Exotic houseplants with attitude

Time to kiss Grandma's African violets goodbye

Kangaroo paws and monkey pod raintrees sound like untamed flora that should be sprouting in the outback or in a steamy jungle. Wrong.

These and other exotic house plants are wrapping their fabulous foliage around armchairs across America. They're greening up porches and dinner tables. Years ago, houseplants meant African violets and leggy philodendrons that sat on a windowsill collecting dust. Not anymore.

Jim Johnson owns SBE seed company that sells exotic houseplants in Gautier, Miss. His business has blossomed from a small mail-order catalog business in 1978 to an online seed catalog that has more than 5,000 varieties from which to choose.

"Our best-selling seeds are for houseplants," says Mr. Johnson. "Large foliage plants outdo everything."

Johnson attributes the increased interest in houseplants to accessibility. Before the Internet, growers, nurseries, and dealers were restricted to mail-order catalogs. Consumers weren't as interested in exotic houseplants a decade ago. Walk into any bookstore, he says, and look at the scads of plant books, something that never used to be there.

Now, his business is booming. SBE's catalog is now online (www.seedman.com). Johnson says that because of his expanded selection and rising printing costs, he has discontinued mail-order catalogs because "they would be the size of the New York telephone directory. People are more comfortable with growing stuff," he says. There is something appealing about "getting your hands dirty and taking care of [the plant] from the get-go."

Byron Martin of Logee's Greenhouses in Danielson, Conn., says Americans lagged behind other countries in embracing exotic floriculture for two reasons: inaccessibility and price. "We all got tired of where we were," and where they were was behind the rest of the world.

He says Europe has a longer history of plant cultivation than America, especially when you consider how houseplants are embraced by Italians, Germans, Danish, and the Dutch.

The evolution from the traditional foliage houseplant to the exotic has been a slow one.

In the 1970s the houseplant seduced America, and container plants and indoor plants were the craze. This sprouted an interest in flowering plants. Soon, in the mid-1980s, nurseries and wholesalers were providing houseplants at a price consumers could afford. Mr. Martin said those markets matured in the '80s, and, subsequently slowed down after popularity peaked. After exhausting the traditional houseplant market, growers realized the potential for exotics.

"Consumers took to it like fish to water," says Martin. So what's pushing the market's growth? "The maturing of the horticulture conscience of the American public," says Martin. Along with the rise of the Internet, aging baby-boomers are reconnecting with their roots, which has expanded the market. "It's not only the marketplace. The growers, producers, and breeders are venturing into different crops," says Martin. "My generation got disconnected from their roots and the natural world. We're now making a resurgence to get back to it. There's a yearning to reconnect."

Another major contributor to expansion is marketing and competition, says Bob Anderson, greenhouse specialist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

A few years ago, "you couldn't buy these kinds of [exotic] plants at Wal-Mart or Lowes," says Mr. Anderson. Now with the drop in price and the expanded selection at the discount stores, "retailers have to separate themselves from big 'box stores' and it's driving them to find new material to keep [consumers] happy," says Anderson.

Anderson says major growers in Mexico, Central America, and the Canary Islands help keep American distributors stocked.

Orchids, for example, were long thought to thrive only in warm, moist climates or in greenhouses; as a result, only the most intrepid gardeners grew them.

"All [Americans] were buying was chrysanthemums and poinsettias," says Ned Nash, director of education and conservation with the American Orchid Society. Still, orchid growing was mainly associated with the affluent. After World War II, with more leisure time and money, people were willing to experiment more and orchid growing caught on as a hobby. The American Orchid Society, which was started in 1921, had 17,000 members in 1985; it now has around 30,000.

There are some 450 orchid societies in the US, one of which is in Astoria, Ore. John Banholzer, a member, has been cultivating orchids for 25 years and has seen an increase in popularity.

"They always carried a stereotype of being tough to grow, too expensive," says Mr. Banholzer. Now that researchers can reproduce identical genetic copies of orchid plants, the price has dropped to affordable levels. Today there are more than 100,000 orchid hybrids.

Banholzer said two or three people grew orchids in Astoria 15 years ago, now there are between 60 and 70.

He attributes the growth in popularity of orchids to the number of growers and the education of buyers.

So don't think you have to travel to Bali to find alluring flora. Chances are, the local garden store just might have just what you are looking for.

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