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Updated: Jul 24, 2019

by Isabel Acevedo

One of my earliest memories of my Ama, my mother’s mother, is of her wrist: impossibly smooth skin always enclosed by a solid jade bracelet. The simple stone bangle would shine gently, a sea of emerald and pale turquoise gazing out at me from its glassy surface. I recall asking my mother why Ama never took it off, and she said that Ama had worn it so long that her hand had grown and it wouldn’t come off anymore; she could have it broken off, but she didn’t want to.

Jade was precious. My mother wore jade jewelry too, but mostly on special occasions. She had a pendant in an odd shape I couldn’t identify, some dangly earrings, a few more pieces here and there. She told me that when I was older, I could have some jade to wear too. Jade was prized by my Chinese family as it has been for centuries of Chinese civilization, a traditional symbol of compassion, wisdom, beauty, and virtue. People would wear jade for good fortune, spiritual healing, and protection from negative forces, and mothers would pass that protection on to their daughters. Some even said that the jade absorbed malevolent energies, its green color growing foggy as it did so.

As doctors my parents lead incredibly busy lives, working hard non-stop at the hospital and at home: two difficult jobs and two difficult daughters were more than enough for them to handle, and as such, there was little time to care for plants when my sister and I were little. My mom would try to grow pots of herbs for her kitchen and inevitably forget to water them, always proclaiming that she’d just never had a green thumb. Now I look back and wish we’d had a vegetable garden or something, but I know that none of us had much time or energy to care for those sad herbs, let alone to battle weeds and pests and deer every day in the backyard.

One day we went to visit my mom’s good friend and co-worker in her garden, a beautiful hillside of brightly colored flowers overlooking a pond. She proudly showed us her greenhouse, a corner of which was all but engulfed by what seemed to me like a bonsai that had gotten out of hand – an enormous, branched succulent. I’d never before seen leaves so thick and firm, so waxy and glossy that the sun coming into the greenhouse made them glisten, and I looked in awe at the way the trunk-like stems seemed to burst over the edges of the pot.

I was running my fingers over the leaves, admiring the smoothness and the striking deep green color, when I caught a snatch of my mother’s conversation: this was a jade plant. Dr. Fisher was happy to give us one of the smaller plants she had propagated using cuttings from her giant in the corner, so we went home one jade plant richer.

We had a bit more hope for this particular plant than for our wilting basil, banking on its low-maintenance resilience and our desire to keep the succulent’s beauty alive. But the jade’s survival ended up relying on just the person I’d never once seen care for a plant: my quiet, hard-working father, who probably had the least time to spare of us all. Somehow the jade plant fell under his care and he happily tended to it in his free time, dutifully watering and checking its growth, and moving it around the house to find the best temperature and light conditions.

The plant flourished in our sunroom and quickly outgrew its pot a few times, at which point my dad would diligently transplant it to larger and larger stone jars. Soon he began to trim branches that grew over the edge and towards the ground, using the cuttings to propagate new plants until there was a tiny new jade in every spot in the house where he liked to work. It wasn’t long before I noticed that he was talking to his jade plants, thinking aloud as he pored over them or offering a struggling transplant some words of encouragement.

I wondered if he chatted in their direction while he worked the same way he sometimes did if my sister or I were sitting in the corner of his study with a book. When I brought it up to him, he told me very simply and matter-of-factly that if he didn’t talk to the plants, they wouldn’t grow. My dad has always had a scientific mind, and he approached most things logically and systematically. Yet he tended to his jade plants not only with soil and sunlight and water, but with intuition and tender care. They weren’t to be left alone on a windowsill somewhere, even if they could survive. They were friends that you could talk to, and if you did they would do more than just survive: they would live, they would grow. Just as I take after my father in so many other aspects of life, from the shape of my nose to our shared passion for photography, I picked up his philosophy for plant care.

When I received a pair of cacti as a gift, I soon had them each endearingly named – Jesús and Pepe – and set up next to the window by my bed where I could easily chatter at them. They quickly became confidants for my teenage problems, a way for me to vent, process my angst, and expel some negativity, all within the confines of my room; they were exceptionally good listeners! And though the conditions in my bedroom were likely less than ideal for those poor cacti, grow they did.

Years later, during my second semester of sophomore year, I began to work with a local seafood shack that was just starting up and hoping to start growing some of its own produce on reclaimed land, for its environmental message as well as consumer appeal. Along with designing and budgeting the garden space, my partner and I worked hard to seed, cultivate, and transplant dozens of different herbs and vegetables in the greenhouse on campus. I was certainly pleased to come in one day and find her leaning over one of the trays of new seedlings, very seriously telling one of the little guys that she knew he could make it.

When we both headed home for spring break, I asked a friend who was staying at school to water the plants in our absence – but neglected to tell her to talk to them. Sure enough, we returned a week later to a few trays of sad, drooping seedlings beginning to wilt. My partner said that perhaps they’d been watered too much or not enough, but I knew somewhere in me that it was love and attention they’d been thirsting for. The herbs and veggies were ultimately moved into the garden plot, but it was even harder than I’d expected to see my plant friends go.

In teaching me to talk to the plants that I love, Crassula ovata has truly been my jade: an amulet of protection drawing away negative energies; a symbol of my father’s wisdom, of simple and lively beauty, and of compassion for even the tiniest, greenest friends; and something incredibly precious that I’ll wear on my wrist for the rest of my life rather than break away.

