Hobby or Bloodsport? The Wild World of Rare Houseplant Collecting
Sex, lies, money — it’s all part of the game.
(NOTE: Some names have been changed for privacy.)
SCENE: March 2020. It’s the fourth week or so of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in households across the country (including my own), the cotton-candy novelty of social distancing has been replaced with a depressing speculation: We will be at home forever. Netflix binges, naps, trips to the fridge — even these teenagerlike pleasures have now become passé as the virus continues its slow, destructive trundle through the states. We’re being told that the most patriotic thing we can do is stay home, but our uniquely American need to always be doing something is getting harder and harder to ignore. But what can we do while we’re cooling our collective heels?
Well, if you’re like thousands of Americans, the answer is: Buy and grow houseplants.
It’s a phenomenon that’s become nigh impossible to miss. For proof, just check out the Instagram feeds of social-media stars. Interior decorator Jennifer Holmes’ newly-designed bedroom has a spray of potted eucalyptus on the marbled white dresser. Rap star Lil Uzi Vert shows off his gold jewelry, crouching in front of a potted ficus. Now that our living spaces are also the places where we work and (virtually) socialize, growing things indoors is no longer just the province of the weed dealers and Great-Aunt Janes of the world. For a great many, it’s become a fun pandemic hobby. And for a growing number of others, it’s become a “lifestyle,” as the breathless media write-ups put it. Including myself.
THINGS GOT A LITTLE EXTRA
As an outdoor gardener for many years, my entry into the houseplant world three years ago was more like a tiptoe than a giant leap. I liked the look of the monstera deliciosa, a big, splashy tropical plant with dramatic slashes in its leaves, but couldn’t find one on the shelves, so I inquired at my local nursery, where the manager offered to order it for me. “What was it called again?” she asked, fumbling around for a pen so I could write out the then-obscure plant name for her. Two weeks and $25 later, it was sitting next to a southern-facing window in my living room. And for years, it remained my lone indoor plant. It drank sips of filtered water, taunting its outdoor counterparts by unfurling a new, delicate leaf in 110-degree weather.
Then the pandemic happened, and things got a little extra, as my students would put it. My lone monstera was joined by a tiny plant with soft, velvety leaves, followed by a basket full of a trailing, medium-green specimen. They perked up the aesthetic of my virtual classroom, though they failed to impress the high-school freshmen who begrudgingly gathered there for help on their English assignments. Teacups disappeared from the kitchen and reappeared in a different room filled with succulents. I bought something called Liquidirt on the Internet. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was entering into a subculture that would come to dominate most of my free time in 2020 (and indeed, still does today).
As the green in my house burgeoned from swatches to swathes, I found that plants satisfied not only my need to have total control over another living thing, but also my love of getting stuff for free. Cut off a stem of one plant, plunk it into some dirt, and ta-da — a few weeks later, you’d have a new plant. Try that with other hobbies, I’d think smugly, briefly imagining a rare Sandy Koufax baseball card futilely shoved upside-down in a terra-cotta pot.
Houseplants might have remained a significant, but manageable, hobby for me under different circumstances. But, as with so many things in this world, once social media is thrown into the mix, everything goes to hell. And so it went with my discovery of plant groups on Facebook. With straightforward monikers like “House Plant Hobbyist” and “Plant Finders,” these virtual hubs sound positively dull. But once I made it past the “Join” button, I became initiated into the realm of plant collectors — a ragtag bunch of mostly-middle-class Americans that agonizes over humidity levels, and can occasionally be persuaded into dropping $500 or more on that perfect philodendron. I eagerly read propagation advice from botanical expert Siddharth Nc (his Facebook moniker) and watched YouTube videos by Planterina, a blonde plant collector with a sarcastic demeanor similar to my own, on making my vined plants vinier.
These are my people, I thought, checking the limit on my credit card again.
PARANOIA, SEX, AND POLITICS
The plant community on Facebook is a lively hub that’s always buzzing, no matter the time of day. European buyers, starting their workdays, post cheery photos of their favorite plants silhouetted against a sunrise, hours after most Americans have turned in for the night. Sellers in Indonesia and Malaysia, where many plants desired by Westerners grow like weeds in sidewalk cracks, post photos of their wares as they end their day, hoping to catch the attention of Americans sipping their morning coffee. It’s sort of like the United Nations, only the representatives have traces of dirt under their fingernails and ceramic pots in their bathroom sinks.
