By Charlotte Mendelson
For most of us, apartment dwellers and city types, houseplants are an admission of defeat. We look wistfully at plants in the supermarket—tendrils and fronds, furry flaps, spines and holes and soft neon shoots—persuading ourselves that they might bring us comfort. Is the particularly unusual leaf structure of a tapioca plant a substitute for the innocent frolicking of a small photogenic mammal? Hardly. Will a fiddle-leaf fig come when I call and lick my nose? Might a yucca plant, in time, support me during retirement? Possibly not. But the Zeitgeist’s many willing servants will try to convince you to go ahead anyway.
Photographers, journalists, and next-door neighbors claim that houseplants are the answer: babe magnet, hipster kryptonite, warmth-bringer, and reason to live, all in one. They insist that, unlike babies, partners, or pets, plants are easy; the usual sump of worry and responsibility, the constant questioning (“Do I want you? Do I like you? Will I kill you?”), doesn’t apply with peace lilies, cheese plants, and bonsai. Look at this photograph of a magnificent jungly something climbing toward a sunny skylight. “Oh, that old thing,” Jeffrey, an eco-architect, says. “I found it on a sidewalk. I water it once a year with craft beer, and that’s the lot.” Jeffrey is lying. He spends his days manicuring this photosynthesizing albatross, unable to get its mealybug problem out of his mind.
The life of the houseplant owner goes like this: first, you buy a sweet little cactus. “Water rarely,” the label says—but, come on, really? It must have grown thirsty since yesterday. So you give it a generous drink at night, pour on cold tea in the morning, and, before you know it, it’s a soggy spongelet, black of heart. Next you try supermarket herbs. But you let the rosemary dry out and the basil wilt and, within a week, both are sitting on the front step, waiting for the Second Coming, which, generally, never arrives.
And still you persist. You take in your late granny’s hideous yucca plant, a mostly etiolated stump with a couple of yellow ribbon-like leaves. You adopt the dust-clogged ficus that no one wanted at the office. Because you are a conscientious person, you read up before hitting the garden center; there’s confidence in knowing that the rainforest-derived Monstera obliqua needs a sunny, steamy room, but the fluffy asparagus fern, to which you lost your heart, requires dappled shade. Then you stagger home bearing a Chinese money plant because you heard that they’re desirable, an Alocasia “Stingray” because of its name, a small succulent labelled only as “succulent,” and a glamorous burro’s tail, which eventually sheds its jade-green leaves and starts to resemble a sad octopus. None of your rooms offers optimal conditions. The bathroom is steamy in the evenings and constantly dark. The kitchen is either boiling or freezing. You have no window sills, and all the sinks are too shallow to fit a watering can. But you can’t give up on your new companions now. You must press on.
One of the most nefarious myths—a true enemy of modern happiness—is the idea that some of us have green fingers or thumbs. Nonsense. It’s a question of care—of learning what works, observing what doesn’t, and muddling along with the survivors. The difficult truth is that, like all living things, houseplants die. Research all you like; polish leaves with moistened tissues, if you will. But soon you, too, will know the joys of tending twenty-plus houseplants in a heat wave, of ripping dead fronds from your Kentia palms and ruining your favorite copy of “The Portrait of a Lady” with the dank spillover from a watered Calathea orbifolia. Those you don’t destroy by accident, you might have to kill. In the brutal badlands of our living rooms, euthanasia is unavoidable; murder is par for the course. See that hideous aloe vera? Stop pretending; its time has come. That flagrantly ugly Sansevieria, the thyme that you fancied growing by the kettle, now a tragic merkin—say farewell to them all. Be brave. They’re not kittens.