What’s to Become of Single-Plant Societies and Shows?


I recently covered the DC-area Daylily Club Show at a garden center I write for, and did some poking around about how this and other shows and the societies that sponsor them are doing locally and nationally.   I learned that nationally, membership in the American Hemerocallis Society is now about 7,500, down from over 12,000 just a few years ago.  The local DC chapter‘s membership has dropped from over 300 to its current roster of 138 members.  The number of entrants in their annual shows has also declined over the last decade or two. 

So, why is that?  One local member believes that the growing deer population in our area is reducing the popularity of daylilies, known to be deer candy on the level of hostas.  Another complained about the increasing seen warnings that daylilies are invasive, which is often true of the common orange “ditch lily” but not at all of the 70,000+ named varieties – the only ones on the market.  And sure, edibles are all the rage these days, and while daylilies ARE, they’re not generally grown for that purpose.  They’re strictly ornamental to most of us.

But besides the deer problem and the invasiveness-scare problem, it seems to me daylilies should be as popular as ever, if not more so, for their sustainability, specifically their super-drought-tolerance and generally pest-free nature.  No-maintenance plants?  Check.  They’re even easy to ship, and will survive the worst treatment imaginable, something I learned by leaving a shipment of them on my back porch for 6 weeks until I remembered to plant them.  They daylilies shrugged and bloomed on schedule.

Declines across Species?

I’m betting that single-species societies and shows are losing membership across the board but haven’t done the research so I’ll ask – are readers noticing a trend like that?  Me, I like to grow lots of different plants that look great together rather than collect a single species, but then collecting has never appealed to me, so I can’t explain the change.   Could it be tied to a demographic change, where today most wives also work and have less time for gardening as a serious hobby?  Because this collecting and showing stuff is definitely gardening at the level of serious hobby.   And though it’s not MY thing, I find it very cool that other people do it.  Really, that people are genuinely passionate about any hobby strikes me a good thing; when it’s a plant-related hobby, especially so.

So readers, what are you seeing, and if you’re seeing declines in societies, why do you think that is?

Some of the daylily design entrants


  1. Although nowhere near the size of the Hemerocallis Society I believe the American Bamboo Society is experiencing the same decline. My guess is that once joining these groups was the best (and only?) way of meeting people who loved the same plants, and getting the best information about varieties, growing, etc. Now though the Internet provides both info and forums for talking about whatever your favorite plant is, and most people see these Societies as unnecessary. Membership fee? Why pay for what you can get for free, right?

    I never thought I’d be a collector of any single type of plant, but for me bamboo is the one. I go through phases every year: thymes, mint, Opuntia, coneflowers, grasses — but bamboo is the only one for which the “crazy” has stuck.

  2. Collecting started with clematis for me…and that addiction continues but not at the expense of other plants! I like beauty in any form.

    I am not a joiner, so societies are a rare thing for me. I like visiting friends’ gardens spontaneously though.

  3. I think it is the economy, membership dues are discretionary and right now people are cutting costs wherever they can. The non-essentials are usually the first to go and as Alan pointed out the internet provides free info to all.

    Sadly many do not realize what a bargain, in the long run, these organizations are. You get to meet people with like interests and often share plants, cuttings, seeds and information. Belonging to a single plant society has always been a win win for me.

  4. For me it has been a time and space factor. I had lived in a home with a very large 1/2 acre yard, now I have a small yard, with limited full sun. My children also keep me very busy, and as a single mom I just can’t get out or spend the amount of time it takes to be a serious show arranger anymore. It would take me weeks, finding the right containers, or building them.

  5. To the extent that we are getting the message out about sustainable gardening and people follow it – there will be fewer people dedicating time to single-plant societies. I am a member of three societies, none of them single plant. Of course, the economy is not helping anyone in the plant world, except veggie growers.

  6. The Hardy Plant Society in Oregon is the best deal around for value. In addition to lectures, plant sales and study weekends they have open gardens every weekend spring-fall all around the Portland area. Talk about good cheap fun! Not sure of the membership numbers but because it’s broad based not single species the interest level is high. Speaking of single species societies, just heard about the Erigonum society. Now that is a very specific club!

  7. I guess I’m not surprised there has been a decline. I agree with those who say the economy plays a role, both because of the cost of dues and conferences, but also I think collecting new cultivars for single species enthusiasts is a relatively expensive form of gardening. I also prefer an approach to gardening that allows for playing with lots of kinds of plants as the spirit moves me.