Houseplants are finicky little things — apt to wilt if you water them too much, if you don’t water them enough, if you move them to a new spot, if the days get longer or shorter — and thus, much of the chatter on plant social media is devoted to discussing plant shortcomings. Crunchy brown leaves, rotten roots, leaves affected by mealy bugs, funguses, and the dreaded Mosaic Virus — if it can affect a plant, chances are, there’s a recent (and horrifying) post about it somewhere. “Are these SPIDER MITES?!” a woman named Jessica asks on House Plant Growers on a February evening, including a photo of some cottony white stuff smeared across an elongated green leaf. Spider mites are the bedbugs of the plant world, seemingly indestructible and apt to crop back up just when you think they’re gone for good. “Burn the plant,” another group member, Janie, states plaintively, adding a GIF of a flamethrower for good measure. (While seemingly extreme, her advice actually isn’t bad; many plant maladies are easily banished, but spider mites are Very, Very Bad.)
It’s enough to make even the most lackadaisical plant grower paranoid. After eyeing the picture for a minute, I turn on my camera’s flashlight and spend several minutes examining the strawberry shake philodendron on the table next to me. No spider mites. I’m safe. Until the next insect post, of course.
Sex sells on social media, and the plant community is no different in that regard. Some plant enthusiasts — especially vendors — post carefully-lit, suggestive photos of themselves next to their plants to garner extra attention. One seller in particular, Derek, is famous for announcing his sales with a bedroom-eyes selfie, his long, blond hair cascading over his shoulders, his plants just out of focus behind him. “It’s hard to say no to Plant Daddy Thor,” a woman named Amanda comments, adding a laughing-crying emoji for good measure. Another woman, Katarina, tags a friend in her comment, calling Derek a “hunk.” Hundreds of similar comments pile up. When the sale actually starts, his plants aren’t that good — most of them are commonly found at the garden centers of home-improvement stores, and those stores sell them cheaper too — but most of his wares are claimed in short order. Having read the so-so reviews of his shop, I abstain. He might look like an updated version of Fabio, but it’s going to take more than that to get me to buy. (I personally prefer to get my hard-to-find specimens from Canopy Plant Co., a small outfit run by three guys in New Orleans who look like they came straight out of a Weezer video.)
Since sex has become an integral part of the plant hobby, it’s not surprising that social awareness has, too. One Facebook group, Plantifa: The Leftist Plant Collective, is a hub for enthusiasts with progressive ideals. In this group, so-called “proplifting” — stealing cuttings of plants — is encouraged when it comes to big-box stores like Home Depot and Walmart. This past summer, a question was posed on Plantifa: Is it OK to steal from locally-owned businesses that promote conservative ideals and seem to hire only white people? The overwhelming verdict was that it is more than just okay; it is necessary. “Eat the rich! And take their plants,” one member suggests.
The other ongoing culture war among plant growers is what to call the tradescantia genus of plants, which are commonly known as Wandering Jews. Some find the name anti-Semitic and prefer to use the scientific moniker, while others think worrying about such a trivial matter is the height of insufferable “wokeness.” Such conversations typically go like this:
“Look at my beautiful Wandering Jew! Just got her today!” (heart emoji)
“Actually, you should call it Tradescantia. The old name is offensive.”
(Someone who isn’t the original poster): “OMG it’s a plant. GET OVER IT! My neighbor is Jewish and he doesn’t even care, so why should anyone else?”
(Another person not the original poster): “Well, I’m Jewish and I’m offended. What do you think about that?”
(Yet another person): “WHY can’t we just all love our plants and quit fighting with each other?” (crying emoji)
The owner of the plant that started the firestorm, who is usually a newbie to Serious Plant Collecting, rarely returns to the post. I imagine them frowning down at the new plant, wondering if vintage marble enthusiasts might be a little less tightly-wound.
It’s Thursday night, and posts are flying on Tropical + Rare Plants BST (a Facebook acronym for “buy-sell-trade”). Two plant sellers with the not-quite-believable names of Cierra Jetfuel and Cali F Plants are “purging” — plant community lingo for selling a large amount of plants in quick order. Sellers typically do this when they need to either get rid of excess plants or raise cash for a specific non-plant purpose. However, it’s not unusual for a seller to announce a purge with a picture of a wine glass and the proclamation, “I’m drunk and bored, let’s purge!”
