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Why cactuses and succulents are the perfect plants for this cultural moment

The big business behind the resilient, social-media-friendly plants.

A cactus garden at a property in Joshua Tree, California.
| HOM Sotheby’s International Realty

Ask Carlos Morera about succulents and cactuses, and their current dominance of interior design and social media, and he’ll talk to you about the planters at weddings.

Morera’s reflections on this particular cultural moment—”everyone’s become a treehugger, or, I guess, a cactushugger”—matter, because many see him as a trendsetter. Along with fellow plant geek Max Martin, his uncle John Morera, and others, Carlos opened the Cactus Store, a minimalist storefront in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood, in 2014.

The “little shack full of cactuses” found a fervent audience by assembling an eclectic collection of rare plants and taking a studious approach to the subject. In January, Martin and Morera released a book on hardcore cactus collectors, Xerophile, and their successful pop-up in New York City last year will return this summer.

Morera has seen these eclectic plants shift from misfits to big business, becoming the new hot houseplants. Restaurants and stores are draped in “succulent art.” The obsessed have created succulent-inspired hair, cupcakes, even “Instagram plant porn.” To Morera, mass appeal—whether it’s succulents as wedding decor or placing a stray cactus in a storefront window to symbolize “California cool”—is a mixed blessing.

“Infantilizing these creatures that are so insanely resilient isn’t our style,” he says. “The trend toward succulents as decorative houseplants, or people wearing emoji cactus T-shirts, is not something we’re stoked on.”

Reams of trend stories and social-media posts suggest that these resilient plants are having a renaissance, and have become a decorating staple in boutiques, restaurants, offices, and apartments.

The Cactus Store in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood

There’s no easy way to break down sales by species in the $13.6 billion U.S. plant and flower industry. But growers have seen increased interest from young adults—37 percent of millennials grow plants indoors, as opposed to 28 percent of baby boomers—and sales have been booming. Altman Plants, the country’s largest grower of succulents and cactuses, has for the last decade posted double-digits gains each year. A recent Garden Center magazine survey of independent retailers found that cactus and succulent sales had risen 64 percent since 2012.

Morera blames California. It’s a product of the drought-motivated embrace of water-conscious horticulture, sustainability, and an obsession with the lifestyle evoked by the idea of getting lost in Joshua Tree on a weekend. Like avocado toast, a cactus is an attainable object of affection and obsession, a stereotyped symbol of the Golden State, what Morera calls the “mecca for wellness, natural living, and floppy hats.”

Industry experts and large growers see more practical reasons for the plants’ proliferation. Ingeborg Carr, the director of marketing at Altman Plants, points to larger societal shifts. Millennials, bouncing between smaller apartments, want something low maintenance. As Jazmine Hughes wrote for the New York Times magazine, raising houseplants “makes us feel grown-up” when the traditional symbols of that stage of life seem out of reach.

“We’re living in smaller homes, with smaller gardens, and there’s not space,” Carr says. “But there’s always room for a small pot on the windowsill or end table.”

It doesn’t hurt that their atypical shapes, odd profiles, and bright colors look great on social media. Cactuses and succulents are easy to care for and offer maximum aesthetic rewards for minimal effort. Forget infantilizing the plants; perhaps it’s more about infantilizing their owners.

“Nature’s Infinite Variety” Cactus Beds in the Gardens of Hotel Monte, Monterey, California, in 1906
Library of Congress

Cactuses and succulents may be succeeding because they’re resilient enough to withstand a home environment that’s become more hostile to many houseplants—owners today are more mobile, and they’re shorter on time and attention. But Americans have always been attracted to these fantastical flora, especially those from Southern California and the deserts of the Southwest.

Nearly 20,000 varieties of succulents, roughly defined as plants that contain water-storing tissue to survive arid conditions, have been documented. Cactuses, which have spines—mostly dead tissue for shading and protection that’s sort of a horticultural equivalent to fingernails—are a type of succulent. Present on six continents, including some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, these species represent what New York Times writer L. H. Robbins called in 1935 “the best illustration in the world of the dauntless resolution of a species to survive.”

The informal names given to these plants speak to our fascination with their otherworldly colors and shapes: baby toes, living stones, crown of thorns, blue elf, blushing beauty. In the New York Times piece, Robbins talked about how the great variety of cactuses, with “spines that resemble any wounding thing, from a stiletto to a fish-hook,” have “played a big part in the human history of the romantic southwest.” It was unwise, he wrote, to “monkey with nature’s buzz saws.”

“The variety is so incredible; Both the colors and textures, and their resiliency,” says Bob Reidmuller, a horticulturist at Altman Plants. “They can dry up to almost nothing, and when the rainy season comes, boom, they’re back again.”

Altman Plant’s headquarters in Vista, California.
Courtesy Altman Plants
Altman Plant’s Oasis facility in Escondido, California, where the company grows some of its many cactuses and succulents.
Courtesy Altman Plants

The growth of the cactus and succulent market has not only changed the way they’re sold, but also how they’re grown. A visit to the headquarters of Altman Plants, in Vista, California, outside San Diego, offers a glimpse of just how massive the market has become, and how aesthetics, and social media, shape our perceptions of these plants.

