How much would you spend on a plant? Back in June, someone in New Zealand, going by the name "meridianlamb," paid $19,297 (AUD $25,814) on the auction site Trade Me for a white variegated Rhaphidophora tetrasperma. If that price is hard for you to wrap your mind around, you're not alone — for most people, the idea of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on any one object, especially a houseplant, is unfathomable. And yet, there is a worldwide community of rare plant collectors who feel differently, and invest quite a bit of money in their plant collections. What they gain in return, they say, is priceless.
In the past five years, houseplants have become newly trendy — especially among millennial women. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified that trend, even sparking a casual interest in plants for many people now stuck at home and looking for a hobby. But 36-year-old Vic's love of plants is anything but trendy or casual. A native of Brazil, Vic has been collecting for 16 years, having been prompted to do so following the major transition of moving to the United States for college. Vic began building a collection of very specific specimens that lent a little bit of familiarity to an unfamiliar place. "Plant collecting was something that was always involved in my culture back in Brazil. I grew up in the tropical forest," Vic tells me over the phone. "But when I came to the U.S. all by myself, it became a way of staying connected to home." He began purchasing plants that reminded him of his grandmother and mom, and little by little, they accumulated. Now, Vic has two greenhouses with around 200 plants.
Ten years ago, Sophie, 37, also began collecting rare plants as a way to emulate a specific part of her upbringing. "My mother and grandmother always had beautiful gardens," she shares. "The closest thing I could get to that as an apartment renter was to create my own indoors." Alex, 26, who is originally from New York City, says his passion for plants began when he was a toddler. "It started with our family's annual vacation to Florida," he explains. "The lush tropical plants are a huge contrast to the urban and northern landscapes I was used to, and I wanted to create a similar feeling in my parent's yard on Staten Island." Over the course of his childhood and adolescence, Alex collected hundreds of tropical plants. "When I moved from New York into an apartment without a backyard, I had to be a lot more selective about the plants I was growing outside, and that's when I turned to houseplants to add some greenery to my life."
Not everyone who is investing a large portion of their time and money into rare plant collecting has been doing it for that long, though. Lauren, 34, says her husband got her into the hobby around three years ago and the pandemic pushed her deeper into rare plant collecting, specifically. She's spent more than $5,000 on her collection and usually buys around four to five new plants a month. Daniel, 21, who is currently studying botany, started collecting rare tropical plants about a year and a half ago. He estimates that he spends around $100 a month either on plants or supplies, The most he's ever spent on a single purchase? One-hundred dollars for a cutting of Philodendron verrucosum.
Though Sophie doesn't really keep track, she approximates that she's spent thousands of dollars on plant collecting over the years. "The most expensive plant I've purchased so far is a £200 [~AUD $372] anthurium, so not a huge amount of money in the plant collecting world but enough for the average person to raise an eyebrow," she shares. Alex's record purchase was $700 but claims that's not his norm. "My plant hobby has definitely burned a hole in my wallet from time to time," he says. "But I try to buy plants that are smaller sized to save money. I spend a lot more money on my car payment than I do on plants — and my car is very basic and not as much fun as my garden!"
Vic, on the other hand, goes for very specific and often large specimens, some of which are around 12 feet tall. "There have been years that I've probably put $20,000 to $30,000 into plants, and I have specimens that are tens of thousands," he says. "I have a plant that is more expensive than a car." At that value, these plants are insured and well-protected in secure, climate-controlled greenhouses. Vic readily acknowledges that investing so much money in plants might sound absurd to a lot of people, but he points out that it's really no different than a lot of other hobbies, especially those that involve collecting. "I completely get it," he laughs. "However, I would say there are people who spend more money on antique cars. Or, I'm pretty sure that my sister's handbag-taste is more expensive than my plant-taste." While it is unimaginable for Alex to spend tens of thousands on plants, as a plant enthusiast, he does understand the draw. "Ultra-rare plants are like a living art piece, and I can think of a lot worse for people to spend large sums of money on," he says.
