On mothers, daughters and houseplants

by Stan Cutler
Posted 5/6/21

The Clivia plant that my wife, Valerie, is inspecting in the photo is at least fifty years old; it was her mother’s.

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On mothers, daughters and houseplants

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The Clivia plant that my wife, Valerie, is inspecting in the photo is at least fifty years old; it was her mother’s. Valerie cared for it for a long time before it bloomed, issuing its first flower cluster about ten years ago. It has seven healthy flower stalks this year.

If you have a Clivia that doesn’t bloom, it may be because it gets too much light. Valerie’s is in the farthest corner of our enclosed front porch and never receives direct sunlight. Also, your plant may be too warm. The enclosed porch functions as Valerie’s cool temperature greenhouse, kept between 50° and 60° for half the year. The (very heavy) plant gets carted to the backyard and spends the warm months under the shade of a maple tree. Clivia likes to be root-bound, unhappy until its roots and rhizomes are pressing against the clay and it fills a pot’s every cubic inch. Left out of the sun, it will eventually reward you with a spectacular display of yellow and/or orange flowers.  Valerie’s mixed color specimen is the most common variety

Valerie’s big Clivia secret is the plant’s preference for dry winters. Once she brings it back onto the porch in early October, she gives it about a cupful of water every three weeks. She starts weekly watering, along with all her other porch plants, when she sees flower stalks emerging in March. That’s also when she adds a little Tiger Bloom, a plant food, to her watering can.  

The plant is named after Charlotte Clive Percy, an English noblewoman who was appointed as the future Queen Victoria’s “official” governess when the girl was twelve years old. (Mrs. Clive Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, is an historical footnote because she tangled with the Duchess of Kent, Victoria’s mother.  It was, literally, a battle royal over how the future queen was being raised and educated. The Duchess of Kent’s approach was insanely strict and oppressive. The first thing Victoria did when she was crowned was to forbid her tutor from ever being in the same building with her and to require her mother to ask for appointments if she wanted to talk. The Queen, who despised her mother, rarely granted her the privilege.)

The plants to either side and behind Valerie in the picture are the Rick Rack (the one with the leaves that look as if they were cut by pinking shears) and orchid cacti. Valerie puts up with their inconvenient growth habits because they produce magnificent flowers in April and May. They are epiphytic plants, which means that they grow on tree limbs.  They are in hanging pots to ensure that their roots dry completely between waterings. When the previous owners of our house enclosed the porch, they covered the rafters with a ceiling of tongue and groove heart pine. This allows Valerie to screw eye hooks into the ceiling, not only to hang pots, but to hang lighting fixtures.

Most of the plants on the porch originate from lands between the Tropics, regions of the globe with less extreme differences between day and nighttime and stronger sunlight. The plants might survive the winters on our porch without the additional broad spectrum lights, but they probably wouldn’t flower. During the winter months, Valerie sets the lights to come on at seven AM and go off around 6 PM. Even on the darkest January days, the plants get the wavelengths they crave. Because the Clivia lives in a pot on a table, it is shadowed by epiphytes above it, a lighting environment similar to the forest floors of South Africa where its ancestor originated.  

It is possible that Valerie’s Clivia plant actually came from a plant brought to England from South Africa two centuries ago.  A “new” specimen offered for sale is not grown from seed. Rather, it is a cluster of rhizomes taken from a mature plant. The rhizomes of the specimen on our porch could have been taken from a plant, that was taken from a plant, that was taken from the plant that was displayed for the royal household in 1827.   

Until I wrote this article, Valerie had never heard of Mrs. Clive Percy and didn’t care whatsoever. It never occurred to her to ask – she is a plant person, not a word person. As far as she is concerned, the plant is a reminder of her mother. When it is flowering, she thinks about Virginia Valentine Heeren, a far kinder lady than the Duchess of Kent. 

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