Cover Khairil Izzuan

Rare plant collector, propagator and occasional seller Khairil Izzuan shares step-by-step pointers when starting your own rare plant collection

To most people, Philodendron is just a plant but to a growing community of rare plant collectors, parting with RM22,000 for a small Philodendron Spiritus Sancti is absolutely plausible (and in fact, happening right here in Malaysia). This worldwide phenomenon began during the pandemic when interest in greenery skyrocketed as people were home-bound and bored. Social media also helped drive the market for unusual varieties and with soaring demands came high prices. Sold by nurseries and also private propagators, prices can start start from RM80 for a Philedendron Horsehead to RM1,200 for a Monstera Albo.

Both these plants come under the Aroid family, which is a broad definition for plants from the Araceae family defined by their flowers borne on a type of inflorescence called a spadix. Alocasias, Colocasias, Syngoniums, Caladiums, Eppipreniums and Anthuriums also fall under this variety—yet not all aroids are created or at least priced equally. Being the plant family du jour, enthusiasts jostle to buy rare varieties of Aroids.

For Khairil Izzuan, COO of Smart Digital International Sdn. Bhd, his rare plant journey began quite unexpectedly. "Back in February 2020 (right before MCO started), I tagged along with a friend to pick his plant up from a nursery. It was a Monstera Thai Constellation. I never imagined that I would start collecting these rare plants until that very day," he recalls. "A lot of plants caught my eye, so I did some research (with the plant photos i took from the nursery). The more I dived in, the more fascinated I became. The following week I went to another nursery with the same friend and bought a Monstera Thai Constellation. The rest is history."

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Today, Khairil has accumulated hundreds of pots of his beloved aroids and is a respected authority on rare plants in the Malaysian plant community. He shares pictures of his collection, which he buys, propagates and occasionally sells, on his Instagram account. He also often organises events on IG Live where fellow plant enthusiasts discuss plants and share knowledge about their common obsession. 

Khairil explains he gets his information from YouTube, fellow Aroiders online, blogs, websites, and social media, especially Instagram. As for the gasp-evoking prices, he says that they are dictated by the demand and supply from the community.

"The rarer and more complex the process of propagating and caring for the plant, the higher the prices.For example, Philedendron Spiritus Sancti is highly valued due to its difficulty to propagate," he says. "A small mistake during propagation may cause the cuttings and the mother plant to die. Only highly experienced Aroiders can care and with luck, multiply it."

In fact, Khairil adds that there are now more Philedendron Spiritus Sancti in private collections than in the wild. If you're intrigued and don't know where to start, Khairil shares five tips on how to get started on your own rare plant collection.

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1. Find Your Genus

Philodendrons such as P. Gloriosum, P. Florida Ghost, and P. Florida Beauty are quite popular for their simple care but can be costly. Monstera, namely M. Thai Constellation and M. Borsigiana Albo Variegata (Variegated Monstera), has caught quite a following in 2021 due to its uniqueness.

As a beginner don't buy high maintenance plants with very particular needs, unhealthy plants, and fresh cuttings. A useful place to find out more about the species is YouTube. This may be the easier option for beginners if you have not found a community whom you can ask. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to ask when you find rare plants accounts online like Instagram through DM or in the comment section.

2. The Price is Right

Prices depend on rarity and how easily the plant can be propagated. If it is rare, and the process is complex, the price will be higher. Also it depends on how readily available the plants are. You can expect to pay from RM30 for plants such as such as Scindapsus Sp. and M. Adansonii which are easily found in local nurseries to RM45,000 (mind you, a full spec Myvi is only RM41,000) for a medium sized P. Billietiae Variegata or RM22,000 for an elusive P. Spiritus Sancti.

What’s reasonable? Beginners should expect to pay around RM50-RM300 for a rare plant. And these are some good beginner plants: Scindapsus Sp, P. Gloriosum, P. Melanochrysum, M. Dubia, S (Syngonium) Milk Confetti and S. Green Splash.

For experienced enthusiasts, the price should be worth the rarity and difficulty in propagating the plants. What’s too much? When it is more than what your wallet can handle.

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3. The Right Environment

When starting a plant collection, you need space, time, commitment, and lots of TLC. Not to mention sufficient cash flow to manage your newfound addiction. Fear not if you do not live in a landed property, you still can start a collection, although not all species would be suitable. A little research should be done to ensure you have the right plant with the right requirements. For example, Alocasia does not do well indoors.

With regards to time commitment, it really depends on the number and complexity of care. It can range from a few minutes to a few hours a day. 

4. Buyer Beware

Sellers come in the form of hobbyists and nurseries. For hobbyists, it is a better option to buy from them if you have a trusted contact, based on experience, friends or public reviews.

For nurseries, you can physically meet and handpick your future green babies. The best option is to consider buying from both. Some of my preferred sellers on Instagram are POKKOKS, Syara's Little Garden, and Pokok House. I also visit Pun Sam Nursery in Sungai Buloh whenever I can.

If you are looking to buy from overseas sellers, there are regulations that require both sellers and buyers to have phytosanitary certificates. There is also the concern of shipping duration, which, if not managed properly, can cause irreparable damage to the plants. I wouldn’t suggest beginners make overseas purchases.

How to separate a good seller from a bad one? Get recommendations from trusted friends and online reviews. A lot of it has to come from experience. As with any online transactions, there are also shady sellers where different plants or unhealthy plants are delivered, and additional costs are incurred by the time you receive the plants. Never pay upfront to untrusted or shady sellers. It is best to opt for COD whenever possible.

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5. Staying Alive

Once you get your rare plant, how do you keep it alive? Each plant has their own requirements to keep them healthy. We’ll take P. Gloriosum as an example. The requirements needed to make them happy are:

  • Lights – indirect bright light
  • Medium (soil) – well-aerated (aroid premix from local sellers), avoid soggy soil
  • Humidity – between 60 per cent -80 per cent should be sufficient
  • Fertiliser – Osmocote slow release fertiliser (NPK 13-13-13), applied once every three months
  • Watering – depends on where you place them, only water when the top layer is dry

The key point is to have the right knowledge before you purchase the plants. So prepare a plant care sheet like the one above. TLC, again, is key.

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