When you think of a nursery or garden centre, memories of your mother going to pick up some summer annuals or your dad loading up bagged black mulch for the yard come to mind. Today, that scene is changing. Armed with smartphone cameras, and meticulously checking under each leaf, people now browse with the trained eye of fine-art collectors. The houseplant business is trendy, thriving and young – and it turns out there are a lot of roots beneath the surface.
Fuelling this chlorophyll-crazed market is social media. The rise of houseplant content is soaring on platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Apart from plant collecting providing enjoyment and a boost of oxygen, you can make some serious money. Top “plantfluencers” and content creators hold fanbases in the hundreds of thousands, and a growing number of them have gained celebrity status. Rebecca De La Paz, based in Colombia, Mo., is one of the most prominent figures on “Plant YouTube,” with more than 40,000 subscribers. She once brought a massive, rare plant home as a carry-on on a flight back from Florida. Plant content is her full-time job, so the funny looks she received were a small price to pay.
There are many others making it big on the houseplant stage. One way of doing this is through posting rare specimens that no one has, which can be a pricey gamble. But getting that rare plant before anyone else can be the golden ticket to views and content engagement that can ultimately lead to sponsorships and ad revenue.
For retailers, this is a chance to make some serious green. Alex Anga, 27, manages Anga’s Farm and Nursery in Toronto. When she started, houseplants were a niche part of the business – maybe some cacti and assorted succulents, poinsettias close to Christmas. Now, walking through her greenhouse feels like pushing through a lush jungle. “It’s a huge part of our operation,” says Anga, who keeps the greenhouse open during the winter to meet new demand.
Several factors determine a plant’s value, Anga says. Plants that are variegated or have rare colour patterns are more expensive than the plain old green variety of the same specimen. If the plant grows slowly, has specific care requirements or has received considerable social media attention, collectors are interested.
Lisa Lautenbach, manager of The Watering Can in St. Catharines, Ont., has also seen an explosion of growth in houseplant sales. A few years ago, she might have had 30 people at an educational houseplant workshop. Last year, attendance skyrocketed, with multiple events and almost 400 attendees. “It’s going to be fast and furious this spring,” Lautenbach says.
As a vendor, keeping up with houseplant trends is essential, and this comes at a cost. Most houseplants are not native to Canada and cannot be grown without tropic to semi-tropic conditions. When a plant becomes trendy – which happens largely through social media – retailers face pressure to find it and get as many in stock as possible. Hordes of messages from people asking when a certain plant will be available puts stress on suppliers to meet near-impossible requests. One example is the coveted Thai Constellation Monstera, says Lautenbach, which is notoriously hard to grow and can sell for $800 in a six-inch pot.
This isn’t an easy feat when these plants are cultivated as far away as Asia. “It’s an unlimited demand with a limited supply,” Anga says. It’s not uncommon for sellers to place bets on the expected popularity of a certain species. And the stakes can be high. Finding fungus gnats on a plant that’s supposed to sell for $100 to a buyer that afternoon can make it unsellable.
The only thing wilder than the plants are the people buying them. When a rare plant does make its way to retail, it can be up for grabs for a few days – or hours – and then it can be gone from shelves for months. Tempers can flare when customers drive for an hour in a snowstorm to get to your nursery, only to find out all the Jewel Orchids sold in under a minute – which did really happen to Anga. “We deal with intense plant people all the time,” she says. “They don’t stand out anymore.”
Plant influencers, like suppliers, are attuned to plant trends that change as quickly as the weather. One, who prefers to go by the single name Manna, holds a fan base of 34,000 followers through her Instagram account @one.node. Her most popular video, with more than 145,000 views, is of her Pink Princess Philodendron, a unique pink-leaved tropical that has received extensive social media hype over the past few years but is now slowly becoming more popular. “Once a plant becomes accessible to the general public, it becomes less desirable. There’s no rush to get it,” Manna says.
Ashley Slater, with almost 20,000 followers at her Instagram account @plantmeashley, earns just as much as her husband, who has a full-time job. Slater has multiple sponsorships, and uploads content daily to both her YouTube and Instagram. To transform a green thumb into a full-blown career, it’s common for collectors to have multiple rare items in their arsenal to post about. For Erin Bishop, Instagram’s @unrulybotany, one of these is her prized Anthurium Warocqueanum, which retails for around $300 online, if you can get a good deal. “It’s like any collectable – it’s more fun hunting for the rare ones,” Bishop says.
But simply owning the prize doesn’t mean your work is done. You need to keep your rare plant alive. This can be a daunting task, since there’s a lot of skill involved in keeping tropical plants thriving through Canadian winters. Humidifiers, extensive grow-light systems and special fertilizers are common within the houseplant community, because there’s nothing worse than finding out the plant you spent your rent money on is wilting. Turning that two-leaved stem you bought on Etsy for a pretty penny into a towering vine in your apartment is a badge of honour.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have spent more than $5 on an IKEA cactus. Now, at a desk surrounded by more green things than office supplies, I get the appeal. The market is alive, and so are the products. One thing is certain: The houseplant sector is growing like a weed and the future looks brighter than ever.