I’m in the back of a taxi on my way to Los Angeles International Airport and my driver, a man named Reza with a melodic kind of voice, is giving me the short version of his life story. It is a really good one.
Originally from Iran, Reza has lived in many different cities and on several continents. He speaks many languages, and at present, holds quite a few jobs. He raised his two adult daughters mostly by himself after losing his wife, and he happens to really love Los Angeles. When I tell him that I do, too, he asks me what I like about L.A. most. Tell me, he says.
I’ve come to learn that mutual lovers of Los Angeles tend to whisper their reasons as if they are sharing long-guarded family recipes.
I tell him that, to my surprise, the plant life of this city has been one of the most steady sources of joy and discovery while living here. Reza’s eyes jump to the rear-view mirror and light up. He is a plant-lover, too, so much so that he crafts tiny, ornate pieces of jewellery out of foraged bits of flowers and seeds that he gathers on his walks through nature. He touches the gem-like evil eye pendant dangling from his mirror. A Reza original, he tells me.
We agree that there is some kind of magic in appreciating one’s surroundings and in learning a place’s constant, ever-morphing detail by way of plants and flowers. We agree that noting the colours, forms, and seasonal happenings of the plant life in our neighbourhoods gives us a feeling of wonder, even peace.
Thinking of the city then, I realise that the jade has begun blooming and that the uptick in rain this winter has made the mountainsides look soft and green. Even the magnolias have unfolded a bit early. I’ve pulled over in my car more than once to photograph them. I arrive everywhere at least 15 minutes late—I blame the blooming flowers. They don’t mind it.
Los Angeles has been home for five years, but I grew up in New Jersey where flowers are fleeting and the green of trees turn and fall abruptly. I did not grow up with gardens. I did, however, spend long afternoons digging in the dirt as the sun dipped behind my oak canopied childhood home, pulling up grass on soccer fields, sighing at the sound of wind whipping through overgrown patches in track neighbourhoods waiting to be ploughed and developed.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in my anthophilic ways and the lore of plant magic is hardly new. In Mexican culture, curanderismo, a tradition of holistic healing, is deeply rooted in plants and herbs. Throughout India, Ayurvedic medicine, which includes many plant-derived treatments, has been practiced since ancient times.
The science of ‘plant magic’ is real, too. Being outside in nature has well-documented benefits for our health. In Japan, Shinrin-yoku, a practice that translates to “forest bathing,” simply being in the presence of trees, became the subject of a long scientific study. Over the course of eight years, Japanese officials explored the impact of daily forest bathing, looking at physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate, stress hormone reduction, immune system, and overall feelings of wellbeing. The results were so promising that four dozen nature trails were designated throughout Japan as a result.
About 10 minutes from the airport, I ask Reza, my lovely taxi driver, why he thought we both feel so much joy when we’re interacting with plants. Already familiar with a bit of the science behind it, I was hoping he might offer an alternate theory. He told me that perhaps it was because the sight of flowers triggers some type of evolutionary instinct in humans. Flowers and blossoms typically signify that there will be fruit later on in the season. But then, with a pause and a shrug, he offered that perhaps it’s because, like music, plants and flowers are a universal language—expressions of love, of well wishes and understanding. Maybe the simplicity and purity of plants and flowers and their dependable, fated life-cycles provide a sort of peaceful respite and trigger in us a little dash of childlike whimsy.
I think I quite like that theory. Don’t you?