There are the ones I left in a drafty room over a frigid New England December, only to come back from sun-baked California to their slouching, frozen corpses. The countless overwatered succulents, the root-bound vines, the pothos I just couldn’t make happy. The ones left forgotten, unwatered on my windowsill while I spent 10 days in Covid quarantine. The ones I tried, too late, to rescue; the ones I burned in the sun or let droop in the shade because I wasn’t quite sure which lighting conditions they liked best.
I cannot count how many plants I’ve killed in my 21 years on this Earth. Needless to say, I do not have a green thumb. I’ve even killed plants that were not my own, hopelessly overwatering an unfortunate cactus subjected to my care while my mother went away for a business trip.
Growing up, my house was lined with cacti. The faint memories I have of the apartment I lived in as a toddler feature a cement-covered balcony with cacti all around, breathing in the sun. Cacti were my mother’s great love. When we moved, she brought them with us, gently placing them along the new, shadier balcony. She loved them until, one day, she brought home a cactus that shot needles at her from several feet away, leaving an array of microscopic shards embedded in the palm of her hand. Since then, she’s stopped buying cacti. I felt a little sorry for the cactus, fighting with all its might to maintain its independence, some control over its world. In some ways, I could imagine how it felt, pushing against the very hands trying to keep it alive.
Although a few cacti linger on my mother’s balcony nowadays, they’re far outnumbered by succulents—cacti’s tamer, gentler cousins. There are a few scattered leafy plants in my parents’ bedroom and in the corner of the living room—a money tree tied to a curtain rod with yarn, a Monstera whose arms trail along the floor—but for the most part, there are succulents all around.
It would make sense if, used to living with a plethora of succulents, I’d seek to grow some of my own. Perhaps, I would even have picked up some of my mother’s skills with them. I’ve been told time and time again that succulents are some of the easiest plants to take care of. But, truth be told, succulents unnerve me. There’s something eerie about a plant that dies from too much care. Cacti, at least, are upfront about their standoffishness. Succulents look absolutely fine and dandy until their arms start to fall off. It’s so easy to forget about succulents, perfect little wax figurines that they are, and so easy to smother them with care. I oscillate between the two extremes, never quite hitting the right balance. No, I’d prefer a plant that can communicate its needs.
For this reason, I am not unnerved by leafy houseplants—vines, Monsteras and pothos, even the occasional snake plant (although, being close to succulents in texture, those are on thin ice). I love them—the way their expansive greenery brings life to a room, even in winter, when everything outside is on the brink of death. Despite the countless times I’ve utterly failed at plant care, I buy plant after plant, and line them up in every room—a Scindapsus weaving its arms along the windowsill, a snake plant reaching for the sky, a prayer plant with its wispy leaves folded together. There’s the plants from various soon-to-be college graduates on Facebook marketplace, which I’ve walked across the city to collect; the one from the greenhouse above BioMed; the few that came to me from who knows where. I know that houseplants aren’t, in theory, difficult to take care of. All they need is a nice soak in a bowl of water every few weeks, some sun, and to be moved to a bigger pot once in a while. I start every semester with the profound resolve to keep my plant companions alive and happy.
And yet, the moment my life starts to get busy—the moment darkness and cold start to settle over Providence at earlier hours—it all falls apart. I don’t have the energy to care for the complicated mess of a human I am, let alone the green dependents I’ve shackled myself to. They sit, wilting, on every surface, irritating little reminders of the fact that I do not have my life together. I know that, with just five minutes, I could spare them their suffering, bring relief to their parched roots (and give myself hope that I am not, after all, the most incompetent person alive—the perpetual thought pushing at the corners of my mind, keeping me stuck in this empty uselessness). There’s a part of me that knows, despite everything, that if I could just force myself to do these easy tasks, to water my plants, to move them into the light, I would feel just a smidge more human. It would be a confirmation for me that my hands are, afterall, capable of care. But somehow, this little task, like all little tasks, feels insurmountable.
So I am endlessly grateful for the ways in which, time and time again, my plants forgive me. So often, I find my life suddenly falling apart, my work undone, one too many days without doing laundry and three too many days without grocery shopping. But then, finally, I work up the energy to fill several bowls with water, to dip my dry plants with their curled up leaves into them. I watch them drink, zealously, emptying bowl after bowl of water. To be alive, they remind me, is to have needs. And the next day, they perk up, smile at the sun, at me. Not necessarily back to normal, but looking better, fuller, greener. Maybe not all hope is lost.
I share the house I live in with many plants—some mine, some not. One of my housemates grows succulents much more successfully than I ever could. Another has been propagating basil, with 10 or 20 new basil children shaking their leaves from inside paper cups. Fernando Gatsby, an asparagus fern in a large, brown pot, belongs to the house. Many people have taken care of him over the years. He’s almost died so many times but, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, keeps coming back to life. He’s survived two years of Covid, when the house was essentially deserted, summer after summer of being left with no caretakers. Watering him, watching his green, lopsided body grow larger, feels like contributing to something bigger, stronger than myself. Maybe I’m not quite so incompetent, after all—not everything I touch dies.
A few weeks ago, one of my plants—a golden pothos with long, spindly tendrils—lost an arm. A 3-foot length of green dropped off suddenly with no explanation and lay on the floor in defeat. I rescued it and put it in a glass jar full of water on the windowsill, next to a miscellaneous row of other jars and bottles with clippings of plants—the beginnings of new plants to be. I used to be terrified of propagation; it felt like a profound cruelty, to cut a piece of a living being off, separated from its main body. But I’ve learned that it’s good for them, sometimes, to let go of the old. It helps them grow fuller, and the separated bits grow new roots, establishing themselves away from their old homes. Just recently, my poor plant’s arm has started sprouting a slim, white root covered with little hairs. Still alive, still trying its best to reach for water. One day, when I work up the energy, I’ll go out to buy some soil and give the arm a new home. A new adventure for my plant. One I still believe, despite it all, that I’ll be able to keep alive. That little scrap of unkillable faith in myself—my own tiny green leaf, curling towards the sky, thin white root digging through the soil.