January 9, 2013

Tough Love

The jasmine plant in our master bathroom right has started to flower.  For the next two months, it will offer an olfactory hint of perfumed, Southern evenings in addition to its considerable visual charms.

By all rights, it ought to be dead.

In December 2011, we ordered a jasmine plant from White Flower Farm (I wrote about it here).  Common in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, Jasminum polyanthum is a semitropical vine, hardy to Zone 8.  Up here in the frozen north, it can only be grown as an indoor specimen.

Jasminum polyanthum.  A great winter
bloomer indoors
Our vine arrived beautifully planted in a hanging pot, rife with buds, and ready to be sat in a sunny but cool room to do its thing.  And, it did very well through its typical bloom period of January and February.  We enjoyed it every day.

I am well aware that many people purchase plants strictly because they are in bloom and, once that bloom is past, the plant becomes, well, expendable.  In my book, people can do with their houseplant what they want.  Plants, after all, are not puppies or kittens.  But around our home, there are no such things as ‘disposable’ houseplants.  Once a plant has entered our home, we do – within reason – whatever it takes to keep the plant healthy and happy for the long term.  Part of this is Yankee thrift; mostly, it is a belief that growing things indoors in winter is good practice for growing them outdoors in summer.

But White Flower Farm’s use and care booklet seemed to do everything in its power to scare off would-be jasmine farmers.  The instructions included ones like these: “To encourage the formation of flower buds for next winter, be sure your plant experiences the cooler temperatures and shorter days of early autumn. The plant needs 4-5 weeks of nighttime temperatures between 40° and 50°F, plenty of sunlight and the complete absence of artificial light after sundown.”

Once jasmine has finished its bloom,
it's a fairly dull vine
A few months ago, I asked Barbara Pierson, White Flower Farm’s greenhouse manager, why she offered such complex advice about plant care.  Her response was quite charitable:  “Most people need reassurance about what to do, and so we go into great detail about how to care for their plant.”

I suspect that most people who ordered jasmine plants in December 2011 put them out on their deck the following spring and then forgot about them.  There is nothing especially attractive about a jasmine plant that is not in bloom.  When that first frost hit in October, the plants were likely chucked out with the coleus and petunias.

We kept our plant in our screened, covered porch through the summer and brought it in with the rest of the houseplants in mid-September.  I was struggling with the question of where we could guarantee that the plant received that ‘complete absence of artificial light’ when it dawned on me that our basement, while not perfect, fulfilled most of the requirements.  It has a full bank of half-height windows and a fairly constant 55 degrees.  It gets artificial lights only when I journey into the basement for something.  We overwinter a number of plants there, including cyclamen, bougainvillea and aquatics. The jasmine fit right in.  From October through January we watered it sparingly but otherwise left it alone.

Off in a corner of the
basement: a jasmine flower
Then, this past weekend, I was in the basement to get wine, and happened to notice something white:  it was a jasmine flower.  Moreover, the plant was nicely covered with buds and a host of new tendrils were searching for something to grab onto.

The jasmine promptly came upstairs and into that cool bathroom where it will now receive the additional light it needs to promote flowering.

There’s a lesson here for gardeners, and I think it is this:  read the ‘use and care’ booklets that come with plants, but take them as guidance rather than as ‘my way or the highway’ rules.  In short, don’t be afraid to exercise some ‘tough love’ when a plant’s season is over.   

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