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Monstera deliciosa, Chinese palms, money tree: houseplants feed my mental health

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Last December, I inadvertently discovered a new hobby. My parents were moving to another house and I made the decision to steal my mom’s favorite Money Tree, a tropical indoor plant. I don’t know why I did it because to be frank I hated plants. From my childhood to my teenage years, I complained about the smell of dirt. Of course, no one seemed to feel it except me. I have also always been stuck with watering them as a chore. I never understood my mother’s intimate relationship with her plants. I used to joke with her saying, “If you had taken care of me like you took care of your plants, I would have become an astrophysicist!” (I assumed this was the highest level of intellect one can attain.)

During the pandemic, however, that changed. I had to find a distraction from a world filled with fear and paranoia.

I was a social butterfly, but the isolation I felt made me feel like it was impossible to take care of relationships with people. And so, I decided to broaden my green horizons and put together an impressive collection of houseplants. My apartment was filled with tropical greenery: arabica coffee, alocasia fryderyk, money tree, umbrella tree, Chinese palms, and a 10ft Monstera deliciosa.

A snowy week in the middle of winter, I took a three day trip but forgot to completely close the balcony door to my apartment. My houseplants are extremely sensitive to the slightest drop in temperature because they come from tropical or semi-tropical environments. Plants are ambitious by nature, but they couldn’t take such a destructive blow. I returned to a catastrophic scene. My fragile houseplants were withering and withering, they were all deeply damaged. I felt utter and utter grief. Then I took a closer look, to see how terrible the damage was.

My arabica coffee has wilted like overcooked, black, shriveled spinach. The fronds of my Chinese palms were dry and brown, I could almost hear the plant screaming in misery. My Money Tree was the most resilient, struggling vigorously against the cold. He dropped his leaves, but I could tell he was only sleeping because he had a firm, healthy trunk.

I was devastated by my forgetfulness and destruction. For some, they were just plants; but for me, these houseplants were my saviors. During the miserable pandemic, I developed severe depression and picking plants gave me the nurturing role I have always wanted. These plants became an important part of my life as I watched their daily growth. I saw myself in my houseplants, if you take care of them, they will last and live with you for a long time. Treating them was my first step towards recovery. My cat, Peanut, also loved my houseplants. He was even starting to stop his obnoxious habit of chewing and throwing up their leaves.

Finding out that they were dead because of my carelessness shocked me. I started to think it was a sign that my dark days were coming back. Just as I was about to cry to death, I turned to see that my umbrella tree was in perfect condition. I had missed it before by focusing on all the faded leaves. My eyes filled with tears, I distinctly remember kissing its narrow leaves.

That night I called my mom and told her what had happened. She knew not to play the blame game this time, so she quickly ran to get help from Dr Google. She explained to me that a plant gives up its leaves to save itself, and she reassured me that my plants have a good chance of surviving. She helped me understand the technique of cutting roots in water.

“A plant abandons its leaves to save itself. It sounded like a contradictory statement, but it made perfect sense to me because I was there myself, I did it too. A month before this incident, I quit my dream job because my health was deteriorating. I too could not extend my holidays because of a cold and unfair world.

My plants were abandoning me, but I wasn’t going to let them go without a fight. I stayed awake that night figuring out how to save my plant and download plant tracking apps. I watered the injured plants, replaced the soil, added fertilizer, and made sure the roots did not rot.

“Please wake up my love,” I whispered to my Arabica coffee. “I will never let you down again, I promise.” I kissed him good night and put all my trust in tomorrow’s hands.

I fell asleep on the sofa with charcoal hands it was the best sleep I had had in a long time. I woke up on a majestic morning, a morning of miracles. Most of my plants were alive again. My Arabica coffee was standing and smiling, my heart was dancing and my feet were dancing too. I gathered all my plants under the radiant sun of my living room.

I cried a bit as I whispered, “I can do anything.”

Sama Ab lives in Calgary.


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