Blooming a Business
Cincy, October 2007
After a long day of working for Comair at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Mike White comes home and waters his flowers. Unlike many suburbanites, however, he’s not watering a couple geraniums. Rather he spends an hour each evening watering hundreds of plumeria, brugmansia, bougainvillea, mandevilla, Serbian spruce, lacebark pine, dawn redwoods, bananas and bamboo.
At night, when the brugmansia are in bloom, White’s entire backyard is filled with a delicate scent. Brugmansia, also known as angel’s trumpets, give off no scent during the day. Native to South America, the flowers are pollinated by night moths. So once the sun sets, they become quite fragrant. “They give off the most terrific scents you’ve ever smelled,” White says. “You can smell them four to six feet away. They’re perfect for night entertaining.”

Tropical plants are White’s passion and, lately, his part-time profession. Looking at the potted plants dotted across his suburban backyard, White laughs. “This is a hobby out of control.”

White’s passion for non-native plants hasn’t been life-long. Rather, it started eight years ago during a family vacation to Orlando. After several days of tromping around Walt Disney World Resort, White and his family went to Pier 60. There, among the street vendors selling caricatures and beaded jewelry, was a gentleman selling plumeria cuttings.

“I bought four,” White says. “They were trivial. I thought they were neat.”

What were trivial things grew and bloomed, creating the same flowers used in Hawaiian leis. “I was fascinated,” White says.
Soon thereafter, White began spending hours searching for information on tropical plants online, attending trade shows, and buying seeds and cuttings. Packages began arriving from all over the United States and the world—plumeria from Thailand, chocolate mint (which smells just like Andes mints) from Arkansas, bougainvillea from Brazil. He began propagating the plants, growing his own. In the winter, the sun-loving plants went dormant in his basement.

For several years, White’s hobby was a form of stress relief. But in 2005, it grew to something more. “It was something I enjoyed doing so I thought probably a lot of other people would, too,” he says.

White created a company dedicated to selling rare, tropical and unique plants: Midwest Aquatics and Exotics. Underneath this umbrella of a name are three separate divisions. The Midwest Plumeria Company caters to the formal plumeria, a flower so loved entire societies exist to support it. Forests of the World include rare conifers, very unlike the Christmas-tree varieties found in local nurseries. And the Nightshade Gardens include most of White’s tropical plants and bamboo.

“I grow things typical nurseries won’t grow,” White notes. While nurseries like to grow things from seed that can be sold in months, plumeria, for example, takes White five to six years to grow into something that can be sold.

Last spring, White began selling his tropical wares on Saturdays at the Boone County Farmer’s Market. Prices range from $5 to $120, depending on the plant, its size and the type of pot it’s in. But along with the plants made pest-free using only natural methods and their carefully mixed soils, customers are buying White’s knowledge. White says his goal is to grow, educate, encourage and provide resources. He regularly talks to customers online, on the phone and in person, even months after they’ve purchased a plant.

For White, good customer service includes selling only quality plants. “I’m constantly pruning,” he observes. It’s rare to find a fallen leaf in any of his pots—he clears these out to keep away the spider mites. And if white flies come to feast on his treasures — an incident he likens to a teenager with pimples — he’ll spend hours cleaning them off with soap and water, ensuring they’re gone before market day.
White has big plans for the future. In addition to selling his plants at the farmer’s market, his goods can be found on eBay as well as his website, www.midwestaquaticsandexotics.com, which is still a work in progress. He hopes to expand his collection to include bonsai and aquatics, such as water lettuce and lily pads. A strong believer in giving back to the community, as his company grows White hopes to grow Hope for Tomorrow, a program he created to help single-parent families.

“I’m not worried about making a fortune,” he says. “I grow them because I love growing them.”