Is your cheese plant worth a small fortune?

Social media has led to an expensive new houseplant mania

Man watering cacti plants in his living roomYoung man watering cacti plants in his living room. Man giving water to cactus plants at home.
Camera ready: a selection of gorgeous and possibly expensive houseplants. Photograph: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
Camera ready: a selection of gorgeous and possibly expensive houseplants. Photograph: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
James Wong
Sun 8 Nov 2020 03.15 EST

In the 1600s, “tulip mania” gripped the Dutch republic. These exotic new bulbs from Turkey quickly became key status symbols among the highest echelons of society. Prices soon reached eye-watering levels, with single bulbs being sold for 10 times the equivalent of the annual wage for a skilled craftsperson. And we all know what happened next… Now, 400 years later, I wonder if we are seeing the beginnings of a bubble in the world of houseplants. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Here are my thoughts.

As recently as 10 years ago, houseplant availability in Britain was pretty awful, but then Instagram got in on the game with users posting images of some of the amazing and unusual options available, and increasingly stressed-out, nature-starved millennials loved it. Then cool indie start-up stores began popping up in city centres, beating the big out-of-town DIY chains for their sheer selection of plants, and a feverish trend was born.

Over the past five years, this combination of a thirst for novelty and the ability of technology to connect buyers and sellers quickly spurred an astonishing rise in prices – even for plants that were once considered deeply out of fashion. Swiss cheese plants with a touch of variegation can now sell on internet auction sites for hundreds of pounds for a tiny rooted cutting, and single leaves of unusual begonia cultivars go for the price of a mid-range laptop.

When I came across a Monstera adansonii (cheese plant) with three leaves in a 10cm pot going for £1,355.67, I thought that was the peak of silliness, until I saw a 3cm square of a really rare moss species for terrariums and aquariums selling for £100 this morning. What was even more silly was that a small part of me was desperately trying to explain to myself that this was a perfectly reasonable investment in what Instagram plant-influencers call “self-care”. Oh dear.

It’s easy to be critical of this trend. Yet for decades one of the biggest questions facing horticulturists was how to get the public to value plants and the skill it takes to produce new varieties. So it is exciting for me to see a whole new generation fascinated by plants that they will do just about anything to get their hands on. And, even better, this movement has grown organically, from the ground up, not as the result of some lame industry PR campaign.

Yet, on the other hand, I wonder how healthy this sort of fever pitch is. Are those shelling out for these plants really doing so for the love of growing the species, or because of their perceived rarity? Are some people driven simply by the social cachet of sharing pictures of their precious plant on Instagram?

It’s a complex matter. After all, the Dutch tulip bubble famously collapsed on 6 February 1637, sending prices crashing, never to recover again, yet, 400 years later, the Netherlands is still home to one of the most diverse, innovative and sophisticated horticultural industries anywhere on the planet. I am torn. What do you think?

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek