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Putting the Cult in Horticulture: The Burgeoning Community of Houseplant Hobbyists

By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine

At the onset of the pandemic two years ago, it seemed like everyone was picking up a new hobby, whether that be learning how to make sourdough bread—or buying houseplants. While houseplants have taken on a cult following on social media in the past few years, their popularity has only continued to flourish as the world began to reopen. If you ask a houseplant hobbyist, potted plants not only decorate and accessorize your home, but they also give people something to look forward to as they watch new leaves unfurl, flowers bloom and life grow at the tips of their fingers. Caring for houseplants is a therapeutic outlet for many, and the hobby connects people to a burgeoning community of likeminded enthusiasts through social media groups, plant swaps and even little free plant libraries scattered throughout the city. Pensacola Magazine spoke with an array of houseplant enthusiasts along the Gulf Coast to learn more about this budding community.


For 21-year-old Falen McClellan, plants offer an endless learning opportunity. There is always a new variety of species to discover, new growth habits to observe and new care tips to learn. McClellan owns hundreds of houseplants and has been working at Pensacola Seed & Garden for the past five years.


“During COVID, and now after, we’ve seen more business than the owner has in 35 years at this location,” McClellan explained. “Plants provided people an accessible and therapeutic outlet during quarantine, as nurseries like us that sold food items were allowed to stay open and smaller specialty nurseries hit the online markets to stay afloat. Plants gave people something to look forward to, care for, feel less alone and a way to connect with communities of other plant people when they needed it most.”


This therapeutic outlet is exactly what brought Lacy Bizek, 32, back home to her family farm in Mossy Head, Florida, where she spent months renovating three 100-foot by 20-foot commercial greenhouses that were damaged by a hurricane. Bizek lost her job at the start of the pandemic, where she traveled full time in an RV working festivals and events. In February 2021, she opened her nursery, Anavrin Botanicals, which specializes in aroids and tropical plants. The nursery, which she affectionately calls a “jungle,” is open by appointment only. While she has always been a long-time lover of plants, she explained that the pandemic has allowed her to find her true calling while healing in the process.


“The whole process of building this business has really saved my life,” Bizek said. “I’ve struggled a lot with anxiety and depression, and plants have always been very healing to me. I think that a lot of people find comfort in the community that the plant world provides as well. I’ve met some really wonderful people selling plants, and I love to stay in touch to see how the plants thrive in their care and just talk about plants. When I named my business, I chose Anavrin, because it’s Nirvana spelled backwards. It really is my little piece of heaven—my happy place that I want to share with others.”


36-year-old Tarrah Schiller, a healthcare worker and avid plant collector, has decorated her home with antiques, floral prints, rattan furniture and a few hundred house plants. Schiller has always loved gardening and tending for plants, but it wasn’t until she was recovering from an injury in 2017 that she really started to collect houseplants. Schiller’s plant collection and DIY cactus terrarium made out of a 1950s TV console went viral in the online plant community and was featured on several blogs. Like many hobbyists, Schiller is a member in several online plant groups, internationally and locally, and met one of her closest friends through one of these local plant groups.


“I think it’s really special to watch something grow and to have friends that appreciate the same thing,” she explained. “I work in medicine at a major hospital, and COVID has been tough. With all of the stress, trauma and death, people need an outlet. People need some hope. And I think caring for plants is rewarding, relaxing, calming and healing. It’s been my way of decompressing. I met one of my closest friends who is an ER nurse in one of these groups. We bonded over plants and what we have both been going through at work. It started out by her leaving a box of plants on my porch, then I would leave a box of plants on her porch. We became quick friends.”


Social media has played a big role in connecting plant enthusiasts. Locally, there are several Facebook groups where members post plants to sell, trade, give away or organize plant swaps. People also post looking for advice on struggling plants, share new arrivals at local nurseries and even show where to buy clearance pots and discount plant items. A few of these local groups include Emerald Coast Plant Hobbyist Buy, Sell, Trade, Gift; Pensacola Plant People, BST; Pensacola Plant Peeps; Plant Swap Pensacola; and Emerald Coast Plant Libraries.


40-year-old Melissa Cotton, owner of Millie’s Garden Boutique, is an admin for the Emerald Coast Plant Hobbyist group and began selling plants on Facebook for porch pickup before she opened her shop in November 2020 at the Garden on Palafox & Main in downtown Pensacola. Cotton works full time at Navy Federal but running her boutique plant shop is her passion.


“At my shop, we carry a lot of plants that you won’t typically find in big box stores,” Cotton said. “At most independent nurseries, you get a more diverse selection of plants and your plants are better cared for. At big box stores, plants that get infestations are sometimes kept on the shelves until they’re too bad to sell and they hit the dumpster. All of our plants get personal attention every day. We check under every leaf, and if something is wrong, it’s taken home to rehab to be treated.”


