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Succulents are trending but South Africa's not growing

Updated: Jan 23

Lockdown life introduced an army of new plant enthusiasts the world over, and it was no doubt a game-changer for the industry.

Collecting plants, especially house plants, has become a massive social media trend for Millennials and Xennials over the last five years, with new "plant influencers" like @hellomissmay (Australia) with 372k followers on Instagram or @benjiplant (United States) with an impressive 675.1K Followers on TikTok.

Adding "Crazy Plant Mom/Dad" to your social media bio grants you instant access to the ultimate cool kids club.

However, the most fascinating new trend has been watching young people breathe new life into the world of succulents & cacti, a group of plants formerly labelled as a pastime reserved for old-timers with purple hair-do's and decorative teapots.

In the US, a tattooed 30-something is now more likely to be a member of a local cactus society than in a nefarious gang. Take for instance Hunter; he hosts a Youtube show with just under 8k subscribers called Cactus Quest which features a number of colourful characters going on adventures with him to "nerd out" about cacti.

Cactus Queen turned her cactus obsession into a niche columnar cacti shop in Texas with her 9k following growing rapidly by the day.

On the opposite end of the world in Japan, we see people like Takumi Hikone with 20k followers staging caudex plants in his beautiful minimalist modern vessels.

Also from Tokyo, @illdependent stages his collection of succulents and cacti with adorable mini vinyl toys and labels it as 'Botanical Toy Photography'.

Perhaps the most notable country to celebrate succulents right now is Thailand. A simple search for succulents in Thailand on Instagram will return hundreds of accounts of specialist growers, collectors, and enthusiasts.

If you can think of it - there will undoubtedly be a grower/seller in Thailand to accommodate that niche.

But what about South Africa?

Are we seeing the same trend?

The answer is yes and no.

As a newfound succulent enthusiast living in the Cape Town city bowl, it became apparent to me almost immediately that I wouldn't be able to find anything worth collecting for at least a 40km drive out of the city, except for that one guy at Milnerton market. True to my Capetonian nature I was too lazy to drive, so my search started.

I scoured the web to try and find growers and sellers that don't just stock Firesticks and Aloe Vera but who offered the weird and strange plants I fell in love with on Instagram and eventually I stumbled upon our local community of collectible succulent sellers hosting Whatsapp Group Sales and quickly realised that there is a gap in this market and thus started my own business.

Three years on, having launched my online store earlier this year, I've come to realise that most sellers locally are importing plants to keep up with the demands of the market. Some might argue that exotics will always be easier to import, but I say why? It totally baffles me that a country where a third of the world's succulents originate from is not farming its own naturally occurring plants and selling and/or exporting them?

Euphorbia obesa for instance, the South African crown jewel of succulents in cultivation, is incredibly difficult to source locally, wholesale, or even retail but a simple search on Instagram returns hundreds of international growers shipping big matured plants anywhere in the world.

Something is wrong with this picture... Is it any wonder that so many of our plants are being pillaged by poaching if we can't deliver on the local and even international demand that so clearly exists?


This article was originally written for Cape Green Forum's Email Newsletter.

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