In the world of recreational gardeners there exist some people who want to spend as little time and effort as possible keeping their yards attractive. And then there are those who belong to plant societies.

“We are all plant nuts,” said Barbara Barker, president of the Maine Hosta Society. “There are three or four (plant societies), and the membership overlaps a lot.”

Despite that passion, three plant societies in Maine have disbanded in the last five years.

The Maine Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society gave its collection of rhododendrons to the University of Southern Maine about 10 years ago and stopped holding meetings about five years ago. The Maine Rose Society broke its connection with the Deering Oaks Rose Circle about five years ago and subsequently disbanded. When I started research for this column, I discovered that the Maine Daylily Society has also recently disbanded.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the remaining southern Maine plant societies seem to be holding their own.

“We’ve made some changes over the past couple of years,” said Harriet Robinson, vice president of the Maine Iris Society. “We still have 100 members, but we were facing a decline in active members.”

The biggest change is that the Iris Society now holds only one flower show a year instead of the two it held up until about three years ago. The flower shows are major productions; the reduction eases the work involved. The reason the Iris Society needed two shows is because some irises are at their peak in May and others in June. Now, the date of the single show alternates annually between May and June to allow both early-blooming and late-blooming irises to be featured.

Orchids Staff photo by John Ewing

A problem shared by all the plant societies is the recruitment of younger members.

“Our youngest member is in the mid-50s,” said Cheri Ellenberger, president of the Southern Maine Hosta and Daylily Society. “The oldest is in the 90s.”

The club hopes to remedy that by creating fun, interesting programs, such as one by a photographer to teach members tricks for taking good photographs of their plants, followed by a photo contest. The club also gives away door prizes at each meeting and doesn’t charge admission.

David Sparks of the Maine Orchid Society said his group’s membership had been stagnant for a while, but has picked up recently – with a few younger people joining. It boosted membership in part by having a booth at the Maine Flower Show and because member Bob Cleveland has been giving talks at Skillins, which has attracted new people.

But the biggest attraction of all the plant societies are the plants themselves. The highest attendance, society members say, is at events such as plant swaps, plant auctions or raffles with plant giveaways.

Robinson said the Iris Society’s biggest event each year is swap day, a members-only event held in August at a member’s garden, which is open for tours. The members get to expand their own collections by swapping irises.

The Iris Society holds public auctions – which also include hostas and daylilies – one in July in Gorham and another in September in Auburn.

Barker said the Hosta Society has an auction each year for which the society buys rare or specialty hostas from online sources, grows them out and then sells them.

“The nurseries sell very small plants, and we like them bigger,” she said.

Hostas. Staff file photo by Doug Jones

Ellenberger said the biggest event of the year for the hosta and daylily society is the Lobstah Classic in August, which is attended by people from around New England; it usually sells out. It includes a lobster dinner and a silent auction of rare plants as well as a live auction.

She said that because the group meets at Southern Maine Community College, which has a horticulture program, the society encourages students to attend for free.

The Orchid Society meets the second Monday of every month in Gorham, and always has an orchid display table, so people can show off the plants they have in bloom. The society brings in speakers and has a raffle table every month.

Mostly, these societies aren’t making special efforts to bring in younger members – although they would love to have some. As Robinson said, the societies want to provide events that are enjoyable and informative for the people who already attend.

They hope other people will hear about the events – and the chance to meet other plant geeks – and start attending themselves. And that some of the new people will be younger – if not exactly young.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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