February 1, 2017

The Huddled Masses, Leaning Toward the Sun

They are camped out around our home, unwilling refugees, far from their tropical and 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. 
With its east and south-facing windows, our library
is a favored spot for wintering houseplants

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?
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 responses from horticulturally-inclined sociologists, although I uncovered an online survey indicating that our home’s houseplant population puts us dangerously outside the bell curve (the average number is five).
One of our 'guest' orchids.  It hogs
two windows in my office
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.  The world outside my window this week is relentlessly brown. Who wouldn’t want to have something nearby that reminded us that winter is not some Game-of-Thrones-style 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 your average 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.
A wintering bougainvillea and an
array of plants in Betty's office.
A third answer is that houseplants are your friends.  We have deployed a small army of Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) around our home.  They not only produce a handsome, long-lived flower, but they also cleanse the air of multiple toxins.  Many other houseplants perform similar functions.
Plants can surprise you. We have friends who have decamped for South America for a lengthy vacation.  We agreed to ‘babysit’ two of their orchids.  Our friends arrived for dinner in late December bearing the two biggest plants I have seen outside a botanical garden.  For two weeks, those orchids simply occupied space in our home; one of them hogging an entire twin set of casement windows.  They were nothing but greenery.  Then, one morning two weeks into our plant-sitting exercise, we awakened to find our guests in spectacular blooms of pink and white.  They’re still brightening our home and are welcome to stay as long as they wish.
This croton has been
with us for two
Finally, plants get to become family. We have two wonderfully colorful crotons that has been around so long they are practically family retainers.  Our various bougainvillea have been in residence for so many years that I can predict their flowering cycles to within a few days. Betty was given a ‘bunny ears’ cactus (Opuntia microdasys) almost a decade ago.  Every year, it rewarded us with a new ‘ear’, growing like an oblong floor of an oddly-shaped building.  When the cactus broke over under its own weight, Betty thought it might be a goner.  Instead, the area from which it broke produced two ears, each of which is now happily adding to the plant’s bulk.

So, why do we have houseplants?  I think it’s because they’re a year-round reminder that, no matter our station in life, we all ultimately came from the land.  A few generations ago, our forebears farmed to survive.  Today, we exchange our labor for money and, if we ‘farm’ at all, we call it ‘gardening’ and we do it for pleasure.  In short, houseplants keep us rooted.

1 comment:

  1. Houseplants are my friends. I have several mini-orchids on the window ledge in my office and it makes me happy to turn and see them waving their jaunty blooms at me.