Sunday, August 12, 2012

Salient lessons from history with regard to plant societies

Stewartia koreana
(A tree I planted at my mothers house in 1976 and saw in flower for the first time in 2012)

Shortly before Christmas of 2009 I had the opportunity to spend several weeks with my mother, a special and unusual occurence considering my home is in south-eastern Australia and her home is just outside of Philadelphia in the north-east of the USA. I owe a great deal to my mother, not least of which is my love of plants. From a very early age she taught me an appreciation of the sensual delights of plants; their colour, their form, their feel, their fragrance and in some cases their taste. In essence, she taught me about their beauty and how an appreciation of this beauty can positively affect ones mood and approach to life.

Monotropa uniflora
(At Aunt Doris's house near Millville, Pennsylvania)

During my stay a Mom's house we went and visited my Aunt Doris. Doris is remarkably like my mother, they could even pass as twins. Doris is a bit more daring and outgoing than Lois with a naughty streak that has long been replaced by heavy responsibility in my mother. Both share the same strong love of plants. Sitting around after dinner one night, Doris was retelling, for the umpteenth time, the story of how they knew I was going to be a botanist one day. When my mother was going to give birth to my younger sister I was farmed out to Aunt Doris and Uncle Bert for a couple of weeks. The previous autumn, Aunt Doris had purchased a large number of Daffodil bulbs and planted them along the drive to the house. On the third week of April 1961, I arrive at Doris's country house with the boundless energy and inquisitiveness of a two-year-old. On the 28th my mother gave birth to my younger sister. After the news was passed on to me, my Aunt headed off to make dinner, leaving me to play in the yard. To be fair to Doris, it was not a case of child neglect, it was the early 60's and the nearest neighbour was 1/2 mile away. Besides she could see me from the kitchen window. Really, she could. Aunt Doris must have missed seeing me picking all of the daffodils along the driveway. When she called me for dinner I came proudly into the kitchen with a huge bunch of daffodils and announced with great fanfare "Look what I got for Mom". As Doris relates it now, she remembers how she could have killed me, and how devestated she was that all her flowers had been picked. I have been desperately trying to make it up to her for years, taking her flowers and plants for her garden every time I visit. She laughs about the story now but I think I can detect a slight tinge in her voice when she tells it. Does she really need to repeat the story so often? The latest peace-offering to make it into Doris's garden was a particularly fine form of Oak-leaved Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and a very large Redbud (Cercis canadensis). Doris lives in an isolated property in the middle of the gamelands north of Millville, Pennsylvania.

Rupert Bridge
(Over the Little Fishing Creek at Rupert, Pennsylvania)

Not far from Millville and a little to the south, are the towns of Catawissa and Rupert. Mom and Doris and their sister and brothers were born in Rupert in the little house next the railway tracks. Just south of the railway tracks is where the family eventually lived with Grammy and Grandpop Mausteller in a house built by Great Grandpop Bradley Mausteller. This later house was next to Little Fishing Creek and the Rupert Covered Bridge. Rupert and the surrounding areas are very interesting to me and the family. Most of my mother's side of the family still lives in Rupert and the surrounds. Everywhere you go there is a Mausteller!!! Randy runs the local mechanic and town fair. Buddy works with Randy and does work at the University, Debbie is the local beautician, Uncle John is a general ranconteur, the list goes on. Ronnie is a local identity and present caretaker of Mausteller Mountain, the mountain owned by members of the family. It is covered by forest and overlooks the Susquehana River just outside of Catawissa. It is this mountain and the gamelands around Aunt Doris's house that provided me with my initial experiences of nature. My Grandparents were strongly Germanic and not taken to including children in conversations. My way of dealing with this when I was a tike was to go for walks on Mausteller Mountain! Sometimes, Grandpop would come along to teach me how to walk quietly in the forest, how to avoid certain snakes (they smell like cucumbers) and how to find Ginseng. I really liked Grandpop and of all the kids I think he liked me the best. That was a no-brainer as I was the only one that showed the slightest bit of interest in what he liked. I desperately wanted him to give me one of his racoon pups. I don't have to rely on my own memories of what I used to do when visiting the Grandparents. Everyone in the family knows that I was always off in the woods and actually felt more comfortable wandering around the mountains than sitting around the house listening to boring relatives talk while the kids not so patiently sat there listening.

