The Taming of the Shrub

In spite of what my husband says, I realized we had a problem long before the tree in the living room fell on my aunt. We weren't quick enough to yell "Timber!" but Nancy's reflexes were faster. She caught it and wrestled the thing upright.

Good sport that she is, all she said to my apologies was, "Man! Do you have a green thumb or what?"

"Er, well, thank you," I mumbled.

But when she added, "The ability to grow things is such a gift," I could only hope she didn't hear Craig snort.

When Nancy left, a serious conversation ensued.

"For Pete's sake! It almost brained your aunt." My husband thunked two 10-pound dumbbells into the pot. "This will keep it from tipping - for a while, anyway. But that thing's got to go!"

And we were back in our well-rehearsed roles, with me saying, "I've had that plant for 25 years! Two-and-a-half decades! It's practically an heirloom!" and Craig saying (in about three dozen different ways): "It's too big for the house."

In the most rational part of me, I realized he was right. I understood that we couldn't keep rearranging the furniture to accommodate the ever-sprouting shrubbery. Even I draw the line at giving up the sofa. I knew in my head that my houseplant's days were numbered. It was my heart that wasn't so sure.

My younger son was still in diapers when a neighbor gave me the plant. It's a Schefflera, commonly called an umbrella tree, with large glossy green fingers of leaves. In those days, its branches, like my son's blond curls, brushed the tops of my knees. Over the years, the plant served as a hiding spot for kids, climbing post for cats, backdrop for photos, and even as a Christmas tree one lean year. In the summer, it filtered the glaring sunshine to cool rustling shadows; as a link to the green out-of-doors, it brightened the dull housebound days of winter. The umbrella tree not only sprouts stems and leaves, it germinates memories.

The plant, like the boy, shot skyward. The top branch scraped the ceiling twice in recent years. But each time, the Schefflera managed to slouch a bit, huddling round-shouldered over the sofa where it strokes a leaf or two across my hair while I'm reading. Tree-caressed, I lose the thread of the novel's plot. Instead, I'm time-traveling into the past, once again watching my boys play with Matchbox cars around the plant's clay pot. It's hard to resist a trip back to yesteryear - harder still to get rid of my ticket.

A few years back, when my husband and I hiked through a Hawaiian rain forest, I recognized the big sister of an old friend. I stopped to gape. "Look!" I said, pointing up. Way, way up. "It's my plant."

Craig craned his head back to squint at the umbrella tree, waving its branches 30 feet or more into the tropically brilliant blue sky. "Oh, no!" he groaned. "There goes the roof."

We were meandering through a garden store not too long ago when I saw a tower of enormous clay plants. "We need to transplant the plant in the living room," I said.

My husband stared at me.

"It's root-bound," I told him. "We've got to put it in a bigger pot."

Craig burst out laughing. "That's a good one!" he said, all but slapping his knee. "There are no bigger pots!"

Unfortunately, he was right. On the way out, I picked up a plant in a two-inch pot. It was tiny and cute with pink polka-dotted leaves. "Forget it," he said. "We don't have room for it."

The clerk's eyes narrowed and widened. She was obviously trying to picture a house so small we wouldn't have room for a plant about the size of her big toe.

"My wife's got a green thumb," my husband told her, setting Little Pink Polka Dot back on the counter. And then he added, "But I love her anyway."

A friend mentioned a new co-worker's love for houseplants. "She and her husband just moved here from Ireland. They don't have much. I know she'll take any plant you care to give her - she'd be thrilled!"

My husband gave me one of his meaningful looks.

"She'd give it a good home?" I asked.


After a few days, I made my decision. After all, I didn't need a mere plant to trigger my memories of the past 25 years, right? Right. I called our friend's friends and told her we had an umbrella tree for her.


"Bring your husband. You have a truck?"

"Uh ... sure."

WHEN the couple arrived, I led them to the plant. "Here it is," I said, breezily. "Now, I think if all four of us just kind of scoot it toward the door...." But then I noticed the look they were giving each other.

The wife frowned. "It's a beautiful plant, but it's...."

"...too big for the house," her husband finished. "Maybe for any house. In fact," he added, "there's no way that thing is going to fit through your front door."

That was OK with me, because I'd already begun to have second thoughts about giving away my leafy heirloom. When they drove off, I asked my husband, "Say we do find someone who wants my plant. How exactly are we going to get a 14-by-8-foot shrub out of the living room?" Of course, I was hoping to hear, "You're right! We'll have to keep it after all."

That man is quick on the uptake. Without flickering an eyelash, he said, "You know, I've been thinking French doors would be nice in the living room."

And so we started pricing French doors and talking to contractors. But I can see it now - explaining why we remodeled the living room: "To get rid of a houseplant." Doesn't everyone?

I'd like to say my qualms about giving my shrub away disappeared. Unfortunately, I'd be lying. However, my husband figured out a way to please both of us. He started a new umbrella tree for me, from a branch off the original. "It's the exact same plant you've had 25 years," he emphasized. "Only smaller, thank goodness. It ought to be good for another two-and-a-half decades of remembrance.... OK?"

I nodded, grinning at his ingenuity. And when I look at the small Schefflera, it feels like an entirely new beginning with a beloved old friend.

All we need are those French doors, and then: Anyone want a rather large houseplant? It comes complete with memories. Better yet, make your own.

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