The Purpose of Plants

Meera Ganapathi writes about plants our mothers raised and the ones we nurture now. Have our plants found new purpose in an intensely changing planet?

Illustrated by Namrata Vansadia

Illustrated by Namrata Vansadia

My mother grew plants at home for two reasons, offerings for the gods and seasoning for rasam. Tulsi, mogra, hibiscus and curry leaf grew lush and wholesome in giant pots in apartment homes of every town we moved to. At 7 AM velvety hibiscus drooping with morning dew and delicate mogra buds would be plucked and tucked under the feet of smiling gods in the prayer room. Curry leaves would be washed and stored in a little box in the fridge, ready to be thrown into hot oil and dunked in cool glasses of buttermilk. Despite all that plucking however, our plants thrived in their pots sometimes even wandering into neighbouring ones for a friendly visit.


In the odd event that we were sanctioned bungalows with gardens, I’d watch my mother conspire with the maali to dream up technicolour poppies, obscenely large dahlias, a weeping bottlebrush and dog flowers that you could snap open. Thanks to this lone maali, these flowers were uniformly grown by nearly all the ladies in the army unit and often became points of conversation and friendly competition.


Flowers or leaves, delicate or looming, the plants were always there but the size of our changing homes dictated their variety and function.


 Today my mother’s garden is one of the less troubling metaphors of globalisation, with birds of paradise, ocean lilies, orchids and tulips creeping into her morning offerings. The overwhelming fragrances of these flowers mingle with agarbatti in our prayer room, creating a heady ambience quite well suited for religious fervour. But exotic or otherwise plants are still nurtured for a reason in my parent’s home and pleasure doesn’t come on top of that list.


Is my home any different? I have handmade ceramic pots full of succulents, hot pink bougainvillea, lush palms and zamais, dense fern, stark snake plants and of course cacti, so many little pots of cacti scattered around my home. There’s a cactus on my work desk, one in the loo, another by my bed and even one in the bougainvillea pot. They don’t die on me and therefore show me in good light, at least some of the time.


“A thorny plant can lead to a thorny relationship,” a visiting relative once told me when she came over. I was advised to get rid of my cacti forest immediately, ‘for my own good’ of course.


Another time listening to us express frustration over a domestic squabble, our cook decided to throw out my pot of gandhari chillies. “But they were growing so beautifully,” I told her in surprise. “So was your anger,” she said, explaining that my ripening rage and the flourishing red-green chillies had an invisible metaphysical bond. 


If superstition is to be believed my body is connected to my plants in the oldest of seasons and cycles. I shouldn’t, for instance, water my tulsi plant during my period for danger of killing it with my negative energy.


To me however, a cactus represents endurance and gandhari chillies make a potent pickle when preserved in brine. So while I couldn’t find that pot of angry chilies again, my cacti still blossom in little corners in my home, spots of green with the occasional surreal flower in a bed of thorn.

An encouraging plant is the oldest trick in crowded Indian cities and cramped homes filled with a repressed desire for beauty. Take a walk around a residential lane in Mumbai and you’ll find the greyest of buildings mildly improved by lovingly nurtured houseplants. Seepage stained balconies and peeling walls are almost forgotten behind bright green fronds spilling out from little planters. Shanty houses with tin roofs abound in recycled greenery, potting every available bucket and discarded plastic container with lime, mogra, roses and much more. But often plants flourish without permission or assistance, peeking out from cracks, thrusting through pipes, coating every neglected surface with moss and fungi to stake their claim over the city.


The plants have always been there but lately they’ve also become cool. Succulents grace centre-spreads in hip indie magazines, houseplants have Instagram accounts dedicated to their care, nurseries are flocked by millenials and books about plants top bestseller lists. It’s almost as if humans just sat up and noticed greenery, which is ironic considering plants compose nearly 99% of the biomass on earth compared to which humans and animals are just ‘traces’.


We may credit our green thumbs for verdant gardens but plants are self-sufficient beings with defence mechanisms and survival networks that help them exist despite being unable to move. Some scientists believe that plants are ‘conscious’ beings while others are only willing to concede that they have evolved networks within them that help them think in ways incomparable to humans and animals. But it’s interesting to observe that while I can kill a plant by simply neglecting to water it, in their natural environment plants have the ability to seek out water, minerals, create defensive poisons, lure bees for pollination and thrive despite losing 90% of their bodies. Plants are resilient, so even in an apartment where sunlight and groundwater are inaccessible, it takes only a bit of encouragement and planning for greenery to thrive.


I don’t wake up at 7 AM to enshrine flowers in the prayer room, but I am tied to my plants in delicately managed water timetables and shifting maps of sunlight. The whole family participates in feeding our plants, separating wet and dry waste, so an uncorrupted, steady source of compost keeps them robust and healthy.


A lemon grass feast

A lemon grass feast

In return my plants oblige everyone with abundance, lemon grass for the cats, fresh air from the snake plants, basil for my avocado dip and of course curry leaves for my childhood rasam. As the planet gets increasingly hotter and unliveable, every plant in our home has profound purpose. Each time my bougainvillea bursts into violently pink blossoms despite the hottest of Bombay summers, the greatest purpose my plants offer is hope.


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