Call Me a Dragon Lady (A Guide to Caring for Plants and Other Living Things)

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My dracaena plant has a soft scale infestation. I am just the tiniest bit anxious it is going to die.

First off, a dracaena plant, often known as a dragon tree, looks a bit like a palm tree but is not one (yes, I am practically a scientist). I saw it for the first time in a list titled “Plants It is Hard to Kill,” and I thought that is the kind of plant I need!

Mine sits on the right side of our dining room archway. It is native to Madagascar, and I like to think that’s why its pot came filled with what seems like small bits of volcanic stone. (Does Madagascar have volcanoes? I do not know! Like I said, I am only science-adjacent.) 

The list of hardy plants gave helpful tips about how not to kill them.

  1. Do not overwater. (I am good at this! It is close to neglect.)
  2. Watch for infestations of mites and scale.

This one was harder, because when I first saw the little bits of fluff, I thought, That looks like new growth. Perhaps they were young shoots or…hairy protrusions?

Except the fluffy bits started appearing on the mature leaves, too. I googled “fluffy plant disease.” The images that came back were a dead ringer for the bits of fluff. Diagnosis: soft scale.

That is when I rolled up my sleeves and went into pest-control-warrior mode. Call me a dragon lady.

I sprayed the entire plant with an organic oil that smells like fish. It smothers pests, but can also smother the plant. The plant started dropping leaves alarmingly, and also smelled like a rotting fish dinner for three weeks. Worst of all, the soft scale thingamajigs didn’t go away. 

Next, I tried dabbing the oil on the scale with a Q-Tip. Less smell, more leaves dropping, scale still present.

I bought a different organic control spray, full of confidence. It did not smell! It also made no discernible difference. 

Last week, I noticed that the newest shoots are warped, or even worse, look like dry straw.

Let me pause my tale of woe to say this: I come to plant ownership very reluctantly. I used to sigh when people brought me plants as hostess gifts because I am continually afraid that I’m doing things wrong—watering too much or not enough, neglecting to fertilize, choosing the wrong fertilizer, or (ahem) mistaking a parasite for a sign of growth. 

This is not just true of plants. Just this morning I quickly swept my bathroom floor and as I put the broom away, I paused. Did I do enough? I thought. That was so quick and painless. Unless something hurts, surely it does not count?

This is a fast-track to anxiety.

I worry whether I am raising my children right, whether I am filled with the Holy Spirit in sufficient amounts, whether my prayer life is adequate. I wonder if I’m being a good friend, wife, sibling, and church member. I worry I have not adequately documented our health care expenses in case of an audit. 

Each day presents innumerable opportunities to get anxious about something. So taking on a houseplant felt like a crazy idea. 

But after years of caregiving as a parent, I have learned that caring for things is an invitation into a miracle, even if it does sometimes make me anxious. It is a gift to be needed. To care. To nurture life and hope in a world often inhospitable to beauty. To remember that just because I am inadequate does not mean I am incapable of keeping something alive.

Early in motherhood, I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which in part outlined why ‘women’s work’ felt so thankless. It was full of endless demands, invisibility, and boredom. Caregiving is hard. Women may bear a disproportionate weight of it, and cruelly, they’re often looked down upon for those humble tasks.

But the more I’ve kept living things alive, the more I realize it is a deep grace to do it despite the downsides. 

Caring for my plant, soft scale and all, means I notice when new leaves unfurl. It means I am acquainted with every branch, aware of the soil, attentive to removing the dead leaves one by one. It feels good to notice when a living thing needs help. 

Like parenting, like all of life, I cannot guarantee I’ll succeed with this plant. I cannot assure myself I’m doing everything right, or that even if I do, I’ll taste victory. But showing up to care for things because they’re alive is a heart-expanding discipline. It is a chance for communion in an ordinary task. It is a chance to say yes to being awake to life and do what I can to sustain it. It is a chance to make peace with how little control we have, and shoulders back, love the world anyway.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer and artist from San Diego who is happily content with being an awkward Christian. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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