February 17, 2019

Inherited Plants Carry Deeper Meaning


Janine Pineo Photo - An aloe plant passed down from the elderly neighbor of a friend continues to grow in 2012.

• By Janine Pineo •

Plants that have a history somehow bring more joy than those picked up on a whim at a flower shop or grocery store.

It always seems to hurt more when they fail, but when they flourish, it’s hard not to trumpet the news.

I’ve acquired a lot of plants from relatives, friends and friends of friends.

There are the rosebushes that belonged to my great-grandmothers, passed along from my grandmother; the fragrant flowering plums my grandfather lovingly planted when I was a kid; the day lilies that came from a neighbor years ago; and the perennials that friends know I will take gladly even though I have no idea where I’ll put them.

Then there are the houseplants.

People give me these things. I should warn them that the chances are really, really big that sooner or later — probably sooner — any houseplant I own will die.

My grandmother and a friend gave me flowering maples, one a lovely pink, the other an apricot shade. Both now are dead.

Dwarf orange tree. Gone.

Dieffenbachia. Departed.

African violet. Compost.

It can be depressing, all these failures. I’ve had dozens of houseplants over the years. Now there are nine, and two of those are on shaky ground.

But I have hope.

It comes in the shape of an Aloe vera plant. Actually I have two, but this newer one belonged to the elderly friend of a co-worker. This friend moved a couple of years ago and was giving away plants, one being this small aloe in an old plastic pot with crusty old dirt. The plant was healthy, so I kept it in its pot and dirt.

Until October, that is, when I decided to repot my houseplants before winter set in. I didn’t know if this would kill any of them, I just did it. Then I gave them all showers, but that’s another story.

One aloe repotted beautifully; the newer addition didn’t.

I pried and pounded at the dirt, before I took a knife to it. After much prodding, some chunks fell out along with a pitiful stub of aloe plant, not a sign of a root of any sort anywhere.

I thought I’d killed it.

Optimist that I am, I filled the pot with new soil and a little of the old and poked the aloe stub into it. Then came the wait.

Last month, as I headed around the house watering my meager plant collection, something caught my eye.

Sprouts. Several of them. In the aloe pot. As the weeks wore on, five distinct little plants formed. It was more exciting than when the spider plant had babies and flowered.

With such largess from my aloe, I decided it was time to haul out the plant books to see what this meant and why I hadn’t killed it.

Turns out I never really knew my aloe.

Botanically speaking, Aloe is a genus of succulents in the lily family with about 300 species native to Africa, Madagascar and the Arabian peninsula. Most members of the genus have a rosette of leaves at the base, typical of Aloe vera (true aloe), with no stem. Many have triangular, spiny leaves like Aloe vera.

In the wild, aloes flower, often in yellow or red clusters that are bell- or trumpet-shaped. Even Aloe vera blooms but seldom as a houseplant.

Aloe vera is prized for the thick sap in its leaves, which has long been used as a treatment for burns. It also is used in a variety of cosmetics, from shampoo to lip balm to hand cream.

Cultivation of Aloe vera requires a gritty growing medium and a light hand on the watering can so it can dry out between soakings. It does best in high to medium light (meaning an east-, west- or south-facing window), with average to hot temperatures. Aloe vera thrives on neglect — this is my kind of plant — but does benefit from repotting.

The sprouts around the base of the parent plant can be removed to start new plants, or they can stay in the same pot for years until the roots crack the pot. I find the root part hard to believe since I haven’t seen any on mine, but I may not know what to look for.

My reference books had enticing photos of some of the 300 aloe plants in the world, including A. plicatilis. This native of South Africa has no teeth on its straplike leaves, which are a cool gray-green shade. The leaves grow from the stem in a striking fan shape. In the wild, A. plicatilis will grow to a small tree, but it is smaller when cultivated.

Another aloe, A. variegata or partridge breast aloe, makes an attractive houseplant. The thick, triangular leaves have a white edge and white spots across the leaves. A. variegata will flower as a houseplant, its tubular blooms an orange shade. Like many aloes, the leaves are easily damaged and broken, so it should be kept in a protected spot.

If an exotic, tropical effect is what you want, then look to A. arborescens `Variegata’ or the candelabra plant. This dramatic aloe is shaped much like Aloe vera, but with yellow-striped swordlike leaves that are heavily toothed. This gorgeous flowering plant is found in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

But potting it might be a problem. The candelabra plant grows 6 to 12 feet tall with a spread of 6 feet.

I’m just warning you.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in January 1999.

UPDATE – January 2012: One aloe plant from the one passed to me all those years ago is still alive and growing. And so is the other one mentioned in the story.