Cotton also explained that while social media has fed the popularity of houseplants, it has also created an insurgence of collecting rare plants as consumers rush to find their wish list plants and prices skyrocket. Plants that cost $30 a few years ago now sell for upwards of $300.


“Variegated plants are very rare, and that’s just because they’re not very common in nature,” Cotton explained. “Only one in every 100,000 plants has natural variegation. They also grow slower. So, because they’re harder to find and suddenly way more people want them, that demand drives up the price. The other thing is where they come from. A lot of these rare plants are not native to the United States. They grow in the Amazon Basin and are imported from countries like Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.”


As Bizek also explained, each leaf on a variegated plant is unique. Plant hobbyists get a thrill watching new leaves unfurl and seeing a totally different pattern on each leaf. Each plant variety also has multiple variegation patterns.


“Take the Monstera deliciosa for example. It’s a staple in almost any plant collector’s collection,” Bizek said. “Variegated monsteras are very popular right now. In our collection alone, we have at least six different albo monsteras all with different variegation patterns. With the albos, the variegation is technically unstable, which means it could either be lost or the plant could go full albo, which means it’s putting out full white leaves. When you think about a leaf, think of it like a solar panel. And the green parts are cells in the solar panel that are alive, while the white parts are cells that are dead. The plant cannot photosynthesize when there is too much variation. So, a lot of times a plant can die if it continues to produce all solid white leaves.”


While social media has helped drive up the prices of these rare plants, it has also helped combat the expensive aspects of the hobby by hosting plant swaps and connecting people to little free plant libraries. 40-year-old Phil Zayas, is the owner of Emerald Republic Brewing Co. and a new plant parent, which in plant hobbyist lingo, some would call a “plant daddy.”


Zayas recently hosted a plant swap at the brewery where more than 150 people attended. “I love the idea of treating plants like a trading card game,” Zayas said. “It was cool to see people bring out their propagations and get to take home plants they have always wanted. Helping connect people who all share the same passion and hobby, and come together for a beer, is an amazing thing. I think everyone should try caring for a plant. Give it a couple tries. Start off with something easy and low maintenance and go from there. You’ll see it’s actually kind of nice to have something to brighten up the inside of your house and make it more cozy and colorful.”


28-year-old Jacquelyn Sternung, who works in marketing, has been busy propagating her plants to restock her little free plant library when it reopens in the spring. The rules are simple: take a plant, leave a plant. Sternung first opened her library in June 2021 and loves seeing how excited neighbors and friends are to trade plants, seedlings and even extra pots and gardening supplies. Her plant library is located at 1804 E Baars Street in Pensacola. Fellow plant enthusiasts can find a full list of plant library locations on Facebook @EmeraldCoastPlantLibraries.


“I think there’s something to be said about how crisp and refreshing the smell of dirt can be and how it feels when you really dig your hands in,” Sternung said. “It’s almost like being a little kid again, playing outside. For me, the hobby brings back the days of grade school science projects, like growing seeds in a Ziplock with a damp cloth, and of course, tomato growing competitions with my grandpa. I find solace in playing some music and just repotting and propagating my plants. It gives me time to reset and just be. Plants are so resilient and incredible. You get to watch them grow from this tiny thing that you worked so hard on to a cutting that can be shared and loved by someone else.”


ADD TO YOUR HOUSEPLANT HOARD: Mom & Pop Plant Shops and Nurseries


Pensacola Seed & Garden

4915 Mobile Highway


Millie’s Garden Boutique

501 S Palafox Street


Green With Envy

7201 N 9th Avenue, Suite A2


Perdue’s Flowers

7853 Pine Forest Road


Anavrin Botanicals

Mossy Head, FL

by appointment only

850-333-0123


Floral Tree Gardens

9235 Pine Forest Road


PLANT HOBBYIST FACEBOOK PAGES

  • Emerald Coast Plant Hobbyist

  • Buy, Sell, Trade, Gift

  • Pensacola Plant People,

  • Buy, Sell, Trade

  • Pensacola Plant Peeps

  • Plant Swap Pensacola

  • Emerald Coast Plant Libraries


Pots, Plants and Pints: Plant Swap Spring Fling Plant Celebration

April 2 from 1-4 pm at Gary’s Brewery & Biergarten at 208 Newman Avenue

Grab your propagated plant babies and some cash, and come celebrate the spring sunshine with Gulf Coast plant enthusiasts. Hosted by Pensacola Hoya Lovers, at this event, you’ll have the opportunity to swap plants and buy plants from local nurseries and growers. Want to cover your body head to root in plant propaganda? You’ll also find ceramic pots, earrings, shirts, art and homemade plant supplies for sale. The event is free to attend and the following will be in attendance: Millie’s Garden Boutique, Anavrin Botanicals, Urban Botanic Studio, Pettinato’s Rustic Roots and more!

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