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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

Caring for exotic house plants is popular with Millennials like me, but my love for greenery started long before this trendy hobby.

I grew up around my father’s carefully cultivated gardens. The front lawn exhibits roses, daisies, carnations and other flower species every spring and summer. The backyard is filled with more flower beds and vegetable plots. But the wildflowers in the backyard are my favourite. Blooms of purple, white, pink and red-orange peek out from the rocky edges, beckoning like lighthouses to the bees, butterflies and birds in this backyard oasis.

It helps that I’m a nineties kid who spent lots of time playing outside before the Internet really took off. There’s a picture of me as a child, wearing a leopard print shirt, smiling underneath a six-foot sunflower in our backyard. My siblings and I each had sunflowers we’d planted as tiny seeds and watched sprout into sunny-faced giants.

I’m no gardener, but I’ve always seemed to absorb my parents’ appreciation for plants, from well-tended gardens to bright bouquets gathered for birthdays and anniversaries. I used to think everyone loved plants like my family did, until one of my friends questioned the point of buying them.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “Why spend all that money if they’re just going to die?”

But this is what I love about cut flowers and plants. Their ephemeral nature. They remind me of how temporary life is, how precious. Blooms are only around for a short period before they fall off. Plants also remind me of how cyclical life is. We have our ups, when great things are blossoming in our lives and we have our downs, when the vibrant colours of life sometimes fade, only for life to brighten again as we go through another season. In life, as with plants, there will always be another seedling, another opportunity for life to flourish again.

Since the pandemic, buying houseplants has become much more popular. It’s not unusual to find a picture of a chic living room or balcony on social media, outfitted in a jungle of plants. Snake plants sun themselves on blonde wood floors as succulents sit on stylish plant stands and String of Hearts trail from hanging baskets. These rooms look like a bohemian paradise with macrame wall art, patterned rugs and floor pillows strewn everywhere.

While I haven’t mastered this aesthetic within my own space, I have tended to houseplants – and I am learning a lot in the process.

My first venture into houseplant care began with a seedling from my late grandmother’s shamrock plant. It sat on a stand in the sitting room of her condominium, its full green leaves interspersed with tiny pink blooms. This family heirloom has been passed down throughout the generations, from one Irish heritage descendant to the next and I’d marvel at how the flowers closed at night, like doors guarding secrets. My mother encouraged me to ask my grandmother for a piece of the plant.

I took the small seedling she gave me, placing it in a corner of the living room, where it’d get the best light from the balcony doors. I’m embarrassed to admit that initially, I wasn’t the best at remembering to water it but it’s a hardy weed. It can survive on little water and be revived with lukewarm black tea. Back then, I hadn’t truly understood the care and commitment that goes into caring for plants.

The pandemic is what changed my lackadaisical approach. I found an online course from PlantKween (also known as Christopher Griffin) on uplifting your space with plants while giving them proper care. I learned everything from assessing your space’s lighting to watering versus overwatering to aerating and fertilizing the soil. I began to see that plant care involved more than just simply giving plants light and water.

My relationship with plants started to change. I began to see them as living, breathing organisms that thrived within my space, needing mindful care and attention, rather than nice decorations. I’ve yet to become a parent to a pet or child, so I’ve devoted myself to being a plant parent – but it’s also so much more than that.

Since educating myself more about houseplants, my shamrock has grown twice in size. I’ve grown two plants from avocado seeds and added pearls and jade pothos to my home office. I had an Echeveria, a bright green and rose blush succulent that forms beautiful rosettes, but it died … I haven’t always had the best green thumb, but we’re all works in progress, right?

Throughout my journey as a plant parent, I’ve come to better understand their silent language. Soggy brown roots? Root rot. Yellow leaves? Either too much or too little water. Top two to three inches of dry soil? Time for some water.

In the quiet company of my pothos, I admire the pop of green on my shelf, enjoying the way the leaves unfurl from the pot, reaching their fingers toward the light. Recently, I had to sleep in a quiet, dark room, so my poor pothos suffered from a lack of light and water. I felt twinges of regret and sadness when I later had to pluck several yellow leaves off it. But my pothos has since bounced back.

My plants are important to me. Research says that adding plants to your space purifies the air, reduces stress and even helps you recover from illnesses, injuries and surgeries faster. More than that, it means I have a constant friend with me. Plants continue to teach me.

Through them, I’ve learned how to savour every fleeting moment, go easy on myself when I make mistakes and realize how connected the plants around us are to our stories and lives.

Angela Ward lives in Ajax, Ont.

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