Pop-up plant business plans to set down new roots at Furniture Lounge


J. Matthis Helmick, owner of Plant Mode, holds a jar of Marimo within the business’s current location in downtown Champaign on Saturday.

By Frances Welch

For most college students, lacking a green thumb and having a shrinking wallet can scare away any thought of plant ownership. However, a new pop-up business, Plant Mode, located in downtown Champaign, may be the perfect solution. 

The tropical houseplant business will be moving from its current loft space to Furniture Lounge, a mid-century modern furniture store located in downtown Champaign at 11 E. University Ave., from October to Christmas. A basic plant selection of succulents and cacti will be available during Furniture Lounge’s open hours, while Plant Mode will be selling an extended inventory on Saturdays. 

J. Matthis Helmick, owner of Plant Mode and native to Champaign-Urbana, originally started out at Sprout Home Chicago, a tropical plant shop that has locations in both Chicago and Brooklyn. With an eye for idiosyncratic plant design and an inventive mind for recyclable plant potting, Helmick fell in love with succulents, air plants and all things tropical. After returning to Champaign in June 2012, he combined his experience from Sprout Home with his experimental business ideas to create Plant Mode in 2013.  

“I always wanted to plant in reusable containers, such as metal tins and milk cartons, which was an idea I had while working at Sprout Home,” Helmick said. 

Although the plants themselves are extremely particular and uncommon, his creative and uncommon twists he puts into his potting is what makes Plant Mode stand out from the rest. 

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    “The specific plants I carry are unique, not seen and hard to find. I like to blow people’s mind and get the ‘Woah, what’s that?’ type of reaction,” Helmick said. “This also includes teaching clients, even ones who find themselves to be plant killers, that although these plants are unique, they really are simple.” 

    Originally starting his business in his downtown Champaign loft space, customers could find various modern home décor and indoor tropical plants such as succulents, cacti and air plants. 

    Although these plant species seem to have become quite trendy in the past year, many customers are unfamiliar about what qualifies as a succulent or air plant, and even more so about how to be a successful caretaker of the plants. 

    “‘Air plants’ are so called because they do not, in the wild, grow in soil, but instead grow attached to trees and shrubs, normally in tropical areas, where they receive their water from rain and their nutrients from detritus collecting in their roots or in their vase-like structure,” said Steve Hill, a retired University botanist and plant systematist and current survey associate with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

    The affluent variety of cacti and succulents allow any customer to find their favorite air plant. 

    “Because these plants grow on trees in the tropics, they do not always need bright light due to their adaptation to shade. In regards to caretaking, they usually need to dry between waterings or the roots can rot,” Hill said. “In general, they make good houseplants and can be put outdoors in shade in the summer months.” 

    Although air plants are popular sellers at Plant Mode, merchandise also largely consists of succulents.

    “They are usually considered to be easy to grow because they need very little water when they are indoors; usually only once a week or so, but they do like strong light, often a problem in the winter here,” Hill explained. “Succulents normally can stand very dry air, such as what we have in our homes here in the winter.“

    Plant Mode’s new move will mean newer plants, more home accessories and the return of Marimo, Kokedama, terrariums and many other product varieties that may have been a limited edition before. 

    Interested customers can contact J. Matthis Helmick for personal loft space appointments or business and home installations via www.plantmode.com and also his Facebook page. Plant Mode will also have a vendor booth at this year’s free Made Fest on September 27 to 28 at The Highdive Outdoor Annex, located at Market  and Main streets in Champaign. 

    To contact Steve Hill for outdoor tropical plant sales, you can email him for location and dates at [email protected].

    Frances can be reached at [email protected].