Favorite Things

Rhea Van Atta and her family of plants

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Rhea Van Atta, owner of the Old Town General Store, is in her element when Michigan’s summer sun starts to shine bright and colors start cropping up across the state. Here’s what the entrepreneurial green thumb had to say about her favorite “thing.”

My favorite things are plants. Indoor plants, outdoor plants, plants from all growing zones and conditions. They symbolize life on this planet: no plants, no life.

They give me hope, happiness, food, beauty, air and an escape. They help occupy my hands while my mind wanders off to contemplate other concerns. Anyone who knows me knows how important it is for me to be surrounded by my leafy friends. Literally every window in my house is covered with them.

It all started with my Lola (grandmother in Tagalog). She traveled from the Philippines in the summer of 1979 to visit our family when we lived on West Thomas Street, off Turner Road. She took one look at our home and thought it was boring and stark and asked me to take her to a plant store. I had just learned to drive but managed to safely take her to Frank’s Nursery and we chose some plants to bring home. Of course, we could only afford the smaller plants but they did the trick — they grow!

My love for plants started that summer. I suppose it was a way to keep my beloved Lola in my midst even after she returned to the Philippines. I wouldn’t see her again until 1990. To this day, it is my tribute to her. Gardening and maintaining my houseplants have become my therapy.

Fast forward; I studied plants on my own and landed a job taking care of houseplants in office buildings. It was social and physical, plus I got to make plants pretty and keep them healthy. It was perfect. The clients called me the “Plant Doctor” because I brought home the sick ones and made it my goal to nurse them back to a healthy existence. I was pretty good at it. A few of the plants didn’t make it, but they didn’t die in vain. I learned from these failures.

Few more years later, I ended up working at a garden center and that opened my eyes to even more plant possibilities. Bonsai, orchids, perennials, annuals and exotic tropical plants — there was so much to take in. I collected, planted and even took plants out of the dumpster or compost pile just to give them a second chance at life. It was much like taking in a stray.

Over the years, my collection has grown. I propagate them and love to share them with my friends. I love that most of my plants, indoors and out, have a story. Recently, a friend of mine lost his mother. He wondered if I still had the begonia, the one he gave me when she went into a nursing home. Of course, I did, and he will get a split from it soon. 

I can walk around the yard and tell you where a particular plant came from or which of my or my friend’s pet is buried under it. The placenta from the birth of my friend’s child is underneath a beautiful serviceberry tree and my parents’ ashes are underneath the redbud. I could go on.

Plants help keep many of my memories alive through their life and vigor. To me, plants have a language. They communicate but you have to learn their language and listen. 

(This interview was edited and condensed by Rich Tupica.)

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