Mr and Mrs Fancy Plants

You could say that Naomi Savio was born with botanical blood in her veins. The daughter of a landscape architect and a breeder of rare and unusual plants, Naomi’s childhood was spent at plant conservation working bees with her mum, helping in her dad’s nursery and selling at Melbourne’s flower shows. These days you’ll find her at Mr Fancy Plants, a hidden home for interesting plants she co-founded with her partner Dana Cooke. We caught up with the Melbourne plant propagating duo to hear about how it all began.

Naomi, you grew up with a landscape architect mother and plant breeder father. Did you always want to work with plants, or is it something that has developed more recently? While growing up, I helped out quite a lot at my dad’s nursery business working on odd jobs and selling at the Melbourne Flower and Garden show. Numerous planting working bees for conservation groups with mum also exposed me to the importance of nature and greenery. I didn’t think to follow in my parents footsteps, studying communication design and then visual merchandising, which I’ve worked in ever since. I’ve always maintained a passion for plants though, and in the last couple years it’s gone from getting amongst nature at every opportunity and having a lot of houseplants, to propagating and selling some of our favourites as Mr Fancy Plants.

Your father was a plant breeder and ran a nursery specialising in rare and unusual plants. What kind of weird and wacky things did you find there? In terms of the nursery, there was a never-ending stream of oddities – unusual zygocactus and rhipsalis, exotic hoyas, giant cacti, huge mature hanging plants. My dad was and still is the ultimate plant collector and loved sharing his obsession with the family, taking us on frequent tours to show off his latest find.

Right now, dad is fascinated by air plants, the tillandsias, selecting out the hardiest ones able to tolerate Melbourne’s seasonal weather to grow on the roof of his house. They don’t need additional soil, water or fertiliser and are pest and disease resistant – his ideal plant! At one stage, he was growing water plants in our pool at the house. The pool was so full of plants that you were unable to see any actual water on the surface – just plants. In my teenage years, a friend and I were out the back at dusk, chatting away.

One second she was talking right next to me as we walked, the next instant she’d disappeared, having stepped into the pool she didn’t know was there! She came out shocked, with a few lily pads on her head!”

Did you have to help out at the nursery during your childhood? If so, did you love or loathe it? Loved it – even before I was old enough to help out, I was always burrowing through blackberry bushes and making bouquets out of weeds, I loved getting my hands dirty. Dad would give me some pocket money to do all sorts of jobs around the nursery like propagating zygocactus, de-heading flowers from plants, and putting hangers on pots.

Does your dad have a favourite plant? His pride and joy would have to be Fairy Lights (Scirpus cernuus), for its unusual green filaments that have tiny white tuffs at the ends. The plant looks like the table filament lamps of the 70s. He imported it from Denmark in the 80s after seeing it growing in a nursery which grows literally millions of plants for the European market. It tolerates the cold and is a great looking addition to indoor and outdoor spaces.

We hear he named a plant after you. Do you have it in your nursery/garden? The plant in question is a Spring Cactus – Rhipsalidopsis spp. ‘Naomi’. It took approximately six years to develop, through a selection process of filtering through thousands of planted seedlings. It has the palest cream/pink petals of any other variety. It flowers in/around October, has a cascading habit and is very hardy. It currently lives in Dad’s plant collection.

Did this love of plants run through the rest of your family or just you? I have an older brother who doesn’t work with plants but is a huge fan of the outdoors. We do a lot of hiking together.

Dana, when did your plant love begin? Did Naomi inspire it? Before meeting Naomi, I had several houseplant and veggie garden experiences – all ended with varying degrees of plant death, but I always got a big kick out of seeing things grow. So the love was there, but not the ability. Only after starting Mr Fancy Plants with Naomi have I learned how to care for and read when a plant is happy or not.

How did Mr Fancy Plants begin? Mr Fancy Plants is a side project which has slowly but surely spun out of control! While we are both fairly happy in our careers, we always liked the idea of trying to start a side business, and propagating and selling interesting plants ticked a lot of boxes for us – getting to spend time outdoors, engaging with nature, and of course the timing is great as house plants are hugely popular right now. Add in the fact that we had a great resource in Naomi’s family, and it was a no brainer! Currently we have a small private nursery where we grow all our stock, and we sell at select markets and pop ups throughout the year. We also offer services such as styling and plant fit outs (permanent or temporary) for spaces such as homes, offices, and everything in between. We also stock both pots and plants with retailers.

Tell us about the planters! Apparently they are built on a 3D printer. Dana, what inspires the shapes of the pots you create? Yes, the 3D printer is a fun tool to have! My background is in industrial / product design, and I’ve been working in the toy industry for quite a while now so I’d have to say this has inspired the pots a fair bit. Bright colours, fun forms, and a bit of weirdness and humour sprinkled in here and there.

What is your dream pot design? A pot that looks great, makes any plant happy, and is completely sustainable to produce.

What’s on your plant wishlist to grow in your nursery? Naomi: We have SO many house plants already that are waiting in line to be propagated – unusual aloes, haworthia, cacti, hoyas, philodendrons, rhipsalis, zygocactus – I could go on. Some of the ones we love the most are too slow to viably propagate but we do it anyway if we love them!

What is your favourite plant and why? Naomi: It changes every month! Whatever is looking best at the time really, when things start getting cold, the big hanging rhipsalis start flowering, they would be up there for me right now! Some other enduring faves are Crassula muscosa, Philodendron cordatum ‘Neon’, and rope hoya (Hoya carnosa compacta).

Dana: Lately I’m a big fan of tiger aloes – they look amazing and they’re incredibly hardy.

Starting a plant nursery is a pretty romantic idea… What would you tell others who may be keen on growing greenery? Dana: The reality of running a nursery is far from romantic! Hand mixing soil, picking off slugs and squishing caterpillars are just some of our glamorous regular duties. Knowledge is key – every plant variety is different, and you have to know what your plants need to efficiently grow them. Another big reality is that plants are like young children – you are constantly responsible for their survival – someone’s always got to be around to water and care for them, so long holidays are not an option for us.

What does the future hold for Mr Fancy Plants? Anything is possible! We absolutely love chatting about plants at our pop ups and fit outs, sharing info and introducing people to our new favourite houseplants – as long as we can, we will keep doing it!

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