FOR PLANT COLLECTORS, THE QUEEN ANTHURIUM, a stunning plant from Colombia that can produce leaves up to four feet long as it clambers up a tree in the wild, is the equivalent of a Birkin bag. Aditi Rai Dastidar has two of them—the warocqueanum ‘Esmeralda’, a long-leaved, velvety beauty, and the dark narrow anthurium warocqueanum. One of the first in India to lay her hands on the Esmeralda earlier this year at a price tag of ₹40,000, she was so excited she made an unboxing video for her Instagram account, @plantaholic_journey. The queens are a happy sight in Dastidar’s mini rainforest of a balcony, but there are others here that won’t be outdone: wishlist anthuriums, variegated monsteras—the ‘it’ plants of our era that have captivated the world of design with their many-eyed gaze—and a large philodendron billietiae whose pendant, deeply lobed leaves are like arrowheads pointing at the ground. There is also, among them, a tiny plant tucked inside a plastic bag. Dastidar opens it to reveal an alocasia azlanii, a purple jewel of a plant with deep dark veins and gloss that can rival the best enamel. “They are notoriously hard to care for,” she says. Even inside her south-facing balcony shielded from sun and wind by a shade net and shower curtains, and with a 5-litre humidifier keeping a fine mist going all day, some of the more fastidious plants require extra care. Those of us who have presided over plant funerals would know. “They are finicky, slow growers that don’t always produce the kind of results you expect. Anthuriums can often end in disappointment,” says Dastidar. And yet, she eagerly awaits the arrival of her latest buy, an anthurium regale stripes, from a seller in Kerala who specialises in anthuriums and has a gardening YouTube channel.
“I was fascinated by terrariums and started building my own. From then on, what started as a search for plants that are difficult to kill quickly escalated,” says Anshul Tewari, plant collector
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Growing up in Ranchi in houses that always had gardens, Dastidar started keeping common houseplants after moving to Bengaluru in 2005, but it was only three years ago that she began to set her sights on rarer varieties. When she saw an opportunity to acquire for ₹8,000 a monstera deliciosa albo variegata from a Pune-based seller who had imported it from Thailand, she took it. The albo is a chimera, or a plant that contains more than one genotype, whose white stripes cutting across large heart-shaped leaves have been immortalised on mood boards and design fora. Dastidar’s plant arrived travelled-distressed, however, and almost died on her, and she took cuttings as insurance. After she nursed it back to health, however, it now shoots out a new leaf every two months. “Suddenly, the albo became a rage and sellers wanted to buy back my plant for double the price,” Dastidar says. A busy finance professional in her early 40s, Dastidar is only looking to add to her already sizeable collection, spanning two balconies in her apartment in Cox Town—one of them filled with rare hoyas—and her weekend home in Sarjapur on the southern fringes of the city.
Over the past few years, millennials worldwide have taken to interiorscaping with increasingly exotic houseplants. Serious collectors argue that this generation only acquires plants to keep up with the latest trends in interior design and for instant gratification via hashtags like monsteramonday, greenyourfeed and plantparenthood. To be sure, there are those who hang up their gloves after a spate of plant deaths. But some persist, and can afford to chase more interesting finds. They begin amassing, in their apartments and their makeshift greenhouses, foliage with such glamorous names, and personalities to match, as Ring of Fire, White Knight, Prince of Orange, Purple Sword, Black Cardinal, Dragon Scale, Stingray and Dark Lord. There is even a Holy Ghost—the philodendron named spiritus-sancti from the Espírito Santo province in southeastern Brazil that sells for about ₹60,000 in India at present. A vast majority of houseplants that are coveted for their exquisite foliage today are aroids—plants of the arum or Araceae family. These are tropical understory plants from Asia and America that can thrive in low light conditions so long as you mimic their original forest floor environment by modulating the temperature, humidity and growth medium. Many of them are vigorous climbers, eagerly filling plant shelves and well-lit rooms, and in skilled hands, growing so large they begin to resemble their majestic wild form even if they rarely flower indoors. Aroids give collectors a sense of bringing the jungle in and are more lenient than orchids. One might also argue that the return on investment from aroids, which reward the grower with year-round foliage, is higher, at least for the Instagram generation, than that from orchids, which bloom spectacularly but occasionally. “There was a time when orchid collectors also grew aroids as complementary plants in the greenhouse. King and queen anthuriums were fairly common a couple of decades ago but no one cared for them. It is now that we regret throwing them out and many of us are on an aroid buying spree,” says Karthik Hariharan, a 46-year-old orchid collector and techie from Bengaluru who has of late added rare philodendrons including Strawberry Shake and Florida Beauty and the Thai constellation monstera to his collection.
