Letters from the road

Posts tagged “florals

Are Houseplants as Green as We Think?

Originally featured on elephant journal April 27, 2017

Our Fetishism with House Plants.

While searching online for baby-proofing tips, I came across an article about common toxic indoor plants. In a flash of embarrassment, I realized I knew nothing about the plants gracing my home.

I expected the baby-proofing basics—hiding cords, finding cap thingys for electrical sockets, elevating curtain drawstrings, and picking up all the appetizing detritus perfectly sized for little hands and curious mouths. But—toxic house plants? That’s a thing?

Besides being told that we need specific plants for Feng Shui and better air quality, how much do we really know about the plants sharing our homes? We may know how to keep them alive, but do we know much more?

I’m not exactly a green-thumb, but I didn’t even know what types of plants we have. Some were passed on from the previous owners of our house and some I bought from our local grocery store. Most I’ve managed to keep alive.

Hanging in my living room I have one vibrant vine varietal that I can now name—devil’s ivy—also known as the golden pothos or money plant. It sprawls across the ceiling and drapes around our big south-facing windows.

When I recently visited Dubai, I noticed my mother-in-law has the same plant in her desert home. A couple of weeks ago, on a trip to Hawaii, I saw the same plant while out on a hike. Did I mention I live in Alaska?

At first I thought this was a great example of how globalization has brought us closer together. But once I was past my ‘Kumbaya’ moment, it dawned on me that this might not be the sweet fairytale it seemed.

I belatedly asked: Is this plant toxic if ingested? The unfortunate answer was easy to find—yes.

So, house plants. Where do they come from? Why do we have them? Are they sustainable?

Although we have been living in tandem with house plants for millennia, it wasn’t until the height of European colonialism did house plants really take over our lives.

Think the Palace of Versailles, or the great houses of England. King Louis XIV had a thing for orange trees and exotic animals. In addition to ‘discovering’ new places, explorers/imperialists were sending exotic plants back to their patrons. Heard of cocoa? Coffee? These plants didn’t land on European soil by accident.
Growing exotic plant varieties was an indication of wealth and privilege—and became big business. Think sugar plantations. The transatlantic slave trade was built upon Western European—and later white American obsession with plants native to warm locales. Tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, rum, and sugarcane.
Then came the ability to grow hot weather plants closer to home. With the invention of the greenhouse, tropical and subtropical plants could now be grown in non-indigenous colder climes.

So—what about the Devil’s Ivy that has climbed its way into many of our homes?

Devil’s Ivy is a quintessential house plant. Its long trailing vines and spade-shaped emerald leaves often grow from a hanging basket. Think jungle—because unsurprisingly, that’s where it comes from.

The plant itself is originally native to the South Central Pacific Ocean. More specifically, the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia—which is still an overseas country of France.

The devil’s ivy in my own home was one we inherited with our house. I’m unsure where it originated, but I suspect it came from a clipping—kind of like friendship bread or a SCOBY. Most likely, it was shipped up to Alaska from an out-of-state nursery.
Most likely it was shipped up to Alaska from an out-of-state nursery. Maybe it was even smuggled. I’ve seen French Kiss. Although I doubt most smugglers sound like a sexy French-speaking Kevin Kline.

The unfortunate truth is, by breeding and transporting plants like devil’s ivy around the United States and around the world, we’re seeing the propagation of monocultures. In Hawaii, devil’s ivy is considered an invasive species. While many of us are privileged to house this plant indoors, it is threatening the biodiversity of delicate ecosystems.

I’m unsure of the import policies for Devil’s Ivy in Dubai, but exotic faun —cheetah, tigers, and lions—were only recently banned as pets. Pets.

Are house plants as green as we think?

There is an estimated $18 billion in the American floral industry. It’s also consolidating at an astonishing rate: “Since 1992 the number of florist shops in America has fallen from 27,000 to 15,000.”

This means fewer local nurseries and greenhouses. Most cut flowers—about 65 percent in 2013—were imported from Colombia alone.

I have an incredibly talented friend who owns a flower shop near my home. I was delighted to learn that she sources almost all of her florals locally. She grows some plants herself and others she buys from local greenhouses. But she is in the minority.

The way we grow house plants is also deviating further from nature: “Micropropagation has enabled plants to be produced in huge numbers, with small sections of leaf grown on in Petri dishes in a laboratory. The resulting plants are genetically identical, and bulk production means they are now affordable—a third or even a quarter of the retail price of 15 years ago.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my house plants. Especially during our cold dark winters. I love having a bit of fresh green that reminds us that the snow will eventually disappear and the sun will return.

I’m not suggesting that we give our house plants up, but what if instead of buying mono-cultured house plants, we commit to supporting our local greenhouses and learning the origins of local indigenous plants?

Perhaps we grow sustainable, eco-friendly plants instead. We can find local programs that get us outside to learn about the plants in our own back yards.

Next time we’re debating buying a fully grown house plant, let’s look at the label to see where it came from. There’s a deep-rooted story sitting in that humble pot.