The sale in question was announced Wednesday evening, and people have been adding “following” comments to the thread throughout the day, in hopes of getting a notification when the sale goes live. Purges are a bloodsport in the plant social-media community; buyers perch over their keyboards, ready to be the first to write “sold” underneath pictures of their desired plants. (The secret is to use a desktop or laptop computer to participate. Smart phones and tablets, for some unknown reason, don’t fare well in purges.)
The sellers pop in a few minutes before the appointed time to give everyone a heads up. A woman named Lauren tags her friend: “I’m spending the money just keep an eye out ok?” she asks. There’s a feeling of inevitability in the air — it’s not whether a plant will be bought, but when, and for how much. Bank account balances somehow become meaningless numbers, fading to grey and dissolving into the ether, in the face of that longed-for, but never-possessed, plant.
Things start off slowly, with an $85 alocasia cuprea and a $35 monstera dubia (an interesting plant, that, for some reason, is usually trained to grow onto a moss-covered pine board). But things intensify from there. Philodendron gigas, $160. Philodendron el choco red, $185. Anthurium crystallinum, $300. Sold. Sold. Sold. The plants are claimed in quick succession, and within two hours, it’s all over. Group members who happened to miss the sale pop in anyway to commiserate with others who dared step away from their laptops to work, eat, or go to the bathroom. “LIST ANOTHER BILLIE DAMMIT,” a would-be buyer named Sarah wails, using the nickname for a specific philodendron that is popular because of its unusual oblong, waxy leaves. Sarah dodged a bullet, I think, remembering my own Billie, which thrived for almost a year until dying, for no apparent reason, this past March.
Though I watch the night’s sales with interest, I don’t participate. Purges are too high-pressure for me, and I dislike “going up against” other collectors. My most recent online plant purchase, from a South Carolinian named Sarra, was a quick, no-nonsense transaction; she posted a random plant, I happened to see it, typed “sold,” paid her, and that was it. No keyboard-perching, no furious browser refreshes. I have enough unpleasantness in my day-to-day life — I don’t need it to spill over into my hobby, too.
The timing of the Cierra/Cali F purge, however, is interesting. The United States is on the precipice of a polar vortex, set to cause subzero temps even in the Deep South, and most — if not all — of the plants will travel through the postal service or another carrier. But this seems immaterial to the night’s buyers. The thrill of the purge — of not just purchasing a plant, but winning the right to purchase it — is paramount here. Practical matters, like a plant’s chance of survival as it treks across the country during winter weather, play a distant second fiddle.
Until, of course, those practicalities rear their heads.
YOU DON’T WANT TO GET MIXED UP IN THIS, KID
Ask the average consumer if they’d care to spend hundreds of dollars on a living thing and have it shoved into a box, and then the wildly unreliable U.S. mail system, and they’d probably look up from their Amazon order (which will, no doubt, arrive on time) with a reproachful stare. But such cares are, at best, a minor consideration in the plant-buying world. Through the magic of heat packs, ice packs, wrapping, Polyfil and the like, shipping cartons can become little, temporary greenhouses, meant to shelter sensitive plants from temperature changes and drop-kicks by irritable delivery personnel. When these materials are used well, and the mail gods are in a good mood, everyone’s happy. When something goes wrong…it’s a different story.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a plant buyer named Naomi posts on Plant BST Review & Discussion Board, a Facebook group devoted to both singing the praises of, and tearing down, various plant vendors. Naomi is disappointed in her purchase from Arin. Naomi bought an alocasia cuprea and paid for shipping with Priority Mail, which is normally a 2- to 3-day service. However, due to the vagaries of the United States Postal Service, the alocasia took eight days to get from Florida to Washington state, sitting in cold postal trucks all the while. Naturally, the plant died, and Naomi wants to warn other potential buyers. She’s particularly steamed about Arin’s failure to include a heat pack in the parcel, which she says she paid for. “Several people I confided in believed the heat pack would have at least made the plant salvageable,” she says in her review, which is 12 paragraphs long and includes pictures of the frozen, now-mushy plant.
