Rochester’s rare plant market is booming

Apr 5, 2021

Sydney Luke is surprised by some of the information written on the side of a plant at Stem, a plant shop on Alexander Street that specializes in rare and exotic plants.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

Imagine a hard-to-find, intensely Instagrammable houseplant, and something like the monstera deliciosa albo variegata, with its iconic broad-split leaves streaked with white, might come to mind.

Samantha Mills has one in a gold pot on the counter of her shop. “Her name is Betty,” Mills said, a tribute to "The Golden Girls" star Betty White.

Mills is a co-owner of Stem, a new shop at the corner of Alexander Street and Park Avenue specializing in plants like Betty: hard to find and all the rage.

The market for horticulture, particularly high-end houseplants, that had been blossoming for years came into full bloom during the pandemic, as people hunkered down at home long to reconnect with the natural world and social posts about the houseplant hobby fuel their yearning. Growers and retailers are struggling to meet demand, and it’s not uncommon for greenthumbs to fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars on coveted, rare plants.

On a recent afternoon at Stem, the foot traffic was constant and customers laid down anywhere from $2 to $475 on plants. Mills values “Betty” in the thousands of dollars due to the plant’s unstable mutation and slow propagation.

Kerynn Laraby is a co-owner of Stem Rochester.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

Kerynn Laraby, the other co-owner of Stem, said business has been booming since the doors opened in February. “It was a madhouse,” Laraby said. “We sold out real quick.”

The notion of Stem was conceived a year ago. Mills is a horticulturalist whose love of plants was cultivated as a little girl gardening on her family farm. Laraby discovered a passion for plants when she and Mills began collecting rare houseplants for fun. Their hobby quickly translated to making online sales, and they noticed a deficit in the plant economy in Rochester.

Since opening, Laraby said, Stem has received customers from Buffalo, Syracuse, Watkins Glen, and as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Local nurseries have seen similar spikes in interest in houseplants.

“It’s been nuts here,” Marissa McTiernan, a longtime employee at the Garden Factory in Gates, said of houseplant sales. “We can’t even keep them in stock.”

McTiernan said she first noticed a serious uptick in houseplant sales around three years ago. But in the last year, she said, the nursery has shifted from placing orders for new plants monthly to weekly to keep up with demand.

Complicating efforts to meet pent up demand, retailers and suppliers said, are pandemic-induced restrictions on international shipments between the United States and South Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, where many rare plants originate.

Even the ubiquitous pothos, a lush vining plant known for its low maintenance and ability to grow and propagate, has become harder to find and keep in supply.

Brandon Kelloway shops at Stem.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

The rare houseplant boom has drawn comparisons to the tulip mania that gripped the Netherlands in the 17th century, when tulip bulb prices skyrocketed to extraordinary heights before crashing in dramatic fashion. The term “tulip mania” is now synonymous with economic bubbles in which prices of assets deviate wildly from their face value.

But McTiernan doubted that the houseplant boom is a bubble poised to burst. “I don’t think it’s going to go back to normal, ever,” she said.

Linda Adams agreed. She is the chief operations officer of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association, a nonprofit that supports commercial nurseries that sell houseplants to retailers across the country.

“Times are good,” she said.

Adams has been with FNGLA since 1984, and seen the ups and downs of the industry. Though the prices of individual plants fluctuate based on trends, she said, there are always new varieties to be coveted. She differentiates between the popularity of particular plants over time — like the tulip or orchids, of which rare varieties have been known to fetch upward of $100,000 — and the current explosion in popularity of houseplants.

“The people in the industry that are studying these things think that this is going to continue,” Adams said.

One reason plant fans are adamant about the staying power of this trend is the proven psychological and scientific benefits of keeping and growing plants.

“Plants provide meaning, purpose, connection, and even physical and mental stimulation,” said Matthew DelSesto, a researcher of therapeutic horticulture at Boston College.

People and plants have been intrinsically linked since the dawn of human existence and share an evolutionary history. Plants provided nutrition, medicine, and energy for people and livestock to migrate around the globe and human settlements to flourish.

Christina Suralta carries a White Vein Fittonia as she shops for other plants at Stem.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

For people who live in urban settings and spend so much more time nowadays interacting with screens, houseplants are demonstrably beneficial. They require tactile attention, like potting and pruning and watering, the acts of which are shown to reduce stress. They give their owners validation of a job well done by sprouting new leaves and blooming flowers. They give people an outlet, and a sense of control.

“The sense of connection and also the sense of contribution in a world that maybe often seems distant and out of control is really key right now,” DelSesto said.

There are benefits to even looking at plants, with studies marking the accelerated convalescence of hospital patients with landscape views out their windows.

Plants can be living art; the lush greenery of thriving plants set against a minimalist backdrop has become the aesthetic of many online influencers during the houseplant boom. They can also be a symbol of status.

Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

Like any hobby, there are levels of exclusivity.

The fiddle leaf fig, whose popularity swelled after its use in interior design in the 2010s, is both notoriously hard to care for and expensive, with a mature plant going for hundreds of dollars. But smaller, easy-to-care-for plants like sansevieria, with its stiff, upright foliage and variety of subspecies, offer even novice plant collectors a way into the club.

A group of prospective plant buyers in Stem chit-chatted about pest control products and watering schedules with the same enthusiasm of Star Wars fans discussing Easter eggs in "The Mandelorian." Mills recited the slogan of the popular Japanese franchise Pokémon when referring to her own collection: “Gotta Catch ’Em All.”

“I friggin’ love plants,” said Sydney Luke, a Stem customer who described having an entire room in her home dedicated to her plants and left the store with two more in a paper bag to add to her collection.

Luke said it was the pandemic that boosted her casual interest into a full-blown obsession.

“You couldn't do anything, and I just feel like having plants around my house and propagating more plants to have everywhere made me happier,” she said. “It’s where I had to stay for months, so it was nice to just kind of liven it up.”

Stem's resident monstera deliciosa albo variegata, Betty, is a tribute to actress Betty White.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

The thriving online community of plant-sharing groups and plant influencers has also served as a proxy for a social life for plant lovers during the pandemic.

That was how Lee Ennis connected with plant enthusiasts in the area and eventually found out about Stem.

“You kinda get to meet people,” Ennis said. “You learn more about people. And then it's really nice to be able to feel comfortable and confident supporting a local business when you're like, oh, I know actually who runs that.”

It was Rochester’s passionate online plant community that helped drive Mills and Laraby to open Stem.

Mills acknowledged the risk in building a business around items experiencing sudden, explosive growth. “They could wax and wane like any other trend,” she said of houseplants. “Like bell bottoms.”

But she added that she’s banking on people having found a renewed connection with plants and the boom being a gift that “keeps on growing.”

“Plants bring people joy, and we just absolutely need that right now,” she said.