by Julia Ajello

Succulents in a blue bowl, and cactus with a yellow flower in a teal pot

My journey into plants and self-care started when I was sixteen. It was getting close to my oh-so-sweet sixteenth birthday and my mom kept asking me what I wanted. At that age, I think most people want a car, a big party, or money, but what I really wanted was a plant. When I told my mom, she looked at me, a bit confused and said, “okay, get in the car.”

We went to the outdoor section of Home Depot to look at plants. I was looking for a small plant that could weather the indirect sunlight my room receives. I also knew that cacti and succulents were well-known for being the plants that even the worst plant moms could keep alive (this would later prove to be a challenge).

Looking through the selection of cacti was a bit stressful. I wanted to make sure the one that I picked would be perfect. It had to have big bright flowers, look healthy and be succulent and hard to kill. There were only a few options with flowers, ranging in colors from pink, to red, to yellow. I chose the yellow because it seemed so bright and cheerful, it seemed to emit rays of sunshine. The next important decision was which pot it would be housed in for the remainder of its life. I wanted a roomy pot that was understated so the cactus would be center stage. Eventually, I settled on a simple blue pot that would accent the periwinkle walls of my room.

Back at home, I put my cactus front and center on my dresser. I was so pleased to see my new plant in its home, but I soon realized that taking care of a cactus was harder than I had thought. My supposedly un-killable plant required a lot more attention than anticipated. Sure, they’re tough, but I still had to water it (not very often) and move it into the sun (very often).

Cacti have a long evolutionary history spanning millions of years that have allowed them to survive in harsh environments, such as my dresser. Everything about them, from their lack of leaves, to their spines and succulent stems, are specifically designed to withstand extreme temperatures and long periods without rain. These adaptations came about out of necessity. With their drastically changing environment, new traits needed to evolve for them to survive.

There are some parallels between the survival story of the cactus and that of my own. Like the cactus, I found myself adapting to many big changes in my life. When I was caring for my cactus, I was recovering from back surgery that left me not only in pain, but struggling to adjust to a world without the sports I had played throughout my childhood.

But I adapted to these changes. Instead of the rough-and-tumble sport of soccer, I began swimming in the water that is so essential for all life on Earth. I couldn’t swim competitively, but I could still glide through the water with relative ease, which was reassuring to me after I had struggled to learn to walk with the newly placed metal rods in my back that weighed so heavily on me.

At this time too, college was looming closer, and some days, I felt alone, much like how I imagine the cactus in a desolate desert. Many of my friends were deciding on in-state colleges, but I wanted to go farther away. I was choosing to leave many friends and my home behind in favor of a new adventure. This move was challenging at first, but like the cactus, I adapted and stood tall.

Despite the problems I eventually overcame, I still struggled — which is where the story of my cactus picks up. There were many times when my days seemed gray and gloomy due to depression that has plagued me for years. It was these times that I was glad I opted for the cactus with bright yellow flowers. I simply had to look at them to find a bright yellow sun smiling back at me. I found myself watering the cactus, patiently waiting for the flowers to open to their fullest. I would move the plant from my dresser to the windowsill and back again, so I could give it as much sunlight as it could take.

It was then that I realized, why am I providing so much love and care to my cactus but not to myself? I made sure my cactus got enough sunlight, but was I leaving my house to embrace the warm sunlight humans need too? I was watering my cactus when needed, but was I drinking enough water? And most importantly, I was patiently waiting for my cactus to bloom, but was I being patient with myself? I realized the answer to these questions was no, I was not giving myself the care I needed to grow and thrive like I was to my cactus.

After this realization, I decided to change, adapt, and better myself to give myself the best chance of growing and prospering. This is how I was able to overcome even the toughest of challenges, much like cacti. I knew cacti were tough, they’ve had millions of years to evolve to be able to survive in some of the harshest environments on earth, but I had finally realized I was tough too.

