Shut Up And Dig

The myth of the plant killer

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I find bulbs are my most reliable houseplants.

May 2017 be the year that nobody insists to me that they have a “black thumb.” Except that I know it won’t happen. I was at a small New Year’s Eve party when one of my non-gardening friends asked for advice about an aspidistra (cast iron plant) she’d just received as a gift, adding the usual “I kill plants” confession. It was kind of cute, and totally sincere. She wants to keep her gift alive.

But if she doesn’t, it won’t be because she has a “black thumb.” It’s because houses are dangerous places for plants—in fact, the only time that someone tells me she’s killed a plant, it’s always a houseplant. Most of the houses where I live are centrally-heated in winter, fairly dry, and fairly dark—in other words, plant hell. I always have a hard time keeping my plants alive through the winter; right now, I have a lemon tree and a ficus that are just barely hanging in there—this is why I like forcing bulbs—and I’ve seen many others perish. But then, I’m used to plant demise, and I often welcome it as an opportunity for change. For interiors, it’s best to stick to plants that survive in offices and refrain from overwatering them.

It’s not just about the fragility of houseplants though. It’s the whole idea that there is some weird curse—beyond all control—having to do with plants. People accept that there are maintenance requirements and instructions to follow for all kinds of things—cars, appliances, buildings, small humans. Nobody blames a curse if a car runs out of gas or seizes up because nobody changed the oil.

Plants are subject to many different threats—infestations, diseases, not enough light or moisture, too much light or moisture. Many factors contribute to their health—just not the dreaded black thumb. There’s no such thing.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on January 4, 2017 at 9:00 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.


  1. I killed TWO Japanese maples. I inadvertently smothered the roots on the first one; by the time I figured out what the problem was, it was too late. The second was a lacy leafed one that did not get enough water. I am happy to report that the current replacement is alive and doing well. A few shrubs have inexplicably keeled over, but I swear it was not my fault! Re houseplants, I select those that withstand a lot of neglect.

  2. My houseplants seem to thrive in direct proportion to the lack of attention I give them, so it’s easy to conclude that I’m the agent of their demise when they die. But I learned a long time ago to back off on the watering, etc. I don’t even fertilize much, maybe once a year; repotting once a year, at which point I trim, divide and/or propagate. Then they’re on their own. Matching plants to the right environment seems key.

  3. I’m blessed with a fairly sunny, old brick house that has deep window embrasures. Even when central heat is on, those pockets remain quite cool, and houseplants do fine. Right now I have an angel wing begonia, white geraniums (and others), Dendrobium nobile hybrid orchids (thrive on neglect, I swear), a miniature cyclamen, and a “Thanksgiving” cactus all in bloom; and five-year-old amaryllis are poking up their noses. Ferns thrive too. Real warmth-lovers suffer.

  4. Whenever people tell me they have a black thumb I respond, “the road to a green thumb is paved with the corpses of dead plants. I’ve killed more plants than most people will ever own.”

  5. A green thumb is nothing but: 1. Identifying the plant; 2. Finding out what it wants; 3. Giving it what it wants to the best of your ability. I get tired of the “I can’t get ANYTHING to live” people, too, when it is obvious they don’t want to put any effort into growing the plant in question.

  6. AMEN. And furthermore, I think we need to change our attitude towards houseplants. We use them to decorate our space, but they aren’t pillows. They don’t live forever and that’s perfectly fine. We plant annuals in the spring, knowing full well that they’ll die when frost comes. And what about a fresh-cut bouquet? We often spend more on that than the average houseplant costs, and we have that for what? A week? We’re okay with that. We enjoy them for the time we have them. So it should be with plants we grow in our homes. There are SO many and most aren’t expensive, so enjoy them for a time and then try a new one if the first one doesn’t last.

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