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On Growing: A Botanical Lyric

Madison Newman


Variegated Pothos: Realization

Moon Cactus: Affirmation

Palm Tree: Delusion

Daylily: Fear

White Rose: Apology

Rhododendron: Self

Violet: Queer Love

Orchid: Failure

Snake Plant: Surgical Recovery

Pink Dahlia: Home

Peony: a Lifetime

Variegated Pothos: The Plant as Realization

When my mother comes home with my first plant, I am fourteen years old. My hair has just curled out to something newly untamable, and my new school has a navy-blue uniform. I have a newly-acquired tendency to forget how to breathe sometimes.

It is good news, my mother tells me, that this plant is rated one of the most effective indoor plants for creating clean air and reducing toxins. She is a person that believes everything can be fixed with plants. She believes this while simultaneously having swiftly and effectively killed every houseplant she has ever come into contact with. Fittingly, pothos plants are also considered one of the easiest plants to keep alive.

My mother holds the pothos plant out to me like a kindness that she can’t yet find the words for. She tells me to take care of it as if she is urging me to do the same with myself. She says it’ll be good for me.

Good for me. What if I overwater, underwater? What if I suffocate it with all the negative energy that plants are supposedly meant to absorb? What if I’m just as hopeless at taking care of a plant as I am at taking care of myself?

Despite this, I place it in a sunny square atop my dresser by the window in my bedroom and reminded myself how to breathe.

Weekly, I water and turn the pothos, allowing every side to soak up the sun. A month later, the pothos plant has outgrown two of its pots. Its freckled leaves flow down the sides of its container, their variegations like maps painted across their surfaces. They seem to know where they are meant to be going—out, down, around, winding sinuously as far as they could reach before I trim their stems. I, however, have no idea how long I can stretch for, how far I can grow. But, I want to find out.

The pothos enjoys its home atop my dresser by the window, moved around periodically to my desk, then to my bookcase when my dresser and both windowsills become crowded with new tenants. My bedroom becomes a thriving greenhouse. I am surrounded by color, creatures that I can care for but are not needy. All they require is weekly watering and an occasional turn of their pot—they stretch to the sun and grow all on their own.

Little by little, I start to breathe easier.

Moon Cactus: The Plant as Affirmation

To live the life of a cactus—to bloom with such a bright and sudden beauty, to spread my roots far and close to the surface of hostile ground, to threaten to stab through the fingers of those who mishandle me—is everything I could ever want from this life.

Palm Tree: The Plant as Delusion

My father never texts me, but when he does, it is always with news about the neighborhood. Today, it’s about the new neighbors that moved in across the street—a couple, as far as he could tell, with no children. The man’s hair is longer than the woman’s, and they both drive identical spring green Kia Souls. They talk too little for a town built on a strong foundation of gossip.

A video blips onto the screen mid-response. The video has been taken from out the passenger side window of my father’s truck; the abrasive chili red color of the side-view mirrors gives it away. Clear as day, in the center of the frame, sits two adolescent palm trees—still in their plastic drainage planters, set out at the mouth of our new neighbors’ driveway. Two palm trees, in Cleveland, planted outside at the tail end of August. They’ll never know what hit them. The ice will freeze the fronds solid, the windchill gnawing at their exposed roots. The snow will crush their trunks like a dull ax hacking at a log. The clouds will suffocate whatever is left of the sunlight.

Every week, I receive a new video. Through September into October, the palm trees stand as proud guardians of the driveway.

Oh, to believe so fervently that these palm saplings will shake their fist at a Cleveland winter and win the fight.

Oh, to believe so completely that they will one day grow tall and large enough to shade the front lawn.

Oh, to stare Delusion straight in the eyes and rename it Hope.

Daylily: The Plant as Fear

Daylilies are a popular meal for white-tailed deer due to their sweet smell, soft foliage, and perennial flowering schedule that guarantees a constant supply of fresh buds (Griffiths 2022).


