Sunday, March 23, 2008

Living, Loving Links

It’s time to give away some aloe plants again. These all came from one I got from my mom. All of hers came from her mom. I don’t know if it goes back farther than that, but for at least three generations this plant and its scions have been entwined with my family. I can remember seeing it on the family farm, Emro. I know for a fact that my brother, sister, and both aunts also have off-spring; I’m sure others, both family and friends, do as well. Its extreme fecundity has very specific characteristics; individual plants do get bigger with age, but most of their energy seems to be devoted to putting out new plants, and getting them to grow to a certain size. Not all aloes do this, I learned some years ago. I rescued another one when a roommate in Alphabet City threw it in the trash, and I immediately noticed different characteristics. It too put out little plants like the Emro aloe, but most of its energy seemed devoted to enlarging the original plant. It got bigger, each frond lengthening and widening, new fronds springing up. Had I not known the truth, I would have sworn it and the Emro plant were two different species.




Eventually I no longer had space for the big guy, so gave him to my friend Megan, where, newly christened Big Al, he has continued to grow. I helped her repot him a couple of years ago, since that is now definitely a two-person job. He dominates Megan’s living room, sitting by the TV, still grows bigger, and frankly seems to have developed an attitude. Look for Big Al on Myspace.




But back to the Emro aloes. These are not the only plants that are descendents of plants from my maternal grandmother; the boston ferns that hang in the kitchen and bathroom are too. One showers me with negative ions (the good, mood-lifting ones) when I’m at the dining table, the other does the same when I shower. At one point Tommy hid his Frodo action figure (you heard me) in the one in the shower; I was lathering up one day to realize I had a tiny little peeping Tom. "Where's Frodo?" has become a new sport.




Then there is the angel-wing begonia; it too comes from an Emro plant, and has relatives living with several of mine. Actually, since they’re all cuttings, that means they’re technically all part of the same plant, which is even cooler, don't you think? This is the plant that seemed to be at death’s door back in September. I’m cautiously optimistic these days; it’s putting out more leaves and they look healthy. I doubt it will ever regain its former glory (it was five feet tall at one point), but at least it no longer looks like a sad skeleton.




Then there are the plants who were here in the apartment when I moved in, left by the previous tenant. There was a spider plant hanging in the kitchen where the boston fern is now. Ginger told me she’d had it since college, and had brought it with her everywhere she’d lived since (no, I don't know why she left it here). Hanging in the kitchen window, it felt like it was at the center of the apartment. I began thinking of it almost as the spirit of the place. It's funny to realize it had lived here longer than me. I started calling her Grandmother Spider, in recognition of her age and prolific outgrowth. It seemed to fit. She was even more prolific than the Emro aloes; runners and plantlets spilled over the pot, cascading down the window -which faces north, by the way, on a narrow courtyard, and is not someplace I would have expected a spider plant to thrive. For a while I had two of her sons (don’t ask me why I thought they were male, but I did) hanging in the two windows of the living room (facing east, also on the courtyard). They were both smaller, springing up with a youthful vigor and a deeper green. Brian, when he lived here, found these two plants disconcerting. When they began putting out runners and baby plants, he could never quite shake the feeling that if he sat in front of the TV too long, they would end up sinking roots into his flesh.




It wasn’t long, with all three hanging plants merrily reproducing, before we were neck-deep in plantlets. Brian was sure they were going to smother us in our sleep one night, and even I began feeling a tad overwhelmed. I was able to give several away, but many more were left wanting homes; scores of them sat in water, growing roots that became increasingly entangled with one another. Eventually through a combination of give away and culling (Grandma was allowed to continue reproducing, but both the boys lost that privilege), I was able to whittle things back, finally ending up only with Grandmother Spider. She was starting to look a bit peaked by this point though, and I realized she was potbound. The repotting didn’t seem to go well, perhaps because I had to break up the ball into separate plants. She never really regained her old vigor, and just faded away. I wonder if plants can die of old age? She had to have been at least twenty, possibly thirty years old. I was sad, but frankly also a bit relieved. With her gone, I felt like yet one more significant influence of the previous tenant had been allowed to fade naturally, and I was now, almost eight years after taking over the lease, able to invite a new spirit plant into the center of my home. So that is where the second Boston fern went. At present there are no spider plants living in this apartment at all, and I’m feeling like that’s okay. If I ever feel the need for one though, I know Grandma has offspring throughout the city, in the homes of many friends. I can even say hi to one of the sons anytime I want, since he sits in a first floor window not far from my building. He is allowed to reproduce again, and seems to like the southern exposure.




The other plant I inherited with the apartment is a golden pothos. When I first moved in, two or three short cuttings of this plant were sitting in a big, heavy blue vase. I have no idea how long they had been there. They were in the office, which at the time was mostly Kurt’s domain, so I assumed they were his. (Like the plants, I inherited Kurt as a roommate, and it also worked out splendidly.) After a few years though, I began to feel badly for the cuttings, so I appropriated, potted, and moved them to the living room (which, at the time, was exclusively my domain). I don’t remember when exactly I stopped pruning it back, and tying it to a string along the wall, but I think it happened no more than five, maybe six years ago. I’d keep wrapping it around the room, if there weren’t a heating pipe in the way now that would singe it. I’m doubling it back, and giving cuttings to anyone who asks for one, as long as he or she is standing right in front of me, hand out ready to take it that instant. I can't handle the guilt of homeless plants any longer.


