Becoming a Plantswoman

Agave leaves / Darker than Green

I am fortunate to have been raised in Southern California by my mother, another avid plant lover. I was taught names like philodendron, jacaranda, and agapanthus as soon as I was old enough to pronounce them. Freeways lined with bougainvillea and curbside cacti were the backdrop of my early life. I don’t think my mom planned to turn me into a gardener, just as I don’t think she planned to turn me into a writer. But both happened and her influence is undeniable.

In my house growing up, we had two things in abundance: books and plants. They crowded just about every room, even the kitchen. They were constants. Plants crowded the front windows in our living room, bigger than me, eager for sunshine, and largely self-sufficient. I barely remember my mom watering them, but the pruning was perpetual. Even in family members’ houses or dentist offices, my mom’s wiry hands would find their way into other peoples’ plants, picking at yellowed leaves and pulling at dusty overgrowth. When I feel my fingers inch toward my friends’ forgotten foliage, I know exactly where the habit came from.

Hen and chicks / Darker than Green

I grew into a flower child. I memorized the names of standard grocery store blooms and generally adopted the perspective of a budding hippie. I snatched up weeds and grasses for rough little bouquets while wearing Peace Love and Happiness necklaces from Claire’s. I recycled religiously. I got bussed out to rustic and upscale Topanga Canyon for school-led hikes where we learned to forage for nasturtium greens and the sour stems of the buttercup oxalis. I took up photography in my teens and spent entire rolls of 35mm on fleshy agave leaves.

Test sheet of plant photos / Darker than Green

When I moved to the midwest for college, I marveled at how different the trees were, at how ivy engulfed brick houses whole, at how distanced people seemed from their natural environment. For the first time in my life, I witnessed littering in action. I figured out what winter is really like. I discovered a whole new roster of plants, and learned to appreciate them even more as they died back in fall and miraculously returned each spring.

Thistle / Darker than Green

I bought my first plant when I studied abroad in France: a small green fittonia with bright white veins. I gave it a place of prominence in my dorm room, hoping to make those four walls feel more like home. When I flew back to the states, I mourned its loss as much as I mourned no longer living in Paris. In 2007, when I moved into my first solo apartment in Chicago, a potted plant is what made that little studio really feel like mine. The young tell tale heart coleus thrived in my west facing window, and though it may be scraggly, it’s still in my collection, growing slowly larger with each passing year.

That first apartment became my safe haven, and a welcome home for my budding family of houseplants. Most members began as small starts, or cuttings gifted from friends. Others joined the group when their owners thought them dead and watched on in disbelief as I patiently brought them back.

House surrounded by native plants / Darker than Green

I’ve bribed friends with cars to help me move twice since that apartment. In 2010, my plants limped through life in a well-appointed apartment with unfortunate northern exposure. In 2012, I moved northwest to my current home, my giant dracaena fragrans trailing out of the back of a friend’s SUV, waving to passersby along Milwaukee Avenue. In 2015, I spread out and took my gardening habit outside, which is where I spotted an abandoned monstera deliciosa in the garbage heap. I dragged it up to my balcony and helped it sprout new roots in a mason jar. It recently unfurled its first new leaf.

Cosmo in front of Spanish tile / Darker than Green

Every plant has a story, and every story marks the start of a new moment in my own life. Over the years, the plants have taught me patience and gratitude and humility. They continuously bring me joy and pride. They’ve introduced me to friends and connected me with my family; a fact I’m reminded of whenever I talk to my mom about her own voracious garden. Or when I think back to my grandparents’ muggy New Orleans sunroom, where Katrina barreled through dozens of tropical specimens and decades of family memories.

Sunlight through the leaves / Darker than Green

I didn’t realize I was a Plant Person until a couple of years ago when it dawned on me that in an emergency, my plants would be the only possessions I would regret not being able to save. I never intended to fill my windows — and my life — with leaves and branches and vines. To dole out garden advice to friends and coworkers. To eagerly absorb plant knowledge from my elders. To happily memorize latin names and kitchen remedies. But it seems that things usually progress as they were meant to.

There’s still so much to learn, and in many ways I still I feel like a total beginner. But I know I’m a plantswoman. I have been all along.

Simone Martin-Newberry / Darker than Green

All the photos from this post were taken in high school with my trusty Pentax ZX-M.

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