The cactus flower pulses twice before it opens, stretching to reveal hot pink petals. Then, in a flash, the bud is closed again, and the stem wilts a bit as the sun goes down. It almost looks like the plant woke up, stretched, then, per that delightful Saturday morning ritual, turned over and decided to go back to bed.
The video, which was posted on Morgan Doane’s popular Planting Pink Instagram account, only lasts about 10 seconds. The short, rewatchable runtime betrays the fact that it was filmed over the course of three days.
Almost a century and a half after Charles Darwin published the first study on plant movement in 1880, millennials have taken up the naturalist’s work. A generation that came of age watching plant porn seen on big-budget nature series such as BBC’s Planet Earth has taken documentation into their own hands.
What once required bulky cameras and a production crew can now be captured by anyone with an iPhone. As such, Instagram accounts such as Doane's abound, where followers flock to view the agony and the ecstasy that comes with a budding Caladium leaf or swaying telegraph plant.
Doane, who lives in Florida, told The Daily Beast she owns about 40 plants. The self-taught horticulturist dove into plant Instagram around four years ago, even though she had deleted different social media accounts as an act of self-care.
“I had left Facebook and other social media sites because of political stuff that was constantly depressing me,” she said. “I needed a creative outlet, and I found my people on the plant Instagram community.”
Indeed, the unalloyed clips embody the type of viral escapism usually reserved for cat memes and carpool karaoke.
That community has flourished in recent years. In August, The Economist reported that a third of all plant purchases in America are made by millennials, and that Google searches for “succulents” has risen by ten times since 2010.
“I catch myself scrolling through Instagram and watching time-lapse plant videos more often than I would like to admit,” Erin Marino, director of brand marketing for plant retailer The Sill, wrote in an email. “I personally find that caring for my plants is incredibly therapeutic. I think that you can get a similar calming effect by watching videos—but you won’t get the extra air-filtering benefits.”
Purified oxygen aside, time lapse videos provide the one thing fickle, often-dying houseplants are not known for: instant gratification.
“You get to see life happen much quicker in a time-lapse than you would if you were just seeing a plant grow over a 14 day period,” Doane explained. “A lot of your own life happens in two weeks. You can’t just sit there and watch your plant unfurl a leaf, but if you set up a camera and walk away, then come back 14 days later, it’s amazing what has happened in that time period.”
Marc Hachadourian, director of glasshouse horticulture and senior curator of orchids for the New York Botanical Garden, believes that the videos demystify the sterile biology lessons of high school.
“Your teachers tell you that gravity exists and plants move,” Hachadourian said. “So you say, ‘OK, plants move.’ But how often do you get to see it? With these videos, you can watch on a scale that’s easy to perceive. It gives you a connection, and a sense of actually witnessing it happen.”
Darryl Cheng runs the Houseplant Journal Instagram account. With a day job as an engineer, Cheng was one of the first self-taught botanists whose time-lapses went viral on Facebook aggregator accounts like NowThis and Unilad.
As houseplants replace house cats in many tiny apartments, Cheng hopes that these videos will encourage people to stop viewing their greenery as decor, but rather living organisms.
“People would be much happier with their plants if they appreciated how they grow, as opposed to just how they look right now,” Cheng said. “These videos show that nature takes its course, and that your plants will not look the same forever.”
The New York Botanical Garden films an annual time-lapse documenting the bloom of its famous corpse flower, a 12-foot-tall spike native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
While most come for the corpse flower, Hachadourian and his band of “plant geeks” stay for what the video reveals about the surrounding greenery.
“We get a kick out of how many of the other palms and ferns move as well. It looks like this very choreographed ballet of the leaves swaying and moving together as the corpse flower opens. It's a very Disney-like experience of dancing flowers,” Hachadourian said.
By getting caught up in the romance, viewers don't have to face the responsibilities of owning a plant. There's no need to fret over not having a sunny enough spot to place an aloe tree, or frantically search for friends who will water a philodendron when you're out of town.
If, as The Economist wryly suggests, millennials are buying plants because they're “cheaper” than homes, watching plant videos rather than tending to a garden of one's own could be seen as the ultimate form of noncommittal laziness.
Regardless, as Doane's budding cactus flower proves with its 30,000 views and counting, fans are going to keep watching—and rewatching.