Plants Your Cat Can Eat (If They Must)

I currently reside with two well-mannered, delightfully polite felines. They wash their faces after every meal. They never kick the litter out of the pan. They tastefully decline from chewing cords, scratching the furniture, or sampling my plants.

And then there’s this gremlin.

Pictured: Empress Philippa Georgiou, my cross-eyed lynx-point Siamese goblin pet.

Pippa (for short) chews everything. Cords, bedding, pens, junk mail, important mail, books, people, plants. Especially plants. Especially the plants that are not especially for her. (Cat grass and catnip? meh.)

Pippa even chews plants that are supposed to deter cats from chewing, like cactus. Not gentle cactus like Christmas cactuses. I have caught her chewing cactus with actual spines, like pitahaya (aka dragonfruit cactus). She once ate an entire lemon balm plant.

Filling my house with “plants cats won’t chew” isn’t an option with Pippa around. Instead, I needed plants that cats can chew without needing a rush trip to the emergency vet.

So far, my “plants Pippa may chew (if she must)” include:

Image: A red and gold Gerbera daisy in an orange pot.

Gerbera Daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)

Also known the African daisy, Barberton daisy, or Transvaal daisy, Gerbera daisies are perennials in USDA Zones 8-10. Elsewhere, they can be grown outdoors as annuals or indoors as potted plants. They like full sun but not intense heat, and they demand plenty of water. They also come in a variety of colors.

Gerbera daises are related to asters, another flowering plant that’s generally considered safe for cats, dogs, and horses. Mine is free of inquisitive teeth marks because I put it on a high shelf the moment I got it home – one of the rare times I managed to sneak a plant in without Pippa investigating immediately.

Image: A bronze Venus fern in a green pot.

Bronze Venus Fern (Adiantum hispidulum)

Also known as a rough maidenhair fern. These plants like not too much of anything – not too much sunlight, not too much water, not too much freezing (a light frost is okay). They’ll live happily outdoors in USDA Zone 9a and warmer, but the rest of us keep them as houseplants.

Maidenhair ferns are often sold as easy to care for plants for houseplant beginners. I have my doubts. Because they’re so fond of moderation in all things, maidenhair ferns generally won’t tolerate low humidity (far more common when a houseplant lives solo) or an erratic watering schedule. If you opt for a maidenhair fern variety as a beginner, get it a friend or two, and set yourself a repeating calendar reminder to water the plant family.

Yes, mine is in two pots. The outer pot has no drainage holes, but it’s a lot prettier than the inner pot. This setup gives the plant proper drainage without forcing me to look at the plastic pot.

Image: A Boston fern/green fantasy fern in an orange pot.

Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

Aka a sword fern. I’ve also seen this little friend called a “green fantasy fern.” I’m not sure if that’s simply an alternate name, or the name of a particular variety of Boston fern. Anyway, these plants are native to central and south America. I’m American, so I’m bad at geography, but I’m pretty sure that part of the planet is nowhere near Boston.

Boston ferns are also frequently touted as “low maintenance” and “great for beginners.” If I had to choose, I’d recommend one of these over a maidenhair fern. Boston ferns have the same high humidity demands as a maidenhair fern, but they are more tolerant of an occasional ghosting by the watering can. Boston ferns trust you. They know you’re good for it. (Don’t let them down.)

Image: Pippa, my resident plant gremlin, checks on my newly-acquired Boston fern.

About the only thing Pippa likes more than chewing plants is being the center of attention. I knew I’d only get to photograph plants for so long before receiving the benefit of her assistance.

Image: Two small spider plants in a gray pot.

Spider Plant (Chlorophytum cosmosum)

The good news: Spider plants are safe for cats, are very difficult to kill through neglect, and will happily grow in low-light areas. They especially like offices and bathrooms with one small, sad window.

The bad news: Cats tend to be obsessed with spider plants.

Before Pippa, I had a tuxedo cat named Fizzgig and a spider plant overflowing a 12-inch pot. Over the course of about four years, Fizzgig killed that spider plant through constant obsession.

