On the Psychological Effect of Living with Houseplants

Stephanie Bishop

Not long ago I found myself in
conversation with a group of people about
the effect of living with houseplants. They
were proselytising the health benefits and
comparing Instagram shots on their
phones, where everyone aspired to the
same sparse white living room decorated
with pops of green. I confessed however,
that I couldn’t keep a houseplant alive – I
couldn’t keep a houseplant alive to save
my life, I think I said – and that despite my
desire to do otherwise, this is one thing
that I routinely fail at. I say to my husband,
‘Look, it is dying,’ and he says, ‘That’s
because it just needs water.’ Even though I
know this, even though he has told me, I
still do not water it. Instead, some small
voice in me insists that the plant has it in
itself to survive a little longer. My husband
takes pity on the limp leaves, he worries
about them, and waters the plant with care
from a special can with a long narrow
spout that allows him to direct the water
with great precision, at the very base of
the plant where the pale stem descends
into the pot of soil. I am grateful that he
does this because I cannot, because the
thoughts I direct to the plant are the same
thoughts I direct to myself, which are the
thoughts, I realise, that my mother
directed to me: You don’t need to eat yet,
You can’t possibly still be thirsty, How can
you be tired already? Surely you can do
better than that. Both my husband and I
humanise our houseplants, we
anthropomorphise them, and because of
this I look at the living plant and think it
should make its livingness go a little
further, stretch it out, test it, live harder
on less, strive to be upright, and each time
I do this I feel myself dehumanised, little
by little more. I would like not to be this
kind of person, this person who refuses to
give water when water is so clearly needed.
But it runs in the family, this failure to
keep houseplants alive. My mother cannot
do it either, and now I wonder how her
mother spoke to her, which might have
been the same but could have been
different or perhaps it was just split
somehow because I remember my
grandmother tending a patio of brilliantly
flowering impatiens, red and orange and
hot pink, and on her coffee table there was
always a vase of deeply perfumed roses
that she had grown herself. Perhaps she
told her daughter, my mother, to hurry on
now and not bother her and sort her
livingness out on her own because she had
houseplants to water.