Growing plants is a “stretch goal” for me. I kill plants. It’s what I do. I can even kill silk plants; all it takes is a good vacuum cleaner.
I grew up during the height of the 1970s houseplant fad. Apparently, it’s making a comeback, fueled by Millennials, and people are noticing but struggling to figure out why. My theory? Heightened awareness of the environment. During the 1970s, we were facing oil shortages and pushing for development of alternative energy sources. People focused on the environment: passing laws to eliminate littering, exploring alternative energy sources, joining efforts to “save the seals” and “save the whales” – in short, they were in a mood to nurture nature. They recognized, too, that if they nurtured nature, it might nurture them back. Or at least let them live.
Watch for macrame to make a comeback, too. What self-respecting, viney houseplant doesn’t want to hang from the ceiling in a showpiece macrame plant hanger? Better yet, learn to make your own!
For those of us who don’t have pets, houseplants are the next best thing. They require quite a bit of care – making sure they don’t get eaten by bugs (do they make Advantix for houseplants??), making sure they have food and water – but not too much of either, making sure to talk to them (or not).
Many people talk to their plants while they water them. Usually, people who talk to their plants believe that plants can pick up on their good intentions. This is a relatively common practice, as human beings tend to anthropomorphize, or give human qualities to non-human life forms or objects. While there is no evidence to suggest that plants respond to affection, some plants do have a limited ability to communicate with one another. Though plants lack the ability to receive and process sound waves, evidence suggests that some plants can communicate with each other through the use of chemical signals. Additionally, vibrations that travel through the soil or in the air may have an effect on plant growth. It may be possible for plants to pick up on the vibrations created by human speech and maybe even by the chemical signals that humans release without knowing it.
Perhaps we benefit more than the plants: caring for living things that are not at all like us, feeling empathy for them when they wither, and suffering pangs of guilt when they die. Understanding that we have a responsibility for them – that our neglect or abuse can cause death. We can see that how we interact with other living things – whether we nurture them or neglect them – has a direct impact on whether they wilt or thrive. It isn’t a stretch to see that we do this to people. In this sense, it’s probably good that we do tend to anthropomorphize, when it comes to houseplants.
Then again, if plants were people, I should never have been allowed to have children.
I recently felt the urge – perhaps because those children are now grown, living on their own, far from home – to fill a little corner of the house with plants. I started with the spider plant. There were three plants I learned, as a child, were nearly impossible to kill: the spider plant, the purple zebrina, and the asparagus fern. You really have to work at it to kill those – it may actually be easier to kill an artificial houseplant.
The purple zebrina in the photo above all started out as one horribly root-bound hanging houseplant my husband picked up for me at the garden center. If you want to kill this plant, letting it turn into a thick, tangled mess may be the secret to doing it. It looked amazing, but I could tell, underneath the foliage, that it wasn’t happy and healthy. I immediately started snipping and rooting cuttings. (I did learn that purple zebrina is susceptible to root rot, so it may be best to stick cuttings directly into damp potting soil than to start them in water, paper towels, and a Mason jar, but either works – if you don’t leave them, too long, in a wet environment.)
Pothos is another easy-to-grow, hard-to-kill, common houseplant. It may actually do better in polystyrene, fertilized by cheap paper towels, drinking office tap water, and soaking up the artificial flavors and coloring of fluorescent lights than it does in good soil and natural sunlight. This could be why it is so prevalent in indoor, corporate gardens. It’s cheap, easily replaced, and thrives on abuse.
That little juniper bonsai tree is my current “stretch goal.” A birthday gift from my brother-in-law, who either has immense, unwarranted faith in me, or harbors a little sadistic streak towards plants. Not only have I managed to keep it alive for over a month, it’s sporting bright new green growth and threatening to grow into a full-sized tree unless I learn how to properly trim and guide it. But part of me wants to see what direction it takes and just how far it can grow.