Plant Fever

Money Does Grow On Trees

From hobby to commodity — why houseplants have evolved from just being a form of therapy.

Money Does Grow On Trees
Image: Sara Erasmo/Unsplash

Let’s get the facts right: Houseplants are not a brand new millennial obsession. While their popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries, people have been coveting and collecting plants to showcase in their homes since the 19th century, when fern fever afflicted Victorian society. That was about the time that Americans and Europeans were importing rare orchids and tropical plants from Asia and South America to decorate their homes with and grow in greenhouses. (The Netherlands, incidentally, emerged from that botanic boom as one of the biggest international hubs for cultivating houseplants, including tropical ones.)

Granted, this plant hobby then was the preserve of the wealthy and elite, and the trend was not as far reaching as it is now. But with people living more comfortable lives and the world becoming a smaller place — someone in Canada is now able to get his hands on plants freshly foraged from the forests of Indonesia within a matter of days — the landscape of plant collecting in this hyper-connected age has vastly changed.

Most recently, this movement exploded when the world went under Covid-19 lockdown since the start of 2020, with millions of people cooped up at home. Whether they were singletons, couples or families, everyone suddenly was faced with unexpected free time on their hands, a desire to keep themselves entertained at home, and with no way to escape to the outdoors to release pent-up frustrations.

Intense feelings of wanting to be productive led to a rash of newly born home cooks and “circuit bakers” — and also, a horde of spanking new plant parents. It is no surprise, really, as these inexplicable needs to feed and to nurture are one of the most basic human instincts. And they come through particularly strongly at a time like this.

Fendi SaniImage: Fendi Sani

Locally, brick-and-mortar plant nurseries and plant boutiques were being ordered shut during the circuit breaker. However, those that were quick to optimise their e-commerce capabilities found themselves swamped with business.

One such outfit is Littlebotany (@littlebotany) run by Fendi Sani. After enduring the toll it took to balance a day job and tend to his plot at Punggol (from which he sells plants) in his free time, he finally took the plunge and went into the trade full time. When Covid hit, prospects were bleak, as up to 80 percent of his sales came from walk-ins. But he quickly adapted to an online format. Ultimately, the circuit breaker saw him fielding multiple orders a day via his website and Instagram for his popular plants, which range from Philodendron gigas to Philodendron pink princess — all highly sought after by hobbyists. But as he notes, it was an avalanche of plant newbies who made up his new clientele.

“With the Covid situation, more people needed an outlet to escape. Gardening helps with mental health and brings about mindfulness,” he says, explaining this surge in interest in plants. He also attributes this phenomena to people missing being outdoors and travelling. “So they decided to bring nature indoors,” he surmises.

On a personal note, he adds that his plant hobby has helped him through many situations in his life, such as tempering his anxiety. “It gave me courage and confidence when I realised that I could keep living things alive. In being compassionate to my plants, I ended up being compassionate to myself,” he shares.

Echoing a similar sentiment is Carmen Lee, who professes to have always been a nature lover at heart and a geek as a kid when it came to identifying species and breeds of animals.

“This hobby has enriched my life in more ways than I ever expected. When I started gardening, I was at a time in my life where my faith in humanity was challenged. I sought quiet solace in plants. It was a hobby that allowed me to engage all my senses, intellect and intuition. For me, it was the perfect marriage between creative expression through the curation of plants at home, and intellectual pursuit through understanding the biology of plants and applying scientific principles to nurture the plants to grow,” she says.

Now a proud parent of an apartment full of plants, she is an active member of the local plant-growing community, and she regularly posts photos on Instagram (@pl.aunty) of her diverse and awe-inspiring collection.

“I am generally drawn to interesting foliage of varying shapes, textures and contrasting colours. For that reason I am fond of begonias, because of the diversity of the genera, but I also collect philodendrons, anthuriums and anything else that might grow well in my apartment environment. I’m not specifically drawn to plants that hold a certain monetary value — interesting characteristics and physical traits appeal more to me,” Carmen adds.

While it is hard to gauge the exact size of the plant community here, suffice it to say that it is large. A recent live stream on Facebook hosted by Gardens by the Bay — to sell rare plants that were propagated from the mature specimens grown in the dome — drew over 1,000 participants. Around 50 plants were sold within minutes, at prices ranging from $45 to $180. A most rarefied specimen — a large philodendron verrucosum, which is native to South America and beloved for its stunning heart-shaped leaves and contrasting green and black colours — was finally auctioned off at an eye-watering $500.

But price tags such as these are no longer a surprise. A search on local resale portal Carousell reveals highly popular plants such as Monstera borsigiana albo-variegata and Philodendron Florida Beauty listed for thousands of dollars. While rare plants have always commanded a premium for a variety of reasons, such as rarity, slow growth, and the exactness of conditions required to grow them, prices this past year have skyrocketed. What may have cost $100 a year ago can easily fetch $500 now — it is no wonder nurseries across the island have experienced a spate of brazen thefts. (At Terrascapes LLP, another local plant nursery, a prized Philodendron strawberry shake was mercilessly cut and pilfered.)

“Out of control!” is how avid plant hobbyist Adrian Lee sums up the current market for rare plants. Explaining the outrageous prices with resignation, he says, “It boils down to simple economics. The demand has surpassed supply by many times — it’s excessive. But at the end of the day, it’s still a willing-buyer-willing-seller affair.”

Adrian has built up a highly popular Instagram account (@growrootsgrow) with nearly 15,000 followers, thanks to his sublime photographs of his plants. But he confesses he wasn’t immune to getting caught up in the frenzy of online purchases of plants during the circuit breaker, during which he succumbed to a “spree”, as he puts it. This lasted for a few weeks, until he caught hold of himself and subsequently moderated the size of his collection by putting some plants up for sale.

While it is fair to say that many plant parents picked up this hobby due to esoterism, there definitely are profiteers in the mix, flipping plants for the money. Yet who can blame them for wanting to make a quick buck? Perhaps money does grow on trees.

Carmen eloquently sums it up: “The plant market has in some ways become transactional, but I have also seen how it has become transformational, even for me on a personal level.”

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