For a surprising number of Kansas Citians, it’s all about the plants. And business is blooming.

A collection of cacti at Paradise Garden Club. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Alocasia Cuprea. Monstera Deliciosa. Pilosocereus Azureus.

Perhaps these words don’t mean much to you (are they dinosaurs? Diseases?), but to a surprisingly vast—and vastly growing—subculture of houseplant hobbyists and professional cultivators and entrepreneurs, they are items of true love and obsession. Rachel Guffey, owner of Jungle House in Lawrence, estimates that she once had 500 plants in her home collection. Jordan Fox, owner of Foxtrot, says he and his wife Emily have probably 100 in their own collection, with several dozen more in their home-based shop, High & Dry Cactus Co. Local collector Jeff McHenry says he stopped counting his collection at 275 plants. Kelly Cirone, a horticulturalist and owner of Flora KC, laughs, and says her plant collection numbers in the “hundreds.”

This might seem like a lot of plants to have in your home—and yes, it absolutely, totally is. So. Many. Plants. But these Kansas Citians are far from alone in their infatuation. Local YouTube creator SunnySideUpWithNicole creates videos devoted to the #PlantLife. Houseplant pop-ups are an increasingly regular sight at local art and maker fairs. And a quick search on Facebook will pull up several local groups devoted to plant cultivation, shopping, and swapping, with thousands of participating members. One local houseplant swap group, which boasts over 1,100 members, gets dozens of new posts every week:

I’m only missing 9 pothos to finish my collection – anyone have any of the ones I’m missing by chance?

Does anyone know anything about this plant? I’ve had it for about a month and it’s super happy. I’m ready to give her a name.

I think I spent 7 hours yesterday just doing houseplant stuff and enjoyed every bit of it.

Kelly Cirone has a home plant collection numbering in the hundreds. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

This “plant parent” phenomenon is a nationwide (and international) trend, and one that is poised to continue growing. In an April 2019 article, Bloomberg noted that the market for houseplants has exploded, with U.S. sales up almost 50 percent in the past three years to make houseplant cultivation a $1.7 billion industry. The sales data corresponds with the rise of popular plant stylists like Hilton Carter, who boasts a quarter million Instagram followers (@hiltoncarter), million-follower Instagram accounts like Urban Jungle Bloggers, hashtags like #PlantsOfInstagram and #UrbanJungle that pull up multiple millions of posts apiece, “crazy plant lady” memes that flourish on Pinterest and Facebook, as well as other pieces in the New Yorker, Refinery 29, the New York Times, and other major outlets that detail the rapidly growing love for houseplants.

So yes, evidence is there for the phenomenon, but why are so many people sacrificing significant amounts of time, income, and living space for plants? Several local collectors and business owners say that just the act of caring for something is satisfying. Cirone, owner of local horticulture business Flora KC, says “I feel a genuine connection with my plants. Caring for them, nurturing them, and helping them thrive is deeply satisfying.” Collector Jeff Henry agrees: “It feels great to have the watering, lighting, temperature, and all the other care just right, then the plant rewards you with growth.”

At Foxtrot in the Crossroads, cacti initially started as decor, but customers asked to purchase them. // Photoby Zach Bauman.

Others point to the mental health benefits of the hobby. Local collector Nicole Liu, the aforementioned local plant YouTuber, backs this up. “Plants make me happy, relaxed, and hopeful,” she says. “I was fighting against my depression, and nothing really makes me feel calm, or positive again except plants.” Sára Emami, a Display Coordinator for Anthropologie and owner of the West Bottoms pop-up shop Terracotta, says that one of the reasons she dove into the hobby “is the calming and therapeutic effect it provides for me.”

Jordan Fox, Foxtrot co-owner, makes frequent trips to Arizona to source impressive and prickly cacti for the shop. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

Fox, owner of High & Dry Cactus Co. and Foxtrot in the Crossroads, feels that part of the upswing in popularity has to do with wider demographic changes. “Plants are important especially with younger people, especially as they’re making decisions not to get married, or not having kids as early, or at all,” he says. “Plants also fit into that realm of living in smaller spaces. They make [these smaller spaces] beautiful.”

It’s also impossible to understate the influence of social media on the trend, particularly image-based platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, which are bursting with ridiculously well-manicured interiors that teem with enormous, expensive plants. “Who wouldn’t want their home to look like a jungle oasis?” argues the designer Emami. Fox agrees: “You see plants in product shots for almost everything. Even a photo of a watch will have a small succulent somewhere. Plants stop people when they’re scrolling.”

Yet the influence of social media on plant collecting and cultivation is not all mindless copycatting: it is important to note that it has created genuine community among hobbyists who were formerly dispersed. The horticulturalist Cirone says that because of social media, “Plant Nerds have united! Now I know where to find plants on my wish list and where to go with questions about particular plants or plant issues.” Another local collector, Kara Castigliano, affirms this: “I have really enjoyed the community building around houseplants. It is beautiful in more ways than the obvious. I love talking and sharing excitement about new plant babies, care tips, and favorites.”

Local entrepreneurs are responding to the increased demand in the market. It’s true that stores like Suburban Lawn & Garden and Family Tree have long offered a selection of houseplants to local customers, and even stores like Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot generally have a smattering of houseplants including philodendrons, sansevieria (also known as snake plants), and succulents for sale. Yet these stores typically don’t offer the most prized varieties of plants—you’re unlikely to see rare, prized specimens like a spiral aloe polyphylla or a copper-colored alocasia cuprea anywhere near a box store. Additionally, many plant “parents” are looking for a local touch when it comes to sourcing, as well as education on how to keep their green progeny alive that they just can’t get from Wal-Mart.

