The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image


The Incidental Botanist

I have been living in the same city for three months, staying in the same apartment for two months. This new-found isolation and travel-averse trait distorted my personality in curious ways. For one thing, I discovered the hidden horticulturist in me.

Over the years, I was entrusted with the challenge of keeping something living alive many times. With organisms consisting of ensembles of plant cells, the survival ratio was around 80 % — most notably, once I scorched a kitchen spice garden in Seoul. This ratio is significantly higher than the same for goldfish under my care, which is exactly 0 %; I am still convinced the fish died of post-traumatic stress disorder that I had nothing to do with. The ratio, however, is lower than that for cats, which stands at an astounding 100 %. No cat ever died under my care, and yes, the number of such cats is strictly greater than zero.

My ex-flatmate in Singapore launched an experiment in growing and harvesting wheatgrass on his balcony. His plans had something to do with women — I never fully understood the connection — but the magic word was there: an experiment. You don’t need a better hook for a scientist. Encouraged by the 80 % success ratio in the past, the moment I moved in to my new apartment in Barcelona, I started looking for vegetation to populate the premises on an experimental basis.

Ex-flatmate's wheatgrass galore.

Ex-flatmate’s wheatgrass galore.

My understanding of plant physiology is basic. My hypothesis was that plants needed soil, water and light to thrive. As it turned out, this hypothesis was difficult to corroborate and easy to refute. Some plants need soil, water and light, others just die.

To make up for the souls scorched in the Korean spice garden incident, I purchased a sad-looking pot of coriander and tried to cheer it up. I placed it on the balcony for better light conditions. In the first two weeks, it became visibly happier, but its profound depression and suspected bipolar disorder eventually won out and it passed away.

I had a Mediterranean bush-like entity with pine-like needles which I thought to be tolerant for the low-light environment of the internal chambers of my pod. It was not. It went bald, losing all its needles. By the time I put it on the balcony, it was too late: its vanity was deeply damaged by the baldness and it committed suicide.

Succulent plants are theoretically ideal for beginners because they don’t need much care. I invested nine euros in procuring one. It lost a succulent leaf every week, and when it lost the last one, I pronounced it dead.

These botanical explorations were disheartening, but I had more success with other species. I have this flowering thing that looks identical to its appearance two months ago: it does not grow, it does not wither, it simply exists on the balcony, minding its own business. For the darker interiors, I purchased a spinach-like plant with leaves folded. I was told that the leaves would eventually unfold. They did not, but apart from that, the plant is well and alive.

The greatest success was, however, catnip. My plan was to grow morning glory, but morning glory seeds are impossible to find in Barcelona. Catnip seeds are, on the other hand, widely available. When a plant dies, I sow catnip in its pot. Catnip is a true necrophile, deriving a sick pleasure of growing in the grave of a deceased plant. Now I have an industrial quantity of catnip covering my balcony.

Catnip plantation

Behold my catnip farm.

To be exact, it is not even catnip. The packaging of the seeds depicted a cat which was apparently high on some substance. In Spanish, the label said “hierbabuena para gatos”, which would be “mint for cats”. Confusingly, the translation of catnip is “menta de gato”. So I don’t actually know what I grow on my balcony, but it sure has a great time. I should rent a cat to see the kind of impact it has. There is nothing that pleases a scientist more than the sight of a substance-abusing cat.

My conclusion thus far is simple: stick with ‘catnip’. The psychological condition of other types of vegetation is unstable. Yet, even with catnip, darker rooms are harder to populate. The next stage of uncovering botanical truths will be about that effort. Perhaps I should look into cultivating fungi.