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What Jade Plants Can Tell Us About East Bay Gentrification

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CLose-up of white five-point flowers with a pink center growing from bulbous green leaves.
As a longtime resident of the East Bay, the jade plant is a marker of 'old Bay Area.' (Alexis Madrigal/KQED)

While meandering down the street the other day, I noticed: the jade plants are blooming! They have happy little flowers, white stars, tinged with pink.

A jade plant is defined by its succulent leaves and thick trunks. This is a plant that is a complete idea, minus any blooms. But that’s part of the charm — flowers as lagniappe.

Once you notice one jade plant, you notice they’re everywhere. I don’t think you could go a single residential block in the East Bay without finding at least one, and probably 10 or 50. They might be the region’s single most popular plant, if you don’t count grass. (Not strongly evidenced, just a guess.) I find myself apologizing to beautiful specimens everywhere I go now. I’m sorry I couldn’t see you before, you absolute unit.

The hearty jade plant can seemingly grow anywhere — even in a street bollard. (Alexis Madrigal/KQED)

Here’s the thing, though: while succulents are currently very fashionable, the jade plant is … not. And it has not been for many years. I’m sure you know the house-being-flipped look: ornamental grasses, perhaps some rosette-y succulents, wood chips to cover the flaws. But never, ever, ever a jade plant.

Trends change; plants grow. So now, the jadescape is a living negative image of gentrification. If there’s a thick jade in the front yard (or over by the trash can storage, or half fallen over in a pot), you know that place probably has not changed hands for quiiiite a while. Thick jadescape means old Bay Area, crystals aligned for a Raiders victory, forgotten spiritualities of shuttered second-wave coffee shops. But how’d they get there in the first place? When were jade plants so popular?

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No one really tracks these things or writes histories about the growth and distribution of plant varieties in Northern California. But doesn’t the sturdy jade deserve it? I went back through newspaper archives and old books. Here’s the best I’ve been able to figure it.

When you see a jade plant in front of a house or building, it’s a sign of longevity. (Alexis Madrigal/KQED)

Scientific name, Crassula ovata. Like many succulents, the jade plant is from southern Africa. I couldn’t find any specific data on when it entered wide distribution, but it rode in on a wave of orientalism. By 1923, House and Garden magazine could say, “From every point of view, there could be few more attractive ornaments for a room than one of these Oriental jade plants, and may we not suppose that it would bring something of the enchantment of strange lands and mysterious temples?”

Fast forward to 1966 in Stockton, and a newspaper columnist related that “a friend of mine who is very interested in Oriental art and culture loves to display her jade plant in front of a fine hand-painted screen.” Elegante!

So, it was an “exotic plant” with a vaguely Eastern gloss that could be had for $1.59 in a 4” pot. It was unkillable, tolerated (even loved) being forgotten, and could be propagated by crudely breaking off a branch and sticking it somewhere. Free jade, easier than free love.

Maggie Maylis’ ‘Plant Parenthood,’ published in the middle of the plant boom in 1975. (101 Productions)

And here’s the crux of the story. In the early 1970s, ecology had become a new way of seeing the world. City residents were inventing a new kind of relationship with other living things. This is the era that birthed the “fern bar,” macrame hangers, the open space movement, and visionary ecological art like Bonnie Ora Sherk’s “Portable Parks” series, where she installed temporary parks inside urban infrastructure. Plant sales, including jade, boomed in all the groovy cosmopolitan places.

Installation view of ‘Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970’ at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. (Alexis Madrigal/KQED)

And then? The plant boom ended. You have to love this August 1977 lede in the San Francisco Examiner by Mickey Friedman, and its checklist of high ’70s Bay Area references:

The plant mania that engulfed us a few years ago has dissipated. For a while, it seemed that all hip Bay Area citizens were about to give up their accustomed interests — tie dyeing, primal therapy, movies of the ’40s — to immerse themselves in leaf cuttings and fish emulsion. Should you talk to your plants or play music to them? Kill spider mites with soapsuds or malathion? These were issues of the day, debated as hotly as the merits of est versus Esalen. Now, we can be sensible about plants again. The truth is, plants are nice to have around, but the greater proportion of the populace is not fish-emulsion oriented.

But people didn’t necessarily want to go back to a plant-less life, Friedman argued. They just wanted easier plants, and what easier plant could there be than the jade? It went above the fold.

A 1977 column from Mickey Friedman in the San Francisco Examiner. (Bancroft Library/Examiner Archives)

As time went by, jade plants ended up in odd places, tucked into forgotten corners, snipped into makeshift hedges, wrapped around a pole, thickening by the driveway, greening up the single-room occupancy hotel. Our climate agreed with them. They thrived wherever no one was looking. They didn’t need to be cared for, just left alone.

And some people do love them! Despite their South African origin, jade plants became popular among some Asian Americans. Strategist Rena Tom recalls her parents’ lovingly tended border in a Sacramento suburb: “Jade is a staple gift for Chinese people, store openings and such, so that’s one way it has spread far and wide,” she said, “by choice and not neglect.”

Jade plants propagate so easily that a few really productive plants likely seeded whole blocks. In an interwoven place like Berkeley, maybe all the jade is distantly related, some ceramics auntie’s prize specimen multiplying yard-by-yard. Even generations removed, mustn’t the plants still retain a whiff, an essence of low-note earthiness? I hope so. We need it, we people of blue light hairlessness, of Zoom and emoji eggplants and bright airy kitchens.

In any case, I predict a jade resurgence.

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This story originally appeared in Oakland Garden Club, a newsletter about plants and the urban environment.

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