When my landlady presented me with a leafy shrub no taller than a four-year-old as a moving-in present, I never imagined how much of an impact it would have on me.
I’ve had pets at various stages in my life – cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, an intrepid turtle that came to an untimely end when it ‘jumped’ from an 11th-floor balcony – so I’m accustomed to sharing my time and space. ‘Water it every day,’ my landlady said. So each morning I would get up, tiptoe onto the balcony and feed it a salad bowl of water. Those were the days prior to my purchases of plant accessories – watering can, plant pot and saucer, garden shears, bug killer and the like.
Later, when my wife joined me in Dubai and summer drove up the temperature, our thirsty friend needed two feedings a day, rising to a somewhat gluttonous three in July. When we left for a week’s holiday,
we were encouraged to befriend the next-door neighbour, who very kindly agreed to take over responsibility for its wellbeing. She did a fine job, and we returned to find a two-metre tree blocking half the view from our living room.
Our neighbour commented on a few ‘little black things’ that appeared to have made a home in our plant pot. True, the plant had attracted a few unwanted guests, but we thought nothing of it. We changed our minds, of course, a couple of weeks later, when we came home one night to find a full-scale invasion.
If you’ve ever had to deal with it, you’ll know that there’s no simple solution to an ant problem. We started with tissues and damp cloths, quickly upgraded to the vacuum cleaner and, like some Hollywood action movie, eventually settled for chemical weapons – two different brands of the stuff. The aftermath was not pretty, but with the enemy driven back into the plant pot and our reluctance to fumigate our leafy friend, we’d reached an acceptable stalemate.
Thankfully, the matter was taken out of our hands when we left for our summer holiday. I had visions of getting back to find our home overrun, but I held on to the (admittedly very small) chance that the ants would move on in our absence. Our plant, on the other hand, had no chance. With our neighbour out of the country herself, it faced an unconquerable foe, namely heat and no water for two weeks. We gave it one last drink and said our goodbyes.
Sure enough, a shrivelled skeleton was all that remained. The ants had gone – where to, I didn’t care – but with them they’d taken the life of every last leaf. My wife shed a tear and I muttered empty words of consolation. Nevertheless, out of habit or perhaps in a desperate act of fool’s hope, we watered it one last time before going to bed.
Now, I wouldn’t call myself a religious man. But, lo and behold, we woke to find the tiniest of shoots at the base of the stem – a flicker of life that has strengthened with every passing day. Call it a miracle, a fluke, whatever, but who needs pets in Dubai when you can have a house plant instead?
Hfu Reisenhofer is our green-fingered guides editor.