One is a physician with an active practice in San Diego. Another found solace from anxiety and sleeplessness in her plants. A third dates her interest in the plant world to the days of going to gardening clubs with her mother.
They — along with a woman whose brother’s wedding turned out to be something of a career catalyst and a millennial who says he has to hide his gardening obsession from his friends — are five of the most popular gardening “influencers” of Southern California, counting more than 300,000 Instagram followers among them.
Gardening has exploded on social media, and Instagram in particular, because influencers like Christine Kelso, Jennifer Tao, Brandon Jeon, Darlene Zavala and Danae Horst are easily approachable. Have spider mites on your alocasia? Struggling with root rot? Simply reach out to one of them on Instagram and you just might receive a response.
But for many of these influencers, and certainly for many more of their followers, Instagram is more than just a place to post a picture of a thriving Anthurium clarinervium or answer a nettlesome question about Pilea peperomioides. It has also created a community of shared interests and an antidote to the disconnected, occasionally hostile world that some attribute to the rise of social media. “Instagram went from being something where I felt isolated to something that connects me with others,” says Zavala, a freelance marketer from the South Bay with more than 24,000 followers. “My life is filled with people and things that I absolutely love. It’s the last thing I imagined would happen on Instagram.”
Following the 2016 election, Christine Kelso, a physician and self-described political junkie, found herself craving a positive outlet. She started @workhardplanthard in July 2017 as a creative endeavor and was surprised when the account took off. In addition to photos of her plant-filled Midcentury Modern bungalow, Kelso offers insights on how plants affect our health and hosts occasional plant swaps and workshops on houseplant basics. A second account, @currentlypropagating, details what the plant community is cultivating, and a directory of #plantyplaces, installed on Kelso’s story highlights, lists botanical gardens, nurseries, plant shops, conservatories and plant boutiques around the world. “I feel like a part of a community now,” says Kelso, 44, who answers direct messages after her two kids have gone to bed. “It means a lot. The community includes people from all walks of life. Whether it's race, ethnicity, religion, gender orientation, socioeconomic status or age. There's not many communities that can bring people together in such a positive way.”
Favorite plant: Monstera adansonii
Most commonly asked question: “What’s wrong with my plant?”
Best tip for developing gardeners? Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit. If you kill a plant, you’ll learn something that will help you do a better job with the next one.
Most “liked” post in 2019: A photo of a plant Kelso dubbed “Ficus Audrey,” posted on Jan. 18, with 10,530 likes. “This plant may have more meaning to me than just about any other houseplant in my collection,” Kelso wrote . “Growing up in Hawaii we called them Banyan Trees. I had one across the street from my house and spent hours climbing on, hiding in, and exploring the amazing specimen. Next month when I’m home I hope to visit that tree and show you guys my favorite childhood jungle gym.”
Jennifer Tao refers to herself as an anti-influencer. “People keep asking me how I grew my account,” she says of her succulent-centric @jenssuccs. “I tell them I didn’t even try.” She started posting about plants in 2015 after inheriting leftover succulents from her brother’s wedding. Fascinated by propagation, she began transforming pots, planter boxes, wreaths, even her lawn into a “succulent wonderland.” The more detailed images of echeveria, haworthia and sanseveria she shared, the more her account grew. “It has become a beast,” admits Tao, who works part-time at a wholesale plant company. Like other influencers, Tao, 38, occasionally hosts informal workshops and meet-ups at the Huntington. “I’ve made so many amazing friends,” she says. “You connect with people from all over the country. It’s easy to relate to one another when you have so much in common right off the bat.”
Favorite plant/plants? For indoor, low-maintenance sansevierias, dracaena, pothos and peperomias. And, of course, succulents. But I keep most of them outdoors.
Most commonly asked question? "What are the best succulents for indoors?" The best low-light indoor varieties are haworthia.
Best tip for developing gardeners? Don't get too carried away. Start small, where you can easily manage and monitor your plants. You'll be able to better keep track of what works and what doesn't.
Most “liked” post in 2019: Tao began New Year’s Day with a throwback to her first Instagram post. “Propagation perks!,” she wrote of the tiny succulents. “Can't believe I took this pic over 3 years ago! What a journey it's been!” The photo received 5,885 likes and 82 comments soon after being posted.
Home: South Bay
Darlene Zavala started collecting plants after she experienced insomnia and anxiety attacks in college. “Plants give me a moment to pause,” Zavala says. “I start the first 10 to 15 minutes of my day taking care of my plants, and that grounds me.” She created @darlinggreenthings about a year ago after “stalking @houseplantclub and becoming obsessed with fittonia and pilea plants.” She decided to share her day-to-day life at home by documenting her hoyas, peperomia, cat Periwinkle and adorable dog Lialah in the hopes of meeting plant lovers her own age. “I joined the local plant associations, but it was mostly older people,” she says. “I didn’t want to bombard my friends with my plants, so I started the account for myself.” She likes to joke that her account became popular despite her lack of styling prowess. “My photographs are awful,” she says with a laugh.
