How Not to Take Care of Your Air Plant
Unless you want to kill it

Hello. My name is Sean, and I murder plants.
Not intentionally. It just — happens.
I am the Brown Thumbed Wilter of Leaves. The Inadvertent Killer of Roots. He Who Forgets to Water.

A botanist I am not

There’s a reason I don’t buy house plants. I’ll be damned if I can keep them alive. Even in my yard, the plants struggle. My mom loved plants, but she was like the Typhoid Mary of the plant world. Sadly, I seem to have inherited her lack of gardening skills. The Houseguest is always puttering about taking care of plants, but I stay as far away as possible lest I inflict harm upon them.

Maybe it’s something about my aura? Maybe I’m the ancient god of famine who is suffering from amnesia in the modern world? Most likely, I just suck at plant care. Which is ironic because I come from a long line of Irish farmers. (Hmm, of course, we did have that huge potato famine in the 1840s.) Actually, part of the family in Ireland was known for its scholars. (Probably the ones who were terrible at farming.) Actually, my Grandad Davoren gave up his claim to his father’s small farm in Galway to become a dock worker in Liverpool if that tells you anything.

Anyway, on to the first act of our tragedy.

Getting crafty

One day in mid-February, some of the young women at the agency decided a craft-based team-building activity for Valentine’s Day was in order. The plan was to make decorative Valentine’s Day mailboxes; everyone would then put small cards, candy and treats in other employees’ boxes to show appreciation. Afterward, they’d select the most creative box as the winner. Now, I’m not a craft guy. I was a marginal participant in macaroni art back in cub scouts. My parents got me a woodburning set when I was nine, but it disappeared not long afterward because I kept burning boobs into every piece of scrap wood I could get my hands on. No more crafts for me after that.

Anyway, being about twice the age of our average account manager, I wasn’t exactly enthused about the event. I think the last time I participated in a mass Valentine’s Day craft session was in grade school. But the important part is I participated in our team-building event…well, kind of.

Agency employees making Valentine's Day mailboxes
That’s my mailbox in front.

One afternoon, we gathered together in the conference room at work to make Valentine’s Day mailboxes. Surprisingly, I did way better at wrapping this box than I did with my Christmas present. I just cut a lot of small pieces and taped them down to achieve a somewhat normal look — not a sound technical execution, but it worked.

So, when I’d completed my box, I  grabbed a pack of Valentine cards at the store — they didn’t have any of the kid ones, so I had to get some full-sized adult ones. The problem was, I didn’t really pay attention to the rules. I should have bought super-tiny cards — basically sticker sized — not full-sized cards. My cards were way too big to fit through the slots of 99% of the mailboxes — plus when I opened the pack at the office to start signing cards, they were kind of too romantic in nature. Man, I definitely didn’t want to creep anyone out or earn a trip to HR (or get weird looks from the guys), so I opted to just skip it altogether. I felt a little guilty getting candy and cards from my coworkers without giving something in return, but c’est la vie, I had good intentions.

Not surprisingly, my mailbox (which didn’t win the contest, by the way), sat on my desk for the next two months following Valentine’s as I slowly worked my way through the candy.

Fast forward to April

Two weeks ago, I decided it was finally time to chuck out my mailbox. So I fished out the remaining candy and cards — and that’s when I discovered it. A tiny plant sat in my box. It had long pointy leaves like an aloe vera, but no soil or pot. What the hell…?

Four air plants in shallow water
Amber’s air plants. The one on the left might have caught Rupert’s funk.

Suddenly, I recalled a conversation I’d overheard where Jadyn (the bow hunter who sits next to me) told some coworkers about air plants — they need no soil and only minimal care. It dawned on me she must have given them out as gifts. Oh, shit.

I looked the plant over carefully; it looked slightly greyish, but still slightly greenish. Kind of the pasty plant version of me. Actually, it had fared remarkably well considering I had inadvertently confined it in the plant equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta for over two months. Thank God it needed minimal care. It looked like I’d discovered it in time. Now, I have a fondness for underdogs and bonded immediately with my plant, and I named it Rupert after the giant rampaging guinea pig that crashed through my dreams a short while ago.

I noticed that one of our developers, Amber, had four air plants sitting in a shallow dish of water on the floor in a beam of sunlight, so I asked if Rupert could join them. So, for the next week, every couple of days, Rupert joined his brothers and sisters. And to me, it looked like he started to perk up. Amber even gave me the link that she’d found to an article about caring for air plants.

6 simple tricks to keep your air plant alive

I’ll summarize the article for you:

  1. Dunk your plant.
  2. Shake out all the water.
  3. Air dry it.
  4. Make sure it has light but don’t bake it.
  5. Give it plant food occasionally.
  6. Provide it space.

That seemed super simple — Rupert would be growing like a weed in no time. So I dunked him in a glass of water and left him floating for a couple of hours. After pulling him out, I shook him vigorously like Desi Arnaz with a new set of maracas, and air dried him, which is not hard to do in low-humidity Arizona. He got plenty of sunlight, and he had plenty of space on my desk. And I dropped him off for play dates at Amber’s desk with her plant brood.

