Plant Care

In the year of 1998, one of Latin America’s most influential photographers stepped into the recently opened Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, Oaxaca’s botanical garden. Over the course of the next two years, Graciela Iturbide focused her lens on the garden’s cacti. To a photographer who had spent decades documenting her native country’s culture and heritage, the cactus was an important symbol. However, her favorite subjects in this garden shared one additional, distinct characteristic: all of them were members of the botanical garden’s “intensive care unit”. Her images depict rows of tall, upright cacti supported by wooden splints and separated with wads of newspaper, or trees whose fronds have been tucked into woven bags, or smaller cacti under the cover of protective netting. She was fascinated by the way these plants, used for so long by indigenous people to treat their own wounds, were now having their own wounds cared for by human hands.

In many cultures, roots, leaves, stems, and berries are dried, boiled, or ground as objects of utility. Some varieties are thought to be beneficial for stopping bleeding or preventing infections when a person returns with a superficial wound, while others are consumed as important sources of vitamins or other nutrients, particularly when a mother is nursing or a child has experienced a prolonged fight with a nasty illness. To those of us who grew up alongside textbooks filled with chemical structures, biochemical reactions, and illustrations of human anatomy, it can be difficult to reconcile the medical assurances of precisely formulated pills and injections from a hospital, with the espoused benefits of a bitter concoction brewed from what looks like a handful of stuff from grandma’s backyard. While the identities of these beneficial compounds synthesized by the plants around us are under-characterized, their contributions to our health and wellness have been carefully documented for millennia. Their restorative properties have formed the basis of prescriptions for Chinese emperors, Arabian princes, and African kings.

Plants provide more than physical treatments, as many houseplant owners will undoubtedly tell you: they also are a source of mental therapy. So much so, in fact, that hashtags such as #plantaddict and #plantparenthood have garnered an impressive following on social media. One plant becomes two, and before you know it, you can’t pass by a nursery without picking up a new one. Some of this addiction stems from the comfort of having something lush and green for your eyes to rest on after a strenuous day at the computer. It doesn’t hurt that plants generate oxygen, which we can’t live without. Knowing that there is a growing, thriving entity whose shape changes over time is also a source of delight, attracting us to hover and check for new shoots or buds on a daily basis. For those fortunate enough to live in forgiving climates and with access to outdoor space, outdoor gardens yield a constant source of beauty, disproportionate to the brief moments we spend tending to them.


Our careful attention to particular plants has existed as long as humans have cultivated and bred them, transplanting them from one corner of the world to another, and crossing them to yield completely new hybrids. In our desire to maintain our orchids, roses, and bamboo in a state of health and proliferation, we extend our efforts to rather extreme lengths. Short of transporting an entire microclimate, we construct greenhouses to let in sunlight, keep away pests, and control the heat and humidity to a specific range that mimics a particular habitat. We carefully measure out sediment, soil, and other organic matter to create custom potting mixes for the healthiest roots. For flora of the outdoor variety, we will wrap them in tarps or burlap that serve as blankets against winter’s biting chill. Some of us even wipe dust from the surface of foliage to keep the leaves shining and unobstructed, all the better to enhance our plants’ abilities to respirate and photosynthesize. We erect scaffolds for the tallest orchids, elaborately prune decades-old bonsai on a daily basis, and tie up vines as they creep upward and across to new territory. If, heaven forbid, a disease or bug begins to infest our plants, throwing them away is a very last resort. We will purchase disinfectants for near-religious schedules of application, quarantine our pots, and curse the spores or insects that are the source of this blight. Knowing that our plants lack feet to evade predators, we take it upon ourselves to serve as their guardians.

In many ways, plants and humans live in a state of symbiosis. They give us oxygen, sometimes food, often shade, while we give them water, occasionally fertilizer, and the best corners of the garden away from invasive flora that would otherwise compete for resources like sunlight or water. As different as plants and humans are, there are certain protections that only each can give to the other.

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