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31.07.2018

I’ve been suffering from an illness that has no name. It’s been at least two years. Baldly, it’s that whenever I see a cushion, jug, iPhone cover, tote, lunchbox or serving tray that commodifies nature, I have to have it. I now own J. Crew palm dresses, most of Nicobar’s Ceylon themed cushions, vintage lemon drawings from Etsy, prints that feature the insides of tropical fish, and a variety of rattan, bring-the-outside-in accessories from Cult Gaia.

This same ailment compels frequent visits to a chic co-working space featuring a fertile wall decal with painted hibiscuses and a monkey to look over my shoulder while I type. Finally, a few days ago, I walked in to Home Center and almost picked up their cut-price, very affordable Erika palm teapots. I realized I had gone too far. And it wasn’t just because my taste radar felt the ‘trickle down and die’ alarm belatedly go off.

I spoke to a design doctor, and asked him to diagnose my illness. He didn’t have an answer, but concurred that the mass production of pineapples – a plague that we hoped would die after it first infected large numbers of home decorators, costume jewellers and print-makers in 2013– continues to spread like tick fever, and is part of the same problem. He also assured me that I wasn’t alone. A quick read of Pinterest stats confirm that the sale of botanical prints has gone up some 300% in the last year. Leaving his office, I tried to find comfort in numbers, but I didn’t need either the reassurance or the excuse. What I needed was treatment—and someone to pay my credit card bill.

The first step to treatment is identification, I thought, so I gave the problem a name: it’s called Botanicapitalism, and I’m a victim.

Botanicapital perturbs in special ways. While self-diagnosing, I looked back at historical representations in the botanical marketplace, and confirmed that the conjunction of flora and product has always had appeal.  Like William Morris’ Strawberry Thief - a reaction to Victorian industrial production - brings me nothing but delight, as did much of Morris’s other studio work which translated English garden paradises on to glorious wallpaper and lavish textiles. Then, I ask: why does the gold pineapple lamp on the Label Life website instigate dry heaving, while a hand-woven Leetchi sari I spotted at a recent show from revivalists Swati and Sunaina’s collection, becomes something I would kill for?

While they may both be woven into a history of commodifying nature, they are not both botanicapital, or if they are, they occupy such different categories of consumption that they shouldn’t be under the same umbrella. Botanicapital is different. For one, historically, there was back-breaking labour involved in producing many of the botanical design objects, at odds with the lazy, mostly digital commodification of today. Secondly, the motifs themselves have changed drastically, having gone from depicting mainly un-gettable exotics to the pedestrian “tropical” leaf. And finally, it seems like the main consumers of these objects, millennials, use botanicapital to borrow a certain naturalness, owning palm-leaf throws while secretly killing their plants; other more successful ones attend bring-your-plant-a -party events and think of themselves as ready parents.

Botanicapital is disturbing. It involves very little work and it still manages to do the trick. Maybe this is why it feels like prettied up cheating - a short cut to enjoying nature without moving at all. Increasingly, with depictions of the ordinary palm leaf – versus exotic, un-gettable fruit –the distance required to move seems even shorter than apartment to terrace, let alone India to coastal Africa. Maybe Alexa will even pick the leaves for you. The core trouble lies in this: while the shortcut is more severe, the beauty is so little compromised that it’s unnerving.

For my personal angst, I’m getting the medicine that treats shortcuts, a kind of history pill in combination with something that reminds me that moving is part of being, and those experiences together, help us consider what has durable beauty. Not buy and get an itch later, beauty.

Let’s just hope the meds are not as pretty as the trend.

This story was contributed by Meher Varma.

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