Plant Societies Need Us

Standard

This is a post I’ve been avoiding for months—maybe even for nearly 2 years now. It’s time for me to write about an important topic because it means a lot to me. When the Covid-19 pandemic is done, join a specialist plant group. Heck, before the pandemic is over, start to learn about them and decide to commit some time to one to help keep it operating. Plant societies need us, and to be perfectly honest, the Internet doesn’t—except for us to continue to educate, preserve, and share.

I’m currently the President of a local chapter of the Gesneriad Society, and have been for nearly 2 years now. It has been an absolute blessing and so much fun but even I need more help, and more members to become involved. It’s a challenge though when folks can sit in the comfort of their own homes and not have to commit. Instead, we can all share online, and we do. Sharing virtually has taught me so much and I have learned from people growing in different climates, living different lives. Over time, I’ve come to consider some of them very good friends.

Many plant societies need us, and they need more of us to become involved in new and engaging ways. In this post I want to write about some of the highlights of my involvement, why these groups matter, and the challenges I’ve faced.

Sinningia ‘Piglet’ is one of the many treasures I’ve brought home from one of our Mt Hood Gesneriad Society meetings. Our monthly raffles are a lot of fun.

Over the years I’ve been involved with, and have joined, many plant groups. There are a lot out there, and for the most part, they serve different purposes. Some are national, we have professional groups, some focus on conservation, some focus on a singular type of gardening, others are mostly social, or even based on travel, but my heart will always belong to the specialist plant societies. These will be the center of this discussion. These are often where some hardcore plant nerds flock to and I’m happy to contribute to several groups.

My experiences with all of these groups didn’t really begin until I owned a home. If I’d known before that many groups are great for folks in rentals or apartments, I likely would have signed up earlier. Like many in my generation though, I associated most plant groups and societies with some contempt and cynicism as a Gen Xer. I got over that though as I craved more and more information about specific plants. I didn’t have the energy to reinvent any more wheels, and from the outside some groups may seem elitist and/or classist, and maybe some are, but if you’re there for the plants, you’re there for the plants, and that’s what the best groups focus on.

Lots of folks think of most garden clubs or plant groups as an activity for retired folks. While this may seem like the case, it’s not always so in every group. Call me an idealist, but I think that if the group offers something to everyone, then everyone will want to be there. While many retired folks offer their time to these groups, they need help too in the form of our input, our cooperation, and groups are best supported when they can say that they have several generations working together to achieve the mission and goals of the group.

And that is how I came to join several different plant societies. Here is Portland we are VERY LUCKY to have lots of societies to choose from and I hope that remains so. Without continued involvement from plant lovers though, we’d lose this IRL community, and I hope that we don’t in the coming years.

I’m likely going to miss a group, but these are just a few of the many specialty plant society flavors we have on our menu around Portland, Oregon: Chrysanthemum Society, Mt Hood Gesneriad Society, Native Plant Society of Oregon, Columbia-Willamette North American Rock Garden Society, Oregon Carnivorous Plant Community, Oregon Fuchsia Society, Oregon Orchid Society, Portland African Violet Society and PNW Branch of the American Begonia Society.

A propagation box shown durning a meeting last December 2019 of the PNW Begonia Society at Arium Botanicals. Propagation workshops are always popular and this one did not disappoint.

I really dove into groups durning my 30s because I was essentially disabled and couldn’t work due to severe chronic health issues. During that time, it was a way to meet people, it cut costs on plant materials, and I joined groups in order to learn from folks who’d been growing plants for decades. They tended to be a lot more geeky in terms of plant information, and overall, their focus has always been on education, preservation, and sharing.

At that time I was angry about my diagnoses, and not being able to work to pay my bills off quickly, but learning about plants led to jobs eventually and many other opportunities as my health improved, so I entered into the clubs hoping that it would expand my growing experiences—and it did! (Bye bye chip on my shoulder! Hello plant therapy!)

While I’ve enjoyed learning about plants via the Internet since its creation, over the last few years I’ve become more and more disinterested in its content due to the same information repeated ad nauseam in different ways and by the fact that it’s mostly marketed material provided by influencers who are there to capitalize on the popularity of their repeated content.

