Strange (garden) bedfellows: Marcel Mauss and the new internet plant economy

I own well over seventy tropical plants, and almost all of them live inside my house.

Aroids, climbers, creepers, and vines; everywhere I am greeted by patterned foliage and the unfurling of new leaves in a humid micro-climate. My study where I write is more greenhouse than functional space, as plants have begun to outnumber books. Books are piled on the floor or stacked and shoved haphazardly onto shelves to make them fit, while plants freely trail down from the top of the bookcase in a waterfall of greenery.

Many of these plants were given to me by friends, neighbours, and relatives:

Two oversized Monstera deliciosas, recently passed on by a friend I ‘met’ over ten years ago on an online magazine forum. She cut them from her garden, careful to include some aerial roots and put the ends in a plastic bag with some wet newspaper to retain moisture. Despite always living an hour away from each other, we met in person for the first time late last year to share plants.

Two Alocasia brisbanensis plants, neglected in a neighbour’s back yard: “we’re clearing this area for a vegetable patch, would you like these?”

A Zantedeschia aethiopica in miniature, whose parent plant was lovingly transported by a new friend recently returned from Tasmania. My new addition to the indoor jungle is an offshoot of her favourite delicate plant which had endured a difficult journey home.

An oversized golden Epipremnum aureum, given to me on a chance visit to an aunt I had not seen in years. It has five leaves, each bigger than my head, taken from a vine that had climbed around a tree and been given the freedom and conditions to thrive.

A Tradescantia zebrina, gifted through the window of a slowly moving car by a dear friend who did not want me to forget to take the cuttings home before we parted ways at the end of a day spent together. We rarely see each other.

These plants are not treasured for their foliage and the lush atmosphere they create in my private sanctuary, although that is part of their underlying appeal. As they grow, so does the significance of their origins: gifts, unwanted items, or excess, all passed on by others who knew they would be appreciated.


Rare plants are coveted, tightly held onto but shared widely by their owners on social media with a certain pride, voracity, and even smugness. Their owners are secretive, and do not share where they purchased their new green children. It is possible that I am bitter, as I am unable to afford some of these plants. Acquiring certain species is a digital status symbol in the online plant world.

Pilea peperomioides – easy care indoor plant! $50 each.’

Pups barely old enough to be separated from their mother plant, then shunted into dark light for days while their tiny roots struggle to reach onto anything at all as they are sent long distances in tiny boxes. There is no guarantee they will survive the postal system.

Bulbo_illuminate_Pilea_AnneVanOurs_01

The Pilea peperomioides is an especially curious case. As any online listing will tell you, the Pilea is a fast-growing plant that was initially collected by a travelling Sottish botanist in the Yunnan Province of China in the early 1900s and then ‘rediscovered’ mid-century by a Norwegian missionary, who took cuttings that made their way through Europe.

Cuttings were shared and passed on between gardeners over the years and the species was largely bypassed by commercial growers. The plant came to be known as the missionary plant, or more commonly, the ‘Chinese Money Plant’, for the shape of its leaves and its earlier origins. It is said to bring wealth and prosperity to the owner, but the same legend is applied to many other plants with rounded leaves, including the unrelated Crassula ovata and Portulacaria afra. These more sun-tolerant species are often found outside the front doors of houses. From the front door of my house in a suburban Queensland street, I can see three nearby residences with either of those plants growing proudly on either side of the front steps (including my own). That is the ideal spot for these plants, as you pass through their haze of luck each day when you enter and exit your house.

It is not entirely clear if good luck and good fortune is part of the origin stories of these round-leaved varieties, or whether it can be attributed to the ongoing mythologising of plants that have been readily shared between gardeners, friends, and travellers over time. The Crassula ovata and Portulacaria afra are much less sought after, but the irony of the Pilea peperomioides is that good luck and good fortune is needed to find one. 


Perhaps it is time that I embrace this new capitalist plant economy, and make small fortunes selling indoor plants. In a few months, my own Pilea peperomioides will start sprouting offshoots that can be cut off and propagated, separated into a family of round-leaved plants, finally bringing the wealth and prosperity that was promised.

A gifted plant, turned into currency.

This antithesis of plant parenthood, of communitas, of the very origins of the Pilea peperomioides  makes me feel ill, so instead, I make a promise: I will give my plants away for free, and give away part of myself with them, as others have done for me. I think of Marcel Mauss, reciprocity, and the generosity I have experienced:

“What imposes obligation in the present received and exchanged, is the fact that the thing received is not inactive. Even when it has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of [him].”

– Mauss (1954, p. 15)

Obligation and guilt has no place here, but I am excited by the possibility of returning the Pilea peperomioides to its shared history, to disrupt and devalue something that is so rare and so desired. My newest goal will take time, as my plant is only small – so this is a call to arms for a revisiting of generosity, trades, and gifting for gardeners and collectors.

We could all use a little good luck and good fortune.

References

Mauss, M 1954, The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, Routledge, London.