Why do some houseplants grow better when surrounded by other plants?

Have you heard that many houseplants are happier growing grouped together in our homes?

Why is this? What is the science behind some plants thriving in close quarters while others struggle?

Today we will explore some interesting facts about the social lives of our plants and how we can use that information to help our plants thrive!

Table of Contents

Believe it or not, houseplants have a wide range of social personalities (somewhat similar to us people).

“Most people would not think of plants as social organisms. But sociality simply means that individuals live and interact in groups. Plants are certainly group-living, and they compete with their neighbours for vital resources.”

Dr. Jay Biernaskie, The Social Life of Plants, Source

It is likely no surprise that there are people who thrive on social gatherings while others thrive on alone time. And there are plenty of people who fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Plants range in their desire and appreciation for gatherings similarly to people.

Some plants prefer to live and grow alone surrounded by few to no plants.

Other plants prefer to live and grow among tight communities of plants, both related and not.

But the social similarities between plants and people do not end here.

There are people who prize the accumulation of resources over the equal distribution of resources within their community. They see others as competition.

Meanwhile, there are other people who prize being a part of a well-connected community over amassing resources for themselves. They see others as an integral part of their network and would rather share resources to ensure that everyone has enough.

Believe it or not, plants are the same way!

Some plants want to live among their family members and will go to great lengths to support those family members. Conversely, other plants will see even family members as competition and work how to outdo their family members and other nearby plants

For plants, this range of social needs and tolerances is called plant sociability and has been studied for many years by scientists interested in understanding plant behavior.

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What is plant sociability?

“Sociability– that is how far plants within the same population grow from each other– offers a good model for distinguishing which plants should be massed versus which should be planted individually.”

Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, Planting in a Post-Wild World, page 152 (linked to Amazon via the affiliate program)

Scientists study and determine how social a plant seems to be by observing how that plant grows in the wild.

Researchers then categorize a plant’s sociability on a scale from 1 to 5.

Plants labeled as a 1 are determined to be the least social, preferring to grow as lone individuals.

Plants labeled as a 5 are determined to be the most social, wanting to grow surrounded by lots of family members and often other plants as well.

Here you can see a gorgeous photo of the rainforest, plants growing in every nook and cranny, thriving in the crowded and bustling community they’ve created.

Plant Sociability 5
Check out the VERY social lives of plants in the rainforest!

“Plants on the higher end of the sociability scale (3 to 5) are [often] excellent ground covers that should be arranged in masses of ten to twenty or more.”

Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, Planting in a Post-Wild World, page 152

Note how the moss in the photo below forms a mat covering the forest floor, all interconnected. This is not likely to be one huge, single plant, but lots of related plants living peacefully with each other.

Plant Sociability Moss

If you are wondering how such crowded plants do not need to compete with each other for resources, it is because they recognize their strength is in numbers rather than in personal achievement.

From Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees (Paraphrased):

Wouldn’t it make sense if a tree grew better when competitors were removed so competition for resources were eliminated?

For some, it’s just the opposite.

For example, beech tree forests thrive on growing extremely close together. In this way, the trees ensure that all members of the forest receive adequate optimal amounts of resources to grow into the best trees they can be.

But isn’t it the survival of the fittest?

No, not in this case.

When a beech forest loses a member, the others suffer as well. The once tightly knit community that maintained its cool humid climate beneath the treetops now suffers a hole that allows in disproportionate amounts of sun, wind, etcetera.

Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, pages 14-17

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Sunny Forest of Beech Trees Plant Sociability
“Sunny Forest of Beech Trees”

“Plants on the lower end of the sociability scale (1 and 2) are generally tall and visually dominant, and should be arranged individually or in small clumps of three to ten.”

Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, Planting in a Post-Wild World, page 152

Below you can see the amazing Saguaro cacti towering above the other plants. We don’t see these cacti growing naturally right next to each other, but rather with ample space between them. Even the plants lower on the ground are not nearly as close together and crowded as those in the busy rainforest.

Plant Sociability 1

What does this tell us about our houseplants?

Just as plants in the wild have social preferences, so too do the plants in our homes.

If we learn what kind of environment these plants are growing in naturally, we can get a better idea of how they might prefer to grow indoors as well.

Many of our common tropicals are used to sharing their space with lots of other plants, providing their roots with snug little homes and their foliage with lots of humidity as all the plants around them huddle.

And, as we discussed above, many large cacti are accustomed to the opposite. They are used to having very few close neighbors and little competition for resources, which is perfect for the desert since there are little nutrients and water to come by.

How do you know what your particular plant prefers?

A quick google search can help!

  1. Look for pictures of your particular plant in the wild to get an idea of what its natural environment is like.
    • Many of our houseplants can be found on iNaturalist.org, which will show pictures of the plant growing in the wild
  2. Try reading some articles that discuss the plant’s growth habit and environment.
    • Check out Plants of the World Online, a website run by Kew Gardens/Royal Botanic Gardens.
      • The site allows you to search for many, many plants and see where they are natively found as well as characteristics of their environment and growth habit.
    • Search Wikipedia.org as well.
      • There is a surprising wealth of information regarding many of the plants we grow with cited sources so you can doublecheck information that you find.
  3. Check out my blog posts that dive into the care of different plants based on where and how they grow in nature: Plant Care Guides

Happy growing!



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