One day, I caught him sneaking away with an entire plantlet in his mouth. He made eye contact with me and started running. On the way, he dropped the plantlet – and he turned back to get it rather than leave it behind. The plantlet did not survive Fizzgig’s fierce love (or teeth).

Image: A lynx-point Siamese cat taste-testing a spider plant.

Even cats that don’t normally take an interest in plants will chew on spider plants. I recommend hanging these in baskets, out of a cat’s reach, as soon as they’re large enough. Feel free to stick them outdoors after all danger of frost has passed – as long as your neighborhood isn’t overflowing with cats.

Image: A columnea plant in a brown pot.

Lipstick plant (Columnea hirta)

This plant’s common names include “lipstick plant” and “goldfish plant,” because its tubular red flowers look like lipstick tubes or like leaping carp. Several other unrelated plants also go by the name “lipstick plant” or “goldfish plant,” however, and some of those are indeed poisonous to pets. For best results, shop for this one by its Latin name, Columnea hirta.

Columnea hirta is native to Costa Rica. It prefers extremely well-drained soil and at least some protection from direct sunlight. Mature plants, which this one is not, grow trailing stems that do well in hanging pots.

Columnea hirta is generally considered safe for pets, but it is mildly toxic to humans. This is a good plant to keep out of reach of babies and toddlers until they’re past the “I shall taste test THE WORLD” stage.

Pippa-Unapproved Plants

A list of plants I didn’t know Pippa had taste-tested until I found the greenery barfed up somewhere in the house. Based on these results, I’ve put these plants in the “not for cats” category and stowed them out of the pets’ reach accordingly.

Golden Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), aka “devil’s ivy” or “devil’s vine.” There are dozens of pothos varieties; this is one of the most common. Until proven otherwise, I’ve decided to keep all pothos out of Pippa’s reach.

Nerve Plant (Fittonia albevenis). I’m lowkey obsessed with nerve plant, which pulls a fainting-goat routine whenever it is mildly inconvenienced. I currently have nerve plants in multiple varieties (white, pink, and red), all of which are stashed in no-Pippa zones.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). I grew up hearing poinsettias were highly poisonous. It turns out they’re not particularly dangerous to people or pets. Eating too much of one can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, however, as demonstrated by the soggy clump of it I got stuck to my sock two Christmases ago. No poinsettias for Pippas.

False shamrock (Oxalis triangularis). Finally, a plant Pippa didn’t have to barf for me to learn my lesson. Rather, she stole the leaves off an entire bulb. I buried the false shamrock pot behind the Christmas cactus, where the plant is, fortunately, making a comeback.

Image: Blog post title image featuring two cats and houseplants, plus the post title and URL.

Honorable Mention: Peperomia

The spines on Christmas cactus, dragonfruit cactus, and haworthia didn’t deter Pippa’s questing teeth. Neither did the intense lemon flavor of lemon balm.

The one plant that does seem to turn her off? Peperomia, also known as radiator plant. She’s taken a few tastes, but each time she backs off, shaking her head like she’s just eaten a stinkbug (again). Peperomia are generally considered cat-safe, too. Perhaps I’ve finally found the best of all possible plants.


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Music Theory “Allowed” This Abomination and It Will Allow Yours

One of the most common questions I get from the composition-curious is “I want to do [insert melody, chord progression, etc. here], does music theory allow that?”

The short answer is always Yes.

Music theory isn’t prescriptive. It doesn’t tell you what you can and can’t do.

Music theory is descriptive. It takes existing music and tries to explain how it’s put together.

Some music is less complicated to explain. Some is more complicated to explain. Sometimes more than one explanation is available. But the music comes first; the explanation comes later.

For example, consider the worst song ever written. I’ll add a lead sheet here so we can all look at the same thing:

(This lead sheet is from Michael Kravchuk.)

By using this particular lead sheet, I don’t intend to imply this particular lead sheet/arrangement is a bad one. In fact, I chose this one because this is a good lead sheet for “Happy Birthday.”

My point is that even a good notation of “Happy Birthday” (as this one is) can’t save this abomination of a song, and music theory is powerless against it.

