Lockdown and Locked In: Houseplants and Covid-19

Drawing courtesy of the author

By Darya Tsymbalyuk

Just before the official lockdown was announced in Scotland, I moved all of my office plants home. There was no space for them in my room, but I rearranged my furniture to accommodate my office plants since they had been my closest companions during the crisis. There are numerous platforms, including Vogue and Independent, which have written about the positive effect houseplants have had on people during the lockdown, including their positive contribution to our mental health. Yet there are fewer platforms that have written about the effect the lockdown has had on houseplants left in apartments and offices, and even the ones that do, stress the importance of people’s wellbeing rather than the wellbeing of plants. For example, The Guardian quotes Hugo Meunier, a founder of the company in Paris that is rescuing plants, as saying:

Obviously, people had much more important things to worry about during the lockdown, but it’s depressing to come back and find the plants dying. And it’s good psychologically for people to think we will try to do something for the plant.

And The New York Times quotes Ms. Vassilkioti, the founder of a company that installs and maintains plants in commercial spaces, as saying:

[…] it’s OK to say ‘goodbye’ and get a new plant. Plants are supposed to make us feel good, and right now we have so much other crazy stuff going on, we don’t need to feel sad.

In both of these quotes, plants are presented as a commodity, which are supposed to make us feel better while we are isolating in our homes, and which can be easily discarded and replaced if the realization that a plant is a living being that can die, and not an object, upsets us.

Lockdown companions (Photograph courtesy of the author)

Yesterday, for the first time since the lockdown, I stopped by the main library building of my university town. Last year, a new collaboration space was opened at the lowest level of the library. The room has been home to a variety of big and beautiful houseplants, among which are a Ficus benjamina (Weeping fig), a Dracaena, and a Schlumbergera. A massive glass window frames the collaboration space, and you can see the plants from the outside. When I visited the window for the first time in more than three months, the plants looked dry and wilted, their leaves fallen to the floor; the Schlumbergera was now a shade of red. Most of the plants still had green leaves that stood out among the dead, wilted ones. The leaves were pressed against the window, and it was just the glass separating me and them; and this glass was fatal: it meant that I was outside just like the lawn behind me, which was not dependent on humans to be watered; and it meant that as close as I was, and as much as I wanted, I could not reach the plants to offer them water. For now, glass separates us, and ironically, I can see my own reflection better than I can see the plants.

Photographs courtesy of the author

The vision of plants as immobile leads us to see them as passive and, therefore, as things that can be commodified and treated like objects. This is particularly true for houseplants, many of which are sold at shops alongside groceries, household items, and furniture. In literature on interior design, plants are often seen as accessories that help to create nicer environments for humans. The former Soviet Union, where I was born, developed the concept of phytodesign, which entailed the “design and practical application of plants in artificial environments.” [1] Giovanni Aloi, an author and editor of Why Look at Plants? The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art, writes about the “enforce[ment] of biopolitical regimes designed to standardize vegetal anatomy,” [2] which help to produce perfect specimens for the interiors of our houses and offices. The objectification of plants is perfectly demonstrated by the trend of coating succulents with bright colors and glitter. In the UK, you can often see painted succulents in Tesco or other supermarkets, particularly around Halloween or Christmas. Spray-painted succulents are there to please and amuse demanding customers, with little thought given to the effects of the paint on the plant (even if it is non-toxic) and how it effects their ability to stay alive and photosynthesize.

Plants surround us both indoors and outdoors, but we often see them only as a background. Plant blindness is a term referring to our inability to notice plants in spaces [3]. I remember many plants in different university buildings, some in the corridor on the way to my department, some in the lobby, some at the counter at the student services center. Walking through the empty streets of the town, I cannot stop wondering what happened to those very particular plants I passed by and observed almost every day.

Humans domesticated plants to make them live with us indoors. Most of the houseplants I keep in my room in Scotland originally come from very different climates. Isolated from their natural environment and being placed in pot, a houseplant in a room immediately calls for the creation of a collaboration space in which humans promise to provide water and food, as well as a larger pot when needed, in exchange for the plant’s company. This means that the collaboration space of the library is not just a nice place where students can meet and discuss projects but also a multispecies collaboration space between humans and plants. The lockdown and closure of the library disrupted this multispecies collaboration. There was no access to the building, humans had left, and the plants remained. There was no evacuation plan for the latter.

The question of multispecies relations in a moment of crisis is something I focus on in my PhD research. I study narratives of human-plant relations and their (re)configuration during and after experiences of displacement from the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine. Since the outbreak of military conflict and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, more than 1.3 million people have been internally displaced from affected areas, according to the number of people who have registered in government-controlled territories [4]. The actual number is much higher.