Isabel is 20 years old, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and currently attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she studies Environmental Science and Visual Art. She loves film photography, hiking, books, gardening, botanical illustration, Filipino food, and late-night heart to hearts with her potted plants.

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Updated: Jan 30, 2019

by Lesley Evans Ogden

This week we bring you another story from our Plant Love Stories Live event held recently at North American Congress on Conservation Biology in Toronto.

This week's story is by Lesley Evans Ogden. You can hear her story using the video link below A transcript of her story is available below:

Growing up in rural Ontario just north of Kingston, my family lived next door to a farm. The farmers were a friendly and generous family and my brother and I were given free range to play and explore the pastures and patches of woodlands where their cows grazed. From our house, we’d hop over a fence, walk past a muddy pond, and climb to the top of the hill beside the barnyard. Along that cow path past the fish fossils in the limestone rock, was a copse of cedar trees with branches so evenly distributed and parallel to the ground that they cried out for climbing and exploration. As luck would have it, four mature cedar trees were growing in an almost perfect square, so that to us, placing a platform between them seemed obvious. So my younger brother and I built a tree fort. And for many summers there was nothing I wanted to do more than spend every possible moment running off to the tree fort -- a continual work in progress.

Not far away from the beginnings of our tree fort was a pile of the farmer’s discarded scrap wood. No one seemed to mind us using it. So we helped ourselves. In the old planks of barnboard, we would hammer out the rusty nails and bring our own fresh ones, plus hammers and a hand saw – all tools that we’d swipe from our parents’ garage.

Over a period of years, with much banging of nails, scouring of the scrap pile for good planks, our fort went from a simple platform to a three-story structure. It was a place of freedom and possibility. Kids only. No adults around. At our treefort, we were pirates, and spies, and explorers, knights, and warriors. We’d take snacks and spend whole days there, heading home only when we were hungry.

There was a house on the other side of the field where some other children lived. I recall feeling outraged when we discovered these kids were stealing “our” wood and making their own fort concealed inside a patch of thorn trees. I guess it never occurred to us that the scrap wood pile was a shared resource – and not ours at all. Thinking back, I suppose it was my first introduction to the tragedy of the commons.

Long before frequent-flier or loyalty points were a thing, I founded our tree fort club. My brother and any visiting friends were automatic members, and given a membership card. Upon each visit and contribution to work on the tree fort, I would affix a tiny sticker to their bingo like card. I recall spending hours cutting out and making tiny TFC -tree fort club stamps, putting glue on the back that I would then lick to attach to the membership cards. That points program didn't last long, mostly because it was a lot of work to award points mainly to myself!

The tree fort was our place of refuge and independence from the adults that otherwise planned our lives. One afternoon on a hot summer day -- I must have been 9 or 10, and my brother 7 or 8 – we got into a nasty argument at home, in our house. To break up the fight, and as punishment for our bad behaviour, my mother sent us both to our rooms. The thought of being forced to spend time indoors, let alone in the confines of my room, was very unappealing in the summertime. My bedroom was on the first floor, about six or seven feet above the ground. So it occurred to me that if I just took the screen off my window, I probably safely jump out, and run off to the tree fort without my mother even knowing I was gone. So out I went. And, so did my brother, from the room next door. Off we went, complicit in our secret avoidance of punishment. At some point my mother must've discovered we weren’t inside our rooms, but I don’t remember her ever mentioning it. The tree fort was a place where arguments were forgotten, replaced by collaboration and teamwork.

My parents still live in that same house, next door to the farm. On the crest of the hill, most of that grove is trees is now gone. But a big part of my childhood was rooted in those four trees and their perfectly aligned branches. Upon reflection, so many life lessons were learned from years of gradual work there, and climbing up and down those trees. Lessons like, don’t waste things, don’t take more than you need, don’t hammer your thumb, watch out for rusty nails, don’t put weight on thin branches, and you achieve more by working together. Trees are valuable as givers of oxygen, habitats, and materials. But to me they’ll always be remembered as fuel for the imagination.

Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance journalist based just outside Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Check out her website here.

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Updated: Jan 30, 2019

by Paul Elsen

One of the saddest part of moving across the country was having to find a new home for all the plants we have collected over the years. Some of them track the history of our relationship and the history of the places in which we have lived. It is impossible to choose a favorite, but one becomes accustomed, over a decade, to be surrounded by the same plants – they help to make a house a home.

For example:

We had plants we received as housewarming gifts in our first apartment together over 10 years ago; plants that grew up on our coffee table starting at 2” that grew to 5’ monsters which we cut and repotted so there were generations of the same plant growing up together.

Plants that moved with us many times around California, one in particular had to be re-groomed as it had spread to fill the 10’ vaulted ceilings, and we curled its branches down and around in our next apartment that lacked the same clearance.

Perhaps the ones that meant the most were plants we had given to loved ones and had regained after their passing.

Recently, we moved from California to Wisconsin and it wasn't possible to bring our plant collection with us. Though parting with our plant family was not easy, moving is a positive time! Exploring new beginnings and a new adventure together.

We drove our 30+ plants three hours, from Oakland to Paradise, California, to give them to a family member who had repeatedly expressed love for our plants and was happy to care for them. seeing family enjoy our plants is wonderful, and eases the process of letting go.

When we settled in Madison, Wisconsin the first piece of mail we received in our new apartment was a letter from a local nursery saying “Welcome to Madison” with a gift card from our family, so we could restart our plant collection that will represent the new chapter of our life – the native plants of Wisconsin!

Paul Elsen is a 2016 David H. Smith Conservation Fellow working on habitat and species protection under climate change.

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