Johan van Zyl does not like deception by artificial plants, not even for a milli-moment
The world seems to have become obsessed with house plants during lockdown, probably because, as some scientists suggest, having a pot plant can be nearly as therapeutic for you as spending time in nature. So Johan van Zyl cannot help but wonder why he often encounters the “Made in China” variety at selfcatering accommodation units in the platteland.
Eighty-three user reviewers on Booking.com and TravelGround.co.za gave the beautiful two-bedroom house a total score of 9,2 (out of 10) and also awarded it, quite exceptionally, between 8 and full marks in various sub-categories.
Before the pandemic, most opinions shared on these two accommodation platforms described the view and position of the house, on the outskirts of a lovely platteland town, as “breathtaking” (a word that has taken on a rather more ominous association in recent times). Furthermore, the house was praised to the heavens as spacious, private, neat, clean, well equipped and stylishly furnished. And the ridiculously affordable rate – just R740 per night – sealed the deal. “The staff are angels from heaven !!!!! ” rejoiced a woman from Garsfontein with a clear case of the exclamationmark “runs”. The Wi-Fi, braai wood and starry skies are free, raved Fanie S from Bloem. “Excellent value for money,” declared every second mortal who had laid their head on a pillow at this address.
But as a confirmed plant junkie and shameless borrower of cuttings, something completely different caught my eye in the photographs on display – something about which not one of the reviewers had uttered a word: plants. An otherworldly number of plants. Literally in every room. On every table, counter, shelf, windowsill and bedside cabinet. Botanical baroque at its very best. Absolute nirvana for a plantophile such as yours truly.
But harsh South African reality had also taught me a thing or two: if an innocent plant evokes supernatural suspicion in you, you can be assured of either something fishy or that you’ve won an extras role in a production of Little Shop of Horrors.
As in all fairy tales with an unhappy ending, my passion for cuttings – and the exceptional rating of the establishment – had me hooked by photograph three. So I gave the owners the benefit of the doubt. They had to be “plant people”, and plant people are generally good, kind, generous people.
Nevertheless, as not even a donkey enjoys its head butted against a wall for the 34th time, I downloaded the three most suspicious photos and zoomed in to make sure that no wool was being pulled over my eyes once again. No, all looked kosher, including the plants, so I confirmed our booking for two nights. I REALLY SHOULD HAVE BEGUN with a mini confession. In case you
haven’t figured it out, plastic plants and flowers unhinge me completely. And what really gives me the willies are grimey, faded, dusty ones – which invariably they are.
If your first instinct is to label me a pretentious snob, I should clarify that I don’t mind an elaborate display of artificial plants as party decorations. Those are honest plastic plants, plants that are comfortable with their fake status and make no attempt to con you. Plants that behave like flamboyant drag artists – openly false but fabulous nonetheless.
For me, the great tragedy is the more deceptive variety of artificial plant, which I frequently discover in the homes of people who are otherwise quite lovely. I feel compelled to analyse why they’d choose a fake plant or flower over a living one. And to understand why I detest it quite as passionately as I do – seeing as I fondly recall the arrangement of silk flowers and dried grasses on the pedal organ in my grandmother’s living room. Why do I, as an adult, always feel disappointed and slightly embarrassed when I am fooled by an artificial plant? Feelings that are closely followed by depression, and then exasperation.
This “duplicity” is at its most unbearable when it plays out in the presence of the person who owns the offending plant. Time after time, red-faced, they try to hide their awkwardness behind a good-natured little jig on eggshells. They would offer something like: “Oh, I’m not one of those people with green fingers. Plants die as soon as I bring them into the house.” Or, “Heavens, no, my husband is terribly allergic to pollen and dust!” Or, “Sometimes we don’t have bookings for weeks, especially in winter. Then we have to make special plans to water the plants, which are going to die anyway because there’s no one here to talk to them.” Or, “Artificial plants are great. They don’t drop leaves or pollen; last forever; don’t need any attention, water or food; and they don’t give a continental if you are no good at gardening.” Or, my worst nightmare, “It’s incredible how, these days, they can reproduce anything so well that it actually turns out better than the real thing.”
Why do I – thoroughly aware of my privilege – insist on fresh flowers and real plants – even just a sprig cut from a bossie in the veld? Is it because they are alive, look beautiful and most likely have a pleasant fragrance? Is it because scientists have proven that they are really good for you? Not only do plants brings nature to mind, but they also help make you feel happier and less despondent. And, just as humans, their beauty will not last forever. With the passage of time, even if it takes centuries, each and every plant will eventually wilt and die. Are fake plant supporters perhaps unaware of their own internal resistance to mortality?
TWO WEEKS LATER, the moment I entered the 9,2-out-of-10 house,
I knew I had been well and truly hoodwinked by the luxuriant medium-sized delicious monster in the corner, left of the fireplace. It was clearly imported from a plastics nursery in China, along with the maiden-hair fern on a side table and the fiddle-leaf fig with its beautiful bright-green leaves occupying the other corner.
Pride of place on the dining table was taken by a charming succulent garden in a rectangular container: a pig’s ear, cactus, concertina plant, aloe, two types
“I knew I had been well and truly hoodwinked by the luxuriant mediumsized delicious monster in the corner, left of the fireplace.”
of echeveria and a lovely miniature carrion flower. Plastic all the way.
In both bedrooms and the bathroom, ever-present white phalaenopsis orchids bloomed as if there were no tomorrow, and from the bathroom windowsill tumbled a mini waterfall of green spheres – the botanical name excapes me – as well as something making a gallant effort to resemble a geranium. In the corner at the mirror hung a basket displaying a rather lush hen-and-chickens.
It seemed that none of the guests who had loved this house had been in the least bit concerned by the fact that every single plant inside it was stillborn – and destined to remain there until perishing in the sun and eventually polluting soil or water.
In town the next day I bumped into an old friend, from university days, who had left the city behind for small-town living. I let off steam about the plastic fetish that was clearly genetic to the owners of our rental accommodation, and then began fishing for information about them.
“They are salt-of-the-earth people,” my friend said. “Wonderful, obliging, no-nonsense people with no psychopathic tendencies that I’m aware of!”
He laughed: “But have I ever told you the story about Tannie Soes von Wielligh?”
He didn’t wait for an invitation. “To the locals, the puddles of water were conclusive that Tannie Soes had truly taken leave of her senses.”
One day, my friend said, Tannie Soes started talking to the plastic plants she had clustered in a corner of her stoep room. But the real problem arose when, after a few weeks of talking to them, she began watering the plants whenever she sought out earlymorning sunlight in the room. “Can you believe it! Poor thing. It wasn’t long before Tannie Soes was packed off to a care facility. The town had declared her senile.” He laughed.
Through clenched teeth, I retorted: “You know what? Today I’m going to take exception on behalf of Tannie Soes – because yesterday, when I arrived in your new home town with its 9,2-outof-10 house, I once again experienced exactly how it feels to be utterly bamboozled by a plastic plant.”