A Conversation With a Botanophobe

Alvin Lin is a landscape architect and a botanophobe. After earning his Masters degree in Melbourne, where we met in a first-year horticulture class, Alvin re-located to Shenzen, a bustling metropolis in southern China, where he now works designing landscapes of the commercial kind, all the while sampling the delectable cuisine and dodging the local sub-tropical plant life.

Although now hemispheres apart, over the marvellous medium of the internet, I managed to catch up with Alvin – him over a morning coffee and me over an afternoon tea – to discuss the strange and curious details of his fear, his career, and to find out whether the two are really compatible.

Read on for a rare glimpse into the strange, irrational, and (for an outsider) often incomprehensible world of a botanophobe.

Lets start at the beginning. What are your earliest memories of being afraid of plants?
I remember being about 7 years old when my sister picked up a fallen leaf, about the size of her palm, and noticing that I was scared of it, began to chase me around the street. Back then my aunt also had a ‘lovely’ Monstera deliciosa on her balcony and I would never go to that balcony. Monstera deliciosa remains one of the scariest plants for me, I always feel like it’s going to wrap me up in its monstrous leaf! These are probably my earliest memories of being afraid of plants – obviously my phobia had already developed by then.

I’ve heard that botanophobia may be caused by a childhood incident in which fear becomes associated with a particular plant. Do you have any idea what might have caused your phobia?
Honestly, I have no idea when the phobia started or what caused it. It’s like I was born with it.

Is it true that botanophobes are generally not afraid of all plants but usually just a few specific species or kinds? In your case, is it just the Monstera you fear?
That’s right, I’m not afraid of all plants, otherwise you’d have to knock me out to get me anywhere. It’s mainly the big-leafed, big-flowered plants that drive me nuts. The Monstera is one, also Nelumbo nucifera, (lotus), and many of the alien-looking tropical ones – I could never move to Queensland. There’s something about the texture of the leaves that creeps me out, especially the veins on the backside. Colacasia esculenta (elephant ear plant) too – again it’s the size of the leaves. It’s good to know the names of my natural predators.

Do you have any other phobias?
Coincidentally, I also happen to have a fear of butterflies (big ones), and I feel that it’s somehow related to my fear of plants. Moths are even worse, in a way they resemble dead leaves that can move.

Have you ever undergone any kind of therapy, formal or informal, to help you deal with your phobia?
I saw a counsellor for a while at the university in Melbourne where I studied. Years ago, when I moved into an apartment in St Kilda, there was this Monstera planted right behind the gate to the building’s entrance, and, at first, it took me a while to walk past it to get home. I spoke to the counsellor about it and he suggested that instead of thinking about what the plant might do to me, to try to imagine the experience of walking past it as a movie, and then play that movie backwards – from my door back downstairs, backwards past the plant, right back to the start of the ‘movie’ at the gate – and realise that I was fine at the end of the ‘movie’, meaning that deep down I knew the plant couldn’t really do me any harm.

The phobia is caused by the perception of harm, which takes over the rational acknowledgement that the plant is in fact harmless.

I managed to get used to walking past that Monstera everyday although I would still look the other way every time I did. The counselling sort of helped in that particular situation, but the phobia hasn’t gone away.

Do you know anyone else that has botanophobia or an aversion to particular plants?
Hmmm, I think I’m the only one I know with this strange phobia…

I actually have a florist friend in Brooklyn who spoke to Christina Ricci over the phone yesterday. Apparently Ms Ricci – a regular client of this particular florist – wants them to re-locate her whole, beloved garden to a new apartment. When I mentioned that Ms Ricci is rumoured to be a botanophobe, she became wildly curious. I’m hoping she’ll have the chance to ask her about it.
Hmmm sounds kind of like Hollywood gossip, but then again – why not? As a botanophobe myself, a florist is the kind of place that causes me unease. Chances are the rumours aren’t true. But we’ll see.

Have you ever heard any stories about botanophobes, fiction or otherwise?
Fiction? Triffids, I guess. But I’ve never found the portrayal of them scary. They’re too animal-like, fake, thus irrelevant. I’m not afraid of big plants because of some non-existent teeth. I’ve never really heard of anyone talk or write about the phobia itself though.

If it’s not a fear of being eaten alive, then what exactly is it that you’re afraid of in plants?
I think one of the creepiest things about plants is that they do nothing other than standing there ‘looking’ at you, growing and crawling at a very slow pace. And then they wither and die. It probably hardly makes sense to other people. In a way it might be similar to how some people are afraid of cockroaches, even though I don’t think they can actually bite you.

Jennilee Marigomen’s photographic series ‘Botanophobia’ is a pretty accurate depiction of the true horror for people like me – it’s a fear of the everyday plants, the mundane ones that could be lurking around any corner.

What about the infamous YouTube video of the woman with a phobia of tumbleweeds?
That is hilarious! There’s not much I can comment on in relation to that specific variety of botanophobia, but that is definitely what people are like when they have a phobia of some sort.

Let’s move on to your choice of career. No doubt, it seems curious for a botanophobe to have chosen a career where he might have to deal extensively with plants. How did your phobia affect your decision to become a landscape architect?
I did raise the issue of my botanophobia with a university course adviser before finally deciding to study landscape. Her advice was that landscape architecture is much more than just plants and so I should be fine. So far that’s been true. I’ve always been more interested in the other aspects of landscape architecture, rather than simply planting arrangements or horticulture. Of course that’s not to say that plants aren’t important to the way I design. The more I dig into landscape architecture, the more interested I become in how plants can really change the perception of spaces.

Botanophobia rarely gets in the way of my work or study, for now at least.

Having said that, there are only a small handful of plants we see daily (in Victoria) that I would really avoid having any physical contact with. Plants are great, just not the scary ones!

I must say, you do seem to entertain a certain sense of humour about your situation.
It’s not funny, it’s a real fear, but I guess, I can see why other people looking in might find it slightly amusing. Maybe its part of my defensive mechanism, my strategy for dealing with it. You have to keep a sense of humour, even in the worst of situations.

In reality, how much do you think your phobia affects your everyday living. Is it a fear that you encounter daily? Weekly? Much more rarely?
It affects me daily but to varying extents. I certainly have to dodge particular plants every now and then when I’m out walking on the streets, especially where I am in China because it’s subtropical. But (thank god) I rarely have to get physically close to them. When I was a student and working in a kitchen, I had issues with the leafy vegetables and had to lie to my boss, telling him I was allergic to them. Even now my partner always has to grab the lettuce in the supermarket and slice it up before I can have anything to do with it.

Large, tropical species aside, how do you feel about plants? Do you keep them around your home or have have a favourite variety of plant? Even a pet plant?
I do enjoy plants, especially if they are small-leaved and fragrant. I keep some thyme in my Melbourne home – it was my first go at growing something edible myself. Lettuce would be too large for me sadly, although I can eat it if it’s shredded.

You split your time between China and Australia – do you have a preference in terms of plant life? Compared to China, I imagine Australia would be a botanical paradise for you?
Yes, I’d have to say that, so far, China is significantly worse. It’s subtropical where I am and there are many more big-leaved plants, whereas Melbourne is significantly cooler and far less humid so the plant life, the leaves, tend to be much smaller, drier. I also really miss the gum trees back in Oz, and I ain’t scared of them!