So. This…thing.

First things first: It doesn’t start on do (as in “donut”), aka the “tonic,” aka the “root,” aka “that one note everyone agrees should end and usually begin a song even if everyone sings like an owl trapped in a bucket.” Your ear knows what the root is even if your vocabulary doesn’t.

Here, the root is G. We know this from the key signature, which in this case is a single hashtag that has wandered away from Twitter:

Here, G is the note the song ends on, which you know if you’ve ever sung this thing in a bucket of owls. You know when the tune is over even if you know nothing else.

Sleeping through harmony class

The first chord in “Happy Birthday” is the root chord, aka “I.” The root chord, or I, is the chord whose lowest note (usually) is the root note, or “do,” or the “tonic” (it has a lot of names).

Here, we know the first chord is I because the music tells us so by putting the note name of the chord over the staff:

The G major chord is made of the notes G, B, and D. “Happy Birthday” starts on D, so that’s nice at least. But “birth” is sung on E, which isn’t even in the chord. So you’ll hear the root note but you won’t sing it, which is a terrible choice to make when writing a tune to be sung by people who usually avoid singing.

Musicology Moment: E is the relative minor of G, so your ear hears a relationship between the G in the chord and the E you’re singing even if it doesn’t appear on paper. The fact that this song invokes its own sad dark-sounding minor while pretending to be in a nice bright happy major key is called “foreshadowing.” It warns us just how painful this “music” will actually be.

The root is in the hole and the hole is in the ground and SO IS MY CORPSE

Most simple well-known tunes begin on the root. “When the Saints Go Marching In” begins on the root, for instance. So does “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” So does “Frere Jacques.” So does “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” aka “The Alphabet Song.”

Simple well-known tunes that don’t begin on the root usually get there pretty quickly. Also, they usually get there in a way that makes sense with the lyrics. “Hot Cross Buns” gets to the root on the third note, which is also the last word of the first phrase (“buns”). (Insert “buns” joke here.)

The chorus of “Jingle Bells” takes a little longer to get to the root. But the journey makes sense with the lyrics. “Jingle bells” and “jingle bells” are all on the same note. The third “jingle” repeats that note but adds a new one, to signal that the next word isn’t “bells.” The next word, “all,” is a brand new word – and it’s also the one sung on the root note. So the tune gets more interesting as the words do. That’s what makes “Jingle Bells” both easy to sing and easy to remember. (Sorry, parents of five year olds.)

In both “Hot Cross Buns” and “Jingle Bells,” the root is also the lowest note in terms of pitch. This is good. The ear likes the root to be the lowest note. This is why we call it the root.

When you’re writing a tune to go with words, your audience will like the result better if the tune makes sense with the lyrics in some way. So of course “Happy Birthday” does not.

Great expectations…disappointing results

“Happy Birthday” starts on sol, aka the “dominant,” aka the “5th.” (In the lead sheet above, the root is G, so the dominant is D. If the root was C, the dominant would be G. Google “tetrachords” if you want to understand why.)

Starting on sol isn’t so bad by itself. After the root, the dominant is the easiest for the human ear to pick out. The ear loves it some movement between the 5th and the root, especially at the end of a song. (More on this later.)

Make it make sense

But even though the human ear loves it some do-sol slash 1-5 relationships, it also wants them to make sense. As you know if you’ve ever heard a toddler bang on a piano, the difference between music and noise is order.

In “Happy Birthday,” is the root easy to find? Is it somewhere below the beginning note? Is it placed on a word where it makes sense, like the first or last word of a new phrase? Is it, in other words, in some order?

Of course not.

ell oh ell, as the youths say

The first instance of the root note, G, is on “to.”

In the middle of a phrase. A phrase where the concepts “happy,” “birthday,” and “you” are all more important than the preposition “to.” In fact, if you were to say “happy birthday you,” the birthday person would still understand what you meant!

Does your ear even realize this is the root? Maybe, but let’s be honest, probably not, because it’s floating around in the air a whole perfect 4th above that D we all started on.

