The focus of this portion of our blog Black People with Plants is to highlight all of the beautiful black plant lovers, gardeners, botanists, florists, horticulturalists, those who use plants for healing purposes and in their creative work. As bonafide plant lovers, we are always following, reading, and researching. With this work, we’ve noticed a lack of people of color in publications, blogs, social feeds, etc. A very well-known and unfortunate fact in many industries (including gardening) is proper representation...and we know damn well black people love plants - growing them, admiring, eating them. This is when the idea was born to create a platform showcasing black people with their plants.
While we hope to expand this project regionally, nationally, and hopefully internationally our first few editions will feature BPWP in New Orleans. In these interviews, you’ll learn about easy to grow plants, tips, and tricks, where to find “plantspiration”, plant/human connections, and more. And if you're on Instagram tag any of your plant pics with #blackpeoplewithplants.
In this first edition, we visited our friends and neighbors Nathaniel & McNally's bountiful backyard garden. We then sat down with Nathaniel to discuss all things plants, cooking, and New Orleans plant inspiration.
What do you do in the city?
Nathaniel: I Work for TREE. It’s short for Teaching Responsible Earth Education. I’m an Earth Educator. Elementary school students come on field trips to the Barataria Preserve and learn about environmental and earth science throughout the school year.
McNally: I’m an assistant to the head of the Rouse’s art department. I take illustration/art requests from all the stores and help facilitate projects through completion.
You can see McNally’s handywork on most of the signage at Rouse’s grocery stores around the city.
What got you into plants?
A:I actually attended the TREE program in elementary school, but now as an adult I appreciate it a lot more. That program really helped with my love of plants.
What are your top 3 favorite plants?
A:Well, all the plants we have have to either be edible, useful, or dangerous, but my top 3 plants are:
Mint: We use it all the time. It’s the best because it grows like a weed and is so useful.
Madagascar Palm Tree: It actually just recently started sprouting leaves. It had been months of it looking like a spiky bald nub and now it looks like an actual plant.
Pepper Plants: One of the reasons why I started to garden was to grow things I can use in cooking. We eat a lot of peppers.
What are some successes and failures with your plants?
A:Successes would be actually learning about and being able to identify different plant species. Now I can tell very roughly the name of the family or type of fruit or berry. I learn more and more every day. As far as failures, forgetting to water them sometimes. Some have died but that’s part of the process. You learn how tolerant they are, how to work with them, ones you need to prune.
What’s the hardest plant that you had to grow?
A:Cayenne peppers are definitely one of the hardest. They are really easy to grow but we got them during caterpillar season. They got eaten immediately. And those kind of peppers are so resilient. I have a vendetta for caterpillars. It would actually hurt me to see them eat the leaves.
What are some of your favorite gardens in the city?
A:I like MidCity. The area has a lot of fruit trees. McNally and I really clicked over it. We drove around MidCity on a date picking fruit. Definitely vandalizing, but it was nice to connect on that level and to be able to enjoy the bounty of New Orleans. There’s also a crazy cactus on Royal and Spain near Orange Couch that I love.
What are some of your plant rituals?
A: I sit out on the stairs with them. I like to put my face in the mint – especially the peppermint. I’ll go outside to check on them often. We don’t have a hose, so I have to carry the water every day. Makes me appreciate them more.
What would be your ideal plant setup?
A:Ideally I would have a piece of land where I could have an orchard. I want a lot of fruit trees and mint. We have 7 or 8 fruit trees and mint plants right now. I definitely want a greenhouse. I really love the way Grow On is set up. We then talked about how amazing the space is and how it’s evolved over time. You should go check them out.
Where do you go for plant inspiration?
A: Midcity. Urban Roots. Harold’s. It’s really easy to find plant inspiration in New Orleans. I was just watching Chopped and one of the ingredients was dandelions and I have 3 different kinds right in my backyard. You leave an empty lot alone for a few weeks and it’ll grow into something crazy. The soil in Louisiana is so fruitful. The weather lends itself nicely to growing.
What’s your thought process for buying plants?
A: It just depends on the kind of plant. If it’s a succulent it definitely has to be dangerous. Dangerous or edible. How it will look with the other plants. I want to touch on as many different kinds of species. Is it rare? Can I propagate it? How easily does it grow? There’s always something to choose from.
Do you see yourself represented in publications about plants?
A: I don’t know what demographic I’d be in. Like what kind of plant lover I am, but I definitely have a makeshift garden. And a lot of times you see a lot of neat, manicured gardens. I love seeing overgrown gardens that take over the property and let loose with plants that creep over and are growing on fences. It’s like nature is taking back the space. I also love putting a bunch of different shit in one pot. It’s cool seeing how plants interact with each other.
Why do you think it’s important for black people to become more in tune with plants?
A: Black people have been farmers for over 1000 years. I’ve told this story before, but black people were smuggling okra seeds in their hair and ears because okra was such an important crop and they wanted to bring it to Louisiana. Plants have been around for so long, longer than us. If anyone can get some kind of appreciation for plants and nature – whether it’s growing them, going outside to enjoy it. Just any time spent outside will help you form some kind of relationship with plants.
Do you follow any plant people?
A: Not on social media really, but there are houses that I like to go by. So if you mean by follow then yes, in a more literal creepy way. There’s an agave plant on Dauphine Street with the skulls on top. I also enjoy the little nuances people create with their plants or in their gardens.
Do you have any advice for a budding green thumb?
A: Mint is a super easy plant. Just water it. Get whatever plant you like. Get what you think looks cool. Read a little bit about it. Let it get big. Once you get one it’s like a life you want to take care of and preserve. You’ll do the work it takes to keep it alive. And once that works you’ll get another one.
What are your favorite things to cook with plants?
A: I have a lot of tomatoes and peppers. So I like to make salsa. I mostly cook Mexican food actually. I want to grow beans to make good hummus one day. Second favorite thing to make is jelly for sure. That’s the main reason I have peppers. It was one of the first jellies I ever made.
What’s your oldest plant?
A: The lemon balm at the bottom of the stairs. That thing is resilient because caterpillars were tearin’ that thing up! I use it for tea all the time. I love making tea. I want to get a Hibiscus plant for tea too.
We then discussed “citronella” found in plant stores.
Real citronella looks like lemongrass. Almost exactly. Citronella in stores is actually a geranium and isn’t a real citronella plant, but it smells like it.
What’s your dream plant(s)?
A:A big ass saguaro cactus, a giant red crepe myrtle with a black trunk, and a pecan tree because I had one at my house when I was growing up and it went down after Katrina.
Jeremy then entertained us all with his story about a woman who foraged pecans from his yard in Gentilly and gave them to all the neighborhood kids on Halloween.
Would you ever participate in a plant swap?
The answer was yes! So this could hopefully be an event in the works. Stay tuned.
What was the last plant you bought?
A: I have those pencil cactus clippings over there, but the last thing I bought was a hedgehog aloe.
What are your thoughts on spray painted plants?
A: Oh like at Home Depot? That is so hurtful to me. I saw glue on one and it wasn’t even glued on well. I thought it was some type of fruit or something. It’s just so hurtful, it really is.
All photographs taken by Collection of Collections, unless otherwise noted.