I cannot kill a houseplant. It’s not that plants haven’t died while under my “care,” but I could never deliberately discard a living plant. It seems almost as wrong as abandoning a cat in a cornfield.
I’m a pretty lackadaisical gardener, but some green survivors have been with me for many years. They include a pothos dating back to college, some papyrus from my brother’s wedding banquet in 1999 (thanks to my mother keeping it alive), and a horrible plant handed down from my maternal grandmother almost 20 years ago. It looks like a Christmas cactus gone wrong, and someone dubbed it Al Qaeda because of its evil- and invasive-looking prickly runners. (Speaking of long-lived plants with names, my brother had a philodendron named Rasputin that wouldn’t die—albeit surviving neglect rather than attempted murder.)
Then there are the Almy Geraniums. In 1997 my grandfather was dying, and my grandmother had Alzheimer’s. I wanted my fiancé to meet them while they were still around, so we went for a visit with my parents. We knew it might also be one of the last times we’d see their house, built by my grandfather on a south-facing foothill of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
They had both been talented gardeners, and the long backyard was once half-covered by vegetables plots, blueberry bushes, and roses. A small herb garden was all that persisted, and the familiar salmon-colored geraniums on the patio were leggy. Who knows how long ago Grandma had planted them—they had obviously been dragged into the walk-out basement for quite a few winters. We took home little bags of fragrant souvenirs, and my mother made a few cuttings from the geraniums.
She rooted them and made them thrive, and a few years later I adopted a pot of my own. I’ve managed to keep them going by making cuttings, then rooting and repotting them—over and over and over. Every once in a while they flower.
It’s not just my family that carries plants from place to place and generation to generation, and it’s not even only potted plants that are passed on. My husband’s parents have some well-traveled peony bushes originally given to my mother-in-law’s grandparents by drug company founder Dr. William Upjohn. The peonies moved with the grandparents twice, then were handed down to their daughter before finally settling in my in-laws’ garden.
I don’t know if the plants we have today are botanically the same ones our grandparents had, or if they are merely descendants of the originals. Either way, they are a living connection to the past that I don’t want to break. With my brownish-green thumb, I don’t know how my collection of leafy charges will fare, but I’ll be happy as long as a few geraniums make it from one summer to the next, and better yet, bloom.
* My mother-in-law is an avid genealogist. Last year I wrote an article for Encore Magazine about her research into the fascinating life of her grandmother, Florence Inch.