February 1, 2011

The Huddled Masses

They are camped out around my home, at least 80 refugees, far from their subtropical origins, gathered by windows and leaning toward a feeble sun for sustenance. They huddle together to preserve precious water in a house where the humidity is in single digits.
What we do to our houseplants. We take growing things whose ancestors never experienced a frost and transport them to environments where, for six months of the year, all that separates them from death by frozen capillaries is a pane of glass. And all this for…. What?

There are more that 80 houseplants
in my home, clustered around
windows.  Here are 15 of them.
Why do we have houseplants? I typed that question into Google, ordinarily a bastion of reason and well-marshaled information. The first response was a query right back at me: ‘How can I get rid of gnats?’ Not ready for a Socratic dialog so early in the morning, I declined to provide an answer. Five pages of scrolling later, I had not found any erudite answers from horticulturally-inclined sociologists, although I uncovered an online survey indicating that our 80+ population of plants puts us dangerously outside the bell curve (the average number is five).

And so, I am left to come up with my own answers. The first one is obvious: they’re green and they sometimes flower. It’s February in New England. There is more than two feet of snow on the ground. Who wouldn’t want to have something nearby that reminded us that winter is not a permanent condition?

Another answer is that houseplants are undemanding. Water them once a week. Check them for insects (including, yes, gnats). Re-pot them once a year. Compared to a pet, they’re self-sufficient. My aunt kept a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) in a darkened hallway that, to the best of my knowledge, was never watered, only dusted occasionally. It lived for decades.

Plants can surprise you. My wife received a lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus ‘Rigel”) as part of a plant challenge. She nurtured it for three months but, once the challenge was over, put it in a plant rack where it was promptly forgotten about. This winter, it has started flowering. Not spectacularly and not prolifically. But every week another bright red bloom appears.

Plants also respond to pampering. I cannot walk by a display of orchids without pouting like a six-year-old that “I want one”. And so our home is filled with dendrobium and phalaenopsis specimens. They bloom for several months, then the flowers wilt and the stems turn brown. The plants go onto a lower rack away from the prime sun locations. Then, one day something magical happens: a new stem forms and, over the course of a month, bud nodes appear. The orchid gets tender, loving care: swabbed with alcohol to rid it of pests and placed in a location with perfect, filtered light. A few weeks later, the flowers begin to open.

Neomarica's blooms last just one
day and the plant does nothing
but take up space 50 weeks of the year.
But those two weeks of flowers
make up for the freeloading.
Finally, plants get to become family. Last month I wrote about a cyclamen that has been around so long it is practically a family retainer. Our various bougainvillea have been in residence for so many years that I can predict their flowering cycles to within a few days. As this is written, the buds are starting to swell on our walking iris (neomarica), a plant that freeloads around the house for 50 weeks each year before earning its keep in a spectacular succession of blooms, each lasting just a single day.

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