Memoirs of a Houseplant

Houseplants generate at the periphery of my attention as I lie in bed, eyes extending up, following the long vine of pothos as it frames my window with heart shaped leaves lined with yellow like stretch marks. The sun has healed it. For months it reeled from bed bug spray that covered the apartment this summer. Now it grows tentatively.

My collection of plants has become abundant over the years. When I slow down, looking out the window or trying to open it from the heater my landlady has put on full blast, then there they are. My plants are quiet in their movement.

The truth is, people with a “green thumb” who live on some planet and speak to plants are not alien, they are the substance of our own bodies. We have inherited the nature of interacting with the life, death, and digestion of plants. The interaction between them and us is symbiotic, brought down from our ancestors. Caring for plants is a matter of listening to the inherent relationship between a person an plant. We all know how sensitive an orchid is. Are you prepared to give it what it needs?

Plants communicate with us all the time in the way they stretch, the way they shrug, the way they lean. Their nourishment from the soil, water, and sun is mediated by a houseplanter. Caring takes research and it takes attention, because a home environment has the potential to be a trying one for your plant community if their needs are not being properly met. However, with informed, and, need I say, intuitive actions, plants can also thrive in home environments.

Plants require consistency, so a variety of different plants may work well with your schedule. The jade plant, for instance, requires watering and will be happy in many types of soil. The snake plant is probably one of the easiest if you are a forgetful waterer, two weeks can go by in blissfully and dry. If you are highly neurotic and worried about the plants (and everything else) constantly (who, me?), a tropical plant like a monstera or a pothos may be appropriate as they prefer damp soil.

All of this said, there may end up being a shift in your soul as an outcome of a relationship with a plant. In other words, caring for the plants may help us change our habits. The plant  visibly exudes gratitude, like any living being, for nourishment, change in soil sometimes, a stretch, some sun. Ultimately the potential of the house plant is dependent on the ability to listen to it.

I came into the plant caring business blind. Several plants died under my watch - and sometimes they truly do get sick. But I was careless towards many of them, not changing their soil often enough, not watering them on the schedule they needed. For a while, the fear of hurting the plants kept me from collecting more. But as the years go by, I am constantly taken by a plant’s ability to regenerate. With the proper care almost all plants will grow roots if a healthy leaf is placed in water.

In the end a houseplant operates as more than a piece of furniture or homely decoration. There are three purposes for houseplants: one is the beautification of the apartment, to ease the walls, to make the apartment feel alive. Beautification is a healing many of us living in apartments need. The second is for food: basil, rosemary, or sage, tomatoes if the sun is right. The third is for therapy. Horticultural Therapy is an established practice assisting patients with coordination, task initiation, communication, and memory, among other treatments. There are specialists and programs located in several hospitals and institutions throughout New York City supporting people through the caring of plants.

In a way we must be matched or match our habits to the plants with a deep sense of knowing ourselves, honesty about our limitations, and the amount we are willing to learn for their well being. To give yourself a few minutes once, or twice, a week, or maybe a minute a day to tend to plants would do them wonders. Sometimes we forget days go by. Time rolls around, time expands and contracts. “Time,” my grandfather said, on his 97th birthday, “is an accordion.” He is a musician. But he was known for the buildings he designed in New York City when the world was being split apart, when the city was being hemmed in an attempt to carefully fold certain peoples out. Robert Caro discusses a lot about this in his book The Power Broker, which describes man behind much of the structures and systems that continue to impact the society of New York City.

At the same time, in the 1950’s, the city was portrayed as a polluted place. People living very close together seemed to produce the narrative of a polluted environment. Indeed the city remains as a conceptually polluted space, driven by the narrative of unclean closeness, disease, infestation, and waste. To avoid this, there are walls built, lofts become multiple small rooms, apartments are cut in half so that families are separated from one another and still can afford to live in this city. Walls between the living are closing in, so close as to be in our faces in the form of screens.

When I am home alone I often find myself on the computer or my phone, desperately trying to produce writing, formulate emails, or just scrolling. Time is endlessly filled with consumption or production. No wonder my eyes strain, my shoulders sink forward. After hours of this, I feel sore and it’s already night - how did it get so dark! I had forgotten to look out the window, to notice the sky, the plants. To move around the apartment and inspect the plants would simply be a physical break from the screen.

Houseplants are a direct action against the belief that we are unclean when we are close together. When we are near one another we give each other the opportunity to listen, to practice how we sound when we speak. In our own language. In our own voices. Plants don’t speak English. But what we can offer one another is transcendent and liberating.

By choosing to care for a plant you are choosing to learn a different kind of listening, you are choosing to listen. All plants require this, all plants have a different voice. May houseplants be an example and a start to develop more time spent together.