People are finding all sorts of ways to pass the time in isolation: working on 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, stress-baking bread, watching celebrities practice social distancing in their sunlit, open-plan homes filled with thriving houseplants and surrounded by immaculate landscaping. If you had resisted plant mania before, you may now see that empty corner of your apartment as the perfect spot for a fiddle leaf fig.
But is now the time to buy decorative plants? Your track record of keeping them alive has been less than stellar, and the country’s desperately strained delivery infrastructure could do with one less heavy, fragile package.
What about a fake plant, then, to brighten up your space?
“Now more than ever, people are spending more time in their homes,” said Bobby Berk, the interior designer and “Queer Eye” cast member, in a phone interview in March. He has been sheltering for the last seven weeks at an Airbnb in Austin, Texas, where he was filming the next season of “Queer Eye.” It has been put on hold because of the pandemic.
“I’m all about using both fake and real plants,” Berk, 38, said from his temporary home, which is filled with fiddle leaf figs, snake plants and succulents. “Sometimes a space has no natural light to grow plants. I mean, photosynthesis, it’s real.”
When Eliza Blank, 34, started the Sill in 2012, she had no intention of selling artificial plants. That changed in 2019, when she began offering a line of faux pothos, monstera and pilea. “What we came to find is that plants, in all forms, make people happy,” Blank said, parroting her company’s tagline.
Over the last six weeks, she said, the Sill has seen a surge in online sales of real and faux plants, often purchased together. “Everyone is feeling disconnected from the outdoors,” Blank said. “People are looking to bring the outdoors in.”
Erin Gates, an interior designer who lives in Boston, mixes real and faux foliage, depending on the client’s comfort with plant care and the conditions of each space. She has killed some 15 fiddle leaf figs over the last decade, so she understands that for some, tending to real plants can be more stressful than therapeutic. Whether they’re real or fake, Gates, 40, said, “plants absolutely add some happiness to your home. Especially during these dark days.”
Still, artificial plants have a mixed reputation among designers and dwellers. In the 1960s, when houseplants made from plastic and polyester began to proliferate in home décor, Grady Clay, the former editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, told The New York Times: “Plastic plants are piddling pieces of cosmetics.” Today plenty of people share his opinion.
“Plastic plants are repulsive,” said Phelicia Thompson, 46, a plant lover who has managed to keep her rose-painted calathea alive for 27 years in her Northern California home. “That plant has seen me through breakups and marriage and childbirth.
“I won’t get into the obvious benefits of owning a real carbon-converting organism over having petroleum-based products sitting in your home,” she said.
Like Thompson, Puneet Sabharwal, CEO and co-founder of plant subscription service Horti, bristles when confronted with fakes. A blog post on his company’s website, titled “What’s So Bad About Artificial Plants,” reads: “Their presence feels like a taxidermied wild animal with glass eyes and empty lungs.”
Sabharwal, 38, said that his company is seeing sales at an all-time high now that U.S. residents are largely confined to their homes. “Indoor plants are quarantining experts,” he said. “They have been cultivated to thrive inside, so we can learn a lot from them during this time.”
Maybe, but what about the legions of plant killers who have tossed one too many sad and shriveled philodendrons into the trash? What if the responsibility of keeping real plants alive fills you with anxiety, even as you marvel at images of Joanna Gaines and Oprah Winfrey tending to their blooming gardens?
“When I see a celebrity’s lush landscaping on Instagram, more than anything I get inspired,” said Stephanie K. Smith, a television writer in Los Angeles. After realizing how much money she was spending on plants she would inevitably kill, Smith, 43, decided to go faux. And she’s never looked back.
“I used to be mortified by the idea of using fake plants,” she said. Now she decorates her Spanish-style bungalow with a mixture of fake plant varieties from West Elm and Marshall’s. She has been sheltering in place with her husband and 10-year-old son for seven weeks; on rainy days, she said, “My fake plants are about as close to nature as I get.”
Ultimately, like any other interior design decision, plants are a personal choice. Carmen Rising, a 27-year-old branded content writer in Southern California, said she had put pressure on herself to become a “plant person,” like those she had seen in her Instagram feed, but her attempts at cultivating greenery were futile.
“I finally surrendered to who I was all along,” she said. “Not a plant person.”