Green thumb

green thumb

All kinds of weird talents run in my family. My aunt Louise channels entities who tell her about life on other planets and who have shown her the history of Atlantis. Mom could tell when I was sick, without even seeing me: I’d come home from school feeling ill, and she’d already have the bed turned down for me.

But I never had the green thumb.

Mom and my sister Darlene had the green thumb. They could take a leaf – one leaf! – from a plant (usually stolen, from a doctor’s office or a restaurant) – and put it in a pot of unpromising soil, and it would grow. And in no time they’d have a whole garden full of – whatever.

I had the black thumb – the opposite of the green thumb – for many years. I’d buy a potted plant, and it would keel over within days. I’d plant seeds, and nothing would happen. If I repotted something, it died within weeks.

Except that, over the past few years, something has happened. Evidently the stars have realigned. Now I can make things grow!

Example: I put a potted Pereskia aculeata (“Barbados gooseberry”) in my office window a few years ago. Within months it was climbing up the Venetian blinds. It has now made its way all the way to the ceiling (well over ten feet), and is thriving. Regardez:

pereskia fullsize

Example: I took a few Sansevieria leaves out of the garbage-can at work, and a few stems of Epiphyllium that someone threw away, and potted them. The Sansevieria grew at approximately sixty m.p.h., and is huge now. The Epiphyllium is thriving, and I even gave some to Partner’s sister. This is the Sansevieria:

sansevieria fullsize

Final example: a departing staff member gave me his dying Dracaena. It looked moribund when I took it in. I repotted it, and gave it some nourishing plant-food and a little water. It returned from the dead within days. It’s thriving now.

Finally: I’m making amends for all of the plants I’ve killed over the years.

My coffee plantation


Gardening runs in my family.  My father grew industrial-sized corn and cabbages the size of world globes in our backyard.  My mother’s dahlias were enormous.  Both my sisters had incredibly lush gardens, and both had the knack of snipping off a tiny bit of a plant from anywhere – a doctor’s waiting-room, a restaurant, a neighbor’s (private) garden – and taking it home and sticking it in the ground and making it grow.



I do not generally share the family gift.  I love plants and flowers, but they do not grow gladly for me.  Either they grow rank and wild like disobedient children, or they don’t grow at all.  Partner and I had a plot in the local community garden for a few years, and everyone else’s garden looked like a Brazilian rain forest, and ours looked like a moonscape.  We harvested precious little: a few flowers, some tomatoes, a couple of peppers.  I gave it up after a few years.



My garden is now a small table next to a south-facing window.  I have some cacti, purchased from Ikea four years ago in a three-pack.  They were little peanutty things when I first brought them home, so I put all three together in a mini-topiary arrangement and told them good luck.  They thrive.  All three have quadrupled in size; they are so healthy, in fact, that I’m afraid they may be mainlining steroids, or Vigoro, or something.  One of them is putting out leaflike projections at the moment; they’re getting bigger and weirder by the day, and I can only hope this is not some peculiar “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” situation.  (I also bought a companion cactus a few months ago in Big Lots; it was cheap and peculiar-looking, lumpy and spiny and shaped like an alien fortress, and it looked as it might fit in with the first three.)



There is also a Pereskia aculeata, aka “Barbados gooseberry.”  I have written about it before.  It is one of the rank/wild/disobedient plants. It’s pretty much a weed in the Caribbean.  It climbs all over everything, and it has wicked spines (it looks like a regular creeping vine with big shiny green leaves, but it’s a cactus too, believe it or not).  I’ve had it for twenty years; it has changed residences with me twice, and it has grown monstrously and died back, and it is still with me.  I am sure it will outlive me.



Also, my pet, my prize: a coffee tree, which I bought about ten years ago.  It was just a baby then; it’s almost three feet tall now.  It is a lovely shrub, with nice shiny leaves.  Several years ago it surprised me by blooming (my plants never bloom), with small jasmine-like flowers scattered all over its branches. 



Then, somehow, it pollinated itself, and I had a crop of coffee berries.



The berries are lovely too: small, bright red like cherries, and slow to mature.  The tree has repeated its fruit-bearing phase twice, and I just picked a ripe berry tonight.  I tried looking up the method for making actual drinkable coffee out of the berries, but it’s a long process, with fermentation and drying, and I don’t think I’d get much coffee out of the small handful of beans my little tree has produced.



But I am impressed that it has shown the effort to bear fruit.  Of all the plants I’ve ever owned, it’s the only one that has actually behaved nicely and done what it was supposed to do.



Does anyone want six or seven coffee beans?


The persistence of life




Back in the early 1990s, two apartments ago, I ordered a Pereskia aculeata from an exotic-plant catalog. The catalog picture showed lavish green leaves and big exotic-looking flowers. According to the listing, Pereskia was a primitive cactus, with normal-looking leaves, but with spines, and with the same water-hoarding habits as other members of the Cactaceae family. And then there were those big beautiful white flowers.



My order arrived in the mail. The Pereskia was –



A stick. With maybe three leaves on it.



I stuck it in a pot, with some fertilizer and lots of good wishes.



It lost one leaf, then two. It just sat there for a very long time – a couple of months, actually. I nearly threw it away several times.



Then it showed some activity.



That was twenty years ago, and much activity has occurred in the meantime. There are now potted descendants of that damned twig all over New England and the Northeast.



The original still lives here at home with me. It’s a weed! The catalog didn’t tell me that. It’s a nasty twining thorny nuisance in the Caribbean and elsewhere. I’ve never yet had it bloom, anywhere. It sprouts, and flourishes, and spins long ropelike spiny nooses that ruin the curtains and growl at me when I get too close. One in a while my original Pereskia leaps at me from the windowsill and tries to kill me with its spines. It did that just the other day, in fact.



But just look what it did it my office.



I brought a small inoffensive-looking shoot into the office, and I set it on my windowsill, and watered it weekly. It blinked at me shyly, and took one look at the nearby cord for the Venetian blinds, and it jumped.



Two years ago I noticed it was actually climbing the cord. Fine, I thought. That’s a fool’s errand. See how high you get. The ceilings in my office are ten or eleven feet high, or more.



To my utter disbelief, the vine made it all the way up the cord.



And now – as you can see in the photo above – it’s on my ceiling, making itself at home.



Some scientists believe that life doesn’t need an especially friendly climate to survive. All it needs is something to cling to.



Well, scientists: I think I have some data for you.



Life (at least in my neighborhood) does whatever it has to do to survive.



Life finds a way.



(Next question: is it going to work its way back down again?)



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