Set on rolling hills, Altman’s Vista facilities are perfect for growing plants year-round, owing to its moderate, Mediterranean-like climate. One of 45 commercial growers in the San Diego area that specializes in cactus and succulents, Altman’s operations spread over multiple sites in San Diego County and cover roughly 500 acres, including 2 million square feet of greenhouse space.

It’s the seat of the empire for one of the country’s largest commercial growers, with distribution centers in three states and wholesale nurseries in four states raising perennials, roses, and just about any type of plant that’s not a fruit tree. The company even uses robots on some of its fields to speed up production, and sells tens of millions of plants a year (the company wasn’t forthcoming with specifics).

The highlight is the cactuses and succulents, the plants that inspired company founders Deena and Ken Altman to start the business. Two self-described Berkeley hippies who met while Deena was attending Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, the couple grew plants as a backyard hobby in the early ’70s.

Today, cactuses and succulents account for a significant portion of the company’s annual revenue, especially best-selling varieties such as hairy cactuses, jade plants, aloe vera, and Senecio serpens, or blue chalksticks, which are popular in landscaping. Altman counts Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart as long-time customers.

Deena Altman at the couple’s old greenhouse.
Courtesy Altman Plants

The Altmans have always had a knack for plants, and also for marketing and storytelling. The company once promoted a kid’s line, called Spiny’s Friends, and developed trays with plastic handles so buyers could pick up small cactuses without getting stuck. Today, many of its plants, including succulents, are marketed in specific product lines, including Smart Planet and Oasis, which promote their water-saving and sustainable nature.

The company also employs two full-time breeders, or succulent plant development managers, Kelly Griffin and Renee O’Connell, who are famous in plant-nerd circles. They cultivate new hybrids, with their own colorful names, to meet customer demand.

That means cross-breeding for specific characteristics, including the ability to grow with less light, to accommodate the rising demand for houseplants, as well as more varied, striking colors. Since these hybrids can take from three to 10 years to bring to market, Altman began patenting the new varieties, obtaining seven years of intellectual property protection to guarantee return on investment.

At Altman’s Oasis facility and sales center, a short drive from the company’s headquarters in Vista, the incredible diversity of cactus and succulents—as well as the scale of Altman Plant’s ambitions—come into focus. Every inch of growing space is utilized; colorful clusters of plants cling to the hillsides and acres of small succulents grow under large shade houses in seemingly endless rows. It’s like a Costco for plants.

The company’s latest custom creations are also on display. You can see flats of the new hybrids patented by Altman, including the popular Aeonium Mardi Gras, featuring long leaves with ruby tips; Aloe Blizzard, a bundle of spindly leaves with frosted tips; and Echeveria Crimson Tide, a lettuce-like plant with reddish-pink rims. Some of the newer creations include even more evocative nicknames: Mint Truffles, Black Diamond, Arctic Ice, and Flambeau.

Courtesy Altman Plants
Courtesy Altman Plants
Courtesy Altman Plants
Courtesy Altman Plants

Aeonium Mardi Gras

Naming these new hybrids is just another aspect of marketing and storytelling. As Deena Altman once said in an interview, “you can’t just sell a succulent, you have to sell that it’s a stone or an old man or a brain.”

As a tour bus of gardening enthusiasts left the site, pots and plants in hand, Stephen Rubin, a marketing communications specialist, explained that creatively named hybrids by Griffin and O’Connell, who specialize in aloe and Echeveria plants, respectively, are particular fan favorites.

There’s sort of an internet feedback loop between the plants, growers, and patrons, he explains. New, exciting colors and patterns drive sales and online attention. Rubin runs the Altman social-media accounts, and often can’t post new Griffin and O’Connell creations because they don’t have enough inventory to meet expected demand, or because they’re not yet available to sell online.

“We enjoy spotlighting them because we want to tout what’s new and especially cool,” says Rubin, “but we still grow and sell an awful lot of “regular,” straight (non-hybrid/non-proprietary) species.”

Shutterstock

Morera argues that the current flood of succulents and cactuses comprises more archetypes, as opposed to the collector’s gems that entranced superfans of past generations, including members of cactus clubs and mail-order gardeners. Instead of rare varieties, plants like echeveria and prickly pear (Opuntia) dominate.

“The trend today is cactuses that look like stereotypical cactuses,” he says, “or those with pretty features, or a certain aesthetic.”

But, as this breeder-and-buyer feedback loop demonstrate, isn’t this just another example of evolution at play?

It recalls a theory Morera often cites about our relationship with succulents. Call it a coexistence with cactuses. These ancient, resilient plants are adapting to our presence, and using us to proliferate.

“While habitats are being decimated and global warming has a huge impact on the survival of these plants, people have become deeply obsessed with them,” he says.

The California drought may have helped inspire a sustainability-minded turn toward cactuses and succulents. But they’re a much more potent symbol of our warming planet than many realize. In 2015, a group of researchers found that due to habitat loss, especially the expansion of agave plantations for tequila and mezcal production, nearly a third of cactus species were at risk of extinction, making them one of the most threatened types of plants on the planet.

“The further we get into climate change and drought, the more glaring it is,” says Morera. “Using plants that can take the heat is not only going to become more in vogue, it’ll become impossible to grow so many other things.”

Perhaps the commodification of cactuses, and their slow expansion into our homes and retail spaces, is just the latest adaptation by these rugged plants to a harsh environment. These plants aren’t just Instagram fodder; they’re spiny survivors.

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