January 2, 2018

All Praise the Common Houseplant

All Praise the Common Houseplant

 “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray…”
California Dreaming, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips

The winter of 2017-2018 will be remembered as the one when the leaves forgot to fall from the trees.  It wasn’t the trees’ fault, of course, it was a combination of a too-warm October coupled with copious rain that caused trees to produce too little of the chemical that tells leaves it’s time to decamp for their golden future as compost.  As a result, the view out my window, since early November, has been a sad blend of browns and grays.  Welcome to winter in eastern Massachusetts, a condition that will persist in some variation for the next three months.

Which is why this essay is all about houseplants and why they’re treasured in this household. 

This croton - now more
than a decade old -
tolerates winter's low
sunlight yet provides
glorious color
I grew up with year-round outdoor greenery and flowers.  Nominally, I appreciated that subtropical splendor.  In reality, it was part of a background that I took for granted and too often found inconvenient.  When periodically ordered to cut back the hibiscus hedge or grub out the aracea palms that were spreading into the lawn, I piled imaginary term papers on top of one another as excuses not to sully my hands with such chores (to no avail, of course).

This morning, I marveled at our multiple crotons (formally, Codiaeum variegatum) that provide a rainbow of reds, yellows and greens in each leaf, yet tolerate the weak light of January and February.  Back in Florida, they were just one more thing on my to-do list of plants to be clipped back before they overflowed onto the sun porch. 

There are cultivars of begonias in many rooms, each an adventure to be appreciated.  A Rex Begonia 'Paso Doble’ that bloomed prolifically on our screened porch all summer still provides a wonderful palette of reds and pinks in its leaves as it brightens our bedroom.  How many plants can make that claim?

This Rex Begonia 'Paso Doble' spent
its summer on our screened porch.  It
has made the transition to indoors.
A houseplant need not be exotic, or even in bloom, to provide visual enjoyment.  Ferns occupy ledges and shelves in several rooms.  A single peace lily (Spathiphyllum) received as gift a decade ago has begat dozens of offspring that populate not only our own home but those of friends. They are cheerfully green the year round.  This time of year, their regal white flowers – plain by the standards set by many other plants – are welcome additions to rooms’ color. 

We purchase houseplants that appeal to us.  Some have lofty pedigrees from famous nurseries.  Others are commoners. There is a kalanchoe next to me as this is written. It is one of the most ordinary of houseplants, yet it is budding up in yellow for its umpteenth annual display of winter color atop leather-tough, dark-green leaves.

A simple fern provides a spot of
color amid a gloomy backdrop
A few of our plants are snowbirds.  The cyclamen in our kitchen window spent six months last year planted in our garden, where it strengthened its root system and bulb even as its foliage needed to be shaded from the sun.  Dug in October, it is now in the early stage of a winter bloom of majestic purple.   Thanks to tissue cultures, the availability and variety of orchids has proliferated even as their price has plummeted.  Nor are houseplants necessarily greedy.  Philodendron and cacti seem to thrive with minimal attention (a Sanseveria trifoliate, better known as ‘Mother-in-Law’s tongue’, survived in my Aunt Virginia's house for decades with little more than periodic dusting).

We have more than thirty houseplants this winter, a happy mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary.  There is no rhyme or reason to what we have.  Each plant came to us through serendipity; each remains because it has thrived in our home.

Me, in a warmer clime, avoiding
trimming back the hibiscus
I don’t often offer unsolicited advice, but here is some:  if you're here in New England or some place with a 'real' winter, this weekend, take a trip to a nursery with a selection of blooming houseplants.  If one (or more) strikes your fancy, take it home with you. 

And, if you happen to be reading this from a subtropical climate, stop complaining and go out and trim back the hibiscus like you were told to.