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Steph Matuktu and a stalker. Photo: Supplied
Steph Matuktu and a stalker. Photo: Supplied

MoneyJanuary 10, 2022

Inside the seedy, succulent world of online houseplant obsessives

Steph Matuktu and a stalker. Photo: Supplied
Steph Matuktu and a stalker. Photo: Supplied

Summer read: Houseplants have become celebrities, commanding huge fees, bitterly fought over in digital marketplaces. Domestic foliage addict Steph Matuku dishes the dirt.

First published February 14, 2021

I am writing this surrounded by a fittonia, two monsteras, three dracaenas and a golden pothos. If you know what I’m talking about, congratulations, you are my people. If you don’t, where on earth have you been?

Covid-19 spawned a lot of new and exciting trends – especially in lands that aren’t Aotearoa, places where half-hearted lockdowns have been longer and more frequent, and people were stuck at home with nothing to do other than make TikTok videos and plan insurrections. Mental health issues such as depression and agoraphobia have skyrocketed, heralding a massive, massive surge of interest in houseplants. They’re pretty, they’re responsive, they improve air quality, and they’ll provide a little taste of nature without one ever having to brave the germ-ridden, angst-laden atmosphere of The Great Outdoors.

No longer are they to be shoved on top of the fridge and forgotten until their leaves are as dusty and withered as Judith Collins’ opinions of women’s rights on the marae. House plants have become celebrities, commanding huge fees, bitterly fought over on Trade Me, featured on the front page of Reddit and fawned over in hundreds of Facebook groups. Just look up the houseplants hashtag on Instagram. Now look up how many followers you have. Plants – lifeforms without a brain – are more popular than you’ll ever be. Sorry. 

Plant people assign genders, names and personality traits to their plants. They gather their plants and pets together to take group family photos. They debate the advantages of one potting mix over another, feverishly swapping recipes containing freshly dug imitation peat moss, shredded organic bark fibre, and coarse river sand untouched by human hands, because the brand name mixes just aren’t good enough. They flagellate themselves with grief and guilt if a leaf tip turns yellow, and buy celebratory cake if a new bud emerges. They embark on massive DIY craft projects, transforming Ikea bookshelves into stylish, indoor glass greenhouses with grow lights and heaters and misters and humidifiers, specifically for their finicky drama queens. They post pictures of cracked pots and tangled plant roots, tagging them lovingly as “#rootporn”.

Their plants are their babies – coddled and adored – especially by Americans for whom having a real baby means being fleeced and bankrupted by medical and education expenses from pre-birth until the day they die. Fears of imminent, indiscriminate death by pandemic have given them the urge to nurture a life they can to a large extent, control. And where America goes, so our influencers follow, posting multi-filtered glamour snaps of glossy monsteras and graceful palms springing from Kmart wicker baskets, and monkey-face vines dripping from 70s style macramé hanging holders, a welcoming living contrast to the corpse-like stiff white sofas and blond-wood coffee tables sporting one unopened book on racial feminism, and a matching Bridgerton teacup and saucer with a (fat-free, sugar-free, flavour-free) biccy on the side. 

Most of the social media plant groups are welcoming and fun, with followers only too happy to drop a like for a blurry, underexposed picture of a new leaf unfurling (taken with green fingers that are a-tremble with expectant-parent anticipation), or to give you advice as to why your new two hundred dollar hoya has suddenly decided to abandon all its leaves and rebrand itself as a defiant, naked stalk. They can identify a plant within seconds or misidentify for days, arguing happily over whether a wee leafling is from a Marble Queen or a Snow Queen and how to tell from the miniscule differences in variegation. 

They’ll congratulate you on an expensive purchase with starry eye emojis and “omg, I’m so happy for you” comments that seethe with gratifying undercurrents of barely hidden envy, and share sad face commiserations when the browning clump you’ve been desperately trying to save finally gives up and becomes compost. 

But some groups are bitchy. They’ll mock you with laughing face emojis if you mistake one species for another, or if you ask what the gorgeous purple flower is growing in your backyard (it was an errant potato, OK, so sue me.) They’ll taunt you for overspending on a wish-list plant because they found the same one $30 cheaper from Mitre 10 just yesterday. They’ll impatiently remind you to “search the group before you post, we’ve identified the same variety of Clambering Curly Pubus twice in the past month, c’mon guys, stop wasting everyone’s time”. Some threads disintegrate into insults, fights and banishment. There’s none so vicious as a maligned plant person. It’s quite entertaining.

Right now, variegated foliage is all the rage. Stripe, spots and splotches; leaves that are half white and half green, or resplendent in pink, purple and cream. People will pay thousands of dollars for a blotchy monstera that looks as though it’s been finger painted by a toothpaste wielding toddler. Nobody seems to care about flowers except the strident orchid-growing die-hards who refuse to face the fact that there are around 27,000 species of orchid in the world which renders them Not That Fucking Special. 

Cacti and succulents are always fashionable. They’re easy to propagate and care for, growing best when you forget all about them. Anxious people caught up in uncontrollable global events either want plants that look after themselves – or conversely – require needy dependants to fuss over, like those humidity-loving, rainforest natives that burst into flames if given so much as a speck of natural sunshine and dramatically collapse in a sobbing heap when accidentally watered from the tap instead of being gently misted at dawn with filtered water collected by nubile virgins from the Ancient Mountain Springs of Terralee. 

Vines are big too. Post a pic of a COH (that’s a chain of hearts, you noob) or an SOD (a string of dolphins, hello) dangling from your carefully curated bookshelf and you’ll get so many likes you’ll feel like a celebrity yourself.

My needy dirt baby is a golden pothos. I tried to grow a rooted cutting in my aquarium, so I could train it up the wall and create a whole 3D nature riverscape kind of vibe in my kitchen. I hadn’t realised that because it had started in soil, it wanted to stay in damn soil, and the moment it hit the water the roots promptly rotted off. So, I stuck it back in dirt where it rotted some more, until I was left with one yellowing, curled up leaf on a stalk. But to my surprise, the stalk was still firm. It felt like there was life in there somewhere. I chopped half the leaf off and placed the remains carefully back into a wine glass of water. And two days later, there was a root. The sense of achievement was tremendous.

I can’t wait to post a pic. 

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