This scattering of green throughout my space has helped save my sanity, I have no doubt. Their calming green and reminders of older, more important rhythms is often a good wake-up call for me. I also like the feeling of connection they give me: to my grandmother, the family farm, my mom, aunts, siblings and friends across the country, even former residents -known and not- of apartment #20. I imagine a greensong linking the plants with their counterparts regardless of distance, shrinking the space between me and my loved ones, and strengthening our bonds.

21 comments:

Butch said...

Your loving attention given to your plants is amazing. I like the fact that they have names and that they seem to thrive under your care. This synergistic relationship you share with them makes both you and they relevant.

I like what you have done with that wandering plant who wants to explore your apartment. Gently turning it back in the direction from wence it came gives the plant plenty of body. I would think that plant especially needs more water than the others considering how large ( long? ) it is.

Thanks for the pictures and lovely entry.

tornwordo said...

The pothos cracks me up. Note to self, never ever buy one of those. I am unable to prune as I feel too guilty. Unremarkably, our houseplants are unkempt looking.

somewhere joe said...

Patrick, you either have a lot of light up there, or an unusual rapport with things green... oh. Well, I've never seen anything like that festoon of pothos. I think it's Guiness Book material.

Aloe grows wild down here. It's been a herbal remedy for millinea; I've used it for sunburn.

Brian said...

Holy moley! That pathos is ginormous! I thought it was big when I was there; it must be double the size now.

The pathos didn't inspire quite as much terror in me as the spider plants did. My image of the pothos' attack is a slow strangulation rather than a quick burrow into the flesh. Easier to get away from, as long as you're awake. Now, though, it could pretty much just drop down and quickly smother you whenever it pleased.

The pothos you gave me is still alive, but seems to have reached the limit of its growth - it reaches out of the window and tentatively explores the coffee cups, but hasn't grown any more in quite a while. Possibly because I only remember it's there every other month or so, but more likely because it knows I won't brook no strangulation nonsense in my home.

Java said...

Methinks Brian is a bit paranoid of the greenery.

I like the story of the aloes. I've seen really big aloe plants and wondered why the ones I've ever had didn't get that big. Maybe mine were just the little reproducing kind. We may never know, since I tend to be a bit negligent of my houseplants and they sometimes die in revolt. One important thing to remember about aloe: don't leave it alone in an apartment with no heat while you visit the in-laws for Christmas. Especially if the apartment is in a very old, poorly insulated house and the temperatures plunge into record-setting single digits in an area of the country known for its warmth. Frozen aloe looks very, very sad when it thaws. And there is no hope for it. Ever again.

pssst! hey Patrick- nice vocabulary you've got here. ;-)

Jess said...

Oh my dog! The size of that plant!

As you've probably seen, we try to keep the plants under relatively decent control here, but I'm impressed by what you've done. (On the other hand, that is a plant that looks like it might try to reach out and strangle you one day.) ;)

Patrick said...

Butch: I would have thought the pothos would need more water too, but as long as I fill the drain dish each week (twice a week in the hot months) it seems perfectly content. The leaves at the outer reaches look just as healthy and happy as the older ones closer to the roots. I think this is a very forgiving plant.

Speaking of which...
Torn: I actually have become quite ruthless about pruning, since I started running out of room in my apartment for all the plants. And I was always comfortable pruning this one, because the clippings can form roots so easily; I just like the jungle look in my living room. One friend said he felt like he needed to wear a pith helmet to come visit me.

Joe: To be honest, I don't know that I have an especially green thumb. I just think these plants are very hardy and forgiving. The golden pothos, for example, prefers shade, or limited light. So the light coming from the courtyard/air shaft east windows (and we are on the top floor so we get more than most)bouncing off the white walls is quite enough to keep the pothos happy. Even the English Ivy (which didn't make it into the entry) is happy there, but it sits directly in the window. My begonia, aloes and scented geraniums (also not previously mentioned) all love the southern light I get in my bedroom. It seems a waste to have both bedrooms on the (noisy) front of the building with the great winter light, but at least the plants like it.

I've been using aloes for sunburn for years too. In fact they were the first plant I ever got as a kid, because I loved the herbal medicine aspect of them. I also remember us using them to take the itch out of mosquito bites... but that doesn't seem to work anymore. I don't know if it's that my memory is faulty, or there's been some change in the plants over the generations.

Brian: Well, this pothos started as cuttings sitting in water too, and I know they survived like that for at least two years, possibly much longer. So as long as you eventually remember to refill the vase, they'll survive, but not do much growing. Sounds like you have a good system going there. For what it's worth, I feel nothing but benevolence coming from this plant... but of course I thought the same thing about the spider plants. I know you found those root balls particularly disturbing.

