18 Apr Talking to Costa Farms about ‘Trending Tropicals’ — from Begonia maculata to Raven ZZ (and yes, when to expect Monstera ‘Thai Constellation’)
If you bought a plant during the last 60 years from a grocery store, hardware store, big box, or a range of nurseries across the country, there’s a good chance it came from Costa Farms. The Miami-based company is one of the biggest horticultural growers in the world. And today it grows the motherlode of some of your most sought-after houseplants — including Hoya carnosa ‘Rubra’ with its creamy leaves and blushing vines, polka dot plant Begonia maculata, the amethyst-blasted Tradescantia ‘Nanouk,’ the inky and aptly named Raven® ZZ and the ultra holey Monstera adansonii. Speaking of monsteras, plant parents across the internet are counting the days until Costa Farms releases its Monstera deliciosa ‘Thai Constellation’ — which will make that variegated holy grail not only more accessible but also much less expensive than the three- and four-figure prices you might have seen on Etsy.
Costa Farms started in 1961 when founder Jose Costa Sr. set out to grow fresh tomatoes in winter and calamondin citrus in the summer on 30 acres south of Miami. The experimentation soon went indoors, and the family biz began growing and introducing new houseplants. Today it grows more than 1,500 varieties from around the world, all collected ethically of course, and never taken from the wild.
We checked in with Costa Farms’ head of brand marketing Justin Hancock to learn more. Below, we chat about their most popular plants, some hot flora on the horizon (maybe buy now before the rush?), a sidebar about sansevierias recently being subsumed into the Dracaena genus (!!), when the stars might align for a certain galactic monstera hybrid, and what’s driving the houseplant infatuation.
When did you start noticing houseplants really take off? What were the plants, what did that curiosity look like in those early days, and how has that popularity evolved over the years?
We noticed the uptick start in 2017 and gain steam in 2018. There was increased interest in several of the plants we grow in our Exotic Angel® Plants collection, especially Hoya and Epipremnum varieties (like ‘Cebu Blue’ and ‘Manjula’). The questions/requests we were getting for these plants were coming from younger demographics, which was a shift from what we were used to seeing. One thing that really stood out was Raven® ZZ — it won a Best New Plant award at TPIE, an industry trade show. A few months later, we were getting emails like crazy from folks asking where/when they could get it. There hadn’t been that kind of enthusiasm about a new houseplant introduction. Another group of plants we saw a boost in interest in fairly early on, probably mid to late 2018 and into 2019, was varieties of Sansevieria (Dracaena, I guess, if you want to be technical) like ‘Moonshine’ and ‘Whitney’. Then it shifted to aroids, especially Philodendron and later Monstera. There was also the big lift in interest in Ficus lyrata there, too, that lasted several years.
Can we pull over for a second? About sansevierias recently being subsumed into the Dracaena genus a few years ago. (We like Summer Rayne Oakes’s explainer on it…even if we’re still in denial.) How are plant growers/sellers handling this reclassification?
It’s tricky when a well-known plant gets reclassified because, while we want to be accurate, we also don’t want to suddenly throw folks into a state of confusion. This is especially concerning at retail when a shopper might see plant tags in store and there’s no opportunity to help guide them or explain to them the Dracaena trifasciata they’re looking at is really the Sansevieria they’re looking for. So we don’t usually roll out reclassification changes immediately upon hearing about them. Plus, as a grower, changes aren’t immediate. When we do officially change a name, there are layers from the consumer-facing aspects of it, like the plant tags, to all the back-end changes that need to be made in the ERP system we use to track our crops.
I can’t speak for other growers on this one — each has their own system and way of handling things like this.
Tell us about your Trending Tropicals collection. What’s the most popular plant in it? What kind of memorable responses are you getting on social media about your houseplants?
With the surge in interest around houseplants, we saw the opportunity to help bring consumers more plants like Raven® ZZ that were commercially rare. I know the word ‘rare’ gets thrown around a lot, especially by marketing people, but I think ‘commercially rare’ is a more apt description. Trending Tropicals® is a collection of varieties that have been hard for the average plant parent to find locally that we think will excite plant parents across North America. In terms of popularity, Raven® (a sign of popularity is that it goes just by its variety name!), Scindapsus ‘Moonlight’, and Monstera sp. Peru are three of the biggies of the moment.
It’s really, really exciting to sign on to Instagram and see how many people are tagging us with their pictures and saying they finally found their wishlist plant. And on Facebook in many of the plant groups, people seem to be sharing with glee that their local store has particular variety X available. I’ve also been amazed at seeing how fast certain varieties have sold out at some stores. It’s not uncommon to see a particular variety completely sold through the first day or two after it’s unboxed and put out by the retailer. You definitely didn’t see anything like that five years ago!
