I spent a summer working a few floors above a small antique and plant store during the pandemic; it passed the time and paid well enough to sustain the small, independent adventures I’d go on every few weeks or so – hikes and picnics and such. I was tasked with archiving a rather honorably-sized library – some 5,000 books – and occasionally sifting through old sketches and blueprints left behind by architects who worked there well before I was born. Sometimes, when I was needed, I would sit downstairs and work the register. Customers would regularly ask my advice on whether a certain shade of fuchsia was “too harsh on the soul,” whatever that meant, or how often to water some plant I couldn’t pronounce the name of. I never knew. Yet, the few moments I did spend downstairs made me realize just how much people value their plants, and how much they were willing to spend on them.
It amused me at first. “Plants die,” I’d always think, naive to what a green thumb was capable of. Four-hundred-dollar ficuses would exit the shop frequently, usually brushing against the sides of the sliding glass door near the entrance. Somehow, my half-charisma half-oblivious approach was convincing enough to be asked to come down again every so often.
I always thought they were pretty. I’m sure they looked great in people’s dining rooms, living rooms or libraries. I still couldn’t justify their prices or occupancy of critical space – I lived in a double at the time – but I at the very least understood their aesthetic purpose.
Two years and far too many air plants later, I now understand the virtues of houseplants.
I recently reflected on interior design and its benefits on one’s space and mental wellbeing more generally. I’ve come to realize where plants fit into this argument, somewhere underneath the umbrella of decor – a niche or subset perhaps. Subtly, they stand unnoticed yet necessary, somewhere in a corner or perched atop a window’s ledge. Some establish nobility; the gladiolus that line The Breakers, for one, regal and giraffe-like. Others sit modestly; the peace lily beside my grandmother’s piano hardly caught your eye until it gently kissed your arm while playing a higher octave.
Plants offer a lesson. I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes about the plant-to-pet-to-child pipeline, with caring for plants serving as the introductory practice of protecting and nourishing a life dependent on oneself. There’s plenty of truth to this idea; plants are much more replaceable than their counterparts. They may not whine or cry when they’re hungry, but there are certainly lower stakes in the game. Sun and water make for a simpler diet than formula or whatever animals eat these days – my mother feeds our bulldog honeycrisp apples regularly. The chance to evaluate one’s abilities to protect life in a casual way is not to be reckoned with for future pet or child caretakers.
Culturally, people bring in houseplants as their own kin. We’ve all swiped left on a few too many plant dads on Tinder – or right, if you’re into matcha and manipulation. The phenomenon of assigning value and appreciation to houseplants like that of children, rather than an emphasis on ownership, illustrates a centuries-old relationship between human and plant-kind taking on its newest, 21st century form.
This is all without diving into the scientific benefits of having plants around. Serving as natural air purifiers, indoor plants help to combat allergies by filtering out harmful pollutants such as ammonia and formaldehyde, both of which contribute to congestion and other allergy-like irritations. Further, interactions with plants may lead to decreased stress levels, as well as to potential speedy recoveries from physical illnesses.
Holistically, the plants in my life have contributed positively to each of these factors and then some. The quasi-caretaker role they’ve propelled me into – as someone who is incapable of most things, including taking care of myself – has shed some profound insights into my own life as well. In many ways, we are all houseplants; food, water and sunlight are all necessary for our survival, and we find ourselves weak without the right amount. Surrounding myself with plant life has reminded me of what a little sun can do for us humans, as daily walks or time sitting on the roof above my garage – it’s not that far from the ground, don’t worry – all help to center my frame of mind for the day. Plus, it feels good to sway in the breeze every once in a while.