Killing Plants

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher did a science unit on plants, and brought in a yam growing in a glass jar as a classroom display. I was fascinated by the exposed roots sprawling across the inside of the jar and the long ivy-like tendrils of leaves cascading down the side of the glass.

I had never seen anything like it, but I knew I wanted one myself. When I got home, I told my mom about the yam, and we went to the grocery store together and searched through the piles of yams until we found one skinny enough to stick inside a jar.

My glass jar yam lived for nearly a year before it died. Though I made sure to keep it watered constantly, the roots grew too thick for the jar, and eventually, it choked itself to death.

I don’t know if it would have survived had I transplanted it to a bigger pot, but at the time, it wasn’t something I would have even known how to do.

When I was five years old, my family moved from the St. Louis suburbs to a tiny town in Central Illinois. On moving day, big strange men came through the townhouse we lived in and moved everything out into the moving van, stomping all over the rooms.

Though they were big, I wasn’t scared of them until they stepped outside into the garden. I watched with dread as their big boots crushed the fragile leaves of the vegetable plants my grandparents and I had so carefully planted.

After they left and the house was empty, I tiptoed to the back to examine the damage. Though the crushed leaves were extremely upsetting, I felt most violated by something else entirely: we had been growing a small, perfect cucumber plant, and one of the movers had taken exactly one bite.

In the fading late summer sunlight, I traced the pattern of the bite marks and wailed until my grandparents came running to see what was wrong.

My grandfather had a green thumb and was passionate about gardening. Whenever he and my grandmother stayed with us in my childhood years, he was always able to turn the neglected corner of our backyard into a veritable wonderland of flowers and vegetables.

Sometimes, he would call on me to help, even though by the age of nine, I wasn’t particularly interested in getting my own hands dirty. Still, I liked spending time with him, so I would go to the yard and follow his directions.

One time, he asked me to turn over the soil and warned me not to be scared of any worms that might pop up, as they were good for the soil and the plants. I nodded and started digging.

Within a few minutes, a gigantic worm the size of a small snake came wriggling out of the freshly turned soil. I shuddered as it quivered in the sun, watching it with horror.

As soon as my grandfather looked away, I sliced it in half with the tip of my shovel.

A few months ago, I went to a Plant Nite event at a bar, where an instructor showed us how to make our very own terrarium, with three succulents. Before we began the activity, she spent nearly half an hour lecturing us on proper succulent care, talking about how they were actually quite fragile, despite seeming hardy, and went into detail about exactly how much water they needed (one teaspoon, once a month) to survive.

As I was only half listening, I only followed half of the advice, and my succulents died within a month.

A few months later, one of my co-workers gave me a second chance at owning my own succulents, presenting me with a pot filled with five new green succulents. They were beautiful, and for a few months, they survived on fluorescent light and carefully measured teaspoons of water.

Despite every post on the internet suggesting otherwise, fluorescent light proved to not be enough for my little plants, and over a period of several months, they slowly withered away under the artificial lighting on my side of the office.

When I was in California, I saw succulents the size of large hedges growing in yards. I had never seen succulents bigger than the size of my thumb and had no idea they could even get so large. I wondered how many teaspoons of water they needed to survive.

In November, my uncles and their families congregated upon our house for an impromptu gathering to celebrate the visit of my great uncle and aunt, who were visiting the United States for the first time.

The weather was scheduled to be fairly cold but still sunny, so my mother decided to take the risk of putting her plants outside so that there would be more room for people inside the house.

Among these plants were a 13 year old hibiscus plant and a 10 year old jasmine plant. It’s remarkable enough that they’ve stayed alive this long; even more so when you consider that both are tropical plants and we live in Chicago.

Within 15 minutes of putting them outside, the wind picked up and we shrieked as I watched the sky suddenly darken and sheets of sleet started pummeling my mother’s poor plants.

I was convinced that this was the end for the hibiscus and jasmine plants, but my mom wasn’t about to give up hope.

The thing to understand about my mother is that unlike me, she treats her plants with the same amount of reverent care and affection that others give to their pets.

Even though she knew they were in state of shock, over the next weeks, she invented an impromptu treatment for them that involved cutting all the dead branches, dunking them in hot water (to mimic tropical rains), and then topping it off with lukewarm water, among other steps.

As a natural skeptic and chronic plant killer myself, I asked her how she was so confident that this would work, especially since the tropical plants had taken such a severe shock to their system.

She said she didn’t know if it would work. She just believed it would.

It did.

I wonder what it’s like to have a natural green thumb, to be able to sense what it takes to carefully tend a plant, give the roots the space they need, and allow them to grow.

Plants are the Goldilocks of the natural world — too much attention isn’t healthy, but neither is too little. You have to be just right.

Unlike my mother and grandfather, I almost never have the right instincts.

I wonder if it’s possible to find the right plant for me.

I’ve always been fascinated by cacti. I’m charmed by their round prickly exteriors, so deceptively fuzzy and tempting to try and touch.

I’ve never owned one, but it often occurs to me that they must be even harder to kill than the succulents I accidentally murdered.

In fact, a friend I reconnected with recently told me that her father has kept a small cactus plant he received as a Christmas present from a nun alive for almost forty years. He lacks a green thumb otherwise.

After learning this, I seriously considered purchasing a cactus to replace my succulents. After googling “buy cactus Chicago”, I discovered that big box stores such as Home Depot and Walmart are apparently the best places to find cacti in the city, and also that winter is a pretty good time to get into the hobby.

I have yet to test out this advice, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I am strongly leaning towards spending my next few weekends walking through the plant aisles at Home Depot.

During one of the summers when my grandparents didn’t come from India to visit us, our background garden grew a little wild around the edges, and a large wild sunflower plant sprouted right in the middle of the soil.

I must have been about ten or eleven at the time, and I thought that perhaps my mother had planted it as a sort of surprise for me, but she told me that the seed must have floated in on the wind and decided to sprout all by itself.

Still, I made some attempts at caring for it, clearing the weeds around its thick stalk and watering it unnecessarily, although it already got all the hydration it needed from the summer storms that often swept through our small Midwestern town.

Ultimately, a gorgeous sunflower bloomed towards the end of July, and it stayed for several weeks before wilting.

My memories of that summer are otherwise hazy, so I can’t remember if I asked my mother to cut the flower and if she refused, preferring to let it bloom and wilt naturally, or whether we both agreed it would be a shame to cut down such a perfect blossom.

Either way, after the sunflower wilted, it didn’t grow back the next summer.

I was a little sad, but I figured the plant knew that the novelty of being a big old flower growing wild in an otherwise very organized vegetable garden would wear off if it stuck around.

Plus, it didn’t need me. It was doing fine all by itself, and I was sure that its seed children found greener pastures in which to blossom.

My ideal plant, I think, is one that doesn’t really need me, but appreciates the effort I’m putting in to make its life easier, despite the fact that my apartment doesn’t get the best sunlight and that I’m almost never home.

Maybe it’s a cactus. Maybe it’s a succulent. It’s something I still have to figure out.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll stick to fake flowers from Michael’s and Slightly Browning Fake Plants.

Those at least, I know, will never die.

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