February 23, 2020

The Lure of the Indestructible Houseplant

Saintpaulia - African violet

Credit: Hobbykafe | Wikimedia Commons - Saintpaulia - African violet

• By Janine Pineo •

It drew me like a beacon, its leaves bound up in a plastic sleeve that hid its true size.

The price was $2.99. Dare I spend the money just to have it die on me? Like the gardenia that succumbed to invasion of the little white jumping bugs. Or the dwarf orange tree that was — I admit it — rather ugly and my mother and sister kept sticking it out of sight and the sun until it finally gave up the ghost. Or the ivy that I forgot to water occasionally.

And yet, I reasoned, it would be worth it just to watch the African violet’s white ruffled flowers — gently blushed with lilac — blossom if only for a few days.

Into the cart it went and a month later, so far so good.

Houseplants are pretty much a mystery to me. I’ve had quite a few over the years, and most of them were given to me or my family by well-wishers who don’t know my house is dry — like the Sahara.

I read about how to take care of the varieties I recognize (which don’t come from the Sahara but the Amazon) and if I do what the experts say, I nearly lose the plants. Trial and error is much more my style, which is good because I’ve had too many mystery plants to rely on books.

Without really trying, I’ve identified all but four of my houseplants. One hangs by the north window in my bedroom. It doesn’t get any direct sunlight, but from the way it’s thriving, I’d say it doesn’t need it. It’s not too fussy about watering; once a week, once every two weeks, it doesn’t matter.

Laidback — this is my kind of plant. It could be grateful that I saved it from a certain death in the very newsroom where I work. A reporter had moved away, leaving the orphan plant behind. I waited for someone to claim it, but when it started to wilt, I decided enough was enough. Now, the little orphan has more than tripled in size with leafy branches popping out every which way.

I am pleased.

Populating the other end of the house is a slowly expanding multitude of plants. The dining room has welcomed three new plants in the past year: a pothos, a dieffenbachia and a poinsettia (still growing strong). The pothos, its green leaves splashed with shades of cream, is quite a stunner with long vines trailing toward the floor. The dieffenbachia has been a bit temperamental — rumor has it I was attempting to drown it — but now we’re negotiating on irrigation rules.

The living room also has new plants. Next to last summer’s repotted rosemary and parsley are a new aloe and a parlor maple (scientifically speaking an abutilon, a member of the mallow family).

We had a parlor maple a while back, a gift from my grandmother. I was a bit frightened of the old one; it grew to about 6 feet tall in less than a year. Before long, it started to shed like a real maple, then it died.

This time I have been ruthless with my parlor maple. I trim it back to less than 2 feet tall every couple of months, which keeps it rather bushy and perfectly content. The co-worker who gave it to me updates me on his set of three, which all seem to be growing at widely different rates, and I keep advising him to root his cuttings like I did.

Some weeks back I read that abutilon is a hardy perennial in some parts of this country, but not in Maine. A brilliant idea flashed through my head: Why not root some of my cuttings and set them out in my gardens as an annual? Abutilon has lovely cuplike flowers that would make a charming addition to some spots in my flower beds.

Then, as I was thumbing through my numerous seed catalogs, I discovered offerings of abutilon seeds. Thompson & Morgan Inc. (P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527-0308) has two varieties, and R.H. Shumway’s (P.O. Box 1, Graniteville, S.C. 29829) offers a mix of colors.

Needless to say, I thought I’d try one. OK, maybe two. If they work in the garden, I’ll try some in the house.

Those maroons and yellows might look nice next to that 99-cent cyclamen I found last week.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in February 1995.

2012 note: Many of the aforementioned plants met their maker years ago. But that pothos is still going strong and has been used to start other pots of pothos. The author has made her peace with abutilons, growing many in her work office. She even tried some outdoors but felt that they were domesticated and therefore should be indoor plants. She still can’t grow an African violet to save herself. And just a couple of weeks ago, she inherited a plant at work that has had one owner after another. She has yet to identify it but was instructed to call it Herbie.