Whenever her succulents show signs of disease like wilting or yellowing leaves, Joo Young-hyun immediately heads to a "plant hospital."
Recently, her potted rosemary and lavender plants required the care of a plant doctor when they began to droop and shed.
The doctor’s diagnosis was overwatering. Her herbs’ roots were found to be partially rotten due to a drainage problem.
The ailing plants were admitted to the plant hospital for treatment, which included repotting, replacing of the soil, careful watering and lighting. After 10 days of extensive care, the herbs were nursed back to health and returned home.
“Some people treat their plants on their own by getting tips from YouTube videos, but I was afraid of failure. I needed the help of professionals,” she said.
“Plants are, to me, no different from pet animals like dogs or cats,” she added.
Joo is one of many home gardeners in Korea to whom plants are more than just a prop for interior decoration.
Plant aficionados tend to have a large garden or a plant vivarium inside their homes to nurture various kinds of plants, growing them as companion pets. They call themselves “plant butlers.”
A search with the hashtag "pet plants" or "plant butler" in Korean on Instagram returns tens of thousands of pictures and short videos shared by home gardeners.
Han, a 31-year-old office worker in Seoul who has been growing different varieties of monstera plants, including dubia and Swiss cheese, in her living room since late last year, said, “Watering plants and recording how much they have grown with a camera after work has become an important part of my daily life.”
“Looking at sprouts grown from small seeds fills me with a sense of wonder at the miracle of life,” she added.
Amid the home gardening boom, Seoul city has opened plant clinics in five districts. These facilities offer care services and free consultations with plant experts to heal sick plants.
The one Joo took her rosemary and lavender to is like the general hospital, opened in April and located inside the Seoul Agricultural Technology Center in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul. The others, also launched by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, are smaller in scale and situated in Jongno-gu, Dongdaemun-gu, Eunpyeong-gu and Yangcheon-gu.
If plants are severely unwell, it is recommended to take them to the general hospital for specialized treatment and hospitalization. For general consultations and simple treatments, however, the four smaller clinics are sufficient to address the needs of most plants.
“Plant hospitals and clinics are places where plants can receive diagnoses and prescriptions from plant doctors when they wither or become ill, just as pets get veterinary care when they are sick. We plan to provide various forms of support to help citizens find emotional stability and physical health through companion plants,” said Park Jae-yong, a Seoul city official in charge of the operation of plant clinics.
The recent surge in the popularity of houseplants has added new vigor to local “planterior” startups. The newly coined term refers to the use of plants in interior design.
New businesses such as multipurpose shops featuring a curated selection of houseplants and indoor gardening supplies and plant care services have emerged, enjoying great popularity among home gardeners.
One plant shop run by a local gardening brand Macho’s Sachunki in Bundang-gu, Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, serves as a plant boarding facility. People can bring their houseplants for short-term stays of up to two weeks. Gardening experts there offer basic maintenance like repotting, cleaning and watering, which is free of charge.
Another planterior startup, Sikmul Hall, offers plant care visits targeting beginners or busy office workers. Its plant sitters look after their indoor plants while they are away and provide customized information about growing plants, including sunlight requirements or repotting.
Find relief amid greenery
The desire for mental health benefits is what plant lovers expect from home gardening, a survey showed.
According to an online survey of 874 home gardeners by the Rural Development Administration between September-October last year, 55 percent of the respondents said they grow plants at home “to become emotionally stable.” Twenty-seven percent said “to purify the air,” while 14 percent said “to decorate homes.”
What some experts here call the "coronavirus blues" phenomenon, caused by the pandemic's health risks, isolation and social distancing measures, has urged more people to seek comfort and solace through connecting with nature within the confines of their homes.
“People’s instinctive desire for interaction with nature, which was constrained by COVID-19, has naturally led them to grow plants at home,” said Jo Young-tak, a professor of psychiatry at Kangdong Sacred Heart Hospital.
“When touching soil and plants, people can feel connected to nature. They can also feel rewarded while watching their plants grow, day by day. These positive emotions trigger the release of serotonin, often referred to as the ‘happiness hormone’ in the brain, which soothes feelings of anxiety and depression.”