Updated: Aug 13
Most people would think you were crazy if you told them you spent $10k on a houseplant, but what if it's a rare exotic houseplant? Does that make it any more reasonable?
Collecting rare plants is a passion and a thrill that can't be rationalized or explained. Some have compared it to collecting the hottest new sneakers. Sellers have traded up from sneakerheads to hoyaheads because they say it's more lucrative. Now you have people selling plants that know nothing about growing them commercially.
At this year's International Aroid Society Show at Fairchild Tropical Garden located in Miami, which I attended, several one-leaf cuttings sold for $200 - $1,000 depending on the species. A Philodendron Caramel Marble was selling for $13,000! I’ve been in the industry for years and have attended tradeshows all over the country and in Europe. This is the highest I have seen prices in 10 years! Some industry insiders believe prices will continue to rise, while many plantfluencers are talking about prices falling.
Rare plant collecting shouldn't be like fast fashion or the latest trend, though. It's a hobby that connects you with nature, brings a biophilic design into your home, and has many other benefits (mindfulness and air purification.) We need to consider that some rare plants are endangered; make sure you aren't purchasing a plant on the endangered list and that your plant is responsibly sourced or grown.
Some rare plants like the Monstera Albo Variegata (pictured above from our collection), native to Colombia and parts of Mexico, bring an exotic and lush look and feel into your surroundings that can't be matched. The Philodendron Florida Beauty with variegated lobed leaves are captivating. Both of these plants are pretty exclusive and expensive right now. The Aglaonema Pictum Tri-Color or Camouflage Plant (pictured above from @greenhousegirl94 collections) is breathtaking and helps you acknowledge how unique and adaptive nature truly is. And, the Philodendron Spiritus Santi is the crown jewel for collectors because of its elongated lobes and distinct features. You can shop these varieties here.
Rare plant collecting, particularly Aroids, has become a big trend, though. For some new collectors (don't dare compare it to old vs. new money), it is all about Instagram and having the latest and rarest species that aren't in mass production or come from TC (tissue culture.) Once the plant is mass-produced, they move on to something else. This is what happened with the Raven® ZZ. Ravens were in high demand when they were scarce; now, they are available at every big-box retailers and aren't as exclusive or in demand.
I developed the Trending Tropicals® brand to bring rare plants to mass retailers but didn't realize it would create such a frenzy in the plant community. The recent Thai Constellation market test caused complete chaos in the pacific northwest. According to a PDS Scientist and Microbiome, store workers were harassed by hundreds of people trying to get this limited edition variety.
I've done extensive research during new plant introductions, from in-home studies to in-store shop along, market surveys, and test-and-learns, to determine price elasticity based on demand.
Many people ask why rare plant prices are so high yet so affordable at big-box retailers. Established growers have economies of scale and access to faster propagation methods such as tissue culture.
Retailers play the most significant role when it comes to pricing. They want to price-match their competitors across the street and keep prices low. Retailers also have sales and consumer insights that inform the ceiling price for a houseplant. A collector may walk into an independent shop and pay upwards of $500 for a truly rare plant. Big box retailers know their average consumer will not pay that, and once plants are massed produced, they aren't rare any longer. Keep in mind the grower does not set the price (they make recommendations based on margins); the retailer does. Retailers have a lot of leverage! You will find if you purchase directly from a large grower, pricing is set higher than big box store prices.
Plants also became available via e-commerce over the last few years. This gave wholesalers direct access to consumers. They disrupted the supply chain and retail process and started selling direct. With greater access to plants, many novices, enthusiasts, and seasoned plant people started selling plants as well.
During the lockdown, people wanted to bring nature in and became obsessed with plants. They had an insatiable demand for houseplants. Growers couldn’t keep up.
Many of those increased prices resulted from “plant flippers” buying up the inventory and reselling. These prices weren’t reflective of the actual product cost, and now that supply has increased, flippers have less opportunity because consumers have greater access to plants.
Also, you may have purchased a rare plant, not in mass production and the small grower's pricing is very different when purchasing and buying small quantities of a rare plant. Once that plant becomes readily available and mass-produced, material cost also decreases (while labor may not.) Contract growers or small sellers don’t have economies of scale or retail contracts, so not everyone is price gouging; they don’t have the same cost structure.
I interviewed Gretchen Mason, who runs @greenhousegirl94 on Instagram, and worked at a greenhouse for years. During the pandemic, Gretchen was working at Merrifield Garden Center, a family-owned and operated, full-service garden center and nursery.
Plant The Jungle (Damarys): How long did you work for Merrifield?
I worked in the tropical greenhouse for a little over four years. It’s a 20,000 square foot
full-service greenhouse that stocks everything from basic foliage to seasonal specialty plants like Poinsettia and Mums. My responsibilities included assisting customers in making plant selections, unloading the delivery trucks, reconciling purchase orders with invoices, and caring for thousands of plants. We also created custom dish gardens and had a repotting service. Needless to say, we were always busy! Plant The Jungle (Damarys): Would you consider yourself a plant collector? If so, how many plants do you own, and how long have you been collecting?
