Requiem for a Houseplant

I have a potted plant in my dining room that mysteriously started losing its leaves sometime last year.  As far as I know, it always had been watered regularly and given the proper amount of fertilizer; and it had been in good health for several years before that.  But for reasons I still can’t figure out, its leaves all turned brown and fell off, except for a few survivors that stubbornly clung to their branches.  I was pretty sure they wouldn’t last much longer either, but I kept on watering the plant anyway, just in case.  After a while it became clear that the last few branches with leaves were still alive, but the rest of the plant was quite dead, and there were no signs of new growth anywhere.

“Time to get rid of it,” I told myself, on more than one occasion, as I sat there looking across the dinner table at all those bare branches.  But the plant had been in my home for such a long time that I didn’t feel right just throwing it out with the yard waste, especially after it had gone through such a hard struggle to stay alive.  Even so, I knew that I had to do something about it.  After all, keeping a mostly dead plant in my dining room wasn’t what you’d call ideal interior decorating.  It might also cause negative energy flow, according to the ancient Chinese practice of feng shui, which involves arranging one’s environment in harmonious patterns to promote health and prosperity.

For those who think feng shui is just woo, I noticed an article last week that discusses in more scientific terms the relationship between our health and what we see in our environment.  Researchers studying the visual perception of people who had been diagnosed with major depression found that their retinas were significantly less sensitive to contrast than the average person’s.  That is to say, they literally saw the world more as a gray and featureless place.  The researchers hypothesized that the difference in their subjects’ vision was related to the changes in neural chemistry that caused the symptoms of depression.

The first comment posted in response to the article mentioned that we live in a polluted world which, in some ways, really does look grayer than it once did.  That raises an interesting point.  Because there are many complicated feedback loops involved in depression, I’d speculate that the visual effect observed by the researchers may also work the other way around—that if we don’t have enough bright colors and visually pleasing objects in our environment, even if we are not consciously aware that anything is wrong, we may end up being more susceptible to the biochemical changes that cause depression.

Perhaps the lack of contrast in the modern world may be one of the reasons why such high rates of depression are found in wealthy industrialized countries.  Many of us work all day in offices with bare walls, dull gray carpet, windows that don’t open and that look out on rooftops and parking lots, and rows of identical cubicles.  We go home to suburban cookie-cutter houses decorated with bland features and neutral colors to ensure a good resale value; as with everything else these days, they’re commodities.  We destroy every dandelion we find in our neat green lawns, and we whack every weed that dares to invade our carefully trimmed hedges.  By day our skies often are hazy, and by night many of us can’t see the stars because there’s so much artificial light.

Years ago, before I knew it was a stereotypical autistic trait, sometimes when I brought new brightly colored or shiny things into the house I would just sit and stare at them for several minutes, letting the contrast percolate through my brain.  I haven’t done that recently, in part because I’ve let myself get too busy to think much about decorating; and to be quite honest, I started to feel self-conscious after learning that such behavior had been stigmatized as pathological.  But now I wonder if it might be a perfectly healthy adaptive mechanism to ward off depression in a world with far less visual contrast than the natural surroundings that our brains evolved to anticipate on a subconscious level.

There’s a partly shaded empty spot in my front garden where I recently took out a few small plants and moved them to the back yard because they looked like they needed more sunlight.  Tomorrow I’m going to trim the dead branches off my houseplant and move it to that spot, where for the next three months or so—until the frost comes—it can enjoy the natural light and the rain and the breeze on its last remaining leaves.  I’ll buy another plant to take its place, something that has bright vivid contrasting colors.  And then, if I feel like it, I’ll sit at my dining room table and admire my home’s new interior landscape for a while…

on 08/4/10 in featured, The Unconscious | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. Clay says:

    I’ll bet that plant will perk right up after you move it outside. It’s been depressed, and exhibited “failure to thrive” symptoms. It just needs some fresh air, new scenery, and maybe some fertilizer.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    You could be right about that, Clay. The dining room started to feel generally depressing last year, when my daughter started driving and soon decided she’d rather hang out with her friends than eat family dinners, and we ended up eating in front of the TV in the living room much more often.

  3. Stat Mama says:

    I have a house plant in my kitchen in a similar state of clinging on for dear life. New, tiny leaves emerge regularly, but they shrivel and die just as quickly. I cannot bear, for whatever reason, to simply toss it out with the trash. It has been a part of our family home since 2006! I am going to try repotting it with some good potting soil and a slightly larger pot and hope for the best. If that fails, I think I will do as you have done.

    I really enjoyed this post :)

  4. Gwen McKay says:

    Good luck with your plant, Stat Mama. I’ve bought a new tropical plant that has vivid contrasting stripes down the middle of its leaves; it certainly gives the room more life.

    When I have some free time I’m going to renovate my dining room set. It’s farmhouse style, with a light-colored wood for the tabletop and seats, and everything else painted white. When I bought it, many years ago, it seemed to give the house a light and airy feeling; but with the kids gone, it just makes the dining room feel empty, like the Ghost of Family Dinners Past. A darker tabletop and seats would be an improvement, I think, along with a glossy forest green for the paint.

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