In the company of houseplants

I’m beginning to think there’s no amount of rule-following that can encourage a houseplant to choose (or not choose) to take part in my ecosystem.
Illustration depicts a woman with her back turned surrounded by house plants.
Illustration credit: Vivali/Getty

When the pandemic shut down Madison, I was subletting a room in an apartment on central Gorham Street with three roommates I had known for only a month. It was early April and the days had become monotonous and subdued. I logged on for class. I checked my bank account. I watched season seven of “Mad Men.” Repeat.

By that time in my life, I had slowly been growing a little collection of plants. In lockdown, I had settled quickly into a morning routine of lifting my curtains to the southeastern sunlight and gazing down at each of my plants, one by one, with an eager and searching expression. It conjures up a rather eccentric image when you picture it. I guess this was my moment to be selfishly calm, selfishly happy for just 10 minutes. Some would call that mindfulness. I felt it was a way of telling myself that I wasn’t alone. After all, these plants were part of my first pandemic bubble.

These were also the plants that had lived with me in my childhood bedroom, my college dorm and during my four months away in Denmark. They included a cactus that I had selected as my souvenir from the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee nearly 10 years ago and that had survived living in a dark corner on my desk; a pot of three little succulents (gifted to me by my high school valentine) that died from lack of light — and that I promptly replaced with look-alikes; the dragon tree and English ivy my dad gave me as a college send-off; a spider plant cutting that welcomed me home from abroad; short and plump cacti, and tall, lonesome cacti; a pot of birthday jade; and an incredibly prolific little succulent.

We hear a lot about keeping our plants alive with proper care. They say to read up on where your plant most likes to sit, mist it twice a day, feed it every other week while it’s active, leave it alone while it’s dormant, let it dry up if it has desert origins and give it a good soaking if it hails from the rainforest. But I wonder if any of this really matters. I’ve followed strict regimens to care for certain plants that eventually wound up dead. Why is it, then, that I can’t keep a pampered orchid alive, while the cactus that lives in a dark corner sticks with me for a decade? I’m beginning to think there’s no amount of rule-following that can encourage a plant to choose (or not choose) to take part in my ecosystem.

I’ve since trial-and-errored a few more plants — and two kittens — in my daily life. Most have found their niche — and a tolerance for little paws digging around their roots. I swear, plants are the closest thing we have to the mythical phoenix in the real world. When I worry I’ve killed my shamrock plant because I’ve cut back its foliage, it surprisingly springs to life with healthy threes of green. Or consider the gangly old Norfolk pine I rescued on Facebook Marketplace with a geriatric crown of drying foliage at the top of its thin 5-foot trunk. This summer, it started to stretch anew toward the sun. I’ll take that as another confirmation that these new tenants have decided to stay.

When it’s time, I repot the plants that need it, gently wiggling their root balls out of outgrown shelters. And for a few minutes I grasp them tenderly by their bases while I clip off errant and decaying roots. I hold them, and it feels intimate — living thing holding living thing. So I thank them and bid them to stay around a little longer before patting them into a new pot. These aren’t just my plants, these are my people.

Emma Waldinger is associate editor at Madison Magazine.

Newsletter Subscribe Footer22 Cover Wallpaper