Indeed, there are a lot of parallels between rare plant collecting and art collecting. Like Vic, art collectors insure their prized pieces and consider them part of their estates, and many art collectors approach the process of selecting pieces in the same way that the plant enthusiasts I spoke to approach picking their specimens. When asked about the $19,297 white variegated Rhaphidophora tetrasperma that was recently sold in New Zealand, Vic explains that though the plant was deemed newsworthy because of the price and apparent bidding war, he wouldn't necessarily want it for his own collection. "I'm not only particular about the species I'm acquiring, but it also has to be the right plant," he says. "I want the one that has the right shape to it, is the right size, and so on." Daniel says he probably would spend tens of thousands of dollars on plants if he had the money, but even if he was in the financial position to purchase the aforementioned specimen, he likely wouldn't be interested because it doesn't align with his specific taste, either. "I don't hold variegated plants in the same regard that some people do," Daniel shares.
"I spend a lot more money on my car payment than I do on plants — and my car is very basic and not as much fun as my garden!"
Sophie also wouldn't have bid on that variegated Rhaphidophora tetrasperma, but her reasoning has more to do with its price. According to her, some people are dropping these huge amounts for "bragging rights."
"There's definitely a split in this hobby between the people who love plants and collect whatever plants take their fancy and the people who love having 'flex collections' they can brag about. These collectors spend hundreds or thousands on popular rare plants just to show off," she says. "Neither is right or wrong but I know which side I'd rather be on."
The wildly expensive plants that make headlines, according to every collector with whom I spoke, aren't always botanically rare. They might just be in high demand, which drives up the price, or they are commercially rare because people are holding onto stock in an attempt to keep prices high by creating artificial scarcity in the market. "The prices soar because people want what other people can't have and are willing to pay more than they're worth just to have it in their collection before everyone else," Sophie explains. Vic, who prioritizes his personal taste and looks primarily for plants that are beautiful and a little bit odd, gets that desire to collect plants that others don't have but only with the ones that are actually botanically rare. "You cannot deny, or at least, I won’t deny — most people probably will — if everybody had it, I probably wouldn’t want it," he says, laughing. "There's something about the uniqueness of it and having a special piece that you can be proud of. It feels kind of nice."
Funnily enough, those special, unique plants aren't always so expensive. Just like with art, if you follow your instincts instead of trends, you could land a beautiful piece that becomes more valuable over time. Vic, for instance, has a plant he initially paid around $20 for that he could now sell for $2,000 — that is, if he were interested in selling, which he is not. "Again, I don't see it very differently from collecting art. Sometimes you get lucky and acquire your Picasso before Picasso is a thing, and then, you're sitting on a pricey painting," Vic says.
While allowing trends within the plant world to dictate your purchases isn't recommended by many collectors, most do say that being aware of the trends is one important way to avoid having to spend so much. "You need to have a working knowledge of plant trends and the plant you want to buy to avoid being ripped off," Lauren explains. "So many people got into houseplants during COVID that a lot of the prices were, and still are, artificially inflated — looking at you, Philodendron Pink Princess — and are only now kind of starting to settle down." For her, the thrill that comes with searching for and ultimately finding a deal on a rare plant is part of what drew her to collecting. Sophie agrees. "Sometimes it's all about being in the right place at the right time, and buying a plant before it gets super popular and the price skyrockets," she says. "It does require insider knowledge and a fair bit of luck though. It's the part of the hobby I love the most — getting a desirable plant for the best price possible."
According to Alex, "Some plants will always be expensive because of their rarity or difficulty to propagate, but for the rest, patience will save you a lot of money." He's currently waiting for prices on variegated monstera plants to drop before he buys one. Vic echoes this sentiment with a specific example. "A plant like the philodendron spiritus-sancti, which is kind of the unicorn of all unicorns, or the crown jewel for people who like aroids, is expensive. There's no way around that. But I do have plants that are probably equally as valuable that I acquired for $10, but they're just not the trendy stuff. They're not the ones making the social media posts," he shares. "I often compare it to fashion. I could have the most beautiful tailored suit made by this amazing designer who is not big or I could pay $5,000 for a suit that is made by a factory that Armani owns."
