I’m a Plant Murderer

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This is what plants look like when they are alive. Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

The expression goes that one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, but when my partner sent a trough of mint-colored succulents to my office one afternoon, I briefly considered escaping the country under the cover of night and leaving both him and his gift behind. The succulents were very nice to look at, but peering down at their eager little leaves all I could see was a lineup of innocent victims, unaware of their impending demise. Panic crept through my body like a vine.

I’ve been on the lam for the past ten years, a fugitive from plant justice, fleeing crime scenes that have amounted to at least 20 murders, maybe more. Unlike the supposed hordes of millennials who have taken to “parenting plants,” in my 30 years on this planet, I have never been able to keep one alive, let alone nurture it to adulthood. Since I moved to New York in 2005, I’ve introduced a new plant life into my apartment more or less every year, and every year (or every two, when I’ve been lucky) that I’ve moved, I’ve left the plant on the sidewalk for another, more caring person to take. I have come to accept that any plant that was previously under my care would find greater love and attention in the home of literally anyone else, and in some cases, leaving one of my plant prisoners on the sidewalk in New York City was probably more freeing to it than the punishment I was unwittingly administering. I’m a monster, but I’m trying to change.

My partner insisted that he’d chosen succulents in particular to send me as a gift because “you can’t kill them.” But after only a day of their spikes staring up at me, I shlepped them home to put their care back in his hands. He had unintentionally bought himself a present, and I had narrowly escaped one more accidental — but no doubt brutal — murder by my hand.

This phenomenon — of being a person who, despite unrelenting effort and following of the rules, cannot keep a plant alive — is not exclusive to me. A number of women I consulted prior to writing this piece (and strangely fewer men) said that no matter what they did, their flora and fauna refused to live. Two women told me they were given guidebooks about plants, but it wasn’t enough to rehabilitate their behavior. If I have given my plants sunlight, water, and care, why are they so eager to die? Is it a genetic condition to be horrible at caring for simple houseplants? A friend suggested the following: “Maybe it’s like when you thought someone was just really good at math naturally in school but actually they just worked a lot harder than you.” Am I not working hard enough?

I decided to seek an expert opinion. Over email, Virginia Rosenkranz, educator of commercial horticulture at the University of Maryland Extension School, explained to me that not killing a plant “really isn’t that hard,” a well-worded response to my question that doubled as a thinly veiled insult. “First, choose a plant that is happy with a bit of neglect, as you — like many women — live a crazy busy life,” she wrote, and, flattered, I let the prior insult slide. I asked Rosenkranz if she thought the gender of the caretaker influenced the ability to take care of a plant. “I think that both men and women are equally good or bad at horticulture,” she said. “I think more people overwater their plants than underwater them (unless they get too busy with life). Overwatering will kill a plant by drowning it,” she added. “Plants make oxygen for their roots to breath, but sitting in water for days will drown them.”

In revisiting my failed horticultural history, it occurred to me that I had never physically gone to a plant store and purchased my own. I had either inherited them from people who put far too much faith in me, or was asked to mind the plants that others owned (though that has only happened once, and I killed that plant, too). What if — like dogs, houses and babies — the only way to properly care for a plant is if it belongs to you? There was only one way to find out.

On a blustery Friday evening, I embarked on a journey to Home Depot to select my very own potted plants. In the front of the store, I waded through stacks of black plastic pots and big, palm-tree looking things, and a tall rolling rack of cacti and succulents. From the rows, I plucked a sturdy-looking plant and a funky-looking plant. Both contained tags that declared they were “low maintenance.” After accidentally shattering two ceramic pots, I purchased my new friends and made my way home.

There, I named each of my “children,” and also sang to them briefly, like wacky plant people do. Earl — a corn plant — was sturdy and large. Fittonia — named for one of the early female botanists — was small but bright, with light green nerves running through dark green leaves. I sat each pot proudly next to my partner’s lively plant collection.

