Plant lover Michelle Reed recalled a seller selling a trendy monstera plant for a surprising $4,000 on eBay. For her, this was when San Francisco’s appetite for rare plants became obsessive.
Reed, owner of the Roots plant store in San Francisco for more than a decade, found herself asking customers, “Are you sure? each time they reached the register with more than a thousand dollars in rare plants.
Over the past few years, millennials and Gen Z’s obsession with rare plants has exploded like mites on your monstera deliciosa: they’ve come in their thousands, with murky origins. So-called “rare” plants with names like milk confetti and spiritus sancti have become coveted commodities, often without buyers really knowing where they come from.
But for Reed, the $4,000 monstera marked a shift in consumer taste. Expectant plant parents who wanted to take care of something now coveted unusual or hard-to-find plants, seemingly at any price. U.S. household spending on houseplants and plant care rose 28% between 2019 and 2020 to $1.6 billion according to the National Gardening Survey, and the Bay Area was no exception. .
“I got into this business because I’m a hippie,” she said. “Now it’s all about the money and what’s in fashion.”
A passion takes root
At the height of the pandemic, Kira Stackhouse owned 250 plants, making regular trips from Oakland to San Francisco to find the few. At one point, she had a baby dark form scindapsus treubii – a vine with shiny leaves – shipped from Washington. The little plant had two leaves, came in a two-inch pot, and cost $100.
“I don’t even want to think about how many plants I bought,” Stackhouse told The Standard. “It was out of control.”
As with previous splurges, from 17th century tulip bulbs to Ethereum, once-stratospheric prices for rare plants have been cut in half. Just a few years ago, Plant Therapy on Market Street was making $35,000 in sales a week, double what owner Chai Saechao earns today. Other plant stores, such as Hortica, Plants and Friends and Rare Device, have closed entirely, while influencer accounts that have reached tens of thousands of followers are now inactive.
The rise and fall of the rare plant craze underscores the power of social media and what happened when plant collectors launched their own economy.
Curated walls of millennial pink philodendrons and spotted begonias were undeniably Instagrammable at a time when you couldn’t leave the house.
“During the pandemic, we had no contact with people and the outside world except on the internet,” Stackhouse said. “So let’s spend money on plants, you know?”
Social media has widely popularized the rare plants, many of which are imported from Southeast Asia and South America. Plant influencers exploded on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, and stores capitalized on the trend, announcing rare plant “release” parties and offering customers virtual concierge services.
But what does “rare” really mean? In retail, it can simply mean new to market. Many rare plants have mutations like variegation – variations in tone that can take the form of stripes, spots, and borders – that give plants a unique appearance, but they are not necessarily rare.
Some enthusiasts have built lucrative side gigs by propagating and selling cuttings of these magnificent mutants, giving customers what they want but eroding claims of uniqueness.
LeShrae Ebony is a Bay Area plant enthusiast who grew up in Panama, where rare plants like monsteras are quite common. Even she was swept away by the craze, buying two cuttings from the Thai constellation monstera for $500.
She has made it a side hustle, propagating and selling cuttings of her tropical beauties.
“I personally only use distilled water and mild organic fertilizer,” Ebony wrote on Instagram. “Happy transplants!”
Medium rare, not rare
Now anyone with access to YouTube and a pair of scissors can propagate rare plants.
Saechao from Plant Therapy pointed to a monstera near her store’s register. Native to Central America, it is a species sometimes known as the “Swiss cheese plant”. A year ago, he sold a monstera albo, that is, a white variegated monstera, for $1,200. Now, he says, it might only cost half that price.
Still, business did not completely collapse. Saechao always has a table of the newest rare plants — the white knight philodendron is a relative newcomer, he said. He credits Plant Therapy’s survival to the biodiversity of its breeding and its affordability. The store sells rare plants for $40 in three-inch pots, but it also sells ferns and snakes for $15.
At the height of the plant craze, growers had raised prices by 30%, and they were pushing them.
“They weren’t letting the plants grow,” Reed said. “They were selling a one foot tall plant for the same price they were selling 4 foot plants.”
Eventually, commercial sellers caught up with consumers and began producing their own domestically rare plants, often at a fraction of the price. It can be hard to remember the terror and panic that gripped so many homebound people during the long months of 2020, let alone the desire to show a fragile living being some TLC. But a Thai monstera constellation, which only recently sold for exorbitant prices, was recently available at Walmart.