It started, as most love stories do, with a purely aesthetic attraction. I wanted a little decoration for my student room, in the hopes of brightening up the hours I spent slumped at my desk writing my dissertation – or more accurately, gazing idly into space. Why stare into the abyss when you can stare at a beautiful succulent? My first little echeveria did make me smile, but I hardly paid it any serious attention. Cut to two years later and that little echeveria (Miranda) now lives amongst her thirty-seven houseplant neighbours, and it’s safe to say this casual fling has evolved into full-blown obsession. Orchids, succulents, bromeliads, Venus fly traps; you name it, I probably have it.
What some – tragically unenlightened – friends have called a “plant addiction” I would prefer to describe as my healthy enthusiasm for all things botanical. I can spend hours online tracking down rare plant sellers and am physically unable to finish food shopping without stopping at the plants and flowers section. My phone’s Notes app is full of to-do lists of pruning, watering and re-potting tasks. I own a houseplant journal, which I write in regularly (thirty-eight plants require a lot of individualised care instructions). Full disclosure: I’ve ordered three plants online since I started writing this. They were on sale!
As someone who previously had less than zero interest in foliage and thought garden centres were strictly for grandparents, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and how I became the type of person who recently described the RHS Flower Show as their “Disneyland”, but I will try to understand why. As a sufferer of Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, I genuinely believe this new hobby has had some benefit on the way I deal with the difficulties of living with chronic illness. The mental and physical health benefits of keeping houseplants are scientifically proven and articles proselytising air purification and boosted serotonin are abundant, but I’m not here to tell you that buying a few plants is a magical cure to your problems, chronic illness or not. What I have personally discovered in my leafy (and spiky) friends is a little extra happiness in my soul that can’t be quantified, but one that I would recommend to anyone.
It’s as Audrey Hepburn said: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”. Plants are hope incarnate. They are eternal optimists, trying to flourish and thrive no matter what adversity they face. A plant doesn’t care if its life is perfect; it just grows – no matter what the conditions. Spotting a new shoot or a flower blooming can brighten a tough day, and tends to surprise me when I need it most. Take orchids, for example: relatively easy to care for and beautiful to look at. But after a period of flowering, their blooms gradually drop until they resemble sad brown twigs and can remain so for up to months at a time. And yet, the long wait during their dormancy only makes the moment a fresh green stem appears all the more jubilant. Whatever difficulties life may be throwing at us, a reminder of change, progress and positivity in its simplest natural form always inspires a little hope.
To reach a certain level of devotion in your plant parenthood, there must come a “click” in your mind after which you recognise that your plants are, indeed, alive. It sounds simplistic, but after this epiphany there’s really no going back. Your plants are no longer mere ornaments boosting your bedroom’s #aesthetic but living beings akin to pets or humans. Narcissistically we see parallels of our own human existence in them, our struggles and our triumphs, and this makes us value and grow to love them more. Social psychologist Erich Fromm named the phenomenon biophilia; “the passionate love of life and all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea or a social group”. As a human with chronic illnesses, the wish to further growth in my houseplants can filter through into how I take care of myself. The physicality of tending to plants and then watching them thrive serves as a reminder that our human bodies and minds also need daily care that we often don’t prioritise.
Water, sunlight, food; these are the basic needs we have in common, but our mental health can also benefit from: letting go of the useless past (deadheading), surrounding ourselves with the optimal environment (rotation) and outgrowing restriction (re-potting). And, just like humans, plants get ill too. They can wilt or become infected with nasty bugs and thus need similar treatment and recovery. When my plants aren’t feeling their best, I give them extra care and let them recover in their own time; I don’t berate them for overexertion nor wallow in grief for their lost productivity, which can be my default approach to coping with my own flaring symptoms. If I can cut some insentient (debatable) plants some slack, why not afford myself the same empathy and compassion?
Nelson Mandela once said of his time at Robben Island; “A garden is one of the few things in prison that one can control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend to it and then harvest it gave me a feeling of simple happiness.” Without wanting to suggest my life is remotely comparable to being unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years in the fight against apartheid, the fundamental loss of control is a universal element that will resonate with many chronic illness sufferers. When the whims of sickness snatch authority from you over your own body and its abilities, any small semblance of order to be grasped can feel significantly empowering. The responsibility of care over a living organism can reignite a sense of purpose – something that can become misplaced when your life is disrupted by the limitations of disability.
The real beauty of working with nature as a hobby is that it doesn’t have to cost a huge amount of your money or time to reap the benefits. You don’t need to landscape a garden or harvest an allotment of vegetables; taking care of a tiny £3 cactus at home creates the same feeling of joy and fulfilment. What’s more, tending to houseplants is something you can do indoors, using minimal energy and at any time of day: the holy trinity of necessity for a bad symptoms day. You can put in as much or as little effort as you want! The next time you go to buy flowers to cheer up yourself or a friend, instead consider a houseplant. Their benefits are huge and they (should) last a lot longer.