For six days a week, between 8:30 and 9:45 PM, Ethan Britto returns to the cruelty of his 180 sq. ft studio in Kalina, Mumbai, and glances to his right. Seven Pearls of Nuremberg, varying in colour from purplish grey to salmon pink, peek out from his box window grill. He’d like to see some green in this lot now. So one morning, he texts an Instagram link and asks for an opinion.

It’s a photo of coral-blue and lime-green Nuremberg Pearls lodged in six half-cut wine bottles in all their vivid glory. Will these fit on the window, I wonder. “Yeah, yeah, easily,” comes his reply.

These “pearls”—a type of succulent, a group of plants that includes aloe and cacti—are taking over Instagram, Pinterest boards, Etsy, even home decor websites. The page Britto was browsing through belongs to Shaan Lalwani’s Vriksha Nursery, which posts regular pictures, hashtagged #succulove, #youdontsucc and #succusaturday, to name but a few.

“A restaurant has bulk ordered these for their landscaping. Then there’s a lot of 270 for Mithibhai College, to be handed out during the college fest. And an order of 150 for a baby shower,” Lalwani says, scrolling down his Instagram page. “You won’t find place to stand on my terrace on weekends, man. That’s how crazy people are about these.”

The Pearl of Nuremberg—real name Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg’—has come a long way. Literally. Originally a native of arid pockets in Central and South America, this rosette-shaped baby from the Crassulaceae family of succulent plants has become one of the unexpected love children of horticulture and social media, nurtured by the hand of millennial existentialism.

'Pearls of Nuremberg', seen here in Shaan Lalwani's Vriksha Nursery in Mumbai

Visit an online nursery today, and you’ll likely see more water-retaining plants with fleshy leaves or stems (hence “succulents”). Buy them in terrariums. Buy them in ashtrays, bulbs, cool white silicone moulds, even place card holders. The tinier the better, because that’s more Instagrammable. And more convenient.

As homes shrink and standards of living plummet, a digitally saturated generation finds comfort in nature’s minimalist hustlers. The botanical answer to low investment and high returns, succulents and cacti are apt for those with scant time or inclination for hands-on care. When sparks fly between the weatherworn and the weather-hardy, you get #instaplants, #plantporn and r/succulents on Reddit, and nurseries playing catch up.

A 2017 survey by American magazine Garden Center found that succulent and cactus sales had shot up 64% since 2012 in the US. Similar patterns emerged across Europe and Japan, China and South Korea. While official figures don’t exist for India, S Jafar Naqvi, president of the Indian Flowers and Ornamental Plants Welfare Association, says the nursery market is expected to grow 10-fold over the next three years primarily because of succulents.

Lalwani realised this eight years ago as a horticulture student at the University of Sheffield.

AUTHOR

Roshni Nair

Roshni P. Nair joins us from Reuters, where she was an online producer. With a background in weekend features at Hindustan Times and DNA, Roshni has written on subjects ranging from India’s amateur UFO investigators to the provenance of sambhar. When not pursuing story ideas, she enjoys reading, making a great cuppa adrak chai, playing with street dogs, and avoiding large gatherings. Roshni will work out of Mumbai and can be reached at roshni at the rate the-ken.com

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