Plantdemic: The Rise of Pretentious Rarity

By Tan Yu Kai

June 2022 FEATURE
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Penang Slipper Orchid. It is not hard to see why Paphiopedilum barbatum was and is all the frenzy among orchid collectors. This orchid is now exceedingly rare in the wild in Penang. This specimen was photographed in the Penang Botanic Gardens collection.
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THERE IS THE pandemic, and then, there is the plantdemic – an emerging social phenomenon of mass buying exorbitant houseplants for, among other reasons, plain boredom, and parading them on social media in hope of becoming the next “plant-fluencer”. The interweb and the University of WhatsApp are the fountains of wisdom on modern plant-growing, and it is here our exploration begins…

“OMG!! Look at this amazing God’s CREATION!!”

I received in the dead of night, an image thus captioned from a “plant collector”[1]. Rolling my eyes, I texted in response:

“This is a horticultural[2] hybrid, created by nursery folk through artificially breeding plants that wouldn’t naturally produce offspring with one another in nature. And to be honest, it looks gaudy and freaky!”

“What’s horticultural?” came the response, with three emojis bearing protruding tongues.

"God's creation". Caladium 'Thai Beauty' does not occur in nature, and if anything, an abomination to nature. This grotesque, gawdy appearance is the result of breeding plants with the desired traits for many generations.

The Price of “Rare” Things

“People are really siau (ridiculous) these days! This plant goes for RM200 per leaf on Shopee!” I overheard a conversation on the Summit Road of Penang Hill. The enthused visitors were jabbing their fingers at a large clump of Philodendron gloriosum, a social media favourite with its large heart-shaped velvety leaves. 

Behold the red leaves with white spots, waxy heart-shaped leaves, pink leaves; the pinker, redder, spottier, the pricier. Many of us urban folk have such distorted views of “nature” that we desire “rare” unnatural-looking, plastic-like plants living on artificial fertilisers in plastic pots.

But what assurance is a plant-buyer given that a plant is “rare”? Trawling e-commerce sites and nursery benches, the abuse of the term “rare” is widespread. There are likely more “rare” plants on online marketplaces than otherwise. Yet the unsavoury truth remains, by such time a species hits the nursery bench complete with a ludicrous asking price, it has been mass propagated and rendered somewhat commonplace.

Most “rare” plants fall into one of these fallacies: Rarely or newly offered for sale, hence novel but abundant in their natural habitats (Alocasia cuprea); rare mutants of common species (Monstera deliciosa 'Thai Constellation'); rare in the wild but common in cultivation (Philodendron spiritus-sancti); simply not rare but looks peculiar enough that calling it “rare” lures in new houseplant enthusiasts on the internet (tropical pitcher plant, Nepenthes sp.).

There is a category of “rare” that rings pure irony for Malaysian collectors – rare to the Western “plant-fluencers” but overflowing in our backyards or naturalised in our gardens, e.g. Philodendron melanochrysum, Rhaphidophora tetrasperma, Epipremnum pinnatum. A very specific concept of “tropical” as trendy and exoticised by Western influencers has been picked up by city folk in tropical regions, alienated from nature and oblivious to the common plants around them. Plant vendors, in sincere or feigned ignorance, are capitalising on the growers’ belief in supposed scarcity to markup profit margins.

Native plants. A montage of charismatic native plants, either trendy and at risk of poaching or not trendy and relatively unknown to the public. Left to right, top to bottom: Selaginella willdenowii; Air Itam, Penang.  Anoechtochilus geniculatus; Penang.  Begonia pavonina; Cameron Highlands, Pahang. Kaempferia elegans, Kaki Bukit, Perlis. Amorphophallus sparsiflorus; Penang Hill, Penang.  Piper porphyrophyllum; Penang National Park, Penang.  Phyllagathis rotundifolia; Karangan, Kedah. Scindapsus pictus; Nibong Tebal, Penang.  Kaempferia elegans; Karangan, Kedah. 

That is not to deny that there are truly rare plants around, but by far, few are successful commercially as they are either not particularly charismatic, or require specific growth conditions. Penang alone plays host to many such plants. Among them, restricted to two small sites in the world and coined “the rarest plant in Peninsular Malaysia”, is Cryptocoryne elliptica, which looks like decaying lettuce.[3],[4] The misguided frenzy on acquiring fallaciously “rare” plants is detracting from the awareness of plants at true risk of poaching and change in land use.

Perceived rarity in horticulture is a product of narrative rather than objective measure. “Rarity” arises from populist social media posts, where sensational, unsanctioned, unverified claims of a rare plant get repeated and propagated. I have witnessed first-hand in the greenhouses of a large historical nursery (incognito, but it is a recognisable name in the plant world) in the U.S. northeast, horticulturists slashing and burying heaps of their excess of “rare” variegated Monstera deliciosa, to control the market price.