Because Arin is a popular plant seller, group members immediately start taking sides in the matter. “The plant is improperly packaged for winter and the lack of heat pack…if I was the seller I would take some of that responsibility,” a woman named Katelyn says. But Dustin has another take: “Without having shipped the plant [overnight], it would almost certainly still have arrived DOA even with a heat pack,” he says. Ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred posts pile up in the thread, alternately sympathizing with Naomi and faulting her for not paying for express shipping or asking for the plant to be held until the weather dissipated. I don’t add my own two cents in the post, because every point of view that could possibly be expressed has pretty much been posted already. But I silently sympathize with Naomi, because I’ve been in her position — desiring a plant so much that possible shipping delays seem like an acceptable risk, yet not quite willing to pay $90 to receive a box of rotted chlorophyll either. Through a combination of strategic purchase timing and luck, I haven’t yet been burned, not even when I imported plants from Indonesia. But it’s just a matter of time before my luck runs out and I find myself in Naomi’s shoes. That’s the life of a plant collector. (I imagine myself taking a contemplative drag of a cigarette as I say this line to a plant newbie. You don’t want to get mixed up in this, kid. It’s a rough business.)
Over the course of a few days, Naomi’s thread peters out — in the end, she decides to take her case to PayPal, the payment processor, and ask them for a refund. Two weeks later, no updates have been provided, and so the argument comes to an undramatic, unsatisfying end. But the situation raises questions that are almost existential in the plant-trading community — is a seller responsible for weather in another state? Should a buyer lose money due to circumstances beyond their control?
Why doesn’t everyone just buy fake plants and be done with it?
I consider this question as I absentmindedly stare through the plastic of my indoor greenhouse. Without even opening the zippered flap, I can see that the tips of a few leaves on my subhastatum have browned. A random fungus gnat flits around my pink princess philodendron. And I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ line from the movie A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.” For what satisfaction can come from taking care of a plant like a dandelion or holly bush, which would probably have survived on its own anyway? Isn’t there some sort of contrarian pleasure in figuratively grasping an ailing vine by its green, fibrous neck and forcing it to grow against its will?
This desired struggle belies the duality of Serious Plant Collecting. Maybe that’s why some refer to it as “plant parenthood.” In the end, both endeavors seem to boil down to this philosophy: You will grow to adulthood despite your best efforts otherwise.
Needing more feedback, I log on to my local Facebook group, DFW Plant Peeps, and ask: Why do we continue to practice such an anguishing hobby? I get few responses, probably because it’s such a difficult question. (Plant enthusiasts are great at giving practical advice, but not so good at the philosophical side of things.) A woman named Kara takes pity on me and throws in her thoughts. “Plants are predictable and yet they are not,” she says. “You can’t ignore them, so it is an interactive hobby. Plus it is pretty cheap!”
I eye my white princess philodendron, a tiny two-leaf cutting for which I paid $250, and wonder how long Kara’s really been in the plant game.
THE WINTER OF OUR (GROWING) DISCONTENT
It’s a few days before Valentine’s Day, 2021, and the polar vortex is giving the weathermen in Texas plenty of fodder for their Twitter feeds. The jet stream, which usually keeps the really cold air in Toronto where it belongs, has temporarily weakened, and freezing temps are headed our way. Prepare to be at home for a while, they advise; stock up and settle in. All over the state, milk cases are emptied and paper products fly off the shelves. My husband and I replenish our stocks of a few things, like milk and coffee. But, as people who have led fairly easy, mostly middle-class lives, our mantra is: Everything’s going to be okay. Why wouldn’t it be? As the snow starts falling midday Sunday, I stay in my pajamas, sewing myself a tote bag with the new plant-themed fabric that I picked up.
Then, the wheels fall off. At 7:50 a.m. Monday morning, the power flickers, and then goes out. We were told to prepare for rolling blackouts, so I shrug my shoulders and brew some coffee with my vintage stovetop percolator, silently thanking myself for buying the seemingly-useless contraption at an estate sale years ago. The school district I work for was supposed to have virtual workshops that day, so I text my supervisor, pseudo-regretfully telling her that my wifi is down and I can’t participate.
Lunchtime comes around, and still no power. I make my kids food from whatever we can prepare on the gas stove. The temperature in the house dips from 70 to 60. A subtle undercurrent of worry starts to sweep through my local social-media groups. People can’t make meals, and local restaurants are closed. The few hotels that still have power are booked solid. News headlines proclaim that power providers have hit a snag with the “rolling” blackouts — in many places, power was cut, but can’t be turned on again. We should prepare for at least another full day without electricity. Like a plant stuck in a frigid postal-service processing hub, we are victims of circumstance, and little can be done about it.