I purchased my first houseplant in fifth grade, which was a very long time ago! It was a Golden Pothos, and my second plant was a pink Fittonia. Ever since, I’ve had houseplants wherever I lived, including in my dimly lit freshman college dorm room, which was a bit challenging. I always had lots of plants but my collection grew by leaps and bounds during the years I worked in the greenhouse. It was just too tempting to not bring something home at the end of the day, especially with the generous employee discount we received! At one point, I had well over 200 plants but I’ve scaled back recently so it’s probably more in the area of 150 plants at the moment.
Plant The Jungle (Damarys): What was it like working at the greenhouse during the pandemic?
Two words come to mind: challenging and frustrating. Demand already exceeded supply in the months prior to the pandemic. Not only could you not find houseplants at your local garden center but you also couldn't find them at big box stores, grocery stores, or discount stores. All those outlets were competing for plants and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram added fuel to the fire. The minute someone posted a new “it” plant on social media, everyone just had to have it. Plants were flying out the door the minute we priced them. Life was good!
As most people already know everything pretty much came to a halt when the mandatory shutdown of businesses was announced in March 2020. People quarantined at home became restless; they wanted plants! The greenhouse is part of a garden center deemed essential by our state government so we stayed open throughout the pandemic. Many small growers shut down as did many commercial transport services. Suddenly, there weren’t plants available and often there weren’t trucks available to deliver them. After a few weeks, some growers opened back up with limited staff and limited availability. We were constantly getting “zeroed out,” which means plants that we ordered wouldn’t show up on the delivery truck. Add to that the fact that manufacturing and warehouses shut down, severely limiting the supply of soils, fertilizers, pots, and all hard goods. This was the hard part to explain to customers. Thanks to Amazon, Uber Eats, and other online shopping services, consumers are used to pushing a button and getting what they want. It just doesn’t work that way with plants. People couldn’t understand why we weren’t stocked to capacity and couldn’t deliver the “wish list” plants they desired. Many of my coworkers who had been in the business for 30 years plus said they never saw anything like it and don’t ever want to see anything Ike it again.
Plant The Jungle (Damarys): Did you find prices were at an all-time high? Have you noticed prices coming down or are they still higher than in previous years? I saw a recent Instagram story where a camouflage plant you wanted was around $65 and you were surprised it was so high.
Plant prices skyrocketed during the months that non-essential businesses were closed. I remember at one point we had nothing on our Pothos benches. No Golden, Marble Queen, Neon or Jade Pothos could be found. Those plants are our bread and butter because they’re easy to grow and usually a good value. We had to buy from alternate sources, paying more than double the normal wholesale price. At one point we had 4” Golden Pothos retailing for $24.99 when they had been $12.99 a few months earlier. They all sold within a week. Ten-inch hanging basket Boston Ferns jumped from $29.99 to $34.99 and $39.99 and were nowhere near as full as they had been a few months earlier. They disappeared the minute we unloaded them from the trucks. Many customers complained that we were “price gouging” but our markup was exactly what it had been in the past. Our prices to consumers were higher because we were paying more for the plants.
Personally, I don’t see plant prices across the board dropping to or below where they were pre-pandemic. There has been an overall shift in prices and, while I believe we have hit the top of the price curve I just don’t see prices dipping below pre-pandemic levels. As for that gorgeous Homalomena Camouflage plant, it was a plant I had admired for months but hadn’t seen available commercially. I was shocked when I saw a small 4” priced at $65! But after researching what similar plants are priced at on Etsy, I realized that price is not at all out of line! I was also able to determine that the wholesale cost of the plant was in line with the $65 retail price so I purchased one for my own collection. I’m a good salesperson, even when selling things to myself!
I agree with Gretchen that some plant prices have decreased slightly, and demand has dropped as people are traveling more now that pandemic travel restrictions have loosened. Plants showing up at retailers now have been in production for at least a year, if not longer, depending on the variety. Their material and labor cost were forecasted well before this demand drop. Retail prices, forecasts and production plans are done years in advance depending on plant grow times (these are living things, not packaged goods; you need time to grow and supply millions across the country). I also agree with Gretchen that while there may be a bit of a correction in pricing, we will not see pre-pandemic prices for some time.
I will be attending the IAS show this weekend at Fairchild Tropical Garden, along with probably thousands of collectors. It will be interesting to see if prices are lower than earlier this year during the peak demand period. Will collectors and enthusiasts still be inclined to pay thousands for a plant?
I hope enthusiasts and future collectors will make the distinction between collecting plants and sneakers or cards. Plants are living things!
Hopefully, if you do get into collecting rare plants, you become a good plant parent once you realize how rewarding and unique your new plant baby can be regardless of cost.
UPDATE OCT. 2022
I visited IAS after writing this blog and witnessed that many of the prices have come down significantly and stabilized. There is a sizable drop in rare plant prices across the country. Thankfully, I have always been able to keep pricing fair but can now offer some of the lowest prices I've ever had in my shop.
Thank you for reading and supporting a small Latina-owned business!