As houseplants grow in popularity, commercial growers have struggled to keep up with demand in a business that is laborious, expensive and risky. By Jane Clifton.
A Facebook launch has been in its build-up stages this month, but somehow, despite exciting hints and general buzz, it's unlikely many followers will have guessed the mystery celebrity is a Zamioculcas zamiifolia.
Not just any old Zamioculcas zamiifolia, but a black one new to the market.
For aficionados, who know it as Black ZZ, the new offering from Gellert's nursery in Karaka, South Auckland, is expected to cause a similar sell-out sensation to the likes of Syngonium podophyllum "Confetti" and Philodendron "Pink Princess" – possibly more so, as it tolerates low light and likes to be watered only once a month. Its deep-slatey aubergine-tinged colour is a further distinction.
Once the first season's limited crop of ZZ hit garden centres from November, it was expected to fly off the shelves, although possibly not before being spoken to kindly and being carried around the store in the manner of a cherished pet by its prospective new custodians.
Palmers Miramar owner Katherine Beauchamp says some customers take time to bond with their new plant, clutching it fondly, "and it'll have a name before they've left the shop".
If this growing avidity for indoor plants sounds a bit potty, there are rational reasons for it – and it's an obsession that shows signs of transcending the "craze" category to become a mainstream preoccupation, particularly for younger generations.
The impetus appears to have been the growing OECD-wide housing-affordability problem, confining more young people to smaller and rented accommodation. Home ownership deferred or denied, younger generations have either no garden or prefer to grow only that which can be transported to their next digs.
Even for homeowners, higher-density living can mean little outdoor space, inspiring the greening of balconies, windowsills and interiors.
Less financially able to have children or keep pets in their smaller rentals, growing numbers of young people have found their nurturing urges can be lavished on plants, with rewarding results.
At the same time, awareness of the mental-health benefits of daily exposure to nature has been scientifically validated, rather than being seen as some new-age fancy. Lockdowns accelerated the plant-mood trend, although possibly not quite as much as the skite-mood trend fostered by social media. Millions discovered that plants are at least as Instagram-lustworthy as pets and cookery. TikTok has been particularly fertile ground for houseplant popularisation.
Plants for keeps
Growers' advancing technology has also fed the demand, with micropropagation techniques overseas enabling drastic price drops for some species, notably orchids.
Sustainability – tick, again. Once, people tended to treat even perennial potted plants as disposable, to be junked once they stopped flowering. The new ethos is "plants for keeps". Shoppers are going for foliage interest, knowing that, unlike a potted cyclamen, the plant will look good year-round.
Beauchamp says there's still plenty of demand for flowering plants, but it has abated appreciably in favour of foliage plants. Over the past few years, she says, garden centres have become a fashionable and collegial place for young people to hang out, with the trade decisively shedding its former nana-ish stigma.
"It can get pretty intense. We've had boxes arrive and people opening and examining the contents before we can get them on the shelves. I mean, you wouldn't get people doing that in the supermarket or any other shop, would you?"
Her shop has stopped keeping a waiting list for houseplants because of that intensity. Often, early in the season for a new variety, growers have to ration plants around the nurseries, with hundreds of willing buyers for just a handful of plants per shop.
However, lest anyone assume the often-stratospheric prices reported for the rarer of the plant stars is simply mercantile opportunism, the apparent profiteering is mainly the preserve of amateur traders online.
For commercial growers, there are cogent reasons for the seemingly steep prices of some pot plants. The process of getting plants into the country and on to the shelves is laborious, expensive and apt to end in tears.
The cost of houseplants
As Plant Producers chief executive Matt Dolan says, New Zealand has had closed borders to new plant species for 30 years, with almost no exceptions. Even to import a new strain of an exotic plant genus that's already here is quite a rigmarole.
To begin with, an aspiring grower must bid for a supply of tissue culture – often from the Netherlands or the US – and then import it. Sometimes that's as little as 75c a plant, sometimes several dollars per unit. Then there's freight, which by some estimates has roughly trebled since the pandemic began.
After that comes a long and unpredictable process of cultivation under quarantine. MIQ for plants makes Covid isolation look lenient. Importing nurseries must have compliant, discrete nursery facilities to isolate new tissue culture, and processes to prevent contaminant transfer from them.
As Drury's Rainbow Park Nurseries general manager Andrew Tayler says, there are several potential risks, chiefly that the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) will find evidence of a fungus, disease or pest in the growing plants and, rather than accept a spray eradication of the contaminant, simply condemn the whole batch. This inspection process, with repeated checks, can take the best part of a year, depending on circumstances. By this time, tens of thousands of dollars have typically been committed to the batch of plants, some of which can fail to thrive, or a percentage of which may die, further pushing up the overheads.
