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Houseplants are offering therapy amid pandemic stress, and demand is soaring in nurseries

By Katie Park
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA --  In April, a month into the coronavirus pandemic, Jodie Riccelli placed an order for houseplants to add greenery to her surroundings. By September, she had amassed 130 plants in her 980-square-foot South Philadelphia home.

"My favorite changes, honestly," said Riccelli, 44, "but right now, I'm in love with my philodendron Micans" --  a vining, green-bronze houseplant with heart-shaped leaves that feel like velvet.

As the pandemic continues, plant retailers have reported a barrage of sales prompted by what they said was consumer desire to care for a living object and create a tranquil indoor sanctuary in an uncertain and stressful time.

Employee Emily Heller trims clover plants at Urban Jungle on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. Houseplants have been popular with customers during the pandemic. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Interest in houseplants was high even before the pandemic, they said -- encouraged in part by increasingly popular plant-centric social media accounts and prolific collectors who attained niche celebrity -- but that enthusiasm has increased in the recent months as more people realized cultivating greenery in their homes was therapeutic. It's a hobby capable of boosting relaxation, happiness, and attentiveness, studies have shown.

"We all need a little bit of joy right now," said Laurelynn Martin, co-owner of Logee's, which grows indoor and outdoor plants in its 128-year-old antique greenhouse. It sells its wares online and at a physical store in Danielson, Conn.

Logee's had year-over-year growth of 8% from April to August, she said. That figure would have likely been higher, she said, if the company's physical store hadn't been closed until July 8 over concerns of poor ventilation. Martin has since vented and opened the sides of the greenhouse where customers shop, and sales have resumed smoothly.

The global flower and ornamental plants industry is expected to grow by $29 billion over the next four years with a compound annual growth rate of 5.9%, largely as more customers seek decorative greenery, according to a report from the market research firm Technavio. The independent industry research firm IBISWorld reported that the U.S. plant and flower growing industry, which includes nursery crops, cut flowers, and potted plants, has nearly 158,000 employees and a market size of $15 billion. Houseplant sales remained high, the analysts said, but demand had fallen off for florists.

In its report, Technavio analyzed about 25 companies, both small and large, the latter including Carle Place, N.Y-based 1- 800-Flowers and the Monrovia Nursery Co. in Azusa, Calif. The report expected that China, France, Germany, and the United States would be the largest contributors to revenue.

The Sill, a popular plant company started in 2012 that sells greenery online, at three locations in New York City, and two in California, said customers had bought merchandise at a rate that outpaced wholesale supplier capacity, said Eliza Blank, founder and chief executive of the Lower East Side-based business.

Houseplant wholesalers are commonly based in Florida, which has grappled recently with hurricanes and some of the highest number of coronavirus cases in the U.S.

"Nobody anticipated the situation we would all be in," Blank said.

To the consumer, the frenetic houseplant supply chain has meant popular indoor greenery that include easy-to-grow, low-light plants and the showy Monstera Thai Constellation and Philodendron pink princess --  each retails for more than hundreds of dollars in the U.S. -- sell out quickly.

"I've been spending more on plants this summer," said Richie Roberts, 26, of South Philadelphia. "On average, I'd say $50 to $100 a month."

The Sill, Blank said, had sold more than 500,000 plants in the last year.

The most determined consumers can buy relatively rare plants on Etsy and eBay, where they are rush-shipped in meticulous, temperature-controlled packaging, or they can bid on hard-to-find greenery in auctions that at times top out at more than a thousand dollars. Trading plants is common on Facebook, a practice sometimes likened to swapping Pokemon cards.

"There's almost a competitive element to it, with who has the most unusual plant, who has the most plants," said Curt Alexander, who with his wife, Tara, owns the plant shop Urban Jungle, a 4,000-square-foot space on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia.

Co-owner Tara Alexander awaits customers needing help at Urban Jungle. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

One of their own employees, Nick Pileggi, has created a following as the collector of around 375 houseplants --recently downsized from more than 400, he explained in a video on his YouTube channel that has garnered around 86,800 subscribers.

A long line of customers often queues up outside the cavernous Urban Jungle on weekends to buy, not browse, Alexander said, especially as the store encourages customers to be mindful of the time they spend shopping in order to keep the line moving. Up to 10 masked customers are allowed in at one time.

"They come in, and they've got a very focused attention of what they want to get," he said. "So they come in and get out." When a harder-to-find plant is stocked--  like the Philodendron pink princess, a 4-inch plant with a $125 price tag partially due to growers' licensing fees -- eager customers will line up outside before the store even opens.

Urban Jungle records about 400 sales during a weekend, Alexander said, adding that the business was considering opening a second location. The Philadelphia houseplant market, which includes City Planter, Cultivaire, Cultivated Bohemians, Greensgrow Farms, ILLExotics, STUMP, and Vault + Vine, in addition to big-box retailers Home Depot and Lowe's, is competitive, he said. "It's a little feisty."

Most houseplant enthusiasts said they had grown their collections by visiting chain and locally owned stores.

"I get at least one plant a week," said Helen Lam, 38, of Northern Liberties, who had 10 plants last year and added 110 more during the pandemic.

Others with less than optimal home lighting crammed in as many plants as they could -- about 30 in her apartment, said Lydia Sigmon, 24, who lives in Old City and works as an associate national bank examiner for the U.S. Treasury's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

"I wanted to bring joy and life into my apartment to create a more focused and enjoyable workspace," she said. "It also gave me something productive to focus my free time on with the lack of social outings. My collection more than doubled."