At Paradis Garden Club, the pit of gravel filled with impressive cacti is all for show and not for sale. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

For this reason, small local plant shops and plant pop-ups in Kansas City seem to be booming. One of the newest is Paradise Garden Club, which opened at 16th and Locust last November. Featuring a bright, green neon sign that beckons with the word “Paradise” in cursive, as well as an impressive “curated” collection of cacti (meaning, you’ll find no Wal-Mart cactus here, and this stuff is definitely not for sale) on display in an 8,000-pound bed of gravel and cactus soil. For its customers, the shop also carries an impressive selection of large, mature columnar cacti, baby cacti, and large, leafy houseplants like monstera deliciosa and Chinese money plants. The shop also plans to capitalize on legalized medical marijuana in Missouri by selling equipment and training to home growers. The shop holds regular classes on a variety of subjects, including on potting and plant care basics, hydroponic growing, and even crafts.

Paradise does well with leafy greenery, along with cacti and succulents. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

Asked how they got into the business, Jessica Teliczan, one of Paradise’s eight-member ownership team, describes that she and her husband, Matt Lett (another of the shop’s owners), both grew up near Kansas City, and each have farming backgrounds.

“His experience is more industrial, and I grew up in this very small town, you know, grow your own food and sell the rest of the church kind of thing,” she says. “But we’d been living in San Diego for the past two years, and just fell in love with how easy it is to have all of this tropical life around your all time. And Kansas City didn’t have anything like this yet.” They operated Plant KC in Westport before getting the opportunity to join the team at Paradise Garden Club. Lett now regularly travels to Arizona with the shop’s head grower, Joel Clark, on buying trips to source most of the shop’s large columnar cactus varieties, and they drive them back, packed safely in a moving van. [If this seems like a lot of effort just for some cacti, maybe it’s helpful to know that a mature, four-foot-or-so tall cactus, particularly if it is a rarer variety, can sell for anywhere from $200-$400 per cactus. One cactus!]

Across the Crossroads at 18th and Baltimore, Fox also sells a variety of eye-catching cacti out of his shop, Foxtrot, which he owns with his business partner, Ryan Hetu. Fox originally came to the plant business as part of his own hobby—he and his wife are collectors who favor the big, unusual, columnar cacti and eye-catching plants like euphorbia tirucalli (also known as pencil cactus or ‘fire sticks’). He says that his cacti initially came to Foxtrot just as decor, but increasingly, customers asked to purchase them.

Based on his success selling plants at Foxtrot, in early 2019 Fox and his wife, Emily, launched High & Dry Cactus Co., an online shop dedicated to fine specimens of cactus, succulents, and other houseplants, pottery, and tools. They also renovated their personal Rosedale garage into a large showroom, which is open by appointment, and for monthly classes where customers can come and learn how to pot and care for cacti, while enjoying a beer or glass of wine. They, like the buyers from Paradise Garden Club, regularly travel to Arizona on buying trips to source the most impressive items for resale here in Kansas City.

Virgil’s mobile plant shop parked on W 39th St. last spring. They now have a brick and mortar pop-up at Seven Swans Creperie. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

Reba Hamilton, owner of Virgil’s Plant Shop, moved back to Kansas City in 2019 from New York with the intention of being closer to family and opening up a plant shop. In warmer months, Virgil’s is a mobile shop, based out of a magazine-ready, repurposed mini school bus, which Hamilton and a friend restored and painted a deep forest green (it cute). This year (at least until April or May), she is operating a pop-up shop with regular hours out of the back of Seven Swans Creperie at 17th and Washington. She carries tropical plants like alocasia, sansevieria, and philodendrons. As for what smaller plant shop owners can provide to customers, Hamilton notes it’s all about personal touch, and plant care.

She says, “I’ve always felt like the most important thing that I wanted in a store is somebody that would actually talk to me about this plant instead of just ringing me up, like ‘it’s $34, like, here take it.’ The key to keeping plants alive is knowing how to, and I felt like there was just a lot of that lacking in a lot of places. There’s often no one who’s going to tell you even what it’s called.”

A view of Paradise on a gloomy day. // Photo by Zach Bauman.

One of the biggest success stories in the local plant economy is that of Jungle House, owned by Rachel Guffey and located in East Lawrence. She decided to open her business about a year ago after the astonishing success of a pop-up in which she sold hundreds of plants out of her personal collection in just a few hours (she was the collector noted in the beginning of this piece who once had 500 plants in her home). At Jungle House, she carries exotic tropicals, cacti, ferns, succulents, common houseplants, and even seasonal outdoor plants. The shop’s Instagram feed shows a parade of happy customers holding their new plants like human babies.

Guffey’s success in Lawrence may foretell the success of other local businesses like Paradise Garden Club, High & Dry Cactus Co., and Virgil’s, as well as support businesses like Flora KC, which offers in-home care and consultation for plant owners. Guffey seems more surprised than anyone at how well her shop has performed over the past year.

“When I envisioned the store when we were opening, I thought I would work by myself, come in and hang out with some plants, listen to some music, maybe a few customers would come in,” she says. “Instead, we have eight staff members, and we’re open seven days a week.”

Whether the local plant community (and KC’s new plant entrepreneurs) continues to flourish as industry experts predict (some estimates show the market doubling by 2025), or whether the trend eventually withers like the macrame of the 1970s, it’s hard to ignore that thousands of collectors and hobbyists are finding beauty, companionship, and craft in indoor plant rearing.

For business owners, particularly those passionate about the hobby themselves, the market does seem ripe to make the world a little more green.

Have the urge to buy plants? We put together a list of local shops for happy, healthy plants. Read it here.

On Twitter: @aprilfleming

Categories: Culture