Looking forward with tropical and indoor plants

By catering to low-maintenance lifestyles, eco-friendly interiors, and outdoor trends brought indoors, IGCs can translate consumer interest in tropicals and houseplants into sales.

Consumers continue to blur the lines between indoors and out. Apartment dwellers and downsizers seek solutions, as indoor rooms and garden spaces become one and the same. A new generation has entered the marketplace, looking for their first indoor greenery, as seasoned gardeners turn their attention back inside. After claiming outdoor living spaces, your customers are reclaiming indoor places and bringing top garden trends with them. Backed by the drive for greener lifestyles and eco-credibility, you can capitalize on houseplant popularity with your distinctive twist on leading trends.

Easy care and indestructible

From first-time plant owners to professed black thumbs, low- to no-maintenance greenery is central to their desires. As family-run Cornell Farm in Portland, Ore., expands its houseplant department, merchandising manager and buyer Berkeley Blatter points to Tillandsia air plants as a top trending item. “They’re so easy to care for. Just put them on bark, in a vase, or on a windowsill,” says Blatter, a fourth-generation family member.

Part of Cornell’s success with these easy-care options rests on Blatter’s perseverance to bring in air plants in bloom. With young shoppers already keyed in on the low-care greenery, Blatter says older customers don’t share the excitement until they see the plants in flower. “Many people don’t realize air plants bloom,” she explains. “We keep them at the register. It’s a super-easy, add-on sale.”

Logee’s Plants for Home & Garden in Danielson, Conn., saw rising interest in low-maintenance indoor plants coming. Long known for rare and tropical plants, they responded with their Indestructible Collection. Co-owner Laurelynn Martin explains the need behind the collection, which includes cacti, succulents, and resilient, air-purifying houseplants that thrive with minimal care. “People want a plant they can put in a room and forget about,” says Martin. “Plus, they clean the air. Why get a HEPA filter when they can have a plant?”

Edibles and pollinators

Soaring enthusiasm for outdoor edibles and even pollinator-friendly plants are following consumers inside. Martin reports edibles are a major trend among Logee’s container customers. The family-run business expanded into fruiting plants about 10 to 15 years ago and carries on its tradition of the uncommon in its edible varieties. “People are looking for unusual container edibles that are easy to grow indoors and can move outside, and we’re always promoting pollinator plants,” explains Martin. Native pawpaw trees are one example of uncommon edibles. “It’s a wonderful native, resistant to pests, with a banana-custard flavor to the fruit. People just haven’t caught onto it yet.”

Martin expects the interest in indoor edibles to continue. Logee’s hybridizing efforts include downsizing tropical edibles to container-friendly versions for apartment dwellers and small indoor spaces. Cashew trees and windowsill mulberries are in the works. Container-grown avocados, persimmon and citrus remain top sellers, too. “Any citrus — especially Meyer lemon — still attracts interest. They’re so easy to grow indoors,” says Martin.


Tried and true standards

While trends come and go, customers still look to dependable, time-tested favorites when greening up homes with tropical foliage. But plant-shopping millennials may not always recognize their mother’s houseplants. The names ring familiar, but new cultivars bring flair to the classics, with pink stems and stripes, brilliant color and distinctive foliage patterns.

Tropical wholesalers Wayne and Chris Mercer from Mercer Botanicals in Zellwood, Fla., stay the course with plants that have been the tropical plant industry’s foundation for decades. As Chris points out, “Garden center margins are tight. Our customers want plants that last on the shelf and that Joe Consumer can handle successfully.”

The Mercers are optimistic about indoor gardening trends and what renewed interest in houseplants means for their customers. “We sell to garden centers looking for high-quality plants,” says Wayne. “With the customers we sell to, feelings are more upbeat than they’ve been in a great number of years.” He adds, “We feel good about our niche and what we give to the world.”

Terrariums, minis and maxis

Size extremes also hint at where tropical trends are heading. Interest manifests in the very small and very large at Cornell Farm. Two-inch containers, especially tropical succulents, continue to grow in popularity. While the mini-succulents can go outside in summer, they’re intended to stay indoors. A renewed interest in terrariums goes hand-in-hand with the trend. “The two-inch plants are great for miniature gardens and windowsill gardeners,” says Blatter. “Terrariums are more popular now than fairy gardens were.”

At the other extreme, demand for large, tropical indoor trees is on the rise. At Cornell Farm, interior design trends and a healthy housing market spur the trend. “We’re one of the only nurseries in our area carrying taller, larger, indoor trees,” explains Blatter. While the store used to carry just three to four large pieces, 8-foot and larger indoor trees are now regulars. Interior designers discovered the store’s selection and Blatter’s willingness to special order and soon started tracking her ship dates. Designers looking for first chance at the large indoor trees now meet the trucks.

Upcoming excitement

With tropicals and houseplants, interest in rare and unusual plants never wanes. At Logee’s, begonias hold a special spot in the company’s history. Co-owner Byron Martin continues in the family tradition with a new begonia introduction from his hybridizing program. The orange-leaf plant, a rarity in begonias, is set to release sometime in 2015. Begonia ‘Autumn’s Ember’ is already stoking the fire among begonia enthusiasts.

Added excitement from the pink-bracted beauties known as Medinillas is also on the calendar for 2015. Ted and Carrie Oorsprong, Ontario-based growers and North American distributors of the plants, promise increased visibility and availability of Medinillas this year. New varieties are being trialed, but Medinilla magnifica and the double-flowering hybrid Medinilla ‘Dolce Vita’ top the list.

The distributors report that Medinillas will be out in the marketplace in force this year. Expect to see availability increase beginning in January, ramp up in February, and peak from March through Mother’s Day. “We’re going to grow hanging baskets,” says Carrie Oorsprong. “They’ll be the ultimate Mother’s Day gift.”

Selection, merchandising and education

Tropical and houseplant increases depend on investments in plants and people. As Cornell Farm has seen, it pays to cover both ends. “People come in and say, ‘I have no light.’ It’s important to be able to answer that with diversity, so people aren’t stuck with just one or two plants. We try to have a rotating breadth of plants to choose from,” Blatter explains. “We’re always remerchandising so the houseplant area constantly looks new – and grow tags come with everything. We want everyone to be successful with whatever they purchase.”

As a growing segment of your IGC business, tropical and houseplants introduce a new generation to the gardening lifestyle and help a generation of loyal gardeners reclaim interiors and something more. As Logee’s Martin reflects, “Gardening gets you away from today’s devices, so you can refocus on the amazingness of plants. I don’t know a better way to describe it. Fragrance, texture, color. I haven’t seen a video screen yet that can match that.”

Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer and former hort professional quietly reshaping the way people experience gardens and gardening.

January 2015
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