January 30, 2008  
Plant Lover, Imagine If You Woke Up in Chicago!

Most people shop with their eyes. They see something they like and they purchase it. Plant lovers are no different. I submit that they should be. 

Plants are living breathing entities. They are not unlike pets in this regard. Plants are totally dependent on you, the purchaser, for their well-being. Brought home from a store, nursery or greenhouse, the plant is now at your mercy, so to speak. Imagine waking up tomorrow morning in Chicago or other strange and unfamiliar environment. Disorienting? Traumatic?  Imagine what it’s like for your new plant. 

Your plant may have gone through several incarnations. Its ancestors might have begun life in a frigid plain far from civilization. Your new acquisition might have been transported from a steamy greenhouse somewhere far from the nursery where you saw it and fell in love at first sight.   

If you plan to keep a newly purchased plant for longer than a season, then we are not talking about an annual bedding plant. We are instead discussing either a houseplant or a perennial, be it a bulb, ground cover, landscape ornamental, shrub or even a tree.  

Before making that purchase, it is always best to find out as much as you possibly can about the desired plant. Ask many questions of the grower or nursery staff. You owe it to the plant and yourself if you are embarking on a successful long-term relationship. Take it seriously, and you will probably be rewarded more than you imagine. 

Too many people buy a plant, scoop a bit of dirt out of the earth and throw in the plant. “Grow or go!” is a common attitude. This also happens all too often with houseplants. The individual rationalizes that a new plant is there for him or her, and its job is to perform and please. Nothing could be farther from the truth.   

Its real job is to fulfill its birthright: To grow to the fullest of its potential, to flower and fruit, thus completing its role in life by procreating.

Some of you might believe there is a shared responsibility. Even if this were true, most of it depends on the sentimental being that made the choice to purchase the plant. He bears the full responsibility of providing a sound, safe and hospitable environment for the newcomer.  

Every plant is special. Your best effort will come from your trying to understand your plant. After some investigation you should be able to empathize with it and imagine the ecological niche it occupies in its native habitat. A bit of research and soul searching will inform you of many of the plant’s wants and needs, and how you can provide everything possible to replicate its native environment. 

It should live in harmony with its surroundings. Yes, at some point in the future a shift begins to take place when the plant begins to become increasingly dependent on the soil web and its microorganisms. As long as you’ve provided the right environment the plant can form and develop the new relationships needed for a successful future. Your plant will share its energy with its surroundings.

I’ll select an example: Suppose you see a Chrysanthemum that you really like and want to grow at home. This is a genus of at least twenty species. The annual species originate from the Mediterranean region where they grow in dry fields and wasteland. These are typically the florist mums, beautiful, grown for indoor use and enjoyment, and not suitable for planting outdoors.  

The herbaceous perennial species come to us from the Arctic, parts of Northern and Central Russia, China and Japan. Chrysanthemums are important horticulturally for their showy flowerheads. They have been in cultivation for over three thousand years.

There are at least a dozen flowerhead forms, some grown solely for exhibitions. I’ll restrict myself to the typical garden mum (chrysanthemum). Even here, there are hundreds of cultivated varieties to consider in colors like bronze, coral, lavender, orange, red, white, and yellow. And consider, too, a multiplicity of flowerhead forms from the typical pom-pom to the daisy.

Almost all garden mums sold today are either greenhouse grown or, more frequently, field grown. Many require a great deal of light, preferring between 4000 and 8000 ft. candles (full sun), but some will tolerate as little as 500 to 2000 ft. candles. You need to find out. All prefer a clay-loam or a good garden soil to which you have added humus, peat moss and/or fiber for drainage. Many a field grown mum is grown in a silty-clay and would benefit when transplanted into an improved soil mix. Its chances of flourishing will greatly be improved.    

To further demonstrate you really care, find out how appetizing it is to rabbits, deer, voles and other pests. This latter includes leaf or flower eating insects, as well as diseases and fungus infections. Whenever possible purchase a plant that has insect, disease and drought resistance or tolerance. If not, protect your plant to the best of your ability.

Proper siting, the right soil pH, good drainage, protection from temperature extremes, appropriate nutrients, all of these elements are essential if your plant is to enjoy its location and please you by living in harmony with its surroundings and performing by fulfilling its destiny. Finding a spot that your plant will like takes a bit of study. You will have to know its preferences for how much sun or shade, moisture, humidity. Get it right and it will contribute to your landscape and your dreams. Finally, proper care and culture will insure that you and ‘Flora’ have a long and fruitful relationship.

For a second example I’ll suggest conditions suitable to different indoor candidates. We’ll look at a few possibilities. If your home is bright, sunny, typically dry in winter with moderate to warm in temperature, a lot of tropical and desert plants would be at home here. You might choose from a variety of cacti and succulents for the bright sunny spots to a wide array of foliage plants for the less sunny but still light and airy areas. Most will tolerate lower humidity as long as you pay close attention to their watering needs.

You might even be fortunate enough to have a bright bathroom or kitchen with a skylight or other windows. Here some of the humidity loving plants might be right at home. Ferns, orchids and other epiphytes would relish such a room. With houseplants you must still identify all their needs and potting material requirements, but often this is taken care of by the grower. Ask. Frequently, these plants come out of steamy greenhouses mimicking the habitat of their native land.

Whenever you’re in the market or mood for a new plant, maybe while you are perusing the catalogs that are filling your mailbox at this time of year, or when you and a friend or two decide to visit the local greenhouse to “see” what’s new or enticing, remember to do some homework before making the purchase.

Remember, too, pampering is not only allowed but recommended, at least, until your new Flora is established. Finally, never buy a plant you don’t like a lot. It will only languish and die, because it can’t fulfill its destiny.

"We can complain because rose bushes have thorns,
      or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.
                                          Abraham Lincoln

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on January 30, 2008

© 2008 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.