(I wrote much of this last week, didn’t post it, and then the air quality improved. I went on an hour-long ramble yesterday evening and it felt marvelous. But today: hazy skies and burning throats again.)
The air quality is terrible here in Portland this week: fires in so many directions. We’re stuck indoors and there is a lot of bouncing off the walls going on. Quite literally, in Huck’s case. But all of us, really! I miss my walks. I’m an addict now, that’s become clear. Morning nature walk with the kids; long evening ramble on my own or with Scott or both. How many blossoms are opening and closing while I’m closeted in the cool house, breathing the filtered air?
It’s only been a few days. I’ll survive. 😉 The fires—far away from us but so fierce we’re inhaling them across the miles—the weeks of dry season still ahead. The warming planet, the denialism—the campaign against reality being waged with fearful success in certain quarters. These things are much more concerning than my missed nature walks.
I think sometimes about our friend Tracy, the hospital social worker, telling me all those years ago when Jane was beginning chemo that some parents of patients are ‘monitors’ and some are ‘blockers.’ Monitors feel less anxious when they have lots of information. Blockers feel more anxious by information overload and prefer to leave the in-the-weeds details to the experts. (I was told I’m the most monitory monitor they ever met. This because I was begging—in those pre-Wifi days—medical textbooks so I could fully understand about pluripotent stem cells and what was happening in my baby’s bone marrow.) This distinction wasn’t a value judgment; it was meant to help terrified parents cope with the ordeal: a child with cancer. An awareness of what relieves or inflames your anxiety is powerful knowledge. But I’ve come to believe that being a blocker is only safe if you can utterly trust the experts in question. And the voices who turned climate change into a political issue—framing it as politics instead of a set of facts supported by abundant data—those voices are not trustworthy. We’ve all got to become monitors now.
Oof. Do you know I thought I was coming here to write about sourdough starter? That’s one of the ways we entertained ourselves indoors this morning: we got a starter going two weeks ago, and today* we tested it out on a batch of pancakes. (Too hot to bake bread.) The pancakes were delicious; the starter is strong. Rilla handles most of the care and feeding (and she keeps a log book with daily updates about status and hydration level), and Huck flipped all the pancakes. And Jane…got on a plane and went back to California to start her new job. (Sniffle. No, I’m excited for her, truly!)
*Last Wednesday, that was. From here on is new today, Monday.
Since I can’t spend much time in the garden, I’m obsessing over my houseplants, and they have rewarded me with surprising blooms.
Nearly a year after I bought it, my Aeschynanthus is blooming and I’m over the moon. I used to grow these beauties (commonly called lipstick flower) by the half dozen back in pre-baby days, along with Nematanthus and other gems. We left nearly all our plants behind when we moved to Portland last summer, but a few months after our arrival Scott and I were en route to buy a card table (for jigsaw puzzles) from a Craigslist seller and we passed a Very Large Sign emblazoned with one of the nicest phrases in the English language: PLANT SALE. Of course I had to pop in *just for a look*. It turned out to be the annual sale of the PDX chapter of the Gesneriad Society—an organization I belonged to myself, back in the day. (Some of you longtime readers may recall a post I wrote about that chapter of my life ages ago.) Anyway, I spent five dollars at that plant sale last summer and have been enjoying the trailing foliage of my Aeschynanthus and Nematanthus all year. That five bucks also bought me a Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose), whose pink blossoms made me giddy…while they lasted. I never could keep a Streptocarpus alive.
It was clear the Aeschynanthus was happy with its spot near the east-facing window of my studio—gorgeous, abundant foliage—but no blooms. Until HELLO, suddenly it’s a Revlon commercial in that corner. These flowers are bonkers. And it’s bursting with them. Talk about a makeover!
And then! And then! The very same day I lamented on Instagram that I missed my old goldfish flower (the aforementioned Nematanthus)—we met friends for a drink in the evening, and there was a small nursery next to the alehouse, and GUESS WHAT I FOUND. A bitty little $2.50 goldfish flower in full bloom. Of course I had to adopt it.
What I’m reading:
My Mary Stewart kick continues. Over the weekend I reread Thornyhold (far and away my favorite of her books so far) and Rose Cottage (second fave), and now I’m a couple of chapters into Thunder on the Right (bit of a slow start, but picking up). Many of her books can be had for $1.99 on Kindle at the moment, including Touch Not the Cat (I loved this one), The Ivy Tree (suspenseful, moody), and Madam, Will You Talk?
This Rough Magic is an extra dollar, but it’s Tempest-inspired! Probably #3 in my rankings so far, but I have several other novels to go. Including The Moon-Spinners—remember the Hayley Mills film?