Sitting on a wobbly stool between two vacant-faced deer heads, I am an imposter: all oak and long hair and panicked politeness. The bartender is a woman who is beautiful in the way that she is a bullet I do not startle away from. When she tells me, you’ve got those big brown doe eyes, bet the boys all love ‘em, I spill out a laugh and chew on my straw like a deer munching daylilies—sweet, alert, on-edge. I listen to her fire off across the bar about her ex husband, shaking a drink like she’s imagining pulling a trigger. Reloading, she says again, look at those eyes, you’re sittin’ there lookin’ like a deer in headlights. In this light, I could be mesmerized, frozen, run down. In this light, I become a hit-and-run at dawn with well-chewed petals in my stomach. The bartender tells me the bar owner shot the deer on the wall himself; the rifle bounces on his knee in a framed picture like his child. They stare down at me like judgmental gods, marble eyes like trapped black pools, pulling me under their water. They do not belong here, just as I don’t. I wonder about their last meal as I step out into the dark, away, out of range: Please forgive me. Please forgive me for being able to make it out alive.

White Rose: The Plant as Apology

When I told her that my favorite type of roses were hard to find, she scoured all the grocery stores in town until she came to me with two white roses with pale coral pink edges. They then came with every apology, steady as an IV drip—a duo of roses, each one’s petals as white as a full jar of sugar. If I could feed her a tablespoon of sweet and wring her words out until they were soft again, this would have been over long ago. But I couldn’t, so it wasn’t. Instead, the roses kept coming. I stopped drying them, keeping them, even giving them fresh water. I started burying them in the trash before they’re even dead—when one started to wilt, I knew more would arrive, doing their best to heal a cut they couldn’t reach.


I ask the next love not to buy me roses. They aren’t my favorites anymore.

Rhododendron: The Plant as Self

In Victorian Flower Language, the rhododendron means, “beware, I am dangerous."




There is a photo of a rhododendron bush

that had grown past the size of a two-story house.

It intimidates that ground it grows from;

the driveway is an awkward circle

making room for its sprawling roots, the dark gray diluted 

by fallen pink petals. She stands,

this blush velvet blizzard,

this fuchsia flood.

Some call her monstrous. She owns this name

and proclaims,




Pink flames lick

at the split tips of her hair. Pink

like first born child, pink like responsible child,

pink like the underside of fingernails

anger-anxiety chewed to the quick, this quick,

sick remembering of ribs

sticking out under paper-thin skin

pink like the cover of a Christmas present, a hardcover booklet

promising to teach her how to be a lady—




Dandelion stem body now grown into a whole stalk, grown into a whole giant

a blooming mess

of bright pink leafy beauty with not enough places

to propel her flowers—she is a takeover.

Her confidence is an invasive species

to all those who wished to squash it. She is immune to pesticides

made of sticky words and spit. Her stems are steel

against their pruning shears.

She has grown taller than all the sneakers

seeking to smash her into the soil. Now, they are lucky

if they reach her first leaf.

Violet: The Plant as Queer Love

“crowns of violets / and roses / … / weave garlands around your soft throat”

Sappho, Poem 94


The first thing you gift me in this new life is a crown 

made from the dead shells of everything I am no longer scared of.

I want to believe that Sappho wrote her poem about violets

with our displaced hearts in mind, urging them to open and

bloom up from our chests like roses. 

This is a world in which instead of hiding, I weave

words into well-made truths, looping themselves into budding garlands

for your soul to wear around

its neck and shoulders. This is a world in which your

hand reaches for mine in the morning, and the soft

light of belonging sings from my open throat.

Orchid: The Plant as Failure

I called my mother to tell her

I tried to rescue another one of you

from the neglectful cold of the grocery store,

but you are dead

again and already


I buried you in a shoebox

in the backyard like a dead pet,

packing the corners with scraps of satin pillowcase

and fertilizer, your pot a hospice

and a refusal.


I’d strung your stem spine up with little white pearls,

made you offerings of eggshells

and ice cubes in vain attempts at revival.

