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The secret life of plants

By Carrie Lamont (carrielamontOctober 6, 2008
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Houseplants lead a much more interesting life than you might suspect. Let's listen in ...

Gardening picture

It has been an especially hard winter for some reason.  Maybe the water bringer got sick, or lost all its leaves (if that's what they are) or maybe—oh, good gracious—maybe the water bringer forgot all about us. Let me tell you, some of us are starting to wish we were cactuses!  One day, a rumor starts to circulate.  I think the Dumb Cane started it, which would be ironic, since it's supposed to be dumb. I always thought that was supposed to mean you couldn't talk, but this plant can.  The creature never shuts its trap!

Like I was saying, a rumor is going around that there is more to life than our root to leaf existence.  That there is some crazy place where light comes from overhead, and water too.  We are all skeptical—who wouldn't be?  What self-respecting houseplant is going to believe in a magical place where water comes automatically from up above, and not from a bathroom cup? A fairyland where light doesn't have to be measured in inches from a window or a lamp?  Not me, that's for sure.

The Elephant Ear  really takes the whole light and water business fairly seriously.  It sends out a shoot, which presses itself against the glass, but without enough water the poor thing withers and dies.  Then the water bringer passes through, and absentmindedly dumps a bunch of water on all of us, never mind if we need it or not!  Well, that always gets the Elephant Ear to send out a new shoot, pressed hopefully against the glass again.  You guessed it, dead again in no time.  How the tuber itself manages to survive is beyond me.

Me? Well, they call me a Pony Tail Palm, which is pretty idiotic, since I'm not a palm at all, and I do not have, ahem, a PONY TAIL.  I am not a pony.  I am a Beaucarnea. I have a big base to store water in, so I can go a long time between visits from the water bringer. Which is a darn good thing, because like I've been trying to explain to you, those visits are getting pretty few and far between. We're all secretly afraid that the water bringer really did forget all about us, this time.  I mean, we all know it's busy, and absentminded, and seems to have a lot on its stems, but to completely forget about us?  Doesn't the water bringer understand that without its water, even I will die?

Back in the old days, when it was just us and the water bringer, and it was a seedling and moved around unrooted, it watered us and repotted us. There were more of us back then, a fig tree, a spider plant and a parlor palm, too. Then the water bringer brought in this plant that looks like a small tree, and then pretty soon it started sprouting pups. Now it is always too busy for us.  Maybe the tree is shading it? Maybe the pups are robbing it of its nourishment?

Anyway, that fairy tale gets more specific.  The younger plants are all chattering about the story the way seedlings do, you know.  The date all this magic is going to transpire is March 21, something called spring.  What, like the springy way my foliage jiggles when it's healthy?  No, Spring, they say. More light, from some enormous light bulb that can even burn some of us. Water from the air, sometimes too much and sometimes not quite enough but a lot more than the water bringer gives us. Sure, we're anxious, but most of us are not about to get all worked up about some nutty idea, water from the air? Preposterous. Good grief!

The water bringer has a few pups, like I said, and they're excited about this Spring business too!  March 21 finally arrives, the big day, Spring, and I'll be a Poinsettia if they aren't clamoring to be let outside, and suckering up to the water bringer again, although they have long since been pruned off.  "Mommy, it's spring!  Why can't we go outside and play?"  The water bringer gives them a little prepared speech, about how spring isn't just a date on the calendar; spring is a time of year. Well, we didn't think it was a just a date, we thought it was a place, those of us who were wasting our time with such silly ridiculous thoughts. I'm doing my best to act disinterested, but then we all perk up our leaves because the water bringer is talking about us!  "Look at all my plants, kids.  They can't wait to go outside.  But if I put them out now, they might be killed by a late freeze."  A late freeze, whatever that is.  Sounds like more lame excuses and false promises to me. I try to play it cool, although I'd be happier with a lot more light than I've been getting.

Well, a few more dreary weeks pass by, and then one day the unimaginable, the inconceivable, the unbelievable, it happens! The wall of the kitchen actually opens!  I mean, one minute it's there, and the next minute it's not.  Then the next thing I know, I am unceremoniously hauled outside by the tree who grows next to the water bringer. If you can imagine a tree, or as close to a tree as I can figure, wrapping its limbs around me and lifting me into the air!  Like having your leaves all rearranged at once, or your roots pruned, although, thank goodness,  I have never had the pleasure of that second little adventure, but I hear it is, er, uncomfortable to say the least! But next, I wiggle my roots and rustle my foliage.  My roots are still in the same pot, there is that at least, but my foliage feels so free, I can't really quite explain it. The air is different, it has the smells of other places on it, and it moves by itself. The rest of my buddies join me over the next few hours, and we begin to look around at our new surroundings.  The room seems to go on forever!  There are other plants out there, too, who have a very strange and rough accent.  I can barely make out what they're saying some of the time. From what I can understand, there is a table full of homeless seedlings, and they are totally dependent on the water bringer, like us.  No wonder it seemed so overworked lately!