    I also wonder if there might be a cyclical generational effect. In my experience all kinds of organizations have a tendency to become insular and revolve around a group of folks who age together. Frequently they have difficulty bringing in a new cohort of younger folks. I don’t know if this is affecting plant societies and other gardening organizations, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

  8. I didn’t even know there were single plant societies for plants other than roses until about 10 years ago. I became a member of CA Rare Fruit Growers about 15 years ago and then started finding out about other plant societies. It struck me that although interest in gardening, especially edible gardening, was higher than ever – we weren’t really being inundated with new members. I think part of it is because a lot of the volunteers who run these organizations are from an older generation (in my 40s, I was one of the younger members of our group) and either ignorant of online methods of reaching people or actively hostile to them.

    I also noticed that a lot of gardeners, if they were active, were active only in one group despite having overlapping interests. So with the help of Deepa Natarajan from UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, I put together an event for these garden groups, including single plant societies, to meet each other and the public. http://www.flickr.com/photos/spidra/1430792360/ I would love to see more of this sort of thing. There are people of all sorts of interests and socio-economic backgrounds in gardening and I don’t think they mix it up enough.

    I think what folks mention about $ is true. I have problems affording memberships. (And some plant societies have trouble affording the rent on meeting spaces.) I think that younger folks are more used to getting something for nothing so it’s also harder to see why they might want to buy the cow when they’re getting the milk for free. We see hordes of permaculturalists at our annual Scion Exchanges but rarely see them at meetings the rest of the year. So the challenge is how to keep going with less in membership dues and fewer volunteers – and how to change that situation.

    One more thing I’ve noticed is that some of the single plant societies tend to have meeting times that are easy for retired folks to attend but not for anyone with a job. Making sure you schedule meetings and events at times when working folks can make it is important.

  9. Orchid societies are definitely shrinking, and I think all the factors mentioned are playing a role. I’d say the biggest impacts are the internet as a source of not just info, but community (on plant forums, etc.), and economics (less money, less time, less space to grow, etc.).

    One other factor, though, is I think a demographic/institutional one: many plant societies are run, at the local and national level, by folks who’ve been doing it for decades and are used to doing things a certain way — often because it works best, but sometimes just out of habit or fear of change. This can be a real barrier to attracting new, younger members and getting them involved in leadership positions. I think the societies that can bend, adapt and really welcome the newer generations of gardeners will survive, and those that can’t will wither away. Kinda like plants in the wild, right?

  10. If you’ve ever been to one of their meetings…you would know why membership is declining!!! BORING!!! I grow over a hundred of the newest daylilies and about 300 clumps total. I went to our local Hemerocalis group…a picnic to meet and try…people mostly older than me and I’m 60…mostly talked about their medical ailments…almost all the food was dessert. Done. Daylilies were hardly mentioned.

    I went to the local garden club meeting…very old people…three hours of minutia and flower arranging..without even a drink…in the afternoon!

    I have about an acre and a half of cultivated gardens…I’m their target member…but I can’t imagine spending my time with any of these.

  11. Time. Work. Kids. Husband. Sports. My own poor garden. PTA. Working in the school garden. Grocery shopping. Household shopping. Taking the kids to the library. Work travel. Board meetings. Committee meetings. Need I go on? I often joke that I’ll get a good night’s sleep 15 years from now–when my youngest girl is grown. That goes double for any memberships in plant societies. (Though I’m the type that’s more likely to continue my involvement in civic/community activism than engage in plant clubs. But you never know. Things could change.)

  12. This is the main reason our garden centerm Behnke Nurseries hosted this show and will keep on hosting shows for other plant groups. So far, we have hosted the Rose Society, Gesneriad Society, The National Capital Orchid Society, The Bonsai Society and the Potomac Hosta Club and more. We have the space, the parking and the love of plants! During these events, our customers can join in or walk through.. Either way, they see what is out there.
    We also do once a year a garden party and invite all the local plant societies and garden clubs to it. This year had over 25 different groups attend. The comments are right on about memeberships, Most of our customers work and cannot attend weekday meetings. I see that some groups are trying to get on the social media wagon which is wonderful. We all need to work together to help the groups out there. Our garden party is a place where our customers can meet the different groups and decide if they would be interested in attending a meeting. The biggest comment we get from customers is they don’t want to waste their time going to a meeting that they might not like. My hope is other garden centers will also start holding these types of events.

  13. A lot of good points have been made here. I would also suppose that a greater emphasis on native species is impacting groups that primarily deal with hybrids.

    I also noticed that our horticulture society and the local c&s society meet on the same thursday of the month. Ergh

  14. I agree with Jason, Jim, and Inanna, although the other comments are definitely factors. These kinds of groups often have a quaintness and rigidity that do not interest younger people. And they’re not making an effort to change.