Well, not everyone comes out of the corner swinging. Let’s try this again. In fact, let’s sing the exact same phrase a second time, just so we’re all on the same pa-

oh.

wait.

never mind.

Repetition makes sense, and we can’t have that

The second “Happy Birthday to you” has the same words, sure. But it doesn’t have the same melody. And just because birthdays are for crying, it’s not on the same chord, either.

Electrocuted with a frayed chord

The root chord, or the one with the root note at its bottom, is also known as I (that’s Roman Numeral I to you). The dominant chord, or the one with the fifth at its bottom, is also known as V (pronounced “five”).

I-V (“one-five”) is a pretty common chord progression. It’s the start of a I-V-vii-IV (“one-five-six minor-four”) progression, which is ridiculously popular in US music, across several genres.

Our ears dig that groovy vibe. More importantly for a song everyone is forced to sing several times a year, our ears know that groovy vibe.

I knew you were trouble when you plonked in

So does “Happy Birthday” give us that groovy vibe we dig so well?

NOT QUITE, BIRTHDAY MOPS.

Because this isn’t, strictly speaking, a V chord. It’s V7.

“So, what, like V-8 without the tomato juice?” I imagine you’re asking, even though you’re probably asking something much less silly.

A standard good old-fashioned chord is built by starting on whatever note the chord is named for and skipping every other letter (give or take) until you have three notes.

In the case of D, we start on D, skip E, add F (actually here it’s F# because this is D major but let’s just keep moving, this song isn’t going to trash itself), skip G, and add A.

If we numbered all this, we’d start on 1, skip 2, add 3, skip 4, and add 5.

A seventh chord takes one more skip and adds the seventh note up. For D major, that’s adding E.

Seventh chords are very popular, but for an unpopular reason. They’re popular because they add dissonance, or that sense that something isn’t quite right.

Musicology Moment: A regular chord is a good old friend you always invite to sleepovers. A seventh chord is that friend’s wild and untrustworthy cousin who is probably going to get you all into trouble, but at least you’ll have a wild middle-grade novel adventure along the way.

In any other standard folk song intended to be easy to remember and sing, I-V would make total sense. But this is “Happy Birthday,” a song everyone needs to sing at least once a year. So let’s just slap in that troublemaker 7th chord. It’s fine, the birthday child is not actually on fire.

Yet.

And then things get weird

Here’s the thing about 7th chords: They’re actually kind of a pain to play.

That’s because a proper 7th chord requires four notes, and four notes can be hard to squeeze out on some instruments.

Whether they’re easy for you on a piano depends entirely on the size of your hands. I have wee pixie fingers that haven’t grown since I was in fifth grade. The proper 7th chord on piano is my mortal enemy.

Why you little….

Fortunately for us digit-length-impaired individuals, there are many ways to fake a 7th chord. One of the easiest, when you’re going from I to V7, is to play I again but move the middle note from 3 to 4.

In this case, I’d play that G chord: G-B-D.

Then I’d move my middle finger a bit and play G-C-D.

It’s a lot faster and easier than moving my baby fingers of fury from G-B-D to D-F#-A-C. Trust me.

There is an impostor among us

In this hot mess of a “song,” however, there’s just one problem: G-C-D isn’t officially a D7 chord.

In fact, it’s not a D chord at all. It’s what we call a “sustained” chord. This one starts on G, so it’s G sustained, or Gsus (sometimes Gsus4).

Musicology Moment: Sus chords are so named because they are impostors – they are a type of I chord masquerading as a type of V chord. This is not true, but now you will never forget it.

So the options here are trainwreck the fingers or fake a task and hope no one notices. (You’ll notice I chose to vent.) Happy birthday to you indeed.

Oh, and why do we need that D-related chord at all? Because the first “you” ends on F# and the second “to” jumps to A, so that the second “you” can find the root note like we’ve been begging this song to do since it began.

If you’re even more confused now, you’re doing it right

“But wait,” I hear you say. “If that D7 chord is there to accommodate the F# and the A, why is it a D7 chord? There is no C? Which is the thing the D7 chord has that the D chord didn’t? In fact I don’t see a C in the first two lines at all? What is going on?”

