Not so soulless after all: In praise of lockdown-era artificial plants

As I hovered over the reviews for “ARTIFICIAL MONSTERA PLANT 60CM,” I felt a slight ickiness. But maybe it's not so bad to have something that can last forever

June 09, 2020
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Recently I realised that I have the worst-kept balcony in my whole building. I wouldn’t have minded much before, but during lockdown we had no choice but to treasure our outdoor spaces, and it was painfully revealed that I had not treasured mine. Four tiles of my balcony have been given over to a piece of AstroTurf that my dog defecates on. The rest of the space is ashtrays, a cheap table and chairs, and a half-empty bottle of Miller. Meanwhile, from the street, I admired rows and rows of balconies exquisitely tended to: ivy trellis, hammocks, and bonsai trees. Inspired, I got to work.

The garden centres were still closed, so I decided to go online and investigate artificial alternatives. As I hovered over the reviews for “ARTIFICIAL MONSTERA PLANT 60CM,” I felt a slight ickiness. A sense that this was tacky, cheating and a little shameful. To buy a fake plant when you could grow a real one is like admitting that you are incapable of nurturing something—that you’re the cold woman in a romcom who has to undergo a life-changing transformation by trading her corporate pencil skirts for jeans and throwing her phone into a river.

I became annoyed by my own indecisiveness, and even more annoyed at how much spiritual weight I was putting on something as stupid as an artificial plant. But the strange thing about plastic plants is that almost everyone seems to have weird feelings about them. A fake flower is fine on a cake or on a hairband. Fake flowers as a gift, however, are beyond strange. If someone sent you a bouquet of long-stemmed plastic red roses, you would simply call the police. It’s the “uncanny valley” of gift-giving: no one can describe how and why it’s weird, it just is.

Perhaps something in us is hardwired to think of gifts as ephemeral. Wine, cut flowers and chocolate are hits because they are expensive, aesthetic and pointless. They say “I love you so much, I’m willing to waste money on a temporary experience for you, one I myself may not even benefit from!” They say: even if you hate this, you won’t have to suffer it for very long.

We all agree that plastic flowers are OK in offices. Nobody wants to see a wilted begonia at their dentist’s office; dually, nobody wants to pay extra to visit the kind of dentist who can afford to waste time on plant care. But this wasn’t always the case. Artificial plants first enjoyed their big commercial boom in the 1950s and 60s, when polyethylene—a durable, waxy plastic invented during the Second World War—allowed for the world’s first realistic-looking mass-produced blooms. Plastic flower agencies were so popular that they came with their own “gardener” who showed up at your office to clean and rotate your blooms for an extra $250 a month, real money in postwar currency.

The appeal of plastic flowers in the 1950s and 60s had more to do with the trends of the time than the practicalities of keeping plants alive. When Dustin Hoffman was assured that there was “a great future in plastics” in the 1967 Hollywood classic The Graduate, he was getting sound advice: plastic wasn’t just a material, but an entire aesthetic. Colourful, shiny, cheap and everywhere. Suburban neighbourhoods mushroomed just as office buildings ballooned from three-clerks-in-a-big-room to multi-storey buildings. Having the same eucalyptus pot on every floor of your office created uniformity, while at the same time pink plastic flamingos in your garden created a certain ersatz individuality within safe limits. The inauthenticity and lifelessness of plastic meant it was an easy tool for control in an era that needed to regain a sense of it. The war had shattered lives, and the 1950s was an era dedicated to lacquering the shattered pieces.

Perhaps it’s too convenient to point out that the world fell in love with flowers that never died amid a global grieving process. Did plastic flowers proverbially bloom so much back then because the psychic weight of wreath-laying and grave-tending was too burdensome for a generation that was trying to move on? It’s a disturbing parallel, one that emerged again in the 2000s when bowls of fake fruit started cropping up in middle-class American homes during the worst days of the Iraq War. “Is it a stretch to say fake fruit let us forget about the inevitability of death?” asked the lifestyle blog Apartment Therapy.

And so, as always, I end up cycling back to my own behaviour: am I looking at fake plants due to my inadequate balcony, or am I following a Covid-induced home improvement fad? When the news is filled with fatalities and every supermarket trip is a health scare, is it nice to have just one object in your life that can claim to last forever?