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A Growing Number Of North Texans Are Turning To Houseplant Collecting

A sign reads 'There's like a lot of plants in here,' referring to a room full of houseplants.
Courtesy of Melanie Cabaniss
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This is just part of Melanie Cabaniss' plant collection.

The air was hot and humid in the greenhouse of Ruibal's Plants of Texas. The earthy smell of potting soil and the August heat, made the space feel like a rainforest.

Ferns, palms and calatheas lined the walls; monarch butterflies fluttered between hanging planters. For a moment, it was hard to believe this peaceful nursery is located in the heart of Dallas.

Owner Mike Ruibal said despite early concerns about COVID-19 affecting profits, the nursery has seen a significant rise in houseplant sales. Since March, new plant lovers and experienced gardeners have been to the nursery, some older folk for the first time in years. He said it's because people want to stay busy and beautify their homes during the pandemic.

"They give you something to look forward to and something to take care of. It centers you on your home," Ruibal said. "The smiles that we get on people a lot of times … people are taking home these things that they're going to take care of and nurture – it gives them something to focus on."

A collection of succulent plants are displayed in a home, highlighted by a pink light.
Credit Courtesy of Dylan Sheng
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Mike Ruibal of Ruibal's Plants of Texas says succulents have become popular recently thanks to Instagram.

He said succulents, dracaenas and monsteras are now particularly popular because of their prevalence on Instagram.

While growing houseplants is not a new hobby, plant collecting has become significantly more popular in North Texas since the quarantine when more people started working from home. Ruibal's is one of many area nurseries seeing increasing demand for houseplants.

Author and journalist Richard Louv said he believes this trend signifies a greater public interest in connecting with nature.

"Incorporating nature into our homes serves to restore us psychologically, physically, even spiritually," Louv said. "In the workplace, studies have shown that biophilic design (the use of nature inside and around a workplace) raises productivity, lowers sick time and increases creativity."

Mansfield band instructor Faiza Saleh said she wasn't that into plants before the pandemic. Prior to shutdown, she had about 50 plants, and while that might sound like a lot, that's nothing compared to her collection today.

"I stopped counting after 200," she said of her collection, which now fills her 750-square-foot apartment.

She became a serious collector when social distancing went into effect in March, and Saleh could no longer visit her father. Her dad lives in a nursing home and is an avid plant enthusiast. Saleh said when she started to miss him during quarantine, she began collecting plants as a way to feel closer to him.

"He was more into herbs and veggies, but he bought my first houseplants – a snake plant and a palm," she said.

Her gateway plant was a hoya publicalyx, a tropical vining plant with long, narrow leaves.

"It was a very full pot and just looked so pretty," Saleh recalled.

Houseplants hang on a rack and line a wall in Faiza Saleh's home.
Credit Courtesy of Faiza Saleh
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Faiza Saleh said she stopped counting the number of houseplants in her collection when she hit 200.

It didn't take long for her to get hooked on houseplants and, like many plant lovers, she eventually created an Instagram account dedicated to her collection. She estimates she has spent roughly $250 to $350 on plants since March.

Managing so many plants requires considerable attention, she said, as all of them have different watering needs and schedules. This doesn't bother her, she said, because spending time every day looking over her collection makes her happy.

The Benefits Of Plant-Keeping

Studies have shown the emotional and psychological benefits of houseplants. One 2015 study published by the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that interaction with houseplants could reduce stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate. The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension website even credits houseplants as promoting concentration and memory performance.

"There are a number of studies demonstrating that bringing nature in your home can make a big difference in your psychological well-being," Louv said. "Research suggests that direct and indirect contact with nature can help with recovery from mental fatigue and the restoration of attention as well as help restore the brain's ability to think."

McKinney resident Aliki Gewinner said she considers her morning plant survey a soothing ritual, almost like meditation.

"I wake up in the morning and I just walk around, and I touch them all, stick my finger in the soil … It's nice to know you have someone to take care of," she said.

Houseplants are arranged in a corner of Aliki Gewinner's home.
Credit Courtesy of Aliki Gewinner
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Aliki Gewinner's plant collection numbers more than 100.

The stress created by the pandemic was only partly responsible for Gewinner's foray into the plant world, she said. Just before lockdown, she and her husband were devastated by an infertility diagnosis, which Gewinner said left her searching for something to keep her distracted.

What started as distraction turned into fascination, resulting in her amassing a collection of over 100 plants. She has even built furniture for displaying her collection.

She talks about one of her current favorites — a peperomia piccolo — like it's a person. "He almost died yesterday so it was like ‘a thing,' but he bounced back [when] he got fertilizer," she said affectionately. "He's out of control."

When asked how much she's spent on plants since March, she started to laugh.

"I'm going to guess at the very least $2,000," she said. "I really don't want to know the real number."

The Cost Of Collecting

Growing houseplants can mean additional costs. Dedicated hobbyists invest in extra equipment to keep their plants happy, such as ceramic pots, higher-quality planting mediums, humidifiers and distilled water.

But unlike collecting baseball cards and other objects, collecting houseplants requires regular maintenance, making it more of a lifestyle than a hobby. Collectors need to anticipate light changes, regulate humidity and prevent pest infestations. One sick plant could wipe out an entire collection.

Then there are the rare species, most of which are only found online. Shipping alone can cost over $30, but some plant parents are happy to pay if it means they can add a pink princess philodendron to their collection. In one Facebook plant group, several area residents said they recently spent over $200 for a single plant.

This profitability has prompted several shops to raise prices. Opportunistic resellers often buy out certain varieties at nurseries to resell online at inflated prices.

Dallas resident Veronica Medina said she's concerned about the frequency of price gouging on plants, namely on Facebook Marketplace and in Facebook groups.

"I used to get plants for great prices and when social media kicked in and started all these groups, the prices have gotten steeper," Medina said. "COVID really accelerated this, too."

But Ruibal said growing plants isn't about bragging rights or owning expensive plants. He said houseplant care is a lifestyle that allows people to "share beauty" and engage with living things in new ways.

"In a time when it feels like you've got a lot of selfish people – you've got divisions and stuff like that – you can share plants and you can be a part of the planting community," he said.

The plant-growing community is becoming increasingly diverse, he said, with this hobby bringing people together from different backgrounds and walks of life.

"Everybody can come down and be a part of the same thing, and this is something that can tie everybody together," he said. "You don't see a whole lot of people going, ‘I hate plants.'"

Despite the competition and high cost for rare species, Gewinner said she's excited about her future as a plant grower and she looks forward to propagating her plants to give to friends.

"About two weeks ago, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?'" Gewinner said. "But I'm already over it, and we're going plant shopping tonight."