My houseplant garden is a tiny national park Donald Trump can never destroy

I may not be able to save the world from Donald Trump, but I can save my plants from root rot and spider mites

Published March 21, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Young Adult Woman At Home Watering Indoor House Plants (Getty Images)
Young Adult Woman At Home Watering Indoor House Plants (Getty Images)

I write this from a rented cabin in rural Montana; it is February and the snow falls quietly, constantly. A hope philodendron stands in the window of the loft bedroom, the largest and healthiest I have ever seen in real life, almost five feet tall. The leaves are long, rippled hands grasping at an invisible sun, so enormous that they seem almost alien. The plant is beautiful, but it is more than that: its presence here in Montana, in the middle of winter, feels incongruous, inexplicable, and therefore magical. The hope philodendron, or Philodendron bipinnatifidum, is native to the hot, damp rainforests of South America, not to the cold, dry mountains of Montana. It is warm in the cabin, thanks to the wood-burning stove, but it is far from equatorial and anything but humid. I am reminded of the cliché "bloom where you are planted" that I've seen emblazoned on kitschy wooden signs in garden stores and I can't help but see the philodendron as both a miracle and a metaphor.

In Donald Trump's America, where we wake up to a new assault on human rights, the environment, and the constitution every day, the simple fact that a rainforest plant can still grow beautiful and strong in the middle of winter becomes soaked with meaning. In the strange, hallucinogenic days after Trump's inauguration, it was something of a shock that life went on. And in the midst of the daily catastrophes since then, life has continued to go on for those of us privileged enough to escape experiencing firsthand the effects of his harmful policies. We have kept about the business of growing our small lives, maintaining our small universes, reaching for the light, rooting into parched, hardened earth. The world is on fire, but we tend to the small infernos of our personal realities because most of us can do little about global warming or the children in cages at the border. We can renounce single-use plastics, we can donate to or even canvass for our representatives, we can rant about the world on social media, we can march, but these actions seem to do little to tip the scales in favor of human decency. We are powerless.

A few years ago, the hope philodendron in the cabin in Montana where I have come to escape the world would be nothing more than a well-placed item of decor to me. I fell in love with houseplants recently, along with many of my generation. Thirty-seven percent of millennials grow plants indoors, and they made up eighty percent of the five million people who took up gardening in 2015. Many have offered valid reasons for this: Jazmine Hughes wrote in the New York Times of houseplants as "fertile ground" for practicing adulting, even for finding yourself. Plants are inherently photogenic, and therefore fruitful fodder for social media posts. They have become symbols that we are on top of everything, that we are grown up, that we can keep something alive, that we care about our homes and our health, that we are going to be alright. There is also the high concentration of millennial populations in urban areas, where lives carved out of windowless shoebox apartments provide little opportunity for exposure to nature, which no doubt drives some of the attraction to houseplants. There is also the well-documented millennial obsession with wellness and self-improvement and the emerging science proving the benefits of growing plants on mental health.

These are all legitimate reasons, but the hope philodendron in the cold Montana window whispers another truth. It holds a lesson within the tumescent cells of its graceful leaves and thick stems, secrets in its soil. I think of the final scene of Voltaire's "Candide," where Candide has ended his philosophical quest at the home of Martin, a farmer who prides himself on a simple life free from vice. Candide's philosopher companion Pangloss offers an analysis of their odyssey, and Candide responds, "All that is very well, but we must cultivate our gardens."

Does the hope philodendron know anything of the impeachment trial, of the national monuments in Utah sold off for drilling rights, of the children in cages at the border?

Sometimes, it can feel surprising that any beauty still exists in the world. It can feel wrong to keep cultivating our gardens while the world shatters outside our windows.

I begin each day by taking a mental inventory of whatever horrors Trump has committed since I have been asleep, scrolling through news outlets and social media on my iPhone, even though I know that this probably bad for my mental health. There is evidence that Trump's presidency has had a negative effect on the mental health of many Democrats, with 72% of those surveyed in one study reporting an increase in anxiety since he has taken office. Sometimes, it's enough to make me not want to get out of bed. But then I remember my plants.

I have acquired a collection since I first got into houseplants: ten or so succulent cuttings I propagated from my parents' garden, a proud elephant ear, a stalwart marble queen pothos, a curly variegated spider plant that looks like a bad wig, an adorable variegated string of hearts, a tiny ruby cascade like a bowl of jewels. After reading the news, it is time to attend to my indoor garden, to do the work of keeping my plants alive: the trimming and the watering and the fertilizing. This work is meditation, a way of going on.

