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Putting down roots

1 November 2022
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Living in the South Island for nearly a decade has given US-born social media influencer and passionate nature lover Liz Carlson – founder of one of the biggest and most widely read independent travel blogs in the world – a fresh perspective, a sense of belonging… And an obsession with houseplants. Interview Josie Steenhart Photos Liz Carlson

How did you find your way to New Zealand, and what has kept you here?

After university, I lived in Spain teaching English for a few years, and that’s when I started my travel blog Young Adventuress. I couldn’t keep getting visas to stay and I’d always wanted to come to New Zealand. It was right around the time when I was ready to quit my last “real” job and blog full-time; once I got to New Zealand, I was the first sort of professional travel influencer, and I was able to craft a really cool career for myself.

Almost as soon as I landed, I knew this was where I belonged. I’m originally from a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia, on the east coast of the States. I grew up hanging out at shopping malls, nature wasn’t as accessible as it is here.

I always felt like such a black sheep there that I never fit in or belonged. My peers were having kids while I was still in high school while I ripped out pages of National Geographic and taped them to my bedroom walls, dreaming of seeing the world.

Here in New Zealand, I feel seen; I’m surrounded by people just like me, that there is space for creative thinking and that you work to live the lifestyle you want instead of living to work, which is what it’s like where I’m from. I stuck around for many obvious reasons, the lifestyle, the nature, and wildlife, and the amazing community here.

But there are other things too. It feels really good to live in a place where I don’t have to ask my coworkers to walk me to my car at night or worry about gun violence or gangs. I was born in the murder capital of America. If I get injured, I don’t have to panic about whether or not I can afford to go to the hospital. The safety net we have here is really incredible when you compare it to places like the US.

You’ve lived in both Wānaka and Lyttelton, what’s special about those places?

Wānaka is the kind of place that gets under your skin and stays for a while. First off, it couldn’t be more picturesque, with the clear blue lake surrounded by big mountains. But what I find really special about Wānaka is that it’s a bit of a magnet for interesting people. Lots of pretty incredible people call Wānaka home, and many others often pass through. And we’re all connected by a love of nature.

I ended up in Lyttelton because I was living with my partner at the time, but it’s another pretty special place. The original port of the South Island, you access Lyttelton through the tunnel under the Port Hills.

Because of this tunnel, people in Christchurch seem to think Lyttelton is really far away, but in reality, it’s only 15 minutes from the CBD. Because of this, it feels like you’re going away

on holiday, and when you pop out of the tunnel on the other side in Lyttelton, you’re in a completely different place.

Surrounded by low mountains, the hills are decorated with historic homes overlooking the blue waters of the port. Lyttelton is so beautiful and super quirky, way more quirky than Wānaka.

How did your obsession with houseplants come about?

My obsession with houseplants started by total accident. Pre-covid I had a very hectic work life, travelling on over 100 flights per year around the world as part of my job as a travel influencer.

Though I didn’t realise it at the time, when I was home in New Zealand, I needed a hobby that was totally offline - no phones, no screens, and no pings.

I used to buy myself fresh flowers to decorate my little flat, and then one day, I picked up a blooming orchid. Then a peace lily. And then a monstera. And it was all downhill from there.

During the lockdowns, I was living in Lyttelton, and I lost almost all of my travel work indefinitely. Instead of panicking, I took advantage of the opportunity to try something different. I had been growing and selling houseplant cuttings for a few months when I realised that we were totally getting the short end of the stick on the South Island when it came to houseplants.

All of the new and best and biggest stuff went to plant shops all over the North Island, and we would get the leftovers, though, since we’ve had some pretty epic nurseries grow right here in Christchurch. Also, there weren’t any design-focused houseplant shops. Just big garden centres that lacked intimacy and character.

When I had the chance to bring some new plants down from the north island from a friend’s nursery, I decided to make a little pop-up shop called NODE. It exploded in popularity and turned into a big thriving business. It’s a place where design and nature intersect, a place that brings people together; basically, I created the plant shop that I wanted to shop at.

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You have a lovely new book out, Houseplants and Design, tell us a bit about it?

Just like there weren’t the kind of plant shops I wanted to see around me, the same could be said for plant books. All of the houseplant books available were from overseas, mostly from the US, Europe, and one or two from Australia.

Because of our intense biosecurity laws and our unique climate, our houseplant story is really different. And houseplants are huge here, absolutely massive. I believe that the New Zealand houseplant story deserves a seat at the table, and if no one else was writing the book I needed, I would just do it myself. Also, most of the houseplant books on the market are really generic, dated, and basic.

I’ve pored through dozens of houseplant books from around the world from the 70s up to today, and I was so shocked to see even recent books repeating totally incorrect information. I have undertaken an immense amount of research to make sure everything is up to date, corresponding with scientists around the world and digging through plant patent files.

Houseplants and Design is everything I wish I had known when I started out collecting, and it’s the book that tells the incredible story of houseplants in New Zealand. Since I started with that first orchid, I have grown and sold thousands of houseplants, and I’ve learned all of their stories.

In your book you also talk about the importance of nature for mental health, could you talk to that a little bit?

For me, it’s really important that people know that my book is about so much more than just houseplants. I’ve struggled my entire life with severe depression and anxiety. It’s nearly killed me more than once. Literally. I had a heart attack a few years ago when I was 30.

I think I am very much a metaphor for a generation that doesn’t have a good work-life balance. It’s just work work work, hustle hustle hustle. I work in an area where if you blink, you miss everything. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that living that way is totally unsustainable and unhealthy. And I know this is so ironic, considering I moved to New Zealand to escape the rat race.

For me, my love of houseplants goes hand in hand with mental health. As a hobby, houseplants have given me balance, and allowed me to slow down and be more mindful, to nurture and watch something grow. It’s beautiful.

As an outsider, I’ve also noticed that, in general, New Zealand isn’t all that great about looking after our mental health, and I can speak to my own personal experiences with it. But it’s so important. More than double the number of people die by suicide annually in New Zealand than by car accidents. That is so messed up.

Our need for nature is powerful and primal, and yet not only are we moving further away from it, but we’re also actively destroying it. So much science shows how important nature is for our overall well-being and mental health. I’m not just whipping this statement out of thin air, there are countless studies globally that show the benefits of nature on our health.

I think this is why we are compelled to bring nature inside. Having living greenery in the place where you spend the most time is good for us. Nurturing something else, in a way, is nurturing ourselves.

What are some of your favourite places in the South Island to connect with nature?

I have a lot of favourite places, but when I need to escape and connect with nature, I either end up off the grid in an old bach on the West Coast, which feels very much like what all of New Zealand used to look like with its wild coastlines and untouched rainforest. I love to get away here to write and reset myself.

But if I want to get up in the mountains and hills, I head to Fiordland. Nothing beats tramping in Fiordland, especially in the summertime. Both places are dramatic and wild, with ancient forests and big mountains, and a rugged coastline. I think I like going places with no people and big nature.

What are you up to currently?

I live in Wānaka, preparing for a big summer at NODE. We’re working on a few big projects and getting excited. Spring and summer are full steam ahead in the plant world.

I head down to Antarctica in November, where I guide on trips, sharing this incredible part of the world with my blog community. I haven’t been down since before Covid so it’s really exciting.

And any plans for the near future you can share?

I already have about five new book ideas simmering in the background I’ve already started on. As the plant world grows and evolves, so does my dream for my shop NODE. I’ve got quite a few balls in the air at the moment, and to be honest, I don’t know which way they will land, but I’m pretty excited to see what happens next!

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