The houseplant hype

Features - Cover Story

As new-era houseplant hobbyists green up their homes, garden centers and greenhouses gear up to meet the welcomed demand.

March 1, 2021

Eye-catching color combinations make for fun displays at Sunnyside Nursery.
At Costa Farms, the Monstera adansonii attracts the more engaged and collector-like consumers.

The ‘70s are back and they brought the houseplant trend with them. Indoor plants are no longer reserved for grandma’s sunroom, but rooms in every part of the house. Or, for some, all over an apartment. Because of this, the green industry has seen an influx in houseplant hunters old and young. “It’s kind of like the sneaker people — they’re just waiting for next year’s line to come out,” Justin Hancock says.

As head of Costa Farms’ brand and consumer marketing, Hancock is responsible for the company’s creative efforts — plant tag designs, digital marketing, social media, website management, consumer analyzation and so forth. In today’s digital age, it is safe to say he is on the frontline of knowing who wants what and why.

Holli Schippers, an industry veteran of 25-plus years is too. Initially starting in perennials, trees and shrubs, Schippers now serves as the houseplant and seasonal manager at Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, Washington. There, she continues the nursery’s 73-year legacy, where it has been “crazy and insanely busy in everything this past year.”

Fun houseplants, as shown, are big sellers for both entry-level and established plant parents.
Sunnyside Nursery provides houseplants of all kinds, ranging in care needs, light levels and more.
Commonly known as low-maintenance plants, succulents are often sought-after by new plant parents.
Photos courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery and Costa Farms

Health-backed houseplants

Compared to previous years, the houseplant trend has interested new clientele, but the plants themselves are no longer for looks and home décor. Now, they are part of a greater focus on lifestyle, too. In fact, Schippers says about two-thirds of customers who visit Sunnyside seek out air purifying plants.

“I think they’ve come back because of people wanting to be healthier,” Schippers says. “What I get is, ‘What can I use for air purifying plants?’ That is constant, constant, constant. People want to clean the air in their house, especially because of COVID.”

Hancock agrees. Although he believes the houseplant obsession would have resurfaced in general, “millennials in particular are really interested in their wellness and that audience has created more momentum,” he says.

Easy care plants, like Sansevieria, are a common attraction for entry-level plant enthusiasts at Costa Farms.
Photo credit: Costa Farms

Diverse door knockers

While health-supporting plants are top-sellers, air purifying plants are not the only greenery customers seek at Sunnyside. According to Schippers, shoppers look for pet-friendly options and succulents too. The nursey and greenhouse also sees a host of customers with preferences for all sizes, colors and textures — “anything from 6, 7 feet tall to a little 2-inch pot,” Schippers says. Because of this, she orders large amounts of plants weekly to meet the demands of her diverse clientele.

“We get everything,” she says. “We get the middle aged-consumers, the millennials, the youngins that are buying their first home and want something big for the entrance, or something little for the tabletop. We get groups of women that are in their 60s and 70s all giddy saying, ‘Look what I found,’ and I’m talking cartloads of plants. The millennials come in and shop in groups, and they’re in here every week or every pay day. Then we get the young kids that come in with their parents that are around 10, 12 years old. It’s all generations.”

“I think [collectors] want to be trendy but it was the same before. Back in the 1800s, a houseplant showed that you had wealth, status. So, I think it’s still a little bit of a ‘Look what I could get type of thing.’" — Holli Schippers

Like Sunnyside, Costa Farms also has multiple consumer groups, but the most engaged consumer, Hancock says, is typically the millennial woman followed by the "core consumer — the person who’s between 45 and 50, and has always had plants.” The latter group, per Hancock’s observation, generally has no interest in trendy varieties, but in simply nurturing their passion for plants.

While Hancock sees a broad assortment of buyers, like Schippers, he has also noticed no favor towards one type or size of plant, but rather a focus on certain sought-after varieties instead. “I think with the collectors it’s more about the variety than the size — getting this new plant that they’ve had their eye on for a couple of years but never saw on sale.”

The digital drive

When asked what he thinks has inspired the return of the houseplant craze, Hancock alludes to changes in generational buying, and, of course, social media’s influence. And while he believes the houseplant craze would not be “nearly as popular if it weren’t for Instagram,” Schippers says the infatuation has always been there.

“I think [collectors] want to be trendy but it was the same before,” she says. “Back in the 1800s, a houseplant showed that you had wealth, status. So, I think it’s still a little bit of a ‘Look what I could get’ situation.”

