The succulents went silent


 Just a few years ago, succulents were the horticultural world's kings. Now, they're in the backseat, unceremoniously dethroned by the new royalties- the notorious aroids. What happened?

In a nutshell: Aroids and COVID-19.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In the years prior, up to 2019, succulents were the darlings of collectors and a sure money-in-the-bank for the great majority of growers. Everybody were hooked, from the most rabid squirrels to the greenhorns, from interior designers to casual shoppers who only chanced upon some whilst doing their rounds around the metro. Succulents are an informal group, encompassing an impressive range of families from the mighty Cactaceae to the ubiquitous Crassulaceae and Euphorbiaceae to the curious stapeliads from the family Apocynaceae, to specialized Aizoaceae. And then there are the caudiciforms and the honorary succulents from otherwise non-succulent families, such as in those of the Asparagaceae, Bromeliaceae, Gesneriaceae, and Moraceae, among many others. In terms of vegetative form, the succulents sit there at the uppermost echelons of botanical architectonic designs. It is no wonder, then, that such an almost all-encompassing informal alliance would capture the affections of anybody who wishes to keep plants. And yet, for all their sheer diversity, it is both inconceivable and incomprehensible to even think that just a few genera from just one family- the Araceae- would be enough to drive them to near obsolence. Even taking into account the ephemeral nature of fads, it seemed like aroids would be here to stay for quite a long time. These plants have been horticultural mainstays for a numbers of years before their massive global explosion, with interest driven in great part by the so-called plantfluencers. How bad is it for them succulents? Well, judging from the number of succulent producers and sellers who are now also selling (more like reselling) aglaonemas and philodendrons- it looks really bad.

Dorstenia gigas, a highly desirable subject in horticulture.
 

While it is easy to point to the plantfluencers as THE driving point for the aroids' prominence, the truth is that no influencer can possibly set anything in motion unless a confluence of factors has aligned at the right time. So how did aroids rise to power while the succulents went silent? Let me count the ways. Be aware though that everything that is written below is taken from nothing but my own lens.

1. COVID served everybody their jail time, but...

As people were stuck unwillingly in their homes, many turned to plants to liven up their living rooms. Many were yuppies who had money and plenty of time in their hands. Probably a good percentage dabbled with succulents only to realize what should have been very obvious from the start: succulents are not indoor plants. Particularly for the workforce stationed in the metro, space is at a premium. Units don't have expanses of lawns but there are huge windows which, at least in idea, is good enough for growing plants. In these filtered light situations, orchids, bromeliads, carnivores, AND succulents won't be intellectually sound choices, unless one employs grow lights in hefty wattages. Begonias would have been great, if not for their often substantial humidity requirements which would be bad news to the units' inhabitants, carpets, books, walls, cameras, and fancy phones. Enter the aroids. In-yer-face foliage of intricate patterns, outlines, and textures imbibing that jungle-y vibe from plants that will grow happily from light streaming through the windows. Sure, you may need grow lights as you expand your collection into the innermost corners of your abode and this is where Number 2 steps in.

 2. The rewards

All the money you spend on these plants, including the electricity that those grow lights suck is of trifle worry to the aroid grower because: one can easily recoup the expenses through propagations. Even immature philodendrons or syngoniums can be propagated, and each propagation can be sold or traded in as little as three weeks, if you are truly skilled. Lemme see you do that on an Agave or a Lithops. A sub-mature Aloe hybrid may give you 3 to 5 pups 6 months after acquisition, then perhaps an additional couple of months before these are large and rooted enough to be sold off. If earning through your plants is your goal, then you are going to need a LOT of aloes to make the enterprise worthwhile and self-sustaining, with you harvesting pups almost every week. Of course, if you are living in a condo unit then there is no way that it can be feasible. The story is different if you are into aroids. Taking into account the often stratospheric price tags that many aroids currently command, one can easily acquire more choice species or hybrids and cultivars by just placing these propagations under the swapping block. Laid off from your job? Plants that can gross you in the neighborhood of from 50 to 150 thousand pesos (1,029 to 3,087 dollars as of this writing. US) per month should be able to take care of that. I know of some who are earning close to a million pesos by just selling (alright, more like flipping) plants. Aroids have it well-covered, from aesthetics to financial rewards. No other plant family can promise an ROI in as a little as one month.

