Rooted in Relationship

By Emma Duehr

My houseplant practice is rooted in relationships. I began caring for plants after I moved away from my hometown and began searching for new signifiers of home and friendships. I ended up buying some of my mom’s favorite plants: hostas and impatiens, to help make my new house feel like home. This initiated my emotional connection to plants, as I grew to understand the sentimental importance, mental benefits, and self-care routine that is commonly associated with home gardening. I began collecting more plants by attending nurseries, buying from people on facebook, and exchanging clipping with people around Portland. This is how I ultimately began growing relationships with people in my new town.

Houseplants have been growing in popularity in recent years, which has created various plant community groups across the world. Plants are a growing collectible whose value is dependant on scarce supply, rare species, and age. Due to the rarity of certain plants and increase in demand, people have begun “proplifting” from nurseries, retail stores, and other public places; this refers to clipping off pieces of plants without permission from the owner. Some may call it a “green-collar crime,” others say it’s being resourceful. The act of taking clippings from plants is extremely resourceful because it allows thriving plants to duplicate and begin again in someone else’s life. You don’t need to steal from retail stores, because there is actually a large community of people who offer exchange, trade, or sell clippings from their own collection. 

Gardeners and plant parents have traded clippings for years because certain plants have become status symbols and others hold sentimental value. This exchange happens between strangers on the internet, acquaintances at the same local plant swap, or it can be an extremely intentional and thoughtful gift from someone. One consistent component is an exchange of the plant’s history; it is important to share the plant’s history, story, and best care tips. Through this process, you’ll find that many plants have a story to tell. The original plant that has off-shooted new baby plants is commonly referred to as the mother plant; this terminology embodies the possibilities of sharing plants and the relationships that can be built. 

My first plant became a piece of my family history. When my aunt’s cactus eventually reached the ceiling, she decided to trim, transplant, and gift pieces to different family members. I was one of the nine recipients. Kym states, “I have been cutting from this cactus for over 20 years! I would guess I have gifted these pieces to at least 20 people in my family. The original was my mother-in-law’s, which was born around 1990.” The passing down of plant clippings is a practice that many families and friends across the world practice. The symbolism of the plants’ roots embody the relationships that continue to coexist and add to the historical narrative.  “I took many trimmings off it before it died around the age of 20, luckily many offsprings exist and are thriving in my childrens’ homes,” said Kym. A clipping from a plant that holds sentimental value is an invitation to a relationship that encourages health, growth, and connection.

I began asking for people to share their own family plant narratives and began archiving them online. Many narratives were shared about passing clippings of “family plants” and the influx storytelling that transpire from then. Brenda Mitchell is a recipient of a family plant, she said “I’ve had my Christmas Cactus for over 10 years. (Figure 2) It started as a scion* from my sister Barb’s cactus. She got hers from our Aunt Karen, who is now the caregiver of the first Christmas Cactus that came into our family over 60 years ago. This cactus was cared for and enjoyed by my Great Grandmother Dreyer. Around her death in 1960, it was passed on to her daughter who was my Grandma Klein. Around her death in 2001, it was passed to her son Dan’s wife Karen. Several family members have scions from the original or next generation plant. my mother received a scion from the family’s original Christmas Cactus in 1959, and she still cares for it today.” 

Danica Shoffner received a clipping of a jade plant from her grandma when she was moving from her long-time home into assisted living. “I wrapped it up in a napkin and flew back home to Portland. It has grown much since and I hope one day to pass it down to other family members and share that it was from my grandmother.” She says “when I look at it or water it I think of my grandma and grandpa and what wonderful people they are/were. It gives me a sense of connection to them. Something living and growing that very well may live beyond me as well and continue to be shared and bring joy and connection.” 

The sentimental value of plants can be from the relationships connected to it as well as the relationship you make with the plant itself. Plants communicate with their caretakers, and are proven to provide mental benefits and positive stimuli to the environment and the people within them. Getting dirty in a garden is a natural antidepressant due to the unique microbes in healthy organic soil. (insert source here) It is scientifically proven that plants make us happier and healthier. Plants can also provide metaphoric benefits for the importance of relationships, self-care, and suitable and healthy living environments. I took to the internet to ask specifically what plants do for different people. Facebook groups such as “Houseplant Hobbyists,” “Indoor Houseplant Group,” “Portland Plant Lovers,” Instagram, and my personal website were all platforms I created an interactive forum to gain research. 

Nae Dumouchelle says “The greenery that fills the room allows me to feel more connected to nature within the walls of my home. It feels more lively and I am able to breathe a little better. Physically and spiritually. Mother Earth is our home and my door will always be open to her and the clippings that she continues to share with us.” 

Britannie Weaver said “they are a reminder for me to take care of my mental health. When I notice I’m slacking or my plants look like they need love usually I need to take care of myself mentally too.” 

“I love caring for all living creatures. Whenever I feel high anxiety or panic attacks, I start observing all my plants and seeing what they need and it helps calm me down. Plus, they are just beautiful! Why would you not want to be surrounded by natural beauty,” said Sara Campbell

Plants have filled the void in my life after my cat passed away. They need me…and respond to my care with gifts of bloom’s and beautiful new foliage. I need to be needed..and enjoy sharing plants with my loved ones, or really anyone that shows an interest in them. Great way to meet people also,” said Patricia Guidry

Roneal H. Torres says, “as a person who tends to procrastinate, having them made me become a lot more organized on how I consume my time. It taught me how to be a responsible individual.” 

Do you have a family plant? What benefits have plants brought to your life? What sets your plant collection apart? I would love to hear, archive, and share your plant narratives. Send your thoughts to em.duehr@gmail.com or visit www.emmaduehr.com*

Need propagation tips? 

Most plants can be propagated into completely new plants by solely keeping them in water in the sunshine for about a month until the roots begin to grow. Not every plant likes excessive water, though tropical plants, succulents, and cacti are sure winners. Spring and Summer are the best seasons for successful propagation. Begonias, ctenanthe, peperomias, philodendrons, pilea, rhipsalis, and tradescantias are all types of plants that root well in water. Using a sharp edge, cut just below a node: the site where leaves grow from the stem. Cuttings should be about a foot long; larger clippings create an unhealthy ratio for demanding strong root system. Find a small glass jar such as a mason jar, vase, shot glass, etc. to fill with water. A smaller jar allows the plant’s hormones to be released into a lower volume of water which aids for quicker and controlled growth. Pick off any leaves that would touch the water; the leaves can rot and create affect the water quality. Patience is key.


Emma Duehr is an interdisciplinary artist who builds environments for community healing, empowerment, and education. Her work facilitates discussions, collaborations, and creativity using the worldwide web, educational settings, and city sidewalks. Her work is a platform for intimate exchange through gardening, craft, and dialogue. Emma is the creator of Talking Tushies; an ongoing international public art performance advocating for survivors of sexual violence. Duehr is based in Portland, Oregon and is pursuing her MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

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