Hancock, too, has noticed the same trend, and in his own words, he calls it a “need point” for some consumers.

“With the collectors, a need point is finding new and interesting varieties. Not only to have for their collection, but also to be able to show off on social media,” he says. “I think that’s as much of a driver as it is just having it.”

The digital drive is also accompanied by a new way of shopping, ordering and delivering. Because of this, Costa Farms established an Amazon store to reach more customers. For some, partnering with the massive online shopping platform is out of the question, but Hancock has another perspective.

“It certainly makes plants more accessible, especially for consumers in small towns where they may not have a large store that buys from us,” he says. “And then, I also suspect that it’s really utilized in dense urban areas where they have stores, but it may be a pain to go out and schlep your plant, your pot and your potting soil back to your apartment.”

Hanging houseplants are great options for those who prefer vertical greenery.
Aglaonema 'First Diamond' is part of Sunnyside's Unique and Fun Houseplant selection.
Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery

To trend or not to trend

Although Costa Farms keeps its eye on trends, Hancock says they are careful about following them all, and try to establish a leadership position instead. Because of this, they maintain value in their selections.

“Just because a variety is popular today, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we might try to chase that one,” Hancock explains. “But, we might look for the criteria that we think will lead to the same level of popularity in other varieties, especially if it’s one consumers aren’t familiar with, or if it’s not particularly well-known in the trade.”

Selecting what fads to follow also allows Costa Farms to balance its wide buyer pool. Because there are still a lot of entry-level consumers, the company continues to focus on easy care plants like Sansevieria, Zamioculcas and Ponytail Palm, for example. Hancock also references cacti and succulents, although he does not think they are necessarily as easy to care for as most consumes assume. As for other plants that are common amongst new consumers, he considers Golden Pothos and ZZ plants the “tried and true, solid sellers.”

With the more engaged consumer, however, Hancock has seen a “heavy swing” towards trendy varieties like Monstera deliciosa, Monstera adansonii and Ficus lyrata, to name a few.

While Costa Farms is selective with the trends it follows, Sunnyside seeks out its own niche by appealing to the plant parents who are looking for rare finds. Luckily for Schippers, her natural affinity for “things that are weird, unusual, hard to get and colorful,” is a perfect fit for Sunnyside’s wide array of houseplants, which is reflected in its “Unique & Fun Houseplants” section.

“I think like anything, it might slow down but I don’t think it will disappear. I think it may slow down like it did before, resurge and be popular again. But we’ve got a long wave to ride right now,” — Holli Schippers

Full of “interesting-looking plants that can be a conversation starter in your home, or something that just makes you smile when you see them” Sunnyside’s website boasts some distinctive plants in that category include the Swiss Cheese Philodendron, also known as the Monsteraadansonii. Another is the Black Goldfish Plant, also known as Columnea gloriosa, which earned its name by having flowers that resemble leaping goldfish. The String of Hearts plant, also known as Ceropegia woodii, is equally stunning with its draping, heart-shaped patterned leaves.

When Schippers runs across hot commodity plants like these, she buys them up with no hesitation.

“There are so many houseplant forums with people looking for hard-to-come-by plants that come in on a regular basis. So when I find something that’s hard to come by, I don’t even look at the price because I know it will sell,” she says. “People will spend what they want to on the more unusual, hard-to-come-by things.”

Sunnyside categorizes its houseplants by variety, care and light requirement, like the high-light favoring options shown here.
Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery

The future of indoor foliage

Compared to previous years, Hancock says Costa Farms is planting more of its trending tropical collection — “the newer, more collector-y plants.” He attributes that to the entry consumers’ rise in ranks.

“I think we’re seeing more and more consumers move up that continuum, starting at, ‘I’m an entry level consumer and I got a couple plants,’ to ‘I’m having really good success with the plants, let me get a few more.’ And then all of a sudden, ‘Alright, I need this new exclusive one.’ It’s kind of a need for some people.”

But, to know if the houseplant trend will continue or cease like it did back in the ‘70s, is “the million-dollar question,” he says.

Hancock also says that because social media is “fickle,” sometimes trends that originate there tend to fizzle out quickly. Whereas in pre-social media days, the rise and fall of fads were slower. Still, he does not see any sign of the houseplant craze stopping. Schippers agrees.

“I think, like anything, it might slow down, but I don’t think it will disappear,” Schippers says. “I think it may slow down like it did before, resurge and be popular again. But we’ve got a long wave to ride right now.”