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BusinessJanuary 18, 2019

Monstera madness and fiddle-leaf frenzy: why we go crazy for indoor plants


New Zealanders have been filling their homes (and hearts) with cool, trendy houseplants in recent years. But why are we all so obsessed? And why are some plants so expensive? 

More than 50 but less than a hundred – that’s how many houseplants Ron Goh reckons he currently has in his central city apartment. The two storey penthouse is an open, airy, hardwood-floored space with tall elevated windows inviting in copious amounts of natural light, and it’s this layout that inspired Goh – also know as Mr Cigar on Instagram – to transform his home into his very own ‘jungalow’, an interior style that can be best described as the combination of old and new pieces with lush green plants.

“I started collecting plants when I moved [to this apartment] two years ago with my partner,” Goh tells me when I visit him at his apartment one late afternoon. “When we first moved in the place was kind of empty and I thought about how and what we should decorate it with. Then when I was scrolling through Pinterest and Instagram, I found that lots of people were putting plants in their place, which I thought was really cool.”

The first houseplant Goh ever bought was a giant Bird of Paradise for around $40. His collection grew modestly from that point on, but it wasn’t until he entered a photo of his apartment into an Instagram competition run by design house Citta that his interior design instincts were set alight.

“Before that, I wasn’t really a plant person. One year ago, I only had like 500 followers on Instagram, so it all happened very quickly,” says Goh, whose account now boasts almost 34,000 followers and has attracted the attention of lifestyle publications nationwide. Most recently, his loft was featured on the cover of Your Home & Garden magazine.

“This is such a sun-filled apartment for long periods of the day, and its a key element as to why my plants are so healthy” – Ron Goh at his Jungle Loft in Auckland CBD (Photo: Instagram/@mrcigar)

Goh’s hardly alone when it comes to having developed an interest in houseplants over the last few years. Nowhere is this more evident than on Instagram, where hashtags like #plantsofinstagram (2.3 million posts) and #urbanjungle (1.9 million posts) run rife with images of leafy indoor plants. And it’s not just the plants themselves that have gained popularity. Their likeness, their image, their colour, their shape have helped to define trends in fashion, decor, food, even hospitality in recent years. In 2017, Pantone declared that its Colour of the Year was none other than Greenery, a “fresh and zesty yellow-green shade… illustrative of flourishing foliage and the lushness of the great outdoors”.

According to Trade Me, indoor plant sales since December 2013 have increased by 421%, and in just the last week, the site says the category has attracted more than 10,000 searches. Soaring sales have also presented a business opportunity. Richard DeGrandpre, former owner of Ponsonby Plants and current owner of Monstera at City Works Depot, says he decided to shift focus from selling all types of plants to mostly indoor plants after moving location more than a year ago. The reasoning was simple: there was just more money to be made.

“If you excluded bonsai, only 5% of our money came from outdoor plants where we first started here,” he says. “You could never sell an outdoor plant for more than $20. Whereas for indoor plants, you can’t get anything under that.”

“It’s a completely different market with outdoor plants and indoor plants. It’s like outdoor furniture and indoor furniture. What people will pay for one and what people will pay for the other is just totally different.”

“People are asking us to do popups in Christchurch and Queenstown, but we hardly even have enough plants for our own shop!” – Monstera owner Richard DeGrandpre (Photo: Facebook/MonsteraNZ)

Three years ago, keen gardener Karen Grace also saw the opportunity that indoor plants presented. So in 2016, with the help of a friend, she launched Plant & Pot – an online plant delivery service and growing home business based out of Auckland’s Mount Eden.

“Both of us love gardening and we’re both quite commercially minded. [We] saw the growth in indoor plants and the opportunity that presented,” explains Grace. “Certainly there’s a big opportunity with indoor plants as people seek to soften their spaces by bringing nature inside, as well as benefiting from the psychological and physical benefits of having plants in their home and work environment.”

“But for me, the drive to move forward [with Plant & Pot] really came from undertaking a renovation at the family home and experiencing first-hand the negative health impact of toxins released from many of the building materials, glues, paints, etc. This really heightened my appreciation of the ability of plants to help heal an environment and the people within it.”

Grace says that Philodendrons, Dracaena, Peace Lilies, Orchids and Peperomia are also popular varieties on Plant & Pot

For Grace, the appeal of indoor plants can be both psychological and physiological. For Goh, the pull towards plants is more emotional: “When I look at plants, I feel kind of happy.” And he’s certainly not alone in that sentiment either, pointing out one of his favourite hashtags on Instagram is #plantsmakepeoplehappy which currently has well over a million posts.

Another theory, focused on the trend’s proliferation among millennials, is that houseplants are a way of filling a void left by the absence of children (many young people choose to have children much later), the absence of pets (most young people rent their homes), and the absence of stability in the job and housing market. They’re also low risk and relatively cheap (at least when you compare them to artwork or furniture) making them a pretty good option for sprucing things up in what’s probably a cramped and shitty rental. 

In the US, a 2016 National Gardening Report found that 5 out of the 6 million Americans who took up gardening in 2015 fell into the 18-34 age bracket. In New Zealand, such stats are harder to come by, but DeGrandpre says that if Monstera’s customer base is any indication, most indoor plant enthusiasts fall into the 25-to-35 demographic (they also happen to be around 70% women). 

Indoor plants play a pivotal role in making the ‘jungalow style’ work. Goh’s photo is one of the top posts under the hashtag.

But the most simple theory is to do with aesthetics. Plants are pretty – they’re decorative, like pieces of furniture –  and their presence has the power to instantly liven up a drab indoor space. Visual platforms like Instagram have played a huge role in popularising big, leafy plants like monsteras and fiddle-leaf figs (aka ficus lyrata), which are two of the most popular varieties sold by both Monstera and Plant & Pot.

But the problem with monsteras and fiddle-leaf figs is that there simply aren’t enough to go around. “Both have run into problems with importing, so they’re not really around at all,” says DeGrandpre, referring to the fact that the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has restricted the importation of both varieties since 2017. “As demand goes up, there’s a big supply problem because of importing and also because there aren’t enough nurseries growing them. It’s a big market, and everyone who grows them runs out of them all the time.”

“I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where there’s a bigger mismatch between demand and supply”

MPI confirmed that it is currently not issuing any import permits for monsteras or ficus varieties because “we are aware of some biosecurity risks that need to be considered first.” It goes on to say that “we have strict quarantine procedures in place to manage biosecurity risks associated with these plant groups, and they must undergo post entry quarantine before they can be released into New Zealand.”

Since December 2017 indoor plants have grown in popularity Trade Me with an 111% jump in sales

A rabid willingness to pay premium prices combined with the drastic skew in supply and demand has forced many consumers to dig deep into their pockets. On Plant & Pot, an 85-100cm  fiddle-leaf fig costs $149 (both small and large varieties are currently out of stock). On Trade Me, bidding can get extremely competitive: one particular auction for a large monstera in November sold for exactly $1,000 on the 89th bid.

“The prices these kinds of listings will go for is crazy, it’s like the Auckland housing market!” says Goh, who experiences the demand first-hand when he sells spare cuttings online via his Mr Homebody account on Instagram. “At the moment I think New Zealanders are so crazy about it and they’re willing to pay quite a lot of money, especially for rare varieties.”

“At the moment, plants are playing a huge part in interior design. People want them pre-grown [which is why] plant prices keep going up. But it doesn’t happen straight away, and not everyone grows it nice.

“Plants take time to grow. You have to be patient.”

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