Brown Thumb, Stash It or Trash It?

Anatomy of a Houseplant Murder


Let me start by saying I don’t kill all my houseplants. At least not right away. I swear I had the best of intentions when it came to my latest victims, I mean, houseplant acquisitions. They began their brief and tragic lives in matching planters on my front porch last summer. Having managed to stay alive for several months despite my best lack of effort, I wanted to make sure they didn’t simply get killed off by the first frost. No, to reward them for their tenacity, I decided to prolong their agony and brought them inside the house. Or, as all once-green life forms call it: the place where things go to die.

I repotted both plants and put them with the few other plants that hadn’t been killed by me, or by the cat, in front of our living room window, the sunniest spot in our house. I didn’t know much about these plants, but I figured giving them light would increase their chance of survival. The plants, however, had other ideas. Well, at least one of them did. Maybe it spotted the little “Do not resuscitate” sign hanging from the pot containing a Boston fern. Or maybe it got wind of the Lucky Bamboo’s lawsuit for false advertising. Or maybe, upon getting a look at its new chlorophyll-challenged roommates, it decided sooner was better than later when it comes to the inevitable. Anyway, it was dead before the front door closed.

The other plant hung on. I’d saved the tag that came with it on the off chance I might want to refer to its care instructions at some point (I dream big). It turns out the plant’s official name is Acalypha wilkesiana, which I assume is Latin for “not going down without a fight.”


But I knew something was up in late November when I enjoyed the sound of dried leaves crunching beneath my feet while walking through our living room. Perhaps I was going out on a bare limb here, but I took it as a sign my plants could use some water. The plant struggled valiantly for another week or so until it got shoved in a dark corner to make way for our Christmas tree, which is artificial so it doesn’t need light, but, whatever.

I lost track of it in the holiday hubbub and didn’t see it again until early January when I plunked a poinsettia (which I think let out a little cry for help when I picked it out at the grocery store) next to it to keep it company. It wasn’t looking very robust at that point, so I remedied the situation by shoving it further into the corner. I have no idea how the plants managed for the rest of the month – they probably held victim support group meetings.

By February I was ready to go on vacation, which my plants always look forward to because it’s one of the few times they get watered. I always make sure to water my plants before I go away because I worry that, if someone has to come in the house while we’re gone and they see my nearly dead houseplants, they’ll also hopefully notice the moist soil and figure it’s the plants’ fault. The watering, however, was too late. The once-hardy plant was reduced to just a couple of 3-foot long sticks poking out of hard packed dirt.

I didn’t throw it out right away, though, because I was getting ready to leave and didn’t have time. And I didn’t throw it out when I got home because it would have meant moving other plants out of the way and lugging the big pot of dirt and twigs outside. That seemed almost as much trouble as watering my plants on a regular basis.


And then a horticultural miracle occurred. A few weeks ago I noticed small green leaves on top of the otherwise bare stems. Mind you, its struggle for survival and return from a presumed death has taken its toll and it’s become one unattractive plant. But, then again, Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t look too pretty by the end of The Revenant.

I still haven’t watered it yet. I guess I’m waiting to see if the plant is really serious about this whole life thing. If it ends up dying again, though, I have an alibi: I haven’t been in the living room for weeks.

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