“I can’t take you anywhere.” My coworker says this about me a lot, but this time I’m going to defend my joke because it’s a damn good one. We were at a Plants 101 class at a modern garden center, repotting our chosen plants into their new, pretty pastel homes.
To ensure quicker assimilation, you’re supposed to wiggle out the old dirt with your fingers until the roots are dangling and loose. Then you put the plant into a fresh pot and pack soil around it.
Delicate work isn’t much of my thing. Plants, as gentle avenues for self-care, was even further from my thing. So when my plant somehow became un-centered, I panicked.
“Is it okay if it’s not in the middle of the pot?” I asked.
“Yeah, of course, just push it to the side.” With a move I would consider the equivalent to shoving, the workshop facilitator re-centered my entire plant. The whole time I was fretting over suffocating and hurting its roots, but she just shoved it like a latecomer to a Billie Eilish concert.
Then she suggested packing the soil even tighter. “They don’t like having too much air.”
“Ohh, so it likes a little BDSM.”
I have to admit that as someone who believes high-traffic trends are just thin vehicles of capitalism, I didn’t think much of the workshop — at first. I went because it was free and I love free things.
The first half of the workshop had me twitching with agitation when the employee presented recently debunked air-purifying benefits as fact.
As an editor who’s worked on multiple houseplant articles, the data is sparse. Realistically, a houseplant or two can’t purify the air or give you enough fresh oxygen. The most cited study is the 1989 NASA report, which was researched in an enclosed lab. Meaning there’s no way the average person can replicate the benefits with a houseplant or two.
According to The Atlantic, who recently covered the myth of air-purifying plants and noted that the houseplant industry was “cherry-picking data,” I would need one houseplant per 20-square-foot area. I could just walk in the park instead!
Speaking of green lands, when I think about how the Amazon is currently being burned to support beef production, but houseplant culture has us rushing to the nursery with the belief that plants can clean the air at home, it’s hard not to feel numb.
Self-awareness is a curse.
Imagine hearing that positive thinking cures cancer and having the speaker announce they have a new book out that talks more about their process. Reasons to buy more of what someone is selling always makes my “they’re just trying to sell you shit” radar whirl like an ambulance.
The workshop’s biggest slogan is “plants make people happy.” The sentiment behind this makes for a strong headline, selling point, and movement. It spiked the #plantparent straight into The New York Times canon and created an industry that’s worth $1.7 billion.
That’s not to say that all the improvements plants bring are unfounded. Studies do show that plants and greenery improve moods and environments.
But in this run for exaggerating health benefits, we lose, as Kate Wagner writes in The Baffler, “the hard truths about plant parenthood”. When we tack on “learning how to take care of myself,” “calming my anxiety,” or “it’s good for your health,” (300+ million search results) as plant care motivation, we forget that plants don’t exist for our pleasure. We forget that to get to our homes, these plants may be (over)harvested, unethically sourced, and uprooted from their home without permission.
“Plants, again, are very much alive,” writes Kate, “and they should be treated with the same kind of respect and love as animals and children. When they don’t get what they need, they suffer and die.”
Last November, I saw posters at a fair that said, “Plants are cheaper than therapy.” I think it’s supposed to be cute. It honestly just made me really sad. I’ve finally been able to go to therapy after saving up for three years.
Do you think a plant would’ve dragged me into the first watering with: “Do you feel you have to keep the pain in, to protect your mom?” No way in hell! There’s a reason I pay my therapist for that.
If I only think of plants as things that serve me, I’m better off with a $30 air purifier that doesn’t rely on my sentiment to survive.
But self-care shouldn’t always be about doing what makes you feel better. Sometimes it’s about resistance and stepping away from conventional methods until they make sense to you, personally.
It’s not just about ticking off a checklist and feeling productive, or buying a plant and feeling successful for its existence. Self-care requires accepting how difficult even the simplest act can be. It’s also understanding why an act that frees you to be who you are, is sometimes difficult.
If we interpret self-care only as “when good happens,” we’re going to destroy our own ability to recognize pain and process it. We’ll be trimming off dead leaves of our plants for the aesthetics without considering whether our own dead leaves are meant to be savored — and a part of who we are.
Funny enough, by the end of the workshop, my perspective on plants completely shifted. I actually left clutching my evergreen perennial with delight, charged with inspired, hopeful energy I hadn’t felt in a month.
To some people, they call it the magic of plants and self-care, but I want to be very specific: it wasn’t being around plants, learning their benefits, or taking one home that helped me.
It was the activity of doing something new, learning something new about my plant, and forging a connection that felt real, after a month of feeling like a ghost. Going to the workshop was self-care; my prayer plant is just a lucky side effect.
Since that workshop, I’ve named him Hot Priest, after Andrew Scott’s priest character in Fleabag, who definitely likes a little choking.
He’s needy and has to be misted every other day. He’s not going to clean my environment or be a reflection of how I’m feeling. He likes his roots suffocating just a bit while sitting under indirect yet bright sunlight. He’s thriving on my desk at home and doesn’t need friends.
I don’t wonder if life would be better if there was more of him. Hot Priest is my only plant child, my thriving BDSM boy, and if I wanted more, there’s a park I could walk in.
Christal Yuen is an editor at Greatist, covering all things beauty. Find her musing about wellness on Twitter.