Jocelyn Ho, also known as the Rare Plant Fairy, started selling plants during the pandemic out of her spare bedroom in Detroit. Now, Ho and a team of employees operate the business from two locations, with hopes of expanding across Canada. The Rare Plant Fairy offers more than 100 species—the world’s rarest exotic plants—with some starting at $35 and others priced well into the thousands. This is her story.
—As told to Tara De Boer
I love everything about life science. I studied birds, I had aquariums, I did reef research with the University of Toronto. But I never thought I’d be interested in plants to this extent.
I moved to Toronto at age two from my birthplace of Hong Kong. Growing up in Ajax, I would spend all my spare time in my yard, hunting for four-leaf clovers for hours on end. I even painted a small fir tree on the front lawn with my father in 1990. The last time I drove by, it was still there.
I always had houseplants as a kid (simple and low-value plants, such as African Violets), but my collection really blew up right before COVID-19. Being stuck at home, I had all this time to start collecting rare specimens. If I couldn’t go out, then I could bring nature in. The more I learned about plants, the more fascinated I became.
I had so many plants in the house that my husband started to complain about the space they were taking up, and the cost. To prove that it was an investment, I made some cuttings of my plants—a Monstera Deliciosa Thai Constellation and Philodendron Pink Princess—and sold them for $1000.
That was the seed money for the whole business. To this day we have not taken a single loan. I’m now known for the Monstera Deliciosa Thai Constellation plant, which we grow thousands of and sell over a hundred every week.
When I started the business, I went solely under my personal name, Jocelyn Ho. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy as a Chinese business owner to start out and sell through my own name. It can be difficult as a female and minority entrepreneur.
I would get a lot of questions, like the kinds of questions you would ask if you suspected a scammer. Where do you live? Can you send photos with your hand in them? I would do it, but it got tiring after a while. I needed an alias name, something memorable. People would send me their plant wish list and I would grant them these plants, so “the Rare Plant Fairy” seemed to fit the bill.
After getting my first degree in botany and biology from the University of Toronto, I jumped around, career-wise. I had a stint at a major fashion house. I did photography. I was a teacher, then became a speech language pathologist after getting my master’s degree in Hong Kong. This all sounds very random, but I’ve managed to incorporate the skills I’ve learned from all these different industries and pour that into this business.
Sustainability completely drives our business decisions. Our nursery is 100 per cent powered by renewable energy, and our shipments are now carbon neutral. We’ve partnered with Shopify to help calculate the carbon-emitted emissions from our shipping costs and then put that money into funding programs to capture and sequester the carbon.
Many of my plants are propagated and grown in Detroit, while some of the initial mother plants are acquired from places like Thailand, Indonesia, and South America. We either make cuttings or grow plants from the seeds we make to propagate. I also send my mother plants to our partner lab in Thailand to duplicate them, and we are in the process of building another lab in Detroit.
I am currently cultivating my own rare, exclusive plants. By hybridizing two plants together I can guess what the plant babies will look like, but won’t know until I grow them out. If it turns into something special, I get to breed the next generation and name that plant. I have a few of these plants that will be exclusively available by the end of the year, or by 2023.
Even before COVID-19, the trend of plant-keeping was on the uptick, but the pandemic definitely helped things along. People were stuck in their homes and wanted something to beautify their spaces with.
For plant enthusiasts, I suggest starting with something more common that you can get for about $10, to learn what your habits are. Some people tend to overwater or underwater their plants. Some people will love their plants to death. Most important is consistency in the amount of care you give to a plant. I would say when you’re just starting off, practise with a more common variety, then make plant care part of your routine.
We have our “rare plant drops” every Friday at 7 p.m. EST, which our customers now know to set their alarms for. We mainly sell online and currently supply to over 100 shops in the United States and two in Canada. We hope to grow our business more in Canada—it would be the dream to go back to Toronto and open up a shop there.