This week we talked to Summer Rayne Oakes about her massive plant collection in New York and her new book.
WATER & LIGHT (W&L): HOW DID YOU GET INTO PLANTS?
Summer (S): My parents were both gardeners, and as a kid, I foraged in the woods and meadows around my home, gardened with my parents, and studied the medicinal qualities of the wild plants around my area. As a high schooler, I joined the Envirothon team, which is an environmental science competition; and as a teenager, one of my first jobs was developing the planting program to restore an old mine site in my hometown. I pretty much knew this is what I wanted to study by the time I got to college, and it was really there where I got to explore lots of different related topics ecology, entomology, botany, and more. I got more into houseplants when I graduated and moved to NYC. I was so accustomed to being around plants that it felt odd not having many in my life.
W&L: DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU GOT YOUR FIRST PLANT AND WHAT PLANT IT WAS?
(S): Well, I was always around plants growing up, and me and my father built a small waterfall in my room where I could grow aquatic plants and aquatic insects. Not sure if those were my "first" plants, but that's a strong memory. When I moved to the city, I got my first houseplant in 2008—shortly after my roommate had moved out.
W&L: WHERE DO YOU GET MOST OF YOUR PLANTS?
(S): Everywhere. Local shops, Ebay, Etsy, collectors here and abroad, at plant meetings and plant swaps, botanic gardens who are willing to share, I grow them from seed, I'll go on botanical excursions. It's endless.
W&L: WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PLANT SHOPS TO VISIT?
(S): Because I live in Williamsburg, I like to pay a regular visit to those right within a short walking distance, like Chelsea Garden Center and Crest Hardware and Garden, for instance. Plus the people who work in those shops are just the sweetest and most supportive. But there are so many great shops—and some that I still have to visit!
W&L: HOW MANY PLANTS DO YOU HAVE IN YOUR COLLECTION?
(S): It's constantly shifting and changing. Currently a little over 1,100 plants and around 560 species. Probably more now since my last count.
W&L: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RAREST PLANTS THAT YOU HAVE IN YOUR COLLECTION?
Hmmm. Probably a Colletogyne perrieri. It's a type of bulbiferous Aroid from a very specific limestone area of Madagascar and the only species in its genus. It bloomed so nicely last year but I failed to fertilize it, so I'm hoping it reblooms this year. Fingers crossed.
W&L: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PLANTS?
(S): Peperomia ...I also really like Hoya and have been collecting more over the years. Also, Rhipsalis. But Peps are my favorite.
W&L: WHAT DO YOU LIKE THE MOST ABOUT BEING A PLANT PERSON?
(S): That I get to really pursue my passion and share my knowledge and enthusiasm with people who value it.
W&L: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES THAT YOU HAVE WITH PLANTS?
(S): Like most people, finding good folks to take care of my plants when I'm traveling. No one takes better care of your children than you do! haha.
W&L: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR PLANT SPECIALITY?
(S): Hmmmm, probably the natural history of the plants that I grow in my home—where they are native to, how they grow in their native environments—and then connecting that back to how we might want to care for our plants. I try to pull a lot of that information through my book and the Houseplant Masterclass too. My mission in life is to help connect people back to nature, and I think that is a really natural way to do it—using our beloved houseplants as a way to connect us back to their origins.
W&L: WHAT ARE YOUR TOP 3 PLANT CARE TIPS?
(S): Find a happy medium with your plants; don't overdo it. That may mean having 1 plant or that may meaning have 100 plants. Just find what's right for you because they have the power to relax us, but by overdoing it, they can become stressful! Second tip: know what conditions you have in your home, particularly lighting; and what kind of plant parent you are (e.g., helicopter plant parent or hands-off)....Those two things will help you determine what kind of plants you should get for your home; and finally— enjoy the process of growing, maintaining (and even losing) plants.
W&L: TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK!
(S): How to Make a Plant Love You was released on July 9, 2019 and it's more a philosophical guide to living with plants and finding health, happiness, and wellness through our chlorophyll-loving counterparts.
W&L: WHERE CAN PEOPLE FIND A COPY?
(S): Anywhere where books are sold. It'll also be published worldwide in I believe seven languages right now, so people who don't speak English may be in luck!