Photo taken just two months before COVID first struck in China. Succulents were still kings at this time.

 Meanwhile, in the world of succulents during the COVID age:

3. Terrible packaging

Succulent producers- at least here in the Philippines- were used to large PUVs hauling their plants and into major trading centers where these are gobbled up by the insatiable (that includes me). The plants were sent still in their black plastic seedling pots and wrapped with a piece of old newspaper. Upon arrival, the sellers only had to unwrap the plants and off they go to the shelves. Trading was brisk and utterly no-frills. When the lock-down came in March, it abruptly put an end to physical stores until the producers turned to social media to sell their plants. Unfortunately, a great number of them did not know how to properly send their plants via a courier. They sent their plants still in their seedling bags with moist- even wet- soil then wrapped everything in newspaper and dumped all these inside a plastic bag. The wails from the sea of customers who were greeted by an amorphous mush of soil, paper, and blackened remains of plants and spines must have delighted the devil. The weeks that followed saw a steep drop in the demand for succulents, affecting even the professionals who knew how to pack their goodies. Some of these pros are now also selling aroids.  

Backyard production of succulents in the highlands of Benguet.

4. Artificial pricing

Many of these sellers tried to ride the crest of plant mania by jacking up their prices a la aroids, probably to create the impression of dwindling supply. But for plants falling out of general favor, it did not work. Plus, these aren't aroids. People understood that the rise in prices does not reflect a shortness of supply- the plants were still very, very numerous from their points of origin and the customers aren't dumb enough to fall for that. A desperate and dismal decision from the part of sellers to bring back to life a subculture lounging on the ICU bed. Fortunately, these sellers came to their senses and the plants are now back to their normal price ranges. But all that after their most avid customers have discovered philodendrons and are now so into it that they cannot sleep without thinking of one. 

 5. Indifferent veterans

In several cacti and succulent groups I have unwittingly involved myself in, I noticed a gross shortage of involvement from the veterans. What often happens is that newer members are craving for information, and since no one of stature is willing to throw even just a few words, threads became a pissing contest among people who do not really know what they are talking about because they are as new to the collecting scene as any newbie that they are trying to teach. When you take out the alphas, the clowns at the lowermost rung of the hierarchy ascends until it all devolves into one comedy show kept afloat by bad jokes masquerading as truth. One might argue that these long-timers may only just be caught with other, sometimes personal, matters but hey, such often isn't the case in carnivorous, orchid, and aroid groups. Someone told me one possible reason for this indifference: that business sense dictates to them that the more plants dying in the hands of these beginners, the better it is for their business. What do you think? 


To be fair, the great legions of these novices are also to blame for the eventual atrophication of cacti and succulent groups. If posts you see everyday are people uhmm... flexing murky photos of their badly grown plants, of people posting and asking the names of the same plants every single day, of people touting monosodium glutamate as fertilizer and other 'advice' that only a drunk delinquent can conjure, then it's little wonder that a group that is meant to provide proper information withers away from too much garbage. At this point, the blame again shifts to the supposed veterans, the ones who created these groups in the first place. If they have taken a more proactive role in policing and filtering the sludge off their groups during its early stages then the situation might have been a bit different. One may say that that is too much work but hey, don't have kids if you don't want to be a parent. In the months leading to December 2019, many of these groups were only being kept alive by the same lazy zombies. The effects of the pandemic that struck was only the coup de grace. At this point, the interest in succulents began to spiral into an inevitable decline.


So, what now?

Like all fads, the aroid-mania will mellow down, but I don't see it happening soon. With so many species, hybrids, and cultivars that are still not within arm's reach of many collectors, whether price- or availability-wise- the craving won't die down yet. Currently, the only non-aroids to enjoy some attention are members of Coleus, Ficus, Fittonia, and Piper; Hoya following is steadily increasing and the carnivores are in an upward trajectory after a lull in popularity. Here in the Philippines, some true-blooded collectors attempted to reboot the succulent scene by bannering the aloes, most particularly the hybrids. However, it and the entire succulent subculture will probably have to wait until people are confident enough to purchase their succulents online, and perhaps only until they have satisfied their aroid cravings. That should probably be around the tail-end of the pandemic. But if it's any consolation, try to aggressively propagate your succulents if you have the space or the will. You'll never know when these plants will again reclaim their old spot.


 

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