Wayne Winterrowd writes in defense of what’s common
YESTERDAY I FOUND MYSELF buying a sansevieria in the supermarket. Not a fancy supermarket, mind, with a florist area stocked with nodding moth orchids or silver bromeliads. Just the ordinary neighborhood Stop & Shop, where the word specials is apt to occur far more frequently than the word organic. The sansevieria isn’t particularly fancy either, though it is not the tall, dark green, bladed plant you see in your dentist’s waiting room. It has broad, celadon-green leaves about eight inches high, faintly striped with bands of a slightly darker green. But I should say they have, because I got two plants packed into one four-inch terra-cotta-colored plastic pot. Two for the price of one. It is that kind of supermarket.
Whether plain or fancy, all supermarkets seem to be organized on the same plan, with the florist department just as you come in. I suppose “l that is because flowers are bought on impulse, and the managers want to get you before your cart is full. It took me scarcely a heartbeat to suppress that voice that says “Do you really “want that?” (I was alone, which always makes any acquisition easier.) I did want it, and now it sits on my desk. It has entered sansevieria heaven.
Of course, sansevierias are perhaps the easiest houseplants in the world to make happy. They are much more compliant than the aspidistras that once flourished on plush-carpeted Victorian stair landings, but now are scarce because they loathe dry over-heated houses. Sansevierias relish such conditions, improbable reminders of the arid, rocky parts of Africa and India they once called home. They also seem able to survive in almost any light, stolidly accepting anything from bright windowsills to corners within public buildings lit only by fluorescent tubes. They are pleasantly surprised by a monthly watering and an occasional weak dose of water-soluble fertilizer, but they will accept far less–down even to total neglect–for a surprisingly long time.
Still, sansevierias seldom cause a rapid heartbeat in most gardeners, even those who require a houseplant to be sturdy and effortless. Their two most current popular names– mother-in-law’s-tongue and snake plant–don’t help much. But worse is the fact that sansevierias are considered “common.” So now that I have this one, and probably will have it for years to come, I am wondering what that means, about it and about me. It is a complicated question.
To begin with, plants are the only living creatures on Earth whose virtues are apt to win them scorn. Generally, the easier a plant is to grow and the more adaptable it is to varying cultural conditions, the less loved it is likely to be–at least, by those gardeners who “know.” So Impatiens walleriana, an excellent plant in so many ways and capable of great beauty in the right hands, is generally considered beyond the pale. Petunias are sometimes equally scorned, though I once suggested to a snobbish gardener that if she called them pe-tu-NEE’-7 as, she might like them better. For f. there are beautiful petunias, both in pure species and in hybrids. The old-fashioned “climbing petunia,” the one our grandmothers grew and loved, with scandent stems and sweet-scented flowers in chloroxed gingham colors of lavender, pink, and white, always causes an ache of love in me.
It may be hard to look at any plant with the pure, wondering eyes of a child. But as a gardener who began at the age of three and who has persisted for 60 years now, I find I can still do that. I grew sansevierias by age six. I grew them in pots and summer beds, in vases of water and in wads of sphagnum dangling from the chinaberry tree in the backyard. When my child’s mind turned to other interests, they survived great neglect until I turned to loving them again.
So now I have one back in my life. But it is more than a pet or a reminder of my childhood. It is a beautiful plant in its own right, with its original dignity quite intact. Gardeners are very fickle in their attitudes, which change from decade to decade. Had it but tongue to speak, the lowly canna, once exiled to garbage-can plantings and now exalted to the highest horticultural dignity, would flat- I ly tell you that much. So my sansevieria from the supermarket may actually place me in the vanguard of style. Who ever knows? H