I almost thought I had lost her

Relationships come and go. I have experienced this over the past few years all too clearly. I have ‘lost’ friendships over the past decade that I thought I would never lose. Friends I spoke to and saw every day less than a decade ago now don’t even know I have a kid, and even have a second one in late-larval developmental stage. I guess people make very untrustworthy friends. (There is no blame here – I am as much a useless friend as the other side of the equation(s). This pandemic is not doing my friend role in extant friendships much good either)

From a very early age I sought friendships elsewhere. Being quite heavily bullied for being different in primary school, I didn’t have many ‘human friends’ at the time. I guess I had to find an alternative, and I connected much more strongly than most with other things, such as nature. Particularly, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants have always had a special place in my heart, and I have cared for many over the past 25+ years. I have also had two felines that have been with me for quite some time. There used to be one (since 2007), but one turned into five (in 2009), and even though I got rid of the surplus, one of the babies ended back up – via an impressive series of irresponsible ownerships – in my student house years later (in 2012). This one was – quite honestly – simply left behind by its official owner when they moved out (in 2013). I somehow felt responsible, and promised never to let them go. They seem alive and well. I think they both have most of their nine lives left (although the mother once jumped from a third story window, which must have cost her at least one). I digress, I didn’t really want to write about cats.

This story is more about the unexpected bond I appear to have with plants. I have always had many plants. At some point in my student times, I had a twelve square meter room and shared it with around 20 snakes (at the time already drastically reduced from 150 or so), 50 tarantulas (and another 25 or so other arthropods – not counting the hissing cockroach colony), and probably 200 or so plants. It is quite amazing – really – how I managed to stuff all of this, and a bed and a closet, in one room. I was always germinating something and the windowsills were always filled with all kinds of plants.

Just one of many trays with seedlings. I think these were Musella lasiocarpa
I even had a couple of Welwitschia mirabilis – These dudes are notoriously difficult to grow (mature plants grow along the Namibian coastal deserts and take up water from fogs rolling in from sea, and this is tough to replicate). Although I managed to keep some alive for six months or so, I eventually killed them. It’s still on my wish list of things to do right…

Like human friendships, most plants also come and go. I often gave away plants. Although I have also worked professionally with plants for 20+ years, some also died under my watch. (I suck at amateur pest control…) However, one, the first one I bought when I moved out of my parental house, is still with me. It’s a Monstera deliciosa, better known as a Swiss cheese plant. I bought this one, I think, in 2007, as a two or three-leaf plant. It was tiny. Over the years it grew and grew and grew. It became a monster that deserved its scientific name. It has moved house with me nine times (that includes a five-month stayover with parents-in-law when Heike and I were traveling in Southeast Asia in 2013). During most of this time, this plant looked amazing. The worst thing that ever happened to her was that she got a little dusty. She has always been pretty much spotless otherwise.

Imagine that this was one of the better-looking leaves… It looked grim!

I don’t know what got to her when we moved to Germany. I mean, I know I was pretty overwhelmed and shocked myself when I just got here, which lasted more or less a year. It seemed that my plants felt my stress, or at least something bugged them too. I have lost several other nice plants that had been with me for years, and many still struggle now. To be honest, I still don’t fully understand what happened. Was it because the water had different minerals? I have moved places before, and all of my plants have had worse light or nutrient conditions without a doubt. For sure something stressed them out a lot, and they became vulnerable and attracted many pest insects. I repeat – I suck at pest control. Maybe because the pests also have a special place in my heart. My Monstera, my oldest green friend, the one that had always stood strong, survived the worst of light conditions, the coldest winters in poorly insulated student rooms, it was dying on me. I’m alright with some plants dying on me. But this one? It was different. I really felt horrible about it. Last summer, the plant looked terrible. The leaves had gone dull, greyish-green, and brown-edged, and although this champion never had any pests, ever, it now was feasted on by thrips (a lot of typical thrips damage, too). It looked bad. Really bad.

I almost gave up on her. Late last autumn I decided to give it one last chance. I trimmed it back by quite a bit, keeping only the leaves that seemed to be able to provide some photosynthetic energy. I think I removed about two-third of them (and she was still pretty large). I don’t use pesticides, but I washed her leaves under the shower several times to remove any present pests, until I no longer found them (thrips are not that fond of water). I prayed to the plant gods to stay by her side.

For the next few months, nothing happened. This was to be expected. My plan was to reduce bad parts, reduce pests, so that she would somehow survice winter, and hope for the best in spring, when she traditionally popped out leaves like a maniac. In February, she started producing ‘eyes’, where new leaves bud out eventually. A month later, she had developed several leaves, but all looked deformed. All new buds had issues unrolling their new leaves, and looked horrible. Luckily, all the leaves after looked pristine. She developed about fifteen to twenty new leaves, and the latest ones look amazing! I think she’s back!

Look at them new leaves smiling and shit :D. I think she’ll hang around for a couple more years!

I never expected that I could care so much about a plant, but I am very happy that I managed to save this ‘friendship’ :).

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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