Bidding war

Brian’s Botanicals auctioned off the first sale of its new Colocasia ‘Redemption’ and netted more than 12 grand.

Brian Williams and his wife Sarah operate Brian’s Botanicals in Louisville, Kentucky. The pair specialize in tropical plants, including some rare exotics, which are sold online and through their garden center. Brian selected Colocasia ‘Redemption’ out of a field of some 5,000 plants. When he saw the black leaves and the neon pink blotch, he was floored. In January, Brian auctioned off the first plant, and in a surprising turn of events, the winning bid was an incredible $12,525. We caught up with Brian to find out more about his selection and the auction.

Nursery Management: What’s the backstory on Colocasia ‘Redemption’?

Brian Williams: It’s kind of a long story! I’ve been breeding elephant ears for the last 25 years (Alocasia, Colocasia and Caladiums). It started out as a hobby. I live in Kentucky, and we can get very cold winters here. I got tired of always having to take all my elephant ears in for the winter, so I started breeding them for hardiness. I have always had a hobby, even as a young kid. When I have a hobby, it consumes most of my thoughts, time, and energy. That made me a bit of an odd kid.

Growing plants is in my DNA. My father started a nursery in our backyard when I was a kid, and it was my job to water all his plants. Which I must admit, I didn’t do a very good job of because I was too busy daydreaming. He later moved to our current location. He was always collecting odd plants but mostly palm trees. Some of the palms at our nursery he started from seed and has had for 40 years. My uncle also owned a nursery in Arizona, and he was obsessed with cactus. So, it seemed at some point my interest would turn to plants.

When I was 12, I got interested in carnivorous and pond plants because I had some pet turtles that needed a really cool habitat. I was 17 when I became interested in aroids or Araceae plants in the Arum family, which includes Colocasia, or elephant ears. I joined the International Aroid Society and began bugging all these old-time plant collectors that lived in south Florida for information and plants. After collecting aroids for seven years, I found my interest fading because I had every plant on my wish list. Around this time, I visited John Banta’s nursery in Florida and took a tour of his collection. He had a ton of new plants that I had never seen before. I asked where they came from, and he said many of them he had bred. He taught me how to breed plants, and as soon as I got back to Kentucky, I started hybridizing. There was a lot of trial and error in the process, but it was fun and exciting.

I always breed plants that I want to grow in my own garden. It is fun to dream up a plant and then go to work making it. I would sit down and draw the plants that I wanted to make. I would pick specific traits such as hardiness to focus on. That plus my drawing would keep me focused and headed in the right direction. Some of my Colocasia hybrids have taken 10-plus years to make.

Every year I have new batches of seeds to grow, trial and enjoy in my garden. It was a hobby with endless possibilities. Years later as more and more traits came together, we now have Colocasia ‘Redemption’ PPAF. It might have taken me 12 years to make, but it was worth the wait.

Photos courtesy of Brian’s Botanicals

NM: When you first saw it in your breeding program, do you remember what you immediately said/thought about it?

BW: I had a field with around 5,000 plants in it and around a third of the plants were black. I started to mental cull the 100 hybrids that were showing pink veins. I made sure to watch each of these hybrids almost daily to see how they were changing as they matured. Colocasia ‘Redemption’ PPAF was one of these plants. One day ‘Redemption’ shot out this leaf that was spectacular and was the most beautiful pink color that ran all the way out to the edge of the jet-black leaf. It was amazing.

I wanted to get a second option about it, so I took my dad to the hybrid field to show him the plant. I kept him looking in the wrong directions so I wouldn’t spoil his first look. He turned and looked right at the plant and said, “Holy *$%@.” At that point I knew it had to be good.

NM: What spurred the idea for an auction?

BW: I started out selling and auctioning plants on eBay. It is a fun and exciting process. Auctions have become popular again in the market. My friend Enid from NSE Tropicals really encouraged me to start auctioning plants on my own site like she does. We have been friends for years and both started out selling plants on eBay.

NM: Did you have a minimum bid or a reserve in mind?

BW: Yes, there was a reserve for the auction, and it was quickly met.

NM: What were you expecting from the auction? Did you think there’d be a lot of buzz and a bidding war?

Sarah and Brian Williams travel the globe to find unusual plants.

BW: To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to expect. Sarah and I had been working on the auction for two months straight. I had to load all the software into our site and make sure it was running correctly. Something as simple as getting the site to send out text updates for the auction took two weeks to complete. Once we had tested everything a million times, Sarah started to promote the auction through social media and our newsletter. We had around 6,000 people see the “trailer” for the release on our YouTube channel. We wanted everyone to know the auction was happening, but we didn’t know if we could reach everyone that was interested in time.

I am just glad it all went as smoothly as it did. The website crashed as soon as the auction was over! Our webhost warned us to upgrade as we overloaded their server with the traffic during the auction.

NM: Tell me about your reactions watching those bids come in.

BW: Well, for me, I left the room when the auction had 15 minutes left and tried to keep my blood pressure down. Sarah would yell from the room every few minutes. Then she would crack the door to give me an update. We had this setting on the auction that if someone bid in the last 5 minutes it would reset the clock with an additional 5 minutes. We did this so someone couldn’t use bid sniping to jump in and get the plant at the last minute. This caused the auction to go on for an additional 45 minutes. I sat in the kitchen and tried to occupy my time as it was just too intense for me to watch. Sarah manned the computers until the very last second and came and told me the good news.

NM: What did the winning bidder receive?

BW: He received a rooted plant in a 4-inch pot with four leaves. We had photos of both the mother plant and then the plant that was being auctioned on the auction page. We are very excited to get the plant to its new owner. Let’s just say there will be lots of insurance on that package.

Colocasia ‘Redemption’ features shiny, black foliage with a neon pink blotch that grows larger and radiates outward as the plant matures.

NM: How will you protect your intellectual rights on this plant?

BW: The process of protecting this plant worldwide has already been started. We have an amazing team in place that will take care of all the legal stuff and keep the plant safe for years to come.

NM: Are the proceeds going back into your breeding program?

BW: Yes, I have recently bought more land and greenhouses to expand my work. I breed many other plants that will hopefully be on the market very soon. I enjoy rare and very showy plants including houseplants, so hopefully more of these will be released soon.

NM: Is this irrefutable proof that plants REALLY ARE valuable?

BW: I think plants, to me at least, have always been very valuable and an important part of my life. When plants were not popular, I still had a huge collection. For many years it was not profitable at all, and I had many people question why I would keep so many plants that nobody even knows or could even sell. Now that has all changed and people find these rare and unusual plants interesting, beautiful, and valuable. It makes me happy to see so many people falling in love with plants like I did.

NM: How can other breeders and growers be inspired by the success of this auction?

BW: It’s just a good example of hard work paying off. If you are alone in your garden right now breeding plants, just know that your hard work will pay off, too.

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