Ten months ago, Tommy Engstrvm quit his job in ad sales, packed up his Chicago apartment and drove to Los Angeles.
He rented an apartment in Culver City that was so desolate, it echoed. “It was me, a suitcase of clothes and an air mattress,” Engstrvm says.
He purchased a trio of cactuses and a chair at Target to liven up the place. When he stumbled into Rolling Greens nursery, he bought a low maintenance rubber plant, or Ficus elastica. That led to a staghorn fern he found at Grow in Venice, a trendy fiddle leaf fig from Home Depot, multiple air plants known as tillandsia and 20 other species.
“I found myself gravitating toward plants,” says Engstrvm, who is 30 and works at a marketing agency. “Everyone made fun of me because I was sleeping on an air mattress and buying plants. But having living things to care for soothed me.”
Engstrvm is not alone. While houseplants have never gone out of style as low-budget home décor, sales of flowers, seeds and potted plants have increased since 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The recent surge coincides with the fact that some millennials, defined by the U.S. Census Dept. as “America’s youth born between 1982 and 2000,” are delaying home ownership.
“A lot of millennials live in apartments and don’t have gardens,” says Annette Gutierrez, co-owner of the Atwater Village garden store Potted. “They don’t come in and buy $300 pots unless they are actors. They buy a lot of succulents, hanging plants and airplants.”
Gutierrez stocks about 100 tillandsia per week and says the majority are purchased by young people. She even had to change the store’s credit card policy because millennial customers seem to rarely have cash. “We used to have a transaction fee for purchases under $10,” she explains. “But so many customers were spending $4 we decided to change it.”
In Los Angeles County, where the median home price just hit $615,000, the cost of living has put home ownership beyond the reach of many millennials. Without the obligations of children and mortgages, millennials are finding solace in their Sansevieria and Monstera deliciosa and cultivating a sense of homeownership with plants.
From Pasadena to Long Beach, independent nurseries Folia Collective, Peacock & Co. and Sanso have opened recently and gained a foothold in the market by targeting millennials, even while many nurseries struggled to stay afloat during California’s drought in 2014.
If there is any barometer of millennial plant enthusiasm, however, just look to Instagram where philodendron-draped selfies populate accounts such as Boys With Plants and hashtags #plantmama and #plantdad connect #plantlovers.
Justina Blakeney, a designer and online influencer with more than 980,000 followers on her Jungalow Instagram account, thinks the fascination with plants is also a response to urban living.
“I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they have a new obsession with plants,” says Blakeney, 39. “Whenever I take a Lyft and tell them what I do, the drivers ask me for tips on their ficus.”
To Blakeney, plants are about “bringing life into your home,” she says. “People are looking to be close to nature. You can come home and be surrounded by greenery. It’s a respite to be surrounded that way.”