Field Notes 23

Northeast

BY TOVAH MARTIN/Roxbury, Connecticut, Zone 5

Hordes of Houseplants

THE THERMOSTAT in my house is set at 60°F, not because I require that temperature. No, I can easily live at 55°F, but the bougainvilleas can’t.

Wherever I go, whatever I do, I keep an eyed peeled for bougainvilleas. A different salmon, another shade of lavender, larger flower bracts, variegated foliage—that’s what I spend my nights dreaming about. While others do the Salutation to the Sun upon waking, I roll out of bed and pay homage to the vines draping around the door frame leading into my little greenhouse. Delivery people mumble unquotables as they try to squeeze by thorny branches. Windows are cracked open (rain, sleet, whatever) to afford the bougainvilleas ventilation. Friends call and, before inquiring about my health or happiness, they ask how the bougies are doing. They know where my affinities lie.

Long ago someone informed me that I’ve got the mind-set of a collector. When I’m into kalanchoes, I’ve got to have them all. Same for haworthias, ditto for jasmines. Collecting is my way of having quantities of plants while keeping the house from looking like a circus. Instead, it resembles a zoo.

In my defense, my affections are spread over several different genera. Not so for Howard Berg. His heart belongs to begonias, same as it has for the last 40 years. At last count, he was up to 300 or 400 different species and hybrids (several of his own making). For Howard, the bug began innocently enough with a few tuberous begonias when he lived in California. Joining the Begonia Society broadened his horizons, and soon he was acquiring canes, rhizomatous, rex, and every other family member he could find.

Howard has another life. He manages to remain quite gainfully employed, squeezing begonia conventions into business trips. Not so for Judy Becker. She was going for an advanced degree in physiology when gesneriads (a family best known for its most popular member, the African violet) crossed her path, and she suddenly found herself converting her parents’ pansy business into a mail-order specialty nursery, called Lauray of Salisbury, which specializes in gesneriads and begonias. Judy will be the first to admit that gesneriads have taken over her life. As she puts it, “If you’ve got a couple of something, that’s a passing interest. When you’ve collected several hundred, that’s a problem.” To get some inkling of the degree of her gesnerimania, consider the numbers. Her catalog lists 70 achimenes, 60-plus columneas, and 50 nematanthus. Those are just the major groupings. If there’s a gesneriad out there, she desperately needs to have it. Who knows? On the surface, she seems serenely happy and well adjusted. So do the aeschynanthus—all 35 of ‘em.

The point is, for those of us who would turn chlorotic and wilt without something growing in our windowsills, adopting a family can maintain our sanity. Rather than wandering into the local supermarket and picking up whatever philodendron or ivy happens to be featured that week, we prefer to elevate indoor gardening from a pastime into a pursuit. Might as well have a mission. H

To do indoors

  • Begin to taper off the fertilizer during the short days of the year; you’ll be resuming the full schedule again in March.

  • Repot houseplants whose crammed roots are begging for more room, but increase only one pot size at a time.

  • Water when a houseplant’s soil is dry to the touch, not according to a schedule—weather changes and heating systems make scheduling impossible.

  • Rotate your houseplants to expose all sides to incoming windowsill light.

  • Keep an eye peeled for insects; a quick spray at the sink can be quite effective as a preventative measure.

Worth growing

Bougainvillea ‘Orange Fiesta’

There’s more to bougainvilleas than just hot magenta, and ‘Orange Fiesta’ bursts into quantities of flowers and pumpkin-colored flower bracts just when most houseplants are in a lull. Although orange might seem like an uncompromising shade, the luminous bracts have hints of pink and salmon to buffer the effect. Allowing the plant to wilt slightly encourages more blossoms (and their bracts), so don’t overwater. Train it around a window frame, give it a stem pruning in midwinter, and start fertilizing again in late February—it will do an encore in late winter. Sources, page 79.

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