The radiator tragedy and, six months later, Jane’s arrival, put the brakes on my houseplant mania somewhat, but there was still a good bit of greenery filling up the sills and corners of our new, slightly bigger apartment down the block. We even made a field trip to Logee’s Greenhouse, that wonder-of-the-world Becky and I have been discussing in the comments. I remember Scott patiently entertaining a toddling Jane while I explored the rooms and rooms of beauties—though I think I only bought three little bitty cuttings. Oh, brave restraint.
Well, of course you know what happened next, and it’s no surprise that most of my plants perished from neglect the following year. Jane and I lived in the hospital almost nonstop for nine months, and Scott was dashing home from work only long enough to bring in the mail and pick up the car so he could drive out to spend the evenings with us. But in the early months of 1998, with high-dose chemo behind us and Jane’s curls beginning to sprout once more, we had a little renaissance of greenery in the apartment. Jane’s immune system was still almost non-existent and her platelets dangerously low. The playground was forbidden to us, and contact with other toddlers strongly discouraged. For a little while I fretted about my three-year-old living in isolation, even if it was only temporary, in a city apartment with no balcony, no backyard. Then it struck me that if I could not get her outside, I’d have to bring the outside in.
The front room of our apartment had windows on three sides, a small but lovely space with lots of light. I used our small tax refund to transform it to a mini-conservatory/playroom. Low white shelves (the cheap kind from Costco) under all the windows, for toys and puzzles and books. A blue plastic Fisher Price table with two little green chairs, a present from Jane’s aunt and uncle. (This table is still with us: currently residing in our backyard.) In every window, a hanging basket of flowers. Good old gesneriads, blossoming liberally in a warm, dry place. Plants atop every set of shelves: all the flowering varieties I could coax into bloom. It really was a small wonderland. We spent most of our day there, the two of us, or sprawled on the sofa in the next room, reading. Scott would come home to a flat stack of picture books literally as high as the seat of the couch.
We got a hydroponic growing kit and tried our hand at herbs and vegetables. Mostly we raised whiteflies. No matter; I wasn’t cooking much, anyway.
I really loved that little garden. By the time Rose was born the following summer, Jane’s counts were back to reasonable levels and we began, at last, to see our old playmates again. But our sunroom, as we called it, remained a favorite place to play. That was the only part of the apartment I missed when we finally moved to a bigger place with a (gasp) yard in the fall of 1999. We brought all the houseplants with us, of course, but I’ve never been quite the fanatic—nor green thumb—that I was in the apartment years. The garden mania moved outside, of course. Our next move, to Virginia in January of ’02, was the first and only house we’ve owned, i.e. the only place I could really put things in the ground. Here in San Diego, we’ve done most of our outdoor planting in pots.
But there are a few varieties of indoor plants I’ve kept up with, sort of. I mean, we’ve always had, in every house, the standard tropical non-flowering greenery. Ficus (the little one I bought was getting quite big when I said goodbye to it in Virginia); always a prayer plant or rabbit tracks named Thor, long story; Chinese umbrella plant, pothos, ivy, jade tree, peace lily. Homey and forgiving sorts, the lot of them.
But my favorites, the things I don’t like ever to do without, are African violets and scented geraniums. My parents gave me a set of violets for my birthday last year, because I think I enthused about them here on the blog and they are incredibly sweet that way. (Wicked daughter pauses as thoughts of other things she might enthuse about flash through her mind. Ignore me, indugent parents.) I use my mom’s trick of keeping African violets in nearly continuous bloom by breaking Jobe’s Flowering Houseplant Fertilizer Spikes in half and burying a half in each pot. Works with geraniums too, but I only do that for the Martha Washington kind with the big showy blossoms, not the scented varieties where the flowers are rather nondescript and what you really want are the leaves.
So I grow African violets for the color and scented geraniums for the smell. But only a few of each, because somewhere around baby number three I lost my fastidiousness about tending to plants. Now everything green that survives in this house must be able to thrive upon benign neglect. Which is why only one of my birthday violets is in bloom right now. Where’d I put those fertilizer spikes again?
Subtitled: Ah, Aeschynanthus Lobbianus, How I Loved You
Things have changed on my windowsill since I wrote yesterday’s post. I couldn’t find the red plastic cup the other nasturtiums had looked so pretty in, so I filled the cream cow with water and put the new nasturtiums there. They look so cheerful. And an idea struck me and I transplanted the little bulbous cactus into the empty blue-and-white watering-can-shaped miniature flowerpot (it once held a mini African violet). That was probably not the brightest idea, since the flowerpot is a little small for the cactus. But it looks cute.
And then I took a cutting from a geranium in my backyard and started that rooting in a little glass vase, so that’s in the window now too.
Years ago, I used to be a houseplant fanatic. It started in graduate school. I brought a few plants to North Carolina with me, cuttings rooted by my dear auntie in Northern Virginia, whom I visited every couple of weekends during college (undergrad). My mother (this aunt was her older sister) has an amazingly green thumb, and there are gorgeous plants all over the house back home in Colorado. Aunt Genia had the same talent, and her apartment was crammed full of greenery. She couldn’t conceive of sending me off to grad school without a few neatly potted houseplants of my own.
