fbpx

Money Grows on Trees: Into the World of Super Rare Houseplants

Indoor Plants

In 2018, Harrison Yeung purchased a plant stem with two leaves and a root for $350. That plant was an “Albino” Monstera borsigiana, a sub-species of the Monstera deliciosa we all know and love. The blotchy white patterning on the leaves and stem is caused by a genetic mutation known as “variegation” which makes these plants incredibly rare and highly sought after.

“I guess I was trying to fill the void of not being allowed to have a pet dog”, Harrison says, “so a plant was the next best companion”.

View this post on Instagram

The dream becoming reality ☁️⭐️ . . I have been thinking lately about how we can never really know what our plants will turn into exactly, but we water them and nurture them regardless. When we care for them, it is with great hope for the future and with faith that it will become something incredible ???? (or, in the case of Crotons, with hope that they will die one day ????). . . I brought Gabriel inside today to capture him with his new leaf. I can’t wait to look back at all my photos of him in a few years time and see the journey that he took me on. I think that’s the special thing about variegated plants – they are so dynamic, every leaf with something else to say. I also love that you guys can follow his journey – some of you like @plantgangsta were even there when I first got him from @maethoraniplants ! . . What does keeping plants mean to you? . . By the way sorry I havent released the FAQ – I said I would last week but I have been super busy with uni ???? . . Pot by @leafandthread

A post shared by @ harrison_plants on

$350 may sound like a lot to drop on a plant but in the world of the collectors, that’s just the beginning. “It was sort of the “gateway drug” to collecting “rare plants”, Harrison laughs. Having started his collection just two years ago, he now has a green house full of all the most sought after greenery and a following on Instagram of nearly 30,000.

His story is typical, if extreme, of the millennial plant enthusiast. Lisa Day, plant collector behind the online store Mae Thorani Plants who specialises in the “unique and unusual” and sold Harrison his cutting says there are a tonne of factors at play to explain the current obsession with house plants.

“Young professionals aren’t buying property or paying school fees and raising families so we have spare cash to spend and we have a high focus on lifestyle, she says”. In addition, trapped in cities, “we are also craving a connection with nature”. Instagram, she says, is creating “FOMO like you’ve never seen before”. People are willing to do anything to have that one plant.

At the start of the year, a plant made headlines around the world when it sold for $4600. That was a variegated deliciosa, arguably the current rarest and most sought after for the discerning collector, but that price tag is hardly unique.

Variegated Monstera adansonii, for example, regularly trade on Facebook between private sellers and collectors for upwards of $5000. This one, a ‘half moon’ variety, sold for $6500. That’s not even to mention the rarest of the rare, the Monstera obliqua, which is so hard to find that some consider it a myth. One of the few times it has traded hands in Aus, it went for $6,600. What the purchasers are getting for their money is often simply one or two leaves in a tiny black plastic pot.

But for the collectors, it’s worth it. Grow out your two tiny leaves, take a cutting from the mature plant, throw it up on Facebook and you’ve made your money back – if the market holds out. Buying and selling rare plants is not unlike buying stocks and shares and the variegated adansonii is currently the Amazon-in-1997 of the plant world.

View this post on Instagram

Hi friends ???? #monsteraobliqua

A post shared by House of Monstera (@houseofmonstera) on

House of Monstera on Instagram specialises in these ultra-rare, luxury varieties which they sell for $3000 USD. “They’ve fluctuated over time with the obliqua being more expensive, then the adansonii being more expensive, now they’re both the same again”.

As Day says, “the house plants market has been booming for a few years now”. Over lockdown however, when people have spent a lot more time staring at the inside of their own houses, the rare plant market has exploded. Fuelled by the Instagram aesthetic of the #indoorjungle and the hype-machines of private Facebook groups for sellers and collectors like CIPPA (that’s Crazy Indoor Plant People of Australia – now so popular that Bunning’s actively target their 132,000 members).

CIPPA
Facebook/ CIPPA corner at Bunnings

Jeff and Lauren Nielsen from Verdant Dwellings in Victoria have been in the houseplant game for almost a decade. “When I got into indoor plants” Jeff says, “it was really just starting to ramp up”.

Jeff was the first person in Australia to import the much-sought after variegated Monstera deliciosa variety known as the ‘Thai Constellation’. This beautifully speckled plant can sell from anywhere from $200 to $1000 depending on size and quality.

“I found a guy in Thailand who was growing them from tissue culture and basically started off by contacting him and finding out about getting them into the country”, he tells us. Last year, Bunnings caused a bit of a stir in the market when they temporarily stocked Thai Constellations for $300 a pop. Plants were kept behind the counter and sold quickly, frequently finding their way online for inflated prices.

The variegation in the Thai Constellation is known as a “stable mutation”. Somehow, the genetic mutation that gives the plant that white speckling has been fixed in the genes of the plant, making it reliably patterned. In other mutations, this is not the case.

