Thoughts from a self-described #plantmom

Have you heard of the app Plant Nanny? It’s ridiculously enthralling. You pot a plant, water it, and watch it grow. If you’re doing a good job nannying your digital chlorophyllic friend, you can tap it and it will sing a little. You do a good job by drinking enough water for yourself, then logging how much water you’ve had to drink. It even gives you periodic reminders throughout the day: I know at 8 AM each morning I can count on “Your plant is thirsty, give it and yourself a cup of water!” Once you water it enough to grow through four stages of growth, you can plant it in your garden and start anew. Keep it up for a few weeks, and you start to cultivate a veritable plot of smiling plant-buddies, trophies of your dedication to hydration. It’s great.

It also fits quite nicely into the growingly popular aesthetic of cute, ornamental plants. Sure, ornamental plants have been around for ages, lending symbolism to still lives, decorating ancient Babylon. But what’s different is now they’re “friends”. They have names — my current Plant Nanny ward is named Otis and potted plants Matilda, Pikablu, Dolly, Lloyd, and Felix live on my windowsill (and when I’m out, they chat with my betta fish, Craisin). Buzzfeed writes, “succulents are the new cats,” referring to their viral quality and universal aesthetic appeal, appearing on tote bags, iPhone cases, on jewelry. Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas lives on from our childhoods as a figure of grace and wisdom. On Tumblr, tags like #plantmom abound, filled with young women posing, looking cute, even reveling in the presence of their pet plants. If physical ornamental plants aren’t enough, can even play a multitude of games that simulate plant ownership without having to drink all of that pesky water: Virdi, which simulates succulent ownership, and Seed, which allows you to crossbreed fictional flowers to mutate them. But something’s missing. As much as we voraciously consume these types of ornamental plants (real and digital), do we actually learn much about them? Quick, how many types of succulents can you name, other than aloe, jade plant, and “””cactus”””? How about the trees around your house? The wildflowers native to your area?

Plant Nanny even fills its seed collection with lots of fake varieties — currently, I’m planting a mushroom-type thing called a Benjamin. Not that there’s anything wrong with fantasy, but we are missing an opportunity to make our pastimes more knowledge-dense. Viridi actually does a good job of this: each plant in your flower pot has a scientific name. The player is unlikely to recall all of the names, especially with Viridi’s minimal gameplay; however, they become more familiar with play.

So what if we could learn more about nature by osmosis? A friend of mine who’s from Tanzania once asked, baffled, about why all Americans seemed to know so much about dinosaurs. My friend and I both instantly were able to name our favorite dinosaurs and give a reason why. I never learned about dinosaurs in school, and yet I’m able to name many types of dinosaur and have an idea of what they looked like, what they ate. American culture — from growing up watching the many iterations of The Land Before Time to jokes about the Tyrannosaurus Rex and its tiny arms — is imbued with information on dinosaurs. They’re funny, they’re scary, maybe even sweet. Importantly, they’re associated with our childhoods. We’re emotionally invested in them, so we remember them.

I argue a working understanding of the flora around us ought to be more common than it is. In a more extreme example, (source) explains the danger of our lack of “nature literacy”, a phenomenon in which our disconnect from natural rhythms results in casualties in the natural world: rescuing seemingly abandoned baby birds only to bring their early death, feeding animals and giving them booze (or blowing pot smoke in their faces) for laughs, bathing animals like rabbits that keep clean on their own and only become extremely stressed in water. These examples apply to animals, not plants. But as we become more familiar with all types of nature, and not only select, popular species, we come to understand nature as something always around us to some extent. A three-year study conducted in the UK by the RSPB (source) found that just over one fifth of British children aged 8 to 12 felt connected to nature. How can we not feel connected to nature if it’s always around us in some capacity? We may already know the pigeons, sparrows, and squirrels around the city, but the sweetgum, basswood, and ginkgo trees are just as much placemaking entities. They are only quieter, even less human, more still, commanding less of our attention. The more nature is brought to the forefront, even in the city, the more we can come to understand it, the way we affect it, and the way it affects us. It becomes less abstract and less of an object in the distance.

If plants grab our attention via the succulent craze, fantastic. I only ask that we find more incentive to learn their attributes, their names. And maybe the makers of Plant Nanny could introduce some purple loosestrife?

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