My mother told me recently that the only other time in her life when houseplants were this popular was the 1970s. The 1970s saw one of the few other presidential impeachments, as well as economic and cultural upheaval and bloodshed. Young men were sent to die in a war they didn't believe in, and young women were raped and murdered on silent two-lane highways. Control was hard to come by, power even harder.

My houseplant garden is a tiny national park that Donald Trump can never destroy.

In times of rapid change, destruction and sadness, small things become symbols, microcosms. The home, a nation unto itself, falls easily into the pitfalls of synecdoche. I grew up thinking that a messy home meant a messy mind, a messy life. So often I saw my own failures at housekeeping as a symbol for my failures to get my life together after graduate school. I would be damned if my home took on the state of my broken country. When nowhere feels safe, Maslow's hierarchy is reorganized and the need for a sanctuary is like food or water or the air we breathe.

* * *

I can do little to change the world, but I can keep most houseplants alive. In my home, I am president, I am god. I wield the power of the thermostat, the humidifier, the suns and moons of my home. I provide the earth beneath my plants. I bring the rains in my watering can. In my home, I have control. I may not be able to save the world from Donald Trump, but I can save my plants from scourges like root rot and spider mites.

Keeping my small, green children alive fills me up after I am emptied by the morning's news. Like many Democrats, I suffer from bouts of Donald Trump Stress Disorder. There is significant evidence that owning houseplants, and more than that, engaging in the tasks of nurturing plants, has profound benefits for mental health. Exposure to houseplants can be a stand-in for exposure to nature, and numerous studies have noted that respondents reported higher levels of calm and well-being after spending time with plants. Proponents of "earthing," or skin-to-skin contact with soil argue that this practice reduces anxiety. Touch is often required to take care of plants — the plunging of a finger into soil to ascertain moisture levels, for example, and while there may be scant scientific evidence of the benefits of earthing, I can anecdotally confirm that this contact with foliage and dirt brings me a new kind of peaceful awareness.

Writer and scholar bell hooks famously wrote of "touching the earth" as a means for connecting with her ancestors, for healing from oppression, for correcting the "estrangement between mind and body" that was symptomatic of the Great Migration. As much as the rich soil of the South fed the enslavement of black people and sustained the bloody business of sharecropping, she argues that a return to working the earth is a return to the primordial work of her people before slavery, before generations of pain.

All of us are descended from plant workers. It was the cultivation of plants that turned hunter-gatherers into civilizations. As a white woman, I do not have trauma typed into my DNA. But there is something about growing my plants that just feels right and natural, a return to a purpose more ancient than trees. I research the care of every plant I own, I measure moisture levels with a meter. But it is instinct that drives my hand toward the watering can, or repositions a particular plant to get more sun — a reliance on wisdom that feels more hard-wired, collective, prehistoric than Google-gleaned. There is relief, intoxication, even temporary salvation in this kind of brainwork that so differs from the frontal lobe activities that dominate the rest of my day.

The repetitive, tactile nature of the work of plant care becomes a meditation. The Buddhist creators of Zen gardens in the sixth century knew this. Zen gardens were set up as places for meditation, but nirvana can also be found in the daily tasks of maintenance. As someone who struggles to meditate in the traditional sense, I can fully inhabit the present moment while taking care of my plants in a way that usually escapes my tangled mind that too often insists on rumination. When I water and prune and pluck and plant in the silence of the morning, there is only the feeling of the soil at my fingertips, only the green foliage in my mind's eye, and my worries are contained to the small pots I care for.

I have spent hours staring at the hope philodendron, grazing my fingers along its tendrils, awestruck as a child. Environmental psychologist Stephen Kaplan identified "fascination" or "involuntary attention" as the driving force behind the human desire to commune with nature. The same force motivates us to care for plants. The hallmark of this fascination is its depth.

Before I became a plant person, I used to walk by plants without even noticing them. They were mere aesthetic items to me, only slightly more alive than the dirt they sat in. Like many of the non-plant loving foil characters in Richard Power's tree-obsessed epic "The Overstory," I suffered from the uniquely homo sapien blindness to that which is not like me, not human. I scorned photographs of plants posted on Facebook as trite and basic. Donald Trump wasn't president then, and I was still in graduate school, and maybe there just wasn't as much to be saved from.

After my conversion, I observed the painted leaves of my prayer plant for hours, sure I could see them slowly lifting towards the heavens. This level of fascination blocks any competing thoughts or worries from bubbling to the surface and allows for a quiet focus that not only ameliorates anxiety but benefits us cognitively as well.

