The myth of the plant killer

If you can kill one of these, you’re good.

May 2017 be the year that nobody insists to me that they have a “black thumb.” Except that I know it won’t happen. I was at a small New Year’s Eve party when one of my non-gardening friends asked for advice about an aspidistra (cast iron plant) she’d just received as a gift, adding the usual “I kill plants” confession. It was kind of cute, and totally sincere. She wants to keep her gift alive.

But if she doesn’t, it won’t be because she has a “black thumb.” It’s because houses are dangerous places for plants—in fact, the only time that someone tells me she’s killed a plant, it’s always a houseplant. Most of the houses where I live are centrally-heated in winter, fairly dry, and fairly dark—in other words, plant hell. I always have a hard time keeping my plants alive through the winter; right now, I have a lemon tree and a ficus that are just barely hanging in there—this is why I like forcing bulbs—and I’ve seen many others perish. But then, I’m used to plant demise, and I often welcome it as an opportunity for change. For interiors, it’s best to stick to plants that survive in offices and refrain from overwatering them.

It’s not just about the fragility of houseplants though. It’s the whole idea that there is some weird curse—beyond all control—having to do with plants. People accept that there are maintenance requirements and instructions to follow for all kinds of things—cars, appliances, buildings, small humans. Nobody blames a curse if a car runs out of gas or seizes up because nobody changed the oil.

Plants are subject to many different threats—infestations, diseases, not enough light or moisture, too much light or moisture. Many factors contribute to their health—just not the dreaded black thumb. There’s no such thing.

Previous articleNew Podcast Discovery: “Still Growing”
Next articlePlanting for the cause

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at