Who does the traveling for sourcing trips? Where do you go, and what are some notable plants that have come from those trips?
We have a team of plant hunters, led by plantsman Mike Rimland. (More on him here.) Mike really does travel the world, including Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. He visits with breeders and plant collectors, goes to trade shows and garden centers, and sometimes on officially sanctioned plant expeditions in the wild. Most of our Trending Tropicals® varieties (both what we have out now and what’s still in the pipeline for release in 2022 and beyond) have come from these trips. We’re not the only grower out there, so Mike usually keeps specifics of his trips pretty close to the vest so as to not reveal his sources to other growers. You wouldn’t necessarily think about houseplants as being competitive, but there is a key advantage, especially with large retailer partners, to being first to market with a new plant versus being seen as a follower of plants and trends.
Why do you think people are so into houseplants right now?
We’ve seen several different motivational factors converging for different types of plant parents. Some people started getting into houseplants because they’re relatively inexpensive décor that instantly add a touch of warmth and life to a space. But unlike a new throw pillow or a lamp, they engage us because they’re living things. They respond to the care we give them and in that, connect to us on an emotional level. I remember seeing a study that highlighted how just having a houseplant was a factor that helped improve the lives of seniors in an assisted living facility. Our houseplants need us, and that’s good for our well-being, especially during the pandemic when so much seemed scary and out of our control.
I also think — and this is speculation on my part, nothing I can back up — that as people started getting into plants, something else happened. Seeing a lot of other people (who didn’t appear to be hardcore gardeners) being successful with plants lent confidence to folks who were curious or interested in entering the category, but felt held back. We’ve seen in research that fear of failure and the perception keeping a houseplant alive was too much work are barriers. Happily, if you have the right plant in the right place, it’s easier than most non-plant people think!
Have any plants surprised you with their popularity?
We know Scindapsus ‘Moonlight’ was going to be popular, but there was some surprise about how explosive its popularity was. A lot of introductions take a little time to catch on, but we were getting several emails a day from plant parents asking where they could find this variety almost immediately after the first crop landed in stores. One of the things that’s kind of frustrating on our side is that with new introductions, the first crops are always going to be more limited as it takes time to build up good stock of mother plants and develop a release cycle.
We’re not set up — and I’m not sure any large grower really is — to be able to release a new variety at scale on a short timeline. Especially when you’re propagating plants via cuttings and you start with, say 50 plants, it’s a good long while before you have enough mother plants to be able to ship out the hundreds of thousands you’d need for a national release.
Now to address the monstera in the room. ‘Thai Constellation’ has taken the houseplant world by storm, with some eye-popping prices on eBay and Etsy. Costa Farms has been developing its own for the mass market; what has that process been like? When and where will Monstera ‘Thai Constellation’ be available?
With every new variety — even if it’s a selection of a species we’re used to growing — there’s trial and error as we get the rhythm of that variety. We’ve been working with it for a few years now and look forward to releasing it in 2022. It will go out as a part of our Trending Tropicals® collection, and should be available to retailers across the US and Canada.
[UPDATE 11/3/21: ‘Thai Constellation’ has been pushed to an anticipated 2023 ship date, according to a recent Costa Farms blog post.]
What processes do you use to propagate rare plants like ‘Thai Constellation’ on a larger, more accessible scale? Is tissue culture one of the methods?
There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer as we use the best propagation process for any particular variety. It may be tissue culture or it may be good old-fashioned cuttings. We have a whole farm of stock (mother) plants in the Dominican Republic for a lot of our varieties, such as Raven®, Scindapsus ‘Moonlight’, Monstera adansonii, etc.
What plants do you think are coming next in popularity? And what’s next for Costa Farms?
What’s the next big thing? Our team is working hard to stay on top of that. I think anything notably different in genera like Epipremnum, Monstera, Philodendron, and Rhaphidophora are being sought after by plant parents. As far as what varieties of them will make it to the mainstream, it’s tough to say. We know that, in general, people can’t get enough of fun variegation so I suspect we’ll continue to see variegated or selections with different colors, such as aglaonema, come out that get folks excited.
What’s next for Costa Farms? I’m not at liberty to reveal any of our 2022 lineup at this time, but I can tell you there are a couple of selections that I’m really excited about and can’t wait try out. There are a lot of varieties in the pipeline for 2023 and beyond, so you’ll see some fresh new faces (many of which will be exclusive to Costa Farms) over the next couple of years.