Monday, April 11, 2011

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Houseplant


A piece of furniture, to sit in a particular location and occupy space in an interesting way. Favored by photographers, the wealthy, realtors, TV producers, artists, office workers.


An air-cleaning appliance, to remove chemicals in the air, or chemicals one imagines to be in the air. Favored by the paranoid, the urban, those with multiple-chemical sensitivity, office workers, owners of new homes.


An interloper, which belongs outside, planted in the soil, but is for some reason indoors where it doesn't belong, being all unnatural and stuff. I've only seen this in Amy Stewart and Michele Owens of Garden Rant, though I suppose this interpretation might appeal to people with very rigid opinions about Where Things Go, or those who have previously had bad luck with indoor plants.


Money, or at least potential money. Endorsed by obsessive hobbyists who have reached the point of hoping that the obsession could at least partly pay for itself, or who are trying to convince a family member that it's a good idea to open more space up for plants; also adopted by retailers, wholesalers, and their employees.


A victim, or object of guilt. Popular with beginning indoor gardeners, the very busy, the recently-vacationed, the easily-distracted, the overly-confident, and those who did not do the research before purchasing.


A (hypothetical) weapon. This could be something only I think about, but I've given enough thought to which of my plants could be used in self-defense that I think I make up for all the people who don't think about it at all. People inclined to this stance are obviously paranoid, threatened, inclined to fantasies of themselves being heroic, or some combination thereof.


A chore, a never-ending task, an obligation, a duty. Favored by those who have received plants as gifts, those who thought they'd like a houseplant better than they actually do, those with hectic, complicated lives that mostly revolve around taking care of others, those who have collected more plants than they can reasonably take care of, the dysthymic, the exhausted.


A memento of someone who has died, moved, or otherwise gone somewhere else. Favored by the recently (or not-recently) bereaved, the involuntarily lonely, the sentimental, the hopeful.


Absolution for one's environmental sins. Did you clear-cut a 300-year-old forest to make room for your McMansion and its 5-SUV garage? Buy a couple peace lilies and all is forgiven. This perspective is preferred by those with long, solitary commutes, those who sometimes forget to recycle, and those who don't know how much fossil fuel is involved in making a plastic pot, putting a plant into it, shipping the plant 1500 miles across the country, heating and/or air-conditioning the store, making the plastic bag the plant gets put in, and burning the gasoline in the car to get the plant back to the house.


A magic charm, which attracts luck, wealth, happiness, wisdom, or some other positive, unattractable characteristic. The preferred interpretation of cynical marketers, who are somehow able to ignore the fact that the original ranges of the plants in question are often inhabited by people who are very poor, unlucky, or miserable, by comparison to the intended buyers of the plants.


One checkbox on a long list of plants to be checked off. Favored by hoarders, collectors, competitive types for whom dying with the most plants means winning, obsessives.


An object of wonderment. Preferred by those who start plants from seed, who didn't know their plant could flower, children, scientists, artsy-fartsy types (not as far from scientists as you might think), stoners, the easily impressed.


Nature itself! A small piece of rain forest, brought into one's home! Favored by pretty much anybody who doesn't look at them as interlopers or furniture.


Ginny Burton said...

Wonderful post! Does this mean you're a Wallace Stevens fan?

Pat said...

Excellent post. I am mostly 12 and 13 with a little 6, though at the moment the only weaponisable one is the blood orange with 3 inch thorns. I have had bromeliads that would be very good weapons.

Does "your happy place" fit under 13? When I am stressed at work I think of my new little Ceropegia linearis ssp woodii seedlings.

I haven't mentioned that I have a new job now, have I? I know I mentioned being unemployed for some reason.

Geoffrey said...

The funny thing is that last night I read an article called "7 Houseplants You Simply MUST Own" (or something to that effect) that touted houseplants as super effective air cleaners.

I hate benzene and formaldehyde as much as the next guy, but I really do agree that air-cleaning house plants are for the paranoid. (There is no scientific basis for my opinion.)

El Gaucho said...

Very thoughtful post indeed. I need to back and decide which category(s) I fit into. I tend to take the orphaned and outcast plants from friends and relatives and probably have too many for my own good.

mr_subjunctive said...

Ginny Burton:

Not particularly. I don't hate him either, but I'm not a huge fan of poetry in general. The main exception to this is Louise Gluck: The Wild Iris and Meadowlands were both influential on me.


Actually, lately the plants have been feeling to me mostly like Chore, Money, Victim, and Checkbox.


I don't have a problem with people buying plants to clean the air in their homes, and don't think it's necessarily paranoid, but I'm bothered by the marketing that reduces plants to the level of a toaster. If your only thought when buying a plant is what the plant can do for you, then you're not particularly focused on what you're supposed to do for it to keep it healthy, are you?

I should maybe revisit the air-cleaning-plant thing sometime. My thinking about it has changed a little since I wrote about it last.

El Gaucho:

We'll call that #14, maybe.

Anonymous said...

I think I fall in the Artsy-fartsy, Nature!, and OCD (Obsessive Collecting Disorder) categories. :-)

Kenneth Moore said...

I... I can't decide. I'm all of the above, but it depends on the plant or collection of plants you're talking about...! Maybe I have plant-related MPD. :P

Anonymous said...

I'm not just just how many other ways I could think of that you haven't mentioned, but two that jump out at me immediately are :

14. A pet...

15. A challenge....


elizabethneubauer said...

You are not the only one to think of plants as a weapon. I was a single gal, living on my own and a little nervous about it so I put cacti in front of both windows (on the inside). No one ever tried to break in but I did sleep better at night.

Sentient Meat said...

14. Companions, pets. Non-locomotory? Sure. And beyond rootedness, slow moving compared to Animalia. But the Plantae are complex and responsive living creatures. They reward nurture.

Jenn said...

Excellent post!

Long Haired Lady Rider said...

Oh this is a great post, Mr. S, kudos!

My partner is mostly 5, and therefore does not want me to throw away the tiniest sickly seedling or the brownest crispiest most bug infested potful of dead plant. We have had arguments about rescuing plants! Sometimes he's an 8, too.

I fall into:

1: I aspire to have a nice-looking house, but instead I have a plant filled house...

7: The nicer the plants are and the more of them there are in bloom, the less I feel this way.

11: I get this way about gesneriads in general and currently I am this way about Eucodonias.

13: Well, yeah, especially when the sun is shining in through the skylights and the house does look like a jungle and I'm OK with that look at that moment.

but mostly I'm at 12. When I walk into my plant room just to look and not to do cleaning or maintenance or other 'must-do's' I am completely entranced by each plant. That feeling is why I grow them.

Nancy in Sun Lakes AZ said...

Terrific post and I'll bet it took a long time to think about and create.

Ivynettle said...

1. I should be ashamed, but yes, I do that to some extent (Dracaena 'Riki', I mostly wanted it because it'd look nice next to the couch)

2. Nope. They may clean the air, but the damn things get dirt all over the floor!

3. Only when it comes to my ivy collection. They're only indoors because I don't have a garden.

4. Yup. I just wish our customers would buy more houseplants.

5. Sometimes.

6. Does it count if I want to throw them at stupid customers? Though that's more the pot/rootball than the plant itself. I suppose the Beaucarnea might make an OK club.

7. Frequently.

8. Not of lost loved ones, but of people and places I've lived or worked, yes.

9. Actually, I think of them more as an environmental sin - all that water they need...

10. *snort*

11. Ooooh yes.... *looking around guiltily*

12. Definitely!

13. Also, definitely!