Alessia Resta’s 750-square-foot apartment in New York City housed more than 200 plants before she and her boyfriend transported them to New Jersey last month. She started collecting when she was 25 years old—a pothos here, a rubber plant there—and as her collection grew, she soon turned her attention to rare, harder-to-find plants. “You get to a point where it’s like, Okay, this snake plant is amazing and beautiful, but what else? You keep pushing those limitations,” she says.
Alessia is far from the only one seeking out unique variations to add to her plant family. Houseplants have been popular among the millennial generation for a while now, but the pandemic unlocked another layer of obsession accelerated by more time spent at home. “It’s a hobby, something people can concentrate on that’s not a computer or work-related,” Alessia posits. “It’s self-care in a sense, and helps you to take your mind off of everything that’s going on.”
Enid Offolter opened her Florida plant shop NSE Tropicals in 1999 where she grows and sells “rare and unusual tropical foliage plants.” Although she says the rare plant space has been popular for a good 15 years or so, she describes the last five years as mind-blowing. “It’s almost hard to grow them anymore because, by the time a plant is big enough to sell, it’s already last month’s plant,” she says. “A few years ago there were just a few plants everyone wanted, and now, this past year, it was like everyone wanted everything all the time.” Alessia adds, “It kind of feels like a rat race of who can have the most and the rarest.”
Some popular rare plants right now include the velvet leaf anthurium, Anthurium crystallinum, Philodendron patriciae, Philodendron whipple way, Monstera pinnatipartite, and variegated versions (think white marbling and green patches) of most plants. Now, these typically aren’t plants found at your local Home Depot. Most are grown internationally or in hot spots like the state of Florida, and they usually come with a hefty price tag—the Philodendron whipple way, for example, is currently listed for four figures on Etsy.
Along with being a strain on the wallet, wading into the rare plant world can be tricky to navigate. The rising popularity and demand have contributed to a global plant poaching problem that has disrupted ecosystems, endangered certain plant species, and created a black market. This grey territory is a big reason why Elizabeth Vayda—owner of B.Willow in Baltimore—only stocks commercialized plants. “The incentive to go and harvest these rare plants is still very much there, and I don’t want to have any part of contributing to that because I can’t guarantee to my customers that I’m not participating in the existing black market,” she says. “The safest way for us to sell plants is to sell those that are highly cultivated.”
Elizabeth, who holds a masters degree in environmental science, is currently in conversation with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to potentially establish houseplant industry standards that will, hopefully, make the rare plant buying process more ethical and easier for plant lovers down the line. Until then, though, there are some ways to add to your collection responsibly. Learn exactly how to do so below.
Do your research, especially when shopping online
Back when Alessia first started to dip her toes into the rare plant world, she engaged in a lot of trial and error. She relied on places like eBay and various plant-themed Facebook groups, which were some of the only places she could source the exotic plants she was looking for at the time. And they weren’t always legit. “I’ve definitely been plant-scammed before,” she says. “There was a guy that sold international plants on Facebook for really great prices and, one day, he ended up taking a bunch of people’s money and [then] completely ghosted.” Alessia was bamboozled out of $40 and notes that some people lost hundreds of dollars. It’s a cautionary tale she’s since learned from. “I avoid Facebook now because of it; I’ve kind of had tainted experiences,” she says.