How the Pink Princess and the Pink Congo Scam Flourished Online

Jeannie Nguyen’s home is full of precious, expensive things, all of them rooted in dirt: the spidery tendrils of a philodendron tortum, the scaly leaves of a piper parmatum. There is an enormous variegated monstera with big white splotches, like the splatter on a painter’s jeans. There is a tassel fern, spiny as a pipe cleaner. Recently, she splurged on a super-rare monstera obliqua, a delicate plant with leaves like lace.

For Nguyen, horticulture is a hobby as well as a side hustle. Each rare plant she acquires can, if properly nurtured, turn into a business opportunity, by selling cuttings she gingerly takes to fellow collectors online. She conducts most of her sales through platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where her account @planthaul has a few thousand followers. “The value of one plant has risen so much that you have to look at it like an investment,” she says. Nguyen has seen the biggest returns from plants with shocks of color—specifically, pink. She has a stock of tradescantia fluminensis, a common houseplant with pink-striped leaves that grows like a weed. “You can cut it and it propagates even if you throw it in the trash,” she says, “but these cuttings sell like hot cakes. People just love pink.”

Of all the pink plants online, few are as prized as the pink princess philodendron. Its heart-shaped leaves unfurl toward the sun, with streaks of bubblegum pink the shape of a crescent moon. Horticulture Week called it a “must-have plant” in 2019, and as demand for the photogenic philodendron exploded, so did the prices. Plant enthusiasts like Nguyen will pay hundreds of dollars for a single pink princess, and wait lists from growers can form months in advance.

So when Nguyen noticed a new pink plant making the rounds on Facebook last year, she was intrigued. The pink congo philodendron’s leaves were pointy, not heart-shaped like the pink princess, but they had the same shock of bubblegum. Nguyen had never heard of the plant before, but already she saw it was approaching pink-princess-level prices. When she found a seller on Facebook offering a pink congo for $70, she nabbed it. If the pink princess was anything to go by, Nguyen thought, she could be buying in to the next big thing at a bargain. When her new pink congo grew big enough to sell the cuttings, she might even strike it rich.

What Nguyen didn’t know at the time was that her latest investment was unlikely to yield any viable pink cuttings at all. The pink congo is not a variegated plant, like the striking pink princess philodendron, but a Cinderella plant—one that would return to an ordinary philodendron in a matter of time. Another plantfluencer would later call it “a massive scam.”

Humanity’s magnificent appetite for rare and visually striking plants goes back hundreds of years. In the 17th century, tulip mania famously is rumored to have driven the price of a single bulb up to 10 times the income of an English craftsworker. Victorian England was home to fads like “pteridomania”—an apparently widespread obsession with ferns—and “orchidelirium.” The wealthiest sufferers of these crazes would commission expeditions to bring back exotic specimens for their collections from around the world.

Then, and today, the vast diversity of plants has made these botanical yearnings nearly insatiable. “Collecting can be a sort of lovesickness,” writes Susan Orlean in “Orchid Fever,” her New Yorker article about a modern collector-turned-thief. “If you begin collecting living things, you are pursuing something imperfectible, and even if you manage to find them and then possess them, there is no guarantee they won’t die or change.”

Orlean’s story, which turned into a book and later a movie, focuses on one flower in particular, the ghost orchid, describing the lengths people will go just for a chance to see it. Often they are foiled, she writes: “The species is temperamental, difficult to propagate, rarely seen in cultivation, hard to find in the wild.”

The pink princess philodendron is not rare for any of those reasons, really. The plant is a man-made hybrid, developed in the 1970s by breeding two different philodendron species. The pink splotches, called variegation, come from a genetic mutation. Growers must take cuttings from the plant to propagate new pink princesses, and only from the most variegated parts of a mother plant, which makes them finicky for commercial growing. It takes months of careful work until they’re ready to sell.

At Gabriella Growers, a plant nursery in Florida, Shane Maloy’s family had been growing the pink princess philodendron for decades. For the most part, as Maloy recalls, they would sell a few of the plants at a time here and there, with a 4-inch pot going for $6.50. Then one day, in 2018, a big wholesale order came in. “Before I knew it, we sold half of our [pink princess] plants in two months that spring,” says Maloy, who at 25 now runs the nursery. “Over the following months, I had daily calls from wholesale customers asking if we’d have a new batch ready.”

A plant’s growing popularity was one thing. Then a customer offered to pay Gabriella Growers two dollars more than the list price for each pink princess. That, Maloy says, led him to do something he had never done before, despite practically growing up in a greenhouse: “I Googled a plant for the first time.”

