Earlier this year, everything went wrong inside my head. I had the kind of bad, and badly timed, break-up that sends the building blocks of your adult life – already, to be fair, precariously stacked – clattering to the floor in a big, dramatic mess, requiring you to assemble them again for another round of identity Jenga.
I tried a lot of experiments in reconstitution. I exercised. I bought a blender for smoothies and ate fermented things. I stretched regularly. I did all the things that podcasts indicated would boost my mood, or my gut health. Then I booked a trip to Canada, and experienced a bout of what manifested as inexplicable hypothermia in fairly clement weather. As I shivered and vomited out of a car on the return from an objectively idyllic weekend at a lakeside cabin in Ontario, I admitted there were limits to willing myself to be fine. Then I dipped a toe into the last category of millennial wellness left to me: buying houseplants instead of going to therapy.
[See also: When will we be able to hope again?]
I came back from Canada and decided that a nice thing to do for myself would be to buy two or three plants for my desk. This impulse was new to me – I’ve never kept plants at home before. I spent my twenties moving between house-shares, packing and unpacking the same boxes of books, vintage prints, Staffordshire spaniels, miniature rugs and charity-shop candelabras. Before I moved into my current flat, I relocated these seven times within two years. Acquiring anything that couldn’t be stacked in the back of a taxi seemed an unnecessary stress.
It hadn’t escaped my notice that almost everyone my age, it seems, has spent the past few years getting very into houseplants. There are a wealth of takes about why my generation has become plant-obsessed: how millennials can’t afford to buy houses so buy houseplants instead; pets are the new children, and houseplants are the new pets; young people in cities reconnect with nature in the absence of gardens and green spaces. But it wasn’t my personal idea of nature, and I didn’t like how trendy it was: the omnipresent monstera-themed accessories; the Instagram posts of “plantfluencers” who declare the fiddle-leaf fig is “dead” and staghorn ferns are in. I didn’t want to identify as a “plant parent”.
But a few hours after buying the first plants for my desk, I went to a garden centre and bought five more. How had I not noticed how bare my flat looked without them? I tweeted photos of them in pride of place. “Houseplants are addictive,” my book editor replied, which I took to be a joke.
Four months on, I own, at the time of writing, 51 houseplants. Ferns spill over my bathroom counter. Ivies and pothos trail from windowsills or climb up moss poles. There are succulents in sunny windows, hanging plants on every available hook and nail, tradescantia climbing up my kitchen wall. I have rubber plants of various hues; fluorescent-veined, almost alien-looking nerve plants; impossibly magnificent, painterly calatheas. And a monstera, obviously. Far too late to be fashionable, I have become a plant woman.
I simply did not anticipate that they would bring me this level of joy. For a start, as someone who enjoys knowing facts about things, learning the Latin as well as common names of every conceivable category of houseplant, and researching their specific needs, has opened up a whole new vista of opportunity. But I didn’t know that I was going to feel this tenderly towards them. The emotional bond I have formed with my plants is almost embarrassing.
I spend perhaps three hours of my week watering, pruning, propagating and otherwise tending to them. I whisper to them gentle encouragement in a sing-song voice as I do this. I feel genuine excitement when each one shoots out a new leaf or stem. None of them has died. (Yet.) I care for them and watch them thrive. I am willing them to be fine.
I have to start reading the news less, though. It’s not just that I check Twitter more times a day than can possibly be healthy – I’ve started tuning into rolling news to hear people announce the content of tweets I read 20 minutes previously. I’ve lost count of the number of resignations, cabinet reshuffles, leadership elections and market tumbles that I’ve live-tracked my way through in the past few months. And for what? Why do I feel the need to be the first to hear about everything? I suspect the answer lies somewhere between the illusion of control that this compulsive monitoring gives me and wanting to feel that my perspective matters in some way. But partly I think it’s Fomo for a party I’d half like to forget about entirely.
Tracey Thorn is on sabbatical
This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak