They’re baaaaaack. I don’t know if this happens where you work, but at my job, co-workers are carrying out their potted plants to return them to the yard after a winter in office exile. For me, it means loading up crates, cleaning the office, and hoping that the plants will reacclimate themselves to outside living. Right now, they all look pale and sparse and leggy — sort of like me after a long winter’s night.
The question, though, remains. Why do northern gardeners go to such great lengths to save their plants? For some, it might be the value of the plant, or the challenge of being able to cheat cold temperatures of their delicate herbaceous victims. For me, it’s more about the story behind the plants that I save each year. So here is a piece of my story, as told by my plants.
First, there’s the philodendron which I have had since I was a pre-adolescent! This plant actually came from a cutting from a plant that my mother had in the kitchen of my childhood home. I think I had decided at some point that I wanted a plant in my bedroom. I thought it was pretty cool that I could take a piece of this plant, place it in a cup of water, and then watch the roots grow. Since then, the plant has traveled with me from my parents’ house to the current home I share with Joe to my office and to the backyard. We’ve been through so much together, it seems kind of cruel to leave it outside at the end of the growing season.
Let’s not forget the other philodendron. It has smaller, dark green leaves and it reminds me of my grandmother. When I was young, I remember that she had this type of plant in her Queens, NY, home. In my child’s mind, it only existed there and nowhere else. Flashforward to my grandmother’s condo. After she passsed, I was looking around the house, and saw a green plastic flower pot, filled with dry, neglected soil, a stub of a plant, and brown leaves. I brought the plant home with me, watered it and nurtured it, and in time, small, dark green leaves appeared. It was the same type of philodendron I remembered from Queens, and now it’s with me at work and at home in the summer.
Then, there are the Christmas cacti. One is the last surviving plant from a gift basket that someone gave me after a stay in the hospital. The other is the granddaddy of them all — a Christmas cactus that was once owned by Joe’s great aunt. We “inherited” it after his aunt had died, and her home was sold. No one wanted the Christmas cactus, which was surprising since it was incredibly full and healthy. Besides, it seemed sort of sinful to abandon a healthy plant. It looks a little haggard after all these years, not to mention the car accident that sent the pot flying out of the bed of my pick-up truck — but the old girl keeps flowering. I only wish I knew what Aunt Anna’s secret had been to have a plant for that many years and in such amazing condition.
The geranium I save is one that I grew from seed several years ago. The flowers are hot pink, and with a color like that, I can’t bear to just let it die at the end summer. When it blooms in the middle of winter, it’s a warm reminder that summer wasn’t a dream — and that in just a few more months, it will be warm again.
Then there is the gloxinia. I purchased the bulb from Home Depot while Joe and I were in Florida. Not really knowing what to do with it, I planted it in a terra cotta pot when we returned to New York, and the plant bloomed purple and white. By the end of summer, the flowers were gone, but the thick, fuzzy leaves still looked great, so I brought it to work. hoping for more flowers. Slowly, the leaves turned yellow, and the plant was gone. By that time, it was cold and wintry, and I was too lazy to bring a “dead” plant home. Then the surprise of all surprises: in spring, it started sprouting. I gave it more sun, more water, and the reward has been about 5 years of flowering.
Finally, there’s a plant that I wish I could tell you the name of. I believe it’s Clerodendrum thomsoniae (Glory Bower Vine or Bleeding Heart Vine). I call it the plant my grandfather gave me. My mother’s father had a green thumb — a tremendous green thumb. Years ago, I ordered a plant for him from a catalog. He loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that he rooted clippings of the plant, and gave one of these new plants to me. The plant stays outside all summer. When I bring it to work, I am treated to an explosion of white and red flowers. My grandfather has since died, but his plant, whatever it’s called, lives on — and I’m thankful that it’s something that we shared.
The easy thing to do would be to allow the plants to die at the end of the season, and then to start fresh the following year. But I imagine that plants have human emotions. I think the plants look at me, practically begging me to save them from the horrors of winter’s cold — and I can’t bear the idea of watching them wither away. I don’t want them to feel abandoned or for them to think that I used them and now I’m done with them. Perhaps, then, it’s the other way around. Rather than me placing human emotions on plants, maybe it’s the plants that help me to be more human.