MIAMI – They came armed with totes, trash bags, empty strollers and collapsible nylon wagons. They came with wish lists and whispers of their “unicorns,” whose Latin names sounded like incantations: adansonii, patriciae, obliqua. Some of them traveled by airplane to get here. Others, in moving trucks. Because one does not walk into the 42nd Annual International Aroid Society Show and Sale simply to browse.
Aroids (it sort of rhymes with “steroids”) are a family of tropical plants that have surged in popularity in recent years and inspired a revival of the freewheeling 1970s jungle aesthetic. The monstera, whose perforated deliciosa leaves adorn smartphone cases and statement wallpaper, is an aroid. So are philodendrons, anthuriums and tetraspermas — plants prized not for fussy flowers, but for dramatic, lush foliage.
“With orchids, you have to be patient for it to flower,” said Anat Scham, 25, an animator who lives in Washington, D.C., and sold botanical illustrations at the show. “Whereas with foliage, it’s instant gratification.”
Several years ago, the Aroid Society, like some of its rarest specimens, appeared to be dwindling. The hobby had an arcane, almost Victorian dustiness to it, akin to collecting stamps or coins.
But in the past two or three years, said Alex Bello, 33, president of the International Aroid Society and chairman of the event, attendance has spiked from around 500 people in a weekend to a few thousand. “It has been exorbitant, the amount of people we’ve been getting,” he said. “We’ve been pummeled.”
When Bello opened the door of the Garden House at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden on the first morning of the sale, attendees heaved into the room shoulder-to-shoulder. After the frenzy of buying and selling, I found Micah Garner, 32, posted up in line clutching two handfuls of plants and waiting for his girlfriend, Alessia Resta, 27, whose Instagram account, @apartmentbotanist, has nearly 40,000 followers. The couple live in New York and share their 700-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side with around 200 plants. They brought an extra suitcase to carry home all the new ones.
Resta found the plant at the top of her list, a $110 Philodendron luxurians “Choco.” “Right now it’s a little bit of an ugly stump, but one day, it’s going to be beautiful,” she said.
Another aroid type that has become a bona fide object of obsession for this new generation of collectors is the eminently photogenic variegated monstera, whose leaves are marbled with painterly splashes of white. At the show, one vendor from Ecuador sold individual cuttings for $200 apiece. A large, potted version sold for $650.
But that’s nothing compared with the madness and mythos that swirls around the Monstera obliqua. “When you’re talking about how the Aroid Society’s changed, obliqua is probably the best example,” said Mick Mittermeier, 27, the aroid curator at Fairchild. Obliqua (in Latin, “lopsided”) is tiny, typically no taller than about 6 inches, with lacelike foliage that almost appears to be more negative space than organic matter. A decade ago, a collector sold its cuttings at the show for $8 apiece, Mittermeier said. Now, a plant might go for a thousand bucks or more. “Last month,” he added, “Enid sold one on eBay for $3,700.” (It was $2,700, but still.)
Enid Offolter, 49, isn’t a botanist. She doesn’t operate a wholesale nursery. She has a tough time explaining to the uninitiated what it is, exactly, that she does now. (Before this, she sold vitamins.) The simplest explanation is that Offolter sources, propagates and sells some of the most sought-after specimens of the tropical plant collecting world. She’s become a bit of a plant celebrity in the process.
Born and raised in southern Florida, Offolter taught herself propagation through trial and error, and a few trustworthy books. Typically, she buys individual segments of plants (cuttings) from international importers, then carefully cultivates them until they’ve established root systems and leaves. This process can take one month or six, she said, depending on the species of plant, the condition in which it arrives (“Sometimes I just get a box of goo”), and the season. A cutting acquired in May might be ready in a month, while the same plant started in October might not be viable until the following spring. “They’re a lot slower once the days slow down,” Offolter said.
She has run Natural Selections Exotics Tropicals, or NSE Tropicals, since 2000 from her home, on an otherwise typical residential street in a Fort Lauderdale suburb. Behind the tall wooden security fence in Offolter’s driveway hides an acre that is thrumming with life. There are so many plants that it’s almost impossible to focus on one at a time, like looking at a pointillist painting in 1 million shimmering hues of green.