And then there are huge enormous trees, which make my late friend, the weeping fig tree, look like a toothpick. One of them in particular is the one my new friends keep whispering about.  A Norway maple, growing like a weed—more on weeds soon—and shading the other plants!  There is a lot to learn in those first few days, for sure. Which plants are new, and which have been there a few years.  Which are strong and which are weak, and maybe dying.  We try hard not to look at those, but we can't help it.  Would we end up like that, in this strange new place called Spring? About weeds. They seem to be plants that grow where they're not wanted.  Isn't that just the saddest thing you've ever heard? All these unwanted plants, growing like gangbusters, and the water bringer is yanking them out as fast as it can.  Meanwhile it's fussing over these other ones, like mini roses and delphinium, as if they are the best thing since sliced bread! That will forever remain one of the great mysteries of life: why some plants are more desirable than others.  Maybe it has to do with how rare they are or how common they are.  For instance, there is a whole huge room-full of ragweed out here, but I am the only Beaucarnea.

Every day it does get warmer, and the light bulb overhead gets a little stronger. In fact, I'm not sure the fixture is secure—I woke up early one morning, and I swear to you, someone was moving it.  And then at night, it moves again.  Sure enough, water falls from overhead too, and man, it takes some getting used to!  The flavor is different, for one thing, but it doesn't sting coming up the way I am used to. Another part of the story is true too—the Dracaena stayed in the light too long and actually got burned!  Imagine that!  Why, it's practically spontaneous combustion.

One thing the story didn't mention is all these little bugs flying around.  Lord knows that inside, we're used to spiders spinning cobwebs in us, ants marching right over us, even sometimes mice playing tag at night.  But out here, there are other kinds of bugs, that fly, f-a-s-t!  Bees, and moths, yellow jackets and hornets, and butterflies, and I don't know what-all.  Most of us, from indoors, don't have flowers, and that's what these bugs really like, is flowers. At first it is incredibly annoying, having these tiny creatures flit right through your leaves, but then you kind of get used to it, and then it begins to feel kind of nice . . .

There is enough water, and the light bulb is on, oh, four days out of seven, but when it is on, oh boy, it is really ON! Well, I get to thinking, I'd like to stay here forever. We see the water bringer sometimes, but it is busy fussing over those silly seedlings, or repotting someone, or goodness gracious, planting someone right straight into the ground! We have some new friends, noisy young little things called "begonias" and "impatiens", but we don't let them bother us.  Sometimes the water bringer gives us water that must be spiked with something funny—it leaves me feeling tipsy for days!

The days get warmer and warmer, but it's never dry, like it is in the other place.  There is plenty of light for everyone, except the Norway maple keeps hogging it.  Every so often, the short tree (now that I know what a real tree is like, what else can I call it?) with the strong, moving limbs drags a noisy thing called a lawn mower over the live, green rug they keep out here.  With no regard for plant life, it chops down hundreds of thousands of stalks of grass.  We see carcasses flying, stalks bending to get out of his way!  What carnage!  It's slaughter, because the poor things can't fight back! I sure hope they don't try to use it on me!

The Norway maple apparently reproduces at a ridiculous rate. I see them pulling maple seedlings out of mulch, out of grass, even out of flower pots;  the darn things are everywhere! Why, in a few years this whole huge room will be a forest of maple trees, if that bully has its way.  The flowers would be gone, the grass, gone, everything just one big dark forest.  I'll take the light, any day.

We spend a long lovely time this way. The flowers bloom and bloom. The silly Impatiens get all gangly and bushy, and almost attractive, if that's the look you like. We all get much healthier, stronger than I can ever remember being!  That Elephant Ear, holy cow!  You should see the plant.  All grown up, strong as an ox, happy as a clam, and taller than the Dracaena.  It even has pups of its own, cute little things.  The English Ivy, well, it's a good thing it's in a pot, because that is one wild and woolly houseplant.  Grows like a weed, except, of course, the water bringer keeps it in a pot. The insects don't bother us, in fact, they are kind of friendly, chatty sometimes.

