In a conversation with a houseplant, who leads?
Perhaps I don't talk to them enough. Or say the right things. But then, what are the right things to say to a Ficus benghalensis (bayan tree) or a Monstera deliciosa (split-leaf philodendron)? Search me! The fact is, I am not very good with houseplants.
Not that I am as bad as some people I know or have known. There are those who almost issue an Official Doom Warning to poinsettias or Fatshederas (tree ivy), as these potted beauties step unwittingly over the threshold into their fate: Beware of the human!
Such plant assassins look self-deprecating and admit, for all to hear, that they are useless at houseplants – and that one glance from them is sufficient for the most impervious horticultural tough guy to have the vapors, wilt dramatically, and then expire, like a credit card, within days. Plants worth their salt would be advised to head elsewhere.
Still, I am not remotely as good, say, as my wife's auntie. She has such an impressive way with orchids and maidenhair ferns – well, one of each – it's enough to make one green with envy. Where other people's orchids flower once, hers flourishes like the proverbial green bay tree, and, having flowered with abandon once, immediately starts to bud up all over again and flower with even greater abandon a second time – and a third, and a fourth ... and, worst of all, she says, "I don't do anything to it, really, it just keeps on coming."
And her maidenhair! This magnificent fern specimen is shaggier than a Samoyed, more eruptive than Mt. Etna, a veritable cosmos-filling fireworks fountain of cascading fresh green leaves.
There are those who might argue that the success of Auntie's houseplants is due to the warmth of her house. While this may help, I do not believe that she is quite as offhand with them as she suggests. I know for a fact that she doesn't water them from the main supply, but uses rainwater.
I also suspect that she attends to them daily on the "little-and-often" principle, rather than once a week – if they're fortunate – as in some households.
Most of all, I feel sure she has amiable conversations with them – though she is much too matter-of-fact and reticent to let anyone hear her.
Fortunately for our houseplants, someone other than yours truly lives in the house, and she is quite good at keeping them in order. My conclusion is that it is better to forgo any sense of responsibility I might be tempted to feel and let my wife run the show. I am certain there are far fewer losses that way.
I find you do grow philosophical. Sometimes, for instance, a cyclamen flowers well for a week or two, but then decides it doesn't like us. The flower stems flop over, and the buds give up the ghost. The "yellow-leaf routine" takes over. But we've decided not to begrudge them. We thank them for at least lasting longer than an average (and more expensive) bunch of cut flowers, and, with a cheery goodbye, we consign them to the rubbish bin.
Having said all this, we have two houseplants that are exceptions to the general rule. The first sits on a windowsill in the spare bedroom in a cool northern light. The second is in the bathroom.
As plants go, these two could hardly be more different. The bathroom one is a begonia with silvery, heart-shaped leaves that have a pattern of dusky-maroon veins. These leaves all face you, and the whole plant forms into a volute or whorl in which each leaf finds its own place without competition from its fellows.
I love this obliging plant, which has lived with me, I calculate, for at least 30 years, never complaining, happy to be trimmed when it starts to think about getting too big, always producing one or two new leaves, and perfectly happy to be wherever it is put. It makes no demands, it's happy being watered whenever, and it never requires special plant foods.
The other plant is much younger, but looks older – as old as the hills, in fact. It is a bonsai and has a thick (but diminutive) trunk twisting up like a bend in a river. It reminds me of the Japanese respect for the long-lived, their relish of the unashamedly ancient.
This little tree, in its shallow dish, has taken hold of my dormant sense of plant care. I give it a daily dash of water, spray its leaves regularly, and turn it so that it doesn't grow lopsidedly toward the light. I meticulously trim its twigs and leaves with nail scissors.
And although I am not going to divulge any intimate secrets ... it is rumored that snatches of small talk may have been overheard now and then over by the windowsill in the spare bedroom.