From model to chicken-raising houseplant expert.

If our readers know anything about Summer Rayne Oakes, it’s probably from her popular blog about growing 1,100 houseplants in her apartment.

In 2016, her very verdant apartment went viral and that led her to create her blog, and her popular houseplant YouTube channel, Plant One On Me, which on average gets over 15 million views/year. Shortly thereafter, she released the Houseplant Masterclass, the first online audiovisual course on houseplant cultivation, care and maintenance. Source.

Or maybe you’re one of her 226K followers on Instagram.

Me, too. But as an avid podcast listener, last month I discovered Summer on my a whole new medium – hosting Bad Seeds,  an 8-part series focused on the underworld of plant smuggling! Who knew!?

From Mexican drug cartels cashing in by ripping succulents from the desert, or a cabal of corrupt government officials secretly peddling endangered species, Bad Seeds looks into an underworld where obsessive collectors and hardened criminals collide…

Model and sustainability activist Summer Rayne Oakes…catapulted into the forefront of a houseplant trend that peaked during the Covid pandemic. Little did she know that her popular unboxing videos and fame would inadvertently lead some obsessed consumers and suppliers to collect plants through nefarious means to fuel the growing plant obsession.

After years of advocacy in the sustainable fashion and food industries, Oakes urges consumers to take a closer look at how the succulents and orchids adorning homes and Instagram videos are sourced. “To be honest, I feel a level of responsibility,” Oakes says today. “One of the reasons that drew me to host this podcast was to help folks understand the underreported nature of unethical plant harvesting, the detrimental ramifications it can have on the environment, and how we can be more aware of what to look out for.” Source.

But let’s not be too quick to blame the wave of American Gen Zers and Millennials for this uptick in plant poaching. Summer told me in a phone interview that most smuggled rare plants are destined wealthy collectors in Asia.

Asked how she became involved in the topic, Summer says she’d seen stolen plants for sale on eBay and reports of theft on Tiktok and was covering the problem on her YouTube channel when the “Bad Seeds” production company reached out to her.

And I’m here to report, at the risk of causing widespread jealousy among other garden communicators, that podcast host/co-writer is yet another job at which Summer excels.  

But my first reaction to “Bad Seeds” is OMG, how cool that a true crime podcast is covering plant poaching! And it’s soooo professionally produced (unlike other, more DIY gardening podcasts), with a whole team of producers, researchers, writers and others working to create the high quality we’re used to enjoying in other true-crime series, like Serial and S Town.

I’ve devoured each of the six “Bad Seeds” episodes posted so far, first on the topic of succulent theft, with expert commentary by someone I know! That’s former U.S. Botanic Garden director Ari Novy, now head of the San Diego Botanic Garden, where succulents are no doubt prominent.

But my favorite so far is Episode 6, which covers limber theft – can you believe it? In true-crime style, the story begins with the raid by 30 federal agents, many armed with serious firearms, on the Gibson’s Guitar Company outside Nashville, which resulted in the seizure of half a million bucks worth of rosewood from India. Gibson’s was guilty and settled with the government, so I was happy to hear it’s in different hands now.

The episode goes on to cite specific woods used in making musical instruments. We learn that every tree has a different density, which affects the quality of an instrument’s sound. Woodwind instruments, for example, have to tolerate “spit and mucus and God knows what else” without changing the sound the wood makes. “High-end clarinets sound best when made from woods like Granadilla from Eritrea, ukeleles from the flowering Koa tree of Hawaii and piano sound boards, spruce.”

The stories are gripping, I tell ya, with roles for organized criminals, corrupt NGOs issuing phony paperwork, and the dogged investigators trying to save endangered plants. Have a listen! 

More Surprises from Summer

I confess to having first assumed that Summer’s role in the podcast was merely that of narrator, a “spokesmodel” if you will (and she IS a former model, so that’s my excuse). But it turns out she’s a Cornell graduate with a long resume. From her website:

I’m an environmental scientist and entomologist by training and have done quite a bit of work in the field, including reclaiming mine sites, restoring forest ecosystems, monitoring stream water quality with aquatic insects, and a host of other fun projects outdoors. (Oh, and yes, that is my real name.) ♡ 

And from her bio:

Though the plant world has been a core focal point in recent years, Oakes is most known for her work in the world of fashion. She is recognized as the world’s first “eco-model,” a term bestowed originally by Grist to describe her values-based modeling. Over the past ten years, she co-founded Source4Style, an award-winning, venture-backed marketplace that connects thousands of designers to sustainable material suppliers around the world; authored the best-selling book Style, Naturally; served as a correspondent on Discovery Networks; designed environmentally-preferable lines with Paylee, Portico and Modo eyewear; and served as the muse for Toyota’s Prius C (they even went so far as to name a paint color in her honor).

And most surprising of all?  “Most recently, she and her friends started Flock, a creative community in the Finger Lakes of New York and corresponding YouTube channel, which brings in over 5 million views/year.”

Yes, her newest YouTube channel covers topics like “communal living, gardening, agroforestry, permaculture, farming, construction, homesteading, handcrafting, wildcrafting, foraging and more.”

That includes a large lawn-replacement project, which I’ll be reporting on here as it develops.

Oh, and “In 2014, she founded to help people come to terms with their sugar tooth,” which I’m looking into for motivation to keep my going on my own sugar-free journey. (During our conversation I bragged about the result – a huge reduction in joint pain, to almost none!)

Yeah, I encountered more surprises than I can count about this 5’10” too-beautiful-to-be-so-smart eco-activist. I promise to upgrade my expectations going forward.