Jeannie Nguyen’s home is full of precious, expensive things, all of them rooted in dirt: the spidery tendrils of a philodendron tortum, the scaly leaves of a piper parmatum. There is an enormous variegated monstera with big white splotches, like the splatter on a painter’s jeans. There is a tassel fern, spiny as a pipe cleaner. Recently, she splurged on a super-rare monstera obliqua, a delicate plant with leaves like lace.
For Nguyen, horticulture is a hobby as well as a side hustle. Each rare plant she acquires can, if properly nurtured, turn into a business opportunity, by selling cuttings she gingerly takes to fellow collectors online. She conducts most of her sales through platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where her account @planthaul has a few thousand followers. “The value of one plant has risen so much that you have to look at it like an investment,” she says. Nguyen has seen the biggest returns from plants with shocks of color–specifically, pink. She has a stock of tradescantia fluminensis, a common houseplant with pink-striped leaves that grows like a weed. “You can cut it and it propagates even if you throw it in the trash,” she says, “but these cuttings sell like hot cakes. People just love pink.”
Of all the pink plants online, few are as prized as the pink princess philodendron. Its heart-shaped leaves unfurl toward the sun, with streaks of bubblegum pink the shape of a crescent moon. Horticulture Week called it a “must-have plant” in 2019, and as demand for the photogenic philodendron exploded, so did the prices. Plant enthusiasts like Nguyen will pay hundreds of dollars for a single pink princess, and wait lists from growers can form months in advance.
So when Nguyen noticed a new pink plant making the rounds on Facebook last year, she was intrigued. The pink congo philodendron’s leaves were pointy, not heart-shaped like the pink princess, but they had the same shock of bubblegum. Nguyen had never heard of the plant before, but already she saw it was approaching pink-princess-level prices. When she found a seller on Facebook offering a pink congo for $70, she nabbed it. If the pink princess was anything to go by, Nguyen thought, she could be buying in to the next big thing at a bargain. When her new pink congo grew big enough to sell the cuttings, she might even strike it rich.
What Nguyen didn’t know at the time was that her latest investment was unlikely to yield any viable pink cuttings at all. The pink congo is not a variegated plant, like the striking pink princess philodendron, but a Cinderella plant–one that would return to an ordinary philodendron in a matter of time. Another plantfluencer would later call it “a massive scam.”
Humanity’s magnificent appetite for rare and visually striking plants goes back hundreds of years. In the 17th century, tulip mania famously is rumored to have driven the price of a single bulb up to 10 times the income of an English craftsworker. Victorian England was home to fads like “pteridomania”–an apparently widespread obsession with ferns–and “orchidelirium.” The wealthiest sufferers of these crazes would commission expeditions to bring back exotic specimens for their collections from around the world.
Then, and today, the vast diversity of plants has made these botanical yearnings nearly insatiable. “Collecting can be a sort of lovesickness,” writes Susan Orlean in “Orchid Fever,” her New Yorker article about a modern collector-turned-thief. “If you begin collecting living things, you are pursuing something imperfectible, and even if you manage to find them and then possess them, there is no guarantee they won’t die or change.”
Orlean’s story, which turned into a book and later a movie, focuses on one flower in particular, the ghost orchid, describing the lengths people will go just for a chance to see it. Often they are foiled, she writes: “The species is temperamental, difficult to propagate, rarely seen in cultivation, hard to find in the wild.”
The pink princess philodendron is not rare for any of those reasons, really. The plant is a man-made hybrid, developed in the 1970s by breeding two different philodendron species. The pink splotches, called variegation, come from a genetic mutation. Growers must take cuttings from the plant to propagate new pink princesses, and only from the most variegated parts of a mother plant, which makes them finicky for commercial growing. It takes months of careful work until they’re ready to sell.
At Gabriella Growers, a plant nursery in Florida, Shane Maloy’s family had been growing the pink princess philodendron for decades. For the most part, as Maloy recalls, they would sell a few of the plants at a time here and there, with a 4-inch pot going for $6.50. Then one day, in 2018, a big wholesale order came in. “Before I knew it, we sold half of our [pink princess] plants in two months that spring,” says Maloy, who at 25 now runs the nursery. “Over the following months, I had daily calls from wholesale customers asking if we’d have a new batch ready.”