Around the world, millennials' demand for succulents has created a wave of smuggling and theft.
Going idly through Instagram stories over the weekend, I was horrified to see a crime committed. My usual helping of macha lattes and boomerangs for toddlers was interrupted by CCTV video of a man stealing my friend's cactus. Located in a doorway in Clapham, south London, the cactus seemed to thrive, or at least it was until the thief deftly removed it from its pot. This was clearly a targeted attack; the villain knew what he was aiming for.
Turns out it could have been part of a global crime wave. This week, two South Korean men in Cape Town received heavy fines and suspended prison sentences after being found guilty of trafficking 60,000 miniature succulents from South Africa and Namibia. It was the fourth such conviction in recent months.
The age-old appetite for statuesque green houseplant “pets” seems to have reached its zenith. In an echo of the tulip fever disaster in 17th century Holland, succulent madness is on its way to define our own horticultural age.
If I'm honest, I'm surprised that it took so long. As a 'millennial gardener', I have witnessed the succulent flowering craze (in a way that most succulents subjected to British temperatures and light levels rarely will) over the last decade.
Starting around 2013, crassulas, kalanchoes, and echeverias filled supermarket shelves within a couple of years, often covered in glitter. These days, you can hardly have a coffee without being forced to contemplate the imminent death of a haworthia savagely watered in the center of the table.
Millennials cling to succulents and indoor plants because it is a tangible way to connect with nature.
The thing to know about houseplant follies is that, like many other things we put in our homes, they are cyclical. Having little cacti and succulents in your room and hanging them on macrame hangers was all the rage in the 1970s, when my mother first made it. Before that, cacti were popular with 1930s Hollywood stars who moved to Palm Springs.
The "cactus rustle" has been a problem ever since, leading to the introduction of the Lacey Act against plant trafficking in 1981. Not that it did much: in 2018, so many towering saguaros were being uprooted at night in Arizona that rangers in Saguaro National Park resorted to microchipping their cacti.
All of this is depressingly familiar territory to staff at London's Kew Gardens, who grow three plants of all varieties before putting them on display. In 2014, an incredibly rare water lily was removed from the greenhouses, even an appearance in Crimewatch was unable to retrieve it.
It's not that plant mania always leads to crime. It is often simply a life-threatening activity. Like those poor souls falling off cliffs trying to capture the perfect selfie, a handful of young Victorian women plummeted to their deaths in search of an elusive fern specimen.
Pteridomania, also known as “fern fever,” was a popular obsession among teenage girls in the mid-1800s. The rituals included roaming the field with identification books and paddles before pressing his treasure between the sheets of his books. Invariably, the wildlife of the countryside suffered as rare plants were uprooted from the ground.
The sadness of all this is that behind these follies, there are generally good intentions. Millennials cling to succulents and other indoor plants because it is a tangible way to connect with nature that is absent in an increasingly screen-based world. Those young Victorians had been given social permission to go out and engage with nature for the first time in generations. Both groups had to endure shrinking gardens and unreliable accommodations, in short, the quiet satisfaction of watching the green leaves unfold around the place was, in short, much needed.
Like all animals, humans are prepared to react to nature. Exposure to the outside world has been shown to be so beneficial that in Shetland, "green recipes" are issued to people with mental health problems. What ends in cactus crime often begins with a simple and understandable desire for some greenery.