Blk Girls Green House Cultivates a Plant Sanctuary in West Oakland

Blk Girls Green House co-founders Kalkidan Gebreyohannes and J'Maica Roxanne created a plant sanctuary in West Oakland.  (Courtesy of Blk Girls Green House)

Teaching poetry to high school students virtually has its challenges. Kids are having a hard time with their mental health, for starters. So I begin with a check-in question, “If you could be any kind of plant, what would you be and why?” After the initial giggles subside (most students choose marijuana, of course), I get some nuanced answers. Students share their interest in aloe vera and love of lavender. Suddenly, we’re all smelling similar scents, which transport us to distant memories. Now we can write our poems.

People, like plants, deserve rich soil from which to grow. A recent surge in plant collecting, particularly among Black people, might be traced to a desire to invite the natural world into the home space, cultivating vital sanctuary amid the grief and uncertainty of this time.

After Kalkidan Gebreyohannes and J’Maica Roxanne decided to turn their shared passion for plant collecting into a business venture, they began setting the groundwork for Blk Girls Green House. Located at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 32nd Street in West Oakland, the 1500-square-foot, outdoor plant nursery showcases the duo’s talent for interior design, with bursts of emerald leaves surrounding a greenhouse structure that shelters fiddle leaf figs and other trees. It opened in early August, and currently allows shopping for house plants and home goods by appointment.

“Being on MLK is the cherry on top for us,” says Gebreyohannes. “It was important for us to be in our community, amongst our community. Working with our community. It was a perfect fit.”

Blk Girls Green House is Oakland’s only Black women-owned plant nursery. But Black-owned businesses once thrived all over West Oakland. It was the seemingly endless possibilities of 7th Street that drew thousands of African Americans here from the South during the Great Migration. And although no physical bombs dropped on one of the Black Wall Streets of the West Coast, decades of systematically racist policies such as redlining terrorized the strong soil of Black prosperity.

These days, Black women sow seeds of hope for their communities as the fastest-growing group of small business owners in the country. Businesses take time to flourish. Luckily, the two entrepreneurs of Blk Girls Green House know a lot about patience. Caring for plants has taught them how to nurture themselves into the next phase of success. “It’s not overnight,” says Roxanne. “Repot, water, make sure it gets appropriate lighting, clean it, trim it... You get to a point where it’s a beautiful flourishing thing, and oftentimes we don’t give ourselves the same amount of grace.”

The author's Aunt Majorie in her garden in Jamaica. (Maddy Clifford)

I confess that I don’t yet consider myself to be a full-fledged plant mom, but I have high hopes. What I've started to realize is how important plants are to my mental health and the mental health of women in my family. I used to believe it was the intoxicating music that gave me a sense of grace on my yearly trips to Jamaica. But when I close my eyes to reminisce, I see my Aunt Majorie’s yard blooming with flowers. She also runs a small shop in her front yard, using the orchids, hibiscus flowers and partridge peas to draw customers in.

Sometimes I wish I had her green thumb. Other times, I wonder, as I smile at the birds of paradise bush blooming in my Oakland backyard, if these are the “tropics” that Claude McCay so eloquently wrote about in his poetry? Did my late father ever see plants from his birth country and cry as a “wave of longing,” as McCay described it, crept through his body? Plants are decorative, yes, but they can also transport us in a seemingly magical way.

I often wonder what plant knowledge was brought by African Americans, many former sharecroppers and experienced farmers from the South, as they made the historic journey to the Northern and Western states? And how can Black Americans overall, whether newcomers, second generation or those with Southern roots, cultivate the mental health benefits of creating plant sanctuaries in their home spaces?

Blk Girls Green House may be answering these questions and more. Though the shop is just sprouting, the journey isn’t about instant gratification.

“My mom...I would see her talking to plants, singing to plants,” remarks Gebreyohannes. “I thought she was crazy. Now here I am, cheering it on when I see a new leaf like ‘Yay! You’re growing.’”

Sponsored

Blk Girls Green House is located at 3261 Martin Luther King Jr. Way and is open Friday–Sunday by appointment. Supporters are also invited to donate supplies like fans or thermostats to keep the plants healthy during winter months. Details here