Grammy and Grandpop's House
(Florence and Charles Mausteller)
These early experiences with the appreciation of plants stand in stark contrast to some of my experiences with plant societies around the world. The dichotomy of my personal formative experiences with my observations of groups of people that professed to love the particular group of plants they were dealing with, could not have been more stark. I have belonged to groups that were basically fronts for social interaction, the plants being an excuse to get together, eat and make new friends. One of the societies dealing with Chrysanthemums never really had meetings at all but was the preserve of the mad-keen collector. "THE LIST" of plants on offer was the be-all-and-end-all of most peoples participation in the Chrysanthemum society. Orders were placed months in advance for what turned out to be rooted cutting wrapped in newspaper. I must admit, this was the first society my mother introduced me to and I took to it like a madman. I even followed the precision growing guide, so that I would get the perfect results. I still have this small book 40 years on! Not sure I have the patience or water supply to do the plants justice now.

Japanese Spider Chrysanthemum
(My favourite was one called 'Chartreuse', slightly more spidery than this and a beautiful green)

As a teenager, the various plant societies and what people in them did, meant nothing to me apart from being a source of information and of course a place to see new and interesting plants. My membership of these societies was actually attached to my mothers membership, so in reality my status was as an observer. My first serious involvement with a plant society, on my own, came at 16 when I joined a local orchid society. The plants were magnificent. It was unbelievable that people could actually grow such wonderful plants in our climate even if it was in a greenhouse. Some people were really friendly and helpful and others thought, 'who was this impertinent upstart?'. Having grown orchids for several years and having a greenhouse full of them made little difference to some of the crusty members. Phil and Jean, Ron and Enola, and Dr Wilson were wonderful. These fine people took me on their regular trips to orchid nurseries and growers and gave me division of some of their plants. The only plants any of them ever wanted from me were the species Paphiopedilums and a couple of Brassocattleyas. Almost none of these people grew Cymbidiums, my favourite.

The Azalea House at Longwood in Autumn
(Longwood was a major influence on my interest in plants and plant societies)
What soon became apparent within the orchid society was that there were distinct groups of people within the group. I immediately got on with what I will term the 'dedicated plant lovers', DPL for short. These people were involved in the society to develop a deep understanding of the plants and to learn as much as they could. My affinity with these people was immediate and has lasted a lifetime. They would ohh and ahh at the beauty, try desperately to remember names and fiddle around with growing conditions to get their plants to thrive and bloom. Rarely, if ever, did any of these DPL's show their plants or put them up for awards. They could easily have done so but really had no interest in it. If plants were needed for a group display they were always first to contribute. This group can contain the compulsive collector, who simply 'has to have' a plant at any cost, but is not neccesarily the person who looks after it as well as they could.

You will all be very familiar with the other types of people involved in orchid societies. These types are the same no matter what group you are involved in, be it orchids, cars, cats, birds, model trains or vintage books. These people are the 'look at me' people. All ego, strongly competitive, controlling and don't miss an opportunity to tell you how good they are and how dumb you are. The collectable, in this case orchids, is a means to achieve status. 'I won this award' or 'I am a judge/committee member/patron of Kafoops Orchid Society' or 'Of course I have that plant' are terms that trip off the tongue very easily for these types. This group contains the gossip-mongers, the people who divide and conquer, split groups and set up splinter groups. This behaviour reminds me of the crucifix scene in the movie 'The Life of Brian'. I can see it now, 100 orchid growers with 10 different groups to service their needs all with slightly different names and dealing with slightly different groups of orchids. It is this type of person that has been causing problems for plant societies for centuries.

Royal Horticultural Societies Garden - Wisley
(Three years of my life were spent at the ultimate plant society and as a steward of the orchid committee)

One of the books my mother gave me during our time together, really highlighted this problem in plant societies. The book, The Dutch Gardener, was written by Henry van Oosten in 1703 and is a terse little tome. He was talking about the tulip societies of his time and specifically about the rich, status seekers with selfish motives. Hang on to your seat, his words are very strong!

'These are the mistaken lovers, that think to deserve the Inclination and Affections of the Ladies, and to enjoy the Treasure of their Beauties without any costs; these are Florists that are not so discreet as Bees, which visit the Flowers without hurting them; but like Swine, they like to scuffle through our Flower-Gardens to cary off their Riches by their Greatness and Impudence; and when they have thus robbed us of these Beauties, without giving thanks to the Profesors, they want to be true Florists. To hear them speak of Tulips is a murdering Noise; the Hearer may wish that they had been Blind or Dumb, or that he himself had no Ears. These Men that sacrifice to unknown Deities, and that adore in the Temple of Flora Gods they know not. These are unskilled Artists that profess Treasures without knowing their Value. '

Lest one think that this behaviour was limited to one society in one country at one point in time here is an example from a century later than the previous quote. In the book The Tulip by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury, 2000), there are a couple of paragraphs that reminded me of some of the plant societies that that I have become acquainted with but again, this quote deals with people associated with tulips.

