In October last year, an American entrepreneur named Eliza Blank raised $5m in venture funding for the Sill, a New York brand described on its website as “A modern plant destination for the modern plant lover.” Blank established the Sill in 2012, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. “We want to make it fun and easy to own a plant!” she wrote then. It had not been fun and easy for Blank up to that point. Every time she moved from one city apartment to another, she would “try to integrate plants into my home,” she says, but, “I would just kill every single one of them.” She noticed friends facing similar struggles: they neither knew of convenient places to buy plants nor, crucially, how to look after them. Monsteras slowly dwindled; peace lilies faded to stem; fronds slumped to an unhappy limp… You couldn’t call it a bloodbath, really, but there was slaughter.
“Plants are assuredly good!” Blank says. But where to buy them in the city and how to become a dutiful plant parent? “I asked: ‘Why isn’t there a consumer brand that can elevate this to commodity status?’” She became frustrated at first, then excited, the way entrepreneurs do, I suppose, when landing on a new growth opportunity. She would sell plants online! Bird’s nest ferns. Cheese plants. Moss balls… then offer consumers helpful information about how to not kill them.
Blank’s Kickstarter campaign raised $12,632, hardly big money, but enough as a seedling. She was banking on houseplants becoming rising stars of commerce – snake plants as retail phenoms. The market was ripe, she thought, or at least ripening, because she had noticed houseplants appearing more frequently online. And she was right. In the years since the Sill launched, business has grown month by month, in tandem with the increased standing of the houseplant as an arbiter of millennial taste. The American gardening industry alone is now worth $48bn, according to the National Gardening Association. That is big business and it is getting bigger. Younger fingers in particular are becoming greener. Last year Blank sold more than 100,000 plants, more than 270 a day, predominantly to millennials, pulling in around $5m in revenue, she says – profits succulent enough to keep investors chirpy.
To meet consumer demand, the brand recently opened three bricks-and-mortar stores, two in New York and one in Los Angeles. It is no great leap to assume that the yucca you just “liked” on Instagram, positioned carefully in the corner of a Brooklyn loft, or a Manhattan brownstone, or even some condo in Middle America – the Sill does not discriminate by postal code – comes from Blank’s stock.
Plants were not one of Blank’s childhood passions. Before launching the Sill, she worked in marketing, and she thinks like a retail strategist: how can we best reach consumers and ensure they’re happy? How can we convince our customer base of the must-have status of the kentia palm?
The same can be said of Freddie Blackett, also a former marketeer, also once not so green-fingered. In 2015 Blackett launched Patch, an online platform that sells houseplants to homes in London. By his own admission, he had few horticultural credentials before setting Patch up, but he too sensed an opportunity: how the millennial interest in technology, wellness, the climate and interior design might converge to transform the houseplant into a valuable commodity. Last year, Blackett sold 120,000 plants, more than 320 a day, and created a video series that helps customers care for their recent purchases. In my experience, the videos have gone viral in a kind of traditional sense. They pop up in my Instagram feed like troublesome weeds.
In the millennial mode, the Patch website is easy to use but idiosyncratic enough to be inviting and the brand’s packaging is elegant and simple. The same is true of the Sill. Sometimes the delivery is as much a draw as the product itself. In an unboxing video posted online, one YouTuber described a package as “kinda big” but “really cool”. “We’re in a new era of e-commerce,” the YouTuber says, with excitement, “where everyone is questioning what can and can’t we ship through the mail. The Sill is proving that you can ship a beautiful houseplant to you safe and sound!” A message on the delivery reads: “Plants Make People Happy.”
Both the Sill and Patch focus a large part of their marketing on a curious fiction: that plants are somehow active care-givers, able to alleviate all sorts of modern ills: anxiety, loneliness, indoor air pollution, the problem of great social-media content. An article posted on the Sill’s website titled, “Why You Need Plants in Your Life” includes a list of benefits that the brand says are backed by scientific studies. In an age of mental fatigue, houseplants “boost mood, productivity, concentration and creativity”. In an era of climate disaster, they “clean indoor air by absorbing toxins”. As work continues to define us, they “reduce stress”, and can prevent “sore throats and colds”. Plants “are therapeutic,” one line reads, “and cheaper than a therapist”.
This language is savvy enough to acknowledge the fact that millennials, craving comfort, have been widely reported to be relying on houseplants to fill a vacuum. We are struggling to connect with each other. We are struggling to connect with our planet, which is not-so-gradually falling to pieces. We are invited to think: might a houseplant help?
Blackett, in a clever early move, decided to baptise Patch products with human names – Chaz, the Swiss cheese plant (from £14); Fidel, the fiddle-leaf fig (from £12) – so as to rely less on Latin terms, which he worried might become a stumbling block for consumers, but also, you’d have thought, to suggest a more personal connection between houseplant and owner. Somehow, not long ago, the phrase “plant parenthood”, often prefixed with a hashtag, entered the lexicon as a legitimate term. It is no longer unusual to nourish and attend to a parlour palm as if it were offspring. “My fussy calatheas are starting to get brown tips because they lack humidity,” one Twitter user wrote recently. “I mean, seriously girls? It’s been hella humid!”
Can a houseplant fill so big a void? The answer, really, is hardly. A peace lily will never replace a partner, nor a child, nor even a pet (though sometimes you wonder). As far as I’m aware, no proud plant parent has launched an Instagram account dedicated to his cute monstera, in the way pet lovers frequently do for their animal dependents. And it’s doubtful whether a houseplant can affect the air to the degree necessary to create human benefit, though the marketeers will try to sell you on it.
Both Patch and the Sill include links to lists of “air-purifying plants” – “Grow your own fresh air” – though neither seems to agree on which plants are most purifying. “In theory, the claims are true,” Curtis Gubb, a PhD student in environmental health at the University of Birmingham, who is investigating how effective housplants are at removing harmful indoor pollutants, told me. Plants have been found to remove all kinds of pollutants, he said, “but just because a plant removes something doesn’t mean it’s affecting the room. You’d need 100 plants in a small room,” to have a significant effect. He added that, really, houseplants are “very unlikely to clean the air.” The science, he says, is well behind the claims.
Most of us can agree that plants are good, fundamental to our existence somehow, though often the benefits are subjective. In a recently published essay, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks praised the “healing power of gardens”. “As a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible,” he wrote. “In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” A line on the Sill reads: “Even brief exposure to nature has been shown to make us more altruistic and co-operative,” and later, presumably to hammer home the point: “It’s true when we say plants make people happy.”
A few months ago, I ordered a peace lily from Patch. It arrived wrapped in plastic and planted in a distressed ceramic pot I’d bought as an add-on. I placed it immediately in my bathroom, because I’d read somewhere, rightly or wrongly, that it would thrive in all that after-shower humidity. When a couple of weeks later I went on holiday with my family, strict care instructions were given to my neighbour. To my surprise, the plant was the first thing I checked when we arrived home. Was it still alive? Had it missed me? Yes, it was thriving – my neighbour had done an excellent job of not killing it. And, no, of course it hadn’t missed me. I am not too proud to admit I felt a little disgruntled. I might need the plant, I thought, but the plant does not need me.
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