Congratulations! You are now better at music than this song is.

The third “happy” lets us stay on that nice solid I chord. It feels like a victory. It is in fact a false sense of security intended to lull us into complaisance – sure, I’ll finish the song, how bad can it be? – before presenting us with the worst thing that can possibly happen to non-singers:

The leap between “happy” and “birth” is an entire octave.

I hope you didn’t come here to sing

Octave jumps are easy to hear but hard to sing. “Over the Rainbow” was an instant hit the moment Judy Garland went for that octave leap between “some” and “where” and absolutely nailed it.

And “Over the Rainbow” had the decency to start on the root note. “Happy Birthday” thinks you should just jump between sol and sol. Go on, it’s fine. It’s not like you’ll ever need to sing this twice, right?

All music theory can do is watch this happen

We switch chords again on the hapless birthday person’s name. But not back to D, even though there’s a big fat happy F# just sitting there waiting for us. Nope, we’re going to C, which in this case is the IV chord.

Do you see an F# in there? No, you don’t. Because there isn’t one.

I, V, and IV are in basically every song Western music has produced since the days of rugged manly wigs, heels, and silk stockings. But not like this. Dear God, not like this.

Somehow you’re also supposed to squeeze that IV out above I, even though your fingers are also trying to hold that E for as long as the piano’s sustain pedal will allow. Don’t ask me. I didn’t write it.

Maybe it sounds better upside-down

The next super exciting chord change is marked “G/D.”

Anyone want to guess? No? Isn’t music fun?

Lead sheets, aka “fake books,” often use the / to indicate an inversion.

Musicology Moment: Despite what those nice circus recruiters told you in high school, chord inversions are not actually easier to play upside-down.

Remember our nice solid ordinary chord, which is made up of the note the chord is named for, the third, and the fifth?

G major

An inversion is the same three notes, but it moves one or both of the bottom two up an octave to sit above the others.

Here, G is where we’re going to start: G-B-D. D is the note that wants to be on the bottom. So we’ll spread the fingers out a bit and grab D-G-B instead. (This is a second inversion, for those of you with dreams of appearing on Jeopardy! one day.)

Is this easy to get to from C? Eh. It’s not rocket surgery.

The worst part is that D-G-B tends to emphasize D, while the whole thing is sitting over a B. At least that B is in the melody.

Also, that G in the middle of the chord? You’re going to need that for the second note. While you’re already plonking it for the chord.

Unless you’re not, because you’re already getting ready to hit that next chord, which is D-F#-A-C if you’re feeling proper and you probably are because you’re pretty much already right there.

…Wait, did this song almost do something right?

No. No, it did not. Enjoy your one beat of D7 before you scramble back down to An Actual G Chord. I’d skip the whole thing if I were you.

Finally, the root note, “do,” the one note we’ve been looking for the whole time thank you it is finally over thank you.

There is a God.

Musicians do not get paid enough.

What was the point of all this?

Music theory did not prevent this abomination from becoming possibly the best-known, and certainly the most-often-sung, song of all time.

Music theory could not prevent this.

Believe me, music theory wanted to.

Music theory dreams of the day it can yeet this abomination into the ocean and produce a birthday song that is actually singable – maybe something that sticks neatly to do-re-mi-fa-sol and only uses real live I and V chords, in a neat pattern even the most deeply embucketed owl can sing.

Alas, that day will never come, for music theory can do nothing. Music theory can only describe what it sees. Even when what it sees is…this.

Now go compose something.

If this mess can become the world’s best-known song, imagine what your music can do.


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Life in the After

I tried to avoid splitting my life into “before” the crash and “after” the crash. It seemed facile and dramatic. But it’s also accurate: My life changed irrevocably on March 22, 2021, and even the things I can get back I will never get back in the same way. I am a different person now, and I still don’t know exactly who that person is.

Some things I have discovered in the four and a half months since:

Image: Blog post title and URL on a background featuring a green seedling emerging from soil.

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