A long time ago, in a city far away, my then roommate moved across the country. She bequeathed to me a rubber tree plant. And while technically I didn’t kill it, by the time I met my green-thumbed husband, it was in a state of–let’s just say– stunned stasis.
With a little maintenance and care though, that sucker flourished. We moved it from its original pot to something bigger and then something bigger again until it was more of a rubber tree than a rubber tree plant.
In hindsight, it didn’t take much. More frequent watering. Dusting the waxy leaves every now and again. A twist to give the shadier side a turn in the sun. A little pruning. Turns out the rubber tree plant, once it got going, was pretty self-sufficient; not nearly as finicky as the bonsai tree, which gave my household Mr. Miagi great joy and frustration.
And then, in 2008, we moved to Cyprus and we had to leave our plants behind. The new tenants got custody of the rubber tree and someone else got the bonsai. We left on a jet plane and landed on that dusty island in the middle of the Med.
There, around our huge pink house on Egnatias, was an embarrassment of flora. A flank of bitter orange trees at the front. A fig tree and an oleander in the back. Of course, those came with their own issues. The bitter oranges? They dropped on the hood of the car, rhythmic, hollow thunks that left behind a sticky mess. The oleander was gorgeous for two weeks, until it rained petals that had to be swept up daily. The figs? They were delicious.
We didn’t need to give those away when we left for colder, more northerly climes, they were inherited by whoever rented the house after us. I hope they enjoy figs, have a sturdy broom, and figured out not to park their car directly in the line of bitter orange fire.
In Copenhagen our personal nursery included a phalanx of orchids along our kitchen windowsill. They were a bit tricky, but with proper care and regular pruning, they were gorgeous. A ficus tree, inherited from dear friends who had moved on, stood in various corners of our apartment over the years. And then there was the trunk full of plants bought during lockdown furlough, when we were overcome by the urgency of having a house full of green, living things in and amongst the news of viruses and death rates.
We learned from that rubber tree all those years ago. We watered and turned and pruned. We moved them if they started to yellow around the edges. We repotted them when they outgrew their original pots. Some, like the spider plants even had babies that we scattered around the apartment like little, living gifts.
It was lush and homey.
Those plants brought us joy.
And then we had to leave them behind with a list of watering instructions and a bag of extra potting soil.
Rubber trees and bonsais and figs and oleanders and ficus trees and ferns.
Houseplants are one of those things which you don’t realize you’re missing out on until you don’t have them anymore, until you have to leave them behind. Again.
And so here we are, going on 15 years, scoping out the plant scene in another new city, in another new country. Our windowsills are bare. Well, that’s not quite true. We’re tending to some herbs which are coming along nicely, but of course we’d love to recreate the lushness we’ve left behind in all the places we’ve lived.
Why? I mean houseplants are not strictly necessary, but they help turn what can sometimes just be a place–a pin on a map–into something more. Something like a home. They brighten up your day. They filter out some of the crud that’s floating around. They soften the harshness and buffer the noise.
They’re more than just windowsill dressing.
It’s likely in our time here we’ll lose a plant or two, we often do, something that we didn’t take care of the right way or that required more love and care than we had to give. Sometimes you take a chance on something pretty, put it in the window, and forget about it. Occasionally they don’t make it, like the ferns that withered on my bookcase in Copenhagen. Sometimes they stall a bit until someone notices they are a bit dry and gives them some extra water and then they re-bloom. But there are always some which flourish; some, that with the right care, blossom and grow and flower.
Yes, those are the hardest to say goodbye to. The ones that have grown into something tall and sturdy. Something you tended to and loved and took great care of.
Those are the ones that sting to leave behind.
For more expat musings, check out There’s Some Place Like Home, available on Amazon in paperback and e-book formats.