magic in a can

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Three things that come in a pop-top can: soda, soup, magic beans. (Somebody better tell Jack.) Peel off the top of a Magic Sproutz can, give it sunlight and water, and in a week or so you get a sprouting bean plant with a message – such as “Sweet Dreams” or “Lucky in Love” – on one side of the bean and an accompanying symbol, such as a moon or four-leaf clover, on the other. Toronto-based Spin Master’s colorful cans recently popped up at the Philadelphia Flower Show and have taken root (sorry) in stores such as KB Toy Works, Toys “R” Us, Five Below and Target. There is also an “egg plant” version, featuring a similar plant that “hatches” from a simulated egg. The Sproutz, which are actually sword or jack beans, are sold online (“He’s a real plant in a can!” says Amazon) along with similar cans containing flowering plants such as pansies, but no accompanying message (“She will blossom into a beautiful flower in weeks!”). Wrote one Amazon reviewer from Florida: “This toy is amazing! My kids – ages 5 and 7 – have been growing this bean for about a month now, & it’s still growing strong! Message showed up after about a week-and-a-half, perfectly clear. Only thing is, I don’t know what to do w/ it now!”

This trend began overseas. A report by the Japan External Trade Organization notes companies Tomy and Takara began selling “secret message” plants last year: “For toymakers, this could provide a golden opportunity to expand into new sales channels.”

Says Harold Chizick, Spin Master’s vice president of global marketing: “It was becoming really hot (in Japan). … We started searching for this special type of bean plant” and secured enough to bring the plant to North America. “We were able to get more than a million bean seeds.”

Modern technology provides the magic, Chizick says.

“It’s basically laser-engraved. … It’s actually done on the bean casing itself,” he says. “The message gets burned onto the seed, and when it grows, it grows with the message.” It doesn’t hurt the plant, because “the lasering is done prior to growing.”

There are six messages right now, he says. “We are working on more.”

Chizick says the beans can last six to eight months. “What happens is, it almost grows like a vine. So if you take it and put it near a wall, it’ll crawl right up the wall. If you water it and take care of it, it can last as long as any plant.”

Just a few months? “You know, I think that it is a novelty item,” he acknowledges. “It’s like a goldfish.” Once the novelty wears off, the child’s interest may wander, and the parent may be stuck watering an unwanted plant.

On the other hand, he says, “I’ve seen these things grow up to 6 feet. There is fun in watching how big it’ll grow.”

But he is frank. “Millions of these are selling just ‘cause of the message. That’s what it is. People get excited about it.”

Some of the plants, however, may speak more clearly than others. One test subject said “Sweet Dreams,” according to the brown bean casing, but after it peeled off, only the first word was fully visible. A second was meant to say “Adventures Await,” but the message was splotchy at best.

Chizick says the company hasn’t received any complaints about the message because “the process is so perfect in the way that it affects the seed.” Usually if there’s a recurring problem with a product, Chizick says, “I hear about it.” He did suggest sending a faulty grower back so he could give it to the quality control department.

Magic Sproutz are hardly the only novelty plants out there. You can also buy a PetTree. Sold through Amazon by New York-based Compact Impact, these tiny cactuses live inside a clear, thumb-size capsule and attach to your cellphone or keychain. (Once again, this oddity comes to us via Japan.)

British site Gadgets.co.uk, though, notes that the “pets” it sells will outgrow their capsules in three to six months and must be transplanted to larger pots – becoming regular old plants.

Another site, Chinaberry.com, offers its own pet plant – a baby chick-faced green ceramic egg, open at the top, with rye grass seed that grows into a head of green “hair.” When the grass finishes growing, the site says, “you can clean out the ceramic egg and use it as a holder for tiny treasures.”

So these aren’t exactly long-term pets. Still, getting close to nature in any way can only be a good thing – no matter how trendy the packaging.

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