I didn’t know their names, then, beyond the cutesy nicknames I gave them. (Look, Anne of Green Gables did it—surely you remember Bonny the Geranium?—so it was good enough for me.) But a thing about me is that I always, eventually, need to know the names of things. And, if possible, the stories behind the names.
So I scoured the local used book store and found this book, which I have probably read three hundred times over the years, if you add up all the times I’ve pored over a certain page or section. Crockett’s Indoor Garden, and I don’t know that it’s any better than other houseplant books out there, or information now available for free all over the internet, but it was exactly the book I wanted at the time. Of course it awoke a hunger to raise more varieties, grow flowering plants, seek out rare species, learn more about everything, everything, everything.
Moderation is not my strong point.
Budget constraints (read: grad-school poverty) provided their own moderating influence, however. I begged cuttings when I could, bought a few very small, very cheap plants from a corner store, and mostly just read. I learned a lot. I grew African violets from leaf cuttings rooted in sand. I transplanted a four-dollar ficus frequently so that it grew bigger and bigger, almost magically fast. I repotted a hapless gesneriad a dozen times because my cat would keep knocking it over, no matter where I moved it. She was not a very bright cat, but so determined.
The thing about plants is that they grow and multiply, so that even with a tight budget you can fill up a small apartment quite rapidly. At the end of two years I must have had two dozen little plants, and a few big ones. I have an old notebook somewhere with all of them listed by name. After graduation I gave a bunch away (along with my dear kitty, who would not have looked happily upon the new life awaiting me in New York City—gave her to my friend Kelly Link, the now esteemed science fiction writer, if you’re interested) and carted many more up to Queens, where I struggled to find room for them in my tiny apartment.
And then, oh dear, came Weird Things You Can Grow. I was an editorial assistant at Random House Children’s Books, and one of the books my boss was editing was this book. Its target audience was ten-year-olds, but I ate it right up. I wanted to grow every one of those weird things. The way I got to know my way around New York was by trekking uptown and downtown to obscure nurseries and flower shops, on quests for papyrus and string-of-beads and passionflower. I found them, too, a good many of them, and nurtured them on the broad windowsill of my hallway cubicle, an inglorious workspace rendered glorious by the view of the East River, with Queens and Brooklyn sprawling on the other side.
Not every acquisition was a success. Scott gave me a bonsai for my 23rd birthday, and I am sorry to say I failed the bonny wee thing, and it became a dry stick sometime during the first year of our marriage.
What I was best at was gesneriads. You probably know some varieties of this family: lipstick plant and goldfish plant are two common varieties in the indoor section of nurseries. African violets, of course. Cape primrose. Flame violet. Gloxinia. I went mad for them all. Even joined a Gesneriad society in Manhattan. At the monthly meetings I was the only member under 35, and one of perhaps three members under 60.
I joined a couple of houseplant round robins, too, a charming means of correspondence which I suspect has completely died out in the internet age. You added your name to a smallish list of addresses, and people would write long letters about their gesneriads, and send the packet on to the next person on the list, and when it came to you, you eagerly caught up on all the news—Millie’s episcia finally bloomed! what joy!—and shared the latest on your collection. I will now confess for the record that I was just as slow in keeping up my end of that correspondence as I am now at email, and after about three rounds of holding up the queue with my delay, I meekly resigned from the group. I do not think they missed me.
By then I had fifty or sixty plants. In a three-room apartment: I know, it was ridiculous. Scott and I got married, and he moved in, and I wonder now how he put up with it? Card tables in front of every window (we only had three), Aeschynanthus grabbing at his hair every time he walked past the dresser? People don’t know about Scott that he is a little bit of a saint, when it comes to exhibiting tolerance for his wife’s enthusiasms.
And then: tragedy struck. Six months after our marriage, we went away to spend Thanksgiving with his parents. While we were gone, a cold wave hit New York. Our landlady quite naturally cranked up the radiator heat. The radiators were by the windows, directly under the plant tables. My plants—they roasted. Baked. Were smited by the dry and the hot and the vicious desert conditions. Not all of them succumbed; sturdy old devil’s ivy (pothos) scoffed at danger and thrived on oven life. But the gesneriads, oh dear. They were crackly and grey when we returned home. It was a dreadful sight. I had carefully set them up with wicking and capillary mats so they would stay watered in my absence, but those tender measures had been insufficient to save them.
Thus ended my tenure as an amateur gesneriad specialist. The loss would have been much harder to bear had I not, by then, already become captivated by a new enthusiasm, a new subject on which to read obsessively and constantly.
Jane was on the way.
I did not mean for this post to get so out of hand. It has grown like a variegated philodendron under compact florescent lighting. There is more to the story, if it is a story, but my battery is almost dead and I have small Enthusiasms to tuck in bed.