In June, a Singapore collector shelled out $40,000 for a rare and exotic philodendron houseplant from Candy Floriculture, a nursery in Thomson Road. The Instagram post (below) showing the back of the camera-shy collector as he walked off with a Philodendron Spiritus Sancti was the talk of the town and trained the spotlight on a growing community of serious plant collectors who seem to be immune to sticker shock.
Besides the philodendron, there are also monstera plants which have been variegated (a process of mutation) with large holes in the leaves. These are prized because they are slow-growing plants and cannot produce chlorophyll, unlike their full-leaved cousins. A check on social media showed many posts by other sellers on platforms such as online classifieds Carousell posting photos of varieties of philodendrons, with asking prices ranging from $54,380 to $88,888.
Unlike exotic flowering plants such as orchids, which can take months to flower and need a lot of attention, rare plants are easier to care for and are sought after for just their foliage. The most popular are aroids – a large family of tropical plants that includes philodendrons, which have long, arrow-shaped leaves; monsteras, which have holes in its foliage and are referred to as “Swiss cheese leaves”; and pothos or money plants.
Sharon Goh, owner of Candy Floriculture, says the pandemic has fuelled the recent surge in prices of rare and exotic plants as demand is currently outstripping supply. “About six years ago, collectors’ plants such as rare monsteras and philodendrons were not expensive. But after the pandemic hit last year, prices have been increasing due to supply trying to keep up with demand,” she says, recalling that a monstera Thai constellation which cost about $50 in 2015 retails today from $700 to $800.
The rare and exotic foliage section at Candy Floriculture in Thomson Road.
Her nursery is one of the places in Singapore where collectors can buy the rare Philodendron Spiritus Sancti. “Plants like the Spiritus Sancti are endangered in the wild,” says Goh, who has been importing rare plants since 2015 for a small community of collectors in Singapore.
She has a small collection of the rare plant priced from $27,800 to $41,888. There are also other varieties such as the Philodendron Billietiae Variegated, priced at $23,400, and the Philodendron Caramel Marble priced at $16,800. She says the Philodendron Spiritus Sancti, which is Latin for “Holy Spirit”, is also dubbed the “Holy Grail”. It is named after the state of Espirito Santo in Brazil as it is the only place in the world where the variety of philodendron can be found.
Philodendron Caramel Marble, which costs $16,800 at Candy Floriculture.
It is believed that there are only about six of these plants left in the wild, with most of the propagated plants currently in the hands of private collectors across the globe. “We are able to sell it only when it becomes available through propagation from private collectors,” says Goh. “Most of the collectors are not willing to sell and that is why there are so few in the market.”
Why spend so much on one plant? “Just ask yourself: Would you rather have a jungle at home or an iconic private collection admired by others?” says Goh, referring to the more discerning group of plant collectors who are inspired by quality rather than quantity. “Most of my buyers are not new to collecting rare plants and they want a curated collection, a sort of centrepiece in their homes.”
According to Dr Wilson Wong, deputy director of Jurong Lake Gardens under the National Parks Board, variegated plants that are sold in the plant trade are likely propagated from a single selected clone. These variegated plants have leaves that contain less chlorophyll than those that are all-green, making them grow much slower. New plants will also take time to become available in the market. These are the likely reasons variegated houseplants are more expensive than fully green versions.
“The fenestration (holes or gaps) in the leaf shape of the Swiss cheese plant (Monstera Deliciosa) is unique and often used as a motif by designers,” says Dr Wong, who is also the founder of Green Culture Singapore and is an adjunct assistant professor (Food Science & Technology) at the National University of Singapore. “Variegation adds to that uniqueness as it is hard to come by, lending a beautiful design to the leaf and making the plant highly sought after.”
Besides the visual splendour of rare plants, there is also the issue of which nursery or online seller to trust to ensure that plants are sold ethically, says hobbyist Pat Law. “When I started on my collection a year ago, I did not realise there were nurseries that would sell plants as soon as they arrived in Singapore without acclimatising them to our weather,” says the founder of social media agency Goodstuph, who gets her plants from home-grown nursery Terrascapes.
Pat Law with her $1,980 pot of Philodendron Joepii (left).
“I think that is unethical in that at that very point, you do not know if the plant will live or not,” says Law, who is in her 30s and recently bought a Philodendron Joepii for $1,980 from Terrascapes. “I have also been sold plants without roots. I have done a couple of online purchases where plants came to me and died within 24 hours. I can’t claim to have the best green fingers, but surely a death within 24 hours is a bit extreme.”
Terrascapes’ founders Sandy Soh, 46, and Bridgette Soh, 42, say interest in rare and exotic plants started about a decade ago in Singapore and has only recently turned into a craze after the pandemic hit early last year. “We have been growing exotics for over 10 years and there has always been an interest in these plants,” says Soh. “We try to propagate our rare plants rather than import them. This ensures that the plants are fully acclimatised and much easier to care for.”
Korean Rare Succulents – priced from just $10 to almost $1,000 – from online plant nursery The Chlorofeel Shop.
He advises starting a rare plant collection with aroids such as Monstera Deliciosa, Syngonium Podophyllum albo variegated or Philodendron Florida which do not cost the earth. “These range from $15 to $100 each at our webstore and are easy to care for,” he adds. Terrascapes’ Choa Chu Kang nursery is closed for walk-ins, but it has an online store on Instagram.
Recent developments in propagation techniques and experimentation in nurseries are also helping to save endangered species and make exotic plants more readily available. Plant collector Amos Tan started the Asiatic Green website in 2006 to showcase plants found in Asia. He believes the future for rare and exotic plants may lie in tissue culture and vegetative propagation.
Asiatic Green Horticulture and Landscape’s Mr Amos Tan (left) with a rare plant called Philodendron Asperatum. He plans to sell the propagated saplings for $178 each.
The trend of collecting houseplants, he says, started in the United States around late 2019 with YouTubers and Instagrammers highlighting their plant collections and knowledge online. The pandemic accelerated that trend worldwide. “Soon after, everyone wanted to get in on the action. With high demand and low supply comes high prices.”
He adds that most of the sought-after plants were snapped up in a few days and production could not keep up as some plants such as the variegated Monstera Deliciosa are naturally slow-growing. “Rare plants can be cloned in a laboratory through tissue culture and mass-produced to nurseries and collectors around the world,” says the 37-year-old.
A collector since 1998, his passion drove him to collect plants from South-east Asia which could be propagated vegetatively or through tissue culture. In 2010, he converted his website into a company called Asiatic Green Horticulture and Landscape. The outfit in Sungei Tengah Road now produces its own varieties through cloning unique and rare species and also breeds new varieties. It exports its plants to the US, Europe, Japan, Thailand and Russia.
“Tissue culture is a way to help preserve rare and endangered species and, at the same time, lower the cost of rare plants so that more people can access them in the future.”
Ahead, we share popular plants that collectors are eager to acquire