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US: Rochester’s rare plant market is booming

Imagine a hard-to-find, intensely Instagrammable houseplant, and something like the monstera deliciosa albo variegata, with its iconic broad-split leaves streaked with white, might come to mind.

Samantha Mills has one in a gold pot on the counter of her shop. “Her name is Betty,” Mills said, a tribute to "The Golden Girls" star Betty White. Mills is a co-owner of Stem, a new shop at the corner of Alexander Street and Park Avenue specializing in plants like Betty: hard to find and all the rage.

The market for horticulture, particularly high-end houseplants, that had been blossoming for years came into full bloom during the pandemic, as people hunkered down at home long to reconnect with the natural world and social posts about the houseplant hobby fuel their yearning. Growers and retailers are struggling to meet demand, and it’s not uncommon for greenthumbs to fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars on coveted, rare plants.

On a recent afternoon at Stem, the foot traffic was constant and customers laid down anywhere from $2 to $475 on plants. Mills values “Betty” in the thousands of dollars due to the plant’s unstable mutation and slow propagation. Kerynn Laraby, the other co-owner of Stem, said business has been booming since the doors opened in February. “It was a madhouse,” Laraby said. “We sold out real quick.”

“It’s been nuts here,” Marissa McTiernan, a longtime employee at the Garden Factory in Gates, said of houseplant sales. “We can’t even keep them in stock.”

McTiernan said she first noticed a serious uptick in houseplant sales around three years ago. But in the last year, she said, the nursery has shifted from placing orders for new plants monthly to weekly to keep up with demand. Complicating efforts to meet pent-up demand, retailers and suppliers said, are pandemic-induced restrictions on international shipments between the United States and South Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, where many rare plants originate.

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