Loyal Friends of The Leafy, Growing Variety

SOME plants become friends. And they don't have to be spectacular dahlias or fragrant roses in order to do so. Most garden flowers are summer friends, gone in the winter when times are difficult up here in the mountains.

Those who stand by you in adversity - plant or human - are your true friends. There are never many of them around, so you cherish them while you can and take care of them in all seasons.

My best plant friend must be the orange tree I grew in my bedroom, almost by accident. You cannot grow an orange tree outdoors at 7,000 feet in the Himalayas. And when I pushed an orange seed into an empty pot near my bedside table, I didn't expect anything to happen. But a month later, in the spring, I found a tiny orange tree had popped up through the soil, its glossy leaves glistening in the morning sunshine. That was five years ago, and now it's three feet tall. A slow grower in my bedroom, but I dar e not leave it outside long, except for occasional watering and sunbathing.

Now, in May, new shoots are appearing, and when I press the leaves between my hands, they give out an orange-scented tang - a very pleasant way in which to begin the day's writing.

Another good friend, not as old but extremely generous, is the variegated ivy that has spread all over my bedroom wall.

I should mention here that my small bedroom-cum-study gets plenty of light and sun, and when the windows are open a cool breeze from the mountains floats in, rustling the leaves of ivy. This breeze can turn into a raging blizzard in winter - even on one occasion blowing the roof away - but right now it's just a zephyr, gentle and balmy. Ivy plants seem to like my room, and this one, which I brought up from Dehra Dun, where the climate is quite different from Mussoorie, took an instant liking to my desk a nd walls, so that I now have difficulty keeping it from trailing over my typewriter when I am at work.

I do not have an outside garden - the hillside is too steep for anything but the sturdiest of shrubs - but there are a number of plants that grow inside: near the windows, along the sunlit walls, on cupboards and boxes behind chairs. Rugs are ruined, and so is furniture. But I have always held furniture to be a superstition. And rugs can always be thrown away, or given to rug collectors!

As I like to take in other people's sick or discarded plants and nurse or cajole them back to health, I have acquired a bit of a reputation as a plant doctor.

Actually, all I do is give an ailing plant a quiet corner where it can rest and recuperate. They have usually been ill-treated in some way. But it's wonderful how quickly a tree or plant will recover if it's not lopped or mauled about, constantly shifted or over-watered or placed in the path of hot winds or snowdrifts.

I rescued a dying asparagus fern from the portals of Mussoorie's Savoy Hotel, and now, six months later, its strong, feathery fronds have taken over most of one window, so that I have no need of curtains. The owner of the Savoy Hotel now wants his fern back.

Mrs. Banerjee's ailing geranium, never allowed to settle in one place - hence its stunted appearance - has burst forth in an array of new leaf and flower within a fortnight of being admitted to my plant ward.

Should I return these and other plants when they are fully recovered? I don't think they want to go back. And I should hate to see them suffering relapses on being returned to their former abodes. So I tell the owners that their plants need monitoring and should stay with me under observation for a while. Perhaps if I sent bills for their care, the demands for their return would not be so strident.

Loyalty in plants, as in friends, must be respected and rewarded. If dandelions show a tendency to do well on the steps of the cottage, then that is where they shall be encouraged to grow.

If sorrel is happier on my windowsill than on the hillside, then I shall let it stay even if it means the window won't close properly. And if the hydrangea does better in my neighbor's garden than in mine, he or she shall have the hydrangea! Among flower lovers there must be no double standards. Generosity, not greed; sugar, not spite!

And what of the rewards for me, apart from the soothing effect of fresh fronds and leaves at my place of work and rest? The other evening I came home to find my room vibrating to the full-throated chorus of several crickets who had found the ivy to their liking.

I thought they would keep me up all night with their music, but when I switched the light off, they immediately fell silent. So crickets don't sing in the dark, I surmised, and switched the light on again. Once more, I was treated to symphonic variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky.

Now what made me think of Tchaikovsky? I looked up my musical dictionary and, to my amazement, realized that it was the 7th of May, the great composer's birthday. I expect this tidbit was always at the back of my mind, and I needed just some little reminder - like a cricket's chirp - to bring it to the forefront.

I thought it would be appropriate to listen to some Tchaikovsky, so I played "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the Nutcracker Suite. The crickets maintained a respectful silence, even with the lights on.

Last night a beetle flew in at the open window and landed with a plop in my jug of drinking water. He didn't appear to be a good swimmer, so I picked him up and flung him back into the night. One has to draw the line somewhere.

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