On page 182 she states:

At about the same time that Dr. Hardy was thundering in the Midland Florist over the rules governing the perfect English florist's tulip, Monsieur Tripet was doing the same for the French florist's tulip (Tripet (1846). Traite de la Culture des Tulipes, Paris). Tripet was a florist and nurseryman in Paris and in 1843, had swept the board at the spring show of the Paris Horticultural Society, winning the gold medal offered for the first time by the Duchess of Orleans. His exhibit included 800 different kinds of tulip massed together in vases in an artificial bed a metre wide and seventeen metres long. That was only a fraction of the varieties growing in Tripet's nursery, where more than 40,000 tulips bloomed in season. The collection was reputed to be worth a cool 100,000 francs.

Tripet's Paris triumph did not impress the tulip growers of Lille or Tournai whose worst flowers, they said, were better than anything that Tripet had produced for the Paris Horticultural Society. But the members of the Societe d'Horticulture du Nord del la France were always tough on growers outside their own charmed circle. They were pretty tough even on those inside it. The Society's annual report for 1837 criticised so many florists and their flowers that no one would agree to serve on the Society's committee until the reports were dropped. No florist ever seemed to agree with another's judgement, particularly on the show bench, and at this time, at least a hundred amateur tulip growers were keen members of the Society.

These kind of situations are not limited to tulip societies, they can be seen in all the great plant societies that have existed. There are numerous examples from the great societies dealing with Orchids, Pansies, Roses, Pelargoniums, Primroses, Polyanthus, Auriculas, (these last three technically all members of the genus Primula), Pinks and Carnations (both Dianthus), Dahlias, Chrysanthemums, the list goes on and on.

The Orchid Display house at Longwood
Interestingly, a further problem arises when the 'look at me' people take over the balance of power in a plant society. This problem impacts directly on the plant that is the focus of the group. Strictures on the conformity of flowers to the vagaries of human fashion and desire can be found beautifully illustrated in the words of Louise Beebe Wilder in her classic book The Fragrant Path, published by The McMillan Company in 1932. On page 52 is a summary of the temporary downfall of the Carnation due to nit-picking by humans;

'So far as I can find, the popularity of the Carnation has never seriously waned since those early times. Its history has been a series of triumphs and the gay and fragrant flower never for long lost its hold upon the hearts of flower-loving mankind. There was a period, after 1850, according to Nicholson ("Dictionary of Gardening"), when they were for a time quite neglected and some of the older sorts were lost to cultivation. This temporary slump in their popularity was very likely brought about by the fact that the hair splitting and exactions concerning points became so extreme as finally to be unsupportable to the very men who had instituted them. A flower belonged rigidly in a class. It was a "Flake" or a 'Picotee" or a "Bizarre," and its every fleck and marking must conform to the rules and regulations laid down for these classes. To quote Thomas Hogg, who slender "Treatise on the Growth and Culture of the Carnation," 1820, lies before me, "A flower possessed of all the properties called for by the Rules and Regulation laid down in the Societies, where they are exhibited for prizes, is seldom ever met with. Art is called in to the assistance of nature and the skillful hand of the Florist dexterously extracts the self-coloured and defective and overcrowded leaves, and sometimes even will insert others, and arranges and adjusts the whole with surprising nicety." Such artificiality could no longer hold the interest of the public and it probably revolted. '

An old variety of Picotee Carnation

A contemporary example of strictures interfering with beauty was related to me about a Cymbidium society that would not judge a cross between Cymbidium and Grammatophyllum because it was not a Cymbidium. Hello? Who controls the rule book? So what happens if a taxonomist splits a section of the genus Cymbidium off into a new genus? Alternatively, what if Grammatophyllum is lumped into Cymbidium? Would it be ok then to judge it? What about all the other orchid societies that long ago recognised intergenerics and judge them under alliances. 30 years ago I assisted on the Oncidium Alliance judging committee at an orchid congress. There was no problem having Oncidium, Odontoglossum, Brassia and Miltonia all being judged by the same committee. Have we so lost perspective on what qualities make a good orchid that if the name is wrong we can't judge it?

I write this post for a number of reasons but most importantly because of the changed nature of plant societies as they are presently configured and the widespread ill health of orchid societies in particular. Over the past couple of years there has been a marked decline in membership of orchid societies. It matters little if it is a general or specific orchid society. The reasons for this I think can be gleaned from what has happened to the great plant societies in history. The above quotes and examples give some indication of what has happened over time. I have visited a fair few groups over my lifetime and have noticed the same features I first noted over 30 years ago. In recent times the strictures, rules and regulations coupled with a high proportion of 'Look at me' types in the membership has changed the face of plant society life. The majority of people that would like to get involved in groups are put off by the lack of focus on the plants. The focus on competitions and judging has blinded many of us to why we got involved in orchids in the first place, THE LOVE OF THE PLANT.

Grammatophyllum measuresianum