A cactus grows in Chinatown

Fed by social media, a low-maintenance plant trend takes root

A mural at the Sill, which sells succulents and cacti

Cacti are able to thrive in the hottest deserts and most inhospitable places on Earth, with some species capable of living up to two years without water. But can they survive in New York City?

“People come in saying they want to buy a giant cactus, and then tell us they live in apartments with only a small, north-facing window,” said Erin Marino, the director of marketing at the Sill, a plant shop that sells online and at a brick-and-mortar location at 84 Hester Street. “We’re like, ‘Don’t buy it. You’re wasting your money, you’re wasting your time.’”

Although cacti can survive without water, the one thing they absolutely need, Marino explained, is constant, uninhibited sunlight — which isn’t exactly available in most New York apartments.

This drawback has not stopped locals from trying to feature them in their decor. The plants have become incredibly trendy over the past year, cropping up in designs by Prada, Kenzo and Dolce & Gabbana, as well in aspirational social media posts of beautiful homes and gardens (as of this writing, more than 5.8 million photos on Instagram are tagged #cactus, and over 3.5 million are tagged #succulents).

When the LA-based Cactus Store opened
a pop-up, there was a line out the door.

In Chinatown, which has always had a healthy population of plant stores, many of them Chinese-owned, store owners say they have noticed a rise in shoppers who want to decorate with cacti. Perhaps no better proof is the opening of the Cactus Store, a Los Angeles transplant, which sells exactly what you think it does from a breezy greenhouse at 5 Essex Street (the location is a pop-up that’s closing in November; the cacti won’t like New York winters).

Owners of the Sill and Cactus Store think there are several reasons for the sudden popularity of cacti — beyond the fact that they look pretty in an Instagram post. For one thing, if you have enough light, cacti are easy to take care of and only require watering every few weeks.

Marino also cites market research that shows most plant buyers are millennial, professional women. Since many buildings don’t allow pets, she suggests that maybe acquiring a cacti is an opportunity for them to nurture a living thing. 

Then there are the cactus fanatics. Han Wang, the manager of the Cactus Store, says that on the day the shop opened in June, there was a line of people from the New York Cactus and Succulent Society who wanted to check out the wares. “It’s a strange world,” he noted.

Inside the Cactus Store, avid fans will find all sorts of curious cacti, which range in price from $30 to $4,000. All of them have been handpicked by the store’s owners, then trucked to New York on a six-day journey from L.A.

The store also has a small selection of cacti that are so rare and so old they aren’t even for sale, including Euphorbia abdelkuri. This species can be found only on one small island off the coast of Yemen, which is inaccessible to most people because Somali pirates patrol the waters around it.

“People come in and they’re shocked by how many different kinds of cacti there are,” Wang said. “They ask me, ‘Which one should I get?’ I tell them, ‘Which one speaks to you? Which one do you have a connection to?’ It has to be love at first sight for me.”