Anthropomorphism and plants

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Meet ‘Charlotte,’ which will always be an “it” to me.

This won’t be a popular opinion. But it’s been on my mind for a while, and, as the practice becomes more and more common, I finally had to say something.

As we know, most plants (by no means all) are hermaphrodites, with flowers that have both male and female sex organs—but it’s complicated, much more complicated than I will go into here. Indeed, I am not interested in going into it, because there is zero science behind indoor/outdoor gardeners calling a plant “she,” or, worse, a “plant baby.” When I started gardening more than 20 years ago, I would notice the rose crowd often assigned gender to various specimens, not surprising when roses already had names like Madame Alfred Carriere, Lady Emma Hamilton, and Queen Elizabeth. (Graham Thomas would have to be “he” though, right?)

That mild anthropomorphism has reached a new level with the house plant crowd, as described in this 2018 NYTimes article: (excerpt) “Plant parents, as they call themselves, fuss over their plant babies with the attention once given to kimchi or coffee connoisseurship. (Such anthropomorphism—ironic though it may be—recalls the 1970s, when “The Secret Life of Plants” proposed plant sentience based on dubious science and convinced New Agers to chat up their spider ferns.)”

Mainly, these days, I hear “she, she, she.” Plant babies are common, regardless of the ages of the plants in question. What could possibly be the harm, you’ll say, and I completely understand. The thing that bothers me is this: as anthropomorphism becomes commonplace to an extreme extent, especially on social media, the disregard/ignorance of researched plant science seems equally more common. The people who like to refer to their plant babies seem more likely to reach for the Dawn dishwashing soap and/or Epsom salts to solve any problems that come along. It might be coincidental.

To properly care for plants, a certain objective attitude is necessary, one that researches the problem properly, suppresses emotion, and is ruthless when necessary. With plants, you just can’t get too attached. I wonder if assigning them (incorrect) genders and thinking of them as offspring might get in the way of that.

Again, it’s complicated.

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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 yahoo.com

15 COMMENTS

  1. I’m with you – anthropomorphism gets icky too quickly. And I say that as someone whose early garden writing used more than a few he’s and she’s (and for which I humbly apologize). While I certainly think we can and do have complex relationships with our plants (my new book is all about them), this doesn’t mean that ‘its’ suddenly become ‘hims’ and ‘hers.’ Plant parenting is a new way of discussing an old obsession, and I get the marketing angle of it all, but as a parent of human children (with accompanying poo, vomit and snot at regular early morning intervals), it is hard not to smile at the terminology. – MW

  2. “With plants, you just can’t get too attached…..”
    I’m remembering I cried when my first houseplant died. I was 12. and very. emotional.

    I’ve been responsible for a lot of plant death since then. I still shed a tear over a special plant sometimes. But I can rip out and compost bullies and weeds outside for hours.
    Are indoor and outdoor plants different? Are indoor plants kinda like pets?

  3. You’re right;this phenomenon prevails in the realm of ‘kidults ‘, who appear to struggle with mature reasoning. It gets worse…I’ve heard a soda bread starter referred to as ‘he ‘!

  4. Anthropomorphism is common in many fields … perhaps what makes us human. I have a friend who is a systems engineer who referred to computers as “he”. Typically, he would say something like ” he’s waiting for you to enter a data set ” when referring to some computer function.

  5. Aren’t boats and ships always referred to as “she” ? BTW, I love to read Garden Rants, but I think this is a weak attempt at one.

  6. It drives me far more batty when cars are called ‘she’. And when hunters refer to doe or buck carcasses as her or him. Shudder. We seem to ‘genderize’ a lot of things…

  7. Bah humbug. Yes, this practice can be taken too far. Still, if people want to be affectionate to or feel a familial kinship with their plants, I can’t argue with their positive intentions. I might actually argue for it. These are the people who are primed for teaching moments. These are the people who are more likely to seek help from licensed nursery staff or Master Gardeners. Despite their anthropomorphism, these plant enthusiasts receive mental & physical benefits from this connection. So, I say each to his own. Science tells us the plants don’t care what we call them or how we refer to them. That said, I have no problem being ruthless about plant performance in my gardens. When they pout, yank them out (and put them where they may decide to behave better).

  8. What counts as anthropomorphism? I have been known to name things (e.g. the red and white camellias are Lancaster and York, for obvious reasons), but I wouldn’t use gendered pronouns for anything that I didn’t know the actual gender of (though ants and bees are mostly shes).

    What seems really weird to me is the whole idea of being a “parent” to anything other than an actual child. I don’t have kids myself (two cats, no furbabies), but if someone’s plants or pets are on the same level for them as actual human beings, they seriously need to get their priorities sorted.

  9. Interesting post. There are some who believe that plant anthropomorphism doesn’t go far enough. And, that if we assigned a pronoun to plants we wouldn’t be so blind to the various types of cruelty we unleash upon them, which ultimately harms our species. As a former dweller of the far north Pacific Northwest, there is nothing like seeing the devastation lurking behind a roadside fringe of trees with a forest clear cut beyond. Or, closer to home, the common sight of limb dismemberment by tree-topping ‘gardeners’. https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/together-earth/2015/03/30/alternative-grammar-a-new-language-of-kinship/

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