He hardly looks like a man with a green thumb, let alone a whole garden. Darren Loke, who is behind Omitir, Veblen Supplies and handles operations at Aa Furniture, collects plants—mostly aroids and caudiciforms.

His interest in them was first piqued during his time with his ex. She had plants, and in those heady days of romance, he lapped up her overspilt passion. He started his own collection; a few here and there initially. Until his hobby blossomed into an obsession. When the pandemic hit, he was plunged even deeper into his garden.

“Obviously, when you start a hobby, you want to explore and understand the craft,” Loke explains. “There are plants that grow around us but then you discover others from the highlands [ecosystem] or more temperamental ones like cold-loving plants that won’t survive in Singapore. It came to a point where I had to concede to only growing plants that can thrive in our climate.”

Before the use of hashtags, interest in plants stopped short of simply knowing their general nomenclature, not even their genus. When it comes to describing a tree, most can say that it has leaves and is covered with bark, but falter if pressed for specifics.

“This would be my most expensive purchase. The plant takes decades to reach a certain size and is hard to root. If you were to get one with a 30cm trunk, it could set you back between SGD1,700 and SGD3,800. I got one for about SGD850 but it died. It’s hard to grow but I took it as a challenge. Of the three that I bought, only one has survived. They are succulents so they love dry conditions. You probably have to water them just once a week so they are quite low maintenance. The only downside is that they need a lot of light, preferably under a full sun.”

“It’s the look of the plant that caught my eye. I like the shape, the way the foliage forms. I probably got this for SGD5 at a supermarket. This was the first plant that I got in 2014. It now resides at my grandma’s but I’ve another in the office. As a climbing plant, it has grown quite tall.

Then, social media made it easier to identify plant types. COVID brought about a heightened insularity that accelerated plant interest for shut-ins. “It used to be that any plant tips you get would most probably be from a US writer with knowledge about plants in their region,” Loke said. “Now it’s more varied.”

Loke had already developed somewhat of a monastic existence a year before the pandemic. He stayed in more, which resulted in an explosion in his plant collection. (Loke also runs an IG account detailing his green wares)

Ficuses are his jam. While commonly found in Singapore, a ficus plant has different subspecies; some hail from Myanmar, others from Japan. Loke is attracted to their forms, finding them “interesting”. Driven by aesthetics, Loke would pair a plant with the pot.

You may have heard people say that having a garden helps them relax. Not Loke. It’s the opposite for him. He used to enjoy tending to his plants whenever he returned from work but his obsession led him to constantly fret about them. “If you think about it, it can be a chore,” Loke says.

One of two rented plots at Chwee Heng Nursery.

He has stopped counting but Loke reckons he has about 400 plant species. Then, catching himself, he adds a disclaimer: “But I’ve cut down a lot.” His current collection is stored in two places: at Aa Furniture showroom and Chwee Nursery in Seletar.

Plants at the nursery blossom due to the humidity. Once they are ready, Loke propagates them and transfers them to the showroom for display and sale. These plants are suitable for indoors and their presence helps customers to visualise, and inspires them to spruce up their own homes with a plant.

He waters the plants twice a week at the showroom and once a week at the nursery. Knowing that his plants are in an environment where they can thrive, assuages his fears about their survival. “I believe,” Loke adds, “that some plants thrive in neglect. Just give them the basics and let nature take care of the rest. In the end, they are plants, right? We shouldn’t be working for them.”

He tried growing a Pachypodium namaquanum but the species is found in dry rocky deserts and thrives in harsh conditions—extreme summer heat and wind. They can survive in a tropical setting, he says. “Think of it as a controlled situation. Air-conditioning with artificial grow lights just to maintain that environment but it’s not sustainable because, at the end of the day, these guys won’t reach their full growth potential.”

“This used to be a unicorn. Hard to get. In the wild, in South America, there could be less than a thousand plants. But over the last few years, several nurseries started tissue-cultivating it to boost the population. It’s easier to find now but it is a slow-growing plant. It took me eight months to get this one from Brazil to acclimatise to Singapore’s weather. But it’s a beautiful plant and worth all the work.”

“They are known for their slender leaves that are broader at the top. They used to be a common landscaping plant [in Singapore] during the ’70s. Then, for some reason, they became hard to find. I’m not sure why that is the case. I asked someone and was told they were used widely in government projects until they were phased out in favour of larger-leafed plants. The one I got is the Ficus alii, a Japanese cultivar with even thinner leaves. I had to get a friend to order it in for me. I find them to be very elegant-looking. They are statement pieces for your home and they are really easy to grow.”

To Loke, a plant is only ready when it starts flowering. “That’s when the plant goes through a full cycle of growth, which means it’s healthy in that current condition. That’s something I definitely learnt. There are a lot of expensive mistakes.”

It is an expensive hobby to get into. The pandemic brought about a price inflation in the plant market, where the entrepreneurial and, depending on who you ask, the exploitative, took advantage by flipping plants for a higher profit. These days, plants are more affordable, the best time to get into the hobby, if you ask us.

Loke doesn’t refute that this can be considered an old man’s hobby. “Gardening taught me to slow down. For the tangible side of things, there are some rare plants that only a few importers can bring in. You’ll just need to make the right contacts. With enough money, you can get almost any plant you want.

“Even so these are life forms that will come and go,” Loke says as he plucked the leaves of a frankincense plant and crushed them between his fingers. With cupped hands, he breathed in the balsamic and woody fragrance.

From the ashes of the pandemic, the local plant community has grown ever larger. While some might opine that it’s just another consideration to create a space for a garden; think about this: it was all green before we intruded. Maybe, space can be made for both.

Photography: Jaya Khidir