ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's a plant with a name worthy of an international conspiracy - the pink congo philodendron. It has leaves the color of bubblegum, and it's in the middle of a global scam that says a lot about how we live now. Arielle Pardes writes about it for Wired.
ARIELLE PARDES: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: Set the scene. This story takes place in a world that barely existed a decade ago - the world of plantfluencers (ph). Who are they?
PARDES: So houseplant sales have really exploded over the past couple of years. By some estimations, they've grown by 50% in the past three years alone.
PARDES: And where there's money, where there's a market, there are always influencers. So on Instagram and YouTube and many other social media sites, there is this burgeoning class of people who shows off their rare plant hauls through photos and videos.
SHAPIRO: And why are pink plants so popular in this world?
PARDES: You know, it's hard to say why the pink plants have become so popular, but people have had crazes over houseplants for centuries. In Victorian England, there was fern fever and tulip mania. And the sort of horticultural obsession of the moment just happens to be pink.
SHAPIRO: So you begin the story with a plant that really does exist, that really can be propagated and shared. It's called the pink princess. How did the pink princess become an Instagram celebrity?
PARDES: Well, the pink princess is a manmade hybrid developed by breeding two different types of philodendrons in the 1970s. And for a long time, it was a sort of unusual but ordinary houseplant. It sold for something like $6 per plant. And then over the past couple of years, these plantfluencers have become really interested. And basically, through visual sharing on Instagram and YouTube and Pinterest and places like this, it's become a real obsession. And so this plant that was once very inexpensive and sort of unusual has now become almost impossible to find. There are waitlists in the thousands for it, and these same growers who once charged $6 are now charging upwards of 150-, $200 for a four-inch plant.
SHAPIRO: OK. So the pink princess is among the top tier. Now introduce us to the character at the center of the conspiracy, the pink congo philodendron.
PARDES: So the plantfluencers love these pink plants. And you know, amid all of these waitlists and clamoring to get the pink princess, a new pink plant emerged called the pink congo. It looks very similar to the pink princess, except its leaves are a bit pointier, and they're entirely pink, as if they were dipped in paint. And then the rumor started to circulate that in fact, this wasn't a plant that was naturally variegated, like the pink princess, but one that had been chemically gassed in greenhouses to produce a plant hormone that would temporarily change the color of its leaves.
SHAPIRO: So the pink would go back to green.
PARDES: That's exactly right. Reports started to circulate within the plant community that people were spending hundreds of dollars on this and then sometime later finding that it had reverted back to an ordinary philodendron, and it wasn't something rare or special at all.
SHAPIRO: After collectors started revealing that the pink congo was not what it claimed to be, did it disappear from the Internet?
PARDES: No, it didn't. When I was reporting this story, I found some sellers who were still selling it for upwards of $80 on sites like Etsy. But now that it's become a little more known in the plant community, sellers are, you know, starting to disappear or at least lower their prices.
SHAPIRO: So as you point out, there was a tulip mania in Holland in the 1600s. Is this actually a new story or just a new version of a very old story?
PARDES: The obsession over houseplants is certainly nothing new, and I think it will never go away. Susan Orlean, in her reporting about rare orchids, you know, makes the point that collecting these things can be kind of like a lovesickness. There's something so beautiful and obsessive about collecting a living thing. And I don't think that will ever go away. But what has changed is the impact of the Internet on these obsessions and, indeed, the opportunity for scams.
SHAPIRO: Arielle Pardes is a senior writer for Wired.
Thank you for sharing this story with us.
PARDES: Thank you so much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.