By Stan Cutler
My wife, Valerie, has a potted plant that’s over 50 years old. It was her late mother’s clivia, a mature specimen that reliably blooms with yellow and orange flower clusters every year, a bright pleasure to behold on dark, April days. It lives in the back corner of the enclosed porch half the year. It’s so heavy that I need a hand-truck to transport it during the semi-annual houseplant migrations.
Until last Spring, when it finally expired, Valerie kept a potted gardenia that I’d given her for Christmas the first year we were together, 40 years ago. I bought it from Robertson’s, who’d used it for years as a corsage plant. In her care, it grew to be five feet across and four feet high in its ginormous pot. Before it died, the gardenia spent the winters in a cement-floored room adjoining our bedroom. The floor was originally the roof of a bump-out extension behind the kitchen in which the Roman family, who lived in our house for 70 years, installed a pink-fixtured bathroom and a mudroom. At some point, years later, they enclosed the roof and made it the floor of a dormitory shared by three or four of the eight kids who grew up in the house.
A few years after we moved in, we tore down most the wall between the bedroom and the dormitory so that Valerie could use the space as a conservatory, with grow-lights on timers hung from the ceiling and a humidifier on the floor. We sleep with a couple of dozen houseplants in the cold months. We probably benefit from the oxygen. When the plants are flowering, particularly the gardenia, the scents perfume the bedroom.
Nothing lives forever. Her cherished gardenia expired over two years, slowly dropping its glossy leaves. Valerie fed it, acidified the soil, pruned it, sang to it. All to no avail. By the summer of 2019, it lived no more. But she couldn’t bear the thought of winters without the white, rose-like flowers and their perfume.
Her previous attempts to get young gardenia plants to survive had failed. She believes that growers overfeed young plants to force them to flower in the retail shop, but in so doing discombobulate (a technical term) the plant’s metabolism. The trick in keeping a gardenia alive is to get one as a mature plant with a substantial wood stem.
She found one labelled “Gardenia Tree” at the Secret Garden in Roxborough. It was already three-feet tall, with an inch-thick trunk supported by a stake. It did drop a few leaves after she brought it home, so she dosed it with garden sulfur to acidify the soil. She’s had it for a few months now. It’s doing well, with a dozen fat flower buds.
About 10 years ago, one of her horticultural pals gave her a half-dozen stalks of his Bird of Paradise plant. Now, it’s bigger and heavier than she is. She keeps it in the bedroom/conservatory in the cold months. A couple of winters ago, it produced a dozen flame-orange spears with blue/purple edges. The spectacular flowers keep their color for weeks. But the thing is enormous. Moving it in and out of its second-floor winter quarters is a chore requiring a hand-truck, bungee cords and two people.
At about the same time, another friend gave her cuttings from an Epiphyllum, also called Night-Blooming Cereus that produces bright white flowers that are open for a single night. The flowers, wilted by 9 a.m., are magnificent. The plants are finicky about their environment and won’t bloom at all in some otherwise suitable locations. Valerie’s epiphyllum spends the summer hanging from a tree limb in the back yard, winters hanging from the ceiling of the enclosed front porch.
“It gets pretty big,” her friend warned. Valerie prunes back the leaves when they get longer than three feet to keep the diameter down to six feet. There are limits, after all. And when it’s not blooming, it’s kind of ugly, with gray/brown callouses along the leaf edges. It’s a big, ugly plant that produces spectacular flowers that you usually don’t see because you’re sleeping. In July and August, in the dark of night, before we go to bed, Valerie carries a flashlight to the tree where a precious epiphyllum flower may – or may not – be opening. If she’s lucky, she’s as happy as if she’d won the lottery.
Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.