“When you grow thousands and thousands of green seeds, there’s always going to be mutations within the genetics”, Lauren explains. “The borsigiana holds variegation very well when you cut it whereas a true deliciosa is a gamble as to whether it’s going to hold the variegation or whether it’s going to revert to green from where you’ve cut it”. This is why sellers are so reluctant to cut theirs, limiting the supply and increasing their rarity.

Variegation can occur in the Monstera in three different colours; light green, yellow, and white, with really stark white patterning being the rarest of all and the most sought after. Of the hundreds of thousands of regular Monstera seeds Jeff has grown out for nurseries, he thinks only seven or eight of them have ever shown that kind of white variegation.

But they haven’t always been valuable. Back in the day, Jeff tells us, he would regularly throw these mutants in the bin, thinking they had a virus. “All of a sudden there was this shift and people were saying ‘if you ever see any of these…’ and we’re like ‘…oh God!’”. He laughs about it now but in reality, this is the nature of the market. Something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.

A few years ago, a fiddle leaf fig would have set you back $1000. Now, you can pick up baby versions for $10 from Coles. In terms of predictions, Verdant Dwellings reckon that the variegated Monstera deliciosa will drop whereas “things like Raphiadora discursiva, R. tetrasperma” are on the rise. “There really is no way of predicting it. It really is its own beast and it’s literally a matter of trying to ride the wave”.

Some in the scene are less that thrilled about the way the new influx of people into the plant game has changed the market. Lisa Day worries about the mental health impact of young people chasing their “unicorns” – or most sought after plants – online during the pandemic.

“They’re bored”, she says, “and people are seeking that endorphin release that comes from online retail therapy”. She says It’s a “toxic mix” that has led to people getting into debt to fund their habit. Worse still, unscrupulous dealers have been known to sneak rare plants in past Australia’s strict biological importation laws, threatening real damage to native ecosystems.

“I think the industry is seeing just as many negatives as positives with the growth in the market”, Day says.

Misty Koulianos from Green Beanz plant shop in Sydney says it’s “getting out of hand” the way prices have skyrocketed in the past few years. “For a lot of people, their unicorn is now like a down payment on a car. It’s crazy!”

Normally, Koulianos says she would see plant newbies come into her shop and work their way up from the Devils Ivy through the more difficult plants to keep before branching out into rarer varieties. “Now they just go straight from a Devil’s Ivy to the rare plants”.

Many of these rare plants have very specific needs and there is a danger of people without that experience accidentally loving their new purchases to death. “There is a concern”, Misty tells us, “so much so that there are always disclaimers now in every auction or every sale”. These disclaimers warn people away from buying into the hype and purchasing something they have no idea how to care for.

She claims it’s now hard for her to participate in the rare plant trades because of her own sentimentality toward the fancy foliage. “I’ve sold quite a few cuttings of the variegated Monstera”, she says, “but for me, it’s really hard … I’m kind of notoriously known for trying to be a little bit more fair in price”.

Founding her business on the principle of ‘plants to the people’, she says it’s “kind of twisted” to see plants she sold for less than market rate “literally a day or two later being sold on plant pages for double”.

View this post on Instagram

Hey guys! Not a great poser for pictures–I always feel awkward– but I thought since we were coming up on our one year anniversary for our Erskineville store, might as well pose with my most favourite plant of all time, Obi. And guess what???? We are working on opening up the shop very soon…possibly even next weekend! Our goal is to start with weekends only and build up–but our doors will be open with social distancing– so stay tuned! I am so excited to see my local plant people again! #erksinevilleplantshop #philodendronglorious #obithearoid #aussiearoids #aroidsofig #afterpay #indoorplants #weloveplants #apartmentbotanist #smallspacegardening #comeandseeus #indoorplantshop #plantselfie #sydneyplantclub

A post shared by Green Beanz Indoor Plants (@greenbeanz_plants) on

“I see it literally while it’s still in the wrapper! I’ve posted it, and they’ve just taken it out of the box, taken a photo, and sold it again”. “That’s what encourages people to drive their prices up to that level”, she says. “It’s almost becoming a status symbol. It’s like having a Gucci bag”.

Koulianos has tried to combat this by trend by doing what is always recommended when social media becomes a problem: try to stay off it. “I try not to take any pictures of mine and put them up. We’ve all learned that if you do, you have to put ‘it’s not for sale!, it’s not for sale!’”. Sometimes, “you would rather just not post anything”.

Although she describes the current climate as “intense”, in reality, she still thinks the plant community is great and one that brings her and others a lot of joy. “Really, 99.9% of people and customers are lovely and nice and fantastic”, she says.

Pretty much everything comes in both budget and luxury forms, and the super-rich are more than willing to part with their cash for diamond-encrusted, gold-plated versions of the everyday things we use. While it might seem like a lot to spend on what is effectively home decor, when you consider how much people will spend on fine art or designer goods, it might actually be more sensible to spend your money on houseplants. After all, it’s generally not good practice to cut a painting in half after a year and expect it to fetch the same price as what you paid for it. Plus, they look really cool.

Read more stories from TheLatch— and follow us on Facebook.