In every moment, monumental or mundane, she has been a silent observer in the corner of my bedroom, not really hearing or seeing, but recording, absorbing and continuing to grow regardless.
My beloved houseplant that serves as a physical/visual reminder of my perseverance through mental health issues, the pandemic, uncertainty, etc.
I feel the most at peace when I take clippings from my golden pothos. This plant, which has been under my care for nearly six years now, has transformed from a small sprout into a glorious monster, with tendrils that snake over fifteen inches down from the intricate tangle of stems at the base.
She’s a she because she’s a mother to over five fully grown babies, all made from her own biological makeup via propagation. She sits on top of a bookshelf in the corner of my living room, guarding dozens of well-loved books and watching us come and go through the front door. She doesn’t have a name, but I see her as a wiser, more durable extension of myself.
I’ve always imagined that she has retained all of the events of the past six years. As I pruned some of her vines one afternoon and observed the coarse, brown ridges on the stems where she has previously been cut and grew back, I wondered if she knew me.
Golden pothos, known scientifically as epipremnum aureum, are hardy plants. Its official name is a combination of Greek and Latin words– “epi” meaning “over,” “premnon” meaning “stem,” and “aureum” meaning “golden”, referring to the yellow flecks that dapple each glossy leaf. Some folks even call it the Devil’s Ivy, because it is nearly impossible to kill. This alias is fitting, as although she and I have both hit some rough spots, we have both survived, largely unscathed.
When I was 17, my mom brought home the plant, which was just a handful of vibrant green leaves peeking above the rim of its teal porcelain pot. She placed it on my bedside table and angled it to face the windows and soak in the quickly depleting autumn sun. The plant was supposed to help me. I was in the midst of a mental health crisis and she thought that if I had something to take care of, I would find some respite from my overworked mind.
During that time, I was engaged in an intense struggle with my mental health. When I was 12, I started experiencing episodes of dissociation that I could only describe as “unfamiliarity.” These episodes popped up over the years, and after smoking some laced weed my junior year of high school, the unfamiliarity returned – this time, with a vengeance. For six or seven months, I was caught in this unfamiliar trance, which I later learned was called derealization.
You know how deja vu gives you an eerie feeling of, “oh, I’ve seen this before,” in an entirely new experience? This was the opposite.
This derealization, which led me to feel as though I was a stranger visiting my bedroom, my home, my school, my entire town, for the first time, joined forces with incessant ruminations of my OCD. Every morning, an invasive, unwanted thought would remind me to dissociate only seconds after I opened my eyes. I felt I was dancing close to the edge of insanity, of losing touch with reality, every hour of every day, but I was unable to fall.
Somehow, my mom believed this plant would provide relief from… all of that.
I’m not sure if watering my pothos every week really helped – I think it was the Zoloft and the therapy, mostly – but my plant was there every night that I stared up at the corner of my baby-pink bedroom, praying for it to feel familiar.
She was there when I sobbed in my mom’s arms, telling her that I wanted to die because I didn’t feel real, because nothing felt real. When I turned 18 during the darkest days of November that year and could barely stomach my birthday cake, I made sure to give her a little extra water.
She was there when things eventually got better too. She was there when that feeling of unfamiliarity faded, and I could sleep easily at night and go to school without panicking.
When I started college, she came with me on the five-hour drive from Cleveland to Chicago, bouncing along with my luggage in the trunk. She sat in my freshman year dorm while I broke up with my first serious love over the phone freshman year, and there to see me take him back, over and over again.
She was there when I shaved all of my hair off, as I took shots of pink lemonade Svedka with my friends before going out with our first fake IDs. She moved back to Ohio with me when the pandemic came. In every moment, monumental or mundane, she has been a silent observer in the corner of my bedroom, not really hearing or seeing, but recording, absorbing, and continuing to grow regardless.
This winter, I came home from vacation to find her completely collapsed in on herself. She was grayish, brownish-green, the color of gutter water that gathers after a thunderstorm. It was such a stark contrast from her usual proud, emerald green hue. I felt the soil. It wasn’t dry, but her formerly strong stems and leaves were weightless and fragile like bird bones. I left her alone for too long. Maybe it was the heat blasting in the apartment. Maybe I had over-watered? Regardless of what I had done, she was dying.
I cried quietly as I stood beside her, pulling off dead leaf after dead leaf, wincing as if I was pulling hairs from my own head. She had been with me for too long – I wasn’t ready for her to leave me. I raced to find out what was afflicting her, what I could do to restore her back to her former glory.
The cure was cold water, and I made sure it soaked all the way through to the roots. After a minute, water began to run clear from the drain in her pot and prayed she would survive to see another day with me, and with her little babies too.
I woke up late the next day and found her transformed once more. She looked wan and shabby, as I had to remove nearly half of her leaves the day before, but I could see that her strength was back. The green had returned to her leaves. I knew she would live. Had she really been dying, or did she just miss me?
Recently, I learned that plants do remember… sort of. Darwin theorized that plant cells could process information and make decisions about where they wanted to grow. In the 1990s, scientists began to test that theory.
What was found is that plants will “remember” times of environmental stress, like drought or cold snaps. Their memories are different from ours of course because there’s no brain to store or process, no eyes to see, no ears to hear… But there are similarities between plant cells and human neurons, according to František Baluška, a German plant cell biologist. It has been proven that plants become accustomed to their surroundings over time, much like humans do, and learn how to adapt. Through several experiments and trials, it was discovered that plants become accustomed to repetitive actions, or seasonal weather, or the environment around them.
So even if she doesn’t have memories like I do, I’ve come to believe that she has fluctuated in time with the rhythms of my life. Moving causes stress for humans, so why wouldn’t it cause stress to her? Perhaps in my times of sorrow, she sensed my stress and grew closer towards the sunshine. In my times of happiness, I hope she feels my warmth.
I’m about to graduate college and embark on an entirely new chapter of life. In the weeks where my path has felt uncertain, I’ve found comfort in having my pothos serve as a physical vessel of memories; my life experiences soaked into the soil that I am well overdue to change and bound to the gentle and wise white roots that are hidden deep in the heart of that teal pot.
Header image by Helen Wargo