Why Cactuses And Succulents Are The Perfect Plants For This Cultural Moment

Ask Carlos Morera about succulents and cactuses, and their current dominance of interior design and social media, and he’ll talk to you about the planters at weddings.

Morera’s reflections on this particular cultural moment—”everyone’s become a treehugger, or, I guess, a cactushugger”—matter, because many see him as a trendsetter. Along with fellow plant geek Max Martin, his uncle John Morera, and others, Carlos opened the Cactus Store, a minimalist storefront in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood, in 2014.

The “little shack full of cactuses” found a fervent audience by assembling an eclectic collection of rare plants and taking a studious approach to the subject. In January, Martin and Morera released a book on hardcore cactus collectors, Xerophile, and their successful pop-up in New York City last year will return this summer.

Morera has seen these eclectic plants shift from misfits to big business, becoming the new hot houseplants. Restaurants and stores are draped in “succulent art.” The obsessed have created succulent-inspired haircupcakes, even “Instagram plant porn.” To Morera, mass appeal—whether it’s succulents as wedding decor or placing a stray cactus in a storefront window to symbolize “California cool”—is a mixed blessing.

“Infantilizing these creatures that are so insanely resilient isn’t our style,” he says. “The trend toward succulents as decorative houseplants, or people wearing emoji cactus T-shirts, is not something we’re stoked on.”

Reams of trend stories and social-media posts suggest that these resilient plants are having a renaissance, and have become a decorating staple in boutiques, restaurants, offices, and apartments.

There’s no easy way to break down sales by species in the $13.6 billion U.S. plant and flower industry. But growers have seen increased interest from young adults—37 percent of millennials grow plants indoors, as opposed to 28 percent of baby boomers—and sales have been booming. Altman Plants, the country’s largest grower of succulents and cactuses, has for the last decade posted double-digits gains each year. A recent Garden Center magazine survey of independent retailers found that cactus and succulent sales had risen 64 percent since 2012.

Morera blames California. It’s a product of the drought-motivated embrace of water-conscious horticulture, sustainability, and an obsession with the lifestyle evoked by the idea of getting lost in Joshua Tree on a weekend. Like avocado toast, a cactus is an attainable object of affection and obsession, a stereotyped symbol of the Golden State, what Morera calls the “mecca for wellness, natural living, and floppy hats.”

Industry experts and large growers see more practical reasons for the plants’ proliferation. Ingeborg Carr, the director of marketing at Altman Plants, points to larger societal shifts. Millennials, bouncing between smaller apartments, want something low maintenance. As Jazmine Hughes wrote for the New York Times magazine, raising houseplants “makes us feel grown-up” when the traditional symbols of that stage of life seem out of reach.

“We’re living in smaller homes, with smaller gardens, and there’s not space,” Carr says. “But there’s always room for a small pot on the windowsill or end table.”

It doesn’t hurt that their atypical shapes, odd profiles, and bright colors look great on social media. Cactuses and succulents are easy to care for and offer maximum aesthetic rewards for minimal effort. Forget infantilizing the plants; perhaps it’s more about infantilizing their owners.

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