The dracaena fragrans, or corn plant, is a popular house plant because of how tall it can grow and its relatively easy care routine. I got my first around 2020, a year that house plants would give many of us a much needed distraction in the face of shelter in place orders. At the time I lived in a shared house in West Oakland, and my room got very little sunlight. So I placed the corn plant in the back corner of the living room by a reading nook that I had taken over as my makeshift work from home office. It was so beautiful and healthy. I don’t always have a green thumb, so I appreciated getting a large, healthy plant that just needed the right amount of water and sun to maintain her glory.
The first few months, she thrived! She withstood the environment change of a difficult and sudden move to escape a hostile living situation, and settled into the calm and beauty of our lakeside sublet. Her leaves flourished and grew in a sunny corner of the dining room. She was always watered on schedule as she needed to be.
That winter I had been isolated long enough and devised a COVID safe plan to return home for the holidays with my sister. I gave my smaller plants to a friend to take care of, but the corn plant was too large to transport. I decided to water it right before I left for the next several weeks, and hoped it would be fine. This was the first of what would turn out to be a habit of her going long periods of time without water.
In Spring 2021 I moved to a new apartment. My corn plant had started to look more weathered, having several browning leaves and some had begun to droop from its usual beautiful arched curves. I thought about leaving it downstairs for someone else to have or selling it instead of figuring out how to transport it in a move that I had decided to do on a budget and the favor of a friend. But I couldn’t part with her. Thought about how I just needed to take better care of her and she’d bounce back to her former immaculate glory if given the chance in a sunny corner of my new home. So I brought her with me, and sat her in the best corner of the living room for optimal, yet manageable, sunlight.
But over a year into the pandemic weighed heavily on me. The continued slaughter of Black lives by blue uniformed State assassins, the government’s chains to capitalism increasing the COVID death toll, and general state of the world always loomed larger and faster than a new self care routine could stand up against. And even though I watered my other plants, I started avoiding water her. I don’t think I can articulate an exact why, but I would go weeks without watering her. I’d look at her at random times throughout the day, puzzled at her stubbornness, how she kept her leaves green. But over time, the lack of attention and care took its toll. The leaves began to turn pale green then brown and die. The stalks began to turn brown and dry. She grew sideways toward the wall, as if she needed its strength to stay upright.
A dear friend asked me one day why I wasn’t taking care of her. I darkly joked that maybe I wanted to let go of this one last hold over from a life now gone. She responded that clearly this plant, which was still holding on despite the neglect, was still with me for a reason. I thought about those words for a long time. I stared at my dracaena fragrans and wondered if I had made the care of this plant more complicated than necessary. All it wanted was water and sunlight, and to prune the leaves every once in awhile. I could do that.
And so I began to set reminders to water her. At first the water would run straight through the soil and make a small puddle on my floors. The potting mix had become dry and lost its ability to absorb water after a long stretch of being neglected. But rehydration is possible. One of the first steps is immersing the pot in water. Soaking it in the very things it has been yearning for this whole time, and repeating the process.
Recently I was talking to a friend about the enormous sorrow of the past two weeks. She asked me if I had any plants to take care of to help me. I told her about the plants on the sunny ledge in my living room, and also about my corn plant and her struggling state. She didn’t even wait to see a picture before asserting, “It’s still strong with good strong roots!”
She is right. It never mattered the amount of water she got. How many leaves turned brown and withered, or an entire stalk dried up and laid bare. It didn’t matter the days and months when she grew toward or away from the sun, and leaned on the wall for support. There were always dark, lush green leaves that remained.
She’s holding water better now, and many of her leaves have regained their perfect arch. She is leaning a little less on the wall for support. I am reminded in all of this of a quote I keep near to my heart and repeat often: “Listen to me, your body is not a temple. Temples can be destroyed and desecrated. Your body is a forest — thick canopies of maple trees and sweet scented wildflowers sprouting in the underwood. You will grow back, over and over, no matter how badly you are devastated.”