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After being away from serious gardening for a decade, I recently joined (or re-joined) some excellent plant societies: the American Iris Society, the Species Iris Group of North America, the Aril Society International, the Median and Dwarf sections of AIS, the British Iris Society, The North American Rock Garden Society, and the Scottish Rock Garden Club.

Most horticultural societies date from the early decades of the 20th century, or spun off from such groups a few decades later. For nearly a century, these organizations have provided remarkable services to the horticultural world. Besides being “clubs” where people can socialize with others who share their interest, they have brought order out of chaos by overseeing the names of cultivars, spreading information on how to correctly identify species, promoting plant breeding and propagation, helping finance botanical expeditions, and serving to promote the best “finds” and “creations” of specialist growers to the general gardening public. For most of the 20th century, the publications of horticultural society were effectively the sole source of detailed information on the plants they promoted. They were also the principle conduit through which specialist nurseries reached their public.

Today, most such organizations are in a state of decline, in some cases perilous decline. Memberships are shrinking, and with shrinking memberships come shrinking resources (financial and human) to carry on the crucial functions of the organizations. One sometimes hears this attributed to some particular society program being poorly run, or some particular decisions of a governing body being poorly conceived. Such comments, I feel, largely miss the point. This is a universal phenomenon, not a particular one. I think its cause is obvious: the internet.

During the 20th century, horticultural societies operated on a single core principle: membership dues in exchange for information. If you wanted to know what the best new irises were, where to obtain them, or how to grow and breed them, you had to join the iris society and receive their publications (or be close friends with someone who was a member). The societies were the gatekeepers. Once involved, members would find other things the society offered: the judging program, conventions, discussion groups, and so on. But the basic equation was “pay your dues to learn about irises”.

The internet has completely undone this basic equation. The plant societies are no longer the gatekeepers. I can go on line and learn more about irises than I can from a decade of society publications. Don’t misunderstand: the publications are excellent and I enjoy them immensely. It’s just that they are no longer a unique source of information. They are a supplement, and a comparatively expensive and inconvenient supplement in comparison with online resources.

I don’t know of any group that has not recognized the importance of a vibrant online presence in attracting the attention of potential members today. Projects like the forum of the Scottish Rock Garden Club and the AIS Iris Encyclopedia have become phenomenal resources and hubs for enthusiasts around the world. But although embracing the internet is necessary to keep the horticultural societies relevant, it is not sufficient.

Why do I say that? Because having a vibrant online presence cannot, in itself, reverse the trends of declining membership. If the online resources provided by the society are open to all, then the basic problem remains: there is no need to join and pay dues to get the information. If the resources are made members-only, then the society shuts out the very people it intends to attract: potential members. If there were no alternatives, people could be lured into paying dues for access to a web site. But there are, in fact, plenty of free alternatives. Some are of dubious quality, of course. But the basic point remains. Today, if I have a question about irises or rock gardening or plant breeding or species identification or anything else, I  can have my answer in a few minutes without having to “sign up” for something (which many people resist on principle) or pay for anything.

I don’t see a clear answer. Maybe we should just recognize that we are approaching the end of an era, and let the dinosaurs die off, their archives surviving as reminders of a very different era, when information was a scarce resource. Alas, these societies do more than provide information. The American Iris Society maintains the cultivar registration database, operates an important judging and awards system (flawed, perhaps, but vital nonetheless for promoting the many different types of irises), and sponsors various scientific and horticultural projects. It would be sad indeed to return to the fragmented condition of the 19th century, where there is nothing beyond individual gardeners and commercial nurseries to foster our love of particular plants.

The frustration is parallel to what we are experiencing with regard to brick-and-mortar bookstores. I love them, don’t want to see them go, but don’t see how they can successfully face the economic realities of the information age and survive.

The only glimmers of hope I see are in the examples of societies that offer tangible benefits, beyond information: seed and plant exchanges, for example. If the only way to obtain a choice species that is not available commercially is through a plant society, enthusiasts will join. I don’t know if this single strategy is something that can, by itself, keep the societies relevant into the future, but it’s at least a model of the kind of thinking that will be needed. To survive, horticultural societies must move beyond the dues-for-information paradigm that propelled them onward through the 20th century and find a new paradigm.

If I knew in detail what the new paradigm is, I would shout it far and wide. But I don’t. I’ll wager, though, that by the middle of this century horticultural societies will be either radically different than we know them today or gone altogether.