What Maloy found blew his mind. While he’d been busy with his hands in the dirt, the pink princess had become a celebrity, the star of a burgeoning “plantfluencer” scene where collectors can cultivate enormous followings along with their alocasias and monsteras. On YouTube, a series of unboxing videos had materialized, with people cooing over new pink princesses like newborn babies. On Instagram, those who were lucky enough to get their hands on a plant posted them proudly, posed in their homes like a prized artwork. On Etsy, the fandom had created a market for pink princess merchandise, like enamel pins and T-shirts. On Reddit, there were threads of desperate buyers, searching for the plant. Cuttings sold for over $100.

Sensing an opportunity, Maloy set up an Etsy shop just to sell the pink princess. He listed 15 pink princesses, and within 24 hours he sold out. “Then people started messaging me and said, ‘Hey, I know a ton of people who want to buy these. Can I add you to this Facebook group?’” He joined a few of the groups and started selling to people directly. Over the next few months, he raised the price from $6.50 to $50, then again to $100. Each time the plants came back in stock, he sold out immediately. By 2019, he had a waiting list in the thousands for the plant, at one point 5,500 long.

“The hype for rare plants has gotten out of control,” says Kaylee Ellen Urwin, who regularly showcases her own rare plant hauls on Instagram and YouTube. The accounts, which together have over 50,000 followers, double as marketing vessels for her online store, the helpfully named Rare Plant Shop. “The market for rare plants moves very quickly and many people are taking less time to consider their purchase because the plant is in high demand.” The demand, she says, is driven “almost entirely by social media.”

In the past three years, houseplant sales have grown by 50 percent, according to the National Gardening Association. It’s now a billion-dollar industry, and an increasing share takes place online. Plants that weren’t rare before are now in high demand. Growers like Maloy can’t just dash off thousands of these plants at once—it takes time to propagate and grow them—which has driven their price up even more. The monstera oblique sold for $10 a decade ago. Now, it can sell for over $2,000, according to a report from the Toronto Star.

“From a grower’s perspective, there’s gold in them hills,” says Curt Alexander, the president of Urban Jungle, a garden center in Philadelphia.

The incredible hype around rare plants has also attracted its fair share of poachers, thieves, and grifters. In 2018, for example, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife investigated cases where thousands of succulents had been taken from public land to be sold online for $50 each. “It’s a status thing,” Pat Freeling, the department warden, told The Guardian. “It’s become an exotic lotus flower succulent. Someone likened it to the next Pokémon.”

Online, plant fraud doesn’t even require getting your hands dirty. Sellers on sites like eBay and Amazon have listed “rare” plants, like the blue Venus flytrap or the strawflower cactus, which do not exist in nature. (The Venus flytrap gets its blue coloring from Photoshop; the cactus’ Xerochrysum flower is not actually in bloom, but affixed with hot glue.) Others, who offer bargain prices for the seeds of rare and difficult plants, have been reported to take the money and send birdseed instead. And then there are sellers who invent their own kinds of magnificent plants, like the pink congo.

One look at the pink congo philodendron was all Robert McCracken needed to realize something was wrong.

McCracken is a former art collector who, in his retirement, turned his obsessive tendencies toward plants. He moderates a popular plant group on Facebook, Planet Alocasia, for some 10,000 admirers of the plants with big, floppy leaves. Alocasias, like philodendrons and monsteras, belong to the aroid family.

Last spring, McCracken was helping a new plant seller build up some contacts in Asia, where growers for rare tropical plants are located. The new seller was looking for aroids—the family that philodendrons, monsteras, and pothos belong to—and mentioned to McCracken an interest in buying a pink congo philodendron. “I hadn’t heard of it,” says McCracken. Still, people regularly create new varieties of plants through breeding, so he brushed it off. He says his seller friend bought one, for around $40, and then resold it on eBay for over $200.

That’s when McCracken saw a photo of the pink congo. Right away, he says, “I knew it was a fake plant.”

The telltale sign was the leaf. Pink princesses grow with swashes of pink on their leaves, and only when a grower is careful to propagate the parts that are most highly variegated. (A pink princess grown from the mostly green parts or left outside of bright sunlight won’t look very pink at all.) The pink congo, on the other hand, shot out entirely pink leaves, as if dipped in bubblegum pink paint. Nature didn’t make plants like that, McCracken says, which would be suicidal.

