We learn from them and we feel happiness when we see that they’re sprouting new flowers.
Houseplants provide us with peace, harmony, and hope. They’re living organisms that we can see at different stages of growth. By watering them, changing the soil, and removing dry leaves, we become emotionally involved. We learn from them and we feel happiness when we see that they’re sprouting new flowers and turning green again.
Itzel León Magallón, who holds a master’s in Gestalt Psychotherapy and has 18 years’ experience in human development and 15 years in the clinical field, explains that caring for plants, whether in plant pots, indoors, or in the garden, exercises the brain’s subcortical structures and synaptic functions.
“The amygdala —an almond-shaped structure found at the center of the brain that’s responsible for processing and storing emotional reactions— awakens an awareness which stimulates pleasure in that area from the sight, memory, meaning, touch, scent, color, and texture of a plant,” she says.
At a metacognitive level, this activates connections with emotional reactions that promote learning behaviors. A plant can motivate us to investigate, use our memory, and identify important elements for growth such as regulating sun and water exposure. Perhaps we look at these elements in a very simple way, but according to the psychologist they’re potentiation processes that are highly neuronal and cognitive.
As with every duality, plants aren’t exempt from dying, and precisely for this reason, “Plant care gives us the opportunity to work on emotions, such as pain or frustration, on a small scale. In many cases, it allows us to try again, which is one of the benefits for the inner processing of certain people with a low tolerance for frustration,” mentions Itzel León Magallón.
When caring for plants, gardens, or vegetable patches at home, the whole family is involved in the upkeep, which can improve relationships between parents and children, says Alejandra Alvarado Zink, M.Sc. “We’re spending more time together as a family, despite the thousands of things that are going on. Aunts and grandmothers get involved in the dynamics of plant care and there’s better communication.”
Alvarado Zink, who is Environmental Education and Communications manager at the Directorate General for Science Communication (DGDC) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) says that a lot of parents sought her out during the pandemic to ask her advice on which plants to buy to start a garden or vegetable patch.
The first thing she recommended was that they reflect on whether they would have the time to look after them, as well as keeping a kind of diary in which children could make notes about how to take care of them.
“We no longer have an excuse. With the pandemic, we’re more disciplined, and by being at home we have time to monitor and take care of plants in greater detail, and see how they adjust,” says Alejandra Alvarado.
The expert states that, “We’re learning from our own food, a lot of which has seeds and can germinate, that plants are really noble and can even grow in tea bags.”
The biologist also mentions that she receives emails around the clock from people who ask her for advice on plant care, so this growing interest in plants is noticeable. For those starting from scratch, she recommends starting with sprouts such as lentils, because they’re seeds that are very easy to care for.
Plants not only make their surroundings more beautiful, but also capture carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and release oxygen in the process. According to biologist Jerónimo Reyes Santiago, plants absorb and process 2.5-micrometer suspended particulate matter from the environment, which are the smallest particles that can penetrate the skin.
“Their leaves contain stomata, pores they use to breathe which are invisible to our eyes but are sufficient to trap water and suspended particulate matter that is poisonous and carcinogenic, such as lead, vanadium, mercury, manganese, zinc, and chromium,” explains the manager of the collection of Sedum and Cacti in danger of extinction at the UNAM’s Botanical Garden.
Reyes Santiago coordinates the Echeveria Network that supplies Echeveria plants and succulents to various nurseries in Mexico, and he acknowledged that plant sales have increased with this pandemic: “In three months, we sold what we’d normally sell in a year. We’ve never seen so many plant sales. People want to be surrounded by these living organisms, and some understand that they provide ecosystem services,” he says.
The biologist, along with other researchers, encourages the sustainable and legal purchase of native Mexican plants, since species as emblematic as Echeveria laui or Echeveria cante are highly sought after by collectors around the world. A specimen can cost up to 3,000 pesos in the United States on e-commerce pages such as Ebay or Amazon, but sales are still growing in Mexico.
“These plants reach a very wide market, ranging from enthusiasts to collectors who treasure rare and difficult to obtain specimens. Another phenomenon I’m seeing is that hundreds of people are importing plants from the United States, Australia, China, and Korea. The irony is that they’re plants native to Mexico we don’t have here, like Echeveria chihuahuensis, which is from Chihuahua and was sold out during the pandemic because there weren’t many of them.”
For the taxonomist, it’s a very good sign that people are beginning to value nature.
“Hopefully, this will lead us to a dream that I share with many others: starting to take care of our environment, because that would have more of an impact. Our giant leap will be to put plants in our streets, avenues, in vacant lots, in abandoned places, and to take care of sick plants. It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor, we can all do that.”