Queering Plants: Embracing Our Natural Connection

By ena ganguly

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me a story about their great grandfather, Abdul Hafiz, fondly known as Senior. He was a well known reader of literature, which he would translate into Bangla, to make it more accessible to his people. One of Senior’s favorite hobbies was gardening, and his family would often catch him talking to his plants, as he tended them. He had a very special relationship with his two mango trees, who he would speak to every day until the day of his passing. A year later, his family noticed, sap, dripping from both trees, completely covering the ground around them. Some say, the mango trees were weeping for him.

This is the late Abdul Hafiz, also known as Senior. Photo courtesy of Lala Rukh Selim.

So, what does it mean to queer our relationship with plants? The dictionary definition of the word ‘queer’ is odd or strange. People of color are queer because many of us deviate from the norm of treating plants with harsh chemicals, mass producing and mono-cropping. We tend to our gardens by listening to their needs and speaking to them, just like Senior used to do. People of color have a history of deep relationships with the land, the trees, the animals and the five elements. Though our collective histories look different from the way many of us interact with the earth now, we continue to tend to plants and, if possible, our very own gardens.

The first step to queering your garden is to reach back into your memory and recall anything your families may have told you about how tend to plants. My mamma used to say to refrain from speaking to plants at night, because they were sleeping, so I would make sure to not water or even touch them once the sun set. Now, when I research that advice, studies show that plant life actually does rest after sun set, and many plants cannot stand being watered at night (literally, they will wilt), especially if it’s cold outside. Although it’s nice to have my mother’s wisdom supported by science, I think it’s really important to believe our ancestral narratives, trust in their communal wisdom, without the validation of a Western model. With that comes the realization that people of color are knowledge producers whose teachings can stand alone.

Second step: Believe that you can grow your plants anywhere. I mean, anywhere. This photo is of my work plants who grow behind me and are flourishing. Without further ado, let me introduce you, from left to right, smol cactus, eager aloe, zen bamboo, and cuddly succulents. They are all low maintenance, don’t need a ton of water, and sometimes, I’ll even line them near our glass door so they can soak up the sun for a few hours. The second step is just as important as the first. Both tie into the power of believing. Once you realize that you can grow plants anywhere, you are compelled to get creative.

Third step: Scan your living and working spaces and do the necessary research. Is there a windowsill that could use some green or some good lighting in your work space? If you don’t have enough light filtering through your spaces, research plants that don’t need a lot of sun exposure. Same goes for the level of work you want to put into raising plants, because that’s really what you’re doing. You are raising plants. Plants are the new cats, folks, and when I first began to buy plants for my apartment, I consciously decided that I am fine with being a plant lady. I very deliberately committed to watering my plants and tending to them. Of course I fall off every other day, but the theoretical commitment is real!! Back to the point I was making: If you know that you are not going to water your plants every day, then make sure to get plants that are low maintenance. There are many house plants that are low maintenance while still beneficial to the indoor environment. 

Fourth and final step: Build a relationship with your plants. Just like any pet, every plant has a personality. This requires patience, consideration, and observation. I think of my plants as babies, so once I wake up and start walking around the living room, I scan over to my plants to see if there is any pruning I need to do. If I have the time, I will feel, with the tips of my fingers, if their soil is dry or still wet from the last time I watered them. If it’s dry, I water them. If there are brown and/or fallen leaves, I pick them off of the plants. Recently, I also noticed some fruit flies circling my basil plant, so I’ve been spraying that area with water that has tea tree and sage essential oils in it.

The ultimate step to establishing a queer relationship with your plants is to listen to what it has to say. It will communicate with you through the color of its leaves and stem, how rigid or wilted it is, and through its soil. I definitely recommend starting with a low maintenance plant if you have never tended to one. This comes from someone who has killed succulents and aloe vera before. Once you understand your capacity to care for plants and decide which ones you want, you are well on your way to queering your relationship with plants.

I leave you with one last piece of advice: get plants that serve a purpose. There are so many beautiful, low maintenance plants that are good for the air and our indoor environment. Some of my favorites are peace lilies, pothos, and rubber plants. Plants like these are very hardy and are good for those who can’t tend to their plants every day. Having plants that are good at cleaning the air in your bathroom and bedroom is recommended, and in any other areas where you find yourself at a lot, like work! Now with all this knowledge equipped, get to planting!

What do you think about queering our relationship with plants? Is it something you already do? Are you also a fellow plant lady? Let me know! Feel free to like and share.