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On human-plant entanglements (1)

/ 04:30 AM August 14, 2020

With many people trapped in their condo units and houses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have taken to cultivating indoor plants or tending to home gardens, a number of them referring to themselves as “plant parents,” “plantitos” and “plantitas.”

For some, it can be as simple as having one or two plants on their desks and bedsides—perhaps a palm or some cacti—but many others have allowed plants to take deeper root, occupying a big part of their daily routines and living spaces.

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For some, the more verdant, the better, and the goal is to make a beautiful garden in one’s home, or out of it; and for others, the rarer (and more variegated), the better. Some monsteras, for instance, can command tens, even hundreds, of thousands of pesos. Surely, with social media our only connection these days, the Instagrammability of plants also figures in people’s choices.

Then there are those who are cultivating plants with the goal of harvest. Beyond actual need, people find fulfillment in having grown their own okra or basil (organic! as some would stress), or having turned one’s butterfly pea flowers into a colorful concoction.

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All of this is creating a renewed economy around plants, both offline and online. In the highways of Laguna, where I have been cycling around over the past couple of months, I see SUVs coming in droves to famous plant suppliers. E-commerce and social media sites have also served as marketplaces for plants and plant supplies, offering everything from soils and pots to seedlings and pesticides.

Accompanying the above is an unprecedented horticultural interest, with people studying the kinds of soils, nourishment, moisture, and sunlight required for particular plants, and a newfound appreciation for the taxonomic diversity and physiologic wonders of the plant kingdom.

Needless to say, these botanical pursuits have existed for a long time; most of us just weren’t paying attention. What can explain the intensified appeal of plants and gardens in the time of pandemic?

A facile answer is that gardening is one of the activities available to people locked down in their homes, alongside baking, yoga, indoor workouts, and watching Netflix series. But why the preeminence of plants, given the expense, time, and effort they entail?

To explore this question more fully, we must look at plants not as passive objects but as active participants in our lives. That is, we must look beyond photosynthesis and consider their meanings and materialities for their human counterparts.

Plants, of course, remind people of the outdoors, hence their appeal to urbanites even before the pandemic. Arguably, though, plants are artificial as they are natural, given how they have been sourced, bred, grafted, marketed, and transported by human hands in a process that has spanned centuries. Even so—and despite ecological concerns over the commodification of plants amid the decimation of their habitats—they first and foremost signify nature.

The diverse, mostly tropical, provenance of houseplants also speaks of the role of colonialism in their globalized distribution (e.g., the fiddle-leaf fig from West Africa; Beaucarnea from Central America; and Nepenthes from Southeast Asia), helping explain why they have served as status symbols. Like the much older traditions of bonsai (盆栽) in Japan and penjing (盆景) in China, houseplants used to be the province of elites, and although they are much more commonly available today, the kinds of plants one can buy, and the space available for them in one’s house, continue to be economically determined. Then as now, there is a sociality in plants, too, as when friends exchange growing tips over Zoom calls that, of course, showcase the plants themselves.

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Meanwhile, a growing body of scholarship confirms what many plant lovers already know: Being surrounded with plants is good for humans, reducing indoor air pollution and stress levels, alongside a panoply of other physical and mental health benefits. The “biophilia” movement goes further by positing that we have an innate need to connect with nature, one that is fulfilled by greenery.

Overall, then, plants as a whole evoke nature, status, health, and beauty. However, what’s intriguing about plants is that people do not just consider them in general terms, but as individuals, ascribing identity and even personality to each of them. In my next column, I will delve deeper into more personal human-plant entanglements.

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TAGS: COVID-19, lockdown, pandemic, plant lovers, plantita, plantito, Plants
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