Emma Terrell first launched the Urban Botanist in Ottawa to help others engage with nature at home.

“I started fresh out of university with the idea and intent of encouraging my community and encouraging others to engage with nature in an urban setting,” the 31-year-old said. “I was teaching people about plants and inspiring people to grow their green thumbs and learn more about terrariums and gardening.”

At Carleton, Terrell had studied biology with a focus on insects. “I would say from my earliest memories, I have just been completely enamoured and obsessed with all things living and growing and green.”

Her business, started in 2017, includes an online plant and accessory shop, facilitating virtual workshops, and designing living walls for people’s homes, businesses or events. 

Since the pandemic, Terrell has noticed an increase in demand for house plants and more engagement with her social media. 

“We’ve seen a real jump in the general interest of millennials and Gen Z’s… wanting to get more into the hobby of horticulture, the hobby of indoor plants,” Terrell said.  

Emma Terrell, the Urban Botanist, talks winter plant care and things to avoid. Recorded and produced by Aly McCabe

Terrell is among a handful of plant sellers in Ottawa who said sales have been on the rise since March 2020. Amid pandemic lockdowns, they said, Ottawans flocked to open garden centres to fill their homes with nature.

Now, over a year and a half into the pandemic, the demand for house plants and tropicals remains high. 

The popularity of house plants stems from a need to care for something. In the pandemic, houseplants became a way to boost wellbeing. 

“One of the things in order for us to keep well during the pandemic, particularly when we can’t engage in our normal activities, or hobbies, or maybe have reduced social contact with others is to find things that make us feel well,” said Crystal Holly, a psychologist at Balance Psychology and Wellness in Ottawa. 

For Holly, “Caring for things and kind of getting back to those simpler activities contributes to emotional well-being and overall well-being.”

Flower to the People employee Krista Evans said she saw an increase in demand at their ByWard Market plant shop in March 2020.

“It’s also just really nice to be around aesthetically pleasing things,” Holly said, “As people grow plants at home and kind of beautify and green up their spaces, they’re also feeling better.”

The snake plant Laurentii, one of the many verities of snake plants Krista Evan loves. Photo taken by Kara Eades. Accessed from unsplash.com.

 “We were pretty busy with plants before the pandemic too, but it definitely increased,” she said.

She said she noticed even grocery stores and big box stores jumped on the trend, offering bigger house plant selections since the pandemic.

Evans is an avid plant collector herself.

 “I find it quite meditative,” she said, “I get a lot of satisfaction out of taking care of something.” 

Sansevarias – or snake plants – are Evans’s favourites, and she said she has 60 different varieties in her home.

More demand, more popularity

The Plante family has been a part of the Ottawa plant and garden scene since 1981, when they started selling in the ByWard Market. In 2001, they opened Robert Plante Greenhouses in Navan, Ont. 

Spokesperson Colin Matassa said they had never seen the kind of demand brought on by the pandemic.

“March 2020 is when the demand went through the roof,” he said. 

The greenhouse always carried house plants, Matassa added, but they have never been so popular.

The brand-new 2,700-square-metre greenhouse is filled with houseplants and accessories. “There’s always something for everyone,” Matassa said.

On a sunny afternoon in November, greenhouse customers said they were reaping the benefits of the wide house plant selection.

“I’ve collected house plants off and on for years,” Kim White said as she browsed the greenery at the greenhouse. “It’s gotten worse since I found this place.” 

White was shopping with her friend Krista Gower, a new plant mom whose collection began in February 2021.

“It’s almost like self-care for me to take the time to care for my plants,” Gower said. “It’s fun to watch them grow.”

Erik Watt-Sorensen and Elena Ienzi were also shopping for new houseplants and accessories.

Ienzi said her plant collection started when the pandemic started.

“It’s a hobby,” she said. “I used to travel all the time but not anymore because of COVID.”

Plants “definitely bring some joy and happiness,” Watt-Sorensen said. “It’s really nice on your days off because you always have something to do.” 

Taking care of nature, taking care of ourselves

Full shelves at Plant & Curio on Preston St, Ottawa, Ont. Photo by Aly McCabe

To Emma Terrell, the growing interest in plants stems from a greater need for people to take care of themselves.

“I think that more people were looking for something to do, not only to fill up their time … but also looking for alternative ways to sort of give their mental health a break,” she said.

There’s a science to plants and their benefits, Terrell said. 

“They actually work to clean our air and remove negative ions from our space, and ultimately boost your mood,” Terrell explained. 

She continued, “We as human beings have an innate need to be close to nature.” 

Being away from nature, Terrell said, can lead to “lacking creativity, lacking productivity, maybe feeling chronic fatigue or anxiety.” 

Terrell said house plants help bring nature indoors, especially in urban places where big outdoor gardens are not always accessible. 

“Plants literally breath more life into your space,” she said. “Just adding that lush greenery is a beautiful pop of colour and liveliness.”