Confessions of a Houseplant Addict
Only two years ago, when I was finishing my memoir of gardening obsession, “Rhapsody in Green,” I claimed that I had no time for houseplants. Prickly, diminutive, macramé-reliant: I’d rarely been less tempted by anything. Or so I believed. Dimly, I noticed that the press and social media were filling with accounts of mustachioed creative types with nine hundred ferns; that every coffee shop and office lobby had ditched the cool neutrals and installed, among the neon and crates, psychotic-looking Sansevieria cylindrica, a row of tragic houseleeks, a couple of tall dusty ficuses like the ghosts of happy trees.
But I am a late adopter, so uncool I’m cool. Fashion? I scoff at it. So, even when I was seized by a strange, Zeitgeist-y compulsion to buy, experimentally, a string of hearts, or Ceropegia woodii, I knew I’d never love it. It was dryish, grayish, inedible: What was the point? Like an innocent born to a house of hard drinkers, given her first taste of the booze she was doomed to adore, I thought I was safe. I fashioned a little hook for the plant in my study, right next to my desk, and vowed to ignore it, which I did: several times a day.
Have you ever watched a toddler try a lemon? I recommend it; she’ll have a suck, scrumple up her face like a banshee, then try another taste. To distract myself from strawberries at a local plant sale, I bought, as aversion therapy, a grotty aloe vera. “Good for burns,” everyone says, as if there is any domestic wound between Ignore and Emergency. The butcher was selling home-reared Chinese jade plants, horrible rubbery things, for charity. I’m not a monster; I bought two. Then I spotted a reddish sedum dangling unloved from a crack in the railway bridge. My godmother’s stephanotis needed foster care. A glossy, deep-purple Aeonium arboreum Zwartkop came home with me because . . . well, by this stage, I’d run out of becauses.
Call this slope slippery? Watch me polish it to a sheen. This year, despite the mild London winter, I decided that my scented pelargonium “attar of roses” was too delicate to sit outside. I’d always meant to try sprouting an avocado; suddenly, I have three. Might the cat prefer homegrown cat grass? I was sprinkling oat and wheat groats on organic compost in rather a nice old terra-cotta pot within an hour of having the thought. Now I sadly scan the shelves in charity shops, longing to retrieve the ceramic pot holders that, when my grandmother died, I recklessly surrendered. The park near my home is scattered with shiny and pickupable conkers, as rich and russet as a healthy pony flank; yesterday, I found myself standing, like an absent-minded flamingo, transfixed by the sight of a pink shoot emerging from a broken shell. It would either be trodden on or uprooted. I remembered seeing, and sneering at, on Instagram, a hipster’s windowsill on which baby horse-chestnut trees sprouted in jars of water. I’d thought it cruel to the poor plants, but, wait: Could it actually be a kindness?
And, with the clarity of love, I can’t stop thinking about the Swiss-cheese plant that, in my secular Jewish childhood, we draped with tinsel every Christmas. Recently, on the way to write in the British Library, I accidentally entered a small and dismal florist. They had one for sale; this seemed significant, even if the British Library guards were curiously immune to its charms. Now it lives by the sofa: dark, glossy, splendid. “Have you seen its holes?” I croon to startled visitors, polishing a leaf with my sleeve.
Actually, I’m getting worried; I’ve started fantasizing about a trip to ikea’s extensive houseplant section. It seems that rock bottom might soon be reached. And, yes, I know there’s always hope, if the addict wants to change; I almost do. I’m nearly there. I honestly think that with just one burro’s tail, and maybe a Calathea, I’ll be ready.