This week I'm dispensing with the Q&A format and taking a little philosophical detour. My plan, at the start, was to showcase an ailing specimen from my own garden: a shade perennial beset by an infestation of what I assumed to be mealybugs (pictured below). I intended to diagnose the problem with the plant, identify the insect and throw out some fun facts, and explain what steps I took to try to save the plant. I was going to conclude by saying, Hey. See? No big deal. Everybody has plant problems. THERE’S NO SHAME IN HAVING A SAD PLANT.
But that’s not what happened. Instead I went down a Google rabbit hole of research and came out the other side feeling frustrated and a little ashamed of my sad plant, because I still haven’t been able to diagnose what, exactly, is ailing it. I am going to save it for next week and instead write about the very personal subject of plant shame.
Nature is really a goddamn enigma. In the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns, there are known unknowns, and then there are unknown unknowns, and it is the preponderance of the latter in the world of plants that really thwarts people. So I will not blithely say there’s no shame in having a sad plant, because it’s not that simple. Sad plants shouldn’t be a source of shame, but they often are.
You know that feeling when you see a gorgeous plant you just WANTWANTWANT and you buy it and take it home, and six weeks later you’re putting it in the trash, realizing that the worst thing that ever happened to that plant is YOU?
Or maybe you don't throw it away, but try to wish it back to health, and it keeps shrinking and suffering and turning brown, and you hate the sight of it but you keep it around out of a mix of guilt and self-flagellation because, on some level, it is just reassuring to be reminded of your failings?
Let's talk about that.
Plant shame is real. Black thumb. Brown thumb. Purple thumb. When our plants fare poorly, we almost always blame ourselves. "I even kill cacti!" is something I hear a lot from people who think they are incapable of keeping plants, even though cacti are actually among the more difficult plants to domesticate. Think of the hot and arid environments most favorable to cactus life — utterly inhospitable to humans! And yet we bring cacti into our living rooms expecting them to thrive, and get upset with ourselves when they don’t.
Have you ever met a self-described “green thumb?” I’ve befriended a boatload of gardeners, growers, horticulturists, and landscape designers and I can’t recall ever encountering one. It’s not something people say about themselves, but rather something people say about others by way of putting themselves down. “My sister got the green thumb in our family,” my Mom says. I keep trying to tell her that the whole “green thumb” concept is a myth, and she says, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You have a green thumb.” It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of her plants died because her Great Pyrenees sat on it, and somehow she even blames herself for that.
One of the best gardeners I know suffers from acute plant shame. I go to her amazing house and she’s like, “Oh god, I’m mortified by how horrible the garden looks!” And I’m looking around thinking it looks like a fabulous botanical wonderland, and almost exactly the same as the last time I saw it. Daily exposure to her beautiful garden causes her to become blind to its charms; all she can see is armadillo damage.
Another friend has a particular gift for houseplants but always dismisses my amazement, like “Oh, this old thing?” She’ll stand in her home filled with florescent tropical blooms and tell me about the time five years ago that one of her plants died.
Good gardeners invariably downplay the difficulty of gardening, which makes them dangerous people to be around. They will tell you that, for instance, bromeliads are the easiest thing in the world. They are not. I made the mistake of buying an enormous one after seeing the bromeliad collection of the gardener mentioned two paragraphs ago. This plant, now a wilting, crusty shell of its former self, is like a talisman of shame that I keep around to torture myself. Every time I see it, I think, "And that is why I can't have nice things."
Gardening is a humbling activity. Humans can only control so much. This explains why fruit and vegetable gardeners seem like very pessimistic people, perpetually fretting that it’ll be too cold for tomatoes or not cold enough for peaches, and yelling crotchety curses at nematodes and vine borers and squirrels. On the other hand, these are also the people who save seeds to trade with their seed-saving friends and research crazy heirloom varieties. They may get more pleasure out of planning their gardens than they do from the finished product. Anticipatory joy — if that’s not optimism, what is? By the time the veggies are ripe they’re already thinking about next season.
Why does garden humility so easily morph into shame? I think it must have something to do with the alienness of plants and our clumsy attempts to relate to them. They are alive, but they aren’t sentient. They don’t have personalities like our pets do. They’re different enough that trying to anthropomorphize them just gets awkward. It's difficult to imbue them with a sense of "being," and much easier to view our plants as extensions of ourselves, mirrors of our personal virtues and, more often, vices.
Back to the sad plant I was intending to write about. It is a Uruguayan firecracker plant (Dicliptera suberecta) that has been languishing on my balcony for the better part of a year. I don’t remember when I bought it, but I do remember where: the shade perennial section of a local nursery that sells a lot of interesting plants in the small 4” pot size. The nursery’s info card said the plant was a hummingbird magnet that would do best in morning sun. Being that most hummingbird-attracting plants do not grow in the shade, and that morning sun is all I have due to my northern exposure, I gave it a try.
I planted it in a spot that gets about 15 minutes of morning sun, which is evidently not enough. When it failed to bloom, I failed to water it. It grew lanky; I grew resentful. I neglected this plant so thoroughly that I actually forgot the name until I decided to write about it, and spent several hours asking around and googling "Diphtheria" before finally figuring it out.
The known known: There is something wrong with my plant. The known unknowns: A bug is eating my plant but I don’t know what kind. The unknown unknown: how to identify an insect. My reference books were no help. Google only confused me. I took a sample to the County Extension Office. The entomologist who examined my specimen told me it’s not a mealybug, it’s a type of hard scale, and that in order to identify it down to the species level she would have to mail it to a specialist out of state. I thought I knew what mealybugs were, I thought identifying a bug would be a simple affair. Now I know I knew less than I thought I knew.
What is this bug? I’ll cover that saga next week. In the meantime, I’m going to put that sad bromeliad in the compost pile and let go of the shame. There's always next season.