Kelly Norris: Why The Plant Collector Market Is Set To Explode, And What It Means For You

Kelly Norris Des Moines Botanical Garden Web
Kelly Norris

I’m an unapologetic plant collector, a nerd of chlorophyllic proportions. I can tell you what time of year it is based on what kind of plants populate my Facebook newsfeed on any given week. I prefer to think of winter as the time of year when snowdrops, hellebores, and hepaticas entertain my spring-hungry mind as waves of feverish collectors around the globe post photos of the plants they covet, obtain, and adore. I happen to think the world is full of plant collectors, but as an industry, we just don’t know it.

In fact, many of those would-be plant collectors don’t know it either. Angela Treadwell-Palmer, partner in Plants Nouveau, a global plant introductions company, says it is the “new culture of collecting things.” And our culture does collect. “Curate” is one of the hottest buzzwords today in food, fashion, and frivolity (museum professionals don’t get to have all the fun anymore). An Instagram account and a few well-chosen filters endow almost anyone with tastemaker status.

“Remember Pokemon cards?” Treadwell-Palmer says. “There are so many things that Gen Y grew up collecting and curating for themselves. Of course, it’s no surprise they’d do the same as adults.”

Millennials are perhaps as curatorial as any generation yet.

Rewrite Your Definition Of A Plant Collector

What does that mean for horticulture? The answer might require a mind meld for the engrained logic of present-day, green industry retail. Plant collectors, in that parlance, are often thought of as a niche minority with little total buying power, even though they tend to spend much more per capita than the average consumer. Their seriousness, however desirable, just doesn’t seem to translate into an objective for most retail operations, let alone a ring at the register.

Maybe it’s time for us to rethink who plant collectors really are today, and give serious consideration to what they’re buying and how they are buying it. In reality, they aren’t silent.

Chris Hansen, founding partner of GreatGardenPlants.com and now proprietor of a new wholesale breeding and production company called Garden Solutions, thinks he’s found a new pitch for the young, modern consumer: collectability.

Chick Charms“I had this idea a couple years ago,” says Hansen of his new line of sempervivum called Chick Charms. “The target demographic is young gardeners, kids, teenagers, and the non-gardening public who on a Saturday morning stroll at the garden center.”

The response to this new series of 12 varieties of hens-and-chicks that Hansen curated from five years of trials at hisnursery has overwhelmed even his greatest expectations.

“We launched this program at Cultivate in 2015 and have already sold 150,000 finished units for 2016 so far,” Hansen says.

Could hens-and-chicks, the succulent many of us first encountered crawling out of a cliché cowboy boot, be the horticultural version of a collectable charm bracelet?

“Of course,” Hansen says. “Think of what Hallmark has done with ornaments and decorations. We want these plants to be traded like baseball cards, right along with their tags.”

That’s right, Hansen thinks people won’t throw away the tags if they are cool enough. He and his team have invested hours in color coordination, logo design, and appealing to their target demographic with cutesy, cartoonish emblems that they hope will make their POP (point of purchase) too good to toss.

“The program is ripe for nationwide rollout to garden centers. Just think about how this can get garden centers excited about merchandising new plants,” Hansen says.

Gift Plant Market A Magnet For Consumers New To Plants

It’s excitement that so many retailers, big box, and brick-and-mortar stores seem to be aiming for. Treadwell-Palmer spends her time studying the so-called gift plant market, a segment of the industry she sees poised for growth.

“Right now it feels like producers are throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks,” she says. “We’re dyeing succulents and orchids and people are eating it up. I’m trying to get people to realize that we’re reaching an audience that has never bought plants before.”

Gift plants are just another outlet for collector consumerism in the same way people decorate, gift, and entertain with cut flowers.

“We hear about more people buying cut flowers, which is nice, but maybe some of those people want that gift to last just a little bit longer,” Treadwell-Palmer says.

To hardliners, Treadwell-Palmer’s comments might seem like waving a white flag to the whims of a less-than-erudite consumer. But she sees hope in the bottom line fueled by impulsive purchases that satisfy consumer desires for happiness and satisfaction.

“I think we’ll get to a point where gift plants could be used beyond the impulse. But right now, the buyers this appeals to do not do landscape gardening. To them, plants are a perishable decoration.”

The idea of perishable decorations might seem less than sustainable, but it creates opportunities for new products that never previously existed. Emergent breeding work in foliage crops like aglaeonemas and flowering plants like streptocarpus suggest there are unlimited possibilities to define new product categories for the shelves at grocery stores, independent garden centers and Trader Joe’s.

In the end, we have to innovate with solutions that appeal to the natural tendency of people to collect things they love. In horticulture, a kind of intentional materialism has overwhelmingly positive implications for connecting people and plants — it’s the stuff that matters. We need curators, in other words, consumers, who want to collect them all.

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