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At Least We Have Houseplants

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Tags: houseplants, plants, horticulture

Created: 1/16/2015      Updated: 8/8/2016

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And the snow lies drifted white
In the bower of our delight
Where the beech threw gracious shade
On the cheek of boy and maid:
And the bitter blasts make roar
Through the fleshless sycamore

~ Willa Cather

It’s cold. Like, Siberia cold. I am a person who values his time outdoors, but to heck with this. Blankets, hot beverages, and good books – these shall be the apparatus of my forbearance, until the blessed day arrives when I can stand outside for more than ten minutes without losing feeling in my extremities.

Winter is hard on a horticulturist (as I have lamented before). But thanks to a the accidental genius of a Victorian-era Englishman named Nathaniel BagshawWard, and the insatiable social ambitions of the ascendant middle class in his milieu, we have houseplants upon which to turn our phytophilic attentions when snowflakes fly.

With enough space and the proper equipment, virtually any plant can be grown indoors. However, there are a few dozen hardy species that have become archetypal denizens of shopping malls, lobbies, and hotel atriums, as well as residential windowsills. You may not know their names, but you know them: aglaonemas, marantas, spathiphyllums, crotons… 

Counter to their colloquial reputation, some familiar houseplants have secret talents and unique life stories that are worth investigating…under a Snuggie, with a laptop warming your thighs. So grab another mug of chai, and let’s explore a couple, shall we?

Ficus tree

(Courtesy of Kenpei via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

We’ll begin with Ficus benjamina, known as Benjamin’s fig or, more simply, the ficus tree. Despite its deserved reputation as a finicky leaf-dropper, ficus trees frequently adorn large interior spaces. This is due to their tolerance of low light and dry air, and because their fine texture and broad branching structure fit our temperate-zone expectations of what a tree should look like. Native to Southeast Asia, the ficus is a close relative of strangler figs and banyans, and like those plants, will often send down aerial roots from its branches. As with all plants in its genus (including the edible fig, Ficus carica), the Benjamin fig relies on a symbiotic relationship with a particular species of tiny wasp in order to produce seeds.

Botanically speaking, a fig is not an individual fruit, but rather a receptacle that encloses multiple small fruits (the fleshy bits inside). These fruits started off as hidden flowers, pollinated when the aforementioned wasp entered the fig through a tiny hole in the tip. The wasp lays eggs inside, thus protecting them from predators and providing a food source for the resultant larvae. In return, the wasp performs necessary pollination duties. In a fascinating example of coevolution, nearly all of the 800 or so species of Ficus are pollinated by different, unique species of wasps.

Monstera deliciosa, aka Mexican breadfruit or Swiss cheese plant

(Courtesy of Mokkie via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Surely one of the best scientifically-named plants of all time, Monstera deliciosa, aka Mexican breadfruit or Swiss cheese plant, is indeed a monster of a plant. In its native Central American climes, its stout, vining stems can climb 60 feet or more into the trees. Edible, pineapple-like fruits are sparsely produced beneath its enormous, leathery leaves. 

Grown indoors, the “delicious monster” typically stays much smaller, and may lack the bizarre fenestration that makes this plant a favorite in humid conservatories. No one really knows the wherefores of the leaves’ “Swiss cheese” stylings, but there are some theories out there.

As with several other plants in its family, Monstera can actually generate its own heat. At certain blooming stages, its inflorescences (flower clusters) can be as much as 5°C hotter than the surrounding air. This phenomenon, known as thermogenesis, likely aids the dispersal of chemical signals that attract pollinators.

Dieffenbachia aka dumbcane

(Courtesy of Louise Wolff/darina via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now lets take a look the deceptively euro-sounding dieffenbachia. A relative of the Mostera, the dieffenbachia or dumbcane hails from similar, neo-tropical environs. Its speckled leaves have been bred and selected for many distinct and interesting patterns, which has led, along with its remarkable shade tolerance and overall ease of culture, to the Dieffenbachia’s predominance as a parochial favorite.

But dumbcane is not without its dark side. In common with its familial brethren, its cells contain tiny, sharp crystals of calcium oxylate that can be extremely irritating to the skin, eyes, mouth, and esophagus. The name dumbcane derives from the tendency of the tongue to swell if the plant is chewed, causing temporary mutism. In the West Indies, exceedingly awful human beings once took advantage of this phenomenon to punish their rebellious slaves.

Having experienced the harrowing topical effects of the dieffenbachia on more occasions than I like to admit (note to self: GLOVES!), I can attest that potency varies widely among varieties, and tends to be greatest in the stems and roots of large specimens. Fortunately the swelling, numbness, and prickly aches brought on by contact with the plant’s juices rarely last more than a day. And there is a rather unforgettable odor to the cut stems of older plants that serves as a helpful reminder not to rub an eye or bite a fingernail until one has thoroughly washed up.

This odor comes from compounds closely related to asparagusic acid, which is the same stuff that makes your pee smell funny (giggle) when you eat asparagus. Speaking of which, is there any vegetable that induces thoughts of springtime as reliably as fresh asparagus? I can see them now -- pale stems pushing their way out of the warming soil, ready to drink in the nourishing rays of waxing daylight…I can hear a robin tweeting happily among bursting buds…And the flowers! Daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia!

Crap. Have you seen the weather forecast?

Seth Harper, horticulturist

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