What looks like death

Since I moved in alone, I’ve been filling my life with plants. One person told me that I had so many, my apartment looked like it was closing in on me.

“That’s the best kind of suffocation,” I said. I have absolutely no intention to stop.

Over the weekend, I fed my addiction at a nursery devoted to succulents. They’re sculptural and stiff, almost aloof. Their leaves don’t move in the breeze and the flowers don’t fill a room with fragrance. But their soft colors create a soothing effect. And they’re often ugly and almost always very strange, which draws me.

As I walked through the nursery, I stared at plants like this, this, and this. I wanted all of them, which felt like a problem. To narrow it down, I decided to buy a plant that looked healthy. I leaned in to each pot and looked closely, but soon noticed something strange. In every pot, leaves were shriveling and turning brown. The undersides of fronds were curling up on the ends and falling off. They looked like they were sick from the inside out, and the bases of the plants seemed to be the worst.

Maybe they weren’t being watered enough here, I thought. I’d buy something expensive, take it home, and it would die. I finally chose a delightfully ugly, wart-like plant with very few trouble spots, and walked it up to the front counter.

“I want to buy this, but I’m not such a fan of this action,” I said, pointing to the dying leaves. “Do I get a discount for this?”

The woman behind the counter looked down at the plant and up at me. Her hair was pulled back and pieces of it fell into her face. “A discount?”

I nodded. “This plant doesn’t look healthy. I think it’s dying.”

She smiled. “That plant isn’t dying. It’s reproducing.”

I stared at her.

“In autumn, succulents kill off the bottom leaves. The leaves dry up and fall off. In the same spot, a baby succulent grows. A lot of people think their plant is dying when it’s actually creating new life.”

“Oh.” I stared down at my plant.

“If you lift up the dying leaves,” she continued, “you’ll see the baby underneath. See?” She plucked a shriveled leaf from the bottom of my plant and sure enough, underneath a small green wart stuck out from the base. She pointed to it. “That’s the baby. A whole new plant will grow from that.”

She paused, and looked at me. “See, the babies have nowhere to grow if the leaves are still there. The plant has to kill part of itself to make a new plant.”

As I paid and left, I was struck that I hadn’t known this very simple thing about how succulents reproduce, without seeds. I spent my entire childhood learning about seeds. As far as I knew, it was the only way plants grew. I wondered how many people with succulent gardens never learned this about their own plants. And I thought about how easy it was to miss the baby plants, tiny and tucked underneath in the least likely place.

When I got home, I kept looking back at my succulent, which looks like it’s covered in warts. It made me think about cycles, and growth, and assumptions. When autumn comes, things begin to die. The first frost shocks the petals from flowers and colors begin to melt from green to orange, then yellow, to brown. Winter is coming, we think, the symbol of death. Meanwhile, an entire family of plants is growing furiously underneath us during this very time. But as it reproduces, it appears to be dying just like everything else is.

I wondered how many times I’ve misunderstood the cycles of growth in my own life. I’ve scrambled to preserve leaves that seem to be dying off. I’ve done anything and everything to save them.

But it must be that sometimes, it may not be the death of something at all, but something new and more beautiful, growing sneaky as a succulent in the “wrong” season, the “wrong” way, and the “wrong” place. There’s no room for the new plant if the old leaves are still there.

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