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How houseplant propagation kept some Bostonians well-rooted through the pandemic

Some of Carol Resende's propagating plants.
Some of Carol Resende's propagating plants.Carol Resende

Carol Resende is surrounded by a sea of green. Standing in her home office in Malden, she holds a leaf up to her phone screen to illustrate plant propagation during a Zoom interview. Greenery flourishes all around her — over her right shoulder, glossy creepers cascade from a ceiling-high bookshelf; on her left, a plant with saucer-like leaves reaches toward a fluorescent light.

Resende, a recruiting coordinator for a health services company, has been fascinated by houseplants and propagation — growing plants from leaf clippings — for a few years now. With a friend she runs a houseplant-appreciation Instagram account called @therealhouseplantsofboston. The page is full of greenhouse-chic snapshots of Resende’s prolific plant collection, which tallied at 130 the last time she took stock.

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But she hasn’t counted in a while — “I don’t know if I want to confront that number,” she said, laughing.

Interest in plant propagation has climbed during the pandemic. Bostonians regularly trade clippings and solicit gardening advice on Facebook groups like Boston Plant Swap. Instagram accounts devoted to succulent propagation have picked up thousands of followers, and “plantfluencers” are finding fertile ground on TikTok for doling out gardening advice. Even an Instagram page for a popular greenhouse cabinet DIY (@ikeagreenhousecabinet) has picked up 82,000 followers.

“I think there’s a bit of magic to it,” said Sean Halloran, a plant propagator at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. “Creating life from other life, multiplying things, trading with people, and sharing your passion.”

Young people and apartment dwellers are buying more houseplants than before, said Paul Cohen, research director at the Virginia-based National Gardening Association.

On the whole, households self-reported spending 12 percent more on houseplants in 2020 than they did in 2019, according to data from the association’s 2021 National Gardening Survey. Cohen also said 18- to 34-year-olds bought more flowering and leafy houseplants last year than any other age group. “It’s somewhat surprising,” said Cohen. “We never really saw that activity over the years.”

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The Real Houseplants of Boston founder Carol Resende
The Real Houseplants of Boston founder Carol ResendeCarol Resende

Resende gets it. “I’m a typical millennial — I have a dog, I don’t have kids, I don’t plan on having kids anytime soon. So it’s just something to really take care of and grow,” she said. She points to a waxy Monstera Peru in her office. “This was a one leaf, a little cutting, and now it’s this beautiful plant. That’s really exciting to watch.”

Resende sticks to budget buys and free swaps, but some plant enthusiasts will shell out hundreds of dollars for a rare specimen. Look no further than the Variegated Monstera, or Swiss Cheese Plant, coveted for its ghostly white patches lacking in chlorophyll — the result of mutation or environmental factors. One of these plants auctioned for $6,500 in New Zealand last year, and that still wasn’t enough to upstage an $8,000 Variegated Minima that sold three months earlier.

A scroll through Etsy shows the price of a single leaf from a Variegated Monstera Albo, a trending monstera variety, in the hundreds. And there’s no guarantee that the buyer will be able to successfully grow a plant from the cutting, or even that the color patterns will be preserved in the process.

The motivation: “It’s kind of like a Gucci bag,” said Alexa Cohen, who runs the Instagram page with Resende and is soon opening up an online plant store. “It’s not all that different from a normal bag, but it’s the ‘it’ bag.” Trends change quickly, she said. For example, a plant in her living room that she picked up a while ago for $5 is now worth more than $100.

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Cohen explained that failed propagation is a worry, but “that’s kind of part of the gamble. I think that also, that’s kind of what makes it so exciting.”

Boston-based writer Molly Williams, who grew up among the dahlias and snapdragons of her mom’s flower farm in southern Illinois, last year published a book called “Killer Plants: Growing and Caring for Flytraps, Pitcher Plants, and Other Deadly Flora.” She has watched the price of cuttings shoot up over the past few years. “It is absolutely wild,” she said.

While the uptick in plant interest has meant good business for Greater Boston’s brick-and-mortar stores, explained Williams, rare-plant mania is a challenge since store owners can’t always stock these products.

“We’re not necessarily catering to the obscure collector crowd,” said Lindsey Swett, owner of the Niche plant shops in the South End and Somerville’s Davis Square. “Those people, I think, find more success online.”

What Swett doesn’t love about high-priced collectibles: “It’s maybe a little more elitist than it should be.”

“Certain people have access to getting more unique things, and it’s sort of driving the market,” she said. “But we want everyone to get in on this. Everyone should have a houseplant.”

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In an ultimate expression of economy, some have turned to stealing plant cuttings from stores and botanical gardens. Blogs offer how-tos, like scouring cemeteries for high-quality rose bushes. A less hard-core crowd advocates “proplifting” — simply picking up fallen clippings from a store’s floor, or asking the proprietor for freebies.

Julio César Román, the owner of Micro Plant Studio in South Boston, has fielded a few of these requests. “They ask me,” he said, and he’s not offended. If he has an ailing plant, he’ll save any healthy leaves for hand-outs.

At the Arnold Arboretum, Halloran said, “we know that it happens. … It’s sort of like if somebody were to go into the [Museum of Fine Arts] and scrape off some of the paint.” There’s really no need to be sneaky, Halloran said, since the arboretum is generous in supplying clippings to people who are interested in studying plants.

That kind of generosity is rooted in the plant-swap culture, said Melinda Peterson, a research lab coordinator at Harvard University Herbaria and one of the founders of the Somerville Plant Exchange Facebook group. “It’s just embedded in the nature of the group to share.”

Most posts on that page solicit swaps or guidance, and the comment threads are full of friendly emojis and advice. Halloran noted that these social media groups continue the long tradition of passing down agricultural practices anecdotally.

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For Peterson, it’s the personal relationships that make the group so valuable. “There’s something very wonderful about cultivating a plant, and then giving that gift of not only an item, but your time,” she said. “I think it’s one of the most incredibly thoughtful gifts.”

Jules Struck is a journalist in Revere.