by Tony Chang
My mom is an incredible plant caretaker—she just knows how to make things grow. She has the ability to pick plants from the wilds of the forest and somehow tame them to flourish as house plants. When my parents divorced, I was five years old. The sudden shift from two parents to one was jolting. I lived with my dad and only saw my mom once every weekend. That shift made me cherish the moments I could spend with my mother. Typically, when we saw each other we would visit the plant nursery together. My mom, being alone, an immigrant, and not speaking much English, found solace and security amongst the docile plants. So, despite not having any interest in plants myself, I tolerated going to the nursery as an opportunity to hang out with my mom and try to understand why she loved plants so much. On one of our many weekend trips, I noticed a batch of baby Venus fly traps near the cash register. I thought they looked more like an animal than a boring house plant and was instantly fascinated. I really wanted to buy one and be a great plant caretaker like my mother, but my mom thought they were hideous. Also, she said we could not afford one, and that if I wanted a Venus fly trap, I would need to save up for it.
I looked at the price tag. Four dollars?! That was a lot of money for a 6-year-old! Since we were so poor and I didn’t get an allowance, I remember resorting to picking up change off the street after school to save money. My dad used to give me coins for doing math, to encourage me to be better at arithmetic. Our household exchange rate was a nickel for every page of hand written multiplication problems. I’d spend evenings furiously trying to finish the problems as quickly as I could so I could acquire more change. Over several weeks, I saved enough coins to buy the plant! On my next visit to the nursery, I showed up with a grocery bag full of change and my mom let me buy the Venus fly trap. It was actually the biggest purchase I had ever made! We dumped all the coins on the counter and the cashier thought it was ridiculous. It was fun to watch the cashier count the coins one by one and finally add up to $4. I was elated to take the plant home and excited that I was going to take care of a plant of my own like Mom! My father did not know much about plants, so I was on my own with the fly trap. All I knew was that Venus fly traps were carnivorous and I remember thinking, “I guess part of taking care of something is feeding it, and this thing needs to eat.” I spent afternoons swatting flies around the house and the backyard, constantly trying to feed the fly trap. It was a delight to see it close up around the flies and a few days later, expel out the exoskeletons. I remember wanting to touch it all of the time because I never saw a plant move on its own. However, despite my enthusiasm, over time it began to wilt and yellow. I just kept force-feeding it more flies, not quite understanding why it was dying. Finally, I asked my mom what I had been doing wrong, and she asked if I had been watering it and keeping it in a sunny place. It didn’t occur to me that I needed to give it sunlight and water! The next day, I immediately over-watered it, but by then it was already too late. My Venus fly trap died and my mom was oddly psyched about it because she always thought it was an ugly plant. It was my first, but not last, failure as a young horticulturist. I still think fondly of my first plant. Who knew a Venus fly trap could teach a child to save money, practice fast arithmetic, and help him understand his Mother’s love and appreciation for plants?
Tony Chang is a 2017 Smith Fellow and an ecological data scientist, applying machine-learning techniques to ecological problems. He now knows that the vast majority of plants require sunlight and water to survive.