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Some people just love plants (as long as they can afford them...)

This post will finally answer all the questions you never had about why your sister has so many plants in her house.

If you’ve ever walked down a street (not looking at your phone catching Pokémon, of course) you’ve probably seen what I like to call a “Randomly Planty House.” These are houses or apartments that are just bursting with plants of every color, shape, and size, either outside or inside.

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Figure 1. The outside of a randomly planty house in Santa Maria del Oro, Mexico. (Photo credit: Evan Kuras)

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Figure 2. Inside a randomly planty house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo credit: Sarah Blair)

Why are some houses randomly planty, you may ask? The obvious answer is that some people just LOVE plants. But if the answer were that simple, you probably wouldn’t be reading a blog post about the topic! Let’s break this down systematically …

In order for randomly planty houses to exist, people need to somehow obtain all their random plants. Stop and consider the plants in your yard or inside your home. Some plants you bought from a plant nursery or grocery store, others were given to you by your sister when she went away on vacation, and the rest were probably there when you moved in. Am I right? When researchers asked this question to residents in cities like Puerto Rico, USA, Costa Brava, Spain, and Ballarat, Australia, these three sources were the primary explanations [1, 2, 3]. Let’s dig deeper into each one.

Reason #1: Ecology of Prestige

Do you like succulents? I know I do. They are cute, small, versatile, and easy to take care of (AKA: you barely have to take care of them at all). And they are also quite hip.

Researchers use the term, “Ecology of Prestige,” to describe environmental decisions that are motivated by a sense of group identity and perceived social status [4]. Owning succulents, therefore, is a way to express membership in the group of cool, young, hip people living in small urban apartments. It’s not that different from buying a Mustang or an SUV in part to show that you are wealthy or a soccer mom. Of course, I don’t buy succulents specifically to uphold my social status. But all of my hip friends have succulents, and I probably associate succulents with hipness, so I end up buying them and putting them in adorable planters.

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Figure 3. My favorite succulent. (Photo credit: Evan Kuras)

In American cities such as Baltimore, New York City, and Phoenix, researchers have identified similar motivations behind people’s selection of plants, especially in front yards where their plants are most visible [4, 5, 6]. In other words, when an individual buys plants for their home, they may be motivated by a sense of prestige and a desire to uphold or advance it.

Reason #2: Gifts and Greens

While you may not have the means, opportunity, or desire to buy plants, you may nevertheless end up with a randomly planty house due to gifts from family, friends, and neighbors. On my street in Northampton, Massachusetts, neighbors send emails about plants they are trying to get rid of or would like to share.

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Figure 4. Emails from my neighborhood listserv about available plants for the taking (Photo credit: Evan Kuras)

Gift plants can be ornamental (like the irises in the June 18 email) or utilitarian (like the vegetable starters in the May 27 email). Such useful plants can provide food or income to households that may face financial instability throughout the year. For example, in Tlokwe City Municipality, South Africa, yards in neighborhoods with lower rates of socio-economic advantage (think employment, schooling, access to basic services) had significantly higher numbers of fruit trees [7]. In regards to useful plants, prestige may be less important than the need for edible greens. For example, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, researchers found that households tended to plant their utilitarian species in the back yard while placing their ornamental species in the more visible front yard [8].

Reason #3: Power

Even if you LOVE plants, you may not be able to have as planty of a house as you’d like. Let’s start with the inside of your home. Plantiness inside likely depends on Reasons 1 and 2 above, but also on your ability and interest in buying/receiving and caring for plants. But obtaining plants and keeping them alive are two very different activities. Some plants need careful or plentiful watering in order to survive, especially if they are ornamental or meant for eating. In settings where water is scarce or expensive, maintaining a planty house may be a challenge. These same challenges apply to the outside of your house, especially for thirsty trees in dry places.

But even if you can afford the cost of watering or maintaining you may not have the power or the space to modify your home. If you rent or live in an apartment building, you may be subject to rules beyond your control. You may own your home, but you could still be subject to limitations by a Home Owners Association or some other local council at the neighborhood or city level. These rules may prevent you from adding more green things to your property or may force you to remove trees or branches that are considered unsightly or hazardous.

And let’s not forget the plants that were there since you moved in: trees planted by the previous owner, landlord, city arborist, or development company. Older neighborhoods, or ones in which residents or city agencies have historically invested more resources, sometimes have more trees than newer or historically under-invested neighborhoods. In places like Tlokwe City Municipality, South Africa, the legacy of colonialism and discrimination continue to drive patterns of home plantiness, well after the end of official apartheid [7].

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Figure 5. Domestic gardens in Tlokwe City Municipality, with evident differences in vegetation among the socioeconomic classes, driven in large part by historical discrimination and apartheid (Source: [7])

Inevitably, you can think about plantiness as a reflection of power and access. With regards to your personal finances, economic power gives you the ability to purchase and care for plants and the desire to want plants of a certain prestige. Then there is the power of your social network, and how connected you are with friends, family, or neighbors that will give you the plants to spruce up your front lawn or help put food on the table. Finally, there is an even bigger power that comes with land ownership (and the ability to modify it freely) as well as the privilege to live in a place that has historically received investment of the planty kind.

Perhaps houses aren’t randomly planty after all, once you take into consideration all the economic, social, political, and environmental forces at play. Of course some people just LOVE plants, but there’s a lot more to it than that!

References:

[1] Torres-camacho, K. A., Meléndez-ackerman, E. J., Díaz, E., Correa, N., Vila-Ruiz, C., Olivero-Lora, S., … Seguinot, J. (2017). Intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of yard vegetation in urban residential areas: implications for conservation planning. Urban Ecosystems, 20, 403–413.

[2] Cubino, J. P., Subirós, J. V., & Lozano, C. B. (2016). Floristic and structural differentiation between gardens of primary and secondary residences in the Costa Brava (Catalonia, Spain). Urban Ecosystems, 19, 505–521.

[3] Kendal, D., Williams, K. J. H., & Williams, N. S. G. (2012). Landscape and Urban Planning Plant traits link people’s plant preferences to the composition of their gardens. Landscape and Urban Planning, 105(1–2), 34–42.

[4] Grove, J. M., Troy, a. R., O’Neil-Dunne, J. P. M., Burch, W. R., Cadenasso, M. L., & Pickett, S. T. a. (2006). Characterization of households and its implications for the vegetation of urban ecosystems. Ecosystems, 9(4), 578–597.

[5] Grove, J. M., Locke, D. H., & O’Neil-Dunne, J. P. M. (2014). An ecology of prestige in New York City: Examining the relationships among population density, socio- economic status, group identity, and residential canopy cover. Environmental Management, 54, 402–419.

[6] Larsen, L., Harlan, S.L. (2006). Desert dreamscapes: residential landscape preference and behavior. Landscape and Urban Planning 78, 85–100.

[7] Lubbe, C. S., Siebert, S. J., & Cilliers, S. S. (2010). Political legacy of South Africa affects the plant diversity patterns of urban domestic gardens along a socio-economic gradient. Scientific Research and Essays, 19(19), 2900–2910.

[8] Vila-ruiz, C. P., Meléndez-ackerman, E., Santiago-bartolomei, R., Garcia-montiel, D., Lastra, L., Cielo, E. F., & Fumero-Cában, J. (2014). Plant species richness and abundance in residential yards across a tropical watershed : implications for urban sustainability. Ecology and Society, 19(3), 22.

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