Variegated plants, like the pink princess, get their differently colored streaks from a genetic mutation. They can be pink, yellow, or white. (Some plantfluencers refer to these white-streaked plants as albos, “which makes my skin crawl,” says McCracken.) When the plant starts putting out white or other colors, it relies on the remaining green parts to absorb the chlorophyll needed for the plant to survive. That’s why most variegated plants have stripes or splotches of different colors, rather than entirely white or pink leaves. “If that happens and you suddenly have a vine that’s only putting out only white leaves, then eventually, as the old leaves die off, there’s nothing producing green anymore and it can’t live,” says McCracken. “An albino plant is a dead plant.”

Curious about the pink congo’s origins, McCracken started researching. On Google Scholar, he found an Indonesian web page that detailed the process of artificially pinkening the leaves on philodendrons by gassing greenhouses with a chemical to stimulate ethylene production. Ethylene is a plant hormone that plays a key role in many naturally occurring processes like ripening fruit, but in this case it seemed to be used for less natural “floral effect.” McCracken believes the pink congo was originally developed for events like weddings or quinceañeras, where an all-pink arrangement—even if artificial—might be the goal, and he still thinks it’s a good product for those situations. But when the pink princess became a hot commodity, it appeared to become a way for some sellers to artificially inflate their earnings.

Over the summer, McCracken posted a warning on Facebook. “I’ve just finished researching the product and process that induces the temporary pink color in philodendron pink congo,” he wrote. “The product is a form of Auxin, that, when applied as instructed, ‘stimulates ethylene production in high concentrations’.” He urged people to share his post, whether privately or in their own plant groups. “Help prevent disappointment for enthusiastic buyers and help avoid damage to the reputation of well intentioned sellers.”

When Kaylee Ellen Urwin saw the post, she was shocked. She had purchased several pink congos to sell in The Rare Plant Shop, paying around the same price as the pink princess, she recalls: “around £150 for a fairly small plant.” Like Jeannie Nguyen, the plant collector on Instagram, Urwin was told that the pink coloring was natural, and had no expectation that the pink leaves would one day fade to green. Now she was worried her pricey stock was a fraud. “I didn’t really want to take any chances given my reputation on Youtube and the fact that The Rare Plant Shop was a brand new business,” she says. “I decided to cut my losses and give away the plants to friends instead of selling them.” Then Urwin made a post of her own on her Instagram account.

Urwin believes she and other shops were intentionally misled about the rarity of the product in order to create an artificial demand in the market. “There is no reason people should be paying triple digits for these plants. It’s insane,” she says. “Given that its main selling point is that it is pink, customers will certainly feel scammed when it permanently turns green if they weren’t informed.” Ultimately, though, Urwin decided to keep her pink congo. It stars in the first episode of her new series on YouTube called “Dish the Dirt,” which investigates the “misdemeanors of the plant world.”

Many pink congo sellers who are still online have since added disclaimers about the leaves losing their pink. One such listing on Etsy still fetches upwards of $80. I also found several sellers on Instagram who did not include disclaimers on posts about pink congos, although when I reached out they confirmed that the leaves would eventually revert to green. One of the sellers also lowered their price to $15 after being contacted.

When asked about how its policies cover cases of a seller inaccurately describing plants or seeds in general, Etsy directed me to its buyer policy, which says that “Although Etsy is not directly involved in a transaction between a buyer and a seller, we provide a case system in the unlikely event that your order does not go as expected.” Facebook, which also owns Instagram, pointed to its policies for items sold on Marketplace, and said people can also report sellers from private groups who are selling fraudulent merchandise.

The pink congo may have left a sour taste for some in the online plant community, but the pink princess remains in high demand. Maloy, who brought his family’s wholesale operation online, ships about 1,500 pink princess philodendrons each year at $125 each. With the funds from last year’s preorders, he was able to build a new 3,000-square-foot greenhouse to hopefully grow even more of them. Currently, his supply of pink princess philodendrons are on backorder.

Nguyen, meanwhile, says her pink congo is still putting out pink leaves, a full year after she bought it. She won’t be able to propagate it—not with pink leaves, at least—but she’s liked having it in her house for all these months. She’s enjoyed it so much that she’s added two new artificially pink plants to her collection: a pink melanochrysum and a pink variegated billietiae, both of which get their coloring from chemicals.

The new additions are “fake,” Nguyen says, but as long as the sellers are transparent, she doesn’t see the demand for pink dying down anytime soon. Plus, the melanochrysum is a real beauty. “If it were to revert back to green, to me, it’s still so beautiful,” she says. “To have a pink version is just one step cooler.”

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