It is spring and I was watering and repotting houseplants the other day when I stopped to look at my leafy companions. Sitting side-by-side were three plants whose original owners have since died. That got me thinking – we write wills to distribute our bits and pieces at the end of our lives, but do we think about our plants?

A quick search on the interweb and I get plenty of suggestions about what to do if a plant is dying, but not what to do if you discover you are suddenly in charge of someone else’s plants because they hadn’t/couldn’t make prior arrangements before they die. That’s now on my to-do list; I’m seeking out a plant guardian who will take care of my plants if I’m no longer able to do so. It’s the least I can do for all the fine, clean air and calm, green, de-stressing companionship they have given to me.

As for the memories of plant-owners past, Freeman et al. (2012) discuss plant memories, or plants-as-memories, in the gardens of New Zealand homeowners. As in my case, there are histories associated with the plants, how old they are, why they were planted, the memories associated with who gifted, planted, played with and shared space with them. Freeman et al. emphasise the importance of the role the plants play in the mental wellbeing and emotional support of their human co-habitants, highlighting that there is little research focus on this value to date, though awareness of these benefits is increasing.

In the spirit of sharing the ghosts on my windowsill, what follows are three brief introductions to the plants who brought this to my attention: Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie, Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye and Margaret’s jade tree.

Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie

Busy Lizzie plant in pot

The original plant lived on the turn of the stairs in Aunt Ella’s house in Tuphall Road. Aunt Ella was my husband’s aunt and she was kind enough to adopt me too. She caught me eyeing up the plant, as it was a glorious flowering mass. In good form, she snapped off a bit and gave it to me. Following good family practice, I wrapped it in a bit of damp tissue and brought it home to plant up. It has grown very well, sitting in a pot I inherited from my paternal grandparents. Like its parent plant, it flowers gloriously and needs a bit of a trim to defy its triffid qualities every now and again. There is a very nice spider that lives in the middle, who wanders out to complain when I water her too much. Aunt Ella moved into sheltered housing about five years ago and passed away in 2017. I have no idea what happened to the original plant. Part of it though, is growing happily with me.

Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye

Photo of tiger's eye begonia with busy lizzie in the background

Auntie Brede was my maternal grandmother’s cousin, so in good Irish respectful terms, she was Auntie to all the assorted small people. She was renowned for being able to feed hordes without the slightest effort and won my brother’s heart by cheerfully letting him climb her wall shelves and rummage in her cupboards for biscuits. She passed away over twenty years ago, but her memories, and her plant, are still here. The tiger’s eye begonia (the name I’ve always known it by) that lives with me came from a cutting of a cutting that Auntie Brede gave my mum when I was small. My mum no longer has the original plant, so I’m growing a cutting to give back to her.

Margaret’s jade tree

Jade plant Margaret was our neighbour when I moved in with Gavin to a flat on Gilmerton Road in 2004. She had a jade plant that expired when she was away on holiday, so I gifted her with a new one. I maintained a range of plants on the windowsills in the common stairwell and one day, Margaret came out of her apartment to ask me if the jade tree could come back into my care. I was happy to look after it, so it moved to the windowsill outside her door so she could see it as she went in and out. Shortly afterwards, she passed away and the jade plant moved with me when we went to Haddington. That jade plant now has many siblings across the Lothians, as I harvest cuttings now and again for our student “grab a plant” wellbeing sessions at the vet school.

My partner in plant “crime” is Louise and we both share cuttings from our plants and from plants around the school sitting on colleagues’ windowsills. We have joked that no one ever really buys a spider plant anymore, that they are offshoots (pun intended) from family plants of long ago. My windowsill ghosts also include a red peace lily gifted to me when I left Stevenson College over 10 years ago and a Christmas cactus I adopted when I found it abandoned in an office at the vet school. There are memories in the garden too, with plants that have traveled in damp tissue carried by friends and family members to take root and keep us company.

The very least I can do is ensure someone cares for them when I go. I’m off to make a list!

Reference

Freeman, C., Dickinson, K. J., Porter, S., & van Heezik, Y. (2012). “My garden is an expression of me”: Exploring householders’ relationships with their gardens. Journal of Environmental Psychology32(2), 135-143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.01.005 [#paywall]

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