Black Joy

Black people and their plants: It’s more than a lifestyle

My first one was Bonnie. My roommate at the time had talked me into buying a plant, and so I looked and looked. Nothing really was doing it for me until I spotted my Bonnie. A small bonsai with a cute little twisted trunk that I found hidden behind another plant at Walmart.

We spent just under 5 years together, and that tree saw me through so many difficult moments. Me finding her was the beginning of my love and deep appreciation for nature. When she shed her last leaf, I was on the heels of another big life transition.

I like to think Bonnie knew she had served her purpose. It was time for me to be a big girl, shed my own dead leaves, and bloom into a better version of myself.

This, perhaps melodramatic, connection I had with my plant is no coincidence. I think it’s indicative of the ways my ancestors and the living elders in my family regard plants and all that grows from the Earth.

My grandmama’s porch ferns and her assortment of lush Peace Lilies scattered about her home, small little gifts from her God. I imagine her mother and father felt similarly about the crops they harvested back in the day when the land was greener and more fertile.

Black people have a unique and ever-evolving relationship to the land. And it has been that way since we were first brought, unwillingly, to what we now call “American” soil.

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Our Garden is your garden, too

Growing up in the country means you’ve had to toil in someone’s garden at least once. And you’ve had to shell peas on your granny’s porch more times than you care to remember.

For Leah Whitcomb, a writer and my podcast co-host, her first introduction to getting her hands dirty was out in her daddy’s garden in rural Mississippi.

“Probably when I was seven or eight, my daddy, we moved to the country and my daddy wanted to start a garden. . .We had to put the seeds in the ground. . .carry these heavy bags of fertilizer. . . throw it on top of the rows . . . water everything. . . a few months later, we had to pick the peas off [and] shell the peas. We had corn [and] tomatoes. . . we had a whole bunch of vegetables.”

Her daddy’s garden pursuit might’ve been partly inspired by his own father’s garden, which Whitcomb spoke about fondly.

“My Paw Paw grew watermelon. He grew peanuts, peas and anytime that he would have extra, he would give it to us.”

According to Whitcomb, it wasn’t uncommon for folks in the community to either give away their extra crops or sell them. This is a form of mutual aid that I also witnessed growing up in rural Mississippi.

Every holiday, even to this day, my grandmama gets greens or peas from neighbors and friends in the community. Sometimes a part of the exchange is cooking the vegetables you’ve been given, and sending a bowl back to the person you got it from.

Both I and Whitcomb grew up understanding that whatever came from the land was meant to be divided amongst the community. Now more than ever this type of community care is crucial given the rising cost of food and the impact of climate change.

Self-care through plant parenting

After I got my Bonnie, the Bonsai tree, my collection of plants grew and grew until I got overwhelmed and began gifting them to folks. At one point I had over a dozen houseplants, some inside, some outside.

Your first plant is basically a gateway to falling headfirst into becoming an overindulgent Plant Parent. I think it happens to the best of us.

Whitcomb, who went from having over 50 plants to now around 15, can certainly relate. She was inspired by a friend to become a part of the #plantparentlife.

Although the influencer plant home decor aesthetic will make you believe that having plants means you’ll be surrounded by green lushness 24/7, there is a learning curve that Whitcomb knows all too well.

“My [friend] in college had plants when we lived together, and I was trying to do plants. I think I bought this kit from Target and the plant sprouted and then it died within like 2 weeks. So, I was like, I can’t keep a plant alive. I’m terrible at this and then when I graduated College in 2017 and I actually went to Las Vegas, and they had these cacti. Got two of them. I killed them both.”

As discouraging as it was for Whitcomb to feel like a black widow when it came to plants, she didn’t give up. A few years later, after visiting that same friend who inspired her to give plants a try in the first place, she gifted Whitcomb a Spider plant. This plant is known for being difficult to kill and very low maintenance.

So, after following her friend’s guidance on how to care for it, which in her words was “doing the bare minimum,” she was rewarded with a big, beautiful plant.

“From there I started collecting more plants and experimenting, seeing what works for them, seeing what didn’t, and that’s how I grew my collection.”

An important lesson Leah has taken from her plant journey is that sometimes it’s not that you’re not doing enough. We assume that to keep a plant alive you have to water it all the time, fertilize it, do all the things. When in fact, sometimes you need to just leave it alone.

“I was giving a lot to plants and sometimes most of them are okay with tap water and sunlight. I was just doing the most and I really should have eased up a little bit.”

Another side of this lesson is listening. Listening to your plants. Just as our bodies give us clear signs when we aren’t giving it enough sun and water, so do plants. What I’ve learned most from plants is that, like them, I am also a living thing that deserves to be loved and cared for.

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is Reckon’s Black Joy Reporter, and a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has been published in MadameNoire, Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere.

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