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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A plant followed my family across generations. I couldn’t let it die.

A dieffenbachia, also known as a dumb cane plant, followed one woman’s family for generations.  (Getty Images)
By Sarah Enelow-Snyder Washington Post

My mother’s dieffenbachia was always in the background of my life, quietly beautifying a room with its green, white-speckled leaves. In my childhood home in Texas, it sat in a pot on adobe-red tile that was cool to the touch of bare feet, even when it was 105 degrees outside.

I don’t remember my mother ever watering or caring for the plant – it was just there, while she and I worked in the galley kitchen, peeling shrimp, husking corn and washing fresh peaches from our tree. My mother got the dieffenbachia from my great-grandmother, Mama. Mama died before I was born, but I was told she taught my mother how to cook. I imagined the two of them side by side in a hot kitchen with flour and paprika all over the place, with the dieffenbachia in the next room, making the house a little more vibrant.

Mama and my mother were born in Mississippi, and in the 1940s, the family moved to Detroit. My great-grandfather went from working in a barber shop to owning one. My grandfather got a job on a Chrysler assembly line as Detroit’s auto industry boomed, and my mother learned in integrated classrooms instead of being relegated to a colored school. I have no idea where Mama got this dieffenbachia, but I daydream that it came with her from Mississippi and made the Great Migration with our family.

As an adult, my mother moved around a lot, working and earning her master’s degree, getting married and raising two children. Once my brother and I were grown, my mother got divorced and made a beeline for Chicago, where she and some relatives had previously lived. The dieffenbachia went with her every step of the way.

When I was 30, she was diagnosed with cancer, and I traveled from my Brooklyn walk-up to her Chicago half-basement apartment to spend time with her. We shuffled around the kitchen together and baked red snapper; I was now old enough to join her with a glass of vino, as she called it.

“Honey, it’s time for you to have this,” she said, and walked over to the dieffenbachia in the living room. She cut me a stalk with healthy leaves and said, “Don’t mess with it too much, OK? Less is more.” I took that clipping in a wet paper towel, encased in a large Ziploc bag, on an airplane back home. I placed it in water until some roots appeared, then planted it in soil.

I didn’t realize that giving me this plant was my mother’s way of preparing to pass on, which she did on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It was a shock to lose her. I wouldn’t be able to call her while I was making ratatouille and say, “Yes, Mom, I promise I’m using good olive oil!” The plant made me feel like she was still with me, and I started calling it “Mama’s plant.”

Mama’s plant thrived but grew so leggy that she couldn’t support herself without wooden stakes. I tried to propagate her by taking new clippings. Some of them became waterlogged, and others didn’t do well in soil. I tinkered with fresh air and sunlight to no avail. An employee at a gardening supply store advised me to use a tiny 3-inch pot, and I bought a bag of blue crystals for fertilizing, but the clippings just didn’t take.

And then a February cold snap came along, and the original plant, which sat near a slightly open window, started to wither. Her green leaves turned yellow, then brown, and they weren’t replaced by new ones. I took this personally because the plant had lived in places that were far colder than Brooklyn, and I thought it could withstand a winter breeze.

By this time, I was 36, married and pregnant with our first child. Why did my special plant take a turn for the worse when my family was about to bloom?

When my son came along, I didn’t have the capacity for any new botanical experiments. I was sleeping in two- to three-hour spells, and while my body recovered from giving birth, my mind wasn’t quite the same. I checked on the baby compulsively, well past the point of productivity. I stewed in fear that something would harm the baby or break up our little family. I already felt isolated – attached to the baby and freelancing from home – and my loneliness intensified when the pandemic arrived, and we basically became hermits.

During this time, I recalled that Mama’s plant is actually poisonous. “They call it a dumb cane,” my mother had warned; if ingested, dieffenbachia can cause difficulty swallowing and speaking. Some people call it “mother-in-law’s tongue.” I had certainly not eaten my plant, but I did feel stifled in other ways, unable to find my voice as a new mother.

Then again, a plant’s toxicity is a defense mechanism. It discourages herbivores from eating it so it can survive.

Eventually, my son started sleeping through the night, and I felt more inclined to do things I used to love, like baking zucchini bread from the recipe my mother gave me. We moved to New Jersey, saw the pandemic relent, and eventually welcomed another son. I ended up with preeclampsia, a blood pressure condition that made me way too familiar with the hospital. By this time, Mama’s plant had been dying for over three years. I didn’t even know a plant could take this long to die.

Out of desperation, I did something that experienced gardeners know is a bad idea: I planted the remains of a decaying plant in the soil of a new one, hoping a few stray molecules would live on. Not surprisingly, within a couple of days, the new plant was ailing. I even appealed to a podcast called “Black in the Garden” that spoke to a community of “soil cousins” and accepted prayer requests for struggling plants.

Finally, I gave up and planned to bury Mama’s plant in New York, where my mother once happily lived. I pulled the stub out of the new plant’s soil – and then I saw there was still a bit of green left. Let’s put her in water and wait for death to fully arrive while I figure out when I can take her to Central Park, I thought.

Time slipped past me while I was juggling a preschooler, a newborn and my freelance work. By the time my health had stabilized and my younger son started sleeping through the night, the stub was actually sprouting roots. It even grew a couple of tiny leaves, and I put her back into soil.

One day, I noticed some white residue on top of the soil and remembered that we had hard water in our new house. So I treated her to some fancy water from the Brita. I figured that was the least I could do for my elder, who had lived through the civil rights movement and was in Barack Obama’s city of Chicago when he was elected to be our first Black president.

Almost overnight, her leaves perked up and new ones sprouted with a verdant green I hadn’t seen from her in years. She reached toward the sun and drank water like she’d been marooned in a desert, which in a way she was, because I’d been dehydrating her with hard-water salt deposits. Now she gets bigger and stronger by the day.

I have no doubt that filtered water saved Mama’s plant, but I’d like to think that she responded empathetically to me, my crash into motherhood and eventual regaining of strength.

My mother was right about not messing with the plant too much. My interventions hadn’t helped. Once I stepped back and let her do her thing, she prevailed, just like we do in my family.