The City Magazine Since 1975

Second Nature

September 2008
Second Nature
Do we gravitate toward plants that share our own personality traits? Musings on our horticultural kindred spirits

After years of crispy ferns, droopy petunias, and bug-bitten sweet potato vines, I finally found my perfect match. A plant I can tolerate. Well, one that can tolerate me. So what was this horticultural kinship I had unearthed? Plain old patient succulents. But that wasn’t the curveball. The surprise was why I was drawn to these plants. You see, when I ran down the list of qualities that attracted me, I realized I might as well have been describing myself. Could it be sheer vanity that attracts me to my new soulmates? I’ll first offer that succulents are not what you’d call pretty, but they do have a striking quality—some with spiky leaves, some that look like jelly beans on a stalk. Oh, they’re individuals alright: small and unchanging for weeks and then one day sending a giant beanstalk straight up, topped with tiny flowers. And their tag said they were simple foliage plants. Likewise, I find myself constantly going against the grain and against expectations as well for no real reason other than I like to be contrary. As if to prove their toughness, succulents hardly need water and really do best when left alone. I can understand that, too. I do my best writing when my children are not attaching their toy handcuffs to my desk leg or asking, “Why do they call stickers stickers?” I do my best thinking when I’m locked inside my bathroom. And like people who have a tendency to hide themselves away in the bathroom, succulents aren’t often invited to garden parties either. With their stand-offish ways, they don’t really mix with the well-watered crowd. I may come off as a loner too, but with my friends I’m as tight as my succulents growing under and over each other so everyone can get some good sun. After all, sun is what it’s all about for these eccentrics, with names such as “Mule’s Tail” and “Baby Toes.” If the sun is brightest on one side of their container, they bend, spread, and reach to that side. As a woman who’s had a few jobs, a husband, and three children, I feel like I’m always stretching for a place in the sun, just the right spot between family and a meaningful career. When I finished my analysis of my succulent self, I got to wondering if I was the only one with vanity plants. I first thought of my most sophisticated friend, the one with beautiful hair and narrow fingers, who knows how to play the piano and actually reads poetry. In her urban loft with its wall of windows, it just so happens she has an equally chic orchid. Of course, this standout plant continues to bloom over and over again, the envy of her pals whose orchids don’t put on quite as good of a show. I quickly noticed that suburbia has its share of alter-ego gardening as well—exhibit A is my parents’ neighbor. His garage is an overflowing haven of drills, saws, salvaged lumber, and metal scraps, bringing forth nuts and bolts by the dozen. As it happens, his cherry tomato plants do the same, with branches bursting on all sides with clumps of fruit. He invites friends and neighbors to pick and gobble with the same generosity as he offers up his bounty of hardware. On a good day you can get your boat patched and your hankering for fresh tomatoes quenched, all in the same place by the pipe-smoking man in coveralls, happy whether it’s grease or soil on his hands. For my mother-in-law, it’s her gardening style that most closely mirrors her good nature. She gardens as only a doting grandmother could, tending to her hydrangea, impatiens, agapanthus, ferns, and an assortment of delicate fine-stemmed blooms, sweet-smelling vines, and variegated foliage. She knows the likes and dislikes of each species as she knows each grandchild’s favorite matchbox car and who needs to cuddle before sleep: which plant prefers a shady corner to sun, which needs a slug intervention before it’s too far gone, and which begs for extra fertilizer to get it through the summertime blues. And for all that nurturing, they behave and greet her with bright blooms and new shoots like rosy-cheeked children. It’s no surprise my mother-in-law hasn’t had much experience with succulents, the need-nothing plants that, according to at least one gardener I’ve spoken to, thrive in distress. Which brings me to the one difference I’ve discovered between my plant charmings and me. Forget thriving in distress: I’m more likely to wallow or fall apart in it, plopping the kids in front of a movie and hiding under the covers. But it’s true what they say about these plants standing up to adversity. When a squirrel knocked several large leaves off my echeveria, a tiny green star of a new bloom appeared at the wound within a week. Below on the soil, the fallen leaves were sprouting tiny pink roots of their own, each determined to make its own way from the ground up. So maybe it’s not that we choose the plants most like us but that we’re looking for plants that project the image of what we want to be. And that’s not so bad. Maybe if I try thriving a little more in the face of adversity, I could be a little more affectionate, generous, and even refined. And not just in the way I treat my plants.