It was my fault

for believing I could always play savior.


Your quick descent lasted only two and a half weeks—

two and a half weeks of your cloud-purple heads raised

in prayer, then your color fading like that prayer

unanswered. Your stem drooped down

like an old woman’s brow,

roots sickling

and pressing their gnarled and tired mouths

to the moist soil.



the end


was a self-guillotining:

your withered heads dried up

and fell away

Snake Plant: The Plant as Surgical Recovery

“People may experience psychotic symptoms like hallucinations, delusions and irritability while under the influence of opioids or while experiencing withdrawal” (Phytila and Strum 2022).


There’s a sky painted on the ceiling

the color of June or a great relief,

its feather brush clouds a static, plastic escape.

Sometimes I watch them

as they move, inching in and out of view,

transforming at will

as they drift.

The sky is blue even with the lights off.


Yesterday my face turned itself inside out

in the mirror, baring my skeleton

and her gnashing teeth and twisted smile

to the snake plant on my nightstand,

given in lieu of cut flowers living

on borrowed time. This time

their yellow-tipped tongues slice through my neck,

the hallucinated blood spatter impossibly bright

like a suffocating flame

at the mercy of the breeze.


The fluorescents carve out space in my face

for the shadows to make a home

as the sun rises, orange and red spreading fast

like a rash—this new day

is infected.

I look up to the clouds painted above me—

they are still blue—

they are still moving—

they are still    moving

Pink Dahlia: The Plant as Home

Today’s MSN article tells me that a pink dahlia’s petals are arranged in a close geometric pattern that creates a sturdy architecture. So sturdy, in fact, that in the space between them, frogs, beetles, and field mice have made them into quaint little apartments. The photograph at the top of the article shows a sleepy green tree frog, its eyes half-open and its leg resting lazily over the petal balcony.

This, I imagine, is what Home is supposed to feel like.

Home is a tricky word, a surface comfort, a mattress with sharp box springs hidden underneath. A word made up of round, cushy letters—h-o- m-e—with a rod iron spiked gate made from the stem of the ‘h’. The gate never has any visible lock or chain, but it locks itself all the same.

Those who aren’t welcome know they aren’t welcome. They don’t even try the gate anymore.

For some reason, the gate still opens for me. I have to jimmy the lock a little, melt myself through the bars with a polite smile, but I can get back. I sneak back in like a mouse through a hole in the baseboards—quick, silent, terrified. The gate tells me it missed me. Offers me a cup of tea and tells me it liked my hair better when it was longer. Tells me I should stay longer this time, that it won’t be open to me forever if I keep away for too long.

This just makes me want to stay further away. How can it expect me to love somewhere that doesn’t love me back? How am I supposed to keep returning when this place is the first thing I learned to run from?

I liquid myself through the gate again. I do not tell it goodbye. I set off for a place where I can finally know the peace of the frog sleeping in its apartment of pink dahlia petals, one where the gate will open more than wide enough to enter through.

Peony: The Plant as a Lifetime

"… their trembling, / their eagerness / to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are / nothing, forever"

Mary Oliver, “Peonies”


When, post-death, the stars ask me their

questions, I will quell their trembling

with stories of my completed life. Their

small voices echo such eagerness

to learn the journeys this body has taken, to

learn what it is to be

a blooming, brief brilliance, so wild-

-ly courageous that it cracks the world open and

every creature can think of themself as perfect

just for



in the wake of it. I will tell them how peonies live before

they collapse in on themselves; they

gather their beauty into a soft flawlessness until they are

surrendered. I will tell the stars I lived so fervently I exploded into nothing,

asking only to be remembered in the peonies’ pink petals forever.

Madison author photo.jpeg


Madison Newman is a Junior triple major in Creative Writing, Sociology, and WGSS, encompassing her passions from writing and advocacy. When not studying or working as a grant writer, Madison can be found reading, making art, hanging out with her cat Zelda, and caring for her copious amount of houseplants.

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