Over several weeks, I cared for my plants as I’d been instructed, making sure to pay attention to their water needs, their preferred humidity, the right amount of sunlight. I was eager but not too eager. I was invigorated by the fact that these plants were mine, that it was my job to care for them, to nurture them, to remember that they even existed. I once spritzed Earl’s leaves with a spritz bottle — spritz spritz. Fittonia required a humid environment to survive, so I kept her in my bathroom.

With my mission underway, I sought additional plant-caring guidance from a person who could theoretically be me, in a different universe, were I to know how to take care of plants. “It’s important to have a keen sense of what conditions that you live or work in,” Summer Rayne Oakes, an environmental activist who fosters 500 plants in her Brooklyn home, told me over the phone. “Light, humidity, drafts, type of soil, and type of water” would affect my plants’ health. Watering and putting my plant in the sun had previously seemed like enough of an effort. There was apparently so much more to consider. Unlike making pizza dough — which I am good at — keeping a plant alive is not, as they say, “one and done.” I doubled down on my commitment. I did not need any more blood on my hands.

Each time I emerged from the shower, I was proud to see Fittonia doing what I will generously call “thriving.” I’d take her down from the ledge and put her in our kitchen sink like a newborn, gently lifting her leaves as I poured water into the soil. I had been instructed to check the moistness of my plants’ soil by poking my finger into it like Little Jack Horner in plum pie. I obediently did this every single day. “Not today,” I’d say. “Maybe tomorrow, though.” I sometimes swapped Earl into the bathroom for a change in environment, which I assumed plants enjoyed as much as humans. When I went out of town for one day, I asked my partner if he’d “keep an eye on my plants.” He had to restrain himself from laughing. “Okay,” he said, turning away as he shook his head. When I returned, they looked the same. A babysitting job well done.

About four or five weeks in to my new experiment, though, I noticed that one of Fittonia’s leaves was drooping. “Perhaps I overwatered her,” I thought and left her alone for a day or two. When I peeked in on her again, she appeared slightly stiffer, reawakened. I googled around and read this: “Fittonia is prone to collapse if it’s allowed to dry out, and although it will recover quickly if thoroughly watered, repeated fainting spells will eventually take their toll.” Fainting spells! How Victorian. I watered her again, and carried on with my life, confident in my parenting. (Earl, meanwhile, remained unperturbed.)

In the days that followed, Fittonia took a grave and surprisingly swift turn for the worse. Her leaves underneath had crisped up, and no amount of putting her in the sun, in the shade, or watering her, or not, could revive the rest of her wilting frame. By the end of the fifth week of plant ownership, Fittonia was less lively than wilted iceberg on a Subway sandwich. I bargained with my partner (one of the stages of grief) about changing her circumstances, repotting her, doing anything to revive what I had owned, and killed. Always diplomatic, he responded, “Earl is still alive!” By the look in his eyes, I could tell he didn’t have high hopes for him either.

They say a leopard cannot change its spots and by extension, a plant murderer is almost always going to murder the shit out of a plant. As I accepted Fittonia’s unavoidable decline, I remembered the words of Summer Rayne Oakes: “I’ve heard people say they’re the type of person who could even kill a cactus,” she’d told me at the beginning of my journey. “The reality is, I don’t shadow them. So I can’t tell if something they’re doing is off or not.” Without Summer Rayne Oakes following my every move like a ghost, there was no way to know if I was doing something right or wrong. Perhaps I had wanted so badly to be a successful plant parent because so many women on Instagram seem preternaturally good at it. Perhaps I wanted to nurture a living thing in a world that is crumbling and burning around us. Or maybe it was something more simple: Failing at something that seems like it should be easy just feels bad.

This weekend, I laid Fittonia to rest by vaulting her overhand into a patch of grass in my back yard. From the window, Earl was watching, and for a second, I thought I could see his leaves shudder.

Why Can’t I Keep a Plant Alive?