My plant as an altar

Hecate has written passionately piece about how her garden can be an intensely demanding lover, especially right now, when it never stops needing her attention, and the relationship, I can only imagine, is sweaty and exhausting, and I hope satisfying. I have only a few potted plants on my balcony, so I can’t describe my relationship with my plants in that way, but it made me wonder whether I can think of one of my plants as an altar.

Some time ago, my mother sent me a potted plant as part of a gift. It’s a pretty little succulent whose glossy green leaves have a thin line of contrasting reddish-purple color along their scalloped edges. When I am good at taking care of it, it rewards me with clusters of little red four-petaled flowers. I am not always good at taking care of it, but it’s teaching me, albeit slowly. Plants are often slow teachers, which is good for me when I’m being a slow learner.

One day as I was taking care of it, I found that a sizeable stalk had gotten accidentally snapped off – possibly by the cats, possibly by me pushing it up against the window carelessly. I felt bad about this, and as I hesitated to throw the broken part away, a tiny idea emerged: Couldn’t some plants propagate like this? Actually, come to think of it, I knew that jade plants, which are also succulents, could grow from cuttings, so…what if?

Not quite sure of myself, I got a water glass, ran water in it, and plunked the little stalk down it it next to the big plant, and gave it my best wishes. Much to my amazement, it worked. After just a few days, I could see tendrils of thin, white roots emerging. Over the next several days, I added just a few crystals of Miracle-Gro to the water, figuring that it needed some nutrients. When it put out new leaves, I knew it wasn’t just my imagination; this thing was actually growing!

I had to guess at the right time and sufficient root structure to actually plant it in soil and a pot of its own, but the little sprout is now growing luxuriantly. It hasn’t bloomed yet, but I hope that it will soon. Since it’s still relatively small, it spends most of its time on my desk.

I have a little mini-altar on my desk already: an inkwell, my dip pen, and a few other symbols of the Elements and Powers. But as I was watering my plants the other day, I said something like, “There you go! That should help!” to one of them, and it struck me that the watering could be a kind of offering, a libation not just to the spirits but to the very physical beings of that little corner of earth.

So I think I’m going to try cultivating a relationship with my little desk succulent wherein I regard it as an altar, a place where I come to observe and appreciate life: its, mine, and all. The difference between watering and libation may be as simple as the words I say, and the attitude I foster within myself. We’ll see. If I’m right, and it works, then this plant may become to me, for a time, more than just a plant, being also at the same time a living symbol of some of what I see as holy.

Where do you find or make your altars?

PS: Real gardeners may be horrified by my admittedly blase attitude towards the sprouting experiment. I’m sorry. I don’t even know the real name of this type of plant, and as I said, I’m still learning. Because of my many concerns with the non-plant beings in my life, plants are relatively low on my priority list. This post is about an example of changing that. Which is my way of saying: please don’t lecture me about what I should have done. I’m working on it.

Beltane, botany, and desire

Hecate recently asked how we know it’s almost time for Beltane. She has an answer in terms of the deep relationship she has with the oak trees in her location. I haven’t lived in one place long enough to have the same specific awareness that she does, so my answer is more internal. I know it’s almost time for Beltane because of desire.

This year, though, I have a botanical example. The tulips by the Netherlands Carillon are beautiful.

Field of red tulips with Washington Monument in distant background.
Tulips at the Netherlands Carillon

I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Pollan investigates and meditates on the relationships between humanity and four different plants, each one catering to a different human desire. For the desire of beauty, he selects the tulip. In the opening of the chapter, he talks about how he had long preferred to tend food plants in his garden. The flowers of these plants, only a brief stop along the way to the bell pepper or tomato that he really wanted, he calls “teleological flowers.” In contrast to these purposeful plants, he sets out to rediscover what people see in flowers grown purely for their beauty.

This stands for that: flowers by their very nature traffic in a kind of metaphor, so that even a meadow of wildflowers brims with meanings not of our making. … Sometime long ago, the flower’s gift for metaphor crossed with our own, and the offspring of that match, the miraculous symbiosis of desire, are the flowers of the garden.

And although Europeans tried to find teleological uses for the flower, they failed: “The tulip was a thing of beauty, no more, no less.” He speculates about why this particular beauty captured the Dutch in the famous tulip mania:

I also think the particular character of the tulip’s beauty made it a good match for the Dutch temperament. Generally bereft of scent, the tulip is the coolest of floral characters. In fact, the Dutch counted the tulip’s lack of scent as a virtue, proof of the flower’s chasteness and moderation. Petals curving inward to hide its sexual organs, the tulip is an introvert among flowers. It is also somewhat aloof – one bloom per stem, one stem per plant. “The tulip allows us to admire it,” Herbert observes, “but does not awaken violent emotions, desire, jealousy or erotic fevers.”

Red tulip

Herbert was only partially right, as Pollan goes on to describe in the tulip mania. Today, when even the tulips look like wanton displays of desire, I know it’s time for Beltane.

Red tulip with outer three petals folded back