Rare plants have turned money spinners during the pandemic

Money does grow on trees after all, find collectors and sellers of rare plants, which are seeing a bloom in popularity — and price — during lockdown

“The market for rare plants used to be like the art market: discreet, rich and a passion nursed by the wealthy. But social media, especially Instagram and Pinterest, changed all that,” says Chennai-based plant collector and nursery owner Maanas Vibhu of Thirteen Degrees North. He adds, “Millennials are now fuelling the demand, especially for foliage and succulents.”

Bulupriya Sharma is a plant collector with a nursery in Imphal. Her first few plants were bought from Lalbagh in Bengaluru when she was working with Infosys | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Plants are being sourced from all over the country and also from South Korea, China, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philipines, for Indian buyers. Auctions on social media are where the action takes place with certain plants, like monstera variegated, whose tiny cuttings with few leaves fetch thousands of rupees.

Green with splashes of white, the tropical monstera variegated plant has become the neighbour’s envy and owner’s pride. Lockdown has made this variety of monstera, some kinds of hoya, bonsai of a few ficus and certain other foliage, cacti and succulents more popular than before, says Maanas.

Bulupriya Sharma, a 28-year-old collector and grower in Imphal, says plants that were selling for around ₹2,000 before lockdown, now cost ₹4,000 to ₹5,000. A mature monstera variegated can now sell for more than ₹20,000, she points out, recalling how a friend got her a single node — with one leaf — from Kolkata. “I nurtured it like a baby and now it’s three feet tall. I have become more confident and next year, I plan to propagate it for auctions and sales,” says Bulupriya, a.k.a. Bullubi, a popular name among plant parents on Instagram. The star in her extensive collection is the Musa Ae Ae, a banana plant with variegated leaves and fruits that she got from Thailand for approximately ₹7,000.

Bulupriya Sharma with her monstera variegated in Imphal  | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“I love collecting rare plants from around the world and my collection is driven by my passion for collecting and growing rare breeds at home,” says Bulupriya.

Meziwang Zeliang, a 32-year-old collector from Kohima, is thrilled about how she managed to buy a kind of hoya in September, at a flash sale by a collector in Bengaluru. News of an auction is posted a couple of days before it takes place. Usually, it is a one-day auction within a specific period of time.

Sri Harsha Koppaka from Visakhapatnam also bought a variegated monstera at an auction. “Buyers from all over India participate and there are multiple bids for the same plant,” Harsha says, adding that he, too, conducted a sale and made about ₹15,000 in a day.

“We also exchange plants. For instance, if I come across a photo of a plant on an Instagram account, I get in touch with them and ask if they will exchange it for a plant that I have,” explains 27-year-old Harsha, who has been collecting and growing plants since 2017. He became a collector of plants with variegated leaves after he returned to India from the US in February.

Sri Harsha Koppaka from Vishakhapatanam with his prized collection of foliage plants  | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Nangluhomseng Chiring Daosong from Guwahati laughs at how she has been besieged with requests after she posted a photo of her extensive collection on Instagram. Since she lives in Guwahati, she says the climate is ideal for plants from different places in India, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines. “However, imported plants can be expensive,” adds Meizi, “So I frequent Dimapur in Nagaland where a local market on Wednesdays has sales of foliage plants; it is much cheaper.”

Adds Maanas, “Olives from Europe and the bonsai versions of certain ficus varieties, can go up to ₹35 lakh to ₹50 lakh. The plants are bought by people who want to make a statement. They don’t sell or propagate them.”

Notes of caution

Thiruvananthapuram-based Rekha Jesudas, former Deputy Director of Agriculture, Kerala, and an ardent gardener herself, points out, “Ideally, importers are supposed to have a quarantine period to ensure that pests or new plant diseases are not introduced into the country. But these rules are not always followed or implemented. Leading importers inform nurseries about new varieties, and most are booked in advance and sold within days of their arrival in the country.

Meziwang Zeliang with some of the plants in her collection  | Photo Credit: special arrangement

She says buyers must keep in mind that many of these plants might have been grown in ideal conditions and treated with hormones and chemicals. So newcomers might be disappointed when an expensive plant they bought does not thrive in their care. She advises beginners to start with hardy plants, before going in for trendy varieties.

“In countries like Thailand, nurseries are market savvy and have sophisticated greenhouses and growing methods for plants that are in demand. We in India have a long way to catch up with them,” she adds.

Nurturing their investments

Finance, space and climate are not constraints for plant collectors. If Meizei keeps about 400 to 500 plants in the two balconies of her flat in Kohima, Nangluhomseng Chiring Daosong and Harsha have enough space to nurture their collections. Bulupiya moved from Bengaluru to Imphal and became a full-time collector and plant grower.

“For me collecting rare plants is only one aspect. Growing them takes a lot more work. As they come from various parts of the world they require wide range of soil media, climate and watering cycle. This needs to be precise or else it will impact their health,” he points out.

Collectors are willing to create the climate needed by the plants they invest in. “So if those in dry areas go in for humidifiers, garden enthusiasts in places in Chennai invest in air conditioners and the like” says Nangluhomseng. Owners also install cameras and other measures as precautions against theft. Maanas, for instance, says that the space earmarked for such high-value plants in his nursery are off-bounds for customers without prior appointment.

Nangluhomseng Chiring Daosong with some of the foliage plants in her huge collection  | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Harsha and his mother are working on a mini-botanical garden consisting of foliage plants, succulents and carnivorous plants for schoolchildren on their one-acre farm in Visakhapatnam. “I’ve also been implementing in several forms the propagation of these plants. Be it by division, stem cuttings, leaf propagation or macro propagation in case of the variegated banana,” says Harsha.

The green collectors aver that they are not plant flippers — people importing plants only with the intention of selling parts to collectors for money. Says Meizi “We grow plants for the love of them.”

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