The psychology behind our obsession with house plants

The obsession is real. [Photo: Getty]

Words by Lydia Smith. 

With a search for succulents on Instagram bringing up more than six million results alone, it’s clear we are head over heels for house plants.

Having an indoor garden isn’t just about making a home more attractive, though. Studies have shown caring for plants is a good form of therapy, as the act of tending to them relieves stress, has an overall calming effect and takes our minds off the daily grind.

Whether it’s a cactus, a monstera or a flowering orchid, there’s little more rewarding than seeing a plant thrive on your windowsill – and they provide the perfect antidote to our fast-paced, hectic lives.

“Caring for a plant can certainly be conducive and contribute towards good mental health and wellbeing,” says Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton.

“Watching a plant grow and thrive under your care can help you feel satisfaction with minimal effort,” she says. “Plants improve the aesthetics of one’s surroundings and can help us remember that we are connected to, and part of, nature particularly if we live in urbanised city environments.”

Instagram accounts such as London florist Grace & Thorn provide bags of inspiration on the best plants for your indoor space:

A mental health boost

House plants are a great way to take a break from technology and the constant checking of work emails and scrolling through social media. Even if it’s just for a few minutes a day, watering or planting forces you to focus on something that isn’t on a screen – and isn’t a jealousy-inducing post by a friend on holiday.

It may seem obvious, but this is hugely beneficial to our mental wellbeing. One 2015 study found that a group of people in their 20s experienced a decrease in blood pressure and other symptoms of stress when they took part in indoor gardening sessions, compared to computer-related tasks. Indoor plants help to reduce “physiological and psychological stress”, the results suggested.

Caring for house plants is a quiet, peaceful activity that can give us time and space to think, or distract us from the constant hustle and bustle of our work or social lives.

“All of the concrete, cars, and buildings can make for a stressful environment and I think we sometimes crave the simplicity that nature offers,” says Erin Welke, 30. “Because it can be difficult to get out of the city, we bring elements of nature into our home to simulate the calming effect it has on it.

“Caring for plants is also a slow, calm activity that can be cathartic after a long stressful week at work. It’s slow and relaxing, and plants don’t demand much from you in the way that other activities do.”

Sure, we might switch back to our screens to post photos of our flowers and ferns on social media, but there’s something creative this process too, Erin adds. “I think there is an element of artistic sharing when posting plants on social media. You’re able to manipulate and control nature to create something unique and beautiful.”

Our Insta feeds are packed with #plantporn:

Bringing the outdoors in

Plants give us the opportunity to reconnect with nature too, particularly as more than 85% of people now spend their time inside and lots of us live in homes without gardens. Adding a touch of greenery to your home – whether it’s a cramped one-bed apartment or room in a houseshare – is known to benefit both mental and physical health, with one famous NASA study suggesting indoor plants can play a role in removing toxins from the air.

“Green plants also provide oxygen through photosynthesis and can improve the quality of air in our surroundings which aids wellbeing,” Dr Bijlani explains, adding that flowering plants or those that bear fruits can be additionally rewarding.

Looking at green plants has also been found to promote emotional stability and “make a place more relaxing and calming”, according to one study, while bright flowers can boost our mood. In offices, workers have been found to be happier and more productive when surrounded by indoor plants – and having greenery or flowers in hospital rooms has been shown to lower ratings of pain, anxiety and fatigue in patients recovering from surgery.

Something to care for

With the majority of young people priced out of buying their own home – research suggests up to a third of UK millennials face renting their entire lives – a house plant provides a sense of ownership. As most landlords don’t allow pets, plants allow us to care for something other than ourselves without risking losing a deposit, and add a little bit of personality to a room without nailing a picture to a wall.

The reality of renting means many people move house every other year, so having a transportable, living object can make a new place more homely. Disposable income can be scarce thanks to high living costs and stagnant wages, so plants are a cheap and easy solution to brighten a cosy – read, tiny – room.

“With instability and job uncertainty, the plant is the one thing you can take with you,” says counsellor and therapist Jan Slater, a member of the Counselling Directory. “If you’re put up in a friend’s spare bedroom then you can take your houseplant with you. We have a connection, and it’s something you exist together with,” she adds.

“When everything else is looking a bit grim, then you can be sure you can take your plant and keep it healthy.”

Plants also allow us to fulfil our need to nurture, Slater says, but unlike animals or children, they fit into our busy schedules with minimal commitment – providing us with a sense of responsibility.

“We have a drive to nurture, and when we’re nurturing something and it’s blossoming and it’s looking wonderful, we’re getting positive feedback,” Slater explains.

“The one thing about plants is that if you don’t look after them, they shrivel up and die. So there’s positive feedback from that primitive nurturing instinct. It’s nature, and the way young people are engaging with their environment shows nature is a powerful thing.”

They look good

On a very basic level, though, plants make our homes nicer places to be, and the impact of this on our wellbeing shouldn’t be underestimated.

“It’s less about care for me, and more about making our space feel pretty without being able to afford expensive art, furniture, or other decorative items,” Erin says. “I can’t go out and spend hundreds on a beautiful painting, so I spend £20 on a little palm tree or fiddle-leaf fig and put it in a bespoke basket purchased at a charity shop and it makes my space feel beautiful and trendy.”

“I think people in our generation love plants so much because they are low maintenance and have a really simple, rustic aesthetic.”

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