygmunt

Luu, who works as a security systems designer in Washington, DC, has shocked colleagues by pulling up listings on eBay and Etsy for rare plant clippings, including those that offer just two leaves for $5,000. His colleagues have asked, “Why do people sell drugs when they can just sell plants?!” Other colleagues (the serious art collectors) understand, Luu says, “They’ll ask, ‘is it a rare plant? Does it come from a specific region that you can’t find just anywhere?’ Then, it’s worth it, if that’s what you’re collecting. Whereas regular people are just like, ‘wow, you paid $300 for a leaf?’”

To see a few of these lusted-after beauties in one place, find Mia Smith’s Instagram (@aroid_addict_). Smith has been into the hobby for about six years but hasn’t added to her collection much since the pandemic started because of the price surge. Tending to her aroids made Baltimore feel like home for Smith, who moved here from Wisconsin and connected with other enthusiasts first on Instagram and then in real life. The role of social media in the plant community can’t be overstated—Instagram is mostly for sharing care tips and showcasing beautiful pictures of growth, and Facebook is largely where people buy, sell, and trade. “I want to hate on Instagram all the time, but then I remember, oh wait, that’s how I met all my friends,” Smith laughs.

Shopkeepers also noticed a change in the way people purchased houseplants during the height of the pandemic, where plants offered an alternative when it wasn’t an option to be with friends. “The Japanese have a term called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, and it was kind of like that, where you go and surround yourself with nature,” says Alyssa Zygmunt, a co-founder of the Greenhouse at Good Neighbor. Recently, she’s noticed customers have grown increasingly confident. “People are asking more educated questions about care before they bring things home. It’s more thoughtful now, as people are thinking more about longevity rather than just amassing things.”

 

Alyssa Zygmunt's collection
Hannah Berisford of BotaniGal
Quincy Goldsmith and Kendrea Clark Goldsmith of Stem and Vine
Nijol Benjamin's collection
My relationship to plants is that they ground me to the earth and to my ancestors and to the traditions of being connected to the land.
Rob Ferrell

Hannah Berisford left a job in horticultural therapy to open her Sykesville storefront BotaniGal later in 2021. Like Zygmunt, Berisford noticed an early-pandemic frenzy where “people would buy six or seven plants at a time,” which isn’t happening as much anymore, but “more high-dollar plants are going out the door,” she says. People opt for an $80 Hoya hanging basket instead of five smaller houseplants that are less expensive.

Berisford fell in love with gardening when she was sixteen and working at a nursery. Her boss showed her a nearly dead plant that they were going to rescue with fertilizer and Berisford was shocked when the plant was much improved a week later. “I found it fascinating that you can manipulate a plant’s environment to make it happy,” she says. “Throughout my years in horticulture therapy, I’ve realized you can manipulate a person’s environment with plants to make them happy.”

Peter Bieneman, general manager of Green Fields Nursery, has seen many shifts in the plant world in his more than 30 years of nursery work, and connects the present moment with the 1970s. “I hate to call it a trend because it’s so much more meaningful to so many people than a new pants style,” Bieneman says. Like in the ‘70s, today “people are experimenting with different plants and how to display them in their homes and really enjoying the care and the collecting of them.”

Plants have also enhanced the life of collector and community organizer Rob Ferrell. “I like to do things well. I obsess over things, frankly,” Ferrell says. Caring for his home environment meant caring for himself. “My relationship to plants is that they ground me to the earth and to my ancestors and to the traditions of being connected to the land.” Ferrell, who names all of his plants after Black radical heroes, continues, “I don’t feel like I’m collecting plants anymore. I feel like they’re part of my space. They’re living things that I live with . . . But at first you’re just like, I want this one and I want that one and I want this one and I want that one. And how many can I get?”

