Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — To some, owning a plant stems from a simple desire to decorate empty corners in one’s home. To others, it’s an urban symptom — a compromise for the lack of green spaces that serve as truly natural and communal habitats.
Metro Manila is a case in point, being one of the most agglomerated urban areas in the world with only 140.4 out of 3,800 hectares of green space and a mere five square meters per person — about the size of a king size bed. Unequal land distribution in the city has resulted in the fragmented management of green spaces, creating diverging, as opposed to coalescing, abilities in developing them as a public good.
For example, the National Parks Development Committee, an agency under the Department of Tourism, focuses most of its efforts on Rizal and Paco Park, while spaces like Ayala Triangle and Legazpi Active Park are operated by Ayala Land and Makati Commercial Estate Association — a civic body comprised of private corporate entities. Information about land ownership in the Philippines is notoriously difficult to find. However, a real estate census in 1938 revealed that 92.2 percent of the country’s land is privately owned, with only 4 percent of Metro Manila’s population being landowners.
Thus, the cult of plant parenthood comes as a response to reclaim the right to green spaces, prioritizing the residential over the commercial interest.
A breath of fresh air
As a photographer, Sonny Thakur describes the places where he works at home as frequently “consumed” by either his DIY studio set-up or the reminder that his job is inseparable from his space of rest. His garden patio is the one place where he can reflect on the sweet mundanities of his life unencumbered.
“Visiting Spike,” his first and only plant, a snake plant that he bought in Makati’s Legazpi Sunday Market, “is something I look forward to,” Sonny said. “When I go to this space, aside from releasing my energy, it feels fair to take care of it as well.”
Evidence suggests that owning plants makes a strong case for improving air quality, thus strengthening cognitive function. Researchers from the National Chin-Yi University of Technology in Taiwan conducted a study examining how indoor plants changed the physical environment of a basement. They found that proximity to plants significantly increased oxygen levels and reduced microscopic particles. They also found that the lower the levels of particles, the stronger were feelings of naturalness and pleasure amongst participants. Likewise, a report by the Environmental Health Research Foundation in Chantilly, Virginia, suggests that an average 18-hole golf course releases enough oxygen for 4,000 to 7,000 people.
Indeed, the idea that plants help “clear the mind” is gospel in the cult of plant parenthood, and it appears that cultivating this space is not solely reliant on one’s subjective ability to create it. It is a scientific fact.
Letting it grow
Plant parents cite the human desire to nurture as a primary factor for owning plants. In doing so, their routines are laden with esoteric rituals, motivated by the promise that it will make the pandemic and global warming more bearable.
Isabella “Argo” Argosino lives in Quezon City’s Tomas Morato area, which is virtually devoid of green spaces. The grass in Bernardo Park, an approximately two-kilometer walk from her home, is dusty and barren, and Quezon Memorial Circle, perhaps the most significant public green space in the area, is nearly four-kilometers away.
Argo works from home as a content strategist where she is surrounded by over fifty plants. She expressed an attachment to one she calls Aggie, which is short of aglaonema — a tropical plant bearing wide, sometimes colorful, patterned leaves. “Market value wise, it’s a very common plant. But Aggie came from my grandmother’s garden, who took care of it for five years,” Argo recalled. “It adapted really well, even if I moved it indoors. I'd probably cry if something happened to it.”
Argo referred to three of her plants — Cassius, Romi, and Angel — as “high-maintenance divas,” requiring extra steps of care such as constant exposure to humidity or a strict diet of distilled water. “These past few weeks, I’ve been busy with work and have not tended to my plants as much,” she explained. “Eventually, they started acting out. Many of the leaves drooped and yellowed. One straight up died. It’s a huge commitment.”
Much like animal parents, plant parents attribute human qualities to their non-human children where establishing connections help make sense of its actions for the future. In fact, there is a widespread concern in environmental conservation that our level of empathy for non-human beings are exclusive to species exhibiting qualities closest to us, namely, species that are intelligent, prosocial, and express suffering. As much as we would like to think that plants do not look, feel, or act like humans, Argo begs to differ.
“When my plant is not doing well, I take it to the garden for more water and sunlight,” she said. “They’re like people in that way. Even if they can survive indoors, they need the outdoors to stay healthy and sane.”
A sign of the times
The cult of plant parenthood is arguably driven by the changing tides of how we treat and relate with our environment.
In 2018, Monique Obligacion and Rocco Mapua started Druid Things, a resource platform dedicated to zero-waste living. In transitioning to this lifestyle, Monique and Rocco began gardening to process food waste into plant compost, eventually transforming their roof deck into a fully blown urban farm. They always have an assortment of herbs, like rosemary, thyme, and basil, and have not bought eggplants from the supermarket in two years. Other vegetables they grow include tomatoes, pechay, kang-kong, ginger, tamarind, carrots, and wing-beaned plants, among others, which they provided to their neighbors when supermarkets ran out of vegetables during the early days of quarantine.
Living in what’s known as an urban heat island (UHI) did not stop Monique and Rocco to pursue plant parenthood as they envisioned a different type of future. Caused by pollutants from human activity, UHIs are metropolitan areas that are warmer compared to the surrounding rural areas. Vehicles and high energy demands exacerbate the negative effects of UHIs by reducing air quality, and heat degrades the quality of water by stressing local ecosystems.
Despite Makati — where Monique and Rocco live — being a prime example of an UHI it did not stop them from building a biodiverse ecosystem where butterflies, bees, and dragonflies help pollinate their fresh produce. Not only are they improving their physical and emotional well-being, but they are pioneering a model for reclaiming green spaces that have a tangible impact on their natural and communal habitat. “If we can do it, so can you if you have a balcony or a piece of land,” Monique iterated.
When asked what it is about taking care of plants that is so enticing to people, Rocco was quick to give an answer. “It’s in people’s psyche now to want to nurture the environment. One way to address it is to grow plants where the desire was not there before.”
He added, “I think it’s a sign of the times.”
Update (Oct. 13, 2020): Druid Things started in 2018 not 2016. The article has been edited to clarify the error.