No longer blind, we come to see ourselves in our plants. The thriving philodendron feels like a prophecy. In its success in less than ideal circumstances, its insistence on growing beautiful and strong, in defying winter, there is hope.

Mathew Page, a psychiatric nurse and proponent of ecotherapy, wrote that "hope is intrinsic to gardening." It is impossible to grow a plant without possessing some hope that it will thrive, that you can keep it alive through your nurturing. No one plants a seed without imagining that lush beauty, that life itself, will emerge from it.

Plants respond to every action we take on them. They are delicate, thrown easily into fits of illness or even untimely deaths with overwatering, or using non-distilled water, or the wrong levels of sunlight. Calatheas, or prayer plants, actually move their leaves up and down in response to the levels of light. Horticultural therapist Jeff McDonald observed that the responsiveness of the plants we care for reinforces our sense of personal agency. In their flourishing and floundering, they convince us of our long-forgotten power.

In Donald Trump's America, hope is hard to come by. So is power. The speed at which the environment is deteriorating, at which our citizens are stripped of their fundamental rights, at which democracy is dismantled piece by piece, often makes it seem like any small act of resistance we are able to take will do nothing to tip the scales. It is easy to slip into defeatist pessimism in this kind of political environment, but houseplants require us to be optimists.

Maybe, if the plants are OK, then I will be OK, and the country will be OK. It's flawed, messy deduction, but I'd be lying if I said that my journey in houseplant ownership hasn't made me more of an optimist. If we believe that growing a hope philodendron in the middle of winter in Montana is possible, it becomes possible. Had the owner of this cabin thought the task futile, he would have never planted it there, and it would have never found its strength in the dry cold of the mountains. So too must we believe that change is possible if we want to have any hope of righting the wrongs of the Trump administration.

Possessing hope of any kind comes with the risk of losing that hope. What do we do when the hope born from a plant we fussed over like a child is dashed by that plant's death? This past winter, I killed my beloved calathea by overwatering, the blight of the obsessive mind. The calathea was the object of my adoration, so much so that I named him Jeffrey Garten, because I pampered him with carefully distilled water and expensive fertilizer, much like the Barefoot Contessa feeds her Jeffrey his lemon bars made only from the finest organic curd. My obsession with Jeffrey's caretaking rotted his roots into a viscous black soup. He stopped worshipping the sun, his leaves turning brown and crisp at the edges, and then yellow, his stems oozing dark oil from bruised wounds until I amputated them with a sterilized blade. He reeked of small death, like a dirty refrigerator. 

There was little hope that day as I ripped Jeffrey's carcass from his pot and hurled him into the snow outside. Having spent a lifetime imbuing small things with life-and-death significance, I wasn't surprised that Jeffrey's death quickly festered into a metaphor for both my personal failures and the destruction of America under Donald Trump. Nothing was right with the world for a few moments. But the feeling quickly passed, even though in the past, it has taken years of therapy for me to disentangle myself from devastating symbology.

As much as hope is intrinsic to gardening, so too is knowledge of the impermanence of all things. The Buddhists know this well, as do the best gardeners. Death is as much a reality of plant life as it is of human life. As Ann Patchett noted in her essay "Tennessee," plant life, like human life, is in "a constant state of revision." We are all — plant, animal, human— either growing or dying, or doing both simultaneously. I replaced the dead plants, and found myself hopeful again. It felt like the natural course of things, in the end.

America is also in a constant state of revision. Our constitution was set up to adapt, to grow and change like something living and breathing. Even though we may detest the most recent round of edits, and Trump's environmental policies, in particular, will cause lasting damage that may be unfixable, the changing face of our nation reminds us that it is still and always will be changeable, and there is just the tiniest shred of hope in this.

Before Donald Trump was president, I didn't love plants.

I think I got into plants initially because it seemed like something an adult would do. Houseplants were to me like the proverbial bowl of lemons on the table, totems of adulthood, of having one's shit together. But they quickly became more than just items of decor to me. The metaphor evolved. I became obsessed. The divine state of fascination came upon me quickly, like a cloud of narcotic exaltation.  

I have remained obsessed with plants because they make me feel good. They convince me of my own strength and the strength of others, the strength of a nation. The hope philodendron murmurs that somehow, I will learn to thrive as it has. That the seemingly endless winter of Donald Trump's presidency will eventually give way to spring. And it tells me that I must keep going, keep cultivating the gardens that fill me and feed me, even when it feels like the world is ending. There is some salvation in surrendering to the small tasks of keeping a houseplant alive. At least it's a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

By Alex Dew

Alex Dew is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University's Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Spokane, Washington where she teaches undergraduate composition.


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