Java: good to know about the aloe's sensitivity to cold. Don't know how you could have predicted that. The image of a frozen aloe plant will stand as a cautionary tale for me from this day forth.

Jess: see above re: benevolent plants :)... by sheer coincidence, the three plants I have, aloes, ferns and the pothos (along with spider plants, I believe) were considered by NASA as possible space-ship plants. Apparently they have a better than average rate of air purification. Maybe that's been another way they've saved my life here. If you saw how quickly the floor and windows get filthy...

Jess said...

Patrick: Are you sure they've saved your life? Maybe the plants are making the floor and windows filthy! It's part of their grand plan, before they move in for the kill! Quick! Run for your life! ;)

Patrick said...

Jess: Hmm... hadn't considered that possibility. But you know, if it's true, then this is a plan of such cleverness, subtlety and long term vision that it almost deserves to succeed, don't you think?

Jess said...

That's a very understanding view, but I'd rather you stick around! Now, if the plant is that crafty, we may have to take it by surprise. So make sure it can't read the computer screen over your shoulder or watch what you're typing, and we can work on a plan!

Cooper said...

I'm not surprised that everything you tend is green and thriving. You have that sort of nurturing, responsive heart. I love your image of greensong linking plants with their counterpart of distance. I think that could be an apt metaphor for blogging as well ... the stories which green the soul which link we human beings with each other, shrinking distance, strengthening bonds. Beautiful, Patrick.

Greg said...

The last two posts have dove-tailed together quite nicely...what gorgeous plants: I've NEVER seen a pothos quite so massive before...I'd keep away from those little root horns they put out along the stem...but I'm sure Brian's already warned you about them.

Thanks for the thoughtful tour of your beautiful green spaces!

Patrick said...

Jess: not to worry, the computer is in the office, with no plants at all, and the pothos is two rooms and a hallway away. Any counter-plotting we see fit to do will go unnoticed. Unless the pothos can read my thoughts... hmm...

Cooper: yes, I have that feeling about the web as well, since it has brought such beautiful, like-minded people in my life, such as your sweet self, from all over the globe. We're all still learning how to tend it, I suppose, but so far, so good, wouldn't you say?

Gregg: Shhhh! I almost had Brian calmed down about the pothos plants! Yes, Brian, they have little nubs that become roots if you stick them in water... and you've already done that, so I think you're in the clear.

I almost had Brian reassured about the spider plants a few years ago, then a friend remarked matter-of-factly at a party "well, you know, they WILL kill you." Brian never trusted me on the subject of plants again. Thanks, Ali.

ANYway... I'm glad you liked the tour Gregg, it was nice to have you stop by. Reading about your garden has me salivating... I've yet to have one of my own, I mostly just covet my sister's and brother-in-law's. Jess and Marc are being their generous selves with their garden, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about yours, Cooper's, Butch's and anyone else's.

Brian said...

I forgot about that! But I'm glad to see everyone is starting to take the vegetative menace seriously. I mean, they are PLANTS that are also SPIDERS! No good can possibly come of that.

Butch said...

I seem to have no problems growing Spider plants. They are very hard to kill for one thing. I have been known to have a "black-thumb" when it comes to plants. I evidently, "love them to death!" I even killed a cactus once. Now, how bad is that?! I had a friend who was trying not to laugh at my attempts of growing things and after the cactus died he tried to say some cheerful words about how well my Jade plant was doing. I smiled, walked over to it and flipped my finger against one of the plant's leaves. About ten to twelve of the leaves immediately fell off of the plant. ;-) We all had a good laugh after that.

Dantallion said...

I love green things. I'm never happier when I'm surrounded by nature.

But plants that come across my doorstep have a tendency to, well kill themselves, really. I don't know why. I'm beginning to take it personally, quite frankly. The lone exception to that is a ficus tree that has been steadfast for the past 10 years or so. It has survived every last bit of abuse that has come it's way, and thrived no less.

somewhere joe said...

I like the idea that your own former pets and pieces of the plant realm are somewhere still orbiting, like wandering stars, or space probes, around your life. As for the home front, there is something deeply gratifying about a plant thriving in the place and conditions I provide for it. Many don't. But those that do seem to confer a kind of acceptance, primal and artless, that has a quiet little place of its own in my affection.

Moheggie said...

Oh man Patrick, I've been meaning to tell you...Big Al went on a drinking binge and he's been perpetually hung over for weeks now. In fact, he's still all mushy and some of his hair is falling out....

Any suggestions for a detox??? I won't lose him to this!

john said...

Wow you've got quite a green thumb!

Sh@ney said...

Yeeeeeeehah! Finally someone else who loves planting, nature & gardening!! I have spent the last 2 days cleaning up the yard, trimming, weeding, replanting, potting...Am posting about it soon...but I love your creeper in your living room, it looks awesome...I planted a simliar fern to the boston fern today, it may even be the same species...Love them too...Plants are wonderful and I can spend a whole week in the garden...mwah!...xoxo

Jeff Wills said...

For the record, my cutting of Big Al is doing just dandy, so that huge SOB has some progeny to carry on his heritage.

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