Mary Oliver said attention is the beginning of devotion. For many of us, we approach plants with an intensity and passion nearing devotion. Along these lines, I suspect if more attention was paid, it would put all plants at a similar value, one that is not sufficiently addressed with any price. The more I look at plants, the more I think the generalists had it right. That there is something beautiful and valuable in every kind of growth, every locality, every leaf structure, every plant family.
For those unfamiliar with the hype around plants such as spiritus sancti, monstera albo, burle marx fantasy, monstera obliqua… these plants are breaking the internet right now. Species that sell out between the mad dash from ‘add to cart’ and ‘checkout.’ Plants that in many cases have seen a tenfold price increase or more since last year. Of course, subjective experience and market trends do not influence how fast a plant grows. The challenges of growing difficult species will remain regardless of any subjective, fluctuating interpretation of how much they are worth.
I’m unconvinced that aesthetic preference is universal, regardless of what the current market would have us believe. It’s easy to liken current plant trends to fashion, culturally reinforced more easily than ever on social media. While this certainly accounts for some plant buying behavior and seems true in many ways, I don’t think it is an entirely satisfying assessment as there is a lot left out, because it does not address the why. Why plants? why these plants? why the Dutch tulip craze in the 1600s?
Dylan of Bernies Plants posted this recently in response to the increasingly high price of aroids.
“ I’ve been seeing people, for a long time now, suggest to others that they should ‘invest’ in high-dollar plants- even when the prices are astronomical and often of reach for their budget. To me, that seems just like another incarnation of consumerist culture that conflates spending with happiness and price with value.”
Curating one’s taste in plants with a budget in mind can be just as rewarding or more rewarding than spending thousands of dollars on an trending aroid. I use the word taste because as with food it is inexplicable and often times acquired. A few years ago I got a Begonia ‘Freda’ from a local plant sale (for under $10), and it is a plant that gives me so much joy every single time I look at it. It is now enormous, and flowers often, its hooked ovaries resembling B. versicolor. Sitting in front of a west-facing window, every evening it is backlit and, along with Begonia rex, another commonly available species, is illuminated the most beautiful blood red.
“I’ve been watching things like this ridiculous tropical houseplant boom take off and I can’t help but think about what’s next? If houseplants can explode in popularity, why can’t terrariums, fish tanks, or overall naturalism explode too? Maybe something could steer things in that direction, bring back a deep excitement for the natural world and exploring those hobbies. If things have gotten stagnant, surely that means that it’s time to examine new possibilities for indoor naturalism and creativity.” ~Josh Heath
I hope we are headed towards a greater appreciation of diversity, and that our admiration is deserving of the natural world and those thousands of enchanting species that inhabit it. The moles and the mountains, the ferns and the aroids.
Recently I discovered the blog Jardinerong Sunog (the Burnt Gardener) and read his essay about the state of the plant hobby.
“Contentment is walking inside forests and not taking home whatever you fancy.” ~ Jardinerongsunog
There is something humbling in recognizing the limitations of traditionally sized terrariums, a box that one or two people can carry. It forces an awareness of scale, of complexity, and nuance. That the trees can’t fit, and still be recognizable as trees. That the edges of the stream are anchored with glue and will not waver with a heavy rain. An acknowledgment that no matter how hard you try the terrarium will never be the jungle. To rework an idea expressed by Arthur C. Clark that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”… as “any sufficiently advanced ecosystem is indistinguishable from magic.”
Filmy ferns are hard to come by and hard to grow. Their fronds are often a single cell thick. They are poorly described and challenging to identify. I have mostly given up trying to grow them as they inevitably crash after a few years for me. Observing them in situ, colonies blanket the lower parts of pole trees, but unusually large sections are completely dried out, just the shiny black mature leaf stalk remaining. A little flag marking a crispy rhizome. The colonies surprise me both in their expansiveness and in the amount of die-off in seemingly pristine areas. In cultivation, they are rarely available, but usually fetch prices in the $20-40 range. I’m not sure what to make of this within the scope of the current plant market, other than knowing that people who grow these do not do it for the money. That maybe they rejoice in each new frond that is produced. That maybe in ten years they will have a nice colony. That here is something to be celebrated not only in the slow, diminutive growth but also the grower who waits patiently.
“…Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.” ~ Annie Dillard
I’m not entirely sure what Annie Dillard meant by ‘the real subject’ but I like its implication as the original cause, or the motivation to do something in the first place. A way of addressing, or perhaps hearing, the first question. Why this one? It’s a question I could never satisfactorily answer to myself or to others. Could it be solely the pursuit of beauty? Is it even fair to qualify beauty with ‘solely’?
“…You go where the path leads…The new place interests you because it is not clear…” ~Annie Dillard
One interest leads to another. The scope grows and dilates. I respect the willpower and dedication of those who keep their interests within the taxonomic borders of a single plant family or genus. Many of us keep broadening the web of plants that are familiar to us, though, discovering that there is no end to the types of plants that can instill a sense of wonder and curiosity.
In the spirit of appreciating the stubbornly slow, the ‘what are you’s?’, those that fall outside the current popular trends, that delight as much with their insistence on living as anything particular about their appearance. The Plagiochilas, the Burmiesteras, the glaucous Rhodospathas, the Corybas, the Utricularia, the fuzzy climbing Melastomes, the yet to be named species…whose beauty is often “handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search… then — and only then — it is handed to you” (Annie Dillard)