I don’t like being used as a tool in the capitalist process, and it is sad watching the process evolve. Information literacy has become an issue in many parts of our daily lives and lately I’ve been cutting back on my online “consumption” of social media. I’m returning to adding content to the Internet in the hopes that it might reach someone else, but I’m 100% committed to being me, and not someone that others would prefer for me to be. (Personally, I think that’s why my blog aka site is still living on happily.)

Online plant groups are popular though and have become increasingly so with younger members of the plant hobbyist world. It is often a stark difference to the gardening lives of my older friends. During COVID19 we’ve all been using it more and then sometimes less or not at all. What I miss most about our group right now is actually meeting and talking to them in person. We range in age, gender, life experience, and career paths but we share a love of gesneriads and I think that’s fun.

Just a few of the lovely random surprises from our raffle last December at our holiday party.

One reason that plant societies are so important is because we basically share plants with one another. Historically, we host fundraisers and sell plants for lower prices because this is intended to share the love and the bounty of what we’re basically preserving and keeping in circulation. As my anonymous botanist friend said, “There is no scheme for conservation of cultivated varieties in the US, so continuing to cultivate plants that would not be commercially viable is vital.”

Additionally, plant societies are known for their seed or spore conservation, sharing a diversity of seeds, and as a teaching ground for plant breeding and growing. This is part of what leads us to supporting conservation efforts in the wild as well as scholarships for additional study to be done by academics.

Folks have discovered the Gold Rush of selling houseplants online and I’m sure that all I need to say is, “Have you seen the most recent price for a variegated Monstera?” (Should I even breathe the word Araceae?) Gesneriads are not popular though, and I’m ok with that since our plants can more easily be bought and sold thus making sharing of our materials easier. (I think Sinningia leucotricha is the most popular plant in our realm.)

Participating in the Gold Rush is off-putting to me. I’m a horticulturist and I work for two small nurseries and they work hard to stay viable. I see a market more and more turning away from small business ownership with customers underselling (or overselling) them. All I can hope for is that this will inspire many more to build great businesses that will compete with one another. I would love to see more plants in cultivation that are not, and for collectors to see plants more as vital living organisms that share the plant with us and less as investments.

I’m a naïve idealist though, and we have to wait this out to see if more specialist nurseries arise out of the current houseplant era. Will folks be inspired to learn more, and dedicate more of their time to small specialist plant societies? Again, we have to wait and see how this all shakes out and continue to educate, preserve, and share. In a time when people talk about building community, I’m doing it and am right where I want to be. Is this a dying activity though?

While looking around my Seed Studio and home, and at my collection, I’m really happy that so many plants were traded and/or purchased from groups or businesses that I love to support.

Plant societies are my ideal kind of plant community. This is why plant societies have always shared cuttings, held raffles, traded and sold inexpensive plants to one another. It’s what plants-people do and it’s key to helping us to better understand the growing conditions for different plants. Our practice with growing certain plants that are not widely available is what growers actually look to before releasing a plant through a nursery. Horticulture, and small growers like the ones that I work for, benefit from the preservation of varieties of plants that have come and gone from the market and sometimes need to be reintroduced. Plant societies are important. It’s where growers often go to find heirlooms to reintroduce. Sometimes too, they may find a new hybrid to try out on the market, but the societies need to be there in order for this process to work.

I just hope that more folks are inspired enough by their love of plants to help to continue these groups, and yes, discuss Colonization and all the other —isms that are part of the necessary conversation that we’re living through right now. I myself have issues with the racism, classism and Anglophilic center of gardening culture as we often see it in the US. But rather than bitch about it, I just made a vow to myself to be myself, dive into horticulture, speak up when it matters, and slowly make the change to create the plant world I want to live in.

Columnea sanguinea purchased at one of the Mt Hood Gesneriad Society sales many years ago. It was likely $8 and was about 4″ tall.

While I do love to talk—and clearly write too much—action will always speak more to me than words. So sometimes when my blog has gone silent, I’ve been out in the field acting upon my conviction to be the change that I want to see.

I have hope and am looking forward to seeing the change that will likely come in the years ahead.

(Hush now you inner cynic, hush child.)

(Photo at the top of the post is of the table set-up outdoors at the nursery during the Covid-19 pandemic during the summer of 2020 for members of the Mt Hood Gesneriad Society to meet. Currently, we’re meeting via Zoom.)