“They are finicky, slow growers that don’t always produce the kind of results you expect. Anthuriums can often end in disappointment,” says Aditi Rai Dastidar plant collector
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For Indian houseplant aficionados, the Covid-19 lockdown was the perfect time to stock up as they spent more time at home. Two years ago, Bengaluru-based Sujatha V Reddy was preparing for a different kind of quarantine than the one we had come to dread. She was importing rare plants worth ₹5 lakh from Indonesia for Nature Sense, the fledgling nursery in KR Puram, Bengaluru, that she had set up with her husband Rithesh Thennira. This was her first shipment and she knew the process was more complicated than the care-sheets for some of the plants, but she couldn’t have known just how much. “Getting the import licence and placing the order were the easy part. At the time of purchase you ask the seller for a phytosanitary certificate. Back home, you pay the customs duty and get a letter of approval from local quarantine officers, then submit your documents and invite them to examine the facility where you propose to quarantine the plants for 45 days. They visit you thrice in that period and check each plant for insects, fungus and pests. It is up to you to host them when they do,” says Reddy, who has a quarantine nursery in Sakleshpur. Things worked out for Nature Sense despite the initial hassle. “Many of these plants were new to Indian collectors. We sold out in just one day.” Reddy had astutely identified the growing demand in India for plants with strikingly large or variegated foliage and imported some expensive ones like the philodendron majestic and the philodendron paraiso verde. “We import every three months—our last shipment came from Thailand in August,” says Reddy, who is also a practising advocate. Among the plants she has put up for sale is the so-called ‘mini-monstera’, rhaphidophora tetrasperma, in its variegated form, at ₹25,000 a piece. Last year, a specimen with eight leaves famously sold for NX$27,100 (over ₹13 lakh) in an online auction by New Zealand-based ecommerce platform Trade Me. “We have never had a chance to put up plants for auction because collectors always willingly pay the asking price,” Rithesh Thennira says. Just last month, the couple sold the caramel marble philodendron, a sawtooth-edged variety with colours ranging from caramel brown to dark green, for ₹1.1 lakh to a collector in Pune.
THE GOOD NEWS is that prices are falling, and if you wait it out long enough, the rare plant you have been after may be that much more affordable even if a little less rare. Baby Varghese, a rare plants reseller from Kochi, bought a monstera Thai constellation for ₹75,000 a couple of years ago. He has since propagated cuttings but is unable to match the market price of under ₹10,000 per plant. The story of the anthurium regale, too, is similar. When it was first illegally smuggled into the country, a plant with three leaves sold for ₹1.5 lakh. Now, with better access to global markets, the price hovers around ₹10,000-₹15,000. “A year ago, I sold an anthurium luxurians for ₹92,000. Today, I sold one for ₹10,000. This is not to say that the propagation business isn’t profitable. I can acquire a plant for much less—around ₹7,000-₹8,000—and propagate 10-15 plants from it,” Varghese says. Business has been dull for the past six months but before that, Varghese was clocking ₹4 lakh-₹6 lakh in monthly average sales. He is propagating even rarer plants now, including philodendrons gigas, Sharoniae, SP Colombia and lynamii—all sourced from Ecuador by a Kerala-based importer.
“We have never had a chance to put up plants for auction because collectors always willingly pay the asking price,” says Rithesh Thennira, cofounder, Nature Sense
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While the demand for rare plants is miniscule in comparison to the burgeoning market for ordinary houseplants served by the likes of Ugaoo and Nurserylive, it is witnessing unprecedented growth. Prince Sarma and Rahul Singh, 26-year-olds from Tezpur in Assam, set up Soiled.in three years ago in response to the palpable interest in rare plants among urban millennials. “We have 25,000 customers now, out of which 7,000-10,000 shop with us regularly. We never thought this would get so big,” says Sarma, whose other vocation, graphic design, has taken a backseat. “During the pandemic, Instagram motivated a lot of people to get into plants. And thanks to falling prices, both due to access to international markets and due to indigenous attempts to tissue-culture plants, online platforms have democratised plant collection to an extent.” Three years ago, Soiled.in sold alocasia dragon scale for ₹4,500 and now the price has fallen to less than a tenth. Alocasia pink dragon, which sold for ₹1,800, costs ₹450.
While tissue culture is an efficient and popular method for mass propagation of plants of commercial value, chimeras are tricky to replicate with this method and will remain expensive, says Arun Tiwari, marketing head of Sarjan Nursery, a wholesale plant seller and tissue culture nursery in Bhuj, Gujarat. “When we choose a plant for tissue culture, there are two factors we consider—the price of the plant in the local and international markets, and the multiplication ratio, or the rate at which we can produce new plants. Monsteras are slow-growing, with an MR of 1:1.5 or less. We have had much more success with other sought-after philodendrons like verrucosum. We acquired mother plants in March and we have since realised an MR of 1:40,” Tiwari says. Sarjan Nursery has produced over 80 rare varieties via tissue culture so far, and is working on 200 more.
“During the pandemic, Instagram motivated a lot of people to get into plants. And thanks to falling prices, online platforms have democratised plant collection to an extent,” says Prince Sarma, founder, Soiled.in
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“You can never have them all,” says 32-year-old Anshul Tewari, founder and editor-in-chief of Youth Ki Awaaz, a user-generated media platform for youth. He should know. Tewari moved out of his parents’ home in 2016 to accommodate his growing collection of terrariums and haworthias—small succulents from southern Africa. “I was fascinated by terrariums and started building my own. From then on, what started as a search for plants that are difficult to kill quickly escalated,” Tewari says. His DIY greenhouse is now home to over 2,000 of the world’s rarest haworthias and a small but proud collection of his own hybrids. A 4×5-foot terrarium that has been a self-sustaining ecosystem for the past year-and-a-half sits in his living room. And if his two-bedroom apartment wasn’t afforested enough, there is an Ikea cabinet with grow lights where he keeps a small but exclusive collection of aroids. “Plant collecting is a weirdly competitive arena. Somewhere down the line, I was getting caught up in the race to get it first, but I have since taken a step back. I only have a few exclusive varieties and I have increasingly turned my focus to educating plant parents who reach out to me about semi-hydroponics.” A discerning collector, he argues, is not one who is looking to fill up his house, but one that chooses his plants—or coffee mugs, of which he has over a hundred—with care.