"Collecting can be a sort of lovesickness," journalist Susan Orlean wrote in the latter part of the last century. "If you begin collecting living things, you are pursuing something imperfectable, and even if you manage to find them and then possess them, there is no guarantee they won't die or change."
Orlean's observations were about hardcore orchid collectors, people who had once been "seemingly normal" before they cultivated a willingness to risk literally everything to get their hands on the rarest members of the Orchidaceae family. Twenty-five years later, plant obsessives are still out there, but instead of, say, shoving flowers into pillowcases during a midday swamp raid, they can send DMs about whatever they're into, join a nursery's lengthy waiting list, or place an eye-watering bid on an auction site.
Just last weekend, an anonymous New Zealander paid NZD $8,150 (the equivalent of USD $5,291) for an "extremely rare variegated Rhaphidophora tetrasperma" on the auction site Trade Me. The sale set a new record for the most expensive houseplant to ever be sold on the platform (and the final purchase price came out to roughly $1,325 per leaf).
The plant's variegation—a cell mutation that causes some of the leaves to appear white, pink, or yellow, in this case—is what drove that price into four figures. "A plant will grow a leaf that looks a little bit different, because those leaves don't have chlorophyll," Jesse Waldman, the director of marketing and eCommerce at Pistils Nursery in Portland, Oregon told VICE. "If you take a cutting and propagate it, you can hope [the variegation] keeps going, but that kind of mutation isn't very stable. A lot of plants will revert back to their solid green form, which is a factor that makes them a little bit more challenging to produce in huge numbers."
The weekend auction marked the third time this year that a houseplant has set a new sales record on Trade Me; the Rhaphidophora even out-priced a Hoya carnosa 'compacta' with a cream and yellow variegation that sold for $4,225 in June, and a variegated Monstera aurea that went for $3,726 while I was writing this piece.
What's prompted this interest in high-dollar rarities? It depends on who you talk to. One gardener compared it to collecting pricey handbags, shrugging it off as "exclusivity, showing off and downright silliness." But to Dr. Bridget Behe, a Horticulture professor at Michigan State University and horticulture marketing expert, it's just Econ 101.
"Plants, like people, can be a bit fickle. Social media can help create demand where supply is quite low, creating rare plants," she said. "FOMO is real and some people emotionally want that specific plant, so it drives up prices by driving up demand. Pretty simple economics. Having said that, once some genius plant propagator cracks the code for how to propagate the plant, voila, there are more plants to sell and the price goes down."
Aroids like monstera, philodendron, and pothos have undoubtedly benefited from their Insta-ubiquity, driven by plantfluencers (sigh), hashtags, and unboxing videos. "Six years ago, I asked the person who was buying [for Pistils] at the time if we could get some variegated monstera in, and she was like 'They're really just a hard sell,'" Waldman said. "Flash forward to now and I'd say we get anywhere from two to 10 emails a week asking about that plant and Instagram DMs almost every day. When we get one in, I have to hold back on putting it on social because the call volume and the request volume is just too much to handle."
But not everybody who scrolls through plant-focused Insta accounts or visits their local nursery is interested in dropping several months' rent on a variegated flex; most of us just like houseplants. According to the National Gardening Association's most recent National Gardening Survey, the highest-ever number of 18- to 34-year-olds are now participating in "gardening activities," including raising indoor plants. As a result, retail sales in the lawn and garden category hit a new high of $47.8 billion last year, and per-household plant-related spending jumped to an average of $503—numbers that are expected to keep going up.
"I was completely blindsided," Enid Offolter, the owner of NSE Tropicals in Plantation, Florida, and a self-described 'horticultural enabler' said. "I thought the market was at max capacity three years ago, then each year it’s more intense. I can’t believe it’s still going on."
Offolter is a legit celebrity in the plant world; she has more than 85,000 followers on Instagram, and NSE Tropicals estimates that it's sold more than 140,000 plants in the past 20 years. She says that "everything" is hard for her to keep in stock, and I don't think she's kidding—not when she can have literally thousands of people on a waiting list for rarities like Philodendron joepii or Philodendron lynamii. "Often I have so many people who want a particular plant, I don't know who to sell it to," she said.
In those cases, she might put them up for auction on the NSE Tropicals site. As of this writing, the high bids ranged from $61 for an Anthurium polystictum to $4,000 for (spoiler alert) a variegated Monstera adansonii. "Every day I'm surprised at the prices," she added.
Behe is more astonished by a less tangible—but no less real—characteristic of this generation of collectors. "I think the real surprise is the emotional connection many millennials have to their plants," she said. "They're not children or pets, but so many millennials name [their plants] and care for them intensely. I'm not surprised by the increase in popularity of houseplants, but am a bit surprised at that strong emotional connection."
But before somebody inevitably blames millennials for inflating the indoor houseplant market, it's probably worth pointing out that this isn't a new thing, at all. Almost a century before Orlean typed the first chapter of The Orchid Thief, wealthy Victorians were so entranced by orchids and so willing to spend fuck-you money to buy them, that their fascination was known as 'orchidelirum.'
"There are persons who collect orchids as others do coins or postage stamps, paying large sums for single plants," one newspaper wrote in 1904. "It is said that a sum nearly twice as large as the largest price paid for a tulip bulb at the time of the famous tulip craze, $5,200 [almost $150,000 in 2020 US dollars] was paid in London last year for one plant, and that the stock of another is valued at $10,000 [$288,000 today]. The highest valued orchid is said to be in the collection of Sir Trevor Lawrence of Dorking, England. Its value has not been tested by sale, however, as the owner cultivates orchids for his own pleasure, solely." (Sir Trevor, we salute you.)
In the early part of the 20th century, Cypripedium-crazed orchid collectors were even accused of hunting one variety right to the edge of extinction. Nobody has indicted today's #plantparents for taking things that far—yet—but there are still detrimental aspects to the surging market for rarities. Offolter says her challenges range from difficulty finding plants, to an increase in scammers "trying to make a quick dollar" by selling poor-quality versions, to "massive amounts of emails" about what is and isn't available.
"As much as I love that people love plants, and are looking for special ones and coming in with all this specialized knowledge, the downside is that people can essentially charge anything they want for them, and I think that prices a lot of people out of having access to these plants," Waldman added. "I look forward to when they're in wider production so that more people can enjoy them. I think that plants should be accessible to everybody, because they're a source of joy."
And you are pursuing something imperfectable, after all—but maybe that's the point.