‘We Thought We Could Fill That Niche’: Couple Starts Tropical Plant Company In Gainesville

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For Nadia Mourad, it all started with the snapdragon.

At the time, she didn’t know what it was called. She was just a child wandering among the cucumbers and squash of her aunt’s garden in Lebanon.

She and her siblings named the plants “fishy flowers” because when they squished them, the petals opened and closed like a gaping fish. Those blooms are one of Mourad’s first memories.

Now 24, Mourad does more than squish plants — she studies their cells as a doctoral candidate in the plant molecular and cellular biology program at the University of Florida. But she also sells them with her 30-year-old girlfriend Yazmin Almarez under the company name Tropical Roots Plant Co., which operates out of Gainesville.

“I feel like there’s a gap here. There’s not a lot of tropical house plants here compared to where we’re from, which is Miami,” she said. “We thought we could fill that niche.”

In April, the company registered with state and federal governments, for both tax and agricultural purposes, and now ships normal and rare plants everywhere from Gainesville to Hawaii. But with monthly orders now surpassing 500, the pair wants to branch out into something new — including an official storefront and collaborations with other local independent business owners.

‘Here. Figure it out’: The roots of the company

Almarez didn’t know what she was getting herself into when she applied for a job at First Foliage, a plant nursery in Homestead.

At 18, she was hired to help ship the plants to customers. But when the company was bought out by Costa Farms, one of the world’s largest horticultural growers, they kept her on board — and she quickly began to move up the ranks.

Eventually, Costa Farms named Almarez co-manager of Kerry’s Nursery, another bought-out local plant shop. It was a rotted-out husk, with weeds growing up to her head.

“They gave me the key to the place and were just like, ‘Here. Figure it out,’” she said.

So Almarez did.

By the time Mourad began to work there as an assistant grower in 2018, the nursery was back in business, clear of weeds and full of customers.

The two began to date soon after.

At the nursery, Mourad took care of the plants while Almarez sold them. They kept this system when they first began to sell baby plants produced by their own aloe vera instead of throwing them away.

It stuck — both with the owners and the audience, who wanted cuttings of more and more plant varieties. Almarez and Mourad, outgrowing their plant nursery positions, were happy to provide.

“I did this for somebody else. And they’re making millions of dollars off of all the hard work that me and the team that I built with my partner at that time did,” Almarez said. “I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’”

So they quit working for Costa Farms and started Tropical Roots Plant Co., which moved to Gainesville in 2020 when Mourad did for her Ph.D. The business has been growing faster than the plants they sell.

The business approach

Tropical Roots is based off of what the pair believed was lacking in the horticulture business — real relationships with customers.

Big-brand plant shops like Home Depot and Walmart lack the attention to detail that Mourad and Almarez prefer, they said. Most of the time, you pick out a plant with no knowledge of how it works and walk out the door.

“I don’t want to just have the customer buy from us and leave,” Mourad said. “We want to answer questions [like] ‘How’s your plant doing? What do you need from us?’”

Each plant listed on the website has specific instructions on how to take care of it, from the type of lighting and temperature it prefers to how much fertilizer it needs. Jordi Rivera Prince, a 26-year-old anthropology doctoral candidate at UF and Tropical Roots customer, said she had never seen that before.

“When you go to other stores, it’s just like, here’s a card that says this is a succulent and nothing else,” she said. “What I really liked about it was that they did the job of telling you what you were signing up for.”

When the two plants she ordered arrived in the mail, the soil was packed down with moss instead of plastic and the plant was secured with starch packing peanuts, which dissolve in water unlike styrofoam.

This biodegradable packaging is all locally sourced, and although it costs more, Almarez said she believes it’s worth it.

So is supporting other women who own businesses.

In one of the first of what they hope to be many partnerships, Tropical Roots has teamed up with Molly Cellon, owner of Wacahoota Knots. Based in Micanopy, Cellon started making plant hangers during quarantine and recently began to sell them.

Cellon uses a technique called macramé, where fabrics like cotton and yarn are knotted together in patterns to create decorative cords. Her plant hanger collaboration with Tropical Roots will soon feature other colors like black and terracotta instead of just white, she said.

“Something that just lights me up is to work with women, and women empowering women,” Cellon said. “I just think it’s so cool that [Tropical Roots] worked in the industry for so long and now they’ve decided to branch out on their own.”

The future of Tropical Roots

For now, Tropical Roots is only selling its products online. All of the plants are stockpiled in the couple’s backyard, where they feed and water them constantly.

But the two have their eyes on a local greenhouse that they hope to turn into an open garden and storefront for customers.

“It’s not going to be your traditional store,” Almarez said. “I want to keep it a surprise.”

In the meantime, Tropical Roots hosts pop-up shops at the Celebration Pointe farmer’s market every Wednesday and runs a monthly booth at The How Bazar, a vintage clothing store in Gainesville.

“We’re not just hobbyists,” Mourad said. “We’re trying to be as professional as possible, and based on our background, we know how to do that.”

About Hope Dean

Hope is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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