NATURE RAMBLINGS: Thank you for your service

PHOTO BY SALLY ROTH What a green thumb actually looks like.

by Sally Roth


With a lifetime of gardening under my belt, I think I can safely say that I have a not-bad green thumb when it comes to outdoor plants.

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Oh, sure, I’ve killed my share, mostly those that weren’t suited to the climate or the soil or the scarcity of water, but which I tried anyway because I love them. (Sorry, orange California fuchsia. Sorry, red crocosmia. Sorry, sundrops. Sorry, dozen or so kinds of campanula….)

Houseplants, different story. That’s where I really excel.

Not at growing them. At killing them off in short order.

Pothos is one of the hardest houseplants to kill. I’ve almost succeeded, with my current plant.

And yet, even with 60 years of houseplant murder on my hands, I still hold out hope for a home filled with leafy green plants, like the ferny restaurants of the ’70s. And an indoor windowsill crowded with red geraniums all winter.

Fat chance.

“I’ve tried them all,” I whine to friends who suggest supposedly indestructible houseplants.

Ferns? Did I say ferns? “That fern is 70 years old,” a friend once told me, showing off the immense Boston fern on a special stand in her living room. It had been her mother’s. Would I like a piece to grow myself?

“I don’t grow ferns anymore,” I had to admit. “Too much of a pain to keep sweeping up all the dead bits.” Under my care, even the lushest fern lasts barely a month. Though I keep bringing them home, because, hey, I love ferns.

Split-leaf philodendron—I haven’t looked up what its Latin name Monstera deliciosa actually means, because I like thinking of it as “delicious monster”—lasted longest in my House of Houseplant Horrors. Over a year, before I forgot to water. For months. Okay, all spring and summer and fall.

By the time I remembered to actually look at it, those giant monster leaves were hanging dead and brown, and even the thick stems with their cool aerial roots had given up the ghost.

“Rubber plant!” suggested an elderly aunt, decades ago. She thought lack of light was my problem. The generous cutting she gave me cooked to death when the sun shifted and its dim spot became a blast of heat and light.

I found snake plant (Sansevieria) on my own, once Google came along and I could search online for “houseplants you can’t kill.” Its other name of “mother-in-law’s tongue”—referring to its pointy leaf tips that jab you when you aren’t being careful—really appealed to me, for some reason.

Did you know snake plant blooms? It sure does, with stalks of small, fragrant white flowers, when you don’t water it for, oh, about a year and a half. (Hey, the pot dripped all over the rug, and I never could remember to put a saucer under it….)

And then it dies, or at least mine did. Fine. By then, the MIL that that plant reminded me of was an ex-MIL, and all was good.

“Awareness of a problem is the first step,” say self-help sages.

Oh, I was aware, all right. With a home decorated with houseplants in various stages of dying, I knew I had a problem.

And I knew exactly what caused it.

Houseplants are only precious to me when I can’t be outside getting my fingernails dirty.

By the time the earliest signs of spring roll around, with the pussywillows pushing out (they’re blooming now! Have you seen them?!), and the first seedlings popping up, and the first crocuses, and the first wildflowers unfurling new leaves, I’m walking around outside, peering close at every single plant. It’s spring! Even if I am bundled up in two or three sweaters, down vest, wool coat, and a knit hat pulled down over my ears and eyebrows.


Rocks and masonry walls or foundations act as “microclimates,” retaining heat. Look there for the earliest seedlings!

Sorry, houseplants. Thank you for your service. Now, though, it’s time to go outside!