And there lies that special category: “Rare” because it costs you an arm, a leg and maybe, even a kidney.

Closer to Nature?

Have you seen the scars on the face of the forest? The diaphanous tarps on rickety metal frames that flap and flop with the wind and the sliding lands, strewn across the otherwise continuous forests of the Titiwangsa Range – the farms for vegetables, flowers and ornamental plants. Consider the destructive force of avarice and hubris, when we farm the Five Trending Rare Houseplants of 2022 on lands where thousands of species, some endangered, used to live.

Moreover, plant poaching from the wild has a dark legacy that continues to manifest due to the spike in market demand. Penang is home to so iconic and flamboyant an orchid once commonplace on Penang Hill –  the Penang Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum barbatum). It has suffered precipitous decline in the hands of prize-seeking colonial and local collectors.[5] The loss of a historically abundant and culturally significant plant altered fundamentally the ecology of our local forests, diminishing our natural-cultural heritage. Yet despite the dire consequences of poaching, we are typically more attuned to the theft of wayside ornamental plants – measurable property with clear ownership.[6]

Not-so-rare Plants. From left to right, top to bottom. Philodendron gloriosum, Epipremnum pinnatum, Monstera deliciosa 'Thai Constellation', Alocasia cuprea, Philodendron spiritus-sancti, Nepenthes albomarginata 'Penang Red', Philodendron melanochrysum, Hoya carnosa, Rhaphidophora tetrasperma (with a misidentified M. deliciosa in the bottom right). Dark tiles are native plants, light tiles are not-natives.

D. Thachayni, a research officer at the Penang Botanic Gardens, thinks that most growers have a social-media-first, plants-second outlook; plants are means to social validation. “It’s mostly about the trends, and people mass collect from the forest to feed that market. It’s not sustainable. It’s wasted, abandoned plants once the fad is over, but our forests may never recover. We see the effects of British plant-hunters collecting even today.”

Theft extends to plants in botanical collections. Penangites were shocked, puzzled, bemused, amused, irritated or perhaps, sympathetic, when news broke of a “rare” plant that was stolen from the Penang Botanic Gardens.[7] The pinched plant, once of no commercial value, now warrants a trendy price tag of RM2,000. It is deeply unsettling that under the guise of sharing and caring for plants, many rake in social and financial capital by promoting falsehoods or unmeaningful, generalised “plant knowledge” that detracts from true appreciation of botanical diversity.

Individual vs. Collective

There is safety in numbers, and in that aphorism perhaps, lies the root of our plantdemic crisis. Wasting away in cycles of lockdowns, there grows the solace of a ghost-community of plant growers online pursuing the same species, the same pink and spotted variety, telling the same misguided stories. The plantdemic has had us spiraling into a perverse modern trophy-collecting that prizes not the unique, but the mundane, ill-informed and misshapen.

Footnotes:

[1] The distinction between “collector” and “houseplant enthusiast” is pertinent, to separate the botanists or growers who tend to plants collected (recently and historically) from their natural habitats for botanical research and conservation in public gardens, from fad-frenzied growers who collect common commercial products a.k.a houseplants.

[2] Horticulture is a branch of applied sciences dealing with mass-producing ornamental plants; botany is a scientific discipline focused on understanding the biology, ecology, natural occurrences and evolution of plants.

[3] Boyce, P. (1995). Aroid Conservation. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 12(3), 173–176. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45065116.

[4] Mashhor Mansor, M. Masnadi, Cryptocoryne elliptica, an endangered amphibious plant in Pondok Tanjung forest reserve, Peninsular Malaysia. Aquatic Botany, 47(1), 1994, 91-96.

[5] Yeu, N. S., Nordin, F. A., & Othman, A. S. (2016). Five New Records of Terrestrial and Lithophytic Orchids (Orchidaceae) from Penang Hill, Malaysia. Tropical life sciences research, 27(2), 103–109. https://doi.org/10.21315/tlsr2016.27.2.8.

[6] Chow, T. S. (2021, December 27). Don't pick flowers at Penang Hill, says corporation. The Star. Retrieved May 7, 2022.

[7] Hilmy, I. (2022, January 25). Rare plant stolen from Penang Botanic Gardens. The Star. Retrieved May 7, 2022.

Tan Yu Kai

is a Penangite biologist-cum-artist passionate about human relationalities with the natural world. He is a triple major in Biology, Earth & Environmental Sciences and Anthropology, and was a Research Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.


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