Just like military conflict, the Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis to which humans have had to respond quickly, making urgent decisions, including what things to take with them from their offices before the impending lockdown. Seeing the window of the collaboration space of the library made me recall the many voices of my interviewees sharing stories of plants that they could not take with them as they fled, and that slowly died in their locked apartments. It is important to note that many internally displaced persons did not know that they were leaving for a long time. Since the conflict began in spring, many went on an unplanned vacation and hoped that things would calm down by the time they returned. In one of the interviews, a woman whom I call Iryna in order to preserve her anonymity recalls coming back home after several months of absence. Iryna was abroad when the conflict escalated and could not return home as planned. She recounted the experience of returning to her apartment after a long period of absence:

And when I entered the house… we had a lush plant in a big white pot, a hibiscus with red flowers… And I saw a wilted hibiscus… The rest… felt like in a film about the Apocalypse, yes… Everything remained where it was, toothpaste, toilet paper, and there was a feeling that someone left for 5 min… but the wilted plants – and I’ve got a lump in my throat…

Iryna’s description of the hibiscus is not much different from my experience of plants in the collaboration space; they are a reminder of disrupted multispecies relations. Wilted leaves are a plant’s final expression of their own aliveness, if only through death. The return journey that Iryna describes before entering her home is difficult and dramatic, but it is the death of the hibiscus that makes Iryna realize the irreversible rupture of displacement.

Stories about human-plant relations in the moment of crisis are not always about abandonment and death. For example, in one of my other interviews, Oleh [5] went through a long process of obtaining military permissions to return to the conflict area and evacuate approximately 40,000 plants from a plant nursery. During the interview, Oleh’s wife Oksana [6] comments on the fact that while Oleh was trying to obtain the necessary permissions, a lot of people found it surprising that he was so determined to evacuate the plants. In times of crisis, being concerned with plants does not seem to be the most pressing problem for most. Political commentary and the media tend to emphasize human life. In Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? Judith Butler analyzes the way the media frames and portrays certain lives as less valuable and, therefore, as less “grievable” than ours. In the introduction to her book, Butler writes:

…specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living. If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense [7].

Butler focuses on human lives only; however, this argument can be easily extended to nonhuman lives. The lives of houseplants left in offices or plants in Oleg’s nursery are non-grievable precisely because we tend to see them as either objects or as non-sentient beings, and as the articles in The New York Times and The Guardian quoted earlier show, the death of plants potentially only matters in light of the sadness that it inflicts on humans.

I wrote to the library today offering to pick up the plants from the collaboration space if there was a possibility of accessing them. In most human-plant relations, whether it is the cultivation of monocultures or flower and houseplant markets, we often see a reflection of our own needs and desires. The Covid-19 crisis has made us question our relations with the nonhuman, whether it is the discussion about wet markets or the return of wildlife to urban areas. The UN, WHO, and WWF International claim that the destruction of the environment results in pandemics such as Covid-19. However, it is the threat to human lives that brings these discussions forward. Once again, it is our own reflection that we are concerned with the most. What is truly important though is continuing to question if we are capable of seeing nonhuman lives not just as resources and commodities but as valuable in and of themselves. The window at the collaboration space of the library is a tragic example of our consistent failure to build a relationship with other species that truly recognizes their right to live.

Several days after I submitted the draft of this essay, the library replied to me and promised to do their best in taking care of the plants. However, many more remain locked in other office spaces.

[1] A. M. Hrodzinskiy, Sered Pryrody i v Laboratoriyi (Kyiv: Naukova Dumka, 1983), 122.

[2] Giovanni Aloi, Why Look at Plants? The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art (Leiden, Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2018): 184.

[3] J. H. Wandersee and E. E. Schussler, “Preventing Plant Blindness,” The American Biology Teacher 61, no. 2 (1999): 82–86.

[4] UNHCR Ukraine, “Registration of Internal Displacement,” UNHCR Ukraine, published 04 June 2020.

[5] The name has been changed.

[6] The name has been changed.

[7] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London and New York: Verso, 2010), 1.

One Comment on “Lockdown and Locked In: Houseplants and Covid-19

  1. Fascinating read.
    On one of these days, I found caterpillars of lime swallowtail on the curry leaves in my urban garden. These caterpillars are known to cause severe defoliation of the plant. Since both lives mattered, this situation put me in an awkward predicament. My position in the assemblage made me wonder about the power structures that are inherent in these multispecies entanglements. The intricacies that emerge in these multispecies relations are intriguing!


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