Almost everyone likes, or at least tolerates, houseplants. Most homes are shared with a plant or two, but in recent years, the practice of cultivating massive populations of indoor plants as a hobby has taken hold in the USA and Europe. There is no one catalyst for this surge, but the consequence is apparent. No more are plants just a means for production of a fruit, or a flower. Rather, in the eyes of their owners, they are unique individuals as well as receptacles for emotional projections.
Not only do more and more people want to own a large collection, but many of the most sought after, Instagrammable plants are very uncommon in cultivation relative to the current consumer demand. Many of these plants are also slow growing, hard to propagate, or uncommon in the wild. I will refer to these plants as ‘exotic’ or ‘rare.’ Some of these plants are unique varieties of common plants that have been altered to possess variegation on the leaves (such as Monstera “Thai Constellation,” below), a highly sought after trait in the current market. Others, like Philodendron gloriosum, are not genetically altered but renowned for their stunning leaves.
The high demand for these specimens coupled with a low supply results in astronomical prices. The latest record was set by a humble Rhaphidophora tetrasperma, with incredibly rare white variegation on its leaves: it sold for over $5.000. When an outsider to the houseplant world hears of these prices, it sounds completely ridiculous. But when examined through an economic lens, the current market prices are largely the result of supply and demand.
As I discussed above, the emergence of exotic plant collecting as a popular trend has shifted people’s tastes and preferences towards wanting to collect rare plants, and therefore the demand for these plants skyrocketed. The number of plants demanded greatly outweighed the number that could readily be supplied at the current market price; meaning that there was a shortage at the initial price. Everyone who wants one of these plants won’t be able to acquire one. This shortage causes the market price to rise. The increase in price wards off a certain number of people who had originally wanted the plant: quantity demanded falls. At the same time, a higher price means more revenue for the supplier; therefore, more plants can be produced and sold that that price and quantity supplied increases. Since demand continues to rise in this market, and supply is limited (hence the term “rare plants”), the scenario I described above repeats itself regularly.
There are several factors that exacerbate the dramatic rises in price as a result of increases in demand for exotic plants. One is the inelasticity of both demand and supply in this market. For consumers of exotic plants, the species or variety of plant they’re looking to acquire has no substitutes! A Rhaphidophora descursiva, for example, is a completely different plant than a Philodendron bipennifolium f. aureum. This means that buyers with the means to afford it will go to great lengths to purchase the exact plant on their wish-list; in other words, the quantity of a particular rare plant demanded is pretty insensitive to increases in price.
Supply for most of these plants is also extremely inelastic. While an increase in market price and revenue correlates to a higher quantity supplied for some goods, such is not the case with specimens that are truly rare. Suppliers can’t just make more plants on short notice, because these plants are usually quite uncommon in cultivation, slow growing, and difficult to propagate successfully. This means that increases in price are far greater than the subsequent increase in quantity of plants supplied is.
The combined inelasticity of supply and demand in this market drive massive price increases, because only massive price increases can create any significant increase in quantity supplied or decrease in quantity demanded.
Another contributor to the high prices of exotic plants lies in the way in which they are sold. You would be hard-pressed to find these plants for sale at your local Lowe’s or even your small local plant shop. Most rare plants these days are sold through auctioning on online web shops. The auction format of buying and selling ensures that the individual willing to pay the highest price for the plant receives it, effectively eliminating the consumer surplus. Furthermore, when sellers see how much a plant went for on auction (if it is above current market price), they charge even more for it.
Demand for these plants continues to rise every day. While the current popularity of exotic houseplant collecting can’t be solely attributed to any one factor, the fact that it has led to incredible price inflation remains. As a buyer and a seller in this market, I am happy to see so many people discovering joy in growing plants, and my skillset in plant propagation made me more money than I ever expected it would. However, the high demand for these plants comes with social and environmental ramifications.
I am unwilling to embrace the idea that everyone who pays $300 for a philodendron does it out of a love for gardening. To many, that $300 also pays for access to a social status, and to an identity. In a time where consumption with reckless abandon is looked down upon, plant collecting is seen as an innocent, eco-friendly way to satisfy a desire to consume. But because of the high demand, many who want to engage with these plants are outpriced (and plant “price-shaming” is condemned on the Internet). Prominent greenhouses and botanical gardens around the world have reported incidents of theft from their collections, and many species are poached from their natural habitats to be sold to consumers in the Western world.
In terms of supply and demand, one could argue the exotic plant market is thriving—especially for sellers. However, I wouldn’t call frantic consumption, endangerment of the plants we claim to love, and an increasingly elitist customer base “thriving.” The current situation is unsustainable for the mental health of the consumer as well as the good itself being sold—the plants.
This article is the first in a four-part series on the economics of rare houseplants, with new installments to be published weekly. I am an aspiring horticulturalist and gardener (mostly indoor) who has been buying and selling in the exotic plant market for three years.