Dark clouds on the horizon

A couple of days after I introduced Rupert to his new regimen, Amber reported that he didn’t look that great. Concerned, I checked him over, and he did look a little funky and had some black on his leaves.

Maybe, after two months of toughing it out in the grim darkness of The Box, the sudden shock of living the good life had been too much of a shock to Rupert’s system? I knew I should have just stuck with my original routine. Stupid article. The author should have retitled it 6 guaranteed ways to kill Rupert.

I glanced at the article again to see if I’d missed anything critical. No, other than the plant food,  but Amber hadn’t given her plants any food yet. I’d done everything…

Oh, shit.

I reread it more carefully. Uh oh. When they said dunk him, they didn’t mean submerge him for hours. Dunk. Remove immediately. Shake off excess water to prevent mold and rot.

Oops. I’d accidentally been waterboarding poor Rupert until he was a waterlogged mess.

Feeling bad, from that point on, I began taking extra good care of Rupert, basically putting him into plant intensive care. We were going to see this through together.

“You know, I don’t think Rupert’s gonna make it,” said Amber the next morning.

“Shut up! Don’t jinx him!” I said.

By the next day, Rupert was looking pretty poorly with more black leaves. When I came back from lunch, I found Rupert on my desk under a memorial sign that Amber had made.

Rupert the air plant
Rupert wasn’t looking quite his chipper self.

Amber had quarantined her plants by heartlessly kicking poor Rupert out of the air plant playgroup. One of her plants wasn’t looking so hot and she blamed Rupert for spreading his plant funk. Still, I wasn’t ready to give up and I dipped Rupert in water and carefully shook him out and put him in the sunlight to build up his strength. I tried to encourage him.

“Come on, buddy. You can make it.”

air plant not doing so well
Rupert on this way to becoming a mini-tumbleweed

“I think your plant has gone tits up,” said another coworker looking at him on my desk, nose wrinkled in distaste. I had to admit, things weren’t looking good. By this point, Rupert had curled up into a fetal ball and his leaves were becoming brittle.

I still wasn’t quite ready to call it a game, thinking that he might miraculously rally with more TLC and positive thinking. I watered him and gave him sunlight in preparation for the long Easter weekend. But when I walked into the office this morning, Rupert was looking like a miniature tumbleweed. (I forgot to take a picture of his sad, mummified state. You’ll have to use your imagination.)

Anyway, this is why I don’t have plants.

Sorry, Rupert.


Photo courtesy of photographer extraordinaire, Alex Szymanek (all rights reserved by him). 

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25 thoughts on “How Not to Take Care of Your Air Plant
Unless you want to kill it

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Yes, I was actually really optimistic when I first discovered him. Not the outcome I was hoping for.

  1. I’m really sorry for Rupert, he sounds like he was a nice air plant. Actually, I didn’t know anything about the existence of air plants until now.

    At least your parcel-wrapping skills are getting better!

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Yes, I’d never heard of air plants either.

      I thought I’d taken a photo of my completed box and some of the other fancier boxes (there was a high degree of creativity and engineering with a couple), but I guess not. I created a sign for it that said “All you need is Love (and money. Booze helps too)”

  2. Sean D. Layton

    I humbly appreciate the sentiment, Bojana. I’m just glad I can contribute to your creativity in any small way.

  3. Too funny! I still believe in Rupert, though. I think he can make it, but what do I know? I also kill anything and everything I attempt to grow. Alex, on the other hand, is amazing! He helped me plant a container garden of cacti and they did really well in my windowsill for several months, but on Friday, when I was cleaning, I realized that most of the plants were mostly dead because, while I do make sure the plants get plenty of sunlight, I also forget to water them. So, I took the planter and stuck it in the garage to just let the rest of the plants die in the dark and Alex found it! He found it, was horrified, and is nursing all of the plants back to health in his room. I don’t think he’ll ever let me have the plants back. I’ve been a terrible, terrible plant mom.

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Some of us are just cursed to be bad plant parents. Killing cacti is tough to accomplish! Rupert is pretty dried out, but I’m still dipping him in water.

  4. Oops. I’d accidentally been waterboarding poor Rupert until he was a waterlogged mess – that’s the funniest thing I’ve read today. This is darkly humorous but also very tragic. RIP Rupert.

  5. lol @ accidentally waterboarding him!!! Those little plants are adorable, but I’m right there with you…as much as I would love to have plants, I just kill them tragically despite best intentions. I had some ivy I’d managed to keep alive for a few years (years! I was so pleased with myself) but after our most recent move it also didn’t survive. Probably because in the chaos and stress of several weeks I may have forgot to water it entirely. So I sympathize. Someone told me to try a cactus, those might be maintainable for the likes of us.

    1. Sean D. Layton

      I’d be reluctant to keep a stabby plant in the house. I had a cactus in a pot when I was a kid but got a fingerful of almost invisible spines which was no fun. Plus, it would be super demoralizing to kill something as hardy as a cactus.

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