Kellie Isaacs, sales and marketing manager for Gellert's, says the sought-after variegated varieties typically grow only half as fast as their monochrome relatives. And a proportion of variegated plants revert to monochrome, so that can also depress returns.
It's a long time for expensive inventory to sit around earning no revenue.
Beauchamp adds there's also the risk that the grower has picked a plant that simply doesn't inspire customers.
All told, it can be a couple of years or more, assuming a viable quantity survive MPI and cultivation, before the grower gets the chance to make a return on the investment.
Also important to understanding the economics of these plants is that the first year's issue is typically very limited. In a few years, we could have Black ZZs triffiding from every ceramic orifice, but for now they will be relatively scarce.
Gardeners are still agog at the modern-day "tulip fever" surrounding Monstera deliciosa "Albo" – a marbled version of the Swiss cheese plant – for which a Trade Me buyer paid $6551 and others up to $800 for a cutting. But normal retail prices for houseplants have to reflect not just the expense of bringing that particular variety to market, but also cover the cost of all the varieties that didn't make it out of quarantine.
So, couldn't we develop our own sexy plant varieties here? Dolan says it's a nice idea, but the economics are generally prohibitive. New Zealand has some eminent breeders of garden plants, but for all of them, it has been literally a life's work, he says.
It takes many years between the time a promising seedling appears and the day it can be put on the market. It will need years of rigorous trialling to ensure it's robust and a good performer, and more years to breed up commercially viable inventory. New Zealand does invest horticultural heft in food-plant development, but houseplants, however popular and costly, are not on the mainstream horticultural radar.
The apparent collector-mania driving online bidding owes a good deal to strong links between houseplants and mental-health awareness. British garden writer Alice Vincent is among those who have publicised the role of plants in helping people through emotional crises and depression.
In her book Rootbound: Rewilding a Life, she writes that initially, her addiction to growing things was seen as "a strange and dowdy habit", the preserve of "the elderly and the tedious", so she kept it to herself. But in contrast to the pressures of career, life in London, parties, gigs and social media, she found her balcony of plants gave her a place to go not just physically but inside her head. She got equal enjoyment from the plants that flourished despite her misguided help as from those that did so because she met their needs.
She delved ever deeper into reading and learning. Initially "crushed" by various failures, she eventually realised the plants "didn't care", but existed to live, perpetuate themselves and die with a "silent determination (to do so) on their own terms". Discovering the "humble superpower" of plants got her through a year of emotional turmoil with a restorative new passion.
Still, while millennials can fairly claim to have rediscovered a richly rewarding pastime often neglected by their parents and grandparents, indoor cultivation is about as old as farming.
Ancient civilisations cultivated indoors for pleasure as well as food, from Asia's tradition of bonsai and miniaturised landscapes to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
But as with the mass uptake of gardening for pleasure, the real impetus came with global exploration. Exotic plants brought back from the Americas, Asia and beyond at first became high-status fashion statements, such as bananas and pineapples in your greenhouse and palms in your parlour, but over time moved into everyday commerce. Industrialisation really brought flora inside from the cold, Victorian-era homes having become warmer so that not just the wealthy could have a waft of kentia, a froth of ferns or an aspidistra.
By the 1920s, it had become possible to buy mass-produced potted plants in developed economies, but the first modern indoor-plant craze wasn't until the 60s and 70s when interior-designer influence held that "natural was good", and the commercialisation of hippy culture strung many a household with hanging baskets.
Turning to technology
The much-mocked craft of macramé has now made a concomitant comeback, as knotted-yarn slings are among the most adaptable, practical means of displaying plants with a trailing or fountain-like habit. Sure enough, the twee end of the 60s and 70s plant fad is re-emerging, too, in the form of elaborate plant stands with scrolly faux wrought iron, getting indoor gardeners ever closer to floor-to-ceiling occupancy.
Anyone still inclined to mock might reflect that such intensity has a history. Among the earliest known gardening books, Floraes Paradise, by Sir Hugh Plat, in 1608 urged householders to do more ambitious indoor cultivation than would be tendered in any modern tome – notably the growing of roses and carnations over winter in a "warme roome" and not forgetting to "moysten" the soil.
It would have blown Plat's mind to know that in time to come, "grow lights" would make such projects that much more achievable. Next-level indoor-plant growers are using specially designed LED lighting – cool for foliage, warm to promote flowering – to boost plant health. As plants vary considerably in their irrigation and nutritional needs, anxious plant owners can invest in a "smart" soil probe to optimise individual care.
The next graduation step can be hydroponics kits, until recently the "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" preserve of furtive home cannabis growers. As many vegetable crops are grown indoors under lighting, so are home-grow enthusiasts turning to technology.
When Gracie Fields sang in the late 1930s about her "broo-thuh Joe" growing "the biggest aspidistra in the world", she would little have dreamt what whoppers future plant collectors would contrive to grow on their "whatnots".