July 31, 2020

Botany Can End the Monotony

By Steven Birnbaum, MD, FACR, and Cyndi Jones, LICSW

I bought my first houseplant as a first-year medical student at Sears Roebuck in Rochester, NY, in 1974 for $0.99, a scraggly jade plant in a plastic pot. Much to my surprise, it grew and even thrived, despite my lack of attention and spotty knowledge of indoor gardening. I kept that plant through medical school and for the next 20 years.

Slowly but surely, I developed a consuming hobby as I filled my home with houseplants of all sorts. As I got more involved and focused, I began to specialize in cacti, succulents and bonsai trees. Maybe it was a metaphor for organisms that could somehow survive under harsh circumstances as I went through my medical training. 

bonsai tree succulent plant potted succulent plant

Whatever the reasons, my plants are now an integral part of my and my wife’s lives. We work on them together, trimming, repotting and watering. We enter them annually in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Amateur Competition in Boston where we have won many awards.

We have an extensive indoor lighting system to support them in winter in the basement of our townhome. They summer outdoors. I have had many of these plants for years and some for decades. They have survived five moves, a divorce, power outages, the 2008–2009 recession and now COVID-19.

A plant sitter comes to our home to water them when we go away for a protracted period of time. They are part of the Birnbaum-Jones family. We may need to make the decision later to leave our plants to our children in their inheritance.

In addition, I am an aquarist with a 36-gallon, bow-front tank in the basement with, of course, real plants and about 15 small community tank fish. What I have tried to do is make the basement a “sustainable ecosystem.” To maintain a healthy aquarium, you need to change about 15% of the water every one to two weeks.

Rather than waste that water, which is rich in nitrates and phosphates, I use it to water my houseplants. The fish get fresh water and the plants get the benefit of a low-level, soluble, organic fertilizer. And I don’t have to feel guilty about flushing 5 gallons of water down the toilet. It really works for all of the organisms in our home, especially me.

Of course, as a radiologist still working part-time at Tufts Medical Center, I have to include some images. So here they are….

aquarium with tropical fish and aquatic plants

plant collection of Steven Birnbaum, MD, FACR, and Cyndi Jones, LICSW