September 23, 2019
Art by Erin Kelly
Shortly after I moved to New York, a friend from college invited me to dinner at his parents’ apartment. We ate a pleasant but unremarkable meal and had an enjoyable conversation that I can’t remember now. Here’s what I do remember, with perfect clarity: the apartment was covered in an almost hallucinatory variety of plants. Vines dangled in coy tendrils from the ceiling; a fuzz-covered cactus stretched its arms toward the window. Heart-shaped leaves the size of my face fluttered in the air conditioning.
It was the first time since moving from the west coast that I felt surrounded by nature, and even though I was in a fourth floor walkup in Midtown, and I could feel something in my chest unclench. (I was not yet acquainted with the city’s many majestic parks.) Before that night, houseplants were of no particular interest to me, but after marinating for several hours in that greenhouse of an apartment, I emerged, ecstatic, a new kind of person: a plant person.
Before that night, houseplants were of no particular interest to me, but after marinating for several hours in that greenhouse of an apartment, I emerged, ecstatic, a new kind of person: a plant person.
That night, my friend’s mother sent me home with a cutting from one of her spider plants, swaddled for the commute in a packet of damp paper towel and plastic wrap. I held it carefully, worried the jostling subway would kill it. It seemed so delicate—just a tiny cluster of white-yellow roots and a spray of grassy leaves the size of my palm. At my apartment, I plonked it in a shot glass and placed it on the windowsill next to my bed, hoping I would find it alive in the morning. It was the most cheerful thing in that apartment, my little green companion.
Over the next eight years, it moved with me to five different apartments, and grew enormous—leaves like yardsticks, a root bundle the size of a grapefruit. It was not delicate; in fact, it was almost alarmingly hardy, certainly more vivacious-seeming than I often felt. It grew pale and droopy when neglected, but perked up again—becoming a vivid kelly green—as soon as I remembered to water it.
The plant became a little living metaphor for me, reminding me of the possibilities of resilience and the power of community. My friends and I were routinely pummeled by the city in our twenties; our survival often seemed as questionable as that tiny seedling’s once had. But the little acts of tenderness we traded between ourselves had great restorative powers. We just had to pay attention to each other.
The plant became a little living metaphor for me, reminding me of the possibilities of resilience and the power of community.
One spring, during our third or fourth year of cohabitation, the spider plant surprised me. Instead of a new leaf, it shot out a twiggy green arm. Little white flowers blossomed, and once they wilted and fell, half a dozen new plants grew in their place. I plucked off the clones and rooted them in glasses of water, and when the root bundles grew large enough, potted them in soil.
Clones begat clones; I soon had a ludicrous bounty, more spider plants than one girl could possibly need. So I started giving them away.
At first I pawned them off on dinner guests, my roommates’ friends, whoever happened to come over, simply because I didn’t know what else to do with them; there was no more space by the windows, and I was out of pots.
But it quickly became a special ritual. The pleasure my friends derived from their new plants was far greater than the effort it had taken to propagate them. Some sent me photo updates as their plants grew and unfurled new leaves. There’s something rare and fun about giving a gift that continually changes and surprises. Most gifts remind me of a specific point in time, but plants are different—they exist in the present, growing along with the friendship. Very literally, it’s a way to share a life.
The spider plant is no longer my only green companion—over the years I’ve obtained a monstera cutting, a money tree, philodendrons and pothos of every shade, and a seven-foot tall yucca which I dragged home tied onto a skateboard. I’ve learned to propagate them; generally a remarkably easy process of cutting off a segment of stem and leaf and allowing it to grow roots in a glass of water. And I’ve kept up the tradition of giving them away: nearly everyone I love has at least one of my plants growing in their home. I’ve mailed cuttings to friends in Oregon and California and Virginia. It makes me feel tangibly connected to them, knowing this little web of life exists across state lines.
there’s something rare and fun about giving a gift that continually changes and surprises. Most gifts remind me of a specific point in time, but plants are different—they exist in the present, growing along with the friendship.
Giving someone a living thing is an intimate act, doubly so if you grew it yourself. I’ve found that plant recipients tend to rise to the occasion. Even the ones with a history of plant neglect make a valiant effort—because this time, it’s personal. Sometimes they succeed, and if they don’t, the stakes are low. A few friends have confessed to me, horrified, that they’ve killed their spider plants. But when things go wrong, there’s no real harm. You’ve lost, at most, a few leaves; like a bad haircut, things will grow back. I’ll always have more cuttings for them if they want to try again.
There is something magical about the gift of a propagation. It’s like the answer to a riddle: you give me away but get to keep me—what am I? It’s one small generosity from which an endless number of future generosities can grow. Sometimes my friends seem surprised, even skeptical, when I show them how it works, how simple it is, and how the plants so clearly want to multiply. “Do plant stores know about this?” a friend asked me once in a conspiratorial whisper as I zipped a pothos cutting into his backpack. These are my favorite moments. We forget, I think, that some things really are free. With each plant cutting, a reminder: life, in all its forms, is nothing more or less complicated than a gift.