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What’s up with succulents?

This article was originally published in print on Sept. 14, 2015.

Have succulents become the most popular new dorm decoration? It is difficult to pass a window without noticing a potted plant or two. It seems that succulents in particular have been gaining popularity as a room decoration both at Beloit College and on a national scale. They are found in a variety of settings, including restaurants, cafes, office buildings, grocery stores and wedding receptions, used as bookends, props and more.

Succulents are named after the Latin word sucus, meaning juice or sap. They often contain thickened parts to retain water in dry climates and soil. About sixty different plant families contain succulents; some of the most recognizable types are cacti, jades and aloe.

If Google search trends are any indication, the relative popularity of the term “succulents” remained fairly steady (regularly increasing and decreasing, with peaks each May) until around 2012, when it started to quickly increase. Each peak after that has increased, reaching the highest point this past May, three times higher than the steady level.

On Terrarium Day, which took place this year on Sept. 2, the Library craft table gathers a variety of succulents from the greenhouse and encourages students to make their own terrarium in mason jars with rocks, pebbles, charcoal, moss and other adornments.

It is easy to see why succulents are popular, especially for college students. Most of them only need to be watered about once a week, and don’t need a lot of light, making them relatively low-maintenance in any season. They also tend to be relatively cheap and come in a number of aesthetically pleasing varieties and colors.

“They are like trinkets you collect and arrange on a corner of your desk,” Grace Gockel’16, who was given a few succulents as gifts, says.

“I like houseplants because they bring a sense of life and green into living spaces,” Emma Koeppel’16 adds, who owns a few succulents and works in the Greenhouse.

However, there are some common mistakes that students make in regards to succulents, such as overwatering. “I’ve never seen so many dead succulents than at college,” says Sarah Hodkinson’18, who almost thinks college students cannot handle the maintenance.

Because of their “trinket-like” qualities, as Gockel describes, it is common to grow succulents in non-traditional planters, such as mugs, teacups, or mason jars. This may be another common mistake, as Hodkinson notes these containers often don’t give the plant’s roots enough room to expand.

Mattie Ganson’18 grew up with houseplants, and sees a general enthusiasm for plants that perhaps becomes amplified in college. She owns a jade plant on her desk, and a few other non-succulent plants. “I was invited to a plant party last year where we all brought our plants to someone’s room and hung out,” she says. Some people, like Hodkinson, even go so far as to name their plants. “In college, we can’t really have pets, but plants are just as good,” they say.

Ganson isn’t sure about succulents being called a trend. This “codes them specifically upper class which doesn’t necessarily make sense considering that they’re inexpensive and require very minimal care,” she says. “I think in a lot of ways they can be a less bougie alternative to gardens or plants that require a lot more care since time and monetary commitment can often be a hindrance for people who want plants.”

Max Brumberg-Kraus’16, whose housemate owns a handful of succulents, definitely sees a succulent trend at the college. “It’s an individual trying to own a cultural phenomenon. I think it’s a trend because … they’re exotic, people think they’re funny, interesting and weird-looking,” he says.

As for the class aspect, they may be cheap but their popularity may mean being associated with a certain culture. “Nothing says ‘I’m not bourgeois’ like putting a f*cking succulent in my college dorm room,” Brumberg-Kraus adds.

Hodkinson sees them as part of a Tumblr aesthetic “where people take pictures of them and make them artsy and people see them and think it’s cool to have them.”

Ganson agrees. “I do think that I’ve seen a huge upswing in the number of succulent-related pictures I’ve seen on the Internet in the last few years,” she says.

“I see a lot on Instagram and in contemporary interior design, which is trending towards minimal with plants,” Gockel adds.

This minimal design is likely related to an increasing cultural interest in environmental issues, which often translates to making “green” lifestyle choices. Several research studies have found being around nature can benefit psychological health and wellbeing. Succulents in particular have been used in detox culture to represent health and simplicity. In many ways, they have come to represent a New Age, back-to-nature, feel-good lifestyle aesthetic.

Brumberg-Kraus definitely sees succulents as related to a certain aesthetic. “It’s a desire to extend yourself into a project, to build a living creature into your own image. Maybe creature isn’t the right word, but plant.”

Hodkinson sees this aesthetic as promoting “pseudo-science,” however, seeing that simply having a plant does not guarantee healthy living.

Trend or not, these plants might say a lot about who owns them — perhaps not unlike other dorm decorations.

Students interested in a succulent fix can stop by the Greenhouse, which will have a plant sale at the end of the fall semester. Succulents and other plants are also available at the Farmer’s Market, which runs on Saturdays through October.

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