Confessions of a leaf snapper

Years ago I was visiting a friend in a nearby town. The most striking thing about her home was the abundance of houseplants, which she cared for with great devotion. My apartment, by contrast, was as bereft of plant life as the North Pole.

"I think I need to add some green to my place," I said in passing as I was making the acquaintance of one of her coleuses, caressing its perfect leaves.

"Then why don't you?" she suggested. And then, in one smooth motion, she pinched off the tip of a shoot and sank it into a Dixie cup of loam. "Here," she said. "You're on your way."

What my friend didn't know was that she had planted a seed of inspiration. The coleus took root and flourished magnificently. Its message to me was that I would never have to shell out a single penny to get my home to blossom like a rose.

I admit it. I'm a botanical opportunist. Wherever I am - in homes, businesses, or schools - I have an active and discerning eye for interesting, healthy plants.

Should I spy one, I immediately go into action - as happened about a year ago, when I was standing at the counter of a sandwich shop in Bangor, Maine.

While waiting for my order (a veggie special on wheat, no olives), I noticed an unusual, robust plant growing atop the cookie case. The leaves were small, succulent, heart-shaped, and intensely green, forming a chain-like array along trailing stems.

"Hmm," I noised as I felt one of the leaves. When the woman came with my order I asked, "What kind of a plant is this?"

She looked at it as if noticing it for the first time, and then came around. "It's called an inch plant," she said. I asked, "May I take a leaf?"

Permission was granted. I carefully snapped off one of the small, fleshy fronds and wrapped it in my handkerchief. Then I hurried home, the sandwich having taken a back seat to my hopes for this plant. To make a long story short, the leaf rooted, and now - a year later - I have a healthy, happy inch plant hanging over my kitchen counter.

The nature of a habit is that it is, well, habitual. I cannot help being drawn to interesting houseplants, especially when I know how expensive some of them are and how easy it is to propagate an indoor garden for free. When I see a well-cared-for jade plant thriving by the patio doors on the sunny side of a home, I sense the thing is beckoning to me to spread the joy. It is as if the jade plant is saying, "Here. Take a leaf. I have many. I am almost indestructible and will serve you long and well."

Sometimes I hit the jackpot. Recently, I was invited to the birthday celebration of a friend's mother. In a burst of serendipity, several of the other guests brought gifts of potted plants. My eyes sparkled at the sight of them. I looked on covetously as a rose begonia, an unusual geranium, a variegated ivy, and a magnificent philodendron were set down within touching distance, each and every one of them absolutely perfect.

The birthday celebrant threw me a glance. Then she leaned toward me and murmured confidentially, "Take a cutting from each. I know you want to." What could I say? I did as I was told, and by that evening four new plants were getting their starts on my kitchen windowsill.

Such acquisitiveness has its limits, though. Some varieties of plants, I learned, are patented. I found this out the hard way when I was visiting a nursery one summer. As I waited in line at the checkout with some potting supplies in hand, I noticed a rather offbeat sedum growing in a pot on the cashier's counter. I fingered a leaf and gave a little tug to see what kind of resistance it would offer.

"What do you think you're doing?"

It was the cashier, scowling at me. She pointed to an attached tag. It read: "The asexual propagation of this plant is prohibited by law. Perpetrators will be prosecuted to the full extent of this law."

My goodness. I had no idea. All along, I'd thought I was simply being a creative cheapskate, when in reality I was flirting with a career as a patent infringer.

I have since tried to mend my ways, and have succeeded. I limit myself, for the most part, to propagating plants I already own. But I lapsed recently while admiring a rather tall, wild-looking plant growing in a friend's indoor garden. It was a gangly, pale-green specimen and looked vaguely familiar. I yielded to temptation and made a grab for a leaf. When I did, I received an irritating tingle and quickly withdrew my hand.

At that moment my friend appeared. "Be careful," she said. "That's stinging nettle. It keeps the cat out of the houseplants."

And, I might add, it prevents other forms of mischief as well.

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