Would you buy rare plants on eBay?

When I was a young horticulturist just revving my engines, my goal was to own my own retail garden center. I fell asleep at nights planning what it would look like. My college training headed me either in that direction or toward being a greenhouse grower. Well. It may be a bit late in the game for those dreams. I think I’ll stick with the one that I have.

Our country was built on the backs of local business people. They were (and still are) your neighbors and friends – people who knew you by name and who counted on your business to provide for their families.

So why would I ever support buying plants on eBay? Because there are plants (and occasional products) there that you just can’t find anywhere locally. I know because I’ve spent decades trying.

Most folks think only of Aloe vera when the topic turns to “aloes.” Truth is, you’ll find scores of species listed on eBay. These are just part of the ones I have bought. Click image for larger view.

I become obsessive about my plants. I fall in love with a particular type of plant and before long I’m trying to collect as many of them as I can humanly find. That’s how I ended up with 500 varieties of daylilies. And then 100 types of Rex begonias. And then 400 varieties of haworthias and 100 types of aloes. 100 types of dwarf bromeliads. I have 35 varieties of hollies out in our landscape, and I’m helping our hometown (McKinney) find and grow all the known varieties of crape myrtles (somewhere beyond 125).

In the process of that last project, we’ve planted more than 40,000 crape myrtles in the medians, school grounds, commercial landscapes and most of all, the 30,000 that we’ve given to McKinney ISD 5th graders on the Friday before Mother’s Day each year for the past 17 years.

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My first photo of a stapelia was taken almost 60 years ago. It sits here on my desk. And on the right is a screen capture of the stapelias listed a while back on eBay. It just goes to show how diverse they are. Click image for larger view.

Here’s how the collections have evolved…
One of my first conquests was the great group of plants called stapelias, or starfish flowers. They’re in the Milkweed family, but you couldn’t tell it just by looking at them. They’re aptly named by their flowers’ looks and shapes, but in addition to their unusual blooms, they also have an uncommon and unpleasant aroma. They smell like decaying meat, and they’re pollinated by flies.

There were 156 active “stapelia” auctions on eBay as of 10 A.M. today.

The aloes came next. As I mentioned, my high-water mark was 100 different types, although some outgrew their surroundings. There are tree-form aloes that grow to 20-25 ft. tall. I didn’t read the descriptions and names carefully enough when I bought them. Silly was me! Let the record show that as of 10 this morning there were 897 aloe plants up for auction on eBay. (I had to combine the word “plant” with “aloe” to get away from gels and all the other concoctions made from Aloe vera in my matches.)

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My favorites, just for their exotic beauty and ease of growth, are haworthias. These are just a few of the 400 types I have had in my collection. Click image for larger view.

And then there have been my pride-and-joy plants, my haworthias. Almost all of them came from eBay, and most of those from California. Succulents, it seems are really concentrated along the Pacific Coast. People use them freely in landscapes and patios.

I could start my collection all over again just from eBay, because currently there are 980 individual listings of haworthias.

More recently I’ve turned to bromeliads, typically the shorter, more spreading types. This great group came from a big-time collector in New Orleans. I found him on eBay, of course. Click image for larger view.

eBay plant-buying tips…
• Know the exact name of the plant that you’re seeking. It doesn’t need to be the botanical name.
• If you don’t find a match, try alternate names or alternate spellings.
• Always search in the singular. You’re buying one plant, and that’s how they’ll be listed.
• Check the feedback on each vendor. You really want to do business only with someone with a satisfaction rating approaching 100 percent. Anything less than 98 or 99 percent needs to be checked out.
• Check the vendor’s location. That becomes important as we near freezing weather.
• Read the description carefully. Sometimes with plants like stapelias and other succulents a vendor will photograph a mature specimen. They will explain in the description that you’ll be getting a smaller plant or even an unrooted cutting. Out of more than 1,000 purchases I’ve made off eBay, the only one where I’ve been disappointed was where I didn’t read the description carefully enough.
• Contact the vendor if you have questions.
• Be sure to leave feedback after the plant arrives. The vendor will be doing the same for you.
• Happy shopping!

And, most importantly, remember that your best bargain of all will be if you can find any of your prized plants locally. They’ll be larger, less expensive, without shipping fees, and you’ll be supporting local business.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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