A monstera grows in Chicago: How taking care of houseplants can help you

By Dyana Daniels, Echo Magazine

Camilla Forte
Editor’s note: This article is one in a series of stories from the Communication Department’s award-winning Echo magazine,  featured this summer on the Chronicle site.

Soothing jazz music fills the air in Nika Vaughan’s plant nursery studio. The Plant Salon space couldn’t be mistaken for a garden center, where plants are carefully arranged by type. In Vaughan’s nursery, every plant gets its own spot: Bright green, healthy palms, and long, pointy aloes are positioned next to some wildflower candles and face masks, while planters are thoughtfully placed on shelves waiting for customers to pick them up and examine them. Vaughan loves to switch up the way the space looks — as if these were plants in someone’s home. 

Plants are more than just something to water. They are a stress reliever, an instant mood booster or a source of creativity. People who work at nurseries have seen these benefits for customers and employees. 

Tending to houseplants is also a great way to teach responsibility, says Vaughan, owner and founder of Plant Salon. Because a plant is not responsive like a pet, she says, growing plants with your children allows them to take part in the growth process and take pride in the indoor jungle they create. 

Vaughan’s most prized possession resides in her nursery, proudly displayed near the front door.

Her large form monstera deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant, is the crown jewel of her shop. Proudly standing at 12 feet tall, this tropical beauty, with its heart-shaped, holey foliage leaves people in awe when they see her. Vaughan bought her at an estate sale and is not sure how old the monstera is, but she is confident it’s less than a decade old. 

While some people name their plants after characters from “The Golden Girls” or something random like Phyllis or Richard, Vaughan genders hers because it is easier to have less of an attachment to them. 

“I tend to do more gendering versus outright naming,” Vaughan says. “I’m not as high maintenance as some other people who want to mist all the time, and they have higher maintenance, more finicky plants. I tend to gravitate more toward the relaxed plants. If things go south, I did not bond with you – with a name. So it’s easier for me to let you go.” 

If you feel bonded to your plants, this can be explained by a hypothesis called biophilia. It argues that people search for connections with nature and other forms of life. In most cases, this could mean investing in houseplants. Vaughan sees this as a way for people to make these connections while boosting levels of dopamine.

“I know there’s a thing called biophilia, and the idea of bringing in nature to a human environment and the emotional effect that it has on humanity,” Vaughan says. “We enjoy it. We get a lot of positive feelings from it.”

Marcus Kirby started out as a plant owner who could not keep any of his plants alive. But once he discovered succulents, everything changed. In 2015, he moved to Austin, Texas, and began working at a succulent nursery. There, he learned new growing techniques and brought those back to Chicago the next year. 

Kirby, owner of The Succulent City, uses taking care of plants as a hobby to cope with his anxiety and depression, and thinks other people could do the same. In some instances, he says, taking care of something that needs nurturing may give people the energy they lack. 

“In general, plants are pretty well known to be helpful when people suffer from any mental health issues like anxiety, depression,” Kirby says. “There’s this whole situation where a lot of time, it’s really difficult to focus on yourself if [you] have depression.” 

When people are proud of what they have grown, Kirby says, they form an almost symbiotic relationship with the plants. He sees it as encouraging something else while it also encourages you because “people need to step out of themselves to help themselves.” 

Growing up, Ryan Glynn never paid much attention to plants, and it was not until 2016 when his brother passed away and he began receiving floral arrangements that he took a real interest in plants and how to take care of them. He remembered keeping six floral arrangements that had plants embedded in them. 

“I took them out and repotted them,” says Glynn, founder of Chicago Plants. “It left me with a personal connection.”

When people visit his nursery, he wants them to automatically feel relaxed, like they can take a breath of fresh air. Each experience at his nursery is personalized because his employees take into account the level of expertise a customer may have and what they plan to purchase. Plants may range from ZZ plants to pothos to snake plants, so beginners do not feel intimidated.

“We do understand that not everybody is looking to wipe down the leaves with a cloth every day and run their humidifiers and mist and whatnot,” Glynn says. 

Jeff Vedas wants shoppers to feel as if they have left Chicago’s busy streets in the middle of winter and entered the Amazon rainforest — minus the bugs.

“Plants are very therapeutic to attend to,” says Vedas, owner of Vedas Plant Shop. “[They beautify] the space around you especially while being stuck inside and working from home all day. That’s the perfect opportunity to beautify that, that little environment around you — they filter the air.”

It is OK to lose a plant, Vaughan says. And if a plant looks sick, find some good advice on how to save it.

“It’s really important for plant owners to remember that plants might die,” Vaughan says. “Get your research hat on, get on Google. Follow people who collect a lot of that kind of plant. The goal is to learn more about the plants in your collection so that you can make them happy.”

The 2021 issue of Echo will be available this summer on newsstands across campus, and PDFs of all issues are available online.