I’m climbing stairs, lots of stairs. Thomas’s flat is on the third floor in one of Düsseldorf’s traditional apartment buildings. I’m here to talk to him about indoor plants. Thomas greets me quickly but has to finish something in the kitchen. So I begin by taking a look around his living room.
It’s a large, airy room with white walls, a huge white sofa and a wooden floor. There is a friendly and relaxed atmosphere here, a bit improvised but comfortable. One corner of the room is devoted to music, the vinyl collection proudly displayed in a glass cabinet. On the other side an old kitchen table in front of a bookshelf is used as a desk. There are various brightly-coloured objects distributed around the room. In one corner I notice an orange lampshade next to a red and blue checked cushion, a lime green cupboard, and a cluster of variously-coloured Christmas baubles hanging from the ceiling.
At the centre of the room one object stands out. To be precise, it is not an object but a plant. Three very large, trumpet-shaped flowers hang atop a single tall stem that rises from a potted bulb. With a purple ribbon the stem is tied to a wooden stick. The flower petals are white with what look like brushstrokes of bright red. This is a ‘hippeastrum’, commonly known as ‘amaryllis’ (although that has been botanically incorrect since 1987).
Thomas comes and throws himself on the sofa. This gives him the perfect angle for viewing the amaryllis. “It flowers every year, for about a week,” he says smiling. I can hardly believe that because it is one of those bulbs that people tend to buy in early December and dispose of after Christmas. Getting it to flower again is difficult and if it happens the flower tends to look anaemic. This one is by far the biggest, healthiest amaryllis I have ever seen.
“So how do you get it to flower again?” I ask Thomas. He doesn’t really understand my question. It just flowers. “Do you give it fertiliser?” I try again. “Coffee grounds. What is good for me, is good for my plants,” he proclaims. Botanically that’s a difficult argument to maintain, but somehow Thomas definitely manages to keep this plant happy.
Looking at the amaryllis flowers with quiet fascination, Thomas tells me that he thinks plants are best appreciated on their own: “In nature, a plant never appears alone, you always see it in the environment where it has grown up. But to perceive it you have to isolate it. And potted plants are always isolated. If you take a plant out of nature, you view it completely differently.”
Thomas presents his amaryllis like a sculpture with the sofa table as its pedestal. Normally he keeps the plant on the window sill. Only when it started flowering a few days ago, did he move it to the middle of the room.
“Houseplants are bought for aesthetic reasons, but then plastic flowers could have replaced them long ago,” reflects Thomas, “So there must be some reason why we think a real flower is more positive than a plastic flower. I think this is because they are living beings and that they have a form of – I don’t know – presence.” ‘Presence’ is a good word for what is happening here. The amaryllis seems to command the entire room, effortlessly.
By comparison the four plants on the window sill seem quietly withdrawn and plain looking. One is like a cross between an asparagus fern and a cypress. Thomas doesn’t know its name but warns me there are thorns hidden in its soft foliage. Next to it stands a succulent with large, disc-shaped leaves, its stem covered in a thin layer of white powder. Numerous seedheads show that it recently flowered. A plant with dark, leathery leaves, maybe a kind of fig, looks a bit crippled because its woody stem has been pruned hard. The fourth pot contains a bulb with long, narrow leaves, an offset from the big amaryllis plant, but without a flower.
“What I love about them is that they’re all completely different,” Thomas says with his gaze locked on the windowsill-plants, “and there are numerous others. Tens of thousands of possible lives that all look completely different, not out of any desire for beauty, but out of a necessity and the pressure of natural selection. This means that the plants look that way because it has given them the best chance to survive and reproduce. Their beauty is actually a side aspect that probably only occurs to humans. I find this totally interesting and it makes me wonder about the different ways of living. It’s an expression of freedom and diversity, although the single plant itself is actually the result of a struggle.”
While I wonder if other people might think about their plants in a similar way, Thomas sits down behind the kitchen table that is his desk and puts his feet on top, 1970s detective style. “The potted plants are arranged so nobody from across the road can look in”, he says, pointing in the direction of the window on the other side of the room. Each plant’s position and size is determined by the perfect ratio between providing cover and letting in light. When they get too big, he trims them. At the moment one is a bit too low, so it gets watered more. This is how he likes to sit and think, exactly like that. “What I find interesting is that plants are completely defenceless and don’t do anything at all, and yet they have a certain pride. And I would say that, every living being has a sense of pride simply because of the fact that it is there.”