The Real Differences Between a $5 Plant and a $50 One, According to a Plant Pro

updated Nov 10, 2020
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As a plant lover, I often see popular houseplants like pothos hanging for sale at bodegas or corner stores, but then I’ll see them in plant boutiques or online for a much higher price. 

I’ve picked up beautiful plants in both places. About a year ago, I purchased a cheap croton plant at a grocery store that is alive and well, and even bloomed this summer. A friend of mine ordered one online for nearly three times the price, and it died a few months later. 

It made me wonder: What’s the real difference between one of these $5 plants and a $50 (or more!) plant of the same kind? And is it ever worth it to pay more?

Rita Randolph, garden expert and owner of Rita’s Rare Plants in Jackson, Tennessee, says the answer to that question depends on the person and their level of plant expertise.

“Being a plant collector, I’m looking for the thing I don’t have,” she says. (I’ve seen her greenhouse. She has A LOT of plants.)

“Mass production should lower the price,” says Randolph. “You really need to do your homework before you buy an expensive houseplant.”

Here’s what she says you should know when it comes to comparing the same plants with vastly different price tags.

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Be wary of paying for size

Justifying a higher price tag because the plant looks so full and thriving? That’s not always a good sign.

“Bigger is not better when it comes to a houseplant. Find an established plant, but not an overly grown one with a lot of foliage,” says Randolph. That means you should look for a plant with healthy leaves and signs of growth.

A wildly bushy plant might seem appealing, but that size could indicate that the plant has peaked. When you move it into your home where it’s hit with a new climate, it might start looking worse rather than better.

Randolph says when purchasing philodendrons or fiddle leaf figs, start with plants that have fewer, bigger leaves. This will help you cultivate an atmosphere of growth in your home, rather than one of disappointment if you buy one at full foliage and it ends up dropping a lot of leaves upon arrival in your house.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Cheaper plants are more likely to come pre-fertilized

As far as mass-produced popular houseplants such as snake plants? Randolph says there’s no harm in buying those from a national chain, but beware that sometimes they add a layer of time-release fertilizer to the topsoil. You’ll want to remove that if you buy during a cold season when it’s not time for fertilizing—otherwise, you risk damaging your plant with fertilizer burn.

Thankfully, this is an easy fix to make. Randolph suggests removing the plant from its grow pot, shaking off the excess fertilizer and either placing it right back in its grow pot, or using your own soil and planting it in a similar-sized pot right away.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Local shops are more likely to have plants acclimatized to your area

Most houseplants are tropical plants, so you’re going to want to buy from reputable nurseries or retailers that acclimate them to shadier conditions. That way, the plant can live happily in your home.

Plant parents are probably familiar with acclimating their plants to the sun when moving them outdoors for the summer, but reputable nurseries will spend months acclimating tropical houseplants to lower light conditions to prepare them for life in your home. 

If you buy from a local plant shop, which might also have higher prices, it’s likely this plant is already acclimated to your area. Keep this in mind when buying from big sellers or online—while it might be cheaper in the beginning, it’s possible that the plant will struggle in your home.

Look for online stores with high ratings and good customer support

If you’re buying online, it’s important to do your research. How’s the customer service? Is there a plant health guarantee? Follow-up care consultations? 

There are many online plant sellers offering excellent customer service that might make a higher price point worth it—especially for new plant parents that might need a little more hand-holding.

Randolph warns that if you are buying from an individual online seller, not only should they have good reviews, but you should really be a plant nerd before spending too much money on a so-called rare plant. She refers to horticulturist Tony Avent’s famous line: If you get a rare plant and you propagate it, it’s not rare anymore. Beware online sellers charging exorbitant prices for these.

No matter the price, a plant needs the right conditions to thrive

It doesn’t matter whether the price tag is $20 or $200, at the end of the day, your home’s light (south, north, east, west) and conditions (blazing radiators or drafty windows), as well as the level of your green thumb (or lack thereof), will play the biggest factors into whether your plant thrives or barely survives in your home. An expensive plant can’t overcome poor conditions any better than a cheap one.

Other things to keep in mind no matter the price point: always check for bugs. When checking out the foliage, make sure to look underneath the leaves for any signs of mites or mealybugs. No cheap price point is worth bringing those into your home.

So: Is it ever worth it to pay more for a popular houseplant? If it comes with excellent customer service and a cute planter, maybe! But if you’re confident in your green thumb, you can make a throwaway grocery store plant into a blooming baby with the right care and conditions. The decision is up to you.