Julia Ajello studies biology at the College of Wooster in Ohio with the goal of becoming a medical doctor. Though she studies a lot, Julia still finds time to indulge in both her love of and fascination with plants, as well as spending time outdoors and with friends.

by Xinyuan (Kara) Lyu

I have heard many stories about the red spider lily from movies, books, and the internet. The most impressive story, however, was one I heard from my mother. In my mother’s story, a devil fell in love with a human girl. The devil’s love was unrequited because the girl did not like the devil at all because he had a fearful look. Therefore, the devil imprisoned the girl and expected one day she would feel touched by the devil’s love and change her mind. One day, a soldier passed by the devil’s place. The soldier rescued the girl from the prison and killed the devil. When the devil died he returned to hell, but his blood spattered on the Earth. Unrequited love hurt the most, and after the devil’s death, this scarlet red spider lily grew from the spot where he died. This spot became the bridge to hell, connecting the hell and the Earth. 

I never thought that I would see a red spider lily with my own eyes. On the day I went back home worship my grandparents in Ningbo, a town in southern China, I saw a red spider lily for the first time. When my family and I entered the cemetery, I noticed a large patch of red flowers growing near the tomb. Even though I had seen pictures of the flower on the internet, I was shocked by its beauty. The color was so dazzling that it was almost impossible for me to ignore it, but none of the elders around me were interested in the flower. I tried to walk closer to look at the lily, but my uncle stopped me and told me to stay away because these flowers would bring me misfortune.  

Even though I had seen pictures of the flower on the internet, I was shocked by its beauty. The color was so dazzling that it was almost impossible for me to ignore it.

Although I knew many myths about the red spider lily, I was still confused about people’s strange attitudes toward it. I wanted to learn more about this plant. Red spider lily (Lycoris radiata) is also known as manjusaka, and is native to China, Korea, and Nepal. It has been introduced to Japan, the United States, and other places around the world. It is called red spider lily because each flower has significantly reflexed and long petals that look like spider legs. The red spider lily also has strap-like grayish-green leaves, but you cannot see leaves together with flowers, because the leaves only appear after the bloom is finished. Wild red spider lily typically grows in acidic soils and prefers shady and moist environments that are rich in organic matter, which provides the necessary nutrients and minerals for it to grow. This habitat preference explains why people usually find a vast mass of red spider lily at the side of tombs, and explains why people usually associate red spider lilies and hell together. 

Most stories depict red spider lily as a representation of an evil world. People say it only brings disasters, however, red spider lily is also sometimes used for medical treatments. Its roots are used to treat swellings, ulcers, and the nervous afflictions of children. The bulb is used to counteract poisons and can be made into a plaster to treat burns and scalds. Additionally, Red spider flower contains alkaloids that are associated with anticancer, antibacterial, and antiretroviral properties. 

I became very disappointed after I found out that some people in my hometown were burning and cutting out red spider lilies. People only believed in the evil sides of red spider lily from fictional stories, but ignored its benefits in the real world. The intentional destruction of red spider lilies led to its disappearance in many wild areas near my hometown, and I hardly ever saw any red spider lilies  I realized that human beings are not the only victims of stereotypes and prejudices. Plants like the red spider lily also suffer from it. I know it is difficult to change people’s beliefs, but I hope you will have a different opinion about it after reading my plant love story.

Xinyuan is a 21 years old student currently studying biology at University of Pittsburgh. She comes from Beijing, China and currently live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Photo Credits: (Top) Jim Evans Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA (]; (Bottom): おぉたむすねィく探検隊. 彼岸花と蝶. Wikipedia Commons

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

By Luba Markovskaia

Over the past decade, I’ve become increasingly enthralled with the plant world. In my early twenties, gently egged on by my then-partner who was an avid botanist with a biology degree, I learned to recognize most trees and many understory forest plants found in Quebec and eastern Canada. My partner taught me to carry field guides when I go on a hike (though I still leave them at home too often, and consistently regret it).

That is how I learned to look closely at my surroundings and to notice the subtle differences that make any environment richer and turn any walk—in nature or in the city streets—into “a field trip, a series of happy recognitions,” as Annie Dillard so beautifully put it.

My naturalistic impulses are heightened during this period of uncertainty and self-isolation, though they are mostly restrained to my backyard, at least in the material world.

