Photo by Bruce Meissner via Stocksy
From Matisse's blocky cut-outs to Gucci's spring 2016 collection, a humble houseplant with roots in Central America has been creeping out of the corner of everyone's auntie's living room and into the spotlight. Commonly known as the Swiss cheese plant, the Monstera deliciosa is the mildly invasive vine with striking foliage on everyone's kitchen table—and Instagram feed."We have two at the moment; they live opposite each other in the kitchen," says green-thumbed photographer India Hobson. "The Monstera was one of the first plants we brought into our home—the shape is just so good."
Hobson is one-half of Haarkon, a popular plant blog that has racked up more than 86,000 followers on Instagram over the last year. Along with her partner, Magnus, Hobson travels across the United Kingdom to visit and document greenhouses and botanical gardens, as well as their own personal collection of 130 plant specimens. The pair is part of a new kind of green-living movement on social media that champions the indoor gardener with hashtags like #PlantGang and #MonsteraMonday. Some, like Haarkon, showcase lush home sets in their entirety; others focus on one plant at a time. The Monstera makes frequent appearances.The Monstera's popularity stems from gardening's departure from functional to fun, or from functional to "stress relief." Gardening as a hobby joins yoga, meditation, and talking about being a vegan as a popular alternatives to self-medicating with cigarettes, alcohol, and selfies. When done successfully, gardening reminds us that life is not merely a harbinger of death, that we are not necessarily ruining the vast plains and majestic seas of our planet with every carbon footstep. When done poorly, at least it's exercise. As television's favorite turn-of-the-century mom Lorelai Gilmore explained when caught knee-deep in a pile of dirt, "I am gardening because Babette bought me a bag of bulbs—she thought that cultivating new life would help distract me from my current emptiness and sense of loss." And as rising rents and urbanization have put a damper on the American dream of retiring on a farm in the countryside—or even owning property with a front lawn—the houseplant industry is growing rapidly: Market research firm Garden Media reports that indoor gardening stores made almost $1 billion in 2015 and that the industry has grown 8.2 percent since 2011. Millennials in particular are driving that growth.
"So many of us are living in apartments with limited access to green space," Lauren Camilleri, who opened the concept store Domus Botanica in Sydney after 12 years of working as a designer and art director, told me over email. "I'm a total convert to the way that keeping plants can enhance our lives as well as our interiors."I'm definitely noticing interest in some of the beautiful foliage plants that were so popular back in the 70s when indoor plants were very in vogue," Camilleri continued. "The Monstera deliciosa is in high demand. With those glorious, graphic, split leaves, it's no surprise that it's on so many people wish lists at the moment."The torn appearance of a Monstera's leaves was what first drew me into their cultish following: I needed to know the story behind the designer plant that was on every Instagram feed from Beijing to Berlin. Indeed, the Monstera often acted as a standalone centerpiece that seemed particularly popular with graphic designers and urban lifestyle bloggers—the quintessential apartment dwellers, in a sense. Contained to a bowl, a balcony, or a breakfast nook, the fun-sized nods to the great outdoors are often all one can manage. But after I really started getting into houseplants, I realized they're often more than a pop of color or quirky social media post. Thriving houseplants provide both a literal and figurative breath of fresh air to an otherwise stale space.
Shared among three people, my four-room apartment is modest at best: The kitchen tiling has been cracked and stained for years, our cabinet handles are barely hanging on, and my bedroom door falls off its hinges if I put more than one coat on the rack I have on it. As our landlord corresponds solely by mail, we have run up a notable tab of repairs she needs to commission. In the meantime, I bought some Devil's Ivy and draped it over a shelf in the kitchen. Then came a Schefflera from the supermarket, and a set of three house ferns I snuck off with while leaving a fashion show. Maybe this is because I spent my adolescence in the Pacific Northwest underneath a canopy of dense branches and leaves, but I felt a sense of returning to nature as I brushed each plant's leaves and trimmed their trailing vines. Babying my collection proved to be an ample distraction from the cold, cruel world of budding adulthood and flailing independence.When I set out to investigate the Monstera deliciosa, I was in the middle of a classic Let's Get Our Life Together montage. The previous month, my primary freelance client had hit financial hard times and I was left high and dry, shortchanged a grand-and-a-half. After a few weeks of wallowing in sweatpants, I got out of bed, reorganized my closet, and made the decision: I was going plant shopping.I walked into Berlin's Holländer Pflanzencenter and, passing the airplants and fiddle-leaf figs, clambered toward a row of Monsteras. The youngest, a deep forest green, had soft leaves around the size of an adult's hand, shaped like a teardrop. Across the footpath were the older specimens, clamped to wood posts that supported the dramatically wide upper leaves with the Monstera's trademark Swiss-cheese perforation. As I ran my fingers across the freshly dusted stems, I could almost hear "This Must Be the Place" begin to play: "Home is where I want to be, but I guess I'm already there."
Waxy and glowing, the Monstera's leaves are clearly tropical, and the plant stands in a favorable contrast to the mid-00s' craze for understated succulents, or the late-90s orchid revival. They're bold, they're loud, and it's no surprise that fashion, art, and design have all borrowed their frond-like face as a symbol of Neu Age Accessible Tropicana. "I think the scale of its large, glossy leaves and those signature splits make it really dramatic," Camilleri said. "They are prolific growers, and really large specimens of Monstera are undoubtedly a sight to behold."Hobson agreed. "It's a common misconception that Monstera leaves develop holes," she said, referring to the plant's life cycle—they start with smooth, intact leaves and then split into their distinctive look as the plant ages. "In fact, the number of splits in the leaves increases with the plant's maturity."In the Pflanzencenter, I held a young clipping up to the light. The few leaves that had sprouted from the peaty soil were bright but remained whole; a new lime-green shoot spiraled into a cocoon next to them. I felt almost paternal toward the pint-size potted plant as I took it to the cash register. When I got home, passing through the grim hallway and toward the bedside table on which I placed my new purchase, I caught myself daydreaming of my Monstera's forthcoming adult foliage.I can't wait to see you grow up, I made fun of myself for thinking. I know I'll be so proud.