Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pensive Tuesday: Keeping Our Knowledge

An ironic title for a post on a blog during the Era of the Internet, a time of "knowledge explosion", a time when we can't keep up with our knowledge, when we don't even know what we know, because there's just too much information out there!

"Optuntia"- MR 2012

I'm actually going to discuss person-to-person knowledge transfer, or how we learn things the old fashioned way. We used to learn something particularly well because a real-life person, often a family member, librarian, or teacher, taught us that something. When I was a child, the mighty Google hadn't been born yet. If I wanted to find something out, I had to ask someone, or go to my local library. I enjoy the convenience and abundance of online data, and would have a hard time going back to the old days. But I worry that in the crush of online data, we've lost knowledge that used to be gleaned the old way.  Learning how to take care of plants is something that is best done by person-to-person knowledge transfer, and I had an example of this truth this weekend at our local orchid show.

I am no longer a nimble youth, but I was the youngest one at the show!  Most of the people who were visiting, or displaying their orchids, were in their 70s and up. There were no kids. The only exceptions were the families from Taiwan and the Philippines who were there to sell their orchids. They were mostly extended families, with children in tow who were learning the family business. I bought a beautiful Catasetum from a Taiwanese gardener. She said she'd learned all about orchids starting at age 5 from her grandfather, and her parents. Orhid-growing was her family's business for many generations. She's now teaching her own children how to tend orchids.

I went online when I got home (of course I did!), and found out my country's orchid society has shrunk from 33,000 members 10 years ago to about 11,000 today. They lost their home and gardens in Delray Beach, Florida, because there weren't enough members to keep it going.

Frankly, I'm worried. If we're not passing our knowledge of horticulture on to our kids, and other young people, how will that knowledge be kept? I don't like the idea that the only place out there to learn gardening is a highly vulnerable virtual world, the Internet. Especially in this time of rapid climate change, when many native habitats (and their inhabitants) are disappearing, it's even more important that we learn to cultivate all sorts of plants in our own gardens. Then we can personally pass that knowledge on to others.

I'm going to make an effort to get out with my Tillandsias and Mesembs more often to speak to groups of kids and young people. What do you all think?? Am I just being old-fashioned?? Or are you pensive, too?

"Ulm Cathedral"- MR


  1. When I take my plants to orchid shows as a vendor, I do a LOT of educating. At one of the shows this spring, a customer told me that she bought plants from me because I was "the only vendor who would talk to her" and explain how to care for her plants. That was one of the best compliments I've received.

    The problem is vendors importing blooming plants from Hawaii or Taiwan and re-selling them rather than growing them themselves, so plants become a commodity like fake watches or cheap toys. Most of these blooming, imported Phalaenopsis, Dendrobiums and Oncidium intergenerics get thrown away or unintentionally killed by the owner after a while.

    What's encouraging to me is seeing a lot of young people come to the shows and buy orchid plants. Many of these pre-teen kids, teenagers, and college students are avid collectors who know a lot about plants, having looked up information on the internet. Sometimes the parents are there, encouraging the kids and paying for the plants, and sometimes the young people have saved their own money to come and buy orchid seedlings to grow. I usually spend quite a bit of time talking with them and often throw in an extra plant for these kids!

    Our orchid society, like others, has dwindled over the past decade or more in tandem with the economy, steadily growing older, but my internet sales have stayed pretty steady. I think the interest is out there, it may just be taking a new form.

    By all means, get out there and show your cool plants to the kids!

  2. I was hoping you would chime in, Ellen, thank you! I'm very heartened to hear that on your coast, there's more multi-generational interest, and more teaching going on. I bought my Catasetum from the Taiwanese gardener for the same reason people bought orchids from you- her plants were excellent and she spoke to us for a long time (in Chinese and English!) about how to care for a very unusual species of orchid. She had learned first hand how to care for a wide variety of species and clearly loved every plant she sold, and wanted them all to thrive. So yes, there's hope out there!

  3. I'm on the younger side of the whole internet explosion, (I grew up playing sesame street games on MS DOS, but still had a set of encyclopedias to look up information in.) The internet is great for forums and blogs to discuss growing things that maybe no one else around your area grows, the rarer stuff, or less popular things. However, the downside is that there is so much information, and anyone can write on any topic, you have to be good at discerning the source. Who are you getting info from and are they worthy of listening to? At a club or society, you can easily see who knows what they are talking about. So I see your point in in person passing of information being valuable. Plus growing in the same area, the advice is more adaptable than getting growing advice from someone half way around the world. However, for those of us who weren't taught by family or community and want to grow things that there is no local society for, the internet allows for anyone to grow and share anything almost anywhere. For a stronger point, there is currently conservation efforts for a particular species of plant that is so critically endangered in the wild that those of us who have clones of this plant in cultivation have registered them online, so that pollen can be shared internationally to conserve some genetic variability in a plant that they think will be extinct in the wild less than 50 years from now. That is the miracle of the internet, Botanical Gardens, Educational and Conservation Institutions and hobbyist growers are getting together to save a species from disappearing off the face of the planet forever. There's no way this would be possible without the internet.

    If it's the AOS you're referring to in your post, they have lost a significant amount of membership and aren't gaining younger members because they are failing to keep up with the changing times, in my opinion at least.There's also the fact that they aren't offering anything of value for their increasing prices that cannot be gained for free now a days. They need to adapt and change and until they do, they won't get back on track. I pay for a membership to two of the local Orchid Societies here in FL, as well as a membership to the International Carnivorous Plant Society. All of these offer something of value I cannot get anywhere else. The AOS needs to do the same instead of just increasing prices in a bad economy. That business model has never worked for anyone.

  4. Melody, what a wonderful co-post (it's much more than a comment)! Thank you so much for your valuable input. Your point about the Internet being a hub for conserving rare plants is very important- one of my sisters has been able to collect seeds and grow heirloom vegetables in tandem with others all around the planet. They are helping keep our genetic diversity alive and well. I can collect rare Tillandsias because I can connect with nurseries on the West Coast via the Internet. And I didn't know about the AOS policies, every group needs to adapt to the times, it's true. (It was so sad seeing them sell of their beautiful gardens.) And you belong to the Int'l Carnivorous Plant Society? Way cool!

  5. Even though the internet offers just about all the information anyone would ever need to do just about anything it can't, at least at this point in time, replace the hands on, face to face teaching/learning/sharing experiences offered by individual demonstrations and by the real human resources of special interest societies and professional organizations.

    Learning directly from an expert in one's field is more than just about acquiring information. When we study with a certain teacher (or are a member of a certain society or organization) we are becoming part of a lineage. What we learn is more than just the knowledge of the subject matter. It is an entire world view complete with a cache of brilliance, energy and bias that often spans hundreds of years.

    Yes, anyone can grow orchids at home and yes, you can teach yourself to play the piano, but its so much more fun, and often easier too, when you do it in the presence of another who shares your love and your excitement.

  6. Gail, these have been my thoughts as well. That's what struck me so profoundly when talking to the gardener from Taiwan. Her relationship with her family was obviously a wonderful part of her life, and her care and knowledge of the orchids reflected those family bonds. Likewise, special teachers help us connect with our own creativity, and help keep us going with whatever thing we are learning and practicing. I love the Internet and what it's brought us, but the human connection is vital to maintaining and expanding knowledge.