Cover Photo: Irene Chen

In the first part of this interview series, we speak to two plant collectors who have transformed their home gardens into social media-worthy showcases of stunning specimens

Monstera. Philodendron. Syngonium. Not long ago, these words would be Greek to common language, but today they are codewords–cyphered passwords that are the secret language of plant devotees.

Whispers of a new variety of Monstera–broad leaves with unique ‘leaf fenestrations’ that are thought to be an evolutionary mechanism to capture scattered sunflecks under a shady rainforest canopy–can send this group of adherents in a tizzy. Lovingly posed photos of the impressive Philodendron Pink Princess–startling in its abrupt rosiness–can attract the same scrutiny and admiration as a Monet or a Rothko.

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Welcome to the world of plant collection in Malaysia. Once the bastion of a small dedicated population of plant lovers, the community has amplified in size since 2020, as lockdowns steered homebound individuals towards new hobbies. Amplified by social media and assisted by the proliferation of online trading platforms, plant collection has been elevated to a fashionable trend.

But more than just a collection of verdant pots to brighten up increasingly familiar four walls, there are those that delve deeper into this jungle, building up impressive collections of uncommon and even rare plants that fetch a cachet in the public domain.

This can translate into the monetary, where sought-after varieties of specific plants can exchange hands for eye-watering sums. Forget Bitcoin or NFTs; plants can be worth more than their weight in gold. What drives this and how will this evolve?

 

 

Take the Philodendron Florida Beauty, for example. With ornate leaves, variegated varieties of this–which refers to leaves with differently coloured zones–are highly prized. That the diversity of colours within a single leaf is the result of mutations or defects from varying levels of chlorophyll is besides the point. They are beautiful. And beauty invites value.

Amassing specimens like this can be the goal of a plant collector. Some do it for the joy, some do it for the chase, some do it for the attainment. There is value in that. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew which houses one of the largest and most diverse botanical collections in the world started as the personal exotic garden of Henry Capell, the first Baron Capell of Tewkesbury in the 17th century. The collections of these six Malaysian plant collectors are not yet of that stature, but one day they could be. And therein lies the appeal, mythology and potential of plant collecting.

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Irene Chen, The Advocate

“Rare does not equal expensive. A plant only becomes expensive when a large number of people want the same one at the same time, driving up pricing ridiculously. I also hesitate in promoting any particular rare plant as the dark side of this means that the more publicity they get, the higher the prices go and the faster they disappear from their natural habitat."

 

Plant publicity. But publicity nonetheless. It is a subject that Irene Chen is familiar with, as one of the most prominent faces in the Malaysian plant collecting community and the hand behind Leafing Around, her YouTube channel that is part-documentary, part-advisory and part-spotlight on the incredible world of plant collections, hers and others.

Instead of rare, Chen prefers the word ‘wow’, a moniker she bestows upon Licuala Cordata, a breath-taking palm with almost perfect circular leaves that is endemic to her native Sarawak and Begonia Chlorosticta, an otherworldly Sarawakian species that looks as if Seurat applied his pointillist brush to a leaf. It is said that this Begonia has not been spotted in the wild since 1967. In scientific parlance, this is called ‘extinct in the wild.’

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“I’ve started thinking a lot about the ethics behind plant supply, especially rare ones. Am I part of the problem, that could be leading to scavenging and poaching as a means of surviving through a crippling pandemic? But then, from a different angle, perhaps we are rescuing these plants from a habitat that could be destroyed for development or logging. Then you lose not just the specific plant, but the entire jungle. I used to give this little thought, but now I do.”

 

With that on her mind, Chen is much more discerning about what she brings home to her garden these days, not just in profusion and variety, but in her ability to care for them. There have been casualties in the past, ‘tuition fees’, she calls them, but the result is an astonishing garden that is as serene in its vibe as it is remarkable in its array. In this canvas, plants are the yin and the hardscape–the underlying non-plant structure–is the yang, and "together they form a balance and dance beautifully".

 

“The way I’ve put my plants together is to create a sense of identity for my home and living space. It is not the possession of individual rare or highly desirable plants that I am proud of. In fact, the reverse is true. I feel like some plants are discriminated against! So instead of talking about trending plants, I’d rather talk about those that have been overlooked–the Begonias, Platyceriums, Heliconias, Calatheas and ferns that are still reasonable in their availability and value.”

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Khairil Izzuan, The Connoisseur

“I think that when people fall in love with their plants, it is a permanent thing. With the lockdowns, plant collecting has taken greater prominence and more plant parents are ‘born’ every day. Some may stop as normal life resumes, but the community will have grown bigger and richer, nonetheless. I think that’s great, because it means our community becomes more diverse and unique. And there is more knowledge to be shared.”

Khairil Izzuan would know. After all, he was once a neophyte that became a connoisseur in that community. Describing himself as a ‘father of hundreds of pots’, what started as one of his few hobbies turned into a passion. Where others may strive for breadth, Khairil aims for depth. Housed solely in black pots, Khairil’s plants are those that he has specific confidence in keeping. In practice, this means mainly Philodendrons, while he avoids Calatheas, since they "don’t do well with me".

 

With a stark white brick wall as a backdrop, Khairil’s prized beauties are displayed akin to museum pieces–to be admired and to be coveted. And then they return to the safety of his greenhouse, where temperature and humidity are carefully monitored.

“My most striking memory is, without doubt, the first plant I ever brought home. I was anxious and I was scared. I checked on her four to five times a day just to ensure she was doing fine. Now, each of my plants is a snapshot in time. In my collection, my pride are my Monstera Borsigiana Albo and Colocasia Pharaoh’s Mask, which I received for consecutive birthdays, and my Alocasia Black Stem Variegata, which can fetch up to RM200,000! I’ve also recently acquired the Holy Grail of Philodendrons, the Philodendron Spiritus Sancti.”

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This brings up the question of value. Why are certain species and varieties so prized that they can command more than five digits in price? Part of it has to do with rarity and fashion, but Khairil also muses that the value of a plant also lies in knowledge.

“Of course, avid collectors are always trying to find unique and new species to add to their collection. But the higher pricing comes from the fact that the plant parent has also poured time and effort into committing and caring for the plant, and that intangible knowledge is what is transferred to the next collector along with the pot. This year, the Monstera Thai Constellation caught quite a following for its uniqueness. But it requires care. If plants were mass produced and sold cheaply, then disappointment may set in because the proper instructions are not imparted. With proper care, these lush big green leaves can turn any space into a calm and peaceful sanctuary in a home. But we all need to know what and why we are doing it.”

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