January 3, 2014

Houseplants to the Rescue

There is snow falling heavily outside as this is written.  The wind chill is well below zero and gale-force gusts are forecast overnight.  Inside, though, there’s a date palm in fruit; orchids in bloom; and a croton with splashy red, gold and yellow leaves.

Welcome to winter in my home, where houseplants are king for a season.

One of the greenhouses at
the Lyman Estate
It is, of course, possible to see stunning displays of flowers and greenery in mid-winter.  Here in eastern Massachusetts, Wellesley College has a wonderful complex of greenhouses open to the public as does the Lyman Estate in Waltham.  I'm certain there's a comparable indoor garden near you, whereever you live.  But visiting those indoor gardens requires getting in a car and driving, and the pleasure is just for an hour or so.  By all means, go see those places, but why not stop in at your local garden center on your way home and start your own collection?

That’s what we did several decades ago.  It started with the usual suspects: a hibiscus and a ficus tree.  Then we added a bougainvillea or two.  Or three.  We bought a peace lily (spathiphyllum) which grew and was divided.  Each division doubled in size and was then divided yet again.  Today, we force them on guests. 

Dracaena 'Lemon
Surprise' - one of our
Our houseplants are family; they’ve followed us around the country.  When we move, one car or truck driven by one of us and dedicated to ensuring that every plant arrives undamaged.  Moreover, every houseplant has a history: it came from a road trip to Logee’s in Connecticut or by mail from White Flower Farm.  We bought it at the flower show or it came via a garden club plant swap.  It was a gift from a friend or there was an end-of-season sale at Mahoney’s or Weston Nurseries.

For seven months of the year, our houseplants get fed, watered, re-potted, rotated indoors and out, and generally pampered.  We take such good care of them when the outdoors is filled with blooming things in order to toughen them up for times like these.  From mid-October until the end of April, they will be continually stressed by low light levels, extremely low humidity and drafts.  Moreover, any hint of an insect infestation can send a plant into a quarantine from which there is often no return.

Two of the four
bougainvillea that keep
me company while I work
To me, houseplants are a form of rescue: a lifeline to a world of beauty when the outdoors is inhospitable.  I grew up with tropicals, which perhaps starts to explain my affinity for them as an adult.  I wake up to a cheerful variegated philodendron and a jasmine that is starting its bloom cycle.  We eat breakfast to a collection of succulents that grow in exotic shapes and textures.  I do my work in an office flanked by a pair of bougainvillea that will flower pink and yellow next month. 

By April, we’ll have landscapes of early bulbs to admire. Come May, we’ll all be enchanted by annuals and perennials, more bulbs and flowering trees.  For the next three months, it will be the houseplants that keep me sane.  They continually remind me that, even in New England, gardening is a year-round avocation.

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