Then something imperceptible changes, in the air or in the warmth or the amount of light, you know, it's hard to put your leaf on what exactly the change is.  But it stops getting warmer and starts getting cooler, and the light bulb goes off a tiny bit earlier every day. Which is alarming, because the story we've all been listening to doesn't have an ending to the big light bulb in up above.  What if it burns out like an ordinary light bulb, with a pop? The water bringer and the tree start one by one to take away the other houseplants.  When I said I'd like to stay here forever, I meant with my friends, you know what I mean?  The first to go are the Coleus, who are really good plants, decent sorts. Good to talk to, and always good for a laugh. It will be lonely out here without the Coleus cracking jokes, but I still want to stay out here forever.  The Dracaena is next, it's a big plant, or a small tree, and needs the tree with moving limbs to lift it up in its pot.  It's the only plant taller than me, now that the fig tree is dried out.  The Dracaena looks so good now, so strong and healthy!  I can't believe they're moving it away.  Next goes the English ivy, and the Elephant Ear.  I know the Elephant Ear will only wither away.  For its sake, for the whole family's sake, really, I seriously hope they divide it up.  Then they take the Arrowhead plant. Why, I can't understand for the life of me why that simple Arrowhead plant is so special to the water bringer.  It always loses it.  Then another one appears out of nowhere and gets repotted into the same pot, and nobody says anything.  That one is a strange situation. The water bringer is sentimental about the species for some reason.  Anyway, that one gets taken away too.

Then I realize I'm the only one left. There are a few insects and chipmunks, looking for winter nests.  They'd better stay away from me!  I am a Beaucarnea, after all, right? It's really getting chilly, and the light bulb is getting dimmer, too.  Do you think they forgot about me? I can see the silly little Impatiens, still boasting to each other about how tall they've all gotten.  I remember the water bringer saying to the tree that they were only  annuals, and I put two and two together and realize that that means they'll be dead when the year is over.  When is the year over, I wonder?  Things are certainly changing out here, that's for one thing.  The flowers are setting seed, the Hydrangea is showing off this fancy pinkish red display for the water bringer, but it never comes around to see the garden anymore. The Sedums are showing off for it too, but it's never around.  When it does come around, the water bringer just takes things away.  Yesterday it came around and picked up all these puffy things they prop their limbs up with, kind of like tomato supports, only in bright colors.  Today it was picking up trash and folding up this crazy thing they have out here—remember how I told you how the Dracaena got burned by the light bulb at first?  Well, they have a device on a stick to shield themselves from the light bulb when it's too bright.  Why they don't just replace it with a lower wattage bulb is beyond me.  Anyway, the water bringer was folding up that device.  They must not expect it will ever be that bright again.  Well, then why did they leave me out here? It's really gotten colder, I mean not like freezing, not yet, at least, but not as warm as it used to be. Maybe there will be a "late freeze", or even an early one?  Or a frost?  That will certainly kill all the Impatiens, and it would probably damage even me.

I think I changed my mind about wanting to stay out here forever. I WANT TO GO HOME. Not like I can do anything about it. Finally, one cold night, the water bringer comes and takes me out of my pot all together, then quickly and gently repots me into a larger, nicer pot, with fresh potting soil. It does care, it didn't forget about me. The very next morning the stumpy tree carries me back through the magic wall into the tiny, stuffy, familiar room where I used to live. My pals are all there. Wow, I secretly thought they might have been sold off to a greenhouse somewhere. What a relief. I have definitely made my mind up. It was a wonderful vacation, like a trip to Disneyland or something, but I wouldn't want to live there. As long as I can get by in here, as long as the water bringer comes by once in a while. I'm glad it's never going to get hot and bright like that again!

Photo credits: thanks to Vossner for the Elephant Ear, to giancarlo for the Dracaena, and to timrann for the Dumb Cane.  The rest are my own.

For actual advice, please see Sally G. Miller's article today, A facelift for your "same old" plants.

 


  About Carrie Lamont  
Carrie LamontCarrie clicks on every link. She has been married for fourteen delightful years and has two beautiful daughters who are nearly grown-ups. Her husband plans to retire this fall with enough air travel benefits to fly Carrie nearly anywhere she wants to go. She lived in Texas for 2012-2014, but plans to move back to New England where she feels most at home. Carrie has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gardens. Follow her on Google.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Lie detector experiment LarryR 3 42 Oct 8, 2008 5:18 PM
I'll never look at my plants the same! dianne99 1 9 Oct 8, 2008 3:37 PM
Great phicks 4 25 Oct 7, 2008 3:25 PM
Another plant heard from MaryAS 1 17 Oct 6, 2008 11:29 PM
house plants thegramonster 1 24 Oct 6, 2008 4:29 PM
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