  15. This is a topic close to my heart because I am a ‘club lady’. I joined the American Iris Society 30 plus years ago, and then went on to the daylily society (founding a local club) and hosta society. Yes, the plant societies are losing membership – as are most clubs and organizations. It’s the whole bowling alone syndrome…people don’t seek that feeling of community the way they used to. I joined for selfish reasons…to learn more about the focus plant and to have access to a better quality plant. It’s worked out for me. My son used to call these groups “cults”.

    One of the big advantages of being in a plant club is that you can talk about plants ad nauseum with your club friends… where in most circles, eyes quickly glaze over when you want to talk about your passion. You also have buddies to go on nursery crawls and to plant talks.

    Interesting that some folks find plant clubs ‘boring’. I guess it depends upon your attitude going in… I’m a big believer in changing something so it suits me.

    There is so much information on the internet … I think that impacts folks joining a plant society, but for me…I’ve just joined yet ANOTHER (carnivorous plants)…

  16. I am in my 30s and have tried like mad to find a garden club which I might attend. The times are always smack in the middle of the day and there is no way to contact them save by mail. I get the feeling that their members must be retired. I would LOVE to talk to someone about plants- I have not one garden friend so I live on the internet trolling for plant info. 🙂

    I think that the lack of web presence and times of meetings totally keep some of us out and it is a real shame!!

  17. I really have to echo previous comments here. Who wants to go to a garden club meeting that is at say 10 AM on Thursday, when you actually need to be at work doing stuff to support that garden hobby (much less, the gas for the lawnmower for that matter). Much the same goes for other things of interest to me in the garden/landscape realm, and unfortunately the realities are such that there’s no way I can pull them off unless I, say, hit the lottery.

  18. We are experiencing similar problems with our affiliated garden clubs and their flower shows at Kingwood Center, a public garden in Mansfield, Ohio. Curiously, however, we are finding that some clubs are doing much better than others. We are trying to figure out how the more successful clubs can help the less successful ones.

    But this is not new. In 1974 I had just enrolled in horticulture at Ohio State and noticed an interesting sounding public lecture being offered by a garden club. My girl friend and I attended and were treated like fresh meat. Everyone in the club seemed very old and one of the matrons of the club cornered us and hammered away with some gardening dogma that she felt would save the world. When we finally got away we laughed at making our escape.

    That previous comment by Jason about cyclical generational cohorts, I think, has some validity.

    Another factor people have mentioned is their search for people with common interests. I have been in touch with many garden related clubs, societies and professional organizations and have found that while the groups may have many members I usually find it to be very difficult to engage people with genuinely common gardening interests. Everyone is at a different level or they are in a clique, or for whatever reason they are difficult to engage. They need events that everyone can enjoy and that is hard to do.

  19. I’m to sound like a broken record echoing the comments above. I was in local hosta society, asked to be president (declined) a retired lady volunteered and & was named secretary. Ending up dropping out as I could not perform my duties as she wanted them. Hello! Working girl! Way to rigid-one annual meeting-snacks were all desserts. Did have garden tours during summer months-which were fun though. It was hard to get people to volunteer for project though 90% were retired. Was also member of local garden club-still geared for seniors and those who didn’t work. Same problems with volunteers. Seems a few people ended up doing all the work. Toyed with joining local daylily society but afraid of seeing more of the same problems. Right now with working and lots of gardens to take care of it doesn’t fit into my schedule.

  20. Wow, lots of ageism and snobbery among the previous comments. Substitute a race or religion for “old” and “retired” and you’ll see just how you come across. How about joining a club and actually sitting down and TALKING to these experience gardeners about their favorite plants, local gardens they have visited, etc.? These veterans have a lot to share. I’m a member of a dozen clubs and plant societies. Most of which I’m the youngest person in the room, so what? We are gathering for what we have in common, not differentiates us.

    BTW If you cannot find a club that meets your needs (meets in evening or does not serve “only desserts”), start one! Reserve a meeting room at your local library. Post a notice on Craig’s List. Start a Meet-Up or Yahoo Group. Have fun :-).

  21. I’ve gone to a few meetings through the years, and gotten some good plants at them too. I’m thinking about joining the local orchid society, despite so many in the group – and growers – pushing me to join, saying not all are snobs. Got to wonder about that meme. The local fern and tropical plant societies merged and that covers so much more that I may go in that direction. I like having sources of great information for a particular plant family, but the merged one appeals more as I am not one to concentrate on one species. ADD? Maybe, but then I think about Frank Stockton’s “The Queen’s Museum” and it’s okay.

  22. Ditto most of the above, but, I do love being around gardeners, no matter what their age and food preferences. Talking plants can’t be beat.
    We attend our local garden club even though it’s not always perfect.
    Specific plant associations seem to focus on competitive shows. While the competitions are beyond my scope, I LOVE the club plant sales – so many great buys and people to chat with!

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