Que Lam stood in the middle of the busy plant sale at Leaf and Spine and gazed longingly at a rare white variegated Monstera borsigiana albo variegata for $275.
Excited, she pulled out her phone and texted her husband.
“I gave you two daughters,” she wrote. “Can I please buy this plant?”
His response was not as enthusiastic: “Walk away.”
As passionate millennials, Gen X- and Z-ers tried to get a look at the rare alocasias, philodendrons and anthuriums, Clarissa Cortez, 24, of City Terrace, consulted with her roommate Jacob Barrios over Facetime.
“He is out of town and sent me screenshots of what he wants,” explained Cortez, who stood in line for an hour in the hopes of purchasing an Anthurium villenaorum to add to Barrios’ collection of 200 plants.
These sales — or “plant drops” — have become a regular event at Leaf and Spine, a tiny plant store specializing in rare varieties that are hard to find elsewhere. Advertised on Instagram only, the sales draw people from all over the Los Angeles area; others come from as far as Utah and Arizona.
Leaf and Spine owner Dustin Bulaon, a plant collector with more than 1,000 plants, opened the store a year ago after becoming frustrated at the lack of diversity at local stores.
“We would hunt through every single nursery in town to try and find unique plants,” Bulaon said. “We got the idea for the store after getting involved with different growers. We started finding things that we didn’t know existed. The access made us want to specialize in plants that are really unique.”
Bulaon’s instincts have paid off at a time when news headlines have us looking for comfort: Houseplants sales are booming and the popularity of Instagram plant influencers is at an all-time high.
Prior to the sale, plant collectors waited in line for more than an hour to be the first to enter and talked of purchases from Thailand, the Netherlands, Indonesia and Ecuador. They come here, they said, for the begonias, cycads, caudiciforms and rare succulents and cactus that Bulaon and his girlfriend, Ernestine Segura, regularly stock.
For Borin Hov, 25, a pharmacy student at West Coast University, plants offer a way to connect with others and cope with his studies. “It’s a cool hobby,” Hov said of the 120 plants he has collected over the past eight months. “It’s stress-free. It keeps me busy. And the plant community is so welcoming.”
Indeed, when Denise Brown, 35, arrived after a plant swap at Folia Collective, she greeted Hov with the familiarity of a friend: “The Anthurium metallicum, Borin? But you already have two.” (Hov, who studied cardiology on his iPad as he waited in line, ultimately left with an Anthuriam regale, among others, after spending $485.)
For Brown, such enthusiasm is about more than just the plants. “I started collecting three years ago,” she said. “At first it was to connect my home to nature. It’s calming. When I lay in bed, I can appreciate the sun, the plants and the water from my humidifier.” She also started a group chat for more than 30 plant lovers on Instagram, who now meet offline. (She left with a Hoya sp Vietnam for $30.)
Bulaon, who is 32, said he tries to keep up with trends, including the current demand for aroids (pothos, philodendrons, alocasias, ZZ plants, aglaonemas, arrowhead vines). “Our phone will ring nonstop for the variegated monsteras,” he said. “The younger crowd are into tropicals, and aroids are especially hot. People like the fact that aroids don’t grow here. They want to change their environment.”
Collectors have been known to pay thousands of dollars for plants, Bulaon said, especially at places like Desert Creations in Northridge and the Tropics in West Hollywood. Facebook groups host rare plant purges that cater to collectors. "That’s where I see the most ridiculous prices," Bulaon said.
Hank Jenkins at the Plant Provocateur in Silver Lake hosts similar rare plant sales that he announces on Instagram. Longtime nursery owner Mickey Hargitay Jr. said he tries to keep up with trends, subject to availability. "Growers need time to plant crops," Hargitay said. "Social media moves much faster than plants can grow. We have done our best to keep some of the hard-to-get plants. An occasional variegated monstera might make its way in, but it isn’t too long before it's sold and off to its forever home."
Customers flock to the Highland Park store for the rarities, and the expert guidance provided by Bulaon and Segura. “Tropical plants can be fussy,” Bulaon said. “One customer purchased a variegated monstera cutting from Indonesia for $450. It was dropping leaves and wasn’t healthy. I helped her repot the plant because I felt badly for her."
Lucca Dana-Coulon, 20, who raises exotic cockroaches and snakes and has a quarantine tub for his plants at home, isn’t surprised by the prices. "I paid $250 for a monstera cutting that I had to propagate," he said. “I love this shop because you can find really cool plants that you won’t find at Home Depot.”
As Lam prepared to leave, the Monstera borsigiana albo variegata was still available.
She may have “walked away” for the moment, but she won't give up.
"You can’t go wrong with plants," said the landscape designer. "All of us enjoy coming to these events. I want that monstera. I will get it. And the moment I do, I will be complete."
Leaf and Spine
Where: 5440 York Blvd., Highland Park
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, but check before you go for any changes.
Contact: (323) 257-5323, @leafandspine