Plant markets turn a new leaf amid pandemic
Gardening has bloomed during the lockdowns as people stuck at home have chosen to become plant parents. Instagram posts are full of green leaves and colorful flowers. Joining the trend are leading celebrities who have turned to this soothing hobby during the pandemic. That has seen a demand for particular kinds of house plants and their prices soar, with the most coveted plant now commanding an eyewatering million baht and more.
Two weeks ago, a 41-year-old seller from Bangkok agreed to sell his Musa Siam Ruby, a banana plant with variegated leaves, to a 50-year-old plant collector and grower from Rayong province for an astounding 10 million baht. According to a news report, the plant is 150 cm tall and has seven leaves and three suckers. Standing in a modest black pot, it comes with stunning red ruby variegation on every leaf which marks it as “very rare”.
Musa Siam Ruby (kluay daeng Indo bai dang) is an ornamental banana varietal that boasts vibrant ruby leaves accented with splashes of bright green, creating a unique pattern on every leaf. It’s a must-have for banana tree lovers and variegated freaks.
Growers, nurseries, and plant shops are scrambling to produce the sought-after plant to keep up with the craze.
Voravuth Kunghae, the 53-year-old owner of Kluay Dang Muang Trang Nursery (the name means a nursery of banana plants with variegated leaves), says he sold 15 suckers last month for 250,000 baht each.
“They are selling like hotcakes. I’ve had so many orders but I can only produce around 15 suckers a month,” he says.
He explains that bananas are propagated by suckers, the offshoots that grow around the mother plant. With proper care, the sucker can eventually turn into a new plant.
Why hefty price tags?
It’s about demand and supply. Sellers can charge what they like when so many people desperately want the plants and there are not enough to go round.
Voravuth says the prices of Musa Siam Ruby can range from a humble two figures to more than a million baht. Such factors as rarity, beauty, breeding, and propagation play a role in the price-setting mechanism.
“Some variegated plants are rare because they aren’t many of them. Many are very difficult to keep alive. Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It varies from person to person. Some people like to have something a bit different, others just love the thrill of the chase,” Voravuth says.
Plants with sought-after features, such as splashes of color and holes in their leaves, are often the result of genetic mutations that make them susceptible to minor changes in temperature, humidity and light, the plant expert adds.
With proper care, a Musa Siam Ruby would live for 2-3 years and produce around 50 suckers on a yearly basis. ““You can always sell the plant in order to get your investment back,” he says.
Voravuth notes that nurturing plants has become a trend ever since top celebrities revealed they are proud plant parents, hence the dramatic surge in demand for indoor houseplants and even more dramatic price tags.
“Yaya (Urassaya Sperbund ) shook up the houseplant market when she posted a picture of her taking care of her Alocasia macrorrhizos or giant taro (bon kradad dang khao) on Instagram. The price literally exploded,” he says referring to the famous Thai-Norwegian actress.
Urassaya ‘Yaya’ is among celebrities revealing her green fingers on Instagram. TV stars like Phupoom ‘Ken’ Phongpanuphak, Esther Supreeleela, and Sivakorn ‘Guy’Lertchuchot are also obsessed with their plant “children” and shower the social media with their flourishing greens that inspire people to post a few of their own.
Growing a money garden
Voravuth worked for a five-star hotel in Krabi’s Koh Lanta for more than 30 years. When the country was hit by Covid-19 pandemic, sending business travel into free fall and pulling the hospitality business down, he decided to accept early retirement from the hotel and left in 2020. After retirement, he returned to his hometown of Trang and turned a space next to the home he owns in Palien district into a nursery.
Covering 30 square wah, the nursery is now filled with over 100 plants including variegated Monstera varieties and Alocasia plants. The stars of his extensive collections are of course the Musa Siam Ruby and the Musa Florida variegated banana plant.
“I love spending my time in the garden. Plants make us feel better. And caring for a living thing gives me a purpose. Every day, I check all my plants to if they have a new leaf, new variegation, or something that’s growing. It amuses me,” he says.
Voravuth bought a sucker of Musa Siam Ruby for 1,500 baht in December 2020 and learned about caring for the species through trial and error during the lockdowns. He also picked up some useful tips from members of online plant communities. He started propagating his plants hoping to make some extra cash from his much-loved collection. He asked on Facebook if any of his friends wanted some. They did.
“I love red. I adore Musa Siam Ruby. My colleagues said the idea of buying a small banana plant for 1,500 baht was crazy. But, after three months of good care, I sold it for 150,000 baht,
“During the lockdowns, growing and cultivating plants kept me busy. I’m glad that I can help folks who’ve bought my products survive the pandemic. We’re all the same boat, affected by the crisis,” the hotel manager-turned-full time-grower says.
Voravuth says plants require a wide range of soil media, climate and watering cycles. To ensure that they will grow and thrive, he produces a soil formula specially designed for Musa Siam Ruby for sale and offers growing tips for his customers.
“This needs to be precise otherwise it will affect their health,” he says.
He says he has also installed cameras and other measures as precautions against theft, adding that as demand jumps for unusual species, plant flippers and thieves are cashing in.
Wirun Pubpanon, 30, is a full-time writer and serious indoor plant parent who propagates and sells his collections out of a little green oasis in his condo. He describes plant caring as a full-time hobby and spends many hours in a day tending to his babies.
“Being surrounded by all the greenery at a friend’s made to want to bring that feeling to my home. Since I moved back to Thailand, my collection has continued to grow,” he says.
He started propagating plants last September when returned from the US. He primarily propagates Philodendrons and Monstera which are famous with indoor plant lovers for their large tropical leaves that come in a wide range of shapes and colors.
“I’m careful about choosing the species to grow. Now, you can make anything from a few hundred to thousands of baht for a small rare plant,” he says.
Social media is the key platform he uses for selling plants.
Wirun notes that propagating and selling rare plants can be a moneymaker. Some plants he has sold for 6,000 baht plus. His highest price tag comes from a Monstera which he sold for 45,000 baht.
“Gardening is not my primary income but it has allowed me to keep going with my hobby. And there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the life grow.”
A trend that’s here to stay
As gardening is a hobby that can bring cash to collectors and growers during these difficult time, lots of people are jumping on the green bandwagon.
Voravuth believes the plant market will continue to thrive, as reflected in a growing number of members of online plant communities. He suggests beginners arm themselves with the basics, study, and research.
“Growing plants is a responsibility and commitment. It’s not only slow but also requires a certain level of skill. Combine this with incredibly high demand, and you’ve got a rare plant that is going to be tough to find, and if you do find it, it will cost you,
“Don’t get into the hype. Don’t purchase expensive plants just because you want something to post that people can admire. It will eventually die on you.” Voravuth says.
By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Sukhumaporn Laiyok