Archive for May 17th, 2008

This Started Off a Brief Nothing and Turned into an Epic

May 17, 2008 @ 8:24 pm | Filed under: ,

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.