On this March afternoon, clouds drift in sullen white-gray flocks, west to east. The sodden remains of last week’s blizzard litter the ground in ragged drifts, their undersides dissolving to slush faster than the tops melt under a disinterested sun. The warming ground and moisture are welcome, but the muck and disarray, on the heels of this very long winter, are not welcoming.
If I want greenery and the promise of another season, I won’t find it outdoors this week, not here, at this altitude. I could drive, head downhill into a different hardiness zone, go hunting for swelling buds on trees and the eager poking of fleshy leaves by other people’s tulips and daffodils.
Or I could just stay inside.
I cannot decide if they are more like pets or roommates, the houseplants. They claim space and can be messy. They’re quiet, though, unlike most pets, and don’t hog the fridge or the hot water like a roommate might. In the end, perhaps it’s the fact that I’m responsible for their care and feeding and that they sometimes piddle on the floor that tips the analogy toward housepet.
Like a dog or a cat, they’re individuals, and their histories overlap mine, in some cases for decades. I bought the little palm-like dragon tree (Dracaena marginata, I’ve recently learned) at the TG&Y in Durango, Colorado, when I was in high school in the early 1980s. It was maybe eight inches high at the time, and survived numerous moves, first to a variety of college apartments, then to Doug’s condo in Boulder and later to the house in Fourmile Canyon west of town. I farmed all our houseplants out to friends for a year and a half while we lived in the cabin here as the house was built. After we settled in and reclaimed the plants (virtually all of which survived: we have good friends), the dragon tree was probably two feet tall. I put it on the bottom stair in the basement, next to the door into the garage.
This sounds like an undistinguished location for a houseplant already of venerable age by then, but it loved that spot. Filtered morning sun shone through the walkout door across the room, then shifting rays poured down the staircase all afternoon and evening. The plant shot up, branched, spread. It grew top-heavy and toppled off the step more than once before I moved it up to my office a couple of years ago. This is another bright space, and the plant seems happy. Apparently you’re supposed to prune dragon trees, but I’ve never done so. With some creative staking, it stays upright and has achieved a distinctly Seussian form.
I have a similarly long history with the grape ivy, which once hung in the office of the business my parents operated in Loveland, also in the 1980s. Suspended next to an exterior door, the plant would get whipped by gusts on windy days, its plastic pot swinging wildly whenever the door opened. I adopted it when the office moved, and it lived an ordinary life until we moved into the house in Fourmile in 1996. There, on the landing at the top of the stairs, the ivy became a diva. It draped over the railing like movie star from the golden age of Hollywood making a grand entrance, drawing admiration and comments from visitors. By the time we moved, it had sprawled at least six feet wide, with tendrils reaching up and over the handrail to dangle four and five into the entryway. I had to cut it back savagely when we moved, but it survived and two decades later it maintains its figure, healthy but not extravagant. I live in fear of repotting it or providing a trellis on which it can swoon: the old prima donna might stage a comeback and take over the stairs in this significantly smaller house.
The Ficus that was a gift from a boyfriend in 1988; the Schefflera and Norfolk pine Doug got for his condo not long after we started to date in 1992; the aloe, jade plant, Schlumbergera, and snake plant my Mom gave me when she moved to Brooklyn in 2001: we’ve all lived together for a long time. I appreciate that the plants are oxygenating the air, although I’m mostly grateful for their many shades of green and the wondrous geometries of their foliage. Since they are more like pets than decor, the oddly shaped and frankly ugly specimens have a home here as long as they’re alive.
Their numbers and the size of some individuals perpetuate the fiction that I’m skilled with houseplants, which can have unfortunate consequences. Well-meaning people have gifted me with beautiful but fussy or humidity-addicted plants, which I’ve accepted with thanks and a sinking heart. I know the orchid or azalea or bonsai is doomed. I can’t even keep African violets or basil alive. Plants in this house have to be tough. They need to cope with wild swings of temperature, with dry air, with unrelenting high-altitude UV, and with my irregular watering “schedule.”
The thing is that some species don’t merely survive, don’t just thrive: they go bonkers. One tabletop-sized snake plant from Mom has now colonized two large pots that flank the patio doors, with some leaves stretching over five feet tall. I need to divide both plants again, but have nowhere to put one more monster plant, much less two. If I placed the two jade plants side-by-side they would make a serviceable hedge, and it takes regular hacking with pruners to keep them to that proportion; they also started as a single innocuous plant from Mom.
Although I’ve never succeeded with a windowsill herb garden, the pragmatist in me keeps trying with culinary plants. I’ve long coveted a Meyer lemon tree, and keep them alive just long enough to convince myself I’ll succeed someday. The current incarnation is one of the aforementioned ugly plants, most of its branches chewed off by marauding woodrats when it was out on the deck last summer. It nevertheless managed to hang on to three fruits, one of which still has a scar where a rat sampled it; evidently green lemon peel is not palatable, even in a drought. The lemons swelled gradually over the winter, and one of them has begun to ripen to yellow. Meanwhile, the tree has shot forth new sprigs at random angles and recently sprouted an enormous cluster of bead-like flower buds.
Also on the culinary front, I bought a ginger plant at Desert Canyon Farm last spring, which has shown a promising tolerance for neglect. A few years ago I discovered Red Robin dwarf tomato plants (also at Desert Canyon). For three years in a row now, I’ve managed to overwinter the plant I bought the previous spring. Last year’s plant was doing well on the patio table over the summer, safely elevated above rodent level, but a mule deer bellied up to the table in August and ate dozens of green fruits, along with branch tips where new flowers form. It took a while for the plant to recover enough to flower again after I moved it inside, but since late December I’ve picked a small yet steady supply of homegrown cherry tomatoes.
Some of the plants, such as the lemon tree, provide living bouquets at random intervals, but the Schlumbergera are more dependable. They take our northern-hemisphere summers off but their bright pink buds in October. They bloom in time for Mom’s birthday in early November, which is why I refer to mine as the Birthday cactus rather than the more common common name of Christmas cactus. The shocking fuschia of the flowers is mighty welcome when the snow is flying. Meanwhile, one of the snake plants recently sprouted a pale green stalk that will present a column of fine-petaled greenish-white flowers. Their abundant sticky nectar can be messy, but the perfume is so potent I’ll pause to breathe deep whenever I pass by. The scent will persist long enough, perhaps, for spring to complete its slow trek up mountains.