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.

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10 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Andrea says:

    I *LOVED* this post!

    I *also* love reading about plants…sadly, I kill them all. I am a well-read murderer many, MANY times over…

    It’s all in the follow-through, methinks…

  2. Jennifer says:

    I loved it too! My very first job was working in the tropical plant department. I worked there until I became pregnant with Lucy. It’s how I met my husband. I had mealy bugs on my pothos ivy and he gave me an insecticide, Isn’t that romantic?
    Anyway, this was a perfectly delightful way to start my day. 🙂

  3. Sarah N. says:

    I loved reading this. Like Andrea, I have no luck with house plants but I love the idea of a house filled with lovely plants.

  4. Becky says:

    Oh my stars. We must be separated at birth.

    Don’t feel bad about the bonsai. I killed a ponytail palm. Nobody kills a ponytail palm.

    Were your Gesneriad Society meetings on West 77th Street, just across the street from the Museum of Natural History? I was at some meetings, I think from 1990-93. I lived several doors down, in an apartment with a three-tiered light stand (I saved up so I could get the ballasts with four lights), and you could see an unearthly fluorescent purple glow from under the front door!

    I would bring cuttings from my father’s garden in the West Indies, and had a little coffee plant and a tiny lime tree (no limes though). And I spent more than my fair share of my paycheck at Logee’s.

    One winter I decided I wanted to force paperwhites and tulips for spring, and since I had read about the ethylene gas, there were no apples or grapes in my fridge for the duration. Sheer nuttiness…

    My houseplant days ended when I moved here. There was too much to do with the farm, I started learning about what I could plant outdoors, and then the kids started coming. But the old three-tiered stand is still in the basement!

  5. Melissa Wiley says:

    Becky!! We must have just missed each other! I moved to NYC in May of 93, but didn’t join the GS until 94. I loved those member plant sales & cutting swaps!

    Logee’s Greenhouse figures prominently in part two of my plant tale. Actually by 94 I was already siphoning a good bit of my spending money to Logee’s, but when I wrote this post the other day I was almost afraid to mention the name with obligatory link because I haven’t faced that tempting catalog in a long, long time. Oh, the joys of the big cardboard box full of teeny little plantlings wrapped carefully as dynamite!

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    Eek! I went! I am drowning in the flood of Logee’s wonders!

    (My word have their prices gone up since the mid-90s!)

  7. Joann says:

    Loved all the talk about the plants. My boy-who-can-grow-anything will LOVE the weird plant book! He planted a peach pit when he was 5 and this year the tree is loaded! with peaches.
    His purchase of “dead” pointsettias and hydrangeas in mid-January is greening up my front garden. And potato eyes the he “rescued” from the compost heap have sprouted all in my side flower beds. Potatoes make a lovely dark green foilage and cute little flowers as well as the tasty tubers.

  8. Melissa Wiley says:

    Joann, that is too cool about the peach tree and the potatoes. I might have to try the potato trick, just to see the foliage and flowers.

    I used to have lots of little bitty lemon and orange trees around, grown from seed. This was way back in the NYC days and none of them got bigger than a stick. The children’s book LINNEA’S WINDOWSILL GARDEN was a big influence, too. I never had the luck with impatiens indoors that she did, but my avocado and pineapple plants were cute. Oh, and I did her scarlet runner bean trick one year where you tie strings in the window for them to climb, and that was really pretty.