Trading Houseplants and Making Friends

Plant swaps have become a way to ditch old plants, find new ones and meet new people along the way.

Trading Houseplants and Making Friends

Tiannis Coffie, Angela Chack, and Nathalie Helfer drink matcha and socialize at a plant swapping event at Athleta Flatiron in New York City. Plant lovers often make like-minded friends at these types of events.Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

Elisabeth Andersson, a 23-year-old stock exchange analyst, was in a bind. She had a new cat that was eating her aloe plants. No friend or family member wanted the plants, nor could she bring herself to just trash them. “I had been growing the plant for 9 or 10 years, harvesting the little babies and replanting them,” she said. “It would make me too sad.”

So when her apartment building, a TF Cornerstone property in Long Island City, advertised a communal plant swap, she attended.

One Saturday this fall, she placed her plants (including a jade) on a table in the courtyard. She spent hours convincing fellow participants to trade their species for hers. She returned home with a new cactus her cat wouldn’t touch.

It was also fun socially. “These people are like homegrown botanists,” she said. “They made me want to learn more.”

Plant swaps are gaining in popularity across New York City. Some are organized events. Others are individual trades that occur with the help of listservs or social media. It’s a solution for people who might want to diversify their collection or who need to get rid of their plants — perhaps because of an allergy or a new workplace policy that doesn’t allow them.

“People are starting to look at their plants differently,” said Summer Rayne Oakes, author of “How to Make a Plant Love You.” She has organized plant swaps across the country, including the one that Ms. Andersson attended in Long Island City. “There is a trend of people trading clips that they have grown or plants they got from their parents. It’s meaningful.”

Her first plant swap took place in the fall of 2017 at Lululemon’s Hub Seventeen, the brand’s event space. (“It’s hard to find great spaces in the city that are relatively open,” she explained. “You need table space. You need horizontal space.”) She advertised it through social media and was thrilled when 70 people attended. Since then she has organized eight plant swaps, six of them in New York City. Tickets cost $10 to $15 (donated to charity) and include gift bags, panels and nonalcoholic drinks like kombucha.

Earlier this year, she launched a global calendar where people all over the world can advertise their events on Homestead Brooklyn. Since April, the site has listed 84 plant swaps, most of them in the U.S., but also including ones in Sydney, Cape Town and Amsterdam.

For Robert Jeffery, a 31-year-old clinical lab supervisor in Williamsburg, the timing of plant swaps has never been right. “I just returned from visiting Chatuchak Flower Market in Bangkok, and I was also able to visit the Jianguo Weekend flower market in Taipei,” he said over email. “Turns out I had at least two other friends hosting plant swaps back in the city while I was away. FOMO.” So he’s getting the job done over social media.

On an Instagram story, he shared his desire to own a peperomia argyreia, a South American plant whose leaves look like a watermelon. He is now swapping a few stems of that plant for ceropegia woodii, also called rosary vine and native to South Africa, and senecio rowleyanus or string-of-pearls, which is native to southwest Africa, with a stranger from Sunset Park. Instagram has been so successful, he said, “It is sort of like Plant Currency, PlantCoin.”

Other people turn to dedicated plant swapping sites.

A few years ago, Luca Iorga, who splits her time between the Bronx and Owego, N. Y., where she runs a domestic animal sanctuary, was walking in midtown when she saw a gigantic, healthy plant in a dumpster. Realizing people needed a way to recycle their houseplants if they’re moving or if they simply no longer have space for a particular plant, she launched, a social network where people can list species they want to give or receive. “We had 44 people sign up the first day,” she said. “Now in the New York City area alone, we have about 1,250 users.”

Larger companies and nonprofit organizations are starting to use the free service.

Art Start, a nonprofit organization that works inside Nelson Family Residence, a family shelter in the South Bronx, received 43 plants from a company that was moving offices and couldn’t take their plants with them. “Without those plants being donated there is no way we could have afforded them at that size and quality,” said Mariam Aryai Rivera, an associate program manager for Art Start. Among the plants donated were dracaena warneckii, a plant native to tropical Africa that is known for its pointy, striped leaves and that can cost more than $100 each.

Of course plant swapping can come with risks. “If I see a listing of something obviously diseased, I take it down,” said Ms. Iorga. “But I honestly can’t guarantee these plants are healthy.”

There is also the trouble involved with finding a perfect match. Many people using these services are looking for rare or exotic plants.

“The process was much more competitive and cut throat than I expected,” said Ms. Andersson. “I had beginner plants, and all these people had exotic ones. I would be like, “Are you willing to trade a cactus for an aloe and they would say, ‘Nah.’”

But she, like many plant lovers, will tell you that’s also part of the fun. “I can’t wait to go again,” she said. “I will definitely prepare a little more next time. I need selling points and to pick my best plants and bring them all clean and shiny.”

In late November, Jules Hunt, 28, an Austin native who runs a wellness and mindful lifestyle brand, hosted a plant swap at Athleta, a sports clothing store in the Flatiron district. She wanted the event to be more about community and fun than competition.

“I know some people can take plant swaps very seriously,” she said. So she dedicated half an hour at the beginning of the evening to strictly socializing before getting down to business. The 30 participants were having so much fun chatting they stayed long after the plant swapping had ended.

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