Still, even the most serious plant collectors can't always resist the Armani suits of the plant world. "As much as you try not to be influenced by what is cool and what is hip at the moment, there are plants that catch your eye because they were on Instagram or they were on Reddit or wherever," Vic admits. But even with trendy plants, he's picky. "There was this one that I had in my head forever. I wanted to have a philodendron red moon, which is a pretty specific plant that I had seen all over, and I came across several of them, but it wasn't until I saw the one I wanted that I went for it," Vic explains. "It was a combination of colouration and size. I knew that the seller was a reliable source in terms of good genetics, and I had seen the plant it came from." Those are all factors he and other collectors consider during the plant-finding process.
That process, for many collectors, also involves consulting the connections they've made within the rare plant communities on social media, specifically Reddit and Facebook. These groups serve as invaluable resources; They provide a way to share knowledge, enthusiasm, and, of course, plants. "Every so often if I find something new on one of my trips and I bring it back, I'll let my friends know, and if it's new to them, I may share and vice versa," Vic explains. Lauren's involvement in the plant community has also led to her scoring special finds. "I've been super lucky to remain employed [throughout the pandemic] but not being able to go anywhere gave me a lot of time to research other types and become active in plant groups, which, combined with my propensity to hyper-focus on hobbies, led to me rapidly amassing a collection of plants that the average person probably has not heard of."
"In a world driven by instant gratification from the internet, gardening brings some anticipation back into our daily lives."
Swaps that happen among group members are not only ways to find exceedingly rare plants, they're also how some collectors avoid paying those exorbitant prices. "Rare plants don't have to be expensive!" Daniel shares. "You can get a lot of stuff through trades, and it only takes one good investment to have enough trading material to get you started." Lauren concurs. "I think it's easy to get intimidated by prices because so many people are overcharging right now. But if you join any local plant community, you'll find that the relationships you build with other collectors blossom into real friendships — and trust me, plant collectors love to share with their friends," she says. "I completed a trade about a year ago with a person from Reddit and have watched them grow their collection from basic cuttings to extremely rare plants predominately through trading."
Watching her friends' collections, as well as her own, grow is far and away the most rewarding part of collecting for Lauren. "Hoyas, which are what I mainly collect, are pretty slow growers, so I love watching new growth develop," she says. "They're also pretty active plants and will move their vines around looking for something to climb so I like seeing what they've latched onto this time. It's seriously not uncommon to find me just staring at my shelves or dresser or window sills for extended periods of time, picking them up and analyzing them for any new changes." The growth that comes from tending to a living thing is also an appeal for Sophie. "It's incredibly rewarding to watch a plant grow under your care, especially when that plant is notoriously difficult to care for," she explains. "You get a sense of pride from being able to grow something other people have failed at doing. I've recently gotten into pollinating anthuriums to grow them from seed. The process is often convoluted, but really exciting when you successfully pollinate a plant and get seeds from it." The challenge is captivating to Alex, too. "Gardening taught me from a young age that hard work and patience pay off," he shares. "I think as adults, especially in a world driven by instant gratification from the internet, gardening brings some anticipation back into our daily lives."
Daniel says that caring for his plants helps keep him grounded. "My mental state has had its ups and downs, and my plants have definitely been affected by that, but they're always there to cheer me on and give me a reason to get out of bed," he shares. Vic is very clear that the way he collects plants is a luxury, and he shares that he feels incredibly lucky to be able to do it because of how fulfilling it is. "In essence, growing plants in captivity, you have to emulate their natural environments if you're going to be successful. You cannot have, let's say, a $10,000 plant and just put it on your dining table. Most of the plants that I gravitate toward come from the tropics, they come from where I was a kid. So I think recreating that little bit of my childhood is nostalgic in many ways," Vic says. "It's sentimental. It's escapism." And, really, you can't put a price on all of that.