Where have all the houseplants gone?

The weather's been bad lately -- much colder and snowier, earlier than usual -- and I've been so busy I've barely had time to sit down occasionally. So I figured that a couple of new houseplants would brighten my house and my spirits. I wanted something new, something I hadn't grown before.

While I was attending the Garden Writers annual symposium in Portland, Ore., in September, I sat beside a representative of the Florida foliage industry on one of our tours and I became all fired up about the exciting indoor plants she described.

Then I got back home -- and life happened. I forgot about houseplants as I planted bulbs, got the container garden ready for winter, cleaned up the garden, and all that sort of stuff. Then the holidays -- and accompanying out-of-town guests -- took over my attention.

But then I was reminded of my desire to add some new houseplants to my collection. I looked around at the supermarket when shopping for the weekly groceries, and didn't find anything out of the ordinary. In fact, it was mostly the same stuff in different sizes and containers.

So I tried another supermarket and, while the selection was better, the stock was low and the plants common stuff I'd grown for years. I almost bought a gloxinia out of desperation -- at least it was blooming -- but I decided if that was my only criterion, I'd be better off getting a moth orchid at Trader Joe's.

Well, I kept looking -- at a greenhouse, a nursery, a flower shop -- and still didn't find what I wanted. I'm sure the plant for me is out there and I just haven't found it yet. But I never recall having to search much before when I wanted a new plant.

As it turns out, I wasn't the only one to notice a dearth of houseplants, and my area isn't the only one to experience it. The topic came up on a listserv I belong to. Others had also wondered what was going on.

But instead of just being resigned to the situation, Doreen Howard, the Garden Diva, set out to find the reasons. And here's what this well-known writer learned:

1.  The big box stores undercut garden centers drastically on standards like poinsettias last year and this year, so they ordered less from growers.  They can't make a profit on them.  The same holds true with the standards like dracena, pothos, sanseveria, etc.  Few houseplants are being ordered.

2.  Many of the house plants they are getting from Florida growers for the past few years come infested with mealy bug  and/or scale.  Those two insects quickly multiply and infest the garden center's entire greenhouse, no matter what steps are taken for prevention and control.  The plant loss rate is high, and consumers aren't getting good plants, which make them not buy again.  The spiral continues, as the garden center orders fewer and fewer plants from the growers.  One local garden center owner said he decided in late November not to order and stock houseplants this winter due to these problems.  He doesn't need the headaches to lose more money.  He only is stocking succulents, cacti, and a few orchids that he propagated.

3.  The hurricanes of 2005 wiped out many growers in Florida.  And the storms also hit Central America, where many of the growers had contract greenhouses to build stock numbers.  Much of the houseplant business went to China.  Then we had the oil price spike coupled with a failing economy.  Chinese-grown plants are more expensive now than was originally planned.  And the variety of plants available has been condensed in favor of producing huge numbers of the most ordinary plants.

Thanks, Doreen, for getting this information.

How's the houseplant situation in your area? Are you still able to find a good selection of interesting indoor plants?

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