Plants are giving me life. Literally. They are vital to my sustainability. And I’m not only talking about trendy hipster succulents that sit on a windowsill untouched (no shade to succulents though). I’m referring to diverse plants that require consistent attention, care, and positive energy. I have two basil plants sitting on the south-facing windows in my house, and they’ve become my children.
Black people in America, for a myriad of reasons, are at high risk for chronic diseases and inadequate mental health diagnosis. The Black community often lacks proper health care solutions, and even when we do have access to adequate physicians, those people don’t always listen to us the way we need them to. On top of that, the epigenetic phenomenon called “weathering” causes black folks to bear the mental a physiological burden of racism.
Weathering is a scientific genetic term coined by Professor Arline Geronimus that describes how racism creates stress for the human body.
So any person on the receiving end of racism has a biological stress response, and over time that biological stress accumulates. I encourage you to read or listen to her interview with NPR’s CodeSwitch, it’s fascinating. Professor Geronimus also found that the effects of weathering disproportionately affect Black women, especially in regards to reproductive health.
As a Black woman, who was raised in a predominantly Black women household, I’ve seen the ways that our mental and physical health has been neglected by medical professionals as the stress of our Blackness and womanness consumes our bodies. It’s scary, and disheartening. But I’d also like to believe that there are things we can do to help ourselves. And while we’re doing the work to help change systemic public health issues, we’ve got to find ways to take care of ourselves in the meantime. So I’ve turned to plants as a constant in my life. While their impact might be minimal, engaging with plant life is my way of bringing vibrance into my life even when it’s not innately present.
1. Plants Are Better Partners Than People
Some of you may have heard that talking to your plants is key –we need oxygen to breathe, and plants need CO2, thus forming a match made in heaven. But it turns out there’s more to this partnership than just heavy breathing. Plants and their DNA can actually form partnerships with our human bodies through microbiota.
“The human microbiome is the collection of microbiota and microbes that live throughout the human body. Most of the DNA on your body comes from microbiota living on your body. In fact only about 10% of the DNA that makes up your body is human, the other 90% is from microbes living in and on your body.” (Source).
Your microbitic make-up has to do with your surrounding environment, and our overall health is intrinsically linked to the health of each of our individual microbiomes. If your environment is unhealthy then your microbiome is unhealthy, and your physical and mental health are at risk.
So when you hang out with your plants, they actually become a part of you through microbiota, which is super cool, and highly genetically enriching.
2. Plants Can Produce Something
I know the notion of productivity is fuel for the rhetoric of the devilish capitalist regime, but nonetheless we must carry on. On days when I’m feeling like a whole entire blob that hasn’t accomplished anything meaningful or productive, I tend to my plants. I grow herbs, so I feel especially accomplished when, three months into growing season, I can use basil and thyme in my cooking. Growing my plants, gets me mad hype about doing other things that are good for me. Even if you grow plants that aren’t edible, the process of watching your plant grow and flourish is something to be proud of.
3. Sometimes You Don’t Want to Get Out of Bed, But Your Plants Don’t Care
Earlier this week, I woke up and I really didn’t want to get out of bed, but then I thought about my plants, and at the very least I had to get out of bed in order to water them. I slumped downstairs and walked to the window just as the sun was peeking behind the clouds. This is cliche, but a ray of light hit my face and I felt brand new. My plants forced me to get out of bed, and into the sunlight. Being near and around green spaces and plants (especially in the morning, which is when many plants need attention) can provide greater exposure to sunlight, which can stimulate alertness and improve sleep.
4. Plants Provide Positive Emotional Structure
I have anxiety, and part of that anxiety stems from feeling as though I am out of control. Taking care of my plants is something that I can control in a positive way that provides structure in my daily routine. I know that I have to water my plants twice a day, and that keeps me focused and calm. To be clear, I have mild anxiety and I do not take medication so I can only speak to my experience. However, no matter what your mental health diagnosis, I would consider adding plants to your mental health care routine. They are low-risk, unlike adopting a pet.
Additionally, vegetation and green space can improve social interaction. I go to my local Lowes or Home Depot to get my supplies, and I always manage to strike up a conversation with someone who works there about the best ways to achieve my #plantgoals. I used to keep my plants outside, and I would inevitably run into a neighbor or someone walking a dog, and wave hello. Going to green spaces like parks, gardens, and arboretums encourages community engagement and social interaction.
5. Plants Make You Superhuman, Or Just Extra Healthy
Vegetation and green space does wonders for your physical health. It improves your respiratory health by filtering air pollutants, improves your immune system, increases cognitive function, reduces risky pregnancy outcomes, and the list goes on and on.
Ideally I would love for everyone to have equitable access to green spaces and gardens to improve mental and physical health, but many low-income and predominantly Black and hispanic communities don’t have that privilege. We can however, fill our homes with as much life as we can.
Plants are wholesome self-care conduits that cultivate an unbelievable amount of sanity in my life. They have allowed me to reclaim a tiny fraction of my health outcomes even when I am being silenced by physicians, psychiatrists and the like. I recommend that every marginalized person who feels disempowered, disembodied, or disenfranchised just buy one plant to try it out. Who knows what it could do for you. Despite the country’s insistence upon our suffering, plants just might make you feel more positively present and alive.
**For the full scope of the power of green space and plant life check out the World Health Organization’s comprehensive report. I hope this will prompt you to advocate for green space and vegetation in your community.
**For another lovely and empowering self-care plant article click here.