The first plant that I ever really cared about was a lumpy legged ficus retusa named Mandy. Mandy came to me, abandoned by the previous tenants of my flat, withered and brown. I showed her a little care and attention, and quickly she started to thrive again. In a few short years, Mandy became one of 32 house plants that turned my flat from an urban space into a living jungle. Friends and I no longer compared notes on nights out; we compared notes on garden centres, the girth of stems, and working out how we could cram in a trip to Petersham Nurseries and The Palm Centre all in one day.
I don’t know how I had lived until I found Mandy. It seems obscene, looking back, that I had moved from student halls to increasingly nicer flats without a single pot plant. But I had. When Mandy came along, she gave the little white bathroom not just a dash of life – a green focus in a lovely red pot – but the fact that I had to care about the wellbeing of another living thing meant I put my own problems aside for a few moments a day to check on her. Did she need water? Was she too close to the radiator? Was she getting enough light? Did she need a bigger pot? Fertiliser? Filtered water? A prayer?
Mandy proved to be my gateway plant, and soon I noticed that they were everywhere. Pot plants were cool. Not only do they make or break a place, but they also make or break your Instagram. If you search #plants on there, you’ll get over 27 million results, from tiny Bonsais and dangly cacti, to fucking ginormous monsters taking over little living rooms. Why would you want a home without one? For every groovy interiors account showing you how to drape your blankets, there’s an Instagram one for plants, explaining how to keep them, arrange them, accessorise them and eat them. It’s easy to understand why people become obsessed with foliage; as an aside, no less than three cactus specialists have opened up near me in the last couple of years – one cleverly called ‘Prick’. They just sit there and don’t do anything other than cleaning your air and looking nice. Who can say the same for cats, who used to fill this familiar void. (For the record, I love cats, but anyone who’s had to intrude on their carefully curated living area with litter trays knows that one thing they do not do is clean your air). You can talk to plants, tend to them and they’re scientifically proven to be good for your mental health. Yes, sometimes they do die, but so do the rest of us.
In truth, I’ve killed many plants in my time; every single one of those tubs of herbs from the supermarket, for a start. Honestly, I think they are a cursed breed, sent to test plant lovers everywhere. And, recently, I watched the slow demise of a nice variegated japonica, which I think needed more light/less water, but the answer went with that gorgeous pot plant, so I’ll never know.
Mandy the lumpy ficus died. I’m not really sure why, but after watching her shrivel away into her pot, I knew her time had come – and so did she. It is sad and I always feel guilty (and annoyance that I’ve been tricked into buying yet another one). But, at the same time, for every death I’ve witnessed, I’ve had a surprise success. The ancient geranium I bought off a lady on a barge for 50p – huge. Thriving. Jubilant. Greets me every morning with a smile. The cheese plant I found abandoned on the street – now a show stopper. I’ve even had a cactus (which I let totally dry out) comeback to life, sprouting little sharp nubbins from its once flaccid spine. Like Lazarus, but more dangerous to the touch. Again, with cats, when they’re gone, alas they’re gone. No surprise operative reprise.
Obviously, another benefit of being a Plant Lady is that you get to have loads of funky pots. This is where the fascination transcends from the hipster. From old jam jars to a figurative Moomin cup and a ‘gurgler’ jar in the shape of a bent fish – you name it, I’ve jammed a plant in it and shoved it on a shelf. There’s barely any space left now. I’ve got plain ones with faces and one that looks like a guinea pig. What’s nice about this is that it gives you agency to buy something with a pair of boobs on, pop a ficus in it and give it to someone you love. And when else do you get to do that?
Illustration by Li Ya Wen