Favorite plant? I'm an aroid addict, but hands down my favorite is the velvety, heart-shaped Anthurium clarinervium. Specifically my favorite is my grandmother's plant that's over 40 years old. It is quite a sight.
Most commonly asked question? It's tied between where I purchased a specific plant from and how to care for it.
Best tip for developing gardeners? Be realistic about your plant goals. Assess your intended growing space, whether that be your home, office or outdoors. Make sure you are able to meet the minimum light and temperature needs of the plants you want to grow. Be patient and get to know your plants. Don't expect to go from zero to urban jungle overnight. Lastly, be social. By this I mean reach out to local plant organizations. Prior to joining the Instagram plant community, I got a treasure trove of information from the lovely folks at my local plant associations. I get most of my plants and growing advice from fellow hobby growers.
Most “liked” post in 2019: A video of Zavala’s Anthurium radicans on Jan. 3 prompted 5,054 likes and considerable debate. “It has been recovering from pests and root rot since the end of summer,” she wrote. “It now lives in water but seems to be much happier. I'm actually afraid to transfer it back to soil. Do you guys think it could just lived [sic] permanently in water?” Suggestions from 39 followers ensued.
After driving his friends crazy with his plant posts, Brandon Jeon started a second Instagram account in secret. “They were getting annoyed,” says Jeon, a graphic artist. “None of them were into plants at the time.” Inspired by @urbanjungleblog, Jeon’s long-established interest in plants kicked into high gear and he became interested in different plant species. He created @mrplantdad last year and now shares photos of his #plantshelfie, fun DIY planter hacks and the monstera in his bedroom. He also shares gardening tips, deeply personal anecdotes and answers questions about plant care, including a recent series on bathroom plants. Moving off-line, Jeon now meets other Instagrammers for brunch, birthday parties and plant shopping excursions. “It has been a turning point for me,” he says. “I can talk to people and they won’t think I’m crazy.”
Favorite plant: Currently it’s the Begonia Burning Bush.
Most commonly asked question: “How do I care for ‘x-y-z’ plant?” Although it’s a very general question, I love to guide people in a direction that will lead them to success. But if it’s a plant I’m not familiar with, I usually let them know of other plant friends who are very knowledgeable! As a beginner, I had the same issues and questions, but I was too afraid to ask them, so I am very willing to help!
Best tip for developing gardeners: Patience, a lot of trial and error, and research. Not everybody is gifted with a green thumb; I definitely wasn’t. I’ve had my fair share of failed plants. Every house has different conditions, so someone’s watering schedule from New York won’t be the same as mine.
Most “liked” post in 2019: It’s not always about the plants. A photo of a heart leaf philodendron resting inside a round brass plant hanger from Peacock & Company received 5,694 likes and 54 comments on Jan. 15. The planter “spins around on its own so the backside of the plant shows often,” Jeon wrote.
Whether documenting a rare Amorphophallus titanum at the Huntington or hanging hoyas in her dining room, Danae Horst’s Instagram (@danaerolynhorst), and that of her plant store Folia Collective, are equal parts appreciation and education. She may refer to herself as an “ad hoc plant expert,” but it speaks to her knowledge, and engagement, that Instagram OG Justina Blakeney refers her most puzzling plant questions to Horst, her former editorial director at the Jungalow. “I want to create content that will interest people locally or around the world,” says Horst, 38. Expect beautifully shot plants, online Q&As and horticultural tips on how to keep your plants happy and healthy. Like Kelso, Horst disputes the notion that renewed interest in plants is a millennial phenomenon. “Our customer base ranges from 6-year-olds to 90-year olds,” she says. “It’s not new. The cutting swap idea came from going to garden clubs with my mother.” Instagram may be a business tool, but for Horst it’s a way to connect with plant lovers all over the world. “When we first started our cutting swap in 2016, the idea was to give people an opportunity to meet and connect over their plants in the real world,” she says. “Now, when I’m in a new city, I’ll try to connect with people that I know through Instagram. I love meeting people in real life.”
Favorite plant/plants? Officially, my favorite plant is Hoya obovata, but I really have a hard time picking a favorite. I love pretty much all plants in the philodendron (and those recently reclassified as thaumatophyllum) genus as well.
Most commonly asked question? "What's the easiest plant to care for"? Also, "How did you get into plants?”
Best tip for developing gardeners? Get to know your plants and provide the conditions they need; know what conditions you can provide and use that as a baseline when you choose any new plants to bring home.
Most “liked” post in 2019: A pair of handmade Monstera Plant Profile earrings by Los Angeles artist Cindy Zell, resting on a monstera leaf, immediately received 4,325 hearts and 59 comments after being posted on April 1.