• Lizzie Bourne

Why do houseplants make me happy?

Jeanna, an American millennial in Barcelona, has a hobby that’s become more popular in lockdown – nurturing and cultivating houseplants. She sits down with Lizzie to tell you how she takes care of hers, and why.

Millennials and houseplants

There have been many articles about millennials bringing back an interest in houseplants, and speculating as to why that is.

Is it because we're having children later, we're living in apartments versus houses? Is it because we came of age in an economic downturn? This doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby because you can start small. I make babies out of the plants I already own, which is so incredibly satisfying. I had a quarantine project, which involved attempting to grow a lemon tree from seeds that I had in a lemon in the fridge and it worked!

Now I have this foot tall green tree and I think to myself, my goodness, we are growing a lemon tree from something that we got from the supermarket. Every morning I feel like I'm out there expecting it to have lemons, which is ridiculous. I know it won't for many, many years probably, but I just – I just hope to see them.

It's the ultimate recycling. It's fantastic.

Jeanna, I often kill houseplants. How do you not?!

We have all a hundred percent all gone through that. There are always failures. I killed a bunch of plants to start with. I guess I hadn't really appreciated how growing houseplants is actually is a technique and it takes work to learn how to do it.

All of the women in the family, we have all killed plants. We have killed plants that we paid money for. We've killed plants that we were given as gifts. We've killed plants that were so spectacular, before we made wrong one wrong move and there was a spectacular downfall!

Sometimes you never know what happened exactly, but I think that's part of the hobby; it's not just the care, it's the constant research about how to do it better. Every plan is unique. I find that there are too many blogs that generalize and say all plants in a species are this particular way, because I have created children of plants and the mother is happy with no light, while the child is desperate for light. It doesn't really make any sense, but it's part of the process. I have these houseplant books, I refer to them fairly frequently. There's an online community for those of us who are interested in these things.

So why are you interested in these things? Why do houseplants make you happy?

I find them to be so incredibly satisfying. I either have some middle amount of talent or a good quality sort of home environment for them – more likely that, because I have a lot of windows and it's a good temperature in this apartment. But for whatever reason, they grow quite dramatically! It makes me so happy when I wake up in the morning, come into the living room, and see that one of them has a brand new leaf. I am capable of squealing! I might go running around the house trying to find my husband; it's like seven o'clock in the morning on a Sunday and I'm shoving things in his face – “look, it’s sprouting!” and he's looking at me like, “Ah, okay…” It’s also that feeling of being successful at something. I have created life somehow – or rather, I have assisted. I have assisted in the perseverance of life.

My sister asked me once to count my house plants and I have over 50. Which is many, but my sister – well she is likewise interested in houseplants and she lives in New York in a very small Manhattan apartment, and she has something like over a hundred! She'll send me a picture of her latest acquisition or of a new leaf that she has on one of her plants. I live in Barcelona and it’s nice to hear from her in that way – it’s something we can share.

Most of my houseplants do not bloom, they’re green – but every now and then they do, and that's totally unexpected. So, I start looking on blogs and I see that “only under very specific conditions will your croton actually develop a flower”, and I think, mine did! They love me! All of the care and effort I put in into them has been rewarded and they're thriving.

So tell me about taking care of your croton...

Here’s the deal with the croton. The older the leaves are, the more deeply colored they become, so they are red at the bottom while the newer leaves are green on top. It is I think referred to, or my mother-in-law told me once that it's referred to, as the Brazil plant, because it has colours of the Brazilian flag: greens and yellows. I saw it all over Brazil growing naturally. I bought it in a convenience store because I thought it was pretty; I didn't know anything about it (we’ve all been there!). And it turns out, it loves sunlight, and I've got this huge sunny window so it’s happy. Croton and I did have a difficult period together because it did get bugs, I had to do treatments for the bugs, it overcame the bugs…so the day that I went over there and saw that it was sprouting some sort of flower thing – it doesn't look like a flower really, it's like a stalk with buds coming off of it. That day I took pictures and sent them to all my plant friends, and to my mom and my sister. And I said, what is happening? And they said, “it’s blooming, it's happy.” That made me very happy.

You said “plant friends”. Who do you mean?

This houseplant hobby allows me to connect to other people. It allows me to connect to my sister, to my mother. I have another friend, who's also an American who lives here in Barcelona and who's also a plant lover, and it's a common point that we have. She has given me cuttings from her plants, I've given her cuttings, so I have plants from her in the house. It makes me so pleased.

I did not look after plants when I lived in the United States, possibly because I didn't feel I needed to. But now I live very far away from so many of the people who are important to me, and I’ve found it’s a way of developing my relationships with people here too. There’s a need to feel that connection.

I’ve inherited this interest from my family. My mother grew up taking care of plants, indoor and out, because my grandmother took care of plants. When she died, my mother took many of her plants to our house and kept them alive. When that happened, it felt like: my grandmother took care of this, cultivated and grew this, and this same living thing is mine! Whenever I go back to my parents' house, in my bedroom there is a philodendron that my grandmother brought to life and now we nurture. There's something very sentimental there.

So I wonder if my passion for my hobby has to do with keeping alive memories of the women in my life. Connecting not just with people who are still around, but connecting through generations. Plants are a vehicle for all kinds of connection.

You travel frequently, often to see your family and your husband’s family in Brazil. Have you ever been tempted to try and take a cutting internationally?

I've been tempted to do so many things that I shouldn't do, like taking cuttings from parks, but I never have. When I went to Brazil, I saw plants that I’d seen in florists and in plant shops, but they're 20 times as big. It was unbelievable! I have a photo of my sister standing next to a staghorn fern. My uncle has a fern like this in his house in the US, which is the size of a normal houseplant. Then the one we saw in Brazil was 20 feet tall. Unbelievable. It just has to be the incredible tropical environment, the lushness, the humidity. I was tempted to just snip, snip, snip, and bring some home! But I didn't; I understand that you are not allowed to transport seeds across borders – plus you can order all kinds of things online now.

When my sister and I went traveling in the Netherlands, we bought authentic Dutch tulip bulbs to bring home to my mother for Christmas. They were pre-approved by the transit authorities; I mean, they were stamped and everything so that you could actually travel with them as official products of Holland. My mother planted them in November in the garden back in the States, then in the spring, which was during lockdown, they flowered spectacularly. That was another moment that we could share: memories of my trip with my sister and then my mother participating in the fruits of that trip, which are these incredible tulips that are blooming in her garden. And we couldn't all be together at either time, but we could all remember the tulips.

Connecting across generations, across oceans – and across the internet, I hear?

Yeah, on social media. Social media tends not to make me very happy because it is filled with a lot of political information right now: a lot of vitriol and a real feeling of tension.

But on one of the social media platforms, I follow plant blogs and plant bloggers. So on that Saturday afternoon when you're sitting around not really doing anything, scrolling through your social media, you're just seeing pictures of people's ferns, their homes filled with plants and these Monstera that have giant green leaves! Artsy shots, sun dappling coming through the leaves…I love looking at these photos. It's much more of a positive experience than scrolling through the latest political happenings. You become part of this whole plant community where everybody's referring to each other, in ways that are entirely community building and not divisive.

That sounds extremely calming. I always like coming to your house partly for that reason; it's a very calm environment.

I’m glad you feel that way. I feel that it's overwhelming for visitors, all the plants! Then I wonder if I should be embarrassed, but I certainly don't feel embarrassed. I feel pure joy.

Me too!

I had to share here all Jeanna’s musings on plants, but in her #happydaysproject episode she delves into laughter and coffee too...listen to Jeanna’s full episode here.

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