Empathy For a Houseplant

by Alexis Cornmesser

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My house has many plants. There are creeping plants, palm plants, succulents and even a few cacti. While ruminating on the prompt from Permaculture Women, I struggled to pick one particular plant. I then remembered one of my favorites since before my move to the chilly southwestern Pennsylvania suburbs, the Jade Plant. The Jade Plant, which hails from South Africa, has oval, spoon like, pudgy leaves (Soft Schools) and had been a household companion for several years. I had acquired my first Jade Plant while living in the East San Francisco Bay Area. The plant sat in the clearance section of a grocery store for a few dollars looking thirsty and in need of rescue, quite similar to how I acquired my current Jade Plants while with my grandfather in a Lowe’s clearance section.

Typically a Jade Plant would grow in the earth surrounded by other plants that could survive the high winds and drought conditions of their native region, such as other succulents, euphorbia, and aloes (Soft Schools) but my jade plant sits on my sunny dinning room table. She does not have to acclimate and endure drought nor blistering heat. Her thick stem, however, does enable her to endure the aggressive rubbing from my cat as he sunbathes. A day in the life of my Jade Plants is spent basking in the sun with a furry companion whilst being waited on by a sometimes forgetful caretaker. As with any plant, the Jade Plant needs nourishing soil, adequate sunlight, and water. Each species of plant, however, still has specific needs and for a plant so far from her native home, she needs extra care. With the winter’s diminished sunlight and creeping cold, she needs less water and often times, needs to be moved to other rooms to get enough sunlight.

The real struggle of this writing challenge was to empathize with a plant. How could I empathize with an object? Are plants necessarily objects? Does this plant have the capacity of feeling or thought? They are in fact organisms but what did that mean as far as how to empathize with her? According to an article published by the BBC in the winter of 2017, plants can in fact can see, hear, and even smell (Gabbatiss, 2017). Taking into consideration a four decade long study by Jack C Schultz, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, plants have the capacity to respond to their environment (Gabbatiss, 2017). It’s not a stretch of the imagination to believe that our plants are responding to our care in more than just a superficial way. I ponder this while staring at my Jade Plant. I recall its wrinkling leaves on both occasions I have bought one. I knew this plant was in need of better sunlight and water and even a new pot. I knew this plant was not thriving and I wanted it to thrive. That is an act of empathy.

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References:

(2020) Jade Plant. Soft Schools.

Gabbatiss., (2017.) Plants Can See Hear and Smell and Respond. BBC.

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