My family huddles around the only gas fireplace in our house, which provides noticeable heat only when one is within a foot of it. Around 6 p.m., I bring our guinea pig, Ruby, and several of my most prized plants closer to the small brick hearth, placing lit candles around them. We sleep fitfully; I wake up every hour or two to check leaves, throw extra blankets on my kids, and make sure Ruby is still okay. Just two days ago, my household routines were all about keeping my plants, pet, and kids happy and comfortable; now, it’s about sheer survival.
Tuesday comes around, and the worry has now spread to my plant groups on Facebook. Tropical houseplants, by and large, prefer temperatures in the 70s or even higher, and collections worth hundreds or thousands of dollars are at risk. We share tips: Make a greenhouse from chairs and garbage bags. Put them in your car and turn the heat on. Several locals lucky enough to retain power offer their homes as a temporary shelter for plants. We consider going to our home in Mobile, Alabama, but a few major highways between here and there are closed due to ice. Hotels with power are booked solid. At 8 p.m., as the prospect of another, even colder night looms, a friend extends an invitation, and we decide to get out of Dodge. One suitcase, 20 plants, a guinea pig, and two teenage boys are loaded into our cars in short order. I blow out the candles warming my makeshift greenhouses and look sadly at the plants I’m leaving behind. Good luck, I think, simultaneously cursing myself for caring in the first place. They’re fucking plants, after all.
When we return two days later, I survey the damage. One of my treubii moonlight plants is trashed, and the silver sword philodendron has dropped its biggest leaf. My newly-acquired philodendron deflexum cutting, not even fully rooted, is wilting downward. But as I check my social media feeds, I see other Texan plant owners have it even worse. Some big-time growers, who had hundreds or thousands of plants in outdoor greenhouses, lost everything when the power gave out, rendering their supplemental heaters inoperable. “It’s gone. All of it,” a woman on a Dallas-Fort Worth plant group says, posting pictures of brown, cold-shocked leaves and defoliated stems. Our own house has a burst pipe, and most of our saltwater pool equipment has been ruined by ice. Losing plants on top of it all seems like salt in the wound, a rotten cherry on top of a shit sundae.
Growing plants has always been a love-hate thing for me, and at least twice a year, I give serious thought to selling it all and getting out for good. These thoughts start to run through my head again as I busy myself clipping dead leaves and yellowed stems from my casualties. I really used to like cooking, I think. And writing. I’ve got an unfinished novel somewhere on that Macbook…
As I’m going to sleep on Sunday night, preparing for my first workweek after the so-called “Snovid,” I see that a local plant friend has invited to me to a new Facebook group: Regrow Texas. A woman in Illinois has seen Texan plant owners’ miseries from afar, and created a hub to help connect them with out-of-state plant donors. Posts pour into the group just about as quickly as the devastating snow and ice melted away from Texas. One member in Georgetown, north of Austin, posts a hopeful message: she’s lost her corn plant and cacti, but would be happy to replace it with anything, really. Another member in British Columbia replies almost immediately — she’s got plenty of clippings she can send. As I read the exchange, I smile bitterly. How ironic that us Texans, 99 percent of whom who can comfortably wear shorts during Christmas, are being resupplied with tropical plants by people who probably have at least six pairs of snow boots in their closets. But it’s not surprising. For all of our squabbling and bloodsport and drama, we “plant people” are nurturers, and caring for other people just feels like the right thing to do.
Over the next few days, my urge to toss all the greenery in the house lessens, then goes away entirely. By the end of the workweek, I find myself reaching for my plastic pots again. It’s not too late to restart the tomato and basil seedlings that were lost, and 80-degree temps will be here before long. I think of those old, corny signs that you can still find sometimes at shops in tourist-trap towns: Old gardeners never die, they just spade away and throw in the trowel. We might chuckle at the eye-rolling pun, but we remember the slogan because of the kernel of truth within it. Once you’ve known first-hand the beauty of creating a living, thriving thing with little more than love, luck and tenacity, it’s awfully hard to turn away from it. And if it’s not, did you ever really love it in the first place?
As I wipe the last crumbs of potting soil off of my hands, my iPad lights up with a notification. Sarra, the South Carolinian, is having a philodendron purge at 9 pm Eastern, and she’s got the el choco red I’ve been wanting. These are my people, I think again. Time for some more heartbreak.