Basil Killer, Qu’est-ce que C’est?


I thought herbs were supposed to be hearty. Robust. Hard to kill. I brought a pot of basil back to Alabama, thinking that it would, in some small way, bring some life to my apartment. I have no yard, no grass to walk around in barefoot, no tree to sit under. So the closest I can come to nature is to kidnap a basil plant and set it by the window.

I bought this plant in May and left it with my mother over the summer. It tripled in size, sprouted a foot. It was deliriously happy in its new home with my mother, the plant whisperer. In August, it was so big that we split it in half. She kept one half and I took the other home with me, thinking it was strong enough to survive, that she had taught it all it needed to know about me to continue in this world.

But it was no match for me. No plant is. This basil lasted eleven days. On Day Seven, it started to wilt. Its leaves drooped, their tips curled upwards like pleading hands pointed toward the heavens as if to say, “Why? Why am I with her?” It was difficult to watch its decline. I opened the curtains. I gave it water. I played dance music for it. We watched movies together--comedies, because laughter is good for any soul, right? I stood in front of it and begged it to tell me what it needed, why it was giving up. “Just tell me what you want!” I yelled. And then a leaf fell off.

“You probably gave it too much water,” my friend Mary said. “They say women have a tendency to over-water. Something about being too nurturing.” For a moment, I thought of that woman in "Misery."

I never considered myself to be “too nurturing.” In fact, I feel barely capable of taking care of myself most days. But here's where I should come clean. This is not my first herbicide. I’m a repeat offender. I’m tempted by beautiful flowering (or delicious) plants and think, “This time will be different. This time I’ll make it work.” But the result is always the same. A pot of dirt. A dry stump.

I bought my mother a plant for Mother’s Day last year. Some purple-blossomed thing that spiraled out of a pot—a name I can’t recall that sounded vaguely like Chlamydia. I bought it two days before I was leaving to go home, thinking I could take care of it for that short period of time. But the next morning, after less than twelve hours with me, the plant was already in distress. It was a shriveled, anxious wreck, its blossoms closed, its leaves curled. It looked like it was trying to retreat further into the dirt, screaming “What did I do to deserve this?” I told it to relax, that it was going to a better place. If it could just hang on for one more day, it would be with someone who knew how to make it happy.

It turned pale and the blossoms dried up. When I took it to my parents' house and set it outside, my dad looked at it and scratched his head. Our conversation went something like this [subtext included]:

Dad: What is that [pitiful unsightly thing]?
Me: It’s for Mom. It needs a little love [and perhaps a small miracle and some medics].
Dad: It’s pretty [or it apparently was at one time].
Me: It was gorgeous a couple days ago [before it thought it had a death sentence].
Dad: Give it some water. It’ll perk up [It can’t really look any worse].

The next morning, it looked slightly less pathetic. Mom planted it, worked her mojo, and when I went back a couple of months later, it was huge. In the ground, it had quadrupled in size. It had little bursts of purple everywhere, its green arms spiraling again in fuzzy green ecstasy. It had been resurrected. But I swear it trembled when I walked past it.

So this is me officially giving up on plants. Last year it was spicy oregano and squash plants. This year, basil. Both of my parents can grow anything—flowers, vegetables, melons, fruit trees. You name it, and they can grow it—provided there are no extenuating circumstances, like deer or lawnmowers. But I somehow got a brown thumb, one that dooms any plant it touches. Perhaps I did over-water—but the over-nurturing is still debatable. I would, of course, like to test this theory further, since I have a bad feeling it extends to other creatures, like cats, and parakeets, and men who stick around too long. (If one were to reread this story substituting "guy" for "plant," she would see an alarmingly similar pattern and outcome.) I’d like to figure this out, learn how to nurture and keep things alive, but my conscience won’t let me. I have enough victims in little terra cotta coffins. I have too much cellulose on my hands.

*If anyone has suggestions for hearty plants that are up for a challenge, let me know. I do love to be proven wrong.

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