Photo © Pixel-Shot, © ottochka, © coolnina | adobe stock

Specialty and rare houseplants are seriously hot right now, with new plant parents shelling out serious green for their new foliage friends. Many customers are turning to small specialty or hobbyist growers to find the species they want, because they cannot find them at their local garden center or plant shop.

While most retailers are good at stocking the common houseplants, these species are not doing it anymore for plant parents who have graduated beyond beginner basics. If, as a grower, you are willing to take on production of some more hard to find species and cultivars, you could open big houseplant opportunities for your retailers and your bottom line.

Newcomers

As I write this column, I am teaching an elective winter quarter course for UCLA Extension called “Indoor Plants: Care and Maintenance”. Many of my students are enrolled in the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Certificate programs at UCLA Extension, along with several architecture and interior design students.

What I am learning from my students is that in addition to rabid rare plant collectors, there is no shortage of new indoor plant enthusiasts coming into the pipeline. Plenty of plant-y people are looking for commonly available snake plant, Pothos ivy, peace lily, Hoya spp. and the like. If you are well stocked on the common top 10 houseplants, you still have a healthy market to serve for your local independent garden center and plant shop retailers. Yet, many indoor plant keepers who dug into the hobby in the last few years, or perhaps last spring at the start of the pandemic shutdowns, need to feed their desire to increase and diversify their plant collections.

Rarity is the game

For these customers, possession is the passion. The spirit of plant collecting is, or already has, come back with a rage. Aroids are of course getting the bulk of attention from new plant parents right now, as it is tough to resist their lush leaf forms and striking variegation. Prices for tiny pieces of the variegated cultivars of Monstera deliciosa are going for what I even feel are ridiculous prices. This Monsteramania, as I call it, has driven many small growers to the auction block with their plants and pulled many inexperienced hobbyist growers into the marketplace. Beyond Monstera spp., Alocasia and Anthurium spp. are picking up major steam.

Anytime I am writing about houseplant trends, I always check in with my friend Maria Failla of the Bloom and Grow Radio podcast, who also happens to be one of my Indoor Plants students. Her community of plant parents offers a unique window into the mindset of the new indoor gardener. “The rise of rare plants is obviously very real” says Failla. “I’ve heard of people keeping computer tabs open with the online shops on rare plant sellers and refreshing the sites all day to make sure they don’t miss any ‘drops.’ Rare aroids seem to be the hottest commodity (with people paying hundreds of dollars for a mere leafless node of a variegated Monstera).” She offers up that there is also a lot of talk about rare Hoya and she’s still seeing a demand for Philodendron ‘Pink Princess’.

Buyer beware

The lengths some customers are willing to go to in pursuit of securing a desired aroid specimen is admirable, but not always advisable. One important observation I will pass on is that there are many indoor plant beginners biting off way more than they can chew with many of the rare aroids.

We know that the highly variegated types of Monstera are not the easiest plants to grow, especially for beginners who no doubt have far too little light in their apartments to serve such plants. Alocasia and Anthurium spp. can be tricky when it comes to changing seasonal and growing media requirements.

When an inexperienced customer pays more than they probably should for a species that is beyond their experience, failure and disappointment ensue. This does not bode well for the longevity of their hobby or their lifetime value as a customer. For starters, price backlash is starting to become an issue. Not to mention, many of the newer small hobbyist growers play far too fast and loose with disease and pest control, simply due to lack of knowledge and experience.

Commodities aren’t cool

The Catch-22 with the rabid rare plant collectors these days is that the moment a popular rare species becomes more prevalent in the market, it immediately falls out of fashion. These plant parents have no interest in anything perceived as a commodity.

If you are a small grower, you may have the flexibility to grow small lots of a wide variety of species, and shift production quickly on trends for rare plant collectors.

Larger growers? Take your cue from rare plant trends, then grow and market to the beginning and intermediate market of plant parent who are willing to grow anything that has an interesting form.

One recommendation I will make is that we need a more diverse selection of easy to grow aroids. Where larger growers can fill an important void for garden centers and plant shops is with clean-grown species that are not common in the marketplace, but do not require expert experience to maintain (and ship well to your retailers).

I am thinking some of the more rare but easier to grow Philodendron species and cultivars, such as P. hastatum commonly referred to as silver sword, P. billietiae, or P. ‘McDowell’ a hybrid that looks like a fancier Alocasia. P. melanochrysum was probably the most sought-after Philodendron of 2020, so any species with a similar look. Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Cebu Blue’ is a stunner but easy to grow. Also, offering up some variegated species that also are not so challenging, such as variegated Syngonium ‘White Marble’. These are just a few examples.

Obviously, your capacity to support the rare plant market depends on your individual business model. In the end, it all comes down to targeting the right customer for your business, and managing your marketing messaging accordingly.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com