Offolter loves propagation; it feels like magic to her. If it’s magic, it’s a practical kind: Business is booming, and no one appears to be more surprised by this than she. “I feel like I was busy raising my son, then I looked up and all this was going on,” said Offolter. “I never realized this would go so far.”
When Offolter started NSE Tropicals, she mostly supplied botanical gardens and specialty landscapers. Now, her customers are almost all young people. Many of Offolter’s high-ticket specimens go to Portland, Seattle and New York. And they go fast, she said, often minutes after she posts about them on Instagram.
“I certainly don’t advertise anymore,” she said. “All I have to do is say I have the plant, and people just go nuts.”
Aroids make up the vast majority of Offolter’s business, largely because she has a soft spot for weird. Their oddities abound: the protruding “unicorn horn” of a flower’s spadex, the snakeskin-like petioles of a particular anthurium, the vicious fish hooks along a cyrtosperma johnstonii. Then, there’s the melodrama of their foliage. “Flowers are a dime a dozen,” Offolter said, gazing at the curtain of philodendron tumbling from the wall of her shade house. “But I mean ... just look at these leaves.”
While Offolter lists most of her plants on NSE Tropicals’ website, she often turns the rarer stuff over to bidders on eBay (in part because she feels guilty for asking the sky-high prices they now frequently fetch). Recently, she auctioned off a variegated monstera adansonii and set the opening bid at $19. It sold for $2,700.
Few of Offolter’s plants have evoked quite the level of excitement that the variegated monstera has. It’s how I first learned about her — in a message board thread about how to find the increasingly scarce plants, where “Enid” and “NSE” were passed around like whispered passwords at a speakeasy.
Pitfalls of plant parenthood
Countless articles have sought to unspool millennial motivations for loving plants: They’re a replacement for children, a respite from urban cityscapes, a totem of climate anxiety, a life preserver to which one can cling in uncertain times, a kind of self-care. Versions of all of these sentiments were echoed at the aroid show.
“It puts me in a really good head space,” said Chelsea Grace, 32, who owns a Seattle plant shop called Cultivate Propagate. “And,” she added, “as dorky as it sounds, when things put out a new leaf, it feels really constructive.”
There’s also the unavoidable underbelly of any consumer bubble: hubris and hoarding, grifts and theft. There are shady sellers shilling questionable “seeds” online, rabid collectors swiping cuttings from botanical gardens and poachers ripping rare specimens out of their habitats without permits.
“Instagram has spawned a lot of people who are influencing people’s buying decisions on plants, so those plants become more scarce, and all of a sudden everyone needs one, then five, then 10, then a hundred,” said Trevor Bradshaw, 31, who works at a garden center in Nashville. “It’s crazy that you can convince someone to buy a living thing, like it’s a luxury item.” (Bradshaw said that he recently apprehended someone stealing variegated monstera cuttings from his store after they posted about the theft on Instagram.)
Of the thousands in Offolter’s collection, there is one indisputable crown jewel, one she says she’ll never cut up and sell: spiritus sancti, a philodendron whose name, at least in these circles, is usually uttered with a kind of hushed reverence. In the wild, Philodendron spiritus sancti is nearing total extinction; Offolter said that the plants that still grow in its native Brazil probably number in the single digits. The plant’s long, slender leaves are cloven at the top and tapered at the tip, like an exaggerated cartoon heart. What it lacks in Insta-optimized splashiness, it makes up for in understated beauty — not to mention its scarcity, which is why collectors will pay upward of $1,400 for one.
Offolter estimates that in the two decades she’s been in business, she’s sold maybe 20 or 30 spiritus sancti cuttings. One recent evening, she received four consecutive e-mail inquiries from people hunting for it.
Plant mania is complicated, though. The spiritus sancti is a species on the brink of disappearing from nature entirely. While stockpiling it inside one’s Brooklyn apartment isn’t exactly the most generous interpretation of “conservation,” it is, at the very least, keeping it on the planet.
And, in the long run, a growing appreciation for plants might inspire more people to want to understand them, and not just as decorative objects. “It’s living things,” Offolter said. “It’s not puppies, but it’s still living things.”