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How I Became A Plant Person

Caring for plants and helping them to thrive can be challenging. Especially when you dont

know what you're doing, especially when YouTube advice can only get you so far. Have you ever fought for the life of a plant?

Not everything in your life has to be seen as a drama. But there are moments when you can't help feeling that you are in one. When my gardenia got sick, it caused me the same anguish you would feel for a person. Its distress was palpable, the damage catastrophic. In mortal peril, and still she wanted to flower. I could do nothing to help when all the buds turned black and fell off. Her leaves yellowed, first the tips, and then like an ocean tide, she was awash in jaundiced leaves. They fell off so quickly that in a week’s time, the plant, whose green depths I had enjoyed looking into, was a stark and paltry thing on crooked stilts.

For many weeks, she agonized. My cures were as likely to kill her as the original affliction. In her weakened state, I had to give her a transfusion of all-new soil and some medicines. I cut off everything that would divert energy from her recovery, any leaf or cluster that was struggling. I felt this was as literal as it was metaphorical. How many times had I done this same thing in my own life?

I let her have the twelve o’clock sun in her usual place under the window, but at two, I would move her to the shelf besides the washing machine, when the sunlight was more intense. I could tell these daily sunbaths were helping her.

How can I describe that sensation of knowing? I was never good with plants. To be left in my care was a guaranteed death sentence. This was not deliberate, and it was not for lack of trying. Regardless of my research, there I was, unable to reverse the death spirals my plants went into. I swore off gardening and gave myself the sobriquet of The Plant Killer.

It was, therefore, not me challenging myself when I turned my living room into a garden. I just needed plant life around me. Of course, there is an aesthetic and psychological aspect to this. The beauty of fifteen plants gracing my home was appealing, and so was using them to reclaim my space when I abruptly found myself living alone.

Yet there was something else going on, something curative about this more subtle energy, less noisy than, say, a dog or a cat. Although I was to discover that plants are even more demanding and complicated than domestic pets. And I was Miss Plantslayer, so to be the owner of a gardenia was a risk and a big deal for me. Ballsy. Gardenias are difficult to grow.

This one was in perfect condition when I brought it home, lushly verdant, its shiny leaves pointing slightly upwards, and every inflorescence holding three of four little buds that exploded one after another in a flowery cascade of creamy white petals. Their intense scent evoked voluptuous pleasure. The favorite flower of Lady Day. I photographed her incessantly, in all her stages, even when she was dying.

Months passed, and she clung on in a kind of stasis. No fresh growth, no new death. I imagined her dreaming in a deep, restorative sleep. I gave her the medicine and her sunbaths on the balcony. She looked funny with no leaves, lopsided. Only three three-leaf clusters remained on the right-side bifurcation of the main stalk.

Then in May, she made many little leaves. It was an encouraging sight, but it was tentative. Not all of them survived. I held my breath, so to speak, and just a few weeks later, new buds appeared, then a hat trick, three blooms, overnight. I couldn’t believe it.

What amazes me about plants is how they move on their own. The gardenia responded so well to the fertilizer; it was like the reverse process of the illness. Daily, new leaves grew quickly and in unison, like an orchestra tuning up. As she got stronger, the branches stretched and changed shape, so that she was symmetrical again.

Five months have passed, and she is still sparse, but she raises her leaves towards the open window, much like cats who hold their tails aloft when they’re happy. Believe it or not, it’s had a cathartic effect on me.

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