An industrial-style loft in a converted factory may seem an unlikely spot for a tropical oasis, but that's the look that Shayla Owodunni is going for in her northeast Minneapolis condo.
"By surrounding myself with plants, I've softened the place to make it feel like a vacation spot," said Owodunni. "My plants create opulence that make my space inviting."
By day Owodunni, 30, consults with businesses on regulatory compliance. But her passion is her plants, which currently number around 70, collected for their blend of texture, pattern, color and height.
She shows them off in lush photographs posted on her Plant Penthouse lifestyle blog and Instagram feed; her sophisticated curation has propelled her into influencer status, followed for her style and knowledge of living greenery.
"These times have made everyone more mindful about creating sanctuary in their place," she said. "Plants as decor give you depth and vibrancy without paint or pictures. And nurturing them creates a sense of joy."
As Minnesotans continue to spend more time in their homes, interest in collecting, cultivating and caring for houseplants is growing like an over-fertilized pot of English ivy.
Garden Media Group, a marketing firm that tracks the green industry, has already issued its Garden Trends Report for 2021. It predicts a big sales bump for indoor plants as workers want to "set the stage for virtual meeting backdrops or just … improve concentration." The group foresees the creation of more home garden rooms as the locked down long to bring nature indoors.
The benefits of living with live potted plants are well documented.
Plants brighten and beautify interior spaces and are credited with reducing toxins in the air and increasing humidity during dry winters. There's also a body of research that confirms the very presence of plants boosts the well-being of those who tend them.
"Humans have an innate attraction to living things. We come from the earth, we go back to the earth, and in between we garden," said Jean Larson, a professor who works with nature-based therapies in her joint appointment at the University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum and the Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
Larson thinks bringing in houseplants can soothe and inspire workers who are now doing their jobs from the spare bedroom, parents supervising online learning at the kitchen table and those who strictly adhere to guidelines to stay home.
"In this time of pandemic, we find comfort in nature. There's much evidence that being around plants, germinating seeds, growing herbs on the windowsill, even looking at the color green creates calmness," she said.
"If you can't handle a plant, research shows even having a picture of one as your screen saver can be restorative."
Many of the Twin Cities' now-vacant office parks, medical buildings and downtown towers have long used oversized plants and attractive planters as interior design elements. Employers use greenery for aesthetics but also to create an inviting atmosphere for staff; several studies conclude that concentration and productivity are enhanced in offices with plants.
For the past 28 years, St. Paul horticulturist Carol Stoltzfus has leased or sold plants to landlords of commercial spaces through her Plants by Design company; she leads a team of four that travels to workplaces to maintain them.
"For the most part, buildings are continuing their plant-care services even in offices where no one is working. They find value in keeping it up," she said.
Stoltzfus suggests that remote workers take a page from the playbook of employers who invest in plants and enhance their home workspaces with greenery.
"They can create that environment for themselves. When you work in an office, there are automatic breaks in the day. Now people are at home looking at a screen for hours," she said. "Take a break, and take care of a plant. It's a proven stress reliever."
Care and feeding
New to houseplants? You'll want to choose varieties that are likely to thrive; a plant that looks wan or withers might increase an owner's anxiety rather than ease it.
"The key for houseplants is to understand your conditions and to choose a plant that fits them. Just like outdoors, you wouldn't want a plant that needs full sun if you have a yard that's full shade," said Extension horticulture educator Julie Weisenhorn.
Making sure indoor plants have adequate light is "a challenge" in Minnesota homes, Weisenhorn notes, especially in winter months when days are short and sunlight is limited.
"Grow lights really help. They used to be very expensive but now you can affordably buy a bulb to put in a floor lamp and position it near the plants," she said.
She also warns against fussing too much.
"People tend to overwater and the plant literally rots out; that's a big reason for failure. They over-fertilize too, and get discouraged," she said. "People want their plants to succeed and grow. They're almost like pets."
Weisenhorn recommends beginners select hardy plants that thrive even if neglected, varieties like the snake plant (botanical name: Sansevieria), the ZZ plant (short for Zamioculcas Zamiifolia) and the aptly named cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior). Blooming plants like orchids and gardenias are trickier to care for, she notes.
Success with succulents
Even before the pandemic, the popularity of indoor plants had taken root; in the past three years, houseplant sales jumped by 50% to $1.7 billion, according to the National Gardening Association.
Millennial and Gen Z consumers have particularly taken to the trend of decorating with plants; they especially prize new, rare or exotic varieties that pop on photo-rich social media sites.
Among the most popular are succulents, the fleshy-leafed plants that include hundreds of species, including rosettes, cactus, sedum, echeveria, jade, hens and chicks and aloe. According to Euromonitor International, a global market research firm based in London, succulents now make up the largest proportion of plants sold, with sales in the category spiking by 25% last year.
"I adore succulents; they come in so many different textures and shapes and forms, in pinks and blues and purples. Combining them, they're like a beautiful bouquet that lives and grows," said Connie Gliadon of St. Louis Park.
She "became enthralled" with succulents seven years ago during a trip to San Diego and came home and ordered a few.
"I had three and then I had 12 and now I have a collection of 500 that I keep alive under grow lights in my basement," she said with a laugh.
Sharing photographs of her tiny pots and striking arrangements on Instagram, Gliadon, 33, began hearing from followers who then became customers. When she left her corporate job to stay home with her son, she turned her hobby into a side hustle and now creates pots stuffed with scads of succulents for businesses and homeowners, who pay between $50 and $300 for her homegrown creations.
"Succulents bring beauty and interest into any space," she said. "The average person can keep them for a long time. They don't need much water but they do need six to eight hours of light per day. I enjoy helping people figure it out."
With no formal training in horticulture, Gliadon has taught herself to propagate new plants through trial and error and learning from the online community of gardeners who are crazy about succulents.
"You can remove a leaf from a stem and put it on a dry surface, and it will sprout little buds in a few days," she said. "Creating this new life, especially in the dark winter, gives me so much happiness. It feels like magic."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.