 

Mia Smith's plant wall
Jackie Truong in her plant room / office
Peter Bieneman in his yard
Matthew Wittek and Ryan McGehee at Walther Gardens

The “gotta catch them all” effect, according to collector and software engineer Jackie Truong, is hard to avoid. For a time, Truong was trying to amass every kind of pothos, but eventually gave up because the rarer versions grew quite costly. Truong focused instead on her wishlist, scoring a ‘Thai Constellation’ Monstera deliciosa three years ago, from Bieneman’s personal collection which he posted in a Facebook group. She bought the plant sight unseen over the phone, minutes after Bieneman listed it. Bieneman was thrilled when I told him that the Monstera is doing well with Truong, but revealed he hasn’t done another sale of his collection since then. “It was a frenzy, an absolute frenzy,” he gulped. “It was a little stressful. I felt the pressure.”

A contributing factor to the increased interest in houseplants is Costa Farms, the largest global producer of ornamental plants. If you’ve purchased a plant from a big-box store, grocery store, or discount club in the last six decades, it was likely grown by Costa. The Miami-based company introduced its Trending Tropicals line in 2017 to capitalize on an uptick in the interest they noticed in the millennial market. Since then, they have been praised for making once-rare plants, like the Raven ZZ and the ‘Polka Dot’ Begonia Maculata, more affordable.

Price accessibility is a great goal, but “it takes business away from smaller people,” explains Nijol Benjamin, a sustainable horticulture major at Community College of Baltimore City who works full-time at the Greenhouse at Good Neighbor. Costa entering the market has destroyed entire revenue streams for some sellers Benjamin knows. “The Begonia maculata that Costa Farms released last year, I know people that used to sell them for a decent amount of money and they just had the rug pulled out from under them,” Benjamin says.

Competition from a giant like Costa “makes it a challenge for us to fit into this world,” Zygmunt, also of Greenhouse, agrees. “When it comes to experienced plant buyers, they’re aware and they buy for quality, but a newbie might be like, ‘Oh, I saw this at Home Depot for this much. Why are you charging twice as much?’ It’s because we are not guaranteeing that it will survive, but that it’s had the best upbringing to put you in a good position to keep it alive.”

 

Hannah Berisford of BotaniGal
Stem and Vine owner Quincy Goldsmith and Kendrea Clark Goldsmith's hands
Mia Smith's plant wall

According to records from the National Institute on Money in Politics, Costa Farms mostly donates to Republican candidates with agricultural initiatives as part of their platforms, including Greg Steube, the Florida House Republican who made headlines in January of 2021 for introducing a bill that would ban trans athletes from participating in sports. Costa Farms also came under fire during the pandemic for failing to provide proper distancing and PPE to their workers, a common issue amongst agricultural producers who often work closely in large crews.

Bieneman’s 33 years of nursery work at Green Fields and other nurseries give him a long view of Costa’s entry into the rare plant market; he calls it inevitable. He has the experience to know that the frenzy we’re in over certain rare plants will not last. Bieneman compares the excitement of when Knock Out Roses were first introduced a few years ago to how prevalent they are now. Recalling how the Dutch Tulip craze caused the first crash of the stock market in 1637, he suggests, “We’re not the first people to invent a hysteria about a plant; historically there have been certain plants that have just caught people’s attention. Just like anything new, eventually it will become readily available. There will be fields of variegated Monsteras in ten years.”

Midway through interviews for this story, I drove out of the city to a shop a few collectors had mentioned. I called ahead, and the owner declined to be interviewed, which only heightened my desire to make the trip. Stepping inside, still scheming about changing the shopkeeper’s mind, I immediately knew I wouldn’t try. Walking the aisles, I felt a strange mixture of pleasure and sadness. The plants were plentiful, healthy, and fairly priced, but I realized that some experiences should be left for discovery—it’s that wonder that is part of what makes them rare. I came as a journalist, so I felt like a trespasser.

To make myself feel better, or perhaps because I really wanted it, I bought a Golden Goddess philodendron, a rarer neon green plant with oval-shaped leaves. Buckling my new companion into the passenger’s seat, I texted a friend a picture of my impulse buy. The next week, at Lowe’s buying paint samples, I noticed that Costa Farms was selling Golden Goddesses too.

 

This story is from Issue 12: More is More, available here.

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