On social media, in an effort to “cleanse my timeline” from constant anxiety-inducing reports and statistics, I began following other passionate botanists, finding kindred spirits in these joyful and generous wells of knowledge. As I scroll past a video of the US president’s latest meltdown, a tutorial for a homemade mask, and a graph showing a decidedly unflattened curve (as I write this, my city, Montreal, is the Canadian epicentre of the pandemic, with no signs of letting up), the sight of the delicately sloped bud of a nascent trillium flower helps me breathe deeper.

Normally during this time of year, I would be strolling across the woods of Mount Royal—the hilly park that we Montrealers proudly call ‘The Mountain’—and marveling at the trillium carpeting the forest floor in a glimmering expanse of white. Though it is now best to avoid such crowded spaces, I am heartened still by these momentous digital dispatches from the plant world. My mother has also taken to sending me pictures of blooms she encounters on her walks around the leafy neighbourhood where I spent part of my childhood and adolescence, after we moved away from our Russian-Jewish enclave in the largely immigrant part of town where we first settled. She regales me with photos of magnolias, rhododendrons, and Siberian squill. One morning, she sent me a flowering birch tree along with a lyrical poem about spring awakenings by Sergey Yesenin.

It occurred to me then that the seeds of my passion for plants and trees, along with my love of literature and poetry, were planted in me earlier than I tend to think.

I was five years old when we emigrated from St. Petersburg to Montreal, a mere two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. My mother embarked on a new career, learning a programming language along with the two official languages (French and English) of our new country. A generous Polish colleague of hers lent us a small cottage in Rawdon in the summer. Rawdon is an unremarkable rural town, similar to most French-Canadian areas in the region, save for the fact that it carries traces of Eastern Europe—an Orthodox church and cemetery—as many Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian nobles settled in its countryside after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

In Rawdon, my summers were structured by my grandmother’s strict daily programme, reminiscent of Soviet pioneer camps: warm-up exercises in the morning, Russian grammar and history classes before lunch followed by a swim in the lake, an afternoon stroll during which we recited verses by Pushkin or Lermontov, and a Soviet film in the evening.

As we walked on the side of the road along dense pine groves, we would encounter numerous red “Private” signs nailed to the trunks of trees. “Privaht! Privaht!” my Communist babulya would throw up her arms. "How can the forest be Privaht!?"

My mother, my sister, my nephew, and I still head to Rawdon every year. While my family flocks to the crowded beach overrun with barbecuing Russians in the summer (which I tend to avoid), I gladly join their mushroom-picking visits in the fall. If all the best varieties are gone by the time we arrive, we sigh with a mix of resignation and reverence for the Polish mushroom-foragers that presumably got there before us. Mushroom-picking is relatively rare among most Quebeckers, who feel the activity is surrounded by a deadly aura. So, mushroom picking in Rawdon is still very much the purview of more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe like us. I follow my mother down forest paths as she expertly spots edible varieties and, when in doubt, tastes a tiny nibble to check for bitter taste. Somewhere between North American caution and Russian brazenness, I trust her instincts, but would rather carry a field guide—and triple check my findings online—when left to my own devices.

I sometimes think how lucky it is that my nature-loving mother and grandmother emigrated to a faraway country with such a similar climate to their homeland. While they struggled to navigate new languages and conventions, they were almost immediately at home in this natural environment, with its rough winters and familiar flora. We used to sing a patriotic tune from the Soviet era called “Our Land” on our countryside walks with my late babulya. The lyrics translate to something like

Here a birch tree, there a mountain ash /

a willow branch above the river /

my ever-beloved homeland /

Where can one find another such place?”

I’m glad to know that, though my uprooted mother may still struggle at times to adapt to the particulars of the foreign soil, she can look up and see a birch tree or a mountain ash, remember a few lines of poetry, and feel at home.

Luba is a freelance translator and editor living and working in Montreal. She holds a Ph.D. in French literature